So everything is going great. Your job pays well. You have a nice house, good friends. You’re in good health and you get along with everybody you meet. You have nothing to complain about.
So what’s wrong? #b#Deborah D’Alessandro#/b# asked herself this question from inside the fashion industry. “I had a great life in black and white,” she says. “But I knew there was color out there for me.”
The unfulfilled life sneaked up on D’Alessandro, the same way she sees it lurking for a lot of mid-career women (and a surprising number of men). In the middle of a life that seems on paper to be ideal, there is something missing. And the frustrating thing is that you know something’s missing — you just don’t know what it is or how to fix it.
D’Alessandro will present “Nurturing Passions into Careers,” a free seminar for women, on Saturday, February 20, at 2:30 p.m. at the Princeton Theological Seminary. The event is conducted by Esprit Seminars, which D’Alessandro founded near her home in southern France. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Though born, raised, and educated in New York, D’Alessandro has lived in Europe for 23 years. She grew up in a working class family, her father the proprietor of a small grocery store in Manhattan. She wanted, however, to be an actress. Her parents encouraged her to have something more than a “hobby” like acting, so she studied business and earned her bachelor’s in marketing from CUNY’s Baruch College.
From here she entered the fashion industry, working for Bloomingdale’s, Lord & Taylor, and Liz Claiborne, when Claiborne herself was still part of the company. She liked the work, made good money, and lived a life people take great pains to achieve. She had, in fact, just launched a men’s line from Claiborne that would be sold at Nordstrom’s.
And yet, she wasn’t feeling it. She told her parents that she thought there might be something else out there for her, but didn’t know what. Her father suggested she leave Claiborne — and maybe go to work for Izod. “It wasn’t about just changing companies,” she says. “I needed to change everything.”
D’Alessandro took a week’s vacation to Italy. And when in Rome, the thought struck her, “Why don’t I just move here?” Liz Claiborne granted her a three-month leave, and D’Alessandro stood in the center of Rome with $4,000 in her pocket and not a word of Italian in her head.
She found work as a housesitter in Milan, where numerous American expatriates had gathered. She soon sold business English materials to companies there, met a man named Mario, and moved with him to Rome.
D’Alessandro moved into the nonprofit arena for a while, helping the disadvantaged, before finally doing high-level financing work for an animal organization in Italy. For 12 years she stayed with the group that offered volunteer opportunities to Americans. To her surprise, D’Alessandro found that the volunteers were not the college-age kids she had expected. They were almost all women, and almost all middle-aged professionals on sabbatical.
Working with the volunteers, who largely were left to do what they found most enjoyable within the organization, forced her to see the value of total engagement, she says. A thought struck her that these volunteers eventually would head back to their lives, but not back to that which had made them so happy and productive. “They were moving mountains here,” D’Alessandro says. “If they were lucky, they would be going back to jobs that used 40 percent of their abilities.”
After 17 years together, Mario died, followed a few months later by D’Alessandro’s father. She looked around, feeling again that it was time for a change, but was unsure whether to return to the States. “I had an aging dog and two cats and I wasn’t about to put them on a plane,” she says. So she moved to the south of France and founded Esprit as an enterprise looking to unearth and nurture creativity and passion for career women.
She knows how it sounds. But the “woo-woo” stuff, the stuff about nurturing passion, she says, is merely the first part of the process.
Esprit starts by going after the dream, but then helps design a functional way to get it done. She does not expect anyone to quit her job and just move to Europe. But she does want women to think practically about how to do it, if that’s what they will eventually do.
#b#What else ya got#/b#? Everybody wants to be a rock star. Most won’t try, but so many do that you actually have better odds of finding a four-leaf clover or writing a bestseller.
So what makes you different? Talent is a given at a certain level, so what do you have that no one else does? D’Alessandro knows people who have expressed a wish to be folk singers, people who can play guitar and sing well. But thousands of others can say the same thing. It isn’t voice that makes you successful — “Bruce Springsteen doesn’t have a great voice, but he brought something very unique,” she says.
Esprit starts with the rock star dream then finds what separates the inner Bruce Springsteen from the inner Elvis. From there, she says, “We develop a whole marketing process for their dreams. Our big secret is that the group that does a seminar stays together forever. Every woman knows what every other woman is doing and they all help each other see it through.”
#b#Girls and boys#/b#. The Israeli government is legendary for its acceptance of women in leadership roles. It also is becoming famous for its support of female entrepreneurs, to whom it grants more money than it does to men. “Countries like Israel,” D’Alessandro says, “are funding more women entrepreneurs because they have more positive effects on the economy.”
D’Alessandro cites an old maxim that if the woman is happy, the family is happy, and the encouragement of women entrepreneurs is vital to a healthy economy. If women can work at what they love doing, the benefits are obvious, she says.
This is why Esprit — for now — focuses solely on women. Women tend to be more lost than men when it comes to finding who they are and how to make a living doing what they love. They’re also more put off than men by the intimidating business world of cut throats, stabbed backs, and the focus on material success. “Women go after their passions,” she says. “Men go after a return on investment.”
But she is meeting more men who fall into the more traditionally “feminine” construct of passion-chasing. D’Alessandro doesn’t know when she will start including men, but she is encouraged by what she is finding — mainly that more guys do not fit the super-macho, win-at-all-costs framework that we see on reality TV or in the movies. Most guys, she says, want to be happy too — it’s just that women are more able to convey their sense of wish-fulfillment.
Ultimately, there are very few who fit into the super-charged macho male role or the bubble gum bombshell female role. Male or female, most of us are in the middle area where those roles blend. D’Alessandro’s job is to guide people through the forest; to make them understand that society can expect what it wants from you, but when all is said and done, it is still yourself you have to answer to.