Four North Sounders Left Established Careers to Follow Their Hearts

This is not a midlife crisis, or the result of a few bad days—or months—at work. A second act is one deliberately made, one that requires a plan to realize a long-held dream of a different career or a different life. It usually means financial risk, a giant leap from the safety and security of a job that you’ve trained for and worked toward for years, one in which you are probably an expert.

Bellingham’s Russ Kendall and Doug Robertson, along with Orcas Island’s Audra Lawlor and Susan Soltes of Bow, are each on their second acts. A second act takes chutzpah, because it’s a leap into the uncertain. It takes passion and confidence and stubbornness, people who support you, and sometimes ignoring others who say you are crazy. We thought it would be a good idea for them to tell what led to the leap, and how it’s playing out now. Here, in their own words, are their stories. –Meri-Jo Borzilleri

Wall Street to Orcas Heirlooms

I can still feel the sense of dread, palpable at 6 a.m. as the alarm buzzed me awake. I’d reach quickly for the phone and fumble to find the “stop” button. And in a moment, rest was over, and reality set in. It’s not that I didn’t like what I was doing as an investment bank’s currency consultant, nor that I didn’t enjoy the people I was doing it alongside—they were intelligent, dedicated, inventive and fun. New York City was exciting, and delicious (sushi at 11 p.m. on a Tuesday delivered from across the street). It also was fascinating, with cultures clashing all around, sirens, and horns, the cacophony of 1.7 million people living in one relatively small island. But my heart had never left the West.

I never intended to work on Wall Street. After studying economics, history and English at Seattle University, I was aiming for a career in sustainable development with an emphasis on Latin America. But a connection through my college mentor led to a job, and a life, I hadn’t imagined.

I’d been working in my accidental career on Wall Street nearly 10 years when I decided it was time to leave, for good. I’d tried multiple times to leave, but the siren call of career advancement, or the blur of a romantic relationship, kept me tethered. I’d just gotten married in Roche Harbor to an Irishman who’d promised to hold my hand, in sickness and in health, as I led us back to find my heart.

We didn’t stroll. We dove, headfirst, into uncertainty and life change. One week post-marriage, settling back into my hectic Manhattan work life, my husband blurted out: Why don’t we move to Orcas? My entire being hummed, and I waited for him to start laughing, or recount the hundreds of reasons why this would be a risky, terrible decision at this point in our lives.

But this time was different. If we were going to start over, why shouldn’t we start over exactly where we’d want to be? A small island in the Pacific Northwest that I’d grown up boating around, a place we could buy land, swim, cycle, and trail run to our hearts content, and start a family—it felt destined and absolutely ridiculous at the same time.

Four months later we arrived at our new home on a cold, wet, dreary island day, and resolved to make it work for-ever. I dug into the garden, happy with dirt under my fingernails, and watched things I seeded grow. Most days, it was bliss.

But it wasn’t all seedlings and cold, juicy plums from the icebox. It took me years to harness the inspiration that led to starting my fruit preserves company, Girl Meets Dirt. And my husband spent thousands of hours on airplanes lapping the globe trying to keep income flowing. We also faced recurrent pregnancy loss and spent years trying to start our family. I launched my business between miscarriages four and five—desperately needing to refocus on something I could control better than my body. My sixth pregnancy, for reasons unbeknownst to us, was different and along came my son. And then, 22 months later, my joyful daughter.

Life now is full and rich and busy and sticky and hectic…but I have my heart back. My 6 a.m. alarm is now the birds or the babes or the rooster crowing, followed by toast or oatmeal with jam of my own invention, fruit plucked from the trees that also found this a perfect place to take root centuries ago. And stress? It never goes completely away, but I’m grateful to wash it away nightly in the Salish Sea.

Audra Lawlor is the name behind the nationally known business “Girl Meets Dirt” on Orcas Island in San Juan County, where she makes and sells preserves made from heirloom fruit. Her Act One was working as a Wall Street currency consultant from the busier island of Manhattan.

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"It took me years to harness the inspiration that led to starting my fruit preserves company, Girl Meets Dirt."