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Conference aims to help women re-entering workforce

The Back to Business Women's Conference is designed for women who have stepped off the career track, often when they became moms. Organizer Katie Dunn, a Triangle mom, shares more.

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Sarah Lindenfeld Hall

It's a familiar story: As kids enter kindergarten and grade school, stay-at-home moms or other parents, who have stepped back from their career track, wonder what's next for them.

I'm among them. Now that my younger daughter has entered kindergarten, I'm expanding my freelance workload. It's an exciting, but daunting task.

Katie Dunn, a Cary mom of four, has heard it all before. After the birth of her second child, Dunn, who holds an MBA from Georgetown University, left her job at IBM in favor of a part-time position at UNC-Chapel Hill as an assistant director for MBA admissions.

"I feel very blessed that I had the choice to work a reduced schedule so that I could be home with them when they were very young," Dunn tells me. Her kids now range in age between 9 and 14. In August, she returned to work full-time as an associate director at the MBA Career Management Center at UNC Kenan-Flagler Business School.

Dunn knows, however, that there are plenty of highly qualified Triangle moms who'd like to rejoin the workforce, but aren't sure where to start. Armed with the tools and information she gleaned from her own job hunt, Dunn has put together the Back to Business Women's Conference in Research Triangle Park on Oct. 8 and Oct. 9.

During the weekend, women can connect with others who are looking to get back to work. They'll also be able to network with representatives from local companies who are looking for workers who can multi-task, communicate, organize and get the job done. As anybody who has raised young kids knows, those are the skills moms are using everyday.

Here's my email conversation with Dunn:

Go Ask Mom: Did you always plan to get back into the workforce full time?
Katie Dunn: I always knew that I would return to the workforce full time, and (mistakenly) thought that when I was ready I could easily walk back in to a great job! As it turns out, I was lucky to find a job that I love, but it took longer and was more challenging than I anticipated to find the right fit.
GAM: Were there parts of that life that you missed?
KD: Once our children were in school full-time and I felt I had paid my dues with PTA and volunteer activities, I became excited to go back to work and use my skills and education in a different way. I wanted a job that allowed me to do something meaningful and I had always felt that my part-time work at UNC did just that. I enjoy having a professional purpose. With four children involved in lots of activities and realizing that college is on the horizon, the thought of a second paycheck was enticing too!
GAM: What inspired you to organize this conference?
KD: I was inspired to start this conference because I saw it as a win-win for both local employers and women returning to the workforce. I wanted to support women who take a break from their careers to raise children – I always saw my role as a stay-at-home-mom as very meaningful work and I enjoyed it immensely.  I’m sure that my children benefited from it too.  I know so many smart, educated, ambitious women here in the Triangle who made the choice to stay home with children and I wanted to honor the choice that they made by making it easier for them to re-enter the paid workforce when they were ready to do so.

Employers here in the Triangle benefit from their sponsorship and involvement with the conference because it gives them access to an untapped talent pool that is educated, experienced and motivated to find their next career move. Returning women have spent their at-home years cultivating all these great skills that employers value such as being team players, managing projects through volunteer activities, multi-tasking, planning, organizing, communicating and leading committees and teams of people. I am really excited about connecting employers with conference attendees at our networking event during the conference!

GAM: What are things expecting and new moms should consider if they plan to take some time off from their paid jobs?
KD: Keep up your skills and network while you are on a career break. With the tools at our disposal today, this is easier than ever to do. Maintain your LinkedIn profile even if you’re not working at a paid position by updating it with volunteer activities and new skills you’ve learned. Continue to connect to new people you meet. Take an online course or attend a conference in your field or in a field that interests you. Join a professional association and attend occasional networking events so that when you’re ready to return to the workforce you’ve got contacts you can tap and you are current with new developments in your industry. Most of all, though, enjoy your time with your family: It really is a gift!
GAM: What's your pep talk for moms who want to return to the workforce?
KD: You’ve got this! If you have raised children, you can do anything!  Be patient with yourself, because a job search after a career break can take longer than you would like.  But keep believing in yourself and pushing forward, because you will find something. I believe in you!

Start by thinking about what you enjoy doing and look at online job postings to see what skills are required for jobs you’d like to have. Then figure out how you can acquire those skills and go after them. To be successful in a job search, you have to get out from behind your computer and meet people. Tell everyone you know that you are looking for a job. Have a great elevator pitch that you have practiced many times and deliver it with confidence. Don’t forget to follow up after interviews and networking meetings with a thank you email. And when you do land a job, enlist the help of your whole family to make the transition smooth for everyone.

GAM: What do you hope women will get out of the conference? Do you hope to organize more?
KD: The conference has been carefully planned to provide women with a few key things: Refreshed job skills, professional advice on how to conduct a successful job search, introductions to local recruiters and inspiration as they make this important transition. Conference attendees will be placed into peer coaching groups with women who live near them so they have a support network that can continue to meet after the conference ends. Women who are just starting to consider returning to work and women who have been job-searching for some time will all find the programming valuable. I planned the conference based on my own experience of job-searching after a career gap and sought input from lots of recruiters, hiring managers, experts and other women going through the same process, so I know that what we’re offering is practical and useful.

A personal goal of mine for the conference is to open the eyes of local companies to the value represented by this talent pool. This will make it easier for women to return to the workforce in the future. And, of course, once our conference attendees get new jobs, they can be advocates at their companies for other women who have taken career breaks. This is the start of a revolution in the job market!

My vision is for the Back to Business Women’s Conference to be an annual event. We have some amazing sponsor companies that really believe in our vision and want to help us grow over time. Statistics tell us that 43 percent of highly qualified women take a career break, and many of these women find it challenging to return to the workforce.  So we’ve got our work cut out for us to help get Triangle women “Back to Business!”  See you on Oct. 8!
Go Ask Mom features local moms every Monday.

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