How to Reinvent Yourself Marin-Style
Three locals start new careers and don't look back
Christopher Gutek, Cokie Lepinski and Brittany Olsen.
Photo by Tim Porter
Publishing maven Tina Brown, herself a reinvention queen, once said, “Life is a process of reinvention, moving on.” In a society where your obituary will likely be marked more by what you did than by who you were, and where cocktail chatter often starts with “Where do you work?” a career can become what defines you. With that in mind, we found three locals who’ve lived out Brown’s maxim—revamping their lives through new vocational paths.
Changing the Narrative—Brittany Olsen
As a college student, Brittany Olsen trudged through summer internships, hoping to keep her childhood dream of being a high-powered executive alive. When the big ad agency where she was working offered her a job at the beginning of her senior year, it seemed a direct ticket to success. Years later, settled into a dot-com job, she grudgingly began to accept that she may not have the “motivation or interest and perhaps the abilities to stick with a (corporate) career for the long term,” the Mill Valley resident recalls.
Believing deeply in the value of work-life balance, she researched other vocations, hoping to find one she found interesting and flexible that also had a bit of prestige. Deciding on psychotherapy, Olsen swallowed her pride and started taking graduate school night classes while still working days at the office. After a year of straddling both worlds, she took the plunge full time into pursuing her marriage and family therapy license, which meant financial and personal sacrifice, especially while only being able to work part-time while raising two young children.
“I had to essentially not earn an income for almost five years and wear the title of intern for all of them,” she says. “Talk about ego blow.” And in leaving the corporate world, she had to effectively abandon the image of herself she’d been nurturing since early childhood.
She had a few second thoughts during the long transition process, but when she would visualize her practice all set up, the work she would do and the lifestyle it would allow, she kept pushing ahead.
Now a psychotherapist with her own practice in San Francisco, Olsen admits she may not have gone into her new career with eyes fully open—especially regarding the financial adjustments—but the move from corporate worker to self-employed business owner has been terrifically freeing, if also terrifyingly lonely.
“It just depends on how I think of it on any given day,” she admits. “But when I choose to think only of the former, and when I remember how much I love the actual essence of the work, I feel calm.”
She advises others to remember that reinvention is a process; it doesn’t just happen. “Oftentimes you don’t know where you’re going or what the end looks like. But you just have to trust your instinct and values,” she says.
Making it Sustainable—Christopher Gutek
A background in chemical engineering, MIT business school and investment banking wouldn’t lead most people to the ranches of West Marin. But after years of forecasting and estimating stock prices, Christopher Gutek found his place on the range.
It started when the Mill Valley resident decided to take a little break from the world of finance. He thought he’d spend time with his new son and maybe work on some landscaping projects around the house.
“Although I wanted to stay in financial services, once you leave the industry you don’t really miss it,” Gutek says. “As more time went by I never got motivated to find that job.”
Instead, he spent his free hours researching and diving into the world of start-ups, at one point joining an angel investing group called Keiretsu Forum. Around the same time, he became more interested in issues of sustainability. His bookshelf filled with titles like The Omnivore’s Dilemma, Food Inc. and The Clean Tech Revolution.
Then one day, Gutek visited West Marin with in-laws who were in town. Touring the expansive landscape and fifth-generation ranches, he had a kind of light-bulb moment. The abundance of livestock sparked the idea for a new business: selling Marin and Sonoma county grass-fed beef.
To test the viability of his concept, Gutek sent an e-mail to about 20 friends, offering to buy a quarter beef and a whole lamb, portion off the meat and sell it to them. More than half wanted to go in for a share.
“There was clearly some very strong demand, but the distribution channel was limited,” Gutek recalls. “Sure, you can purchase a whole animal or go to the grocery store or the farmers’ market and purchase smaller quantities, but there should be something in the middle.”
With that inspiration, Marin Grass Fed Meat Company was born. Gutek and his wife now sell locally sourced hormone- and antibiotic-free beef and lamb online, in economically priced quantities, with home delivery.
“There continues to be a steep learning curve, but the good news is the ranchers are really down to earth and super-nice people,” Gutek says. “They are happy to sit down at their dining room table and talk to you about the history of the industry and different breeds of animals and how other aspects of the industry work.”
Besides building his new business, he’s still doing a fair amount of reading, and the Dalai Lama’s Art of Happiness in particular has struck a chord. The whole experience of changing paths, Gutek says, has been “a midlife reevaluation, (recognizing) that what I was doing wasn’t satisfying. Taking time off to reevaluate was absolutely the right thing to do. If you aren’t enjoying what you’re doing, find a way to get out of it, because you can get stuck.”
Swimming in a New Direction—Cokie Lepinski
I always wanted to be in law enforcement when I grew up,” Cokie Lepinski recalls. At only 18, she started in the Corte Madera police department as a cadet. From there she joined the sheriff’s department and worked for 25 years, much of it as a 911 dispatcher.
The work was rewarding; Lepinski was consistently making an impact on someone’s life. But people don’t call 911 when they’re having a good day. Dispatchers are faceless supporters, and with the emotional toll came the need for an outlet.
She found it in swimming. “When I submerge underwater, my brain shuts off to the world and it only thinks about the set, stroke, technique and my pace against the clock,” Lepinski reflects. “The water is like a cocoon that protects you. Swimming saved my career.”
Unbeknownst to her, it would soon become a new one. After years of working on her swim technique and investing in “one heck of a DVD instructional library,” Lepinksi along with a friend started holding a few swim clinics. During those predawn workouts, she discovered she loved coaching.
There weren’t any coaching opportunities open with the Rolling Hills Masters Team in Novato, which Lepinski swam with for almost two decades. But elsewhere there was clearly demand. Masters programs attract adults (many of them former competitive college athletes) at swim clubs nationwide; U.S. Masters Swimming, the governing body of the sport, has over 50,000 members and holds races at local, state and international levels.
So, at age 51, Lepinski approached the competitive Marin Pirates, which at the time only had youth-focused teams, offering to lead a new masters program for adults. After several months of meetings to hash out the details, in July 2009 Lepinski’s first group of swimmers hit the water.
The move meant closing the book on decades of serving in law enforcement, which required confronting severe doubts. “I wrestled with whether my identity was tied to my job,” she says. “I was really good at what I did at the sheriff’s office, and to try something that you’ve never done is definitely a crapshoot.
“So much of what I did for 30 years changed people’s lives,” she adds. “In the pool it isn’t about life crisis situations. But I’ve had so many swimmers tell me I’ve changed their lives.”
Now in her early 50s, Lepinski is clocking the best swim times of her life and setting national masters records in her age group. Only a year after founding the Marin Pirates masters team, she was named on-deck coach for the U.S. national team at the FINA World Masters Championships in Sweden.
While admittedly not everyone can change careers midlife and live off a tenth of their former earnings, she says, there’s an undeniable fulfillment in pursuing something you love. “You learn in law enforcement that every breath you take is priceless,” she says. “Find your passion and follow it.”