When her youngest child was in high school, Jodi began to plan her life after the empty nest. She tapped into her passions and skills around education, business, and finance to found her successful business, College Financial Aid Advisors, and has released a new book as well.
Tell us a little about your background…
I was born and raised in Chicago, Illinois. I have been married for 32 years and we have two children: Our son is 30 and our daughter is 25. I live in Seal Beach, California and graduated from the University of Redlands with a bachelor’s in business.
As my “first act,” in the ‘80s, I opened all of the Guess stores—they used to be called MGA. I was the District Manager and ran the stores in California and Arizona. I was in charge of staffing, merchandising, budgeting, and tracking sales.
When did you start to think about making a change?
I stayed home with my children while they were in elementary school through high school. I volunteered for every philanthropy, with roles ranging from President to Treasurer and Auditor. I even sat on many by-law committees.
When my daughter was a junior in high school, I began planning my next journey. Knowing she would soon be leaving the nest, I decided to focus on things I loved: education, business, and finance. While on a walk with my friend Ellen, I began the conversation about what was next for me. We created a running list of things I liked to do, things I had done in the past, and things that were most interesting to me. Right away, opening a company to help families with financial aid was our first thought and I went for it.
What is your next act?
I created my company, College Financial Aid Advisors, in August of 2008, when I was in my 40s. I help students and families apply for financial aid. As an advocate of post-secondary education, I believe in making the process of financial aid transparent and manageable for families. I want to be the person they can turn to and ask questions that worry them.
Many of my clients are referred to by a friend, found my name on my website, or saw a quote from me in the media.
I work with hundreds of families; I want all students to have the ability to attend college. We usually start working together the summer before students enter their senior year in high school, all the way through to their college move-in day.
These families range from very low income to very high income and come from all over the country; I work with them remotely or meet them in my office if they live close by. As you know there are so many different kinds of families, traditional, divorced, remarried, widowed, orphans, homeless… I have worked with them all.
I speak at many high schools in my area and local conferences. I have a certification program but it’s closed for now because my true joy is helping a student go to college.
Why did you choose this next act?
I chose this next act because I was the President, Treasurer, and Auditor of every organization I could be a part of while I stayed home with my kids. When considering what my second act would look like, education, numbers, and entrepreneurship were three things I focused on. I am not the kind of person who considers a lot of options. I tend to set my mind and hyper-focus on one thing and make sure it happens.
I was determined to follow my passion for helping others and, when pivoting through the process, I stuck to my gut. If it felt comfortable, that’s how I knew it was right. If it didn’t feel organic or morally comfortable, I didn’t venture down that road. As a businesswoman, you need to evaluate what works in your company and be ready to pivot. I am always checking and rechecking processes and systems to make sure they are moving the brand forward.
How did you prepare to start your own business?
I worked at Pitzer College as a financial aid consultant and I took a class at UCLA. The teacher of that class was the Director at Occidental College, Maureen McRae Goldberg—she has since retired—and I asked her to be my mentor as I opened the doors of my company.
Taking the plunge for me meant I had good mentors, like Maureen, who were experts in specific areas of my business. I was able to have a sounding board in each of those areas as my company grew. In order to make sure I understood the financial aid process 100%, I stayed in the college system with my mentors before venturing out on my own.
What challenges did you encounter?
Starting your own business, there is always the financial component of how to monetize your company and how to create processes and systems to make the workday flow. Learning new skills, like social media, ended up reaping the most rewards. Also sticking with what works as a brand grows and keeping the brand fresh and current.
Social Media has been a huge part of my brand (I have 154k followers on Twitter and growing every day!). Early on I read, learned, and began to grow my brand on social media. I created the hashtag #Collegecash and continue to keep networking and connecting with other small business owners. I make contacts through my monthly newsletter, website, and word of mouth. I always say, “Everyone has a sister, brother, aunt, friend—someone they know who is going to college.” Referrals are always the best.
Were there times when you thought about giving up?
There was never any time I felt or thought about giving up. But I did worry and wonder if the next year I would have new clients sign up.
What kept me going? Having great mentors and the most supportive family and friends, who have been with me the whole time. In fact, today, we all joke, “Who would have thought?”
What did you learn about yourself through this process?
If you would have asked me in my first act what I thought about self-employment, that was never something I could relate to in any way. I learned that I had entrepreneurial skills and could create a business in my second act; I had no idea I had it in me.
What advice do you have for women seeking reinvention in midlife?
Do what you love, try new things, and most importantly, believe in yourself. Always ask questions and tap into your network for mentors, who can be equally valuable on the personal and business side. They come into your life at different times for different reasons. Be open and willing to learn and continue learning your whole life.
Networking, reaching out, showing up at event and shakings hands, picking up calls, stepping outside your comfort zone, and talking to people you don’t know can be the hardest in your second act but also the most rewarding because you will soon find out everyone is on a journey.
The funny thing about this is that I didn’t know I was reinventing myself in my midlife until a few people mentioned that to me. I thought it was more that I had decided to do something and I was making it happen. Talking to other women, who are in business, has become a mainstream resource for me; the more women I speak to, the more I find out we are all on that journey—and that brings us closer together.
As I created my company and grew it to a substantial size, I tried many different kinds of ways to grow. I hired virtual assistants and I invested in coaching. I took free training and webinars. I basically signed up for everything and I missed the one thing that makes my company the most successful: I have now hired my Associate Director. Having someone in my office every day has helped my brand grow.
What advice do you have for those interested in pursuing your path?
If college financial aid is your passion, find a way to learn as much as you can about the financial aid industry. For me, having the experience in two college financial aid offices and being lucky enough to build a foundation for my business helped me on my path. Anyone can be a financial aid consultant. Owning your own company, having a passion, having the skills to learn all about your industry—that’s key.
What resources do you recommend?
Start reaching out—in all ways—you’ll be surprised what you find. Try searching “college financial aid training” online and it will pop up. My tip is to go straight to the source: studentaid.gov is my favorite. If someone needs a financial aid consultant, consider helping them yourself. Find a way that works for you. And check out my new book, Secrets of a Financial Aid Pro: Master the College Funding Process and Give Your Child Lifelong Financial Skills Without Losing Your Cool; it’s the perfect start to the financial aid conversation.
What’s next for you?
While finishing up my recently released book, I realized that I have three or four other books in me—about small business, entrepreneurship, and women. Stay tuned!
Contact Jodi Okun at Jodi@collegefinancialaidadvisors.com