Amanda North, 57, knows firsthand that fear can quickly turn into courage.
At the 2013 Boston Marathon, she eagerly awaited her daughter along the flag-lined finish. Minutes before she expected to see her daughter cross the line, North was thrown off her feet just steps away from the first bomb.
The moments that unfolded changed the course of her life.
(MORE: 4 Ways to Change Careers in Midlife)
A year after coming face-to-face with her mortality, North reached for something that once seemed too far away to grasp. She walked away from her job as a Silicon Valley executive and launched a social venture: Artisan Connect, an e-commerce site that markets artisan crafts from developing countries and helps their creators sustain a disappearing way of life. (The photos in this story are examples of them.)
“Public service has always been something I’ve really believed in,” she explained. “From that moment, I said, this is the time.”
No Going Back
In the seconds following the first Boston Marathon explosion, North was surrounded by thick, intense smoke. Those who had been cheering beside her lay immobile on the ground. Without noticing her own nonthreatening wounds, North crawled over to a nearby woman who had a severe leg injury.
“I held her hand and I looked her in the eye,” North recalled. She told the stranger: “I’m going to stay with you until help comes — you stay with me.” North would later learn that the woman was Erika Brannock, one of 16 people whose injuries from the explosion resulted in amputation.
While North tried to keep Brannock calm, her daughter, Lili Pike, was also knocked to the ground by the force of the bomb. Later that night, mother and daughter reunited in the hospital where North was being treated for burns, a leg wound and a burst eardrum. “Our lives have changed forever,” Pike told her mother, “and we really need to focus on our passions and our purpose.”
With that, North recalled, she knew “there was no going back” to her life in the same way again.
Career Pragmatism over Passion
At the time of the attack, North was VP of marketing at a wireless communications company, where she was well-respected. She’d worked for more than three decades in Silicon Valley, although it was not the career track she had envisioned.
When she started out, North “wanted to do something on the global level to make a difference,” and began working in energy policy. Then she joined the pioneering days of Apple. But after a divorce early in her marriage, North needed to raise her two small children as a single mom. “It was all about pragmatism at that point,” she said.
Her career took shape as a marketing executive for various tech companies and she cofounded several web-design firms. North was able to have a “productive career and balance things reasonably well,” she said.
But by the time of the 2013 marathon, something was missing. With two grown children, those practical job choices had lost their meaning. “I need to look a couple years down the road,” she told herself, “and see what I can do next to get back to my original intent of making a big difference.”
An Instant Transformation
While recovering in the hospital from the blasts, North began to deeply examine her life. Surviving a deadly attack “made me realize in a heartbeat that I might not have the years ahead to plot out this career change that I had envisioned sometime in the future,” she said.
Two insights stood out.
Volunteering for Santa Clara University’s social entrepreneur mentorship program (which pairs Silicon Valley mentors with entrepreneurs in developing countries) had given her a “really satisfying” feeling. “I reconnected with my sense of myself as a global citizen,” she said.
North was also inspired by traveling, often with her children, and collecting authentic, local craft pieces reflecting where she’d been. In talking with the artisans, North learned that many didn’t earn enough to sustain themselves.
“It was scary to hear that they could well be the last generation doing what their families and communities have done for hundreds of years,” North said. Three days after the bombing, her new purpose solidified: to work with artisans in the developing world and help them preserve their craft and a self-sustaining livelihood.
Launching Artisan Connect
Almost a year later, on April 8, 2014, North debuted Artisan Connect. Her company features handmade home-décor items such as wooden bowls, textiles and stuffed animals from artisan suppliers in South America, Africa and Southeast Asia. Shoppers can connect to each supplier through the site.
“The core mission that’s driving us is to help sustain artisans in the developing world,” North said. The company “connects them with markets in the United States that value what they're doing, not only by purchasing it but also by celebrating what they’re doing,” she explained.
So far, business is going well. “We’ve had great traction,” she said.
She maintains it was the life-changing experience in Boston that gave her the courage to take a leap toward a more meaningful life. “Once you’ve been through something like that,” she said, “you think: 'Wwhat worse can happen?'”
The Advantages of Launching After 50
North firmly believes that being 57 when she started the company was an advantage. Her age and experience helped her drum up investments for Artisan Connect. “I had a track record,” she said. “People trusted me.”
To broaden her knowledge of the field, she reached out to others with expertise. Her rule as a midlife entrepreneur: “I can learn what I need to learn, and I can surround myself with people who do know what they’re doing.” Then, “as a leader, I can tap into that and knit it together in a way that moves an organization forward.”
Currently, North has 12 Artisan Connect employees. Eight are in their 20s and share an energizing drive to do good. “They are where I was coming out of college,” said North, “with the passion to change the world.”
Making the Road Ahead Count
It took extreme, frightening circumstances for North to pivot and follow through with who she wanted to be. But she now recognizes that she had it inside all along. “All the experiences I had throughout my life needed to be reconnected in a different pattern,” said North.
She’s seen many empty nesters go through a period where they feel “the very important role they’ve focused on for so long was no longer necessary in the same way.” But “the wisdom and experience they have accumulated is still vibrant and significant. They need to just reach inside,” she said.
North hopes that it won’t take a brutal shove from the universe for others with inklings of changing their lives to do just that.
“I think it’s super important not to have your life close in,” she said. “Take your life, whatever period you have ahead of you, and make something of it.”
Melissa Southwell is a writer, runner, and Managing Editor of LearningAdvisor.com, a partnership with AARP’s Life Reimagined, created to help students of all ages pursue learning and prepare for encore careers. She was a spectator at the 2013 Boston Marathon and completed her first marathon at the 2014 Boston Marathon.
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