This Executive's Mother Passed Away Right Before Her Wedding. Here's How She Moved Forward -- and How the Tragedy Inspired a New Career Trajectory.
'From the tragedy, I learned that life is too short, fragile and unpredictable not to take risks and go after what you want and what makes you happy,' says Jess Liberi of eMoney.
In the Women Entrepreneur series My Worst Moment, female founders provide a firsthand account of the most difficult, gut-wrenching, almost-made-them-give-up experience they’ve had while building their business -- and how they recovered.
Jess Liberi is head of product at eMoney, a financial planning software company based in Pennsylvania. Almost 10 years ago, she experienced the worst moment of her life: finding out about the death of her mother. The tragedy came right after Mother’s Day, amidst Liberi’s wedding preparations and her sister’s graduation, and Liberi took a month off of work. Later, the experience inspired her to take career risks and make changes she may not have otherwise. Liberi tells her story.
What follows is a first-person account of this person’s experience. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
My mom died suddenly from a brain aneurysm. While learning of her death was easily the worst moment of my life, it was the “living” that I was supposed to do afterward that was extremely difficult. At the time, I was working as a sales executive at a financial services company based in Pennsylvania. Somehow, I moved forward with something new: perspective.
My mom and I had a great relationship. I know it’s cliché, but she was one of my best friends. In preparation for my wedding in June 2009, my mom and I met at the gym every morning around 5:30 a.m. On May 11, 2009, the day after Mother’s Day and a month before my wedding, I called my mom to wake her up as I was leaving for the gym. She said she was tired and didn’t think she was going to make it. I went without her, went to work and thought nothing of it. Later that evening, my sister called me, and my life changed forever. My sister still lived at home and found my mom when she got in from work. The whole evening from that point on was a blur -- the longest drive ever from my house to her house, the ambulances, the phone calls, the range of emotions.
The hardest part was leaving the house that night. It was symbolic in a way. Leaving meant going back to our normal lives, which felt anything but normal at that point. How could we go home to go to sleep like we did on any other night? How could we just leave? So we didn’t. We spent the night and the days following at my aunt’s house. I was an adult, but losing a parent made me feel like a child all over again. I felt lost, afraid, uncertain. We were making funeral arrangements, and suddenly, I was an executor of an estate. We buried my mom in the dress she had bought to walk me down the aisle.
I thought about postponing the wedding, but my mom would have hated if I had done that. So we didn’t. And it was great. There was so much love at our wedding. Our hearts actually felt full again. My husband and I had never been closer. Going through life changes like that can really test the limits of a relationship, but my husband, his family and his friends were all so supportive.
In terms of work, it took me a while to return. Between the funeral, graduation, wedding and honeymoon, I was out for about a month. Returning to work was another big step because it meant adjusting to normal life when life wasn’t normal. But somehow, day by day, it got easier, and I actually had more motivation to work harder and do better.
When I was in a sales organization -- and most sales organizations are like this -- we were incentivized to bring money in. But after thinking more critically about my future, I wanted to know I was making a difference. The financial services company I was at had great solutions and products for the advisers we worked with, but I wasn’t able to see the connection to the 'greater good.' I made several changes there seeking the best fit, moving from sales to relationship management and ultimately to product and technology. In February 2014, I moved to eMoney.
Building financial planning software that helps individuals better achieve their goals -- and focus on what they want to accomplish with their wealth -- helped me get a better line of sight into the greater good I had been thinking about ever since my mother’s death. I wanted to help people achieve their financial goals regardless of how many assets were under management or how big a company’s sales accounts were. I finally felt good about meeting the needs of all different types of people and helping the mass market.
A big part of this was feeling like I was capable and deserving. I think that’s what often holds people back when they don’t have the job they want. When I was brought in at eMoney, I didn’t care about my title; I cared that I was coming in to a place where I’d have the opportunity to leave my mark. I’d been here for a year when we were acquired by Fidelity and a year and a half when our then-CEO and founder resigned. There was a lot of uncertainty, so it was another turning point, but again, I had been through uncertainty before with my mother’s passing. I wasn’t running scared from the uncertainty, I was looking for opportunity. That was my path to a leadership position.
Losing a parent gives you a different perspective on life and everything in it, including your career. Before my worst moment, I don’t know if I would’ve been as open to the changes -- or as willing to make the changes -- I made in my career. I started to put things in perspective and really thought about what I wanted from my career and from the path I was on. I asked myself if I was truly happy and what happiness looked like for me. Sometimes it’s easy to get comfortable where you are. But life events like that make you uncomfortable and can also push you to make changes you wouldn’t otherwise have made.
From the tragedy, I learned that life is too short, fragile and unpredictable not to take risks and go after what you want and what makes you happy. I learned that offering support to people in times of need goes so much further than you might think. I remember each letter, email, note and call I received during that time. It meant so much more to me than others will ever know. And I hope to pay it forward.”
I hate to be cliche, but when it comes to where I am now, I can almost hear my mother laughing and telling me she’s proud but that she always knew I could do it. She always challenged us. She’d say, “I always knew it -- it was you who didn’t think you could!