Roni Chambers, who led the now-shuttered GO! Network, is practicing what she used to preach to white-collar professionals who turned to her nonprofit for help after they lost their jobs during the Great Recession.
In August 2013, when the organization closed its doors due to a lack of financial support, Chambers said she would find a way to continue her work in assisting St. Louisans find new career paths. Four months later, she is in business for herself, the managing director of a job coaching firm called Career Innovation Partners. She credits her own “landing” to her experiences with Go! Network.
“It’s all about growth and transition and evolving,’’ Chambers said. “I couldn’t do today what I’m doing had I not spent 3½ years at Go! Network.”
Chambers rents an office at The Hive@44, a co-working space in Fenton for small businesses and startups. She’s had about 30 clients in a range of professions since she started in October, she said. Most are 40something; about half are unemployed. The others tend to be “unfulfilled” and looking for a career change.
GO! Network began as a temporary program to provide career resources to the hundreds of middle managers laid off by St. Louis corporations, including Anheuser-Busch, in the wake of the 2008 financial meltdown. After its reorganization as a stand-alone nonprofit, Go! struggled to find sustained financial support. Chambers, who was unpaid, at times used personal funds to meet the organization’s expenses.
Chambers initially joined GO! for career assistance after she was laid off by Anheuser-Busch in 2010. Ironically, she had been a human resources director at A-B, where she’d had the task of laying off hundreds of employees after the beer giant was bought by InBev in 2009.
We caught up with Chambers recently to see how she is faring with her own career transition. Here are some excerpts from the interview:
Q: With the St. Louis unemployment rate now below 7 percent, how would you describe the climate for professionals who are in the job market?
Chambers: I think that jobs are coming back. They’re not coming back at the rate that we lost them. They’re never going to come back at that rate because they’re different and employers are different. I’m a perfect example. I didn’t see myself going back to corporate America so I had to make some decisions. Now, I work in a space where 25 or so others are trying to grow businesses. The entrepreneurial space in St. Louis is growing, and we’re becoming a prominent city for that. That’s a change. That’s the future. But that takes self-direction, passion, tenacity, grit. It takes vision and strategy. I’ve got to go get it and do it -- whether I’m the entrepreneur building it or somebody that’s interested in being in that space as an employee.
When I think back to 2008, 2009, 2010 and all of those people who were out of work, I was one of them. I had become accustomed to working for a large corporation with a guaranteed paycheck, and that doesn’t exist as much anymore as it did prior to 2008. We have to be willing to look at the employment landscape today and see where we fit, and then we have to go get it
Q: After the financial crisis in 2008, the search for a job was averaging at least a year. Does that still hold true?
Chambers: It can take that long, but I think it’s the individual. I don’t think it has to take that long. I can tell you from my few 30 clients here today, the people who embrace the transitioning and who are doing the work -- writing elevator speeches, practicing them, working on their LinkedIn profiles, building connections, asking for recommendations -- those people get jobs. The people who are just dancing around, they flounder. It takes them longer.
Q: You were so committed to Go! Network that you worked for free and reached into your own pocket to keep the doors open. Looking back, was it worth it?
Chambers: We helped people land new jobs. That right there for me is the cake, if you will. The icing on the cake was the help and encouragement that they received by coming together in a group that understood the complexities. They helped each other deal with the challenges of what it meant to be out of work for the first time in 25 years. The guts of it was the fact that 4,500 people came through the doors, and 88 to 90 percent found new jobs while we were there. That’s what made me dip into my own bank account. That’s what made me keep coming back.
Q: What’s different about what you’re doing now?
Chambers: I’m doing what my mission statement says: I’m inspiring people to follow their dreams. I really focus a large part of the upfront work on an individual's life map. What’s your journey been? Why are you where you are today and how did you get there? What are your passions? If you can combine your passions – what makes your heart beat – with your skill set you can land pretty quickly and pretty securely.
I’m working 60 hours a week. I’m putting it all back in the business right now. I’m in a co-working space, and I have a private office here. I started out in a cube, and I stayed there for a couple of months, and then I got myself to a point where I could get an office with a door. So I’m reinvesting. I’m just having a blast, and I’m doing the work that I’m passionate about.
I was passionate about everything I did at Go!, but I was dissatisfied with the lack of accountability. There were 60 people in the room, and they came and consumed the presentation and they left. I could put on a great presenter who talked about elevator speeches, but we never came back to it. I worked really hard to put up great content, but I never knew if anybody really executed on it. That was a missing link for me.
Q: What is your takeaway after having helped so many white-collar professionals navigate the re-employment process?
Chambers: What’s missing in so many of our working relationships today is that we got some place quite by accident or we got there because we had to, though there might be an element of what we were looking for there. In my own transition, I was a single parent with children and A-B provided me an opportunity to provide for my children. But if I draw my life map, and I look back at my first seven to 10 years in the working world, my original jobs were entrepreneurial jobs. When I look back I can see where I excelled, where my peak performing years were. I can see what skills I was using. I can see what environments I was working in. That’s what I’m doing today for people -- helping them initially with that look back and then we look forward to where that is going to take you.