Making It
A stay-at-home mother finds a job helping employers find workers

By Elizabeth Chang
Sunday, August 9, 2009

Sherry Ettleson thoroughly enjoyed her career and went back to work three months after having her first child. But twins who arrived soon after derailed her plans to work full time, and, ultimately, she set off on another path entirely.

A Chicago native, Sherry, 47, had spent a semester of law school in Washington and had become enthralled with public-interest issues. It was a revelation, she says, that passing a bar exam was not the only route to personal satisfaction. "I didn't have to go into a law firm and work for business entities. I could do something to make the world a better place, as corny as it sounds. And to me, it was a much more interesting career path." She worked for organizations such as People for the American Way and Public Citizen. She met her husband, Daniel Weiss, an environmental activist, on a blind date, though she thinks they would have crossed paths eventually.

While working for the late Sen. Paul Wellstone, Sherry noticed that Hill work and families did not mix, so the Northwest Washington resident found a less-pressured position in a political consulting firm, M+R Strategic Services. She made more money and worked on issues as diverse as shareholder rights and domestic violence. "I loved this job," she says.

In 1997, she had her first child, took three months off and went back to work with "my breast pump in one hand, briefcase in the other." Three months later, she was pregnant again. After a lot of thought, she decided "I couldn't hand three babies over to a nanny." So she quit her job in September 1998.

When all the children were in elementary school, Sherry occasionally thought about working again, "but I was in no rush to get back after going through that craziness" of raising three small children 15 months apart. (Rose is now 12; Maya and Ari are 11.)

A few years ago, her former boss at M+R, Bill Wasserman, called with a request: He needed to find an employee and thought she could do the search because she knew the company's work and staff, and was hooked into the nonprofit world.

As she worked, she billed him $75 an hour. (Her rate has risen to $125.) She didn't think of herself as a traditional headhunter, whose firms typically charge 20 to 50 percent of the new employee's salary if their search is successful. "I couldn't see how I could do it as a percentage of someone's income. I wanted to know how much I was making," Sherry says.

Then M+R hired her to find other workers. Progressive nonprofits heard of her work and employed her as well; she was much more affordable than a traditional firm.

The first year she made about $5,000, which paid for the kids' camps and a summer vacation. The second year she made $10,000. By the summer of this year, she had already surpassed that. She works about 10 hours a week, does all her work over the phone and has few expenses.

"It feels great," she says. "I feel like I'm actually helping the public-interest world again. I can't believe it's actually blossomed."

Daughter Rose is proud, too, and made her mother a little plaque citing a line from the Jewish sage Maimonides: "The highest degree of tzedakah [charity] is helping a person find a job so they can support themselves."

Sherry's next step, she says, is to figure out how to do her work both ways: not just help employers find workers, but help individuals find the right job.

But she doesn't think much beyond that: "I've learned you cannot plan too far into the future."

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