Exploration and Investment: Timely "Tonik" for a Returner

Imagine going from stay-at-home mom to part-time General Counsel, to CEO of your own company in just over 1 year. ReBoot Accel alum, Kristina Vetter, did just that. She is currently CEO of Tonik Cycling Apparel - this after stepping back into the workforce as General Counsel for Sonim Technology following a 6-year career break. Hers is an inspirational story about leaving a “what you CAN do’ career for a ‘what you WANT to do” opportunity. She shares lessons about investing in oneself, having curiosity and pursuing one’s passions.

The start of a return to work journey was inspired by driving my kids around

The question of ‘when’ to start depends on your perspective on ‘what’ you are starting. Kristina’s journey combined self-reflection with an exploration well before identifying job opportunities to pursue. Recognizing this knowledge gathering stage as the initial phase of a return to work journey allows for a slow ramp up as early as when you notice that your children need less from you. Starting this critical self-discovery work before children have left the nest keeps it free of the emotions that are sure to be swirling when the last one leaves.

Kristina started exploring when her twins, the youngest of four children, started middle school. She approached the exercise as a project. With plenty of time before their high school graduation, she had the room to start and stop as needed and to enjoy learnings as her journey unfolded. Her initial inspiration came when driving her children to a variety of enriching activities. “I started thinking that there was no reason that the kids should have all the fun.” So she started to identify activities for herself. The earliest was a photography class and she noted that it served the additional purpose of giving structure to her days and a reason to get out of the house.

Kristina upskilled and explored in a number of ways while her children were in middle and high school.  Taking advantage of a (mostly) online program, she received an MBA in Fashion from University of the Arts London. She also participated in a summer program at the Fashion Institute of Technology, earned a Product Management Certificate from General Assembly and joined the ReBoot Accel community taking ReBoot’s Accelerator Class. These experiences enriched her with hard skills and further clarified her likes (fashion) and dislikes (product management.)

As with most transitions, there are emotions. Listing PTA President on one’s resume conveys transferable leadership skills, but Kristina’s long list of additional parenting-related volunteering experiences left her questioning her worth. She described the problem this way: “The more volunteer work you do, the more volunteer work you get. As you recognize that you are expected to do more and more unpaid work it starts to work on you that you are also expected to not WANT to be paid. It had started to feel inconceivable that I had been a person who was paid to work.” Sitting with other participants in ReBoot’s Accelerator class, Kristina started to remember an earlier version of herself. She adopted the contagious growth mindset attitude of the group and found that she no longer pictured herself as a perennial volunteer.

From feeling like a fraudster to running a company

Kristina complemented her upskilling and exploring by working with a career coach. The combination offered her the discernment for what she would seek as she ventured back into the world of paid work. “I realized that I liked problem-solving, helping people, variety, and intellectual analysis.” The concise and clear statement indicated she had used her time and resources wisely and was ready to identify, apply and interview for paid work. Sonim Technologies General Counsel position topped her list because it was a flexible (part-time) role that matched work criteria she had established. She admitted having feelings of being a ‘fraudster’ as she dressed for the interview, but found that in preparing for the interview her confidence rose. She took “quite a bit of time” before the interview to recall the achievements and skills she relied on, in her former General Counsel roles and “that’s what they wanted to hear about.

When I dressed for the interview my confidence was at about a 2 on a 5 point scale. When I left the interview it was at a 5.”

Kristina landed the job at Sonim and was thriving in her new role when she got an email from a founder of her favorite cycling apparel company. She and her husband shared a cycling hobby and over the years she had discovered that she loved the comfortable and flattering women’s cycling apparel offered by Tonik. The email described the founders’ decision to retire and sell the company. Kristina’s interest was piqued: she loves cycling, has an MBA and dabbled in fashion work, understands and enjoys photography and had upskilled in using social media for marketing. She also had clear guiding criteria for the characteristics of the work she wanted to do. The timing of this was certainly complicated, just four months into her job at Sonim.

She received a second email from Tonik, and upon receiving a third she decided to call the founder. They had a great conversation. Kristina was able to ask the right questions because of her fashion design school education. So much about the business appealed to her and as a loyal customer, she knew their well-designed product would benefit from more marketing. Kristina ultimately matched a competitor’s offer and has become the new CEO of Tonik.  “I was able to approach them with confidence and in the end, it was a gut decision. I really wanted to do this and I realized that the project of readying myself to return to work prepared me for this moment.”

Having landed her dream job, Kristina has some sage advice to share.

  • Invest in yourself. You deserve for yourself what you give your kids. Identify a class or activity you think will be fun and see where it leads you. Remember that learning what you don’t like is a valuable lesson too.

  • Stop with the ‘shoulds.’ Be open to what you really want. Make sure you are not subscribing to others’ expectations.  Listen to yourself.

  • Be patient and courageous. There will be plenty of “no’s” before the ‘yeses.”

And of course, enjoy the journey.

About the author-Patty Ann O'Brien White is the co founder and COO of  ReBoot Accel helping women get current, connected, and confident to resume careers after a break.