Participant Spotlight: Hagit Katzenelson

Hagit Katzenelson worked in product management for a number of start-ups and tech companies before the demands of caring for family and a friend with cancer compelled her to take a career break. When she was ready to return, Hagit job-searched for five years before landing a returnship as Product Manager for Walmart Labs, where she now works full-time. She tells us about the importance of believing in yourself, her work on app development, and how her supportive Walmart team set her up for success.

Tell me a bit about your previous career. What type of work did you do before taking a break?
Most of my roles prior to my career break centered around product management at various levels, even when my role didn’t specifically call for it.  At one point, I was the Vice President of Marketing at a start-up, but because it was such a small company, my responsibilities included product management. My last job before I took a break was Product Manager for a consumer-facing, social networking product. When I left the workforce in 2009, mobile apps, which I work with now, were not yet big, but social networks were definitely starting to be.

What prompted your break, and how long were you out of the workforce?
I took a break because I had a lot of things going on in my life: I was helping care for a close friend who was dying of cancer, my grandmother was dying of Alzheimer’s, and I was raising three small kids. It took a lot out of me, both emotionally and time-wise. My supervisor at the time was inflexible, and there was no possibility of cutting down hours or responsibilities. I couldn’t juggle everything, was feeling burned out. I left because I felt like I really didn’t have a choice. I was out of the workforce for nine years in total, but for the last five I was looking to return to work.

What prompted you to return to work?
I was really busy with all those things for four years, especially with cancer care. I only started thinking about going back to work after my friend’s treatment had finished. At that point, my grandma had also unfortunately passed away, and my kids had grown older, so I had more spare time on my hands. I wanted to do something more productive for myself and feel that sense of self-fulfillment. I know that sounds like a cliche, but I felt like I wasn’t using half of my brain at home, and I wanted to just get back into my career.

How long were you actively looking for work prior to applying for a returnship? What was that process like?
It was a painful, difficult process. There are a lot of preconceptions about older women returning to work, especially in tech. Many of my interviewers assumed that I either did not know anything about what was currently happening in tech, or that I wasn’t committed enough to my career. A friend and I started calling these interviews the Five Guys interviews. You’d come into a room with five young guys interviewing you, and it would be so hard to connect and get on the same page with them, and prove yourself in a 30-45 minute interview. There were hardly any women doing the interviewing, and even they didn’t always understand my career break.

What motivated you to keep going during that long process?
What motivated me was the fact that I really wanted to come back to work. A lot of well-meaning people told me to give up and leave the tech industry, to go find another field that would be more accepting of women who’ve taken a break – to use a metaphor, they were basically saying, stop hitting your head against the wall because it’s not going to become a door. During my first Path Forward workshop, I told Tami that I don’t think my return to work would have happened without a returnship. I needed a chance to prove myself on a job, not on a short interview. All I really needed was a hiring manager willing to say, “You know what, it’s not that big of a risk for us – let’s do it.” And that was what my Walmart returnship gave me – an opportunity to prove myself.

Did you take any classes or complete any training in preparation for your return to work?
I decided to create my own app and launch it on the Google Play store, so that I would have a way to talk about app development during interviews. I also wrote a blog and attended conferences, just to make sure that I was up-to-date on the latest in product development and management for mobile applications. 

What was your returnship role at Walmart?
My role was Product Manager in Supply Chain Technology. I was in charge of defining a mobile app that would work with Walmart associates to deliver groceries. The returnship was in line with my previous mobile app experience, but I learned more about retail and grocery delivery technology. It was fun – a good mix of things that I knew how to do, and things that I was learning to do.

What role are you in now?
I’m in the same role, I just have more responsibilities, especially in an application that controls what they call “last-mile delivery.”  I’m in charge of that app, as well as a dispatcher app that manages drivers and orders in all the deliveries. It’s a bit like a ride-sharing app. 

Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your new role?
Having a background in product management definitely made it easier for me to re-integrate. I took all of my product management skills with me from my previous roles: everything from how to interview a user, how to use the information you’ve gathered to drive your product development and requirements, how to talk to other teams and business partners about their own needs. Basically, everything that includes gathering needs and translating them into specs was something I was able to take from my previous life. What was new for me was working in retail, and in a company of Walmart’s size.

What was the experience of returning to work at Walmart like?
I love my team. They were very welcoming from the beginning, even though it was clear that I was older, and of a different background from them. My boss was fantastic, and I feel so lucky because not only did he fully support the project I was working on, but so did the supply-chain product lead, and Vice President of Product. I had a well-defined project, which really set me up for success. I remember at the end of my returnship, my team told me that I was very approachable, but the truth is, they made is so easy to get along with them, ask questions, and get help when I needed it. It was a good relationship right from the beginning. From start to finish, my team gave me everything I needed to excel, and the rest was up to me to prove what I could do.

What did you find most helpful about being part of a Path Forward program at Walmart?
Our workshop sessions were super helpful. They were an indicator for how the returnship was going for us, and what we can expect at every stage of the 16 weeks – when we should worry, when we shouldn’t worry, and what steps we can take to make sure our returnship is a success. I also know that, behind the scenes, my managers were getting their own support and advice from Path Forward, which helped refine my projects and make the returnship a success. And I think, on Path Forward’s end, a big help was partnering with all these companies to create these opportunities in the first place. 

As I said before, without a returnship I don’t think I’d have been able to come back to work. When I went to a Path Forward recruiting event in Palo Alto, I was among hundreds of women who were potential applicants, and all of them were just like me. They made the decision to take a career break and, for whatever reason, were struggling to return to work. So, Path Forward, keep on opening doors and doing what you’re doing. 

What has been the most exciting or gratifying part of returning to work?
Belonging to a team that’s doing something important within the company. I feel so lucky to be part of grocery delivery at Walmart, which is at the forefront of their technology efforts right now. The company supports my team’s efforts and product 100%, and there’s nothing better than that It’s been really amazing and fun to be doing something productive again. 

Do you have any advice for future returnees?
I’d say keep your skills up-to-date, and stay involved in your industry. It’s hard to come back without having some foot in the industry. Don’t disconnect completely, and if you have done that, take steps to re-introduce yourself before you come back – go to meet-ups, industry conferences, read articles. I’d recommend returning to work in a role you have some familiarity with. While it’s definitely possible to return in a role you have no experience in, you have so much higher to climb. For instance, a lot of things have changed in product management since I’ve been away, but the fundamentals have stayed the same, and I was able to bring that to the table. 

And finally, what are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
I want to say getting our product out the door! And on a personal level, just the feeling of doing something again, after facing five years of rejections. It’s proof to myself that everyone who told me to quit was wrong, and that I actually am good at what I do. That external validation feels great.

Thanks for sharing your story, Hagit! We are so happy you’ve found success and balance in your career. – The Path Forward Team