Business Spotlight: Stanford GBS grad launches Returnships

Jenny Rae jumped on a call with Linda – a tremendous woman with a big vision to help those who have great pedigree and experience but have taken a break in their careers (whether it be to have children and care for them or to look after elderly parents, or a myriad of other reasons).

Linda’s company, Talent Reconnect, offers returnships that are aimed mostly at women who have graduated from top business schools but who had 2 to 5 years of post-MBA experience before opting out. Her vision is to pair them with companies that are looking for highly professional individuals for a set period – offering these women the chance get their feet wet again and decide if this is what they want to get back into (as some decide on a different career path).

Read on for some great insight as to her thought process on setting up her company (yes, we’re hooking you up, future entrepreneurs ), the challenges she has/is facing, and for some great advice for you fresh graduates!


What are you up to now?

When I left the University of Utah, I went to go consult with Medalia, which is one of the fastest growing companies in the Bay area. It’s backed by Sequoia. It’s their largest portfolio investment ever, and one of the things I did for them was to develop their MBA recruiting strategy, and their MBA internship program. So I actually saw it from the other side of the fence, which was really interesting.

In the process of doing that, I was consulting for them, and I was trying to find my long-term landing space, and even just making that transition from what ended up being 15 years in higher education back into the private sector, despite the fact I had spent 10 years there before working in higher ed, it was really difficult.

I was getting the “You don’t have the functional experience; you’re too senior for a role” pushback. The large companies hire in a very narrow job description, and their expectations are of a very linear career, and I was outrageously frustrated. This idea came to me when I was about to call a former student – his name is John Beeckman, and I love him.

He has this great company called Man Crates, and I’ll give them a little plug. It’s men’s gifting, and instead of sending stuff in a gift basket, they send it in a little crate with a little crowbar. I was about to call him and ask, “Would you just hire me for something, because I just cannot get my foot in the door?”

There are many students I could have called, but I’m just particularly fond of John. But then it dawned on me – I had recently spoken to a friend of mine. He’d been out of the workforce and was trying to get back in, and I thought – “I’m not the only one having this problem.” Nothing really spoke to my love and my skill set, and what I love doing and do naturally is create a community.  There are lots of online marketplaces, but I’m much bigger on a community to really connect primarily women, although there are certainly men as well who have taken time out of their careers and want to get back in.

Some of them want to switch industries, switch functions, want to serve more of a passion, but trying to do the very same thing I did at Stanford is work with companies to develop these internships – returnships. Actually, Goldman Sachs coined that term, but it’s such a great term.

To get our returnees an opportunity to come in for 10 – 14 weeks, we’re asking them to be willing to take a salary relatively comparable to what an MBA intern would make from a top school. Our target candidates are those who have graduated from top business schools who probably have 2 to 5 years of post-MBA experience before opting out. They either could just be making a shift and not have taken a career break, or took a career break from 1 to 10 years.

People who have had more than 10 I think just need a whole lot more coaching and prep work. The sweet spot for the companies is people who have been out hopefully no more than 10, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work with those who have been out longer.

We also have a number of women who had very promising business careers that didn’t necessarily go to a top business school, but having all indications, you wouldn’t be surprised to find out that they went to business school. I have one woman who was a lawyer, an HR lawyer.  She came to me and said, “I just don’t want to be a lawyer any more.” So basically she’s a business professional who is on par with the caliber of someone who graduated from the top business schools.

Tell me a little bit about some of the companies that you are working with, and what the value proposition looks like from their side?

I’m getting a really good response, particularly from the smaller companies, I think for two reasons.  One, it’s the community I know best, having worked at Stanford for 12 years after I went to business school (my husband went too, by the way). So, we’ve got 20 years of GSB grads covered, and it’s what I know very well. There’s hardly a company in the Bay area that I can’t get myself into.  But the companies that are responding the fastest tend to be the smaller companies.  And when I say smaller, I don’t mean dinky.

The second reason I think companies are responding is they are only part-time hiring right now in this market.  It’s so competitive, so hard for them to get good talent – and most of them are still at a level where their job descriptions are not so narrow.

I have one returnship company – the CEO has an online education business funded by a private equity firm and they’ve made several subsequent acquisitions, and I frequently hear “I just need bright, capable people who can block a tackle and make stuff happen.”

The great thing for these returnees is that it’s an opportunity to get your hand in all kinds of pies in terms of functions – you can add value beyond where your expertise is.  For example, I have one returnee who has a background in advertising, but she really wants to get more into operations.

Interestingly, I’ve also had conversations with Airbnb, Walmart and Silicon Valley Bank, which have actually been hugely responsive.  In this segment, we are seeing a lot of companies who ask and have gotten hammered because they have such poor representation of women and they really want to embrace women in leadership roles.

My point to them is that if they want these capable senior women, they need to meet them where they are, and it’s not always this linear career path, which I saw while working in recruiting. You know, you start as a product manager, senior product manager, director of product management: that’s the way all these job descriptions are written.

When I talk to the VP of HR, they tend to either get it in 5 minutes or not. But it takes those bigger organizations a lot longer to process and come around. It’s like this chicken and egg conversation. A company will say show me your candidates, the candidates say show me your companies.  And I think in time we’re going to get a number of these bigger companies on and engaging. In the meantime, I’m also developing some full-blown programs to really engage with these returnee women.

Sure, I also have some tiny, small companies – like one who is offering a healthy food product and she’s going to have to pay equity, but obviously people don’t need to be willing to accept that. I’m finding that at our core are a lot of mid-stage, well funded small companies with anywhere from 50-200 employees. Those are the ones who are holding up their hand and saying, “I want to participate in your pilot.”

Great. So, if a woman were to sign up for this, what would her process would be like?  Does she go through interviews? What time of year does this happen? Share some of the mechanics of it.

So the general process, and this is all in beta, so this may change, but the general process on my website is a link to an intake survey.  Right now it’s on SurveyMonkey, and we’re working get the content right. So, the first step is to go and complete that intake survey. The survey, by the way, I do not share with the companies – it’s more for my consumption to understand them, what’s their preferred scenario of work.

There are some people who are not suited for this particular returnship, for example – I had one woman who was a Spanish translator, or another woman who has had a rocket ship career.  She hit a stall and she wants to continue in that career, but I didn’t think this was the right fit for her, so I referred her on to some coaches.

But for those folks who are the right fit, I will contact them and we’ll schedule an intake interview, which we mostly do by Skype. That way, I can get a better understanding of their background, what their interests are.

As part of my intake process with high-potential candidates, I assess how many hours a returnee is looking for. Many companies are offering a fair amount of flexibility; this doesn’t have to be a 40 hour a week job. Some companies would prefer it, but they fully appreciate that with this population, they may only want to work 30 hours, or want some flexibility to work from home.

After I do that intake interview, when I say they are the appropriate candidate for the kind of things we are doing, I send out weekly job descriptions that I have.

I also do 1:1 connections. For example, I’ve got one guy I’m talking to who has a company in Foster City backed by Andreesson Horowitz. I’ve got one woman in the queue, and I emailed him her LinkedIn profile. I think she’s great, and he said “Absolutely, I want to talk to her.” So some of the time it’s me saying to the companies, “Here’s a candidate I think would be appropriate – are you interested in talking?” And some of it is me sending out job postings to candidates and them saying “I’m interested in this.”

In either scenario, they’ll interview with the companies, and then the company will finalize the conversation directly with the candidates, and also finalize kind of the scope of work.

The returnship is more like a consulting engagement than a job, because these are obviously mature individuals who are capable of defining their work.

Can we talk about that for just a second? What kind of training or supervision or mentorship would the women receive? There are things that would normally be in place for an MBA internship, but in a mid-career position could be kind of a deal breaker in terms of whether they are successful and whether it’s a successful process.

I think it’s going to vary widely by company. Before they get the returnship, for the candidates that we approve, we hold a very, very brief 9:30-2:30pm “get yourself ready for your returnship” meeting which covers the values and experimentation.

I have two phenomenal career coaches who run these pieces, who have much more patience, the background and the history of doing these things. One of them is going to do values and experimentation, the other one is going to do LinkedIn and interviewing. That will cover the basics.  Included in that is a book which Rebecca Zucker who is one of the coaches is using. Rebecca has this fantastic book, Career Handbook for Working Professionals. [At MC, we also offer business and career coaching – just contact us for more information!]

Frankly, if the women want more coaching than that, there is an array of coaches I can refer them to. I did focus groups this week, and one woman said, “I need a lot of time to figure out what it is I want to do.” There are great coaches to work with, so they need to go do that first and let me know when it’s done – then we’ll keep moving.

Once they get in the role, it depends on the companies. I’m going to continue to keep tabs and make sure things are going well. Most of these women probably don’t need too much structure – I mean, I fully developed the MBA program at Medallion and even planned weekly parties – it’s a very different experience I think being an MBA intern.

We also try to pull the returners together just for support; the mechanics of going back to work are overwhelming. For women who have kids at home, the prospect of returning to work when your kids are at home is a little bit frightening. How do I get my kids home from school? I live in Park City, and I have a very close relationship with a cab dispatcher. My kids are old enough now – they’re 12 and 14 and they call her if they need a ride and she sends a cab over. But just those mechanical things get to be overwhelming sometimes.  Most of these women in their jobs are not going to need a program per se at the companies.  It’s obvious the hiring managers know what they’re hiring.

There’s also no need for these women or men to hide that they took time off. I think that there’s a very clear expectation in why we have this kind of returnship set up – there’s a learning curve and we know there’s a learning curve. I’ll be keeping tabs and communicating to make sure that they’re getting what they need. We may decide that we need to do something more structured, but I think it just varies widely.

When are you targeting your beta group?

When I started this, I was thinking I would have this very structured format like we do for MBA programs that start in June and they end in August, and that went out the window real fast. But I’ve got a couple companies that are like, “You know what? If you can get somebody here tomorrow, I’m all over it.”

My other hypothesis also was that most of the people would be women, which they are, but I assumed most would have kids, which isn’t quite as much as I thought was the case. I also thought none of them would want to start in June, so I thought we’ve got to get these women all in by April.  But I’m getting some feedback that a lot of them want to start in June as well, because kids are at camp, or a lot of them don’t have kids.

My goal for beta in 2015 is to have everybody in by April. I’m hoping to get 20 to 25 people into roles by April and learn from that process, and get some success stories so that it’s easier for the bigger companies to go “Wow, we’re really missing out, we need to be doing this as well.”

I recently had a call from Minneapolis – there is a guy who runs the MBA program up there who I know really well. He said, “Would you come up here and help these Fortune 500 companies do this?” I said, “Let me get it figured out in the Bay Area.”

With the bigger companies in Minneapolis, there actually can be a rhythm and a structure, which might look like one set from September to December, and another from February to May.  But this is going to be a little more fluid because the Bay Area is not that structured.

Exactly. Another question that I would have for you is this: what are the expectations that are set at the outset of this? Maybe you can just give me a hypothetical scenario. I could see, for example, that somebody could figure out that they A) Don’t want to go back to work, B) Would be interested in staying on at that company, or C) Want to move on to another potential opportunity. For A and B, first of all, what percentages do you think those would be, and for C, would they have the option to do another returnship in a different company if they wanted?

Yes, absolutely. Those are all very valid outcomes, and one coach calls this a professional action experiment. That’s how I view these things – it’s an opportunity to try things out. When I left, I wanted to try these things out too. And this is a very structured way to do it.

Now, many of the companies are hiring people that they are very much hoping that it will work out and they will want to stay. I’m just asking for transparency from both parties so that if there’s a candidate who is just a little bit reluctant, and they are thinking “I need to try this out” or a company, for example, at Silicon Valley Bank, Linda Bater, their SVP of HR, she’s great, said, “We want women, but I don’t know that they’re going to convert to full-time.” I said, “That’s fine – you just need to be transparent about it.”

So for the companies, there’s also the potential of “I don’t have a full-time position, I can’t hire somebody.” I want to keep them, or I hire a different returner. In that case, any one of those outcomes is reasonable. There are some women who have said to me, I like where I am, I want to mix it up.  I want to do 4 of these and decide what, if anything, I want to do. I say – “Knock yourself out.”

Now the downside for the candidate is that we are asking them to work at an MBA intern salary, as the whole point is to make it easy for the companies to say “yes”. The expectation is that they will be working for a slightly lower wage. That doesn’t mean they can’t negotiate something higher, but I think it might be inconsistent with what we’ve asked the company to do.

Absolutely. Now, longer term, how far ahead have you thought, and what would you see this becoming in the next, let’s say 3 to 5 years?

I have any multitude of different visions, and I’m curious to see how this beta plays out.  Frankly, I can even play one scenario out where this becomes an engine of its own and I don’t need to be here – if people know, and people are posting these things and it’s another type of job that people are looking for.

I do think, however, it’s going to be continually difficult to aggregate the candidates. I don’t quite know what the number is in the Bay Area of how many women are looking to return. I’ve already got 60 candidates in the queue and I’ve barely scratched the surface. I’ve been reaching out through business schools and having sat there, I am fully appreciative of the fact that they are protective of their alumni population and they don’t want to blast stuff out.

So Stanford, Berkeley and Tuck have been spectacular, and that’s where most of my candidates have come from, but of course these women all have friends in similar situations who went to Wharton, went to USC. So those are coming in dribs and drabs, and I would love to get the word out more broadly. I can see this becoming a substantial engine in the Bay area, and I can frankly see the potential to go to other markets, and oddly enough, Minneapolis may be the next one simply because there’s somebody there who has his finger in all the pies, who desperately wants this, and I know him well and he has said that he doesn’t have the ability to do this and wants me to come help.

The way I look at the market, there are 3 things we could be doing. One is coaching those candidates and getting them ready. The second is playing that matchmaker coordinator, and the third is consulting to the big companies that want to develop full-blown returnship programs. Any three of those I think are valuable to do. The coaching piece of it I may end up bringing in house by engaging some of these people who have been doing it for a long time, and I’m trying a few of them out. I know these women well who have been doing it, and there are quite a few of them in the Bay Area, and all over the place.

My sweet spot is certainly in that matchmaking piece, and after doing that for a while, I think I’ll even be that much more equipped to consult to the bigger companies that want to develop these programs, so I can see it going any number of ways. I’m taking zero funding, which sounds terrible coming from somebody who ran a career center, but I always used to say to the students: What are your goals? What are you trying to do with this company?

I’m a very mission driven person, and I’ve told my husband any number of times I wish I could just wake up and go make a paycheck, it would make my life so much easier.  I can’t function like that.  I don’t do it well. So my mission is to really have an impact. I would love there to be a world where people can off-ramp and on-ramp, and it’s a non issue.

I loved my job at Stanford, which is the primary reason I didn’t opt out. The other reason I didn’t opt out is I was afraid I would never get back in the game, and I’ve seen that played out. It’s so hard. Frankly, I would outsource the first year of life. It’s too hard. But now, I would love to have more time with my kids, and I do because I have flexibility now.

People don’t necessarily always want to take time out, but if they do, it’s not always for kids. A lot of these candidates are dealing with parents.  One parent had a stroke, she was back east, and the returnee went to go live with her. Or someone else’s mother passed away and her father was still alive, and she wanted to spend time with him. It’s not just kids – it’s a lot of other things.

Then I guess my final question would just be – if you could kind of say something to our community about things that you value or think are important, or the things that you are looking for, what would be your message be and any specific requests for them?

I think the main thing I hear from companies is they want capable, hard-working talent who can make things happen, and I don’t even think you don’t need a ton of clarity about what you want to do. For example, I worked in manufacturing for 5 years, and when I went to Stanford, I wanted out of manufacturing, and that’s a whole other story, but I was able to take that 5% of my time that was spent on TQM, total quality management, as a knowledge base that I had to transfer into something different.

The MC candidates can identify a hypothesis of some areas of interests, and identify some things in their background that are relevant to this new area of interest, and just be thoughtful about what that is.

I’m after bright, capable, hard-working people, and particularly people who are pedigreed. I mean, that’s just the reality of the world. But that doesn’t mean they have to be purely pedigreed – they could have a mixed story. If they think there’s a market for them, a need for them and their skills, I encourage them to come give us a try.

To become a candidate doesn’t mean you commit to taking something. It means you want to see the program, you want to hear about us, and you want to interview.

My final question. Going back to one of the logistics that we talked about, are you open to candidates who currently do not reside in the Bay area, but would be open to doing a returnship in the Bay Area?

Absolutely. I have one woman in Miami, and I have a guy in New Hampshire. Silicon Valley Bank has offices elsewhere, and she has said to me “we can probably take people elsewhere” – but it gets too diffused if I try to conquer the whole world all at once.  So absolutely, if somebody is outside of the area and wants to come back, the only time you would probably need to come out on your own dime might be to interview with a company because I think it’s important to see the locations.

I can’t necessarily say that the company will pay travel because I don’t know. But yeah, absolutely. If somebody is not in the area and they are open and they want to come back to the Bay Area, or come to the Bay Area for the first time, absolutely.

Fantastic. Linda, thank you so much for all of your insight. This is wonderful, and I’m so excited about the initiative. Especially as a successful woman in business, it’s always fun to hear somebody who’s addressing major issues like this with career development women.

It’s been a whole lot of fun. There’s a lot to be done, but hopefully we can make a big dent.

Can you share with me the link that our readers would use to register for you?

It’s on my website,, and you go under candidates and it says apply to be a candidate.

In there lists those three action steps. You will get a registration link for training after we accept you as a candidate because it’s not open to the whole world.

We look forward to hearing from you, and good luck!


MC Readers – go help Linda out! Support her business, and if you are in her target market, make sure you share her story with your network and sign up for her program!

Filed Under: business consulting