Career Change Advice from One of America's Most Successful Women
Liz Elting is an entrepreneur and philanthropist who has appeared on Forbes’ Richest Self-Made Women in America list every year since its inception. Originally, at the beginning of her career, Elting intended to work in finance. But in 1992, with an NYU Stern School of Business classmate, she cofounded TransPerfect, now the world’s largest language translation company. As co-CEO, she helped build TransPerfect into an organization with more than $600 million in annual revenues, 5,000 employees, and 11,000 clients. In 2018, Elting switched gears again, leaving TransPerfect and founding the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, which advances economic, social, and political equality of women and marginalized people. She currently serves as the foundation's CEO.
Recently, we spoke with Elting about her advice for professionals looking to change careers—including how to take the first step, find the best path, and overcome fear. Below is an edited version of that conversation.
Vault: First of all, how are you doing and managing with all this uncertainty?
Elting: I like to focus on the things I can control and not the things I can’t. I’ve turned off the news almost entirely, which is notable for me because I’m a lifelong news junkie. But it’s hard right now to stay engaged with it, because there’s just so much noise. Why get invested in or distressed over the latest outrage du jour, when God knows there’ll be another one tomorrow? All it does is fuel anxiety and frustration and gloom, at least for me. So I’m focused way more on my actual sphere of influence: my home, my family, my foundation, my health, my time. I tackle those day by day.
Could you talk a little about your background and your career path leading up to the founding of your eponymous foundation?
Sure. I’ve always been fascinated by language, so my career path maybe isn’t surprising. My family moved around a bit when I was a kid. I spent time living in Portugal and Canada, and during college I studied abroad in Córdoba, Spain, and did an internship in Caracas. I gained functional fluency in French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Latin. I love the different ways languages have to communicate.
So, once I decided that my destiny wasn’t in finance, I switched gears and launched TransPerfect, serving as Co-CEO for twenty-six years and growing—entirely organically with no outside funding—into the largest translation company in the world. A couple of years ago I stepped away and launched the Elizabeth Elting Foundation, which was originally focused on empowering women, but in this pandemic has since embraced a broader mandate toward concrete relief for people in need.
What’s your advice when it comes to finding a new career path? How should someone go about choosing? What's important to consider?
You haven’t wasted time in your current career. I feel like that’s a sentiment I run into often, where people fear they’re letting the last decade or however long go down the drain. But the skills and experience you gained from your work history are often very transferable. I’d say to look at the parts of your job where you shine and those where you don’t, and think about ways those strengths bring value to another industry.
Most companies are excited to bring in people from outside fields, because that’s someone who brings something new to the table and isn't afraid to step outside of their comfort zone. You have all these transferable skills. Client management, for example, may have been a facet of your job you really enjoyed, and guess what? That’s something companies need up and down, whether you’re Goldman Sachs or Saatchi & Saatchi or Nintendo. It can apply to sales, to supply chain management, to vendor sourcing. Maybe you managed a division at a big investment bank; well, guess what? You can bring that to Google, or to Chanel, or to Simon & Schuster, or to General Electric. Your experience is an asset.
What’s your advice for professionals who know which new career they want to pursue but are afraid, financially anxious, and don’t know where to start to make the switch?
You can pick your poison or you can pick your passion. There’s that old saying that if you do what you love, you’ll never have to work a day in your life, which isn’t exactly true, but the sentiment is still spot-on. The biggest advice I can offer is that you balance faith with prudence and make smart decisions based on the kinds of risk (because this is a risk) you’re willing to take on.
What are some of the biggest mistakes that career changers make when switching careers? What are some of the biggest challenges?
A lot of people take the plunge without fully thinking it through. I said before to balance faith and prudence—faith because you’re taking a risk and you need to manage your fear, and prudence because whether or not this is a feasible option depends heavily on who’s depending on you and what resources you have available, from cash to bonds to really anything you can easily liquidate. I guess the real key here is liquidity. If you’re making a career change, you need to have at least six months or even a year of liquidity stashed away. Show me someone who took the leap without making sure they’re able to manage their landing, and I’ll show you someone who smacked right into the asphalt.
How important is networking for career changers? Any networking tips?
I generally don’t like that word, because I think everything is ultimately about relationships, and networking is a kind of callous way to approach them. But sure, if we’re going to talk in these terms, networking (read: relationship building) is critical, not only for getting your foot in the door, but in learning what the doors are and how to get them to open at all. That’s especially true when entering a new field entirely.
As far as tips go? Be your own sparkling self. Be generous with your time. It’s hard right now during the pandemic, but LinkedIn is a great place to forge remote professional relationships.
Is there anything else important for career changers to know that I didn’t ask?
Keep your eyes forward and never look back. The past is behind you. Go forth—you’ve got bigger things to do.