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Jobless executive reinvents herself, on a song and a prayer

When the recession cost Erma Charles and her husband, Dexter, their jobs, she found the ultimate solution: She built herself a new career in the finance business. Erma says many other professionals will have to follow her example to get themselves jobs.

STEPHEN J. CODDINGTON | Times

When the recession cost Erma Charles and her husband, Dexter, their jobs, she found the ultimate solution: She built herself a new career in the finance business. Erma says many other professionals will have to follow her example to get themselves jobs.

WIMAUMA

Erma Charles raises her hands and breaks into a toothy, contagious smile as her rich singing voice fills her living room.

"After you've done all you can, you just STAND," she belts out.

It's her favorite religious song. A testament to perseverance, to trusting in God and yourself when the odds are against you.

The lyrics represent her bedrock values when she's most depressed. They gave Erma strength to reinvent her professional self after the Great Recession sent both her and her husband, Dexter, on a three-year journey through joblessness, a journey not quite finished.

Erma knows that in contrast to hundreds of thousands of hard-luck unemployment tales, she's had plenty of financial advantages. She's had a cushion of savings to tap as the lean months turned into years. And Erma and Dex, both 52, don't have the extra expenses and time demands of children.

Hers is a different face of this equal-opportunity recession: the seasoned and dedicated executive, who always felt confident and self-assured in her career, suddenly tossed out and unable to find anything.

"Faith is what got me through," Erma says. "There were many days I felt like I was walking with a blindfold, and the only one holding my hand was God."

• • •

The Tampa Bay opportunity was the dream job she'd been building toward.

Erma had been on the fast track to success since moving from Trinidad to the United States when she was 19. MBA at Duke. A systems engineer job with IBM. Then a move to the consulting firm Booz Allen Hamilton, and a comfortable home in Alexandria, Va.

Trained in corporate strategy and marketing, she was primed to go to the next level when offered a job managing the launch of the St. Petersburg operation of an IT consulting company in February of 2007.

A month after she got to town, Erma was out of a job. The company had fizzled and so had her career.

Dex, who followed Erma to the United States from Trinidad, soon found an IT job, but it was in Orlando. He was making the four-hour, round-trip commute, paying about $1,000 a month in gas, roughly a third of his paycheck.

Erma couldn't believe what was happening. She had the education. She had the experience. For 20 years in the white-collar world, she lived oblivious to how harshly the economic cycle can pivot.

"We should not have been as lost as we were or as blindsided as we were," she said. "What happened, I think, is we were blinded by our own overconfidence, our expectations. We became complacent. … We didn't think it (the recession) would proliferate through so many levels of the economy."

Erma and Dex couldn't have gone back to Virginia if they wanted to. They'd just bought a lakefront house in a new Wimauma subdivision, paying for its construction in 2006 at the peak of the housing bubble. By the time they moved here in early 2007, the housing crash was under way and their mortgage was already underwater.

Even today, their subdivision remains only one-third built out. One house within sight of their front yard is vacant, taken back by the bank; the home­owners' association took back another one. On a recent afternoon, a sand hill crane chick dug in their back yard, one of the sparse signs of activity in the neighborhood.

Erma felt isolated from the beginning of her job search. She was new in town and could count her local acquaintances on one hand.

That changed quickly. She gave speeches as president of a Toastmasters chapter. She joined the Transitioning Executive Network, an invitation-only WorkNet Pinellas Group geared to help out-of-work professionals share their experiences and contacts.

"I got there and the room was packed," she said. "I didn't realize so many executives were at the same point I was."

A few interviews came out of some of the contacts, but no traction. "It was like a revolving door," she recalled. "Some people would pick up a position and six months later be back again. Looking."

After one meeting, another member pulled Erma aside. "With your background, you really need to be in high finance," he advised her. "You're not going to find any job here taking the typical executive path."

The two met with another executive at the Panera Bread at Kennedy and West Shore, a popular networking haven, to talk options and face reality.

No one was hiring a corporate marketing expert/business strategist. Days spent cold-calling and searching the Internet for jobs were getting nowhere.

Dex had found another job much closer to home with the IT department at Verizon. But it lasted just six months before he was laid off.

Erma was scared. But she sensed an opportunity. And she knew she had to create her own destiny here.

• • •

It was obvious at networking events and in the news: Small businesses throughout the area were struggling to find financing in this new era of tight-fisted lenders.

Erma figured her talents and experience in the business world could help. She began studying to become an investment banker.

For six months, she took courses and crammed for exams to become a FINRA-registered broker, building relationships with dozens of small businesses at the same time.

"The challenge is not finding clients," she said. "There are a lot of companies out there looking to raise capital."

With bank lending elusive and a tough Wall Street climate for public offerings, however, those companies are hungry for institutions or venture capitalists willing to invest in them, perhaps in return for an equity stake in the business.

Erma's job: to bring the two sides together.

"She's able to put together a strategy as a financial analyst that really makes sense to people," said John McCabe, a commercial banker who met Erma after she gave a presentation to a group of business executives about raising capital in a depressed capital market. He wound up becoming a good friend and business partner, leveraging his connections with her financial capabilities.

In the spring, Erma passed her FINRA exams and, using a shared office space arrangement in West Shore, was ready to devote full time to her fledgling business.

In two years, Erma figures she's invested almost $20,000 in her business. But it's paying off.

With a new business partner and a rebranded company, she's built a network of 25 clients in various stages of financial need while also becoming a registered rep of Georgia brokerage Moody Capital.

This summer, she's working on her biggest deals so far, projects totaling about $60 million in funding for clients.

"The most painful experience can be the most rewarding," she says. "That's how you learn to survive and learn all the things you didn't think you had in you in terms of strength and raw ability. And moxie. I bet you five years from now you'll find a lot more people independently running companies only because they had no choice but to go through this experience."

Lately in the Charles' household, it's Dex's turn to pray for career guidance. It's been about 14 months since he was laid off by Verizon.

He's on track to finish his master's degree in IT project management from DeVry University next month. Like Erma, he's spent countless hours at networking get-togethers and searching online for jobs, but still no luck.

If Dex is worried, he refuses to let it show. He's seen how it can work out if he keeps trying.

"If you keep still, the answer comes to you," he says. "Call it meditation. Call it prayer. Just be still."

In other words, as his wife Erma would sing out, just stand.

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Jobless executive reinvents herself, on a song and a prayer 07/24/10 [Last modified: Friday, July 23, 2010 11:07pm]
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