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Find Your Dream Job: Two Seattle Women Share How They Got Theirs

One of Meryl Alcabes' favorite portraits.

Meryl Alcabes is a commercial photographer. But until recently she had a completely different career.

“I sold furniture for 18 years. We sold sleeper sofas.”

But she always loved photography.

“One day, a friend of mine, she said, ‘Can I pay you to take my family portrait?’ And I was just about to say, ‘I’ll do it for free, of course.’ and I thought, someone’s going to pay me? So I said, ‘Sure, I don’t charge very much!’ I think I charged her $50 and she loved the pictures. It was so much fun and I thought, boy, if I could do this for a living, it would be great!”

So just shy of her 60th birthday, she went back to school.

“I felt I was really old to go back to art school and I was going back to school with kids who are my kids’ ages. So it was a really different experience for me than everybody else in my course. But I was very lucky that I had the opportunity to go to school for two years.”

After graduation she had a six-month internship at Seattle Magazine, and since launching her own business, work has never been the same.

“A total change. I love what I do. I mean, I really enjoy photographing all these people. Other people tell me, ‘Ohhhh, I wish I could do that.’ You know, it isn’t that easy to do something creative, do your dream job. Things have to fall into place and I was really lucky that they fell into place for me. Now my challenge is, I have to build up my business. I have clients, I just need more. Now I’m working on marketing my business.”

“I’ve done a medieval wedding, I’ve done a nautical wedding, a pirate wedding,” says Lisa Burke, owner of Make A Scene, a Seattle theme party prop rental company that she started seven years ago.

“In was actually a director of catering at a hotel in downtown Seattle and I needed someone like me all the time. I thought, I can’t be the only one in town who needs to rent props. So I quit my job and I got a warehouse and I started filling it up.”

Now Lisa builds many of her own props when people call on her for a big party. She’s done everything from an Alice In Wonderland theme, complete with homemade flamingo croquet mallets, to Mardi Gras.

“I had a pastor from a church call one time, he was doing an Easter program, and he said, ‘Do you have a really big rock that Jesus could jump out from behind?’ I’m like, ‘Well, let me see what I can do.’ So I actually made this giant rock, which they used.”

Lisa says the creative part has always been easy, but the real skill is learning how to run a business.

“It’s always been just me so it’s not like I had a ton of money to go out and hire tax advisers and accounting people and HR people, I just had to do my best and muddle along. It all just seems like second nature now. Looking back on it now, I didn’t know any of that stuff when I started.”

Her advice to people interested in breaking off and starting their own business?

“Make sure that you love it because you’re going to be doing a lot of it. Sometimes this is all I do. So you really have to make sure that you want to be married to your job, at least for a while. Probably, more than likely, you can’t pay people to do stuff for you. I’m my driver. I’m my warehouse manager. I’m my accountant.”

Meryl has her own advice to offer.

“I think that you read a lot of advice that’s like, ‘Do what you want and the money will follow.’ I think that’s really completely stupid advice because it’s not necessarily going to follow. If you don’t have a business sense, if you can’t go out and market yourself, you may be the most talented photographer in the entire world but you’re not going to be able to make a living. You have to figure out how you can monetize it. It may not be showing in a gallery. It may be doing something a little bit more commercial.”

My inspiration is Julia Child: she learned to cook at 40 and didn’t start her cooking show until age 51. So why shouldn’t you reinvent yourself, whatever age you’re at.

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