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Your career is a journey: a look inside a 120-day returnship

It is said that “life is a journey, not a destination.” Well, your career is too. And this is the story of my journey. My journey back into the workplace through a returnship (an internship for returning caregivers) program.

The beginning

It had been more than 10 years since I last worked for a technology company. And admittedly, technology had been a difficult industry for me to get back into—constantly being rejected because I wasn’t recent or relevant, always questioned about why I took time off, and scrutinized about why now I wanted to come back to work. Hiring teams rarely see the value of pro bono consulting

I was constantly being rejected because I wasn’t recent or relevant, always questioned about why I took time off, and scrutinized about why now I wanted to come back to work.

Then, a mom friend of mine saw a post from Path Forward and forwarded it to a LinkedIn group we belong to. Path Forward is a nonprofit organization that helps people restart their career after taking two or more years off for caregiving. They partner with companies to form 18-week “internships,” or returnships for midcareer professionals (both men and women) who need or want a little jumpstart.

I applied for the marketing internship at Zendesk. I had a phone interview with human resources on Monday, a call with the hiring manager on Thursday, and a job offer the following Monday. While I was thrilled to be working again, I was also uncertain about what Zendesk’s expectations were of me, the expectations I had for myself, and the expectations of the program.

The first 30 days

It’s October 17, 2016; it’s new-hire orientation on my first day at Zendesk. I’m being asked questions like, “If you could meet one famous person, who would it be?” or “Who do you look up to and why?” and “If you could have one superpower, what would it be and why?”

Stephanie Won

Stephanie Won during her returnship at Zendesk.

On the second day, we wrapped up with a celebration. I had a warm and fuzzy feeling about this company that I was about to work for—and no, it didn’t have anything to do with the two glasses of champagne.

During my first 30 days, I learned as much as I could about this new industry, my job duties, internal Zendesk tools, and yes, all the acronyms. So many acronyms. I read a lot and tried to soak up everything I could. I asked a lot of questions. I set up meet-and-greets with different people to learn more about what they did and how I would interact with them.

The middle months (days 31-90)

Zendesk is very good about giving you projects that you like and helping you add to your professional toolkit. I took on marketing programs—developing content and building landing pages. I honed my WordPress and HTML skills. I developed copy for the social and digital channels; it was fun, especially trying to stay within the character limits. I wrote a blog article, which is now part of my media profile on LinkedIn.

Some companies just talk the talk, but Zendesk walks the walk when it comes to giving back and corporate social responsibility. At our holiday party in December, our CEO requested we each bring a CVS or Walgreens gift card, which was to be given to the Curry Senior Center in San Francisco. In addition, the company used an online charitable giving platform, HandUp, which connects donors to individuals in need in the community. This is in direct alignment with my own personal mission about making a difference.

The end is near (days 91-120)

Near the end of my internship, I presented a marketing campaign to our entire team. It was such an exhilarating feeling; I felt accomplished and productive. Public speaking is an area I’m still working on, but I knew I had the support from everyone in the room. They Slacked me with words of praise, emojis and GIFS. This company is good with GIPHY notes.

When you leave Zendesk, it is customary to send a farewell email with your forwarding contact information. Instead of sending a traditional email, I thought I’d stretch my content marketing muscle and send a haiku and have people respond back with theirs. I received about 22 haiku responses back and some were pretty awesome.

The next steps

My returnship journey at Zendesk was instrumental in keeping me recent, relevant, and refreshed. I had a Millennial manager who was my greatest supporter and cheerleader. Through this process, my “AHA” moment came when I discovered that I love social media, content marketing, and brand marketing. The internship further validated the career direction I want to go in.

My success at Zendesk was in great part due to Path Forward and their executive director, Tami Forman. Throughout the program, she conducted monthly workshops with all ten cohorts—across several tech companies. The all-day workshops—career development and strategy, how to build your personal brand online—were invaluable and we had a great network of mothers who supported each other. Work-life integration can be challenging—it’s a full stack—managing the front end (work) and back-end (family).

Work-life integration can be challenging—it’s a full stack—managing the front end (work) and back-end (family).

As they say, it takes a village to raise a child and the same applies to career transition. I know it wouldn’t be possible without my family, friends, Zendesk, Path Forward and the ten mothers

Before my internship ended, I developed a quarterly, year-long career roadmap on what I’d like to accomplish. By building my writing and social media portfolio, I know I’ll reach my goal—to secure a contract or freelance gig, with either a technology or non-technology company who shares the same values, beliefs, and philosophy as I do. I’ve been networking and attending selective meetups that are either career-related or based on my passion project: getting more girls involved in the STEM fields.

Life is a journey and not a destination, and my journey continues as I take the path forward in my next career adventure.

Stephanie Won is a marketer who is reinventing herself. When she's not consuming social media, news, and technology or dabbling in content marketing, she's the Chief Mom Officer to two kiddos, who love both human and computer language.