She might not have done anything about it, though, if a friend’s girlfriend hadn’t mentioned a mysterious free opportunity: A pilot program run by something called the “Outlook Refinery,” which promised to help her figure out how to strike out on her own. Thompson filled out an online form, and within a couple weeks, was notified that she’d been accepted.
The person at the other end of the online form was a woman who is striking out on her own herself, to start a career transition planning business from scratch. Judy O’Babatunde, 27, had a degree in fashion merchandising and had spent time as a social work case manager for young women in transitional housing. She left her job in March of 2014 to plan her next step, and decided to focus on helping people not seeking to advance within their current workplaces, but rather to leave them altogether.
More and more people are turning to coaches for help with that kind of situation.
The coaching profession arose in the mid-1990s, to meet the demand for an alternative to traditional mental health counseling, which carried some stigma for the high-powered business people who wanted to pursue it. Unlike in psychology, there were no government-mandated qualifications, and the profession grew quickly — especially when practitioners realized they could charge up to $300 a session, about double the going rate for talk therapy.
The profession has also thrived in tech booms, according to David Reile, the Maryland-based managing director of a coaching agency called the Career Development Alliance. “You have people looking around and saying 'wait a minute, there are others making a ton of money, and I’m not,’” Reile says. “'So what’s going on and how do I change?’”
There are now a wealth of resources to help people turn an idea into a business or non-profit, from startup incubators to crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter. With the growth of online platforms that allow people to market themselves to a large audience, it’s easier and easier for people to operate independently — which they sometimes seek help to start doing.
Also fueling growth: The profession is still open to anybody. A prospective coach can get a certification from the International Coach Federation — and there are now about 17,500 ICF-certified coaches worldwide — but there’s no legal requirement. O’Babatunde graduated from a coaching program at Fielding Graduate University. She says she designed her own approach to be slightly more directed than typical coaching, and less prescriptive than consulting, where clients are looking for help with specific tasks.
"I put a name on it myself, because I was like, let me look at what I’m doing,” O’Babatunde says.
That niche may be particularly fertile in Washington D.C., with its concentration of educated people toiling within large bureaucracies. The city already hosts the largest International Coach Federation chapter in the country, but coaches tend to be “leadership” or “executive” coaches, who train people to become better managers.
“Mentally, they’re like, ‘I’m done. I’ve checked out.’ There’s a feeling in their head that’s like, ‘I’m not satisfied.’”— Judy O'Babatunde
Instead, O’Babatunde hopes to find more people like Thompson, who has been dreaming of starting her own nonprofit to mentor and support youth who faced some of the problems she did, spending several years homeless in her late teens and early 20s.
“I kind of always had the community I wanted to work with,” Thompson says. “But I didn’t know exactly how to build on it. I had this idea for a while, but I kind of felt lost.”
Thompson still doesn’t know exactly what steps she'll take to launch her non-profit, or when. She's only two months into O’Babatunde’s experimental program, which could last as long as seven months, depending on how much progress the client feels he or she has made. In their biweekly meetings, O’Babatunde has asked Thompson to flesh out the plan for her envisioned nonprofit, and assigned her some readings. Thompson says it’s helped her focus her ideas — even if the end of the process means getting more experience, or going back to school.
“What skills do you have? What skills do you not have?” O’Babatunde says. “It ends with education.”
The approach doesn’t just work for people aiming to found their own nonprofit, like Thompson. O’Babatunde’s pitch also attracted people like V.N. Francis, 35, an urban planner who works for a consulting firm and is hoping to find her own clients as an independent contractor. "She knows how to tap into that creative part of your brain,” Francis says, of O’Babatunde. "I need some jumper cables.”
The other people in O’Babatunde’s first batch of pro bono clients include a real estate agent who wants to get into affordable housing in some capacity, and an academic looking to foster global women’s education. When she’s finished with this round, she says she might launch the program for paying customers, or do another pilot focused on people a little further down the entrepreneurship path, like she will be at that point.
But before that, she wants to get her class of guinea pigs on the road to independence. “It’s hard when you go into work and you go to hand in your two weeks notice,” she says. "But what they end up with is a solid mission and a vision.”