Michigan Works Ferndale Career Center

The main auditorium at Columbia University was buzzing with excitement. The audience included MBAs, JDs, PhDs, and others with equally impressive credentials and concomitant work experience. They represented a cross segment of some of the highest-caliber talent available. You would have thought the 600 women (and handful of men) in attendance were at the height of their careers. Instead, the packed room was filled with people who were desperately trying to unlock the secrets of how to relaunch their professional lives after stepping back to focus on their families.

Attendees had come in from all over the country to participate in the 2015 iRelaunch conference, yet another sold-out event hosted by the leading company dedicated to helping career pausers power forward. Since its inception in 2008, iRelaunch claims to have served more than 16,000 women and men in their journey to re-enter the paid workforce. And, importantly, by championing the untapped talent of the returner market, the company has helped employers understand the value proposition this segment of the population brings to the workplace.

Relaunch was co-founded by Carol Fishman Cohen, a Harvard MBA who herself managed to enter the paid workforce after an extended career pause. She is a trailblazer who, like me, launched into the workforce in the 1980s ready to grab the brass ring we’d been told was ours for the taking. She worked on Wall Street, went to business school, and then worked her way up the ladder at Drexel Burnham Lambert, an investment banking firm. But Carol’s career was derailed just after her first child was born. Midway through maternity leave she was blindsided when her prestigious Wall Street company unexpectedly went out of business. That confluence of events left her with no job and a newborn child. Rather than try to find a job immediately, she decided to do what so many of us have done: She freelanced.

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For the next five years, Carol worked part-time on limited engagements with financial services companies. Eventually the birth of three more children and the challenges of trying to integrate work and family forced her to leave the paid workforce completely. For six years, Carol committed herself to her children and to being a leader in her community. She became a Parent-Teacher Association president, active classroom volunteer, and, of course, being chauffeur to her four children kept her busy. And then it was time to re-enter. After extensive networking and numerous job interviews, Carol managed to find work at Bain Capital. Her career re-entry experience has been well documented in a Harvard Business School case called “The-40-Year-Old Intern.”

Carol could easily have continued to commit to her career in the financial services industry, but her journey inspired her to take action. In partnership with a business school classmate and friend, Carol launched iRelaunch so other well-educated, highly skilled women (and men) could find their path back to the paid workforce after a career pause. Today, Carol Fishman Cohen is the poster woman for the re-entry movement.

Relaunch is just one of a number of companies and organizations that have sprung up in recent years to meet the growing demand by women and men eager for help as they work to navigate the choppy waters of career re-entry. In Silicon Valley, I am an advisor to ReBoot Accelerator, a spinoff from tech incubator GSVlabs. ReBoot hosts training sessions providing women with the technical skills, the connections, and the confidence they need to get up to speed after a career break. In Boston, reacHIRE takes it one step further by not only offering training but also providing internships. And a recent start-up out of New York, called Apres, is billing itself as the online platform for women who want to re-ignite their professional lives after a personal pause.

The question for participants in these programs is almost always the same: How do I get my career back on track? Here are the top ten strategies recommended from the trailblazers who worked, paused, and thrived before you.

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