Ever dreamed of ditching cubicle life — or even your laptop-chained WFH — for a creative career, but always assumed it was impossible?
Think again. These five former white-collar workers all said goodbye to their corporate gigs and have successfully reinvented themselves as creative powerhouses, in everything from lighting to landscape gardening.
JOANNE HALLARE LEE
HOME BASE: NYC + South Orange, NJ
THEN: Tax manager at a financial services company
NOW: Co-founder, Dowel furniture
WHY SHE MADE THE LEAP: “I once came home at 3 a.m., used my face wash as toothpaste, slept for three hours and crawled back to work. I had a few co-workers who had cots for sleeping under their desks. It was a very intense environment that didn’t feel sustainable.”
Hallare Lee credits her natural impulsiveness for the decision to quit her corporate gig six years ago and start a custom furniture company with her brother Ray. They produce pieces starting at $600 at the family’s factory in Manila, often working with interiors icons like Josh Greene on capsule collections.
“As a recovering perfectionist, I only recently realized that what really fuels this perfectionism is the constant fear of failure and having my best not be good enough,” she says. “In the creative field, you just keep going and you don’t let rejection cripple you into stopping. But I still do our own company’s taxes because I enjoy it.”
HOME BASE: Philadelphia
THEN: IP law attorney
NOW: Lighting designer, sculptor and founder, OVUUD
WHY HE MADE THE LEAP: “I will never miss billing hours. Even during my busiest months at the studio, nothing comes close to the constant pressure of having to meet your billable requirement.”
Gillespie loved working with madcap inventors in his old gig, but hated the corporate grind.
“I spent almost all of my free time working on lighting and furniture designs, and even in law school, a third of my apartment was storage for tools that I would use in my limited free time to work on design projects,” he says. “I realized it didn’t have to be a hobby.”
He took a chance on making his day-to-day less humdrum, swapping patents for planes and saws, developing his own lighting range which starts at $2,200 — and never looked back.
“Working at a [law] firm was extremely hectic; it was also fairly predictable. Tons of work, but nothing too out of the ordinary. This gave me a natural high.”
HOME BASE: Los Angeles
THEN: Management consultant, Ernst & Young
NOW: Landscape architect, Benner Landscape Design
WHY SHE MADE THE LEAP: “When I bought my first house in Los Angeles, my mother gave me a landscape plan for the house. As soon as I started implementing it, I caught the bug.”
Even though her mom had been a landscape designer, Benner went to business school almost by default and tended her own garden only off-duty. After getting pregnant with her first child she took the plunge to pursue her passion. She logged a stint with a well-known landscape architect before setting up her own shop in 1999.
“I have a natural sensitivity to the changing of seasons,” Benner says. “And I knew right away I had made the right decision because it felt so natural to be doing what I was doing.”
Now she’s an in-demand alfresco expert across California, where she’s based, and the entire country.
HOME BASE: NYC
THEN: Head of portfolio management, real estate investment fund
NOW: Owner and interior designer, Right Meets Left Interior Design
WHY SHE MADE THE LEAP: “I wasn’t feeling fulfilled in my ‘dream’ job, and then my father became ill. He did get better, but it was really a moment of pause where I realized life is too short and I wasn’t happy.”
McLeod called her firm Right Meets Left as a nod to her unusual background combining creative and business savvy. She scored her first client after downsizing her own apartment to cut overhead after leaving that office job.
“I took a step out of character for myself and quit with no plan,” she says.
That new home was intended as a calling card, but first she had to sell some furniture from her old, larger home that no longer fit; a woman who came to buy some chairs turned into her first paid gig, and kickstarted her new career.
“Working in finance, your sense of self can get really wrapped in a fancy title and large paycheck,” she admits. “In the first year, most of my projects were very small budgets. I had to swallow my pride and recognize these jobs as the learning opportunities they were.”
HOME BASE: NYC
THEN: Chief procurement officer, Standard Bank, Johannesburg, South Africa
NOW: Co-founder of African home goods company Ngala Trading Co.
WHY HE MADE THE LEAP: “I loved the scale of the problem-solving required to succeed at a global bank, but hated the amount of politicking and back-stabbing that was prevalent — maybe required — at more senior levels.”
Geimer banked degrees from Princeton and London School of Economics en route to the C-suite. But he loved helping his husband Lawson with home renos, and it sparked a sense there was a life he’d enjoy beyond international finance.
So, he combined his African connections with his design savvy to found Ngala, which is based in Hudson Yards and known for its chic yet ethical pieces, including signature leather chandeliers. It was quite an adjustment to go from having a PA on call and a team of 350, to sitting across the table from Lawson brainstorming what to do.
“I’d say, ‘Someone should contact that editor and arrange an introductory meeting,’ and my husband would say, ‘That someone is you.’”