Mimi Leinbach had a varied career before her break, working in educational software and running her own children’s clothing company. She returned to work in product management at SAP, and now works there full-time as a Program Manager. She talks about her return-to-work experience and how the soft skills honed in her previous career have come in handy at SAP.
Returnship Company: SAP SuccessFactors
Returnship Role: Program Manager
Tell me a bit about your career break. What type of work did you do before taking a break? What prompted your break, and how long were you out of the workforce?
I started my career in children’s educational software working for a series of acquisitions including Electronic Arts, The Learning Company and Mattel, and worked my way from customer support to senior product manager. In that role, I found myself interacting with people who had a lot more business experience than I did, so I decided to get an MBA from UC Berkeley Haas to round out my business skills. After graduating, I went back to children’s educational software, but switched to the marketing side, as a Brand Manager at LeapFrog. But one thing that had sparked my interest in business school was entrepreneurship, and I really wanted to try starting my own business.
When I had my first kid, I saw an opportunity to start a children’s clothing business, which I hoped would provide me with a better work-life balance. I manufactured overseas and sold wholesale to boutiques worldwide and in the US. There were some challenges along the way – I started my business before the financial downturn of 2008, but managed to keep growing it over seven years. In 2012 after a series of manufacturing challenges, I finally decided to stop. I spent a year reading MBA applications for Haas before officially taking some time off to take care of my kids. I didn’t intend to take a long break, but ended up being out of the workforce for five years, including two spent planning my return.
What prompted you to return to work?
When my oldest went to middle school I began my process of planning my next career move. I wasn’t quite sure what I should do, with my varied background in kids software and apparel. I knew I wanted to go back on the product side in technology, in a similar role to what I was doing before I went to business school. I took some time networking and applying to jobs before I discovered Path Forward.
I had opportunities pop up around the time I applied to a project management returnship, but I saw the returnship at SAP as my chance to work at a type of business that was new to me. I had a great conversation with the hiring manager during my interview, and decided to take this role when it was offered to me. I felt like the role itself would be a good match for my entrepreneurial background, and would provide me with opportunities to learn and grow.
What was your returnship role at SAP?
I was a Project Manager in the User Experience Design group, and reported to the Vice President of the group. He assigned me a small project that included putting on a workshop for customers to re-imagine their user experience. It was a good opportunity, and the type of project that I could own and complete during my returnship. The VP also connected me with a woman who was a very experienced mentor in the organization, which allowed me to learn more about the business and get support. By the time my returnship was over, I had completed the project I was assigned and had shown my skills and what I could do, and I was hired full-time.
What role are you in now?
I’m now the first and only Program Manager on the Product Design team. I work on reimagining the user experience across their entire suite of products. SAP’s suite is expansive, and there have been a lot of acquisitions in building this vast product. There was a need to modernize and redesign it from the ground-up to make it cohesive and consumer grade. SAP was just on the cusp of launching this effort when I was converted to a full-time role, so it was a good match for my skills. It’s an entrepreneurial and strategic role, so it brings together a lot of my interests and skills. I also have a lot more responsibilities now. I’m included in the leadership team, which has just exceeded my expectations for where I would be after my returnship. When you first return to work, you have these thoughts of, “Am I going to have to start at the bottom? Am I ever going to get back to the level I was before?” So it has worked out great, and I think it could only have happened so quickly through a returnship.
Are there any skills from your pre-break career that you use in your new role? What about skills you gained during your career break?
I’ve found myself using pretty much all of my skills from my pre-break career. All of my previous roles have been cross-functional, where I’ve had to work in both an internal and external-facing capacity. I think my pre-break career also provided me with a lot of the communications and negotiation skills that I now use. Even though I don’t officially work in marketing, my pre-break marketing role has come in handy with the customer program that I now manage. And launching my clothing line helped prepare me for the entrepreneurial nature of my job – the fact that we’re creating processes that are completely new, and have no precedent to follow.
What did you find most helpful about being part of a Path Forward program at SAP?
On the most basic level, the most helpful thing was just having this program exist in the first place. It offered me a chance to return to work in a way that was low-risk for both the company and for me. There are a lot of support groups and blogs out there that help job seekers, but many of them are focused on providing advice or instilling confidence. All of that is important, but Path Forward also provides actual opportunities to return to work and prove your skills to companies.
The workshops were also really great, as was their timing – I liked that they helped us navigate how to get the most out of specific phases in our returnship. I also appreciated having alumni come in and talk about their experiences, because they’ve been in your shoes and understand what you’re going through. I was actually invited to speak at a workshop recently, which I really enjoyed.
What was your experience returning to work at SAP?
SAP has been so awesome in terms of providing flexibility and work-life balance. Frankly, if I had been at a company like this when I first contemplated leaving my regular job in search of work-life balance, I don’t think I would have left. It feels like such an asset to be in a culture that understands the odd hours that parents sometimes have to work. The company is very flexible and everyone is very understanding of the need to balance parenting and working. I’ve found that both the men and women I work with feel free to set their schedules and leave to pick up their kids, for instance. In my previous workplaces, that simply was not the case. So I feel like, returning to work at SAP, I’ve had to give up so much less than I thought I would.
Do you have any advice for future returnees?
At the beginning of the program, I sent my manager my goals, or roadmap, for my returnship. It included all of the objectives that I hoped to accomplish, skills I hoped to gain, and what opportunities I hoped the returnship would lead to. I’d highly encourage returnees to do something of that nature when they return to work, though I understand that situations – and managers – can vary. Even if you feel like you can’t be that direct, I recommend being assertive about what you want out of your return to work experience and making it known to your manager. I would also recommend networking within the company, and getting to know your colleagues and what they do, because it might lead to other opportunities down the road.
What are you most proud of accomplishing during your return to work experience?
I had invested a lot in my career, gotten an MBA, and when returning to work I had a fear that I wouldn’t be able to use all the experiences and education that I had built up. I thought I’d have to start from the beginning again, and wouldn’t be challenged in the job that I managed to get. I’m sure that I could have gotten a full-time job without going through a returnship, but I don’t think I would have been able to prove myself and my capabilities in such a short amount of time. It would have taken me several years to get to the leadership level I’m at now.
What has been the most exciting or gratifying part of returning to work?
Just being here at SAP has been exciting. Preparing for a return to work can be grueling – because you’re working hard to reskill and network and apply, and you don’t know what the payoff will be. It’s a hard situation to be in, so I’m just so happy that all of my efforts have been worth it, and that I can enjoy this balanced life that I have been working towards for so long.