Careers typically evolve on a fairly linear path. You graduate college, get your first job or internship, and proceed to grow in your field. But what if you turned this path on its head? What if, instead of getting a new job after fifteen years in the workforce, you go back to school and then begin an internship? On this bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job, Rowena Paz Norman shares how her journey to her dream job didn’t look like she expected it to. Rowena talks about why going back to school was the right step for her and what it was like being an intern in her mid-thirties. Learn more about Rowena’s career history below in this installment of our Success Stories series.
Find Your Dream Job, Bonus Episode 73:
Exploring New Horizons: Rowena Paz Norman’s Job Search Success Story
Airdate: February 5, 2024
This is Find Your Dream Job, the podcast that helps you get hired, have the career you want, and make a difference in life.
I’m your host, Mac Prichard. I’m also the founder of Mac’s List. It’s a job board in the Pacific Northwest that helps you find a fulfilling career.
One of the best ways to get good at job hunting is to talk to people who do it well.
That’s why once a month, I interview a Mac’s List reader who found a job they love.
Our guest today is Rowena Paz Norman. She’s the strategic planning manager at Tillamook County Creamery Association. It is a farmer-owned dairy cooperative headquartered in Tillamook County, Oregon.
Rowena Paz Norman believes in the power of experimentation.
In a story you can find on the Mac’s List website, Rowena says a return to school and a willingness to take risks helped her move from jobs in sales and partnerships into a new career in strategic planning.
Why do you love your job, Rowena?
Rowena Paz Norman:
I love my job beyond the cheese and ice cream that I get to eat all day. I find my work to be incredibly interesting, challenging, and meaningful. With part of my work, I manage and provide insight to our strategic growth and business development opportunities.
So, for example, I am leading our international branded business exploration. We have fascinating problems to solve, and I get to eat cheese and ice cream all day. Not a bad day.
No, that’s a wonderful diet and you’re at a great place to do it!
Let’s talk about how you came to work at Tillamook, Rowena. You’ve had an impressive career in business development and sales. You were at Google and then at Feeding America, a national network of more than 200 food banks. Why did you want to stop doing sales and business development and change careers?
Rowena Paz Norman:
Part of it was recognizing I wanted more from my career and I was capable of more. While I had climbed the ladder at Feeding America and at Google, and I was progressing like I “should” in terms of making more money or moving up the ladder, I realized I just wasn’t being challenged or fulfilled in the same way.
I wanted to find out – there has to be something more. There has to be something different out there. With that, I decided to go back to school at Portland State to get my MBA.
While I was at school, I discovered there’s this entire world of strategy that I didn’t even know was a thing. What I love is being able to see the possibilities and see the big picture, as well as the details, and working with people, and executing a plan to reach that goal.
And I discovered you could actually get paid for this. My journey from school to Tillamook actually started by me being an intern. I was a 36-year-old intern becoming friends with the 19-year-old undergrad interns, but that experience really helped open the door to me. This is what strategic planning is like, not just academically but in the real world.
And discovering this is a career, and it’s a really rewarding and meaningful career. So, starting from intern to now getting to do this for my real job has been an incredible journey.
It is a remarkable story. Let’s step back and talk about that decision to go to school. Sometimes, when people want to make a change, they jump into a job search.
Why did you choose graduate education instead?
Rowena Paz Norman:
I decided to go back to school actually just by starting at Portland Community College just exploring. I knew I wanted more for my career, and I wanted to beef up on skills such as finance or accounting that I just didn’t have exposure to or knowledge through my day job in business development, and through these, just even small experiments, through the community college, discovering this is interesting and relevant skills I can develop but also having people invest and see my potential and helping me discover that.
So, my professor in accounting at Portland Community College said I needed to go back and get my MBA. So, Professor Lisa was the one who really inspired me, saying, you have the capacity and ability to do more. Getting a graduate degree will really help you achieve your goals and discover more than what you’re currently doing.
Going back to school involves risk. You gave up a job and a steady paycheck. How did you manage that risk, Rowena?
Rowena Paz Norman:
A lot of it was due to a great partnership I have with my husband. I’m very grateful that we made the financial and personal decisions so I could manage those risks. So, just tactically, for example, we moved to a cheaper apartment so we would be able to live off of one income. Just having the financial stability to be able to say, hey, I want to make decisions that are greater than money, was really meaningful, and having the financial freedom to take those risks is priceless.
And this is something when I encourage job seekers just thinking about what do you need financially, not what do you want. It can be very easy to keep up with, I need the bigger house. I need the better car as you move up with your paycheck.
But sometimes those can turn into golden handcuffs, and by making the financial choices to live within our means, and I recognize there’s a huge privilege that we have that we can even do this. But making those decisions really gave me the financial freedom to do things not for money but instead to do what was right for me.
The other thing beyond having the financial ability to take risks, I think the other big one is having just that emotional space to take risks. And through a lot of support, and therapy, and personal growth, just recognizing my job does not determine my worth. My title and pay do not make me who I am.
That helped me take the steps to start all over again as an intern, and being an intern is hard. It’s humbling. You’re starting at the bottom all over again, and there’s so much you don’t know. But having that emotional space to take those risks opened up a whole new world that, for me, I love my job.
How many people can say that? Where I get to help build Tillamook’s international business and launch into new markets, and creating something from nothing, and that work is thrilling and meaningful, and exciting to me. Also, very, very hard. But I wouldn’t want it any other way.
I want to talk more about that internship, but one last question about your educational journey. You started by taking classes at Portland Community College and it’s a great school. Often, people will go straight into a graduate program. Why did you start at the Community College, Rowena?
Rowena Paz Norman:
Part of it was just experimentation. I didn’t know I would like accounting or finance. Actually, I still don’t. Not my favorite classes, but they’re important.
But having the Community College really let me dip my toe in without having to make the large financial and time commitment. So, just having that accessibility and approachability of the Community College really helped me get the foundational skills that I wanted.
But also, it just helped me discover, is this something I want to invest in. Because a graduate degree is a lot of work and a lot of money, and by starting at the Community College that really helped me explore what’s even out there and do it in a lower cost, lower risk way, that once I figure out, oh man, this is something I want to do. This is something that’s really meaningful to me; then that helped me make the decision with greater certainty of, okay, I do want to invest in this for the long term.
Let’s talk about that internship. You were mid-career, in your mid-thirties. You’d been in the workplace for about fifteen years. What was it like being an intern in your mid-thirties?
Rowena Paz Norman:
It was definitely an interesting experience. I actually did two internships as part of my graduate degree. My first internship was at an investment bank because I really enjoyed my Mergers and Acquisitions courses. I loved my Strategy courses. So I wanted to find out, hey, this investment banking thing. Is this my next career?
I discovered the hard way it is not. But having – I remember working with twenty-three-year-old guys who were finance majors who had just a lot more experience than I did building models and taking instruction from them, learning from their experience and education, even though I was fifteen years older than them, very humbling. But, at the same time, I learned from them, as well.
And that experience really helped open my eyes to, I am not above doing any job. I am capable of learning, and I want to learn and that openness and I think that humility is incredibly important because when you’re starting over, you don’t know, and that’s something where, with my previous work, I was the expert. I was the best at building partnerships. I knew what I was doing. But with a career shift, you’re starting over, and having that ability to learn and have that humility really opens up new pathways for you.
That internship also helped me understand what was most important to me. I learned through that internship that investment banking isn’t the right fit for me. Just from a culture and work-life balance stand point, not the right fit. But I wouldn’t have been able to figure that out without the internship.
Whereas, at my time at Tillamook, I reported to the VP of strategic planning to really interesting and meaningful projects right off the bat. Working on supporting operations projects that were key to our CEO’s strategic priorities as an intern. So really being thrown into the job, getting that experience, and recognizing, at least, from a cultural standpoint, Tillamook is a place where people are smart and driven and kind, and that’s not a combination you find everywhere, and people love to eat as much as I do.
So, being exposed through those internships to what’s important to me. What is the culture like? And just finding out more about myself of what’s important. Those internships were incredibly valuable, and I still think my most valuable title today is “Rowena Paz Norman, Intern” because of learning the importance of humility and willingness to learn and do the work that’s necessary. Those are lifelong lessons that will stick with me.
Your second internship was at Tillamook, as you said, and it led to the job you have now. What advice do you have for a listener who might hope an internship will lead to a job offer?
Rowena Paz Norman:
I think two things. One, the internship is an opportunity for you to learn about the organization and the work as much as it is for you to learn about them. So, it’s a two-way street.
The other thing is, just make yourself valuable. Do the work that is gonna add to the overall objective and goals. Whether it’s small things of making sure a conference room is set up.
I still remember even being older in my career, just like having that importance of getting those small details right. To making sure you’re prepared. Making sure you’re working hard and just asking questions.
This is the beautiful thing, I think, about internships you’re there to learn. You’re there to ask questions, and I give a lot of credit to my boss, who saw that while I didn’t have formal strategic planning experience, I was smart, and I worked hard. And being able to show during your internships that, hey, you are curious and you’re willing to do the work.
That speaks volumes. Skills like learning how to build a P&L or how to do a financial model; those can be taught. Having the work ethic and drive, and curiosity, those are much harder for a manager to teach, and that’s what I think really made me stand out at the internship leading to the full-time position.
Well, it’s been a great conversation, Rowena. Now, what’s your number one job-hunting tip?
Rowena Paz Norman:
I think giving yourself the space emotionally and financially to take those risks is really important. That space really helped me take the risks and the leap to make the shift I did.
I think the other big thing is believing in the possibility. It can be so easy, things can’t change. This is how things are. Or I can’t do it. It’s too hard. But really believing in that possibility that things can be different and holding onto that. That can really help you go through the hard times, go through the slog, that things can be different, and believe in that possibility.
Thank you for sharing your story, Rowena. To learn more about Rowena Paz Norman’s job search, visit macslist.org/stories.
And check out the Mac’s List website for dozens of other success stories.
On the second Friday of every month, we add a new interview with a Mac’s List reader who has found a dream job. Go to macslist.org/stories.
In the meantime, thank you for listening to today’s bonus episode of Find Your Dream Job.
This show is produced by Mac’s List.
This is Mac Prichard. See you next week.