These workers quit their corporate jobs for creative gigs

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Ever dreamed of giving up cubicle life—or even your WFH chained to a laptop—for a creative career, but always thought it was impossible?

Think again. These five former white-collar workers have all said goodbye to their corporate gigs and successfully reinvented themselves as creative powerhouses, in everything from lighting to landscape gardening.

Photography of love and lace; Courtesy of Dowel Furniture

JOANNE HALLARE LEE

RESIDENCE : NYC + South Orange, NJ
THEN: Tax manager in a financial services company
NOW: Co-Founder, Dowel Furniture

WHY SHE MADE THE JUMP: “I once came home at 3am, used my face wash as toothpaste, slept for three hours and crawled back to work. I had a few co-workers who had sleeping beds under their desks. It was a very intense environment that didn’t seem sustainable.

Hallare Lee credits her natural impulsiveness for deciding to quit her corporate job six years ago and start a custom furniture business with her brother Ray. They produce pieces from $600 upwards at the family-owned factory in Manila, often working with interior 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 that my best isn’t good enough,” she says. “In the creative field, you keep going and you don’t let rejection keep you from quitting. But I still do our own business taxes because I like it.


Benjamin Gillespie
Courtesy of Benjamin Gillespie

BENJAMIN GILLESPIE

RESIDENCE : philadelphia cream
THEN: intellectual property lawyer
NOW: Lighting designer, sculptor and founder, OVUUD

WHY HE MADE THE JUMP: “I will never run out of billing hours. Even during my busiest months at the studio, nothing comes close to the constant pressure of having to meet your billable needs. »

Gillespie loved working with crazy inventors at his old job, but hated corporate work.

“I spent most of my free time working on lighting and furniture design, and even in law school, a third of my apartment served as storage for tools that I used 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 daily life less monotonous, trading patents for planes and saws, developing his own line of lighting that starts at $2,200 – and never looked back.

“Working in a [law] the enterprise was extremely hectic; it was also quite predictable. Tons of work, but nothing out of the ordinary. It gave me a natural high.


Patricia Benne
Stephen Busken

PATRICIA BENNER

RESIDENCE : Los Angeles
THEN: Management Consultant, Ernst & Young
NOW: Landscape Architect, Benner Landscape Design

WHY SHE MADE THE JUMP: “When I bought my first house in Los Angeles, my mother gave me a landscaping plan for the house. As soon as I started implementing it, I caught the bug.

Although her mother was a landscaper, Benner went to business school almost by default and only tended her own garden outside of working hours. After becoming pregnant with her first child, she took the plunge to pursue her passion. She worked for a renowned landscape architect before setting up her own boutique in 1999.

“I have a natural sensitivity to the changing seasons,” Benner says. “And I knew straight away that I made the right decision because it felt so natural to do what I was doing.”

Today, she is an in-demand outdoor expert throughout California, where she is based, and across the country.


Courtney McLeod
John Neitzel

COURTNEY MCLEOD

RESIDENCE : new York
THEN: Head of Portfolio Management, Real Estate Investment Funds
NOW: Owner and Interior Designer, Right Meets Left Interior Design

WHY SHE MADE THE JUMP: “I didn’t feel fulfilled in my ‘dream’ job, then my father fell ill. He got better, but it was really a moment of pause where I realized that life is too short and that I was not happy.

McLeod called his company Right Meets Left in a nod to his unusual journey of combining creativity and business acumen. She scored her first client after downsizing her own apartment to cut overhead after leaving that office job.

“I stepped out of character and quit without a plan,” she says.

This new house was intended as a business card, but first she had to sell furniture from her old, larger house that no longer suited her; a woman who came to buy chairs turned into her first paid gig and launched her new career.

“Working in finance, your self-esteem can get really wrapped up in a fancy title and a big paycheck,” she admits. “The first year, most of my projects were very small budgets. I had to swallow my pride and recognize these jobs for the learning opportunities they were.


Nick Geimer
Ngala Trading; Courtesy of Nick Geimer

NICK GEIMER

RESIDENCE : new York
THEN: Purchasing Director, Standard Bank, Johannesburg, South Africa
NOW: Co-founder of African homeware company Ngala Trading Co.

WHY HE MADE THE JUMP: “I loved the breadth of problem-solving required to succeed in a global bank, but hated the amount of politics and backstabbing that was prevalent – perhaps necessary – at higher levels.”

Geimer banked degrees from Princeton and the London School of Economics en route to the C suite. But he loved helping husband Lawson with home renovations, and it made him feel like he had a life that he would 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 iconic leather chandeliers. It was quite an adjustment to go from being an on-call PA and a team of 350 people to sitting across from Lawson thinking about what to do.

“I would say, ‘Somebody should contact this editor and set up an introductory meeting,’ and my husband would say, ‘That someone is you.'”

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