‘It was the best decision of my life’: Meet 4 people who left high-paying corporate jobs to pursue social media
When Joanne Molinaro graduated college in 2000, she panicked.
Like many postgrads, she wanted a profession that she could picture herself doing for the rest of her life and decided law was the best fit. After attending the University of Chicago Law School and working for a decade at Foley & Lardner LLP, a prestigious law firm in Chicago, Molinaro became the first East Asian woman to make partner there in 2015.
Then, in June, at 41 years old, Molinaro called her boss to let him know she was stepping down to become a full-time content creator on TikTok.
Now known as The Korean Vegan to her 2.7 million followers on the platform, Molinaro is admired for her ability to make traditional Korean food vegan and share compelling stories about her childhood and identity.
“I feel most alive when I speak for those whose voices have been diminished, distorted, or even silenced, like those belonging to my parents and my grandparents,” Molinaro told her followers in a TikTok when she announced she was leaving full-time work at her law firm. (Molinaro will still be employed by the firm to occasionally be “of counsel.”) “My hope is that by sharing those stories you can see bits of your own family, and maybe by sharing mine you can see pieces of yourself and realize that your story, however unbeautiful you think it is, deserves to be heard too.”
There’s no better time to be a social media creator right now, with platforms like TikTok, YouTube and Instagram allowing influencers to earn tens of thousands of dollars from a single sponsored post or video. But for professionals who already make six figures from lucrative traditional jobs in law, finance, and tech, and whose careers promise them a lifetime of prestige and stability, what’s the appeal?
For some who made the switch from corporate work to content creation, staying in a notoriously high-stakes, high-stress environment wasn’t worth the high income. Social media also offered them flexible hours and a creative outlet that they just weren’t finding in a traditional nine-to-five.
“I just realized that there was no amount of money that I wanted to keep working, to have someone be able to just dictate my time and have control over me,” said Erika Kullberg, 31, who quit her job as a corporate attorney in 2019 after long hours prevented her from spending time with a dying relative who eventually passed away.
Kullberg said she had been making more than $250,000 a year at Morrison & Foerster, the law firm she left in 2019 to start her own legal tech company, Plug and Law, which aims to make legal resources more affordable and accessible for small businesses. She also has a YouTube channel, which she had started as a side project while building her business, where she shares career and finance advice to her 245,000 subscribers. One of her videos, titled “QUIT MY $250,000 JOB after learning THIS about money,” in which she shares how to create and maintain multiple passive income streams, has almost 1.5 million views. Just two months ago she decided to create a TikTok account to perform skits with tips on how to save money—she now has more than 5 million followers.
“I spent so many years in undergrad, law school, and at this law firm just trying to follow this path that I thought society wanted me to follow,” Kullberg said. “I was probably one of the highest-paid lawyers in the world for my age. But once I reached that, I realized that maybe it wasn’t everything everyone told me it would be.”
Pursuing social media gave Kullberg the flexibility to dictate her own schedule, make time for family, and travel the world. She declined to say how much she makes from her YouTube or TikTok accounts, but said that she makes more now as a creator than she did as a corporate lawyer. And leaving the corporate world meant that she was now her own boss, and she loved how that felt.
That was certainly the case for Vincent Chan, 26, who left his job as a product manager at fintech firm SIMON Markets LLC, making $120,000 a year, to pursue a career making videos about personal finance on YouTube full-time in November 2020.
“You’ve heard that mantra ‘We’re all cogs in a machine.’ But what I realized was at work, you were kind of worth less than that. If a cog goes missing from a machine it stops running. But [at work] if you go missing, the company doesn’t really care,” Chan said. “I felt like I was going into this flow every single day, doing the exact same thing, and not really contributing anything to society or the company.”
The creators that Fortune spoke with said there are many perks to transitioning from corporate work to content creation, including a flexible work schedule and the ability to be your own boss. But they also emphasized that there was an undeniable privilege that came from working in a lucrative job before they became influencers. If their social media venture failed, they had a financial safety net to fall back on.
“Not everybody can do this,” said Chan, who began to create YouTube videos as a side project when he was working his regular nine-to-five. Once he realized his channel was doing pretty well, and that he had a chunk of savings set aside, he made the decision to quit after a little over two years of corporate life. He declined to reveal how much he currently makes on YouTube, but he said the channel makes more money than what he earned at his previous job, although he pays himself “significantly less” so he can reinvest his profits back into his business.
Brooke Miccio, a 24-year-old lifestyle vlogger, left her postgrad job in tech sales after eight months in 2019 to focus on her YouTube channel and podcast. She agreed that savings were a critical part of her decision to transition into a career in social media.
“I never want to be out here encouraging everybody to quit their jobs recklessly,” Miccio said. “I think it’s really, really risky to just quit with the hope of doing something if you haven’t proven to yourself some success with it, and that you really want to do it.”
For Molinaro, the decision to reroute the career path she had originally set out on was not an easy one. It was only after seeing the potential for her social media posts to generate revenue and spur profitable side projects while still at her full-time job, like writing a New York Times bestselling cookbook, that she felt comfortable considering a career as a content creator. Molinaro declined to say how much she makes, but she said that she’s comfortable with how much she earns as The Korean Vegan and is looking to make strategic investments to scale the business more in the next five years.
“I’m not going to be that person that says follow your dreams no matter what. That’s irresponsible, and it’s not cool,” said Molinaro. “For me, the reason it took me so long to ultimately make that leap was precisely because I needed to see some track record before I was willing to invest in it.”
Molinaro started The Korean Vegan as an online food blog in 2016, but began to see real monetary success only in the summer of 2020, when she made her TikTok account. She left her full-time law job about a year after she started her TikTok.
The creators Fortune spoke with all agreed on one thing: There’s no doubt that more and more people who have experienced corporate work life are feeling compelled to do something new, especially after the COVID pandemic has made remote employees feel professionally and creatively unfulfilled. And for some of the people who have already taken that risk, the reward can be pretty big.
“I think that priorities have shifted for people and they’re realizing, ‘Maybe it’s not all about my job,’” Kullberg said. “Maybe there are other life priorities: freedom, flexibility, time. It was the best decision of my life.”
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