These 12 Palm Beachers Who've Made A Big Career Switch Will Inspire You To Follow Your Passion

by Heather Carney by Amy Woods Jul 2016 Also on Digital Edition

From teacher to drag racer and flight-test engineer to spa owner, these 12 Palm Beachers didn’t let fear stop them from starting over. Here they share when they knew it was time to follow their passions and how they did it.

Elaine Larsen, 49, West Melbourne

Pre-school teacher ---> Drag racer and team owner
Elaine Larsen knows how to dream big. Growing up in a Mennonite family without the distractions of TV or radio, she relied on her imagination for entertainment. As a pre-school teacher, that up-bringing came in handy when working with children at her own day care. “You had the opportunity to inspire and work with kids instead of putting them in front of the TV,” she says. “We put on plays; we did science experiments; we played.” But on the weekends, Larsen lived out a different dream racing cars with her husband. When she decided to go pro, she knew it was time to dedicate all of her energy to the sport. “For the first time I was ready for my light to shine,” she says. Fourteen years later, Larsen is a two-time International Hot Rod Association world champion and she continues to dream big, racing cars that go from zero to 100 mph in one second. Catch her speeding by at her “home” track at the Palm Beach International Raceway.

What were you most afraid of when you considered switching your career?  
I feared letting people down. So many people have sacrificed so much to get me where I am today. I just always want to make them proud. About 6 years ago, I had a nasty crash. I ended up with a serious brain injury, was in a coma, and it shook the team up pretty bad. In that moment in the hospital, I thought back to my kids and how I wanted them to see me—a quitter that gives up or someone strong who learns from mistakes. Six weeks later, I was sitting back in the driver’s seat, butterflies in my stomach, but knowing I was never one to back down from a challenge. 

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
Don’t overcomplicate things. There are a million ways to screw things up and usually only one way to get it right. Find that one way, work harder than everyone else, only ask advice from the people that count in your life, and no matter how many times you get knocked down, the only thing that matters is that you get back up.  

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
Being a pre-school teacher really showed me that it was OK to be goofy and silly—to just be yourself. Not only did it give me the confidence to be comfortable with myself, it allowed me to inspire people of all ages today that if you have a dream, chase it; make it yours.


Kristen Noffsinger, 38, Boynton Beach

Opera Singer ---> Senior vice president at Luxury PR Group

She sang librettos as a soprano with the Florida Grand Opera and performed in dozens of musicals, including Cabaret, South Pacific and The Sound of Music. “I was very fortunate to have a good reputation for being incredibly dependent and good at what I do and a hard worker, so I got a lot of jobs,” says Kristen Noffsinger, who worked as a vocalist for more than a decade before feeling burned out. “It got stale, it got old, and I was never as perfect as I wanted to be,” she says. Noffsinger still sings in church every Sunday but spends her workweek promoting brands like the Worth Avenue Association through her job at Luxury PR Group.

How did you know it was time to switch?
After performing professionally in the South Florida area for 16 years—since I was 15—I reached a place where I could either keep doing all of the same shows, theaters, gigs, etc., or move to a new city where I would have to essentially start all over again.

What were you most afraid of when you considered switching your career?  
After literally being a big fish in a very small musical pond for a long time, I was honestly only intimidated by the idea of not achieving the same success in this new and entirely different pond.

How did you overcome your fears?
The best way to overcome fears is to not give them any attention. The more you think about your fears, the more power you give them to control your life.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
The only way to fully appreciate success is to fail a couple times. My best advice would be to go for it, but make sure you are ready for defeat. Believing in yourself is half the battle.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I learned that I could take all of the experiences and talents I had developed and combine them into the career I have today. By performing onstage my whole life, I developed a fantastic public-speaking talent.


Rick Sartory, 49, Palm Beach Gardens

Banker ---> Executive vice president for business development and community relations at the Northern Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce 

A self-described political wonk who at one point made a run for the Palm Beach Gardens City Council, Rick Sartory is a grass-roots go-getter. “I have always loved Palm Beach County, and I am passionate about my North County community,” says Sartory, a West Palm Beach native-turned-Palm Beach Gardens resident. He worked as a banker for close to 30 years—first with Barnett Bank after earning a bachelor’s degree in financial management from Clemson University, and then with Fidelity Federal Bank & Trust, Palm Beach National Bank & Trust and 1st United Bank. Most recently, he was the director of commercial lending for IBM Southeast Employees Credit Union, which took him on many business trips to Atlanta. “I worked with large institutions, and I really enjoyed the small institutions that were really tied to the community,” Sartory says. “That’s what drove me to be a volunteer for the Chamber.” As a volunteer for the Northern Palm Beach County Chamber of Commerce, he heard about a job opening and applied for it. “It cemented my interest in being involved with the community,” Sartory says. “I missed being local.”

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch? 
I was not afraid of making the career transition. A better word would be curious—I was curious if the relationships and partnerships I developed during my banking career would transfer over to my career at the Chamber.

How did you overcome your fears?
Passion. I am passionate about my job and the great things that the Chamber is doing. I believe in the mission of the Chamber. My job is to promote it. I absolutely love what I do. I couldn’t be happier.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
Make sure your skillsets and talents are transferrable to your new career.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I now know that I have found where I belong. It’s what I want to do at this stage of my life. All those years of banking, they really set the table and set the stage for me to do this.


Rasheed Shihada, 32, and Ersilia Moreno, 54, Palm Beach Gardens

Political Consultant and Accountant ---> Owners of Olive Oil of the World

It all started with a trip to Italy. Both busy with their own careers, mother-and-son duo Ersilia Moreno and Rasheed Shihada took a trip overseas to study under an Italian olive oil sommelier. By 2010, Erisilia was traveling throughout the country to farmers markets to grow the olive oil business. A year later, Rasheed left politics behind to focus on his passion: food. He became a private chef in Palm Beach and a business partner in his mother’s olive oil company. Today, the company is solely based in Florida and sources products from farmers and artisans working with producers in nine countries plus the U.S. “In 2008, we had only six products in our line,” Ersilia says. “In 2016, we have more than 60.” 

How did you know it was time to switch?
Ersilia: I was working in an environment where the people around me were terribly unhappy. I had a vacation planned for Italy at the close of tax season. I didn’t want to return from a great vacation only to have to go back to that dismal office environment. 
Rasheed: It was the realization that working in politics was a toxic environment that was sucking the life out of me. I decided to turn down a campaign manager position for the 2012 election and return to the culinary world. 

What were you most afraid of when you considered switching your career? 
Rasheed: Frankly from the get-go, Ersilia knew she would figure it out. She just needed to apply to farmers markets and convince the powers that be to allow her business into the markets. 

How did you overcome your fears? 
Rasheed: With savings in the bank and tenacity.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch? 
Rasheed: Just go for it. Ersilia’s father (a self-employed pharmacist) has always marveled at how she was able to grow a niche business in a down economy. He loves that we “chop our own wood,” as he likes to call it.


Jessica Wojtanowski, 36, Palm Beach Gardens

Flight-test Engineer ---> Owner of The Woodhouse Day Spa

She has a bachelor’s degree in aerospace engineering from Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University and a master’s degree in aviation from The University of Tennessee Space Institute that led her to suit up as a flight-test engineer for Lockheed Martin. Analyzing operations of the F-22 fighter jet and C-5 military transport plane took her to Colorado, California and Georgia as a civil servant for the U.S. Air Force. She ended up testing helicopters at Sikorsky in Palm Beach County. In 2012, she stopped working to start a family. “It took a lot of soul-searching to stop my career because I’ve always been career-driven,” Jessica Wojtanowski says. “When I made that decision to stay home, it was a hard one, but I don’t regret it at all.” Wojtanowski never returned to the industry that defined her career, giving up a world of instrumentation panels and weapon loads for massage therapy and skincare as owner of the new Woodhouse Day Spa opening in Legacy Place in Palm Beach Gardens. 

How did you know it was time to switch?
I was rarely happy and excited to go to work anymore. After many life-coaching sessions, I was able to reflect on what I truly wanted out of life—to make a difference.

What were you most afraid of when you considered switching your career? 
The unknown. There were so many unknown factors that were paralyzing to me for many years.

How did you overcome your fears?
They are still there. I don’t think they ever go away. But after focusing on what really matters to me, I was able to jump with a leap of faith that everything will turn out as it should.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
Steve Harvey said it best: “If you want to be successful, you have to jump, there’s no way around it. When you jump, I can assure you that your parachute will not open right away. But if you do not jump, your parachute will never open. If you’re safe, you’ll never soar.”

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I learned that I am Jessica. I am a go-getter who makes a difference.


Marissa Lanteri, 33, West Palm Beach

Medical Businesswoman ---> Founder of Fetch Palm Beach
After a decade of hard work, sacrifice, dedication and focus, Marissa Lanteri achieved her dream of working for the No. 1 medical robotic technology company in the world. But after spending 15- to 18-hour days working and traveling throughout the U.S. feeling overworked, undervalued and unhealthy, Lanteri knew she was ready for a change. In 2014, she quit her job, traveled the world and moved to South Florida to pursue a new dream: launching her own pet service business, Fetch Palm Beach. The company offers dog walking, pet sitting and overnight care catering to those with long work hours and hectic schedules—the exact life she left behind. “What ultimately led to my decision to leave was the self-recognition that no amount of money in the world could buy my health (mental and physical) or happiness,” Lanteri says. “I was ready to live a healthier, happier and balanced life.”

What were you most afraid of? 
Regretting my decision to quit; the fear of not being able to support my lifestyle. 

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch? 
Listen to your inner voice—it speaks very loudly. I suppressed that inner voice for a long time, as it is really scary to make a change. But as someone who has come out the other side, it’s amazing what can happen when you follow your heart and passion.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
How much strength and faith I have within myself. Also, that it’s OK to not have all the answers. For most of my life, I always had my next move strategically planned and then executed. This decision was very uncharacteristic of me so I had a lot of questions being asked when I left NYC. I didn’t have answers to all of them, and I became OK with that. I’ve learned that my actions have inspired family and friends to think differently and embrace a life change with open arms. That makes me smile.


Rudi Bester, 53, West Palm Beach

Executive VP ---> Non-profit founder

After a successful career with a publicly traded corporation, Rudi Bester knew that there had to be something else. “What motivates people—money, freedom, happiness, success or something else? I had enjoyed good business fortune. It was time to focus on ‘giving back’ to those less fortunate,” Bester says. So in January 2011, Bester and his family founded a 501(c)(3) charity to honor a young friend who had passed away from leukemia. The idea was to plant a tree in his memory. But Bester didn’t stop there. Today, the non-profit, Memory Trees, is a social impact organization that manages community gardens and sustainable food. What started as a funding memorial evolved into something far greater. 

What were you most afraid of?
Failure—the best motivator known to man.

How did you overcome your fears?
You can only control things that are within your control. Other things are distractions. Ignore them. We are all just people. No one person is better or more important than any other person. Pursue your chosen path passionately. Build a support base. And become a thought leader. Learn to say “no” when it makes sense. Empower people who support you, allowing them to flourish and also succeed. These ideas will help to make your fears disappear. 

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
First, stay in your job until you reach a point where you lose all dependency on receiving a regular paycheck. Then, you can think about pursuing ‘that thing’ that will make you happy. Your willingness to accommodate risk should not negatively impact you (or your family’s) ability to be healthy, financially self-sufficient and able to accommodate change. And leveraging is OK, but only if the projected return on investment will very obviously exceed the cost of borrowing in the near to medium term. 

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
That we can set high expectations, and then exceed [them]. Arrogance offers poor camouflage for insecurity, so just be humble. If we do exceptional work, our clients are promoted. Service people’s needs, and the rest will take care of itself.


Bibi Baksh, 23, West Palm Beach

Broadcast Reporter ---> Public Relations Specialist for the Palm Beach County Parks & Recreation Department

Freshly graduated from the University of Central Florida with a bachelor’s degree in broadcast journalism, the cub reporter landed a job with an ABC network affiliate in Gainesville and began covering a crime beat. Bibi Baksh loved telling stories but soon learned the “if-it-bleeds-it-leads” mantra that tends to define television news was not for her. So she moved back home to Coral Springs and started looking for another job. “I just wanted a better chance to kind of help people,” Baksh says. She now tells stories about Palm Beach County’s 80-plus recreational spaces, which include amphitheaters, beaches and parks.

How did you know it was time to switch?
I knew it was time to switch careers about a year into my contract as a reporter. While I love storytelling, and I have so much respect for reporters, I’m glad I realized early that the hectic life of a reporter is not one I want to live.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch? 
I was most afraid of being thought of as a quitter. The TV-news industry has a higher turnover rate than many fields, and I never wanted to be just another part of that statistic, nor have I ever considered myself a quitter at anything.

How did you overcome your fears?
My family helped me through the process more than anyone. I remember my dad saying, “All that matters is your happiness, not what other people think about you.”

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
At the end of the day, the last thing you want is to look back at your life in your older years and regret that you were stuck doing something that doesn’t make you happy. If you really want to change something, work hard to change it.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I realized that there was an unhealthy imbalance in my life in that I put too much emphasis on my career successes. Since I made the switch, I’ve been able to live a more balanced life, and balance is vital to well-being on so many levels.


Taylor Materio, 31, West Palm Beach

Communications Associate ---> Creative Director with Family Business

McMow Art Glass was named Florida’s Retailer of the Year in 2013, and that’s in larger part because of Taylor Materio’s social media and marketing skills. But Materio had to spread her wings for a few years before coming back to Palm Beach to help her parents run their stained glass and beveled art design studio. She spent four years in DC managing media efforts for the National Low Income Housing Coalition, working her way up from intern to a full-time employee. Despite her success, she knew her heart was in Florida. “Originally, I never thought that I would move back home, but while in DC, I started to think about what was important in life,” Materio says. Today, McMow is one of the largest glass studios in the country, and Materio recently accepted a new role within the company as creative director. 

How did you know it was time to switch? 
My sister, Jenny, also lived in DC, and I remember one conversation we had in particular about the idea of moving back to join the family at McMow, and I couldn’t help but get emotional because I realized that the idea of McMow was so much bigger in my heart than the life I had created in DC. In the end, I believe it was my calling and I just needed to take the leap.  
 
What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?  
Looking back, the thing I was most afraid of was failure. If it didn’t work out at the studio, I didn’t know what my next move would be. Would I go back to DC? Would McMow still exist? I felt a huge weight on my shoulders knowing that my actions and decisions each day would not only impact me, but also my family, all of our employees, and their families as well. 
 
What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch? 
I think a lot of people my age focus solely on moving up a pay scale, as opposed to finding what makes them truly happy. This sounds cliché, but my best advice is to find something you love and go for it. I am truly blessed to work with an amazing art medium, which still manages to inspire me each day. I never would have felt this level of satisfaction and artistic inspiration if I had let my fears get the best of me.


Craig Bretzlaff, 42, Jupiter

Golf Pro ---> Realtor associate with The Corcoran Group
His resume includes stints as a golf professional at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, South Carolina, Trump National Golf Club in Bedminster, New Jersey, and the Tesoro Club in Port St. Lucie. He loved it but left it. “It was a lot of fun, but it’s a lot more fun to make money, to be frank,” says Craig Bretzlaff, who traded in a PGA golf-management diploma from Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan, for a real estate license in Florida. “Who better to handle real estate in one of the most desirable golf-driven real estate markets in the world than a former golf professional knowing the ins and outs of all local clubs, from memberships to real estate?” Bretzlaff asks.

How did you know it was time to switch?
The golf industry began to change, and there were fewer and fewer elite positions at exclusive private clubs; therefore I opted to look at the opportunity right in front of me.

What were you most afraid of when you considered switching your career?  
The cyclical nature of Florida real estate, ultimately placing all of our eggs in one basket with two young children (Grant, 15, and Jaxson, 9) at home.

How did you overcome your fears?
I convinced [myself] that if I put the same energy into real estate that I had with golf, I would have the same opportunity to achieve early and continued success.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
Be motivated. Never underestimate your ability. Respect your industry and your clientele, and always be mindful of your peers.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
Anything is possible, and when you make a move, make it with confidence. I have learned that I truly enjoy the personally rewarding experience of assisting buyers and sellers through such a significant financial process, and when my clients send their friends and family as referrals, it shows they have faith in my ability. That is the ultimate reward.


Jeanne Ross, 58, West Palm Beach

Psychologist ---> Chef
When you spend most of your adult life inside a maximum security prison, you learn how to get by: “Keep your eyes open, pay attention and keep moving forward,” Jeanne Ross says. No, Ross wasn’t an inmate and her life doesn’t follow the plot lines of “Orange is the New Black.” Rather, the psychologist traveled from prison to prison throughout the state of Michigan, offering mental health treatment to mentally ill offenders. But about 20 years into her career as a psychologist, Ross knew it was time for a change. She applied that same prison mantra of moving forward to help her overcome her fears. “Life happens whether you stay put, or you change. You have to be willing to push yourself,” she says. So she left her job and enrolled in the Institute of Culinary Education in New York City to follow her passion for cooking. She worked in top New York restaurants before moving to West Palm Beach with her husband. Today, she’s chef Brigade at the Flagler Steakhouse at The Breakers. 

How did you know it was time to switch? 
My husband was ready to semi-retire and we spent a lot of time in Florida. I have always loved cooking and grew up with a mother and grandmother that entertained and cooked all the time. I worked in the food business when I was a student. We planned it for awhile, but I felt if I didn’t switch when I did, I wouldn’t have made the change at all. 

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
Be prepared to be humbled to be starting over at the bottom. I was high up in my specialized field and I started over at the bottom of my new one, being told what to do by much younger people who had significantly less life experiences than me. That was probably the hardest part for me, and it took me awhile to figure out how to deal with it.

What were you most afraid of when you considered switching your career? 
It was pretty terrifying to move away from the only place you have ever lived and start all over in your 40s. I grew up and lived within the same general area my entire life. Not working and spending your savings to live while you make the switch is scary, as well. I was also worried I wouldn’t be able to make it—get a good job, fit in, or that I might be too old to start over.


Debbie Wemyss, 63, West Palm Beach

Development Director ---> LinkedIn Specialist
“My family is loaded with non-profit executives,” Debbie Wemyss says. “That’s how I grew up.” It explains why the West Palm Beach resident landed positions at such charitable organizations as the Palm Beach Zoo & Conservation Society (project administrator), Ballet Florida (marketing and public relations director) and Susan G. Komen South Florida (development director). “I’ve been a people person and a networker forever,” Wemyss says. Then she lost her job at Susan G. Komen South Florida at age 57 with two daughters in college during the height of the recession. After seeking the aid of a headhunter and not securing a single interview, she decided to take matters into her own hands. “I reinvented myself,” Wemyss says. “I dove in and self-taught myself on Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and LinkedIn. I loved all of it.” She now helps job-seekers from their 20s to their 70s gain employment through LinkedIn. Her 560-and-counting clients span 20 countries.

How did you know it was time to switch?
I was approaching my seventh month of unemployment and had sent out more than 125 resumes. The fact that I had to do something outside the non-profit sector was finally real.

What were you most afraid of? 
Running out of money—unemployment benefits are minimal.

How did you overcome your fears?
I have always been a true believer in the theory that “all things happen as they should, when they should,” along with the law of attraction. But when you have no income coming in, and the bills are consistent, you learn the real power of positive thinking.

What advice would you give someone who is considering a career switch?
My favorite suggestion is to make a few lists. List every skill you excel at, and highlight the ones you really, truly enjoy doing. List all the things that make you happy. Cross-check one list against the other. You may just discover a path you had not considered.

What did you learn about yourself in the process?
I am far stronger and resilient than I’d ever imagined, and that the way you think and all of your thoughts will truly determine your destiny.


Related articles: 

When Jofit CEO Joanna Clark Couldn’t Find Women’s Golf Apparel That Fit, She Decided To Make Her Own

Gabrielle Finley-Hazle Brings A Fresh Face To St. Mary’s Medical Center And Palm Beach Children’s Hospital As New CEO

18 Men Of Style And Influence Who Know The Power Of Looking Their Best In Palm Beach