What’s the most impressive side hustle that comes to mind? Assistant professor, consultant, doing absolutely nothing?
For Osso VR founder and CEO Justin Barad, treating patients on weekends at the Orthopedic Institute for Children in Los Angeles is his side business. After graduating from UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine and working as a surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, he became disillusioned with medicine and physicians’ understanding of comprehensive patient care. So he combined his medical expertise with his love of video games and coded the prototype of Osso VR, a virtual reality training video for surgeons.
“People were like, ‘That’s stupid. You can’t use video games to train people to do surgery,” Barad says. “Well, I’m a surgeon, I make video games, and I know it will work.”
Barad is part of a coterie of ambitious white-collar workers who left accomplished careers in stable fields and reputable companies for sometimes obscure startups. The flight from reliable jobs to alternative career paths is well documented. According to a McKinsey survey, almost half of people who quit their jobs went to an entirely different industry.
Fortune spoke with several people who have recently founded or joined startups. What is particularly noteworthy is the success these converted startups have achieved in their previous careers and the breadth of industries represented. They include an Emmy-nominated special effects artist, a medical school graduate doctor with a medal for his academic achievement, and a Stanford MBA grad leading a 50-person team at Meta.
For people with such qualifications, joining a start-up startup is an unexpected choice. But these workers say they left top jobs because they wanted jobs that offer a real purpose while offering an opportunity to accelerate their career.
Anu Kirk worked in Sony’s Playstation division for seven years, most recently as managing director of its virtual reality business, where he led a team of 50 people, a role he got by personally asking Shawn Layden , CEO of Sony, to do so. He left the company in August 2019 and joined Osso VR a year later, attracted by the 210-employee startup’s ability to create new technologies in a virtuous way, he says. “There is nothing dystopian about what Osso does.”
Former Meta executive Saana Rapakko Hunt spearheaded Instagram’s grassroots growth before pandemic-induced ‘soul search’ forced her to reflect on her skewed work-life balance . She wanted a mission-aligned role that she would be passionate about to make leaving her kids worth every day. Fittingly, her passion has proven to be supporting the other parents of The Mom Project, a job website for mothers, of which she is currently president. She was first hired as a product manager.
Rapakko describes herself as an ambitious person who has “always worked hard”, but was willing to compromise on pay – a pay cut of around 40% – and name recognition – Instagram has two billion users against a million for The Mom Project – but not the work itself.
To justify his move, Rapakko says his work must remain impactful and present new challenges commensurate with his professional experience, such as presenting to The Mom Project’s board, leading several functions and training his colleagues to think strategically. . In short, it’s the job of a values-driven executive and a role that likely would have taken her many more years to achieve at Instagram.
The smaller and often underfunded nature of start-up work doesn’t mean it’s less intellectually challenging or performed by mediocre recruits who couldn’t do it elsewhere—quite the contrary, Kirk says. “When you’re dealing with a startup, especially in the early stages, everyone has to be great,” he says. “It is very easy to identify who is not performing or at the level they need to achieve.”
Barad points out that he often poaches Sony and Disney employees who work in games or visual effects, as those areas exhaust even the most dedicated employees. He says some of his new hires feel like they’ve “found the promised land where they can practice their skills, help people, and not be crushed until they’re useless and pushed aside.”
This is where the real problem lies. It’s not that these Fortune 500 immigrants are against long hours; they want an employer who appreciates their unique skills, perspective and talents. “I can fill a generic role as a product manager or a leader and excel,” says Kirk. “But that’s less exciting to me than a company saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want just anybody for this niche. We need your specific experience, skills and perspective.
In startups, employees can also help shape the company’s vision and deliver results that are not only measured against KPIs and shareholder value. “It’s gone from scale in terms of measuring how many people you reach,” Rapakko says, referring to Instagram’s reach, “to measuring this mission that you’re trying to push into the world.”
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