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Changing Lanes: From PR to the Doghouse

New career rescues BU alum

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Pet adoption counselor Stephen Oakes makes the rounds at Northeast Animal Shelter. Photos by Cydney Scott

How many careers does the average American worker have in a lifetime? The Bureau of Labor Statistics doesn’t keep track, but we know that millions change careers at least twice. From what to what? You’d be surprised. This week, in “Changing Lanes,” BU Today takes a five-part look at BU alums who studied for one career, but are now doing something radically different.

Several years ago Stephen Oakes left a high-level public relations position at a top international computer hardware company, bid farewell to the house he owned in Austin, Tex., returned to his hometown of Reading, Mass., moved in with his father and stepmother, and adjusted to life on a fraction of his six-figure corporate income.

He couldn’t be happier.

With its cheerful primary color scheme and plush indoor cat playground, the private nonprofit shelter could easily be mistaken for a day-care center. At the edge of a room arranged with consultation tables and literature about pet owning and pet health is a set of Dog Visiting Rooms with shuttered windows like children’s playhouses. “I’d heard of people who love going to work every day, but I didn’t think that was possible,” says Oakes as he offers a tour of the shelter, which moved to its present location two and a half years ago. “But that’s how I feel.”A dog lover all his life, Oakes (COM’93, CAS’93) now works full-time as a pet adoption counselor at Northeast Animal Shelter in Salem, Mass., where he began as a volunteer and lobbied relentlessly for a job that pays a pittance compared to his former salary. He had worked long and hard to scale the corporate ladder, rising to vice president at a top-10 firm when he was just 29. “It was a great experience, but by the time I was 36, I became interested in pursuing something more meaningful,” says the blue-eyed, auburn-haired Oakes (right), who walks the kennels and consultation rooms of the sprawling shelter wearing the kind of smile no one could fake.

Although at first moving back with mom and dad “was a bit of a blow” to the former homeowner’s ego, it enabled Oakes to pursue a career that rewards the soul, if not the wallet. With a former client list that included Goldman Sachs, RadioShack, and Shell Oil, he is now applying his public relations smarts to find loving homes for animals like Joani, a squat, silken-coated mongrel rescued from the streets of Puerto Rico. “I am a friendly girl who only wants to be adopted and loved forever,” says the description outside Joani’s kennel. “I promise not to ask too much and I promise to be loving and loyal. Please be patient with me.”

One of the largest no-kill shelters in the country, Northeast has a long waiting list for volunteers and fairly rigorous requirements for adoptions, which aren’t cheap—they can run up to $500.

It’s Oakes’ responsibility to educate adopters and pair the right person or family with companions like Vinny, a cat found taped inside a cardboard box by the side of the road in Boston’s North End. “Can I come home with you and be your loving furry companion?” Vinny’s bio beseeches. For the four months Oakes has been on the job, his days are consumed with providing safe, loving futures to the shelter’s Joanis, Vinnys, Finns, Stevies, Caesars, Lillies, and many more. The animals just keep coming, and he admits he falls a little in love with each of them.

He counts many mentors in his corporate career development, but attributes his most dramatic life choice to an influence of the canine variety. “I got my first dog at 32, and he really did change my life,” he says of Max, his Border Collie–Chow mix, adopted from an Austin shelter when he was just three months old. In his seven years living in Austin, Oakes gained a wife, a house, and a dog: “I came back with just the dog, which was fine with me.”

When he graduated from BU with degrees in journalism and international relations, Oakes had aspirations of being a political press secretary, but ended up in public relations. Most important to him at the time was settling in a big city and starting on a path to professional success, with all its traditional trappings. “I had always wanted to live in New York, but wanted to wait until I was far enough in my career so I
 wouldn’t have to live in an apartment where the shower’s in the kitchen,” says the man now residing in his teenage bedroom. “It was the beginning of the dot-com boom, so I was fortunate to have interest from several of the large firms.” He took a job working for GCI Group, a global communications company. “We essentially rode the Internet wave from boom to bust,” recalls Oakes. He was laid off two weeks after the September 11 attacks.

He was then rehired by GCI, which later merged with Cohn & Wolfe. At first, when GCI proposed that he move to Austin to work on its Dell Computer account, Oakes, who’d spent his whole life in either New England or Washington, D.C., admits he “literally pictured tumbleweeds and horses.” But after visiting the Texas city, he accepted the offer, eventually moving from GCI to Advanced Micro Devices, the world’s second largest semiconductor chip manufacturer. “It was an in-house PR position rather than client work, and I didn’t like the internal politics,” he says. “It seemed I spent too much time with my own marketing people and hardly any time with reporters,” which was the best use of his talents and experience. “I began thinking about leaving about six months before I actually did.”

The move surprised his friends, because as Oakes puts it, “work had always been such a big and defining part of my life.” His family was happy that he was coming home and more than willing to put him up while he took his time finding a job that would be a good fit.

In the short time since joining the animal shelter, which takes animals from around the United States and Puerto Rico, Oakes has become indispensable. With a sadly steady supply of relinquished or abandoned local dogs and cats, and dogs shipped by reliable truckers from states with lax spay-neuter laws, the shelter handles between 350 and 450 adoptions a month. A stroll through the dog and cat areas reveals a succession of roomy cages outfitted with blankets and toys and the occasional volunteer keeping the animals company or retrieving them for a walk in one of the shelter’s three dog runs. For every adoption he guides people through, Oakes says, he’s rewarded with that moment when he emerges from the kennels with an animal who, if all goes well, will never live in a cage again.

“My best adoption so far was last Christmas Eve,” Oakes recalls. “Snow was falling, and this family had driven two hours from New Hampshire. We were about to close, but stayed open for them, so they could get the dog they wanted. The little girl hugged me, and that was the best.”

Talk about a job that lets you go home with a clear conscience.

Susan Seligson can be reached at sueselig@bu.edu. Robin Berghaus can be reached at berghaus@bu.edu.

7 Comments

7 Comments on Changing Lanes: From PR to the Doghouse

  • Anonymous on 03.03.2011 at 10:10 am

    Thanks for sharing the stories of those who have made difficult decisions to leave the mainstream–with its traditional career expectations–and follow their hearts. Though there are many privations to endure once free of the corporate environment, the payoff is happiness and a clear conscience. These stories have been inspiring to me as a hard-working but non-traditional person who has made a choice to avoid the mainstream path of the corporate ladder “and all its trappings.” Every day at work and in life, I am bombarded with images and stories of ambition and “success,” until I feel that I am some sort of slacker for not striving for money and recognition.

    So these profiles are encouraging and uplifting to boot. Thanks!

  • Anonymous on 03.03.2011 at 10:32 am

    Great story

    So inspiring! I bet there are LOTS of folks wishing that they had the resources to do what Stephen did. Thanks for sharing this.

  • Anonymous on 03.03.2011 at 11:56 am

    great video and article.

    i love this! it was very inspirational :] and i’m so glad that you’re doing what you love.

  • Anonymous on 03.04.2011 at 7:39 am

    Puppies!

    This was so cute. I love puppies.

  • Jenn on 03.04.2011 at 4:37 pm

    Thanks!

    Thanks for sharing this story! I’m currently making the steps to do this change as well … I wish to leave the Fashion Industry and enter a life filled with Animals! I’ve been a Volunteer at my Animal Shelter for 2 years now & currently a foster mom of a dog who came from a fighting house. I was actually having my doubts today of making such a change but my friend passed along this article which has now brought my spirits back up! I hope I have a great success story as this one!

    Good luck to all who are making changes!

  • Anonymous on 03.05.2011 at 12:03 pm

    Remarkable

    A truly remarkable man, to relinquish a well-paying job in order to follow his heart and, at the same time, to perform a great service to people and pets alike. It’s heartbreaking to think of all the unwanted animals in the world but reassuring to know that such a facility as this exists.

  • Anonymous on 07.12.2011 at 11:08 am

    Inspiring.

    It takes a lot of courage to do what Stephen did. He is truly an inspiration, and a beacon of hope to all of us looking to find work that makes us genuinely happy every single day.

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