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Choosing Her Own Path: Cheryl Edmonds’ Story

Posted by Bill MacKenzie

To say Cheryl Edmonds’ life has been a long and winding road to becoming an Encore Fellow would be an understatement.

At various times an art store owner, children’s dress designer, engineer, psychology student, and non-profit executive, she has never been one to get stuck in a rut. An adventurous, creative, peripatetic woman, she’s refused to get bogged down in one job.  If she’s in a group where everybody is doing the same thing, she’ll seek an alternative approach. “I’ve always looked for new ways of doing things, new opportunities,” she says. “That’s how I’m wired.”

Unlike the near obsolete corporate careerist, she’s zigged and zagged throughout her life. She’s lived around the world, including China and Europe, and welcomed foreign students into her home. A Chinese graduate student in urban planning began staying with her in January 2013 while studying at Portland State University.  At one point she helped found a non-profit focused on creating online learning tools for blind people. She’s even been featured in a Fast Company Magazine story about the changing nature of work and retirement.

Raised on a small family farm in Eugene, OR, where she joined 4-H and embraced the concepts of hard work and responsibility, Edmonds left at 18 to experience the larger world.  First stop was working for a bank in Portland Oregon, then a bank in Southern California, followed by enlistment in the Air Force at age 26 where she learned how to be an avionics technician,. Next up came migration to Seattle, a move to Vancouver, WA, a technology marketing stint in Europe, a teaching job in China, and a shift to Oregon.

Edmonds earned her undergraduate degree in fits at and starts at several schools over a number of years. She spent a chunk of time studying engineering at Cal State Fresno, consistent with her work as a field engineer at IBM and HP, but she ended up with a B.A. in psychology from the University of Washington in 1995. “I ‘ve long had an interest in why humans do what they do,” she says, “particularly in how they learn and express creativity.” She then rejoined HP in consumer marketing, which interested her because of the company’s commitment to innovation.

At age 54, after a total of nearly 18 years at HP, she left the company in 2005, but insists it was not a retirement, just another chapter in a long, productive life. “I don’t consider myself retired at all,” she said. “For now, it’s full steam ahead. I want to stay involved, doing stuff that’s meaningful and fun.”

Her first stop after HP — serving as Executive Director of a Vancouver, WA-based non-profit focused on creating online learning tools for blind people. When that job ended, she took a look at what else was on her bucket list. Initially she thought she’d join the staff of the Peace Corps. The best way to get in, she decided, would be to first teach English as a second language in a 3rd World country. So she got a certification at UCLA to do that, connected with a recruiter online, and secured a spot teaching 200 students at a top-tier engineering university in Tianjin, China, about 70 miles southeast of Beijing.

In China she connected with the director of the Peace Corps there, leading to a summer job in Chengdu training incoming volunteers headed out into China to teach English. Cheryl figured that would open up doors for her to land a full-time staff job with the Peace Corps, but her application was rejected.

Facing an uncertain future once again, she returned to Portland in 2011. Fortuitously, greeting her upon arrival was an e-mail from the Social Venture Partners Portland Encore Fellows Program seeking former HP people in transition to sign up for a spot in Portland, OR. “I took one look at the e-mail and said, yes, I want to do that,” she said.

She interviewed with several Portland-area non-profits, before settling on Metropolitan Family Service, an organization dedicated to strengthening the lives of children and families. There she served as an Encore Fellow working part-time for 1000 hours from June 2011 to June 2012. Her job — helping identify and recruit  volunteer “Encore Consultants” to perform projects for the non-profit, such as expanding a program that helps low income people learn financial literacy and secure low-interest car loans. She followed that with a Sept. 2012 – Sept. 2013 fellowship assignment helping improve the volunteer experience at the Ronald McDonald House.

Both fellowships came with $20,000 annual grants to her, not much to live on and not enough to buy health insurance. “I’ve been a pretty prudent investor and saver, and also done occasional consulting along the way, so I’ve been able to make do,” Cheryl said. “ I definitely have a modest lifestyle, but that’s by choice,” she says. “I’m a minimalist. I have the aspiration of having a light footprint on the planet. I’m out of the thing market and in the market of experiences and meaning.”

What’s next for Cheryl? Given the demand for available spots, it’s unlikely another Fellowship  will be in Cheryl’s future, She still hopes to find a career in the non-profit world, however, perhaps dealing with renewable energy, the arts, troubled youth or woman entrepreneurs. And she’s willing to go wherever, “depending on where the wherever is and what’s there when I get there,” she says.

When will she stop her nomadic journey? “I’ll continue doing eclectic things until I find something that keeps me at home base,” she says.

Will she ever stop and embrace the traditional life of a retiree? “No,” she says emphatically. “I’ll never be a golfer in Phoenix. I have too many things on my bucket list that need to be attended to.”

Her advice to others contemplating getting involved in the Social Venture Partners Program: “Go volunteer with a non-profit; use your skills there and convince them you can become part of the mission’s passion, “she says. “There are so many problems to solve. Non-profits need all the brainpower and enthusiasm to solve them. Don’t spend a lot of time mired in the prospects for failure. Just go do it.”