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Work Experience Revisited

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There's something to be said of those who go a bit unconventional and jump off that traditional corporate employee path. What makes a person leave something familiar to go to something uncertain? How many people are actually employed doing something they feel like they were born to do? How many people with plans to execute business ideas actually do so? How many people are actually following their dream and would the world be a better place if more of us did so?

These are all questions without easy answers. The media landscape is full of stories of young people fresh out of college, still in college or finishing up graduate degrees starting businesses and thriving in the online marketplace. With successes like Facebook, Twitter and Groupon, it's sometimes easy to forget that risk takers who wind up becoming dream catchers can have that coming of age at any age in any stage in life.

Amy Hilliard, former Fortune 500 vice president of marketing, current founder and CEO of the Comfort Cake Company and author, can say that she is one of those people following her dream.

After decades in corporate America, Hilliard, a Harvard MBA, says she knew when it was time for her to start her own company.

"It was an internal decision. I had spent a lot of time in corporate America. As a young pre-teen, I was an entrepreneur. I sold perfume and I babysat. I always enjoyed doing something on my own. I saw that that was a skill set that I had, so I realized "if not now, when?'"

Much like many entrepreneurs today, it was hard for Hilliard to find financing for her business through more traditional channels. She started her business in 2001 just before 9/11, which made lending very tight. Yet, Hilliard felt so strongly about it being the right time to start her business that she, with the blessing of her two children, sold the family home in order to initially finance the business.

"I wanted my kids to learn that you can evolve. I sat my kids down and explained to them that I would no longer be working in corporate America and that I would be working for myself. I am not just doing this for the money; I'm doing it for my children and for my community."

So far, the risk has paid off. Most businesses are dead within the first year; Hilliard is fortunate enough to have celebrated year 10.

On March 12th, Hilliard will make her third appearance on the Home Shopping Network to sell more of her pound cake, this time her sugar free variety known as "sugarless sweetness." Current flavors of her pound cake include Awesome Almond, Very Vanilla and Luscious Lemon.

Hilliard is currently in the first phase of an agreement to distribute her cakes to Wal-Mart stores. Her cakes can also be sold on her website.

Hilliard attributes her opportunities with HSN and Wal-Mart to her years of relationship building with people across various industries.

"I believe that you've got to share your dream with as many people as possible," said Hilliard, "Asking people for advice, even in industries unrelated to my business, have proven worthwhile."

With marketing experience at corporate giants like Gillette and Pillsbury, it would have made sense to continue striving to move up that corporate ladder. Alternatively, it could have also been logical for Hilliard to wish she had started her own business before she ever set foot in corporate America. But that isn't how Hilliard sees starting her business after decades of work experience.

"All the lessons I learned working for others, I have incorporated that into the Comfort Cake Company. I would not trade that training for the world, " said Hilliard.

In this age of instant gratification, that may not have been the answer one would have expected. Maybe, a bit more regret would have been anticipated. But for Hilliard, each job experience was not one more employment opportunity that deferred her dream, but an additional set of lessons learned so that she could make an impact in her current role more quickly.

"Not everything will happen on your timetable and that is a blessing. Without an intermission, you can go into Act Two unprepared," said Hilliard, "I always knew in the back of my mind, that I wanted to be as prepared as I could. I thought I could learn a lot from companies that were good at what they did. "