WOMEN
10/24/2013 10:26 am ET Updated Oct 24, 2013

How Four Women Ditched The Daily Grind And Created Their Dream Jobs

For 21 years Gayle Hilgendorff climbed the ladder at Accenture, the multi-billion dollar management consulting and technology services company, becoming a global human resources director. The job required everything corporate positions often do -- 70-hour weeks, frequent international travel and work days that began at 6 a.m. and ended at 9 p.m.

But Hilgendorff's heart was in personal health and wellness, an interest she squeezed in, taking work calls on walks outside and doing quick, 10-minute meditations throughout the day. Finally, Hilgendorff decided there was no reason why her passion couldn't be her profession, and left her corporate job to become a full-time health coach. "For me, it was a question of asking myself not, 'Can I?' but 'Why can't I?'" she said.

Many women go to work to make a living, and pursue their passions in their off hours. But some, like Hilgendorff, make the bold decision to erase that dividing line, dreaming of a career that is rooted in joy and wonder.

Here, in their own words, are the stories of four women who, with careful planning and creativity, turned a hobby into a career.

Gayle Hilgendorff, 46, Hawaii

gayle

Health has been my "hobby" for years. Originally, I was interested primarily in physical health, because I was uncomfortable in my body, so I began devouring health and fitness magazines.

But three years ago, on a whim, I got my holistic health certification, and everything sort of came together for me. Going back to school was not something I ever thought I'd do. But this six-month program, for some reason, called to me. It was the first time I realized that all of the things that I was interested in -- spirituality, nutrition, cooking ... I could actually make a living by packaging them all together and coaching other people.

But it was a process, and it took about six to nine months before I actually left my job. My husband and I went through our financials and took a hard look at what really mattered to us. We still travel -- that was important to us. And we're huge foodies. Usually the first thing that gets cut in a budget is dinner out, but that was a deal breaker for us. Instead, we cut back on things like cable, and clothing (which I've never really cared about anyway), and we went down to one car. It helps that we don't have any children, by choice.

The first six months of turning my hobby into my business was the greatest (and most difficult) period of personal and professional development I've gone through in my entire life. You don't get to truly understand the extent of your capabilities when you are working for someone else. It is freaking amazing to find out what you actually are capable of.

It's now been almost three years of me running my business, The Healthy Leader, and I'm excited by the prospect that I can grow it or keep it as small as I want. I used to think that if I left and started my own company, the goal had to be to start this health empire that earned millions, but I actually have settled into the idea that my goal is to continue to make enough money to live the lifestyle we want to live, and to pursue my "hobby." We just moved from Massachusetts to Kauai, because we wanted to take advantage of the fact that we have so much flexibility.

The coolest thing in the world is that when I sit down and read an article, or a cookbook, it's not only something I enjoy; it's business development! Who wouldn't love to sit down and read something for pleasure, and know that it's contributing to their professional development as well?! It's a great thing.

I do wish I had done it earlier, because the learning experience would have been easier. I was a pure corporate gal -- type A, anal, an overachiever, a perfectionist -- and at 46, you're just all of those things multiplied by 46. I think a lot of people are interested in making their hobbies their careers -- they sort of think, "Wouldn't it be great if ...?" And I think, just take that sentence one step further: "Wouldn't it be great if ... what?"

Andi Burkholder, 35, Illinois

andi

After high school, Burkholder got an office job with a company that she stayed with until she had a baby at 23, then became a stay-at-home mom.

I loved staying home, but at a certain point, I just kind of got bored. I basically became a professional volunteer at my youngest's school -- I'd work 60 to 80 hours a week sometimes. Then one Christmas, I was looking for handmade gifts and I came across a website that showed how to make your own personalized soaps. Almost immediately, I heard from a lot of friends and family who were like, "You can sell these." And I was kind of like, "Huh. I hadn't thought of that."

About 9 months after that first batch, I started selling custom soaps on Etsy. The hardest part was finding suppliers and quality materials. Also, finding a place to work -- for a while, I worked out of our kitchen and dining room. I would pour soaps while everyone was at work and school, then clear the table at night. Eventually, we actually moved from the D.C. area, which is incredibly expensive, to a tiny town in central Illinois where retail space was really cheap -- partly because we wanted to be somewhere where the business would be financially sustainable.

The first year and a half, I was working 90 to 100 hours a week. When you're turning your hobby into a business, there's a huge learning curve. You have to think about packaging, marketing, the back-end paperwork of keeping up with your finances and regulations, and then, of course, the legwork of finding customers. It takes an enormous amount of time.

But, thankfully, once I hit my stride, I dropped to around 40 to 50 hours a week, which is what I usually put in now. I still have my online store -- where I do an incredible volume of custom party favors made to order -- and my own brick and mortar shop. The company is profitable -- not hugely profitable, but enough that we can put money back into it. It's not something I've ever been hoping to get rich on, or turn into a big production line. I still make all of the soaps by hand, every last one. It's a little bit because I'm a perfectionist, but also because the actual making is what I love.

Anything you have to do does, at some point, become a chore. Most days I wake up and I can't wait to get to work, but there are definitely other days when I wake up and I think, "Man I wish I could sleep in." But it's just so much fun.

Nan Moretz, 55, North Carolina

nan moretz

Moretz worked as a home decorator, then a teacher, until the birth of the first of two (now adult) sons, at which point, she became a stay at home mom.

I've always wanted to weld -- forever. I'm not sure where it came from. I definitely had the desire before I saw the movie Flashdance [laughs]. There was something about working with metal, and putting pieces together ... I don't know how to explain it, but it called to me.

When my boys were in elementary and middle school, I finally signed up for welding and metal sculpture classes at the local community college. It wasn't terribly expensive, and I went three days a week for two years. My husband is an electrician, and he has all these big machines, and he set up a space for me in his shop.

It's very hard, very heavy work. I draw a pattern, then I put the metal on the table and cut it out -- it can really hurt your back, and you get so dirty, it's awful! I try and wear a mask, but I've gotten burned, and cut and stabbed. Last year, I mashed my fingers in a metal presser, and it took a good year for the two fingernails to grow back.

At first, I was making things and giving them away -- I didn't have the confidence to try and sell them. It was actually my hairdresser who said, "Why don't you put a few pieces up in here, and we can see if they sell?" I got some special orders, then I started selling them through a store in town. About 4 1/2 years ago, I started renting a booth at a co-op in town and selling them there.

In the beginning, I had high hopes of, "Oh! I'm gong to make a lot of money." I haven't. I make enough to go back into the business, and to pay rent, or maybe an outfit or dinner, but it's not making me rich. I cut a lot of letters, or weld together fish and flowers -- a lot of yard art. My dream is to do big sculptures, but right now I don't have the time, because I feel like I need to focus on what's selling. I want to make a huge, metal pirate -- an 8-foot pirate I can put in my backyard some day. I still love welding, but I feel like I've lost a little bit of the freedom to create anything I can think of.

But when the right person loves something you've made, they love it, and that's great.

Ellie Greenberg, 37, New York

ellie

When Greenberg was 23 years old, she moved from Israel to New York City, with a law degree and a job offer with a major tech company where, for roughly a decade, she logged 60- to 70-hour weeks.

I have always been a closeted musician, but I had this sense that it was a waste of time. I thought, "You can't make money being a musician." And, honestly, I don't have the voice or talent to be a superstar. But I used to write songs for everything. It was my emotional escape. If I had a hard time, if I was happy, I put it all down. Even when I was working long hours, I sat in my office, closed the door and wrote. The songs were pretty depressing [laughs].

I never thought about writing children's music until I got pregnant. Suddenly I thought, "I want to write something I'll be able to share with her!" After my first daughter was born [Greenberg now has a 5- and a 1-year-old], I decided to take a break from the corporate world. I said I was going to spend a year being home with her, and I would see what happened next.

It was important for me, from very early on, to take her to music classes. We registered for a popular one, but it was boring to me. So I started a group, for my neighbors, in the community room of our apartment building and soon, the classes were full. I had parents calling me saying, "We need more!" That was the first time I thought, "Maybe I have something here."

I did have reservations about turning music into a career. I talked to my husband -- a lot! -- about whether I was truly comfortable with it. I'm not a professional musician; I'd never really sung in front of people before. I wondered, "Am I qualified? Am I good enough?" What made the difference for me was knowing the flexibility it gave me, in terms of being with my daughter. And I was looking for something I was passionate about.

When it turned into a business I had to deal with, you know, actually opening a business! Suddenly, it was no longer, "I'm doing this for myself." It was, "I have to make money out of this." But making an income from your passion ... it's really something. [ABC Do-Re-ME! now has 12 locations in New York City.]

I still write songs that are just for our family, which our girls sing with me every day. But a lot of the time, I think, "Is this something I'll be able to use for class?" I don't know if I still think of song writing as a hobby -- I guess I don't. But I don't know if that's a bad thing.

These accounts have been edited and condensed.

CONVERSATIONS