Career Change By Calculated Risk: Math And Engineering MBA Turned Shoe Designer Tiannia Barnes


Many people harbor a passion very different from their day job but not everyone acts on it. As a coach to both executives and entrepreneurs, common justifications I hear include lack of time, too much risk, or the work/ family conflict. “My current job is too busy to do something on the side!” “I have a steady thing, and my idea is too risky!” “I already have a second job – as a parent!”

Tiannia Barnes could have hid behind all three excuses instead of launching into her career change aspirations. An IT program manager with undergraduate degrees in mathematics and industrial engineering, as well as an MBA, Barnes is also a single mother of a 10-year old. Yet, amidst the parenting and IT responsibilities, she is launching a fall 2015 collection of her own luxury shoe designs, manufactured in Italy. When I interviewed Barnes about her big career change from IT to fashion, it’s clear she’s taking calculated risks – maintaining her IT career while the business is in launch phase:

Caroline Ceniza-Levine: Why did you change careers? Did you always want to be an entrepreneur?

Tiannia Barnes: I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit. I’m a very independent thinker and love autonomy. I think my natural inclinations along with my passion drove me to starting my own business. In addition, I get to incorporate all of my corporate and IT experience as a Program Manager into building my new business and my e-Commerce (technology) site.

Ceniza-Levine: How long did it take to make the change?

Barnes: It’s a process, but you have to start. I think that is the key…just to start. I officially started my business in January 2014 and I’m in the process of planning my transition full time into my business once I’m able to sustain financially.

Ceniza-Levine: What were the biggest obstacles in making the change?

Barnes: The biggest obstacle for me is money/funding. My business is self-funded which means that resources, planning and timing is very critical to my progress and growth. You have to stay focused, have faith and really believe in your vision to keep going.

Ceniza-Levine: What was most helpful (e.g., specific resource, piece of advice) as you were transitioning?

Barnes: What has been most helpful during my transition is having a great support system, knowing how to delegate and time management. It is a tremendous sacrifice on your time and resources (financially) to start a business. It’s a great thing to know how and when to fill in knowledge gaps and to get the right people who can help. It largely cuts your learning curve.

Ceniza-Levine: Did shoe design require any special certifications or other training? Did you enroll in any small business programs or incubators or get a coach?

Barnes: I did take a course in shoe making to understand the details and all aspects of how to make a shoe which was extremely helpful. I attended footwear exhibits also to learn the lay of the land. I also made contacts in the industry (both in US and in Italy), met with professionals that have had their own shoe lines and professionals on the business side. They were all instrumental in answering any questions that I had and providing any resources or contacts for me to reach out to/meet with. The fashion industry is largely about making the ‘right’ connections.

Ceniza-Levine: What skills, habits, and/ or knowledge from your previous career helped you?

Barnes: I believe that every skill that I’ve acquired in my educational and professional career has prepared me for this moment of owning my business. My MBA gave me great insight into how to structurally start a business and the foundation needed to be build a successful business. I studied Industrial Engineering in undergraduate, which in essence is logistics. I’m a Program Manager, which hones in on organization, budget, and resourcing and task delegation. I love fashion so I have innate skills (good eye/sense) and vision. Working in corporate America gave me tremendous business acumen and allowed me to work with individuals in all ranks of the corporate ladder both domestically and internationally.

Ceniza-Levine: What skills, habits, and/ or knowledge from your previous career weren’t helpful or that you needed to unlearn?

Barnes: The biggest skill that I need to unlearn is how to be more flexible. In corporate you have an expectation that individuals will respond in a certain timeframe and will get back to you with the same level of urgency in which your email, etc. was sent. Not the case in the fashion business…people are busy and their priority is not the same as yours. Hence, it requires patience and being less “corporate” in behavior, not so formal and structured. Definitely a change in behavior for me.

Ceniza-Levine: What do you know now that you wished you knew when you started the business? What advice would you have for other professionals who might have established careers on making the leap into a new business?

Barnes: My advice to anyone looking to take the leap into being an entrepreneur is to JUST DO IT; take the first step, and keep going…GO FOR IT. I didn’t know everything, but I was smart enough to understand that and had enough tenacity to find out how or find the person(s) that could help me. It’s good to do your research, take a class(es), speak to people in the field of interest, but don’t get overwhelmed or be too prepared because it could prevent you from taking the next steps. For example, if I knew upfront how much money in detail that it would cost to start my business I may have been fearful and would not have started or would have delayed my start.

Ceniza-Levine: As someone in the hot field of IT and who has a family to support, what gave you the courage to make such a big change? For other breadwinning parents out there who may be nursing an entrepreneurial dream, what specific advice do you have for them?

Barnes: My courage comes from wanting to live a fulfilled life and being able to have a legacy, something tangible for my family and provide inspiration for others that may feel stuck. I’m a divorced, mother of one. I have always had a financial savings since starting my career while working corporate internships in undergraduate. I did not purposely plan for this moment to start a business, but when I was ready I had the resources to help me get going. But it takes a lot of work and effort. I have to balance motherhood, day to day career, and my business all in one day, week and year until that pivotal moment when I hit a point of success and/or make a decision to go big-bang (i.e., quit full time career and focus solely on business). My advice, either way is to follow your “truth” (what’s in your heart) and you will make the right decisions. Don’t over think!!!

My favorite takeaways from Barnes?

Take one step at a time

“It’s a process, but you have to start. I think that is the key…just to start.” Barnes didn’t just quit her job and open shop. She took a class, she built a site, she’s in talk with brick and mortar stores – bite-size steps towards the big launch in the fall.

Get help

“I attended footwear exhibits also to learn the lay of the land. I also made contacts in the industry (both in US and in Italy)…. The fashion industry is largely about making the ‘right’ connections” Barnes used a combination of information research and networking to fill in gaps.

Don’t overthink

“It’s good to do your research…but don’t get overwhelmed or be too prepared because it could prevent you from taking the next steps.” Barnes did the research but also jumped into action with calculated, not cavalier, risks.

How about you? What is a first step you can take to start your career change? For additional ideas, see how these authors with very different jobs by day published their first novels, or how this executive went from pharmaceuticals to donuts.

Caroline Ceniza-Levine is a career and business coach with SixFigureStart®. She has worked with executives from Amazon, American Express, Condé Nast, Gilt, Goldman Sachs, Google, McKinsey, and other leading firms. Follow Caroline’s weekly leadership column on Forbes and take advantage of SixFigureStart® free toolkits on Negotiation, Networking, and Personal Branding, including a free download for entrepreneurs.

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