How these 3 Atlantans switched professions at the peak of their career

This story originally appeared in the September/October 2016 edition of Living Intown Magazine.

Changing a career can demand an enormous leap of faith. Making such a transition can not only put your finances on the line, but require a change in identity as you relinquish corporate conformity in favor of your own dreams and ambitions.

These Atlantans took the leap and can now describe the view from the other side.

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“I never looked back”

Lauren Janis’ career only started looking up when she went to the dogs. She left her job at Delta Airlines Global Services in 2008, but soon found a new calling as a dog biscuit entrepreneur.

After being told by a young niece and a nephew that she should start a dog biscuit company — the pair even christened the concept Big Daddy Biscuits after Janis’ pooch — the soon-to-be businesswoman took the idea and ran with it.

“Literally, the next day I bought a mixer and started making dog biscuits,” she says. “And I never looked back.”

Funding the project with her own money, Janis resolved to make tasty treats that gave dogs the nutrition they need. Since her own dog had grain allergies, Janis created vegan, grain-free biscuits, sourcing ingredients from Georgia farmers.

“It was really important for me to learn where my food came from and use human-grade ingredients,” she says.

Janis began by selling Big Daddy Biscuits at local farmer’s markets. Today her treats can be found at select Southeastern Whole Foods locations, local indie shops such as Star Provisions and Sevananda Natural Foods Market, as well as a handful of national retailers and at bigdaddybiscuits.com. Her Dinner Mint biscuit, which includes parsley and mint to battle dog breath, continues to be the most popular at farmers markets.

In a commercial kitchen in East Atlanta, Janis and her three-person crew bake early in the morning, sans air conditioning, to save money and avoid summer temperatures. But Janis can take the heat.

For her, the rewards of reinvention include flexibility, a serious-yet-enjoyable work environment devoid of desks and florescent lights, and the ability to employ friends who find themselves in transition as she once was. Of course, satisfied canine customers top the list.

“Knowing I’m making a good product makes me feel good,” she says. “People tell me their dog won’t eat other treats, but come running when they open bags [of Big Daddy Biscuits]. Watching a dog eat it and seeing how happy they are is amazing.”

“I still don’t question my change”

After spending more than eight years in marketing for Turner Sports, Dana Fugaro ended up in a hospital intensive care unit — as a nurse.

“My challenge everyday was just getting the work off my desk, and that shouldn’t have been a challenge,” Fugaro recalls of her time on the corporate ladder. “That was just my job. I wasn’t really being pushed to learn anymore or use my brain. I started looking around.”

While considering a job change, Fugaro often remembered her college internship at the Shepherd Center in Atlanta. Although she graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Recreational Therapy from the University of Georgia, Fugaro eventually pursued a career path in marketing. Yet she never forgot the Shepherd Center nurses.

One Sunday morning, Fugaro opened her laptop and found a website announcing an informational session about nursing degrees the following week. After she attended, she felt intimidated but told herself: I guess I can do this. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s possible.

“It was the biggest decision I ever made,” she says. “I couldn’t put my finger on why it felt right, but it felt right.”

In the spring of 2013, Fugaro left her job at Turner Sports. She spent a year acquiring the needed prerequisite credits at a local community college, working part time at Starbucks to help keep her health insurance. After applying to medical schools, Fugaro was accepted into a 16-month master’s program, at what is now Augusta University.

“Nursing school was really hard and going back as an adult student was also really hard,” Fugaro says. “But when something would start to click in class, it gave me a lot more reward.”

She recently began working in surgical ICU at Emory University Hospital. “I’m working real hard to be a new nurse,” she says. “It’s very scary and very overwhelming, but I still don’t question my change.”

Looking back on her old job, she realizes that she needed work with a more personal connection.

“I think the big reason I wanted to make this change was to be able to make the medical process a little easier for patients and their families,” she says. “I have this drive to help other human beings.”

“Soon we realized it was a lifetime thing”

With a keen eye, Michael Minga, co-owner of Vivid Boutique, carefully stages the gifts, jewelry and home decor throughout the store in downtown Decatur. Meanwhile, Floyd Smith, Minga’s partner in both business and life, crunches numbers on the computer behind the counter.

Relying on each other’s strengths has been the running theme for Minga and Smith since they bought the shop in 2012. Although Minga was an employee when the original owner offered to sell the business, most of Smith’s professional experience came from the banking world. Co-owning a business required a significant shift for Smith to step into a new arena.

“It was different coming into a single store and doing things on this scale,” Smith says. “I had never even thought about it. This is in your face every day.”

The couple, who’ve been in a relationship for 16 years, never considered working together. When the opportunity to buy the shop arose, the original plan was for Smith to lend financial and structural support to get the operation up and running.

“Soon,” Smith says, “we realized it was a lifetime thing.”

Despite Minga’s optimism for the new endeavor, the merchandise didn’t instantly fly out the door. During their first three days as owners, not one customer appeared. A mentor assured Minga that the customer base would form not simply because of the inventory, but through the partner’s relationships with customers. Business picked up as the couple cultivated a loyal clientele that has supported Vivid for the past four years.

Minga and Smith recently moved the store from its original location in downtown Decatur to 308 W. Ponce de Leon Ave., but keep curating similar stock, including jewelry from local artists, ornate frames, French soaps and even stationary designed by Smith and printed in house.

As co-business owners, they both admit that patience and acceptance are essential, especially since they spend most of their waking hours together.

“I think us getting the store together was an informal metaphor for people taking us seriously as a team,” Minga says. “That was kind of already our marriage of sorts.”

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Continuing Education

Making a major job change doesn’t have to involve going in blind. Whether or not a career requires special training or certification, educational programs often help show newcomers how to look before they leap.

General Assembly

generalassemb.ly

 This global network of campuses for technology, business and design offers full-time and part-time courses, classes, workshops, events and online learning. Courses include the 12-week Web Development Immersive, with most Atlanta classes taking place at Ponce City Market.

Georgia Film Academy

georgiafilmacademy.org

 This program offers classes and special certification for those interested in Georgia’s booming film and TV business. The Georgia Film Academy prepares students for specialties including camera, sound, art, hair and make-up, and more. Several Georgia schools offer Georgia Film Academy classes, with Clayton State University featuring a continuing education option.

Emory University Continuing Education

ece.emory.edu

 Emory’s program offers several ways to explore career options. Its certificate programs provide opportunities to study digital photography, graphic design, certified financial planning and more. Computer training, corporate learning, professional development and other programs help bolster knowledge for those looking to change fields.

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