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How women are re-defining ambition to build happier, more successful careers

Randi Braun didn’t realize she was burned out until it almost killed her.

One afternoon, while driving home in Washington, D.C., Braun fell asleep at the wheel and crossed six lanes of traffic at one of the city’s busiest intersections, narrowly missing a pedestrian in a crosswalk. Miraculously, no one was injured.

It was June 2020, the start of the first Covid-19 pandemic summer — Braun, who is also a mom of two, was juggling homeschooling and running her leadership coaching firm, which she had quit her sales job right before the pandemic to launch.

“Our minds are so tricky at talking us into constantly doing more but eventually, our bodies catch up,” says Braun, who declined to share her age. “Sometimes, we’re not even aware of the level of constant exhaustion we’re functioning on before it becomes a life or death issue.” 

Women continue to face alarmingly high levels of burnout — the extreme circumstances of working and surviving during a pandemic, some workplace experts warn, has cost women their ambition.

While it’s true that millions of women have quit their jobs or switched careers since the start of the pandemic, and female executives are leaving companies at the highest rates ever, many women are still excited about their careers and driven to succeed.

Overall, nearly half (48%) of women describe themselves as “very ambitious” when it comes to their career, and ambition among women of color is even higher, according to a Momentive/CNBC poll of over 5,000 women conducted last month. 

Women aren’t losing their ambition — they’re rejecting a narrow definition of ambition as the pursuit of money and power and writing a new one. 

Re-thinking ‘the confines of a typical corporate job’

Braun’s car accident made her re-assess her work-life balance, scaling back the hours she spent growing her business to dedicate more time to self-care in her routine.  

Slowing down, Braun says, helped her dream bigger, and achieve some of her career goals sooner. She published her first book, “Something Major: The New Playbook for Women at Work,” earlier this month. 

Randi Braun and her husband Benjy during a recent trip to Sedona, Arizona.

Photo: Randi Braun

“Women are the most ambitious they’ve ever been,” she adds. “They’re just fed up with the fact that they can’t fully realize that ambition within the confines of a typical corporate job because it’s limited by the bias and barriers that still exist in most workplaces.” 

‘I quit my job to travel the world for a year’

Nabila Ismail had long dreamed of becoming a pharmacist, bettering people’s lives with the right medication. 

But after spending the first 10 months of the pandemic working 85-hour weeks at a pharmacy in Los Angeles, Ismail realized her dream career wasn’t sustainable. 

“It was brutal, I was burnt out and questioned whether or not I wanted to work in health care,” Ismail, now 28, says. 

She quit and got a different job, this time remote, as a marketing manager for a telemedicine company — but she wasn’t in love with her new role, either. “Something was missing,” she recalls. 

Then, while cleaning her bedroom, she found an old journal, one with a clear goal for future Nabila: “When I turn 28, I will quit my job and travel for one year.” 

Nabila Ismail during a recent trip to the Grand Mosque in Abu Dhabi, UAE

Photo: Nabila Ismail

Ismail couldn’t remember when or why she wrote that sentence, but she took her journal’s advice: In May 2022, she put in her two-week notice, moved her belongings to her parents’ house and booked a one-way ticket to Bali, weeks before her 28th birthday. 

She’s been traveling ever since, leading group trips for other women curious about traveling on their own and blogging about her experience on her website, Dose of Travel. She’s been to 16 countries and counting. 

In addition to the group trips, which Ismail is paid to lead, she’s funded her travels by working remotely as a freelance marketing strategy consultant and writer for different companies. She supplements her income with brand partnerships and speaking gigs as well.

Ismail still considers herself “a really ambitious” person — but she’s realized that, for her, success is less about job titles or money, and more about taking risks in her career and focusing on the things that make her happy, like travel. 

“Working on the frontlines of the pandemic taught me how fleeting time is,” she says. “I realized the career markers I used to strive so hard to achieve aren’t worth sacrificing my mental health for.” 

‘I left the C-suite to start my own business — and live on a farm’ 

At the height of her corporate career, Denise Conroy was making million-dollar business decisions and flying to executive meetings on private planes. In her “past life,” as Conroy calls it now, she was a senior executive at companies like Discovery Inc. and Iconic Group.

In March 2020, right after the first Covid-19 lockdowns were announced, Conroy and her husband Ned moved from Atlanta to a seven-acre farm in Alton, New Hampshire as they craved more quiet, open space.

During the pandemic, her ambitions completely changed. Conroy always looked at her career as a gradual climb up the corporate ladder to the C-suite. In 2021, she had finally achieved that dream, becoming the acting CEO of a small performance coaching firm. 

Conroy, 51, was used to being one of few women in a boardroom, but when she became CEO, she was surprised at how often she was the only woman, and youngest person, in many of the business meetings she attended. It didn’t help that all of the meetings were on Zoom, which exacerbated her feelings of isolation.

“For me, that was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” she says, “It’s hard to have your voice heard in those situations.”

“Once I turned 50, my whole mentality shifted. I thought, ‘I won’t suffer anymore, just for the sake of my career.'”

Denise Conroy on her farm in Alton, New Hampshire.

Photo: Denise Conroy

In November 2021, Conroy quit her CEO job to launch her own leadership consulting firm, Themy, which she had been quietly building as a side hustle since 2019. “I felt like starting a business that focuses on getting more women into positions of power was my calling,” she says. 

Making the jump from a corporate job with a consistent paycheck to running her own business was “absolutely terrifying” for Conroy, who had always been the breadwinner for her family (she and Ned have two dogs). 

Conroy bootstrapped the costs of growing her business herself, selling relics of her C-suite past, including a Porsche and a “closet full of Christian Louboutin heels,” to help cover her and Ned’s bills. 

For much of her life, Conroy thought of her ambition as the determination to secure “the best status and the most money possible” because she equated “money and success with financial security.” 

“I always wanted to be the most powerful person in the room,” she adds. 

Now, Conroy’s ambition is more guided by how she can maximize the positive impact she can have on others’ lives, and find hobbies outside of work that bring her joy. She and Ned plan to buy goats and chickens for their farm soon.

Ambition is a frequent topic in discussions with her friends and the leaders she coaches — and while its definition changes depending on who Conroy talks to, they’ve all had a collective epiphany: “We have the autonomy to decide what ambition means to us. It’s not up to anybody else.” 

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