What follows is a personal account of Jinny Uppal’s sabbatical journey. While Jinny, vice president of strategic portfolio management at Bed Bath & Beyond, had thought about taking a sabbatical for many years, she finally took the leap and did it in 2016. In the following article, Jinny takes us through her journey: from how she came up with the the idea to take a sabbatical; to her preparation and planning; the sabbatical itself; and where it has led her today. It’s a very personal piece, and we’re so happy she shared it with us so we can share it with you. Enjoy! — Melissa Campanelli, Co-Founder, Women in Retail Leadership Circle.
I consider myself one of the luckiest people I know.
I grew up in a middle-class conservative Punjabi family in Mumbai, and migrated to the U.S. for graduate school. Life threw a few curve balls, however. I lost my parents while still finding my footing in a new country, and I rushed into the wrong marriage and then worked through the inevitable divorce. Through these ups and downs, my job became a stabilizing anchor in my life. Somewhere along the way I discovered meditation and started going to silent meditation retreats.
The idea of a sabbatical got planted in my mind at one retreat in 2011. At the time, the sabbatical idea was about taking a break from the grind and giving back. Back then, I was very active with my meditation community and volunteered a lot, so the idea was relegated to my bucket list. It wasn’t until five years later, while I was working at Kohl’s, that the thought grew in urgency. I had been helping drive the Kohl’s turnaround journey for a few years. While the work was interesting, I felt uninspired and unfulfilled. My deepening meditation practice and the aggressiveness of a corporate environment seemed in conflict.
I wanted to find out: Are these mutually exclusive or can they co-exist? Thanks to my Indian savings-oriented upbringing, I had saved enough funds to live short term without income. But walking away from a secure job and being ‘out there’ proved harder than I expected. I realized how much my sense of security and self-worth was tied to my job and income. Moreover, I was afraid that my ‘recruitability’ would take a hit and I would be forced to step down.
Preparation and Jumping In
Encouragement came in many forms, especially from my executive coach, Navjeet Bawa. She has been my coach since 2012, and I’ve had great success with her. She coached me to embrace the fear, get past the worry and into action. I was going to”just do it.” Random strangers, who had taken a professional sabbatical, started showing up in my life, inspiring me with their stories. What followed was a build up of small actions that, in retrospect, was a toolkit that I would like to share. It includes the following:
- Visioning: As I wrote and rewrote my idea of a sabbatical, clarity emerged: I was going to work abroad, in the ‘field,’ using my skills to empower social or business entrepreneurs to develop and grow their businesses.
- Financial Planning: A detailed expense spreadsheet with two to three scenarios.
- Delegation Planning: Who was going to take care of my home, car, finances, mail, etc.
- Self-Care: A renewed focus on my meditation practice to manage the worry that’s inevitable in these kinds of transitions.
- Support Structure: A small group of people who encouraged me in making the leap.
A series of introductions led me to a social enterprise called Anou in Morocco. Anou is a group of visionaries committed to turning artisans into business managers and designers by removing middlemen, thereby increasing their share of revenue. Retail and community are uplifted in one shot. I knew I had found my sabbatical.
That summer, I lived, worked and traveled in Morocco with the Anou team. I built and executed a business-to-business strategy for it. Working with Anou proved it was possible to do good while pursuing profit, while also showing me what inspired work looked like. I then spent a few months reconnecting with family. Having left my home country young had made me become used to being on my own. This was an incredibly beautiful journey of rediscovering my heritage and my vast and deep family connections. I discovered a whole new family I always had!
Getting Back In
Working with Anou reignited my passion for retail. However, my timing of re-entering the industry (Q1 ’17) coincided with the highest rate of traditional retail bankruptcies in recent decades, coupled with an incessant media narrative of the ‘Retail Apocalypse.’ Along came numerous executive layoffs, generating an influx of talent in the marketplace. It was a period of anxiety, and I ran into an interesting mini existential crisis during my search. The simple question, ‘What do you do’? by a well meaning new acquaintance would trigger awkwardness. I was single and living alone, so I didn’t have traditional care-giving responsibilities. Volunteering didn’t seem meaty enough. What do I ‘do’ indeed? Depending on my state of mind, my answer was ‘I’m working on my job search’ or ‘I’m a retail strategist/technologist blah blah.’ It was insightful to realize how much I associated meaningful work with ‘professional’ work.
Again, in retrospect, there were things I did that now form a playbook. They include the following:
- Visioning: I scripted the life I wanted to live and the work I wanted to do. Career, family, fun, spiritual practice would all co-exist.
- Network, Network, Network: I made a list of retailers I loved or was intrigued by and people who could connect me to someone there. I had a lot of no-agenda, no-obligation phone calls, coffees and lunches.
- Just Start ‘Working’: I did retail consulting with nonprofits. I visited stores in New York City and San Francisco to study what retailers were up to. I published an article with my observations. It got me reinvigorated and optimistic about the future of the industry, especially the store.
- Self-Care: For all the meditation and oms in the world, this phase generated more anxiety than I expected. So I kept a couple of anti-anxiety pills around just in case! Since I was home a lot, I created a schedule — when to wake up, work, have fun, work out and so on.
- Support Structure: Friends, family and my coach that supported me through the uncertainty.
A serendipitous series of conversations led me to Bed Bath & Beyond. I became the first external hire in a newly formed strategy portfolio management team. I pivoted from technology to business growth, took a step up in title. I now work with an incredibly inspiring group of people, driving an amazing transformation at Bed Bath & Beyond. My current focus is to reinvent the future experience of the Bed Bath & Beyond store.
Totally Worth It
Common wisdom suggests that it’s better to look for a job when you have one. I now know it’s much better to look for a job, or anything for that matter, when there’s clarity of purpose. Everything else falls in place. And if a sabbatical is what it takes to develop that clarity, then I would do it again. Anytime.