An Interview With Rachael Soroka

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Rachael Soroka

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Rachael Soroka

Name: Rachael Soroka
Location: Garden Valley, California
Profession: Owner of Soroka Violins, a violin repair shop

You run a violin repair shop. What an unusual and fascinating career! How did you find your way into this work? Did you play violin as a kid? Did you study music in college? Have you always been interested in taking things apart and putting them back together? How did this happen?

I started playing the violin when I was eight, and my mom dug my great-grandpa’s old fiddle out of grandpa’s attic and we took it to a violin shop to have it fixed up.

I was totally smitten with the shop. It was in Cleveland in an old burned-out industrial part of town in a decrepit reclaimed factory building. The elevator had a human operator! The ceilings were twenty feet tall, and the huge windows looked out over Lake Erie. The workshop was a treasure-trove—wood and violin parts in little cubbies stacked up and piled up and bits stuck in here and there, surrounding an old wooden workbench packed with every kind of blade and hand tool imaginable.

The violin maker, Peter Horn, was a gentleman in his sixties who chain-smoked cigarettes and had a thick German accent. I loved going to his shop! I remember asking him how he got to be a violin maker, and he told me that he studied at the violin making school in Marneukirchen, Germany.

I didn’t think I could ever do that, so I put the idea of being a violin maker myself out of my mind. Until one summer in college when I was working at Pinewoods Camp, a folk music and dance camp for adults near Plymouth, Massachusetts. There was a workshop there that I was allowed to use, and in my free time I tried to make a violin, just for fun, because I had found an old 19th century manual in the local library. Being a folk music camp, lots of fiddlers came through and one of them was a violin maker! He told me that there were schools in America, too, and that some people just learned by apprenticeship. That was enough to launch me!

I dropped out of college that next semester and walked back into Peter Horn’s shop. I asked to be his apprentice. He looked at me like I was crazy and said that usually people paid him to teach them… and I certainly didn’t have any money. But he was a really social and sweet person, and sitting at the workbench can be a pretty solitary activity. So I stood around and chatted with him most of that day, and at the end I asked if I could come back and chat some more. “Of course!” he said. And that’s how I sneaked into an apprenticeship. I got a job waiting tables, and on all my days off, I went to Cleveland and stood behind Peter Horn and watched and asked questions, and listened to polka music on the radio, and breathed second-hand smoke. It was wonderful. After doing that for about a year, he hired me because he said I knew too much to be helping him out for free. And so I had my foot in the door and a traditional violin maker’s apprenticeship on my résumé.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Rachael Soroka

Wow! That’s an incredible story. Someone needs to turn your life into an Oscar-winning movie called The Violin Maker’s Apprentice, or something like that! Take us back to the early days of your business. How did it feel to open your own shop? Did you have customers right away? Or did things feel “quiet” and “empty” at first? Did you feel excited? Nervous? Both?

It’s funny, I don’t remember being nervous when I left the safety of a salary and went to work for myself. I took a part-time administrative job for a local business as a buffer, and started working on violins from home. I had contract work from other violin shops right away—the shop I had been working in sent me work, and then more shops found me and started sending me work. And then local people starting finding me and coming in, and they would tell people so more people would come… It has been a steady and pretty stress-free process.

Have you ever had a customer who made you feel a little star-struck—like a famous musician, composer, or conductor? Did you start babbling with excitement, or were you able to keep your cool?

I’m not that prone to being star-struck by people, and there’s something about a person who thinks they are a star that pretty much turns me off. We are all on the road of mastery, and some people are a little farther along is all.

But when I have felt star-struck is seeing old instruments made by the masters who’ve been dead and gone for centuries already. I’ve worked on instruments that are 300 years old! Just holding one of those old beautiful masterpieces is a thrill—I can feel the thousands and thousands of hours of music that have been played, the generations of humans who have come and gone using that instrument as the tool to do the work of the muse, and the artistry and dedication of a lifetime that the violin maker put into that wood so many years ago. It’s really breathtaking.

Has there ever been a moment in your career where you felt really discouraged—or a moment when you considered shutting down your business? What happened, how did you feel, and how did you get yourself through that moment?

The worst time was when I was working for a violin shop in Vermont. The two men who owned the shop were amazing—they both played for the symphony, and they were both really skilled in the shop in two different ways: one knew about identifying and valuing instruments and all the business aspects of running the shop, and the other was the violin maker. I learned so much from both of them!

But after a few years there, they sold the shop, and the folks who bought it and I just did not click. At all. They were business people and didn’t know much about violins, and so they made me “head of the repair shop,” which I did not feel qualified for, and I really wanted to keep learning from someone out ahead of me. I felt really lonely and the “suits” kept pushing me to push the other repair-people in the business who were now working under me to work harder and faster, but they kept hiring totally unskilled and inexperienced people who weren’t capable of doing better or faster work. It was so awful.

So I sent résumé s around to be best shops in the country, looking for a new job, and I ended up in a world-famous shop in San Francisco working for a violin maker who had studied as a young man at the violin making school in Germany, and then came to the USA to work for the best shop in the country at the time under the “father of modern violin making.” So, I was back to learning and growing under this master’s feedback. Problem solved.

What’s the most rewarding part of your work—the moments that make you think, “Wow, I’m so grateful this is my job”?

I love to learn and grow. And the best part of being a violin maker is that one can never actually master anything. As soon as your hands get good at something, your eye gets better too and pretty soon the eye is pointing out how your hands can improve. Then your hands catch back up and the process repeats. In addition, there are many ways to skin a cat and you can always learn from other people and try new approaches and new materials.

I imagine that restoring violins will keep me intrigued until I die. So far, I’m still fascinated, and it’s been 17 years!

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Rachael Soroka

3 Things

If someone wants to start a career building and repairing musical instruments, like you, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. Make art.

Paintings and sculptures, especially. This will train your eye and train your ability to see something in your mind and then make it happen in the physical realm.

2. Learn to work with wood.

Learn which tools to use and when. Learn to sharpen blades until you can use them as razors. Learn how wood behaves. To get started, sign up for a general woodworking class at a local community college—especially if the class uses hand tools rather than machines.

3. Play music.

Pick up an instrument. Take some lessons. Whether it’s in a formal classroom setting or hanging out in a master’s studio and chatting, always keep learning!


Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Rachael? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!


Your Career Forecast: June / July 2017

Ellen Fondiler | Career Forecast: April / May 2017

I work as a career and business strategist. But my secret passion is… astrology!

About once a month,  I post an overview of what’s happening in the cosmos and how it might influence your career. It’s called: Your Career Forecast.

Whether you’re job-hunting, running your own business, or wondering about the ideal time to ask for a raise or take a vacation, each Career Forecast will reveal the important dates and cosmic shifts that you need to know about.

I am joined by my dear friend, Heidi Rose Robbins, a master astrologer who will provide expert insight into what’s going on in the stars.

Let’s dive in!


What’s going on this month…

HEIDI: The Sun moves into Cancer at 9:24pm Pacific on June 20th, 2017. We enter the great sign of receptivity and sensitivity, a sign deeply connected with nourishment. It wants to feed, to encourage growth, to protect and produce. It rules birth, families and building homes. One of the most potent Cancer phrases is:

“I build a lighted house and therein dwell.”

During Cancer, we ask ourselves what home we want to fill with light. Do we want to focus on our family home or on a studio for our art? Is there a project we wish to see grow? Is there an event we are meant to produce? Or are we meant to fill our own body with light—paying attention to our physical, emotional and mental well being? All are possible.

Mercury moves into Cancer just one day later on June 21st. Mercury in Gemini had us juggling a LOT. When Mercury moves into Cancer, our thinking becomes more intuitive and we tend to let our feelings have more say. We “feel our way” into things. The only danger is letting our current mood derail our larger momentum. It’s definitely a quieter time—to reflect, write and meditate.

The New Moon of Cancer falls on June 23rd. New Moons bring new energy and opportunity. We plant new seeds and feel refreshed. We welcome the potential of Cancer—which is thriving summer.

Venus moves into Gemini on July 4th and will be there about a month. Venus has the power to bring people together. It is magnetic. Venus has the power to fuse the opposites of Gemini. So, with Venus in Gemini we can see the beauty of both sides. We can come up with powerful ways to build a bridge between opposing sides—even within ourselves. It’s a GREAT time to write. It’s a great time to give a talk about what matters to you.

It helps that on that same day, July 4th, Mercury will move into Leo. This is a sign of great self-expression and confidence. We roar under Leo. We lead well. We shine. Some of us will boast or take ourselves a little too seriously but most of us could use a little kick to share our message and dare ourselves to offer our gifts.

The very next day, July 5th, the Sun will trine Neptune. This is a great day to daydream. Neptune is the God of the water so there’s no better place to dream than near a big body of water. Take a walk. Breathe in the vastness. Allow yourself to imagine your next chapter. Read some poetry. Listen to music you love. Let the inspiration flow.

July 8th is the Full Moon of Cancer. Though the moon is in Capricorn, we celebrate the Cancer energy. It is the most potent moment of the month to work with the energies of Cancer. What do you wish to build? What do you wish to fill with light? What needs your loving care?

On July 19th, Mercury trines Saturn which allows you to get very concrete about whatever you dream up. It’s a great time to cross off every line of your to-do list. It’s an “I mean business” day. Roll up your sleeves and dive in.

Have a beautiful month. Wrap your arms around something and see it grow. I always think of the quote from Field of Dreams when we arrive in the month of Cancer: “If you build it, they will come.” Welcome people into your lighted house.

So what does all of this mean for your career? Let’s look closer…


Here’s what you need to know:

ELLEN: If you’re looking for a new job, this is a powerhouse month for you! Venus moves into Gemini on July 4th and stays there for about a month. That same day, we’ve got Mercury moving into Leo. This combination of planetary forces means that your writing, communication, and leadership skills will be heightened. You might feel a little more daring than usual. More confident. More magnetic. More comfortable in the spotlight. More willing to talk about your achievements enthusiastically, instead of brushing them aside with a sheepish, “Oh, it was nothing, really…”

During this month, the Venus-Gemini energy allows us to “see both sides” of a situation. As you move through the job-hunting process, remember that you’re being evaluated by potential employers, but you’re also evaluating them, too. It’s a two-sided process.

And remember that if you’re feeling intimidated or nervous, just know that your future boss is probably feeling the same way! They’re feeling pressured to find the right person as quickly as possible, just like you might be feeling pressured to get hired as quickly as possible. You’re both human beings searching for “the right fit.” Even though you might be sitting on different sides of the interview table, ultimately, you’re on the same side.


Here’s what you need to know:

ELLEN: Mark down June 23rd on your calendar, because that’s the New Moon… which means new energy, new ideas, and often, renewed excitement! If you’ve been feeling a little “blah” about your work lately—bored, disconnected, aimless—you might notice your attitude shifting on this day, or throughout the surrounding days.

The New Moon is also a great time to reflect on the previous month and set some new goals. When it comes to your work, what would you love to keep doing, stop doing, or change? Also, which skills would you like to strengthen? What kinds of projects would you love to lead? What kinds of meetings, retreats, or conferences would you like to attend? Who would be your dream mentor? What would you love to achieve during the upcoming month, and also, during the second half of 2017?

Use the fresh, revitalizing New Moon energy to percolate on these kinds of questions. And if you’re sitting in a room all by yourself feeling blank (“Um… I don’t know what I want!”), then… get out of your PJs, get out of the house, and meet up with a friend to discuss these questions together. Personally, I always feel much clearer when I can talk things out with a friend. Make a New Moon walk ’n talk date with someone you love, and see where the conversation leads.


Here’s what you need to know:

ELLEN: When you’re self-employed, it can feel like your to-do list never ends. There’s always something else you could be doing—another potential client that you could reach out to, another newsletter you could write, another invoice that needs to be sent. If you’ve been feeling burnt out and exhausted lately, this month is an especially good opportunity to nourish yourself and set healthier limits and boundaries.

If you reply to emails and texts from your clients 24/7, even when you’re tucked in bed, maybe it’s time for some new communication policies. Maybe it would feel great to put your phone into a drawer at 6pm and leave it there, untouched, until the next morning.

Small choices like this can make a huge difference to your mental and physical health.

As the Sun moves into the sign of Cancer on June 20th, it’s a chance to ask yourself, “How could I nourish myself a little bit more? How could I reduce my stress levels? How could I protect myself from getting burnt out?” Ask yourself these kinds of questions, and see what your intuition says in response. It might be something very simple, like, “More sleep!” or “Five clients per month, not six.”

After several weeks of extra TLC, you’ll be recharged and ready for action. Perfect timing, because Mercury trines Saturn on July 19th, which means it’s a go-go-go, get-it-done type of day. You’re likely to feel extra-focused and energetic on this day, so tackle your to-do list and see how much you can plough through! You might astonish yourself!


• Setting limits and boundaries.

• Preventing (or recovering) from burn out.

• Protecting yourself from unnecessary stress and negativity.

• Paying extra-close attention to your physical, emotional and mental well being.

• And, talking about your accomplishments with confidence and enthusiasm.


June 20th – Sun moves into Cancer. (Nourish yourself, tend to your well being.)

June 21st – Mercury moves into Cancer. (Lead with your heart, not your brain, and feel your way forward.)

June 23rd – New Moon in Cancer. (Plant new seeds, make new wishes.)

July 4th – Venus moves into Gemini. (Build bridges, see both sides of the situation.)

July 4th – Mercury moves into Leo. (Heightened self-expression and confidence.)

July 5th – Sun trine Neptune. (Daydream and go with the flow.)

July 8th – Full moon of Cancer. (A beautiful day to ask, “What needs my loving care?”)

July 19th – Mercury trine Saturn. (A super-productive day. Get things done!)


“Nourishing yourself in a way that helps you blossom in the direction you want to go is attainable, and you are worth the effort.” —Deborah Day

Whether we work in a cubicle, on a cruise ship, or in the world of social justice, activism, or politics, we’re all trying to add something “good” to the world. More ease. More beauty. More entertainment. More laughter. More equality. But in order to do good work, we’ve got to take good care of ourselves. When we’re dehydrated, hungry, ache-y, sleep deprived, or zombie-like from too many hours spent in front of a computer screen, that’s not fun, and it doesn’t lead to our “best quality of work,” either.

This month, tune into Cancer energies, and protect yourself from excessive stress. Nourish yourself as best you can. Take excellent care of your mind and body. Really make your well being a priority. This doesn’t necessarily mean “eating Paleo” or “hiring a personal trainer.” Often, it just means shutting off your computer at a reasonable hour, laughing a little more, walking a little more, and finding a little more balance.

And yes, you are worth the effort.
Have a beautiful month!


Learn more about my career & business coaching services here.

Learn more about Heidi and her astrological services here.

An Interview With Kate Spencer

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kate Spencer

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kate Spencer

Name: Kate Spencer
Location: Los Angeles, California
Profession: Comedian, Writer, Recovering Coffee Addict

You are a comedian, writer, and a mom. How do you juggle all of those balls at once? What does a typical day look like for you? Do you manage everything serenely like a graceful swan, or is it crazy-town-madness from dawn till dusk?

I’d like to think it’s graceful madness! But that’s probably wishful thinking. I juggle all those balls by dropping them a lot, then picking them up and trying again.

A typical day involves mornings spent nagging my kids to eat breakfast, get dressed, brush their teeth, make sure they have their underwear on, and then hustling everyone out of the house. My husband and I tag team the mornings but it’s still always a frantic rush.

I work on my writing (freelance assignments and books) when they’re at school, and at night after they’re in bed and on weekends. Then after I pick them up, it’s Costco, dance/art/gymnastics lessons, walking the dog, cleaning the house, and on and on and on.

I’d love to say we all sit down and eat dinner together and have meaningful, heartfelt conversations about our day, but that’s not an everyday thing around here because we’re all busy and on different schedules. But I think those moments happen throughout our days together, so I don’t try to get too hung up on it. We do homework, playtime, books and bedtime with our kids (er, and the occasional bath), and then it’s back to the grind of cleaning up and making lunches and snacks for tomorrow.

I’ve recently stopped having my iPhone with me in our bedroom so I am actually reading books again at night before I go to bed! Then I pass out to my white noise machine and do it all over again.

Your writing has been published in so many places: Rolling Stone, The Washington Post, Buzzfeed, Refinery29, Women’s Health, Salon, The Huffington Post… the list goes on and on. How did you line up those kinds of writing opportunities? Did you email each publication and say, “Hi, I’d love to write for you, and here’s my article idea…”? Did a colleague recommend you for a project? Or something else? Walk us through the sequence of events.

It is a combination of all sorts of things. Some editors I pitch cold, on my own. Sometimes someone recommends me for something, or an old colleague or friend reaches out. I’ve had people read a tweet I wrote and asked if I could expand it into a longer piece. I think the most important thing is being consistent, communicative, meeting your deadlines and delivering good work so that they ask or recommend you again.

Here’s my advice if you’re cold pitching: be professional, concise and clear in your email. State who you are, your experience, and then a 1-2 line pitch of your piece in the email. Then attach it as a Word doc AND paste it in the body of the email, if you don’t know how the editor’s preference. Have your entire piece written out, revised, spell-checked, and crafted before you send it. Make sure your name is on the document. If you don’t hear back, follow up in 2 weeks. If you don’t hear back again, give it another 2-3 weeks and check in once more. If your piece is rejected, pitch it somewhere else!

I think the most important thing when you’re cold pitching is not to half-ass it. Professionalism really counts (at least it did to me when I was an editor). I always appreciated people who had checked their work for mistakes and typos.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kate Spencer

You have a book coming out this fall about women whose mothers died when they were young, as yours did. It sounds like such a beautiful project, and I can’t wait to read it. Your book is being released by Seal Press, a division of the Hachette Book Group. I’m always curious to find out how people get their book deals. Did you have to find a literary agent first? Did the publisher approach you, or did you approach them? Tell us the story, please.

My story is unique in that I did not land my agent by querying. I have a good friend who is a literary agent, Holly Root, and she and I often talked about my writing. She was always open to hearing about projects I was working on, even when they were just seedlings of ideas, and left the door open for me to send her something when I was ready. It took me a long time to do this!

I spent about 8 months working on my book proposal. (I wrote one whole proposal, tossed it, and started again from the beginning.) I have no idea if this is a normal length of time but I was very particular and precious about it, and wanted it to be perfect(ish) before I showed it to her. I didn’t want to waste her time, or hand her something that didn’t feel like it could actually become a book. So when I was ready I nervously emailed it to her. I’d long admired Holly for her expertise, professionalism, and vision (she represents so many amazing authors), and was thrilled when she offered to represent me and my book proposal.

She then sent my proposal out to various editors at different publishing houses, and I’m so thrilled Stephanie Knapp at Seal Press saw something in it and picked it up. She’s been wonderful to work with and I’m really excited to be at Seal.

I’m making this process sound very easy breezy, but please know it involved lots of nail biting, soul searching, fear, and self-medicating with In-N-Out, too!

(Note from Ellen: You can pre-order Kate’s book, The Dead Mom’s Club:A Memoir about Death, Grief and Surviving the Mother of  All Losses, It will be released on November 21, 2017)

Ten years from now, what type of work do you imagine yourself doing? Exactly what you’re doing now? Or something different?

I’m currently working on a screenplay with a friend and am outlining a novel that’s totally different from my memoir, and anything I’ve ever written. Ideally I’ll be doing work that challenges and excites me, and brings happiness to others. That’s all I can really ask for.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kate Spencer

3 Things

What are your top 3 pieces of advice for someone who wants to be a professional writer—specifically, a hysterically funny comedic writer like you?

• Do the work.

Write. Do it even when it feels miserable. I learn this every single damn day, over and over again. The only way to write is to write. The only way you’ll ever finish The Thing is to just finish it.

• Anne Lamott’s advice is the best in the world: “Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start somewhere. Start by getting something—anything—down on paper.”

I have re-read her book Bird By Bird so many times because her advice and knowledge is so spot on. Everything I write is terrible in the beginning. Most of it stays terrible, but occasionally one thing keeps growing and growing and you find the thing. And then you have to REVISE it, over and over again, to get it to shine.

• Make your own opportunities.

I wrote for myself (for free) on my personal blog long before I ever wrote professionally. When it came to my improv comedy teams, we’d put together our own shows if we couldn’t get on the stage or show we wanted. There are so many platforms these days on which to create things. No one can stop you from making the stuff you want to make.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kate Spencer


Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Kate? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!


An Interview With Kenny Blumenfeld

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kenny Blumenfeld

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kenny Blumenfeld

Name: Dr. Kenneth (“Kenny”) Blumenfeld
Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota
Profession: Senior Climatologist for the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources

You’re a meteorologist. You study hazardous weather conditions—things like tornadoes and extreme snowstorms. That’s such a fascinating career! I’m sure lots of people have asked you, “How did you become a meteorologist?” Did you just wake up one morning and decide, “I want to study weather patterns”? Walk us through the sequence of events.

I absolutely adore the weather—being in it, observing it, thinking about it, talking about it. I’ve been this way since I was very young. I can’t help it.

I grew up in Minnesota, which has legendary winters and sees its share of thunderstorms, tornadoes, floods, and other weather hazards. Some of my most powerful early memories are of the sky turning heavy and purple, and of the civil defense sirens sounding, and people running to their basements. That terror definitely hooked and fascinated me. So basically, once my obsession with garbage trucks ended around age five, it was Weather Forever.

When I hear “meteorology,” I immediately picture a stereotypical “weather guy” on TV, giving storm updates in a raincoat out on a blustery street corner. Aside from becoming a TV weather reporter, what else can you do with a degree in meteorology? What are the job opportunities that people can pursue?

TV meteorologists are certainly the most visible and best-known atmospheric scientists—that’s what the field is called—but working on TV is definitely not the only career option.

The weather has become an industry unto itself, with a wide array of public and private-sector research scientists, technology developers (we’re talking everything from forecasting apps to billion-dollar satellite systems), computer programmers, and of course, forecasters.

The US government employs thousands of forecasters and research scientists who work at 150+ offices and laboratories, and who provide the backbone of everything you see on a TV weather segment or get on your app. Without that government component, we’d all know a lot less about the weather.

Hundreds if not thousands of atmospheric scientists work at universities and research laboratories, too. The private sector is booming as well, with forecasting firms, technology companies, and gigantic contracting firms that build the weather equipment and infrastructure for the government.

So yes, there’s a lot you can do with a degree in atmospheric science. Reporting live from a windy street corner is just one of many options.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kenny Blumenfeld

You dropped out of college because you hated studying—especially for math classes. But then after drifting around for a while, you re-enrolled and decided to give college another try. The second time around, you really applied yourself, and you wound up earning your Bachelor’s degree, followed by a Master’s and a Ph.D. How did you do that? What was different for you the second time around? Did you have a different mindset? Different habits? What changed for you?

If I ever write a book about my life, it will have to be called DON’T DO WHAT I DID. Seriously, aspiring meteorologists: don’t do what I did!

Although I’ve had a lifelong obsession with the weather, I was never an outstanding student. Truly, I was horrible. The absolute worst. I underachieved chronically. I rarely started—let alone finished—my homework, and I barely made it out of high school.

When I got to college (how I even got in is another story altogether), there were no miracles. I still stunk at school, and since meteorology is mathematically intensive, I found I really stunk at math. I got kicked out of college on academic grounds after my first year. I appealed, got re-admitted, and was kicked out for good the very next semester.

My poor discipline had caught up with me. I moved home and tried to figure out what my future would be like if I wasn’t working in some kind of weather-related profession. It was agonizing, and I knew that I had broken my own heart. I didn’t know what to do with myself, and I felt no sense of purpose.

I spent two years working food service jobs, relocating a couple times, and generally faking my way through life—pretending like I didn’t care about studying weather anymore, which wasn’t true at all. After awhile, I realized that my fake ambitions were leading me nowhere. So I took many deep breaths, decided that I wanted the weather back in my life, and developed a very long-term plan to try it again.

This time, I got specific. I knew I wanted to take my fascination with the atmosphere all the way. I understood I had a lot to learn, that it was going to be a treacherous path because of all my terrible studying habits, and that I would need to keep working the entire time to cover the costs. I was 22. I set a goal of obtaining a Ph.D. in meteorology—or some closely related field—by the time I was 35. It was a long timeline, but I wanted to do it right, and I had a lot of obstacles to clear first.

Once I hammered out the plan, I enrolled in a life-changing class about becoming a better student. That’s where I learned—for the first time—how to take notes, how to break assignments into steps, how to start and finish things, how to manage time, what to do when you’re stuck, and how to view the professor as an ally. In other words, I learned skills most people have developed by middle school. It was demoralizing progress, but progress nonetheless.

Then I started taking real college classes, one at a time for a year, then two at a time, and then three. Of course, I was still fighting the old terrible habits, and I’d fall behind constantly. It took me a while to learn to head it off by meeting with the instructor and developing a battle plan early in the semester. My biggest challenges were in math courses, which do not forgive you for past sins. If you half-ass factoring in algebra, or don’t really get those trigonometric identities, calculus will punish you relentlessly until you get it right.

It took three years for me to earn enough credits and build up a decent enough record to get admitted as a full-time undergraduate student. This was a big deal for me, and I dove all the way in. I participated in and formed student groups, went to research seminars, joined a multi-year field research project, took interesting and challenging courses, wrote a successful research grant proposal, and got to know my professors. After five semesters, I had developed a good reputation, had won a couple awards, and graduated with a bruised but acceptable grade-point average.

I rode my newfound momentum into graduate school, where I had a clean slate. It took me about three years to complete my Master’s degree, and at age 35, I received my Ph.D., right on schedule!

All together, it took 13 years to cross the finish line—while navigating my first marriage, the birth of my two kids, a divorce, working day jobs to support my family, and tons of pressure and upheaval—but I made it. Completing that Ph.D. program felt really special.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Kenny Blumenfeld

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a meteorologist, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. Ask yourself very honestly, “Do I really want to do this professionally? Or would this be better as a hobby for me?”

A lot of people just want to know more about the weather, which you can do without going to college. The Internet is brimming with information that can help you be the smartest weather enthusiast at the party.

2. Improve your math skills, because you will be using them heavily.

Math is often the gatekeeper that determines who continues on and becomes a meteorologist, and who majors in something else but lives on as a weather hobbyist. (There is no shame in the latter!)

3. Consume information.

Be curious. Stare into the sky, wonder about things, write down your questions, and research to find answers. Want to know why your area has been so wet/dry/hot/cold/stormy? Why did it snow 400 miles to your north but rain where you live? Why does the wind shift directions? What do different clouds mean? Read books. Visit websites. Read blogs and sign up for newsletters written by weather nuts like me. There’s so much information out there for you… for free!

For general weather, I recommend the Weather Underground Category 6 blog ( There’s also a ton of great information available at People may like their Beyond the Data blog/feature ( And, my  website is also filled with fun stories and information, especially if you live in Minnesota or Wisconsin.

If you’re really curious about something, why wait to get formal training to learn about it? You can start now.


Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Kenny? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!


An Interview With Eve DeNies Küttemann

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Eve DeNies Küttemann

Whenever I meet someone who’s got a really cool job, who runs a thriving business, or who has completed an amazing project, I always want to know: “How did you do that?”

I’m always curious to hear the “behind-the-scenes story”—who they emailed, what they said, how they got their first client, how they got their foot in the door—the exact steps that they took to achieve their goal.

HOW DID YOU DO THAT? is an interview series where we get to hear the REAL story behind someone’s success—not the polished, neat and tidy version.

To see a complete list of all the interviews that have been completed to date, head over here.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Eve DeNies Küttemann

Name: Eve DeNies Küttemann
Location: Portland, Oregon
Profession: Chef

You’ve worked at some of the best restaurants in the entire world, including L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon in Paris. Then you moved back to the United States, settled in Portland, and these days, you run a business called Sage Hen. How did you get started as a chef?

I started my career working in small restaurants in Portland and Ohio before heading to France. I started out working on the savory side of the kitchen, but after about eight years in the business, I took my first position doing desserts.  It was actually a pretty practical decision. I had met my husband, who’s also a cook, and we decided we should diversify our skills (in reality, it’s possible we just didn’t want to compete with each other!) and I was the one least averse to pastry. Nine years later, I have never regretted that choice.

With Sage Hen, you take classic American dessert recipes that are 100+ years old, and you throw fabulous parties where you serve all kinds of desserts paired with fun historical facts. What inspired you to start Sage Hen?

The impulse to focus on old American recipes was a product of four things that all led me to feel like American cuisine had centuries of context that I had yet to discover.

First, the sense of historical gravity that I absorbed from French culinary culture; Second, what I perceived as the soullessness that can sometimes infect modernism in American cuisine. Third, the realization that Escoffier’s Le Guide Culinaire, the book that defined what is now known as classic French cuisine, was first published a full decade AFTER a similar encyclopedia was published in the United States (by Charles Ranhofer of Delmonico’s Restaurant). And fourth, an incredible cookbook that a friend lent me that was written in 1903 by Marion Harland. It was a real gem, a family heirloom my friend received from her grandmother, full of hand-written notes.

It’s a topic that has proven to be endlessly and incredibly enriching, as a cook, host, eater, and member of my community.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Eve DeNies Küttemann

Starting a new business—or any kind of creative project—can feel really overwhelming. There are so many logistics to consider—buying supplies, getting city permits, finding the right location, and of course, finding customers! How have things been going for you so far?

It is! There are so many obstacles, both logistical and emotional. The first few events I did in the bakery space at Trifecta were a cliff jump from pure euphoric idealism to bone crushing defeat.

I learned really quickly that coming up with a fun idea and planning it out is the easy part—but a project will only be completely successful through lots of practice, trial and error, and experience. In the end, I’ve come to rely on a hefty dose of patience to pick me back up again. I really love running Sage Hen, so giving up has never been an option.

What’s been the most overwhelming thing you’ve had to deal with in the past year or so? What happened, how did you feel, and how did you get through it?

The best example I have is a classic failed-cake story—every pastry chef has one! It was the second or third Sage Hen event, and there were several VIPs that night: media, bloggers, cameras…

That night, the “main event” was a Philadelphia White Mountain Cake, a simple layer cake that was highly prized in the late 1800s for its ethereal fluffiness—something hard to come by at a time when eggs had to be whisked for an hour by hand. I had given it a modern touch by shrouding the cake just before the event in big, undulating shards of crispy meringue. I put a box over it to hide it for the big reveal in front of the customers an hour later.

The event was going very well. Everyone was enjoying themselves despite the chaos of pictures being taken from every angle and a continual stream of questions from the reporters. The time came to present the cake. I made a few remarks about the history of the cake, lifted the box, and… all the meringues had softened into limp, wrinkly squares scantily covering the cake. It looked like someone had tossed a bunch of wet rags all over it. Cameras snapping, my heart sank. The diners—and reporters—scarfed it up and described it as a classed-up Twinkie, but needless to say, when I made the cake again the next day, the meringue shards went on at the last minute!

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Eve DeNies Küttemann

Think back to the very first Sage Hen dessert party. Were you nervous that nobody would show up? Did anything go terribly wrong? What did you learn from doing that very first event?

I’m so glad I did a trial run, because that was a real eye-opener. The first Sage Hen event was all coworkers and family, but with varying degrees of sobriety, interest in the project, and animosity towards others in the room…

It was a very intimate space. Just eight guests all seated right at my workspace, so “hostess skills” were the first thing I learned! I was trying to take drink orders, pour champagne, hang coats, get people seated, plate dishes, serve them, clear them, answer questions, all while telling the stories behind the dishes and not losing my train of thought. I was never much of a “performer,” but all of a sudden I felt like I was onstage with blinding lights shining in my face. I was nervous, for sure. I faked total confidence the whole time. To my surprise, by the end of the event even the most reluctant attendees told me they had fun. I still have no idea how that happened!

In addition to being a super-talented chef, you’re also very politically active. You did a fundraiser last year where you sold Thanksgiving pies to raise money for Planned Parenthood. Was that a spur-of-the-moment idea? How did it go? How did people in your community respond?

I do think about the world a lot, but I’m generally reluctant to blast my opinions publicly, especially from a business platform, which some people see—understandably—as inappropriate.

The Thanksgiving fundraiser was an idea that emerged in a conversation with some industry friends over drinks the day after the election. So it was certainly impulsive in its inception, but over the following few days I realized that I have never been in a financial position to make big donations and by using the platform I had created with Sage Hen, all of a sudden, I could.

Plus, Sage Hen was still a very small project—very personal, and flexible enough that I felt I could experiment. The reception in the Portland community was hugely positive. I had no backlash, only people who felt (as I did) the overwhelming desire to do SOMETHING, anything, to voice our values. Plus, I mean, we’re talking about pies on Thanksgiving! A lot of people just liked the idea of serving Shoofly Pie to their family! Between the smell of butter and molasses, the holiday atmosphere, and the enthusiasm coming from the customers, that day was euphoric.

In addition to running Sage Hen, you also work at a restaurant called Nomad.PDX. Is it challenging to balance your “day job,” so to speak, with your business? How do you create time to do both things? How do you avoid getting burnt out?

It’s taken me awhile to find a balance between earning a living and building Sage Hen, but for me anyway, it’s those early morning hours that are key!

Baking bread at Nomad allows me to start the day with my hands full of flour, which I find deeply satisfying and grounding. Doing something I love is motivation enough for me to spend the rest of the day on all the variables involved in running Sage Hen. Then, equally important, I make sure that when the day is over, I don’t take my work home with me—compartmentalization of my life has saved me from burnout many times. I’m not expert at this system yet, but the better I get at it, the better I do in each of my roles.

Ellen Fondiler | An Interview With Eve DeNies Küttemann

3 Things

If someone is interested in becoming a chef, what are the first 3 things they should do?

1. First, try it out!

In the industry, we call it a “stage” [pronounced stahhhj, rhymes with oz]  which is essentially an unpaid internship for a day or two. Working in a kitchen is nothing like what they show on TV, and the only way to know if it’s really for you is by trying it.

2. Learn on the job.

Find the hardest kitchen you can and get a job there. You will have to start at the bottom, do really hard work, and endure demoralizing treatment. Embrace it—this is a crucial step that will serve you for the rest of your career.

Whatever you do, my advice is… don’t waste your money on culinary school. You’ll put yourself in debt with no way out. You can learn all that stuff on the job, and moreover some of my best chefs actually preferred cooks who didn’t go to culinary school. University of the Streets is the way to go.

3. Always keep learning.

As you gain experience, remember that there is no peak after which you just sit back and bask in your perfected skill set. The greatest cooks in the world are constantly—and actively—learning more. That’s the beauty of cooking—there is always a new technique to learn, a new ingredient to discover. There are hidden gems in the most unlikely places. Even, as it turns out, in centuries-old American cookbooks—right between “A Cheap and Delicious Dessert Dish” and “Fried Mush”!


Do you have “one more quick question” that you’d like to ask Eve? Email me and tell me what you want to know! I might choose your question for my ONE MORE THING… Podcast (Coming soon!!!)


Do you need some encouragement to help you achieve a big, daunting career goal? Would you like to have a career coach/strategist in your corner—feeding you ideas that you’d never considered before, helping you figure out who to contact, and what to say, and checking in to make sure you don’t procrastinate? If so… click here to find out how we can work together. I’d love to coach you!


Photos by The Oregonian, Rabbit Hole Photo and Sage Hen.

UNLOCKED Links: May 2017

Ellen Fondiler | Unlocked Links: May 2017

Once a month, I curate the best links on how to find work that you love, be excellent at what you do, and unlock any door that stands in your way. Mostly, I gather articles and podcasts that capture my attention because they make me think or laugh. Here is the link round-up for May 2017!

• Do you wonder how to get hired at Facebook? It’s one of the best companies to work for, and loads of applicants are vying to land a spot. Here are some insider tips on standing out.

• Looking for something great to do this summer with your kids? Here are 25 places that commemorate women who were ahead of their time. (Check out #25! It’s my favorite!)

• Mothers and daughters are possibly the most complicated relationship in the world. That relationship often unfolds at the kitchen stove or table. In this setting women pass on their wisdom and life lessons to their daughters along with their recipes. Eat, Darling, Eat is a place where these stories are shared.

• Writer Rahawa Haile detailed her months-long trek up the Appalachian Trail on her Twitter account. She’s written a stunning piece about it for Outside. It’s a great read.

• New to my podcast library: Call Your Girlfriend, a great podcast for long distance BFF’s everywhere. Eavesdrop on Aminatou Sow and Ann Friedman‘s weekly calls to each other to discuss the intricacies of pop culture and the latest in politics. On alternating weeks, they bring you Phone-a-Friend episodes that feature in-depth interviews with their fascinating besties.

• Speaking of great conversations between fascinating friends, check out this one between Anne Lamott and Gloria Steinem. They talk about writing, kindness and making sense of the universe.

• Finally, a great example of social media doing good. A retired Korean grandpa lives in Brazil. His grandchildren live in Korea and New York. He was sad and lonely with too much time on his hands. At his son’s suggestion, he learned how to use Instagram to connect with his grandchildren everyday. He draws and the grandma writes the stories. What started as a small, personal project blossomed into a site with almost 300,000 followers! Check it out.

• I’ve been watching Season 3 of Chef’s Table on Netflix. It has inspired me to up my game in the kitchen. So do these amazing new cookbooks. Check out Salad for President. It is such a cool project.

• It is clear that I am fascinated with the question HOW DID YOU DO THAT? At the core of everyone’s story is a bedrock oh hard work. These four entrepreneurs are no different. Read their journeys here.

• Does creativity wane with age? Cultural youth worship to the contrary, the answer is a resounding ‘no”. Take it from this 94-year old who sees no end in sight.

• I LOVED this project, Writing our Rights. It is a workbook that helps girls develop their political ambition while they develop their handwriting skills. Girls find words from 10 of the most iconic female politicians in American history. As they copy them, they not only learn how to write, but also that they are powerful and capable of becoming leaders.

• Every day women settle for less. Lower salaries, less vacation time and bad office environments. Why do we get less? One simple reason: because we don’t ask for anything more. Here is someone who will teach you how.

• Terry Gross is one of the most famous interviewers of all time. Her show, All Things Considered, just celebrated its 30th anniversary on the air. Here are 10 of her best interviews. My favorite is Maurice Sendak that was recorded a few months before he died.

Happy reading and listening,


Photo: Willie Franklin.