Sometimes you don’t know you’re about to take the next step in your career, and sometimes the next step doesn’t look like a step at all.
I would know. I won Food Network’s The Great Food Truck Race in 2015 and, then, after opening a restaurant—a successful restaurant at that—quit the food service industry. No plan. No direction. No next step.
Let’s backtrack: When my friend Sophia asked me if I wanted to start a dumpling and pho food truck in 2013, I had no idea what to expect. I had a biomedical engineering degree and, although I’d cooked before, had never worked in food service. All I knew was that entrepreneurship interested me, and the food truck industry had low overhead. I thought of it as a low-risk adventure that I could do at 25. It was my quarter-life crisis.
We bought a retired FedEx truck off Craigslist for $7,000 and decided to build the food truck ourselves. How hard could it really be? Turns out, pretty damn hard.
For three months, while keeping our day jobs, Sophia and I dedicated every weekend to learn how to install insulation, flooring, plumbing, and kitchen equipment. We finally hit the road in spring 2014 and, just a few months later, were cast on season six of the show. Ours became the first all-female team to win the competition.
The win was empowering, both as an entrepreneur and as a woman, and it led us to open our own brick-and-mortar restaurant, MOFU Shoppe, in downtown Raleigh, North Carolina. I will always be proud of what we accomplished.
But brushed aside in the whirlwind of our success was something I’d never given much thought to how my career would impact my life, and vice versa. It took meeting Nic, my now-husband, for me to realize how closely I needed to examine and direct my own career trajectory.
Nic didn’t tell me to quit my job, and I didn’t expect falling in love with him to push me down a path toward a new life and new career, but I did and it did. In order to be closer to me, he medically retired from a 10-year career in the Army and went to a business school nearby.
When he proposed, I began thinking about our future together. He would likely need to move for his job after he finished school; my job was dependent on staying local. I soon realized my staying in the service industry full-time would cause our lives to fork, and I didn’t want that. So, after months of agonizing, I decided to quit. I stepped down as the manager of the restaurant, keeping only my ownership shares.
This is where the feminist in me reels. I’d never hesitated to jump off career cliffs, but this dive had me peeping over the edge, wondering where I’d land—or if I even would. Growing up, I’d been taught that strong women are independent, and this transition was telling me to be vulnerable and dependent on another person, a man.
I didn’t want to be another statistic, another woman who’d given up her career for her husband or her family. The voice in my head kept telling me women had worked too hard for me to get where I am. I had worked too hard to get me where I am.
For working women, especially women who are feminists, it often feels like you can’t take a step back from your career for any reason, even if what you want out of life requires you to make that sacrifice. We fear, first, losing all the career momentum we’ve gained and, second, the judgment we’ll face if take a more traditional route. We don’t want to let our career-driven sisterhood down.
Yet it’s that sisterhood that offers so many solutions to my problems and other women’s problems. Between careers, I read books and listened to podcasts about women like Elizabeth Warren, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Indra Nooyi. Their lives not only inspired and drove me, but also showed me just how many women have risen in the ranks. They might not have started out as breadwinners, but they ended up having fulfilling careers—careers that eclipsed their husbands’.
Within my personal network, I found even more support. In my diverse group of girlfriends are single moms, moms with older kids, and women in business who I admire and believe to be strong. To me, they have all succeeded in ways no paycheck or Food Network show can define.
It just took time and a lot of hard work for them to thrive.
After stepping down from full-time work at the restaurant, I spent my time looking for my next move. I worked part-time as a consultant for a local startup, but that time was mine to understand what my life would look like outside food service. It took months of soul searching for me to realize that’s all I needed, too: patience with myself and enough tenacity to find the career I wanted and own it.
I did struggle with a lot of self-doubt, thinking, “It has been more than five years since I’ve worked in a structured environment, what skill set can I bring to the corporate world? What if I can’t get a job? Will Nic’s job always take precedence over mine? Will I have to depend on him forever?”
To find a job that would fit my new personal needs, I needed to translate my skills as a business owner and manager to a specific role, but I didn’t know how. I also knew I didn’t want to return to a big company. I wanted to work with a team that still had entrepreneurial energy.
I talked to mentors who helped me narrow down my job search to a role in product management, a role that combines my management and engineering experiences. This is how I ended up in my current role at InHerSight. I feel lucky every day that I found a boss who was able to see through my unconventional career path and take a chance on me.
Stepping out of your career doesn’t mean you’ll never succeed or that everything you’ve worked for is gone. It means you’re entering a new phase, evolving. Is there always an obvious next step in that evolution? No. But there are women who’ve done it before, and there as brilliant, and scrappy as you.
I started a food truck. I opened a restaurant. I found a new career. I am successful and will succeed again.
Sunny Lin is a product manager at InHerSight.