What’s the most impressive side hustle that comes to mind? Docent, consulting gig doing absolutely nothing?
For Justin Barad, founder and CEO of Osso VR, treating patients on the weekends at the Children’s Orthopedic Institute in Los Angeles is his side hustle. After graduating from the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA and working as a surgeon at Boston Children’s Hospital, he became disillusioned with medicine and doctors’ understanding of comprehensive patient care. So he combined his medical knowledge with his love of video games and coded a prototype for Osso VR, a virtual reality training video for surgeons.
“People said, ‘This is stupid.’ You can’t use video games to train people to do surgery,” says Barad. “Well, I’m a surgeon, I make video games, and I know it’s going to work.”
Barad is part of a collective of ambitious, white-collar workers who left successful careers in established fields and respected companies for sometimes-ignorant start-ups. The transition from secure employment to alternative career options is well documented. According to a McKinsey survey, nearly half of people who quit went to another industry entirely.
Fortune spoke to several individuals who recently founded or joined startups. The success these startup winners have achieved in their previous careers and the breadth of industries represented are particularly noteworthy. They include an Emmy-nominated special effects artist, a doctor who graduated from medical school with an academic achievement medal, and a Stanford MBA graduate who leads a 50-person team at Meta.
For people with these qualifications, joining an early-stage startup is an unexpected choice. But these employees say they left high-profile roles because they wanted that kind of work offers a real purpose, but still provides an opportunity to accelerate your career.
Anu Kirk worked at Sony’s Playstation division for seven years, most recently as general manager of its virtual reality business, where he led a team of 50 people, a role he obtained at the personal request of Sony CEO Sean Layden. He left the company in August 2019 and joined Osso VR a year later, attracted by the 210-employee startup’s ability to create new technology in a useful way, he says. “There’s nothing dystopian about what Osso is doing.”
Former Met CEO Sana Rapacco Hunt was Instagram’s chief growth officer before pandemic-induced “soul searching” forced her to rethink her uneven work-life balance. She wanted a mission-related role that she would be passionate about, making every day worthwhile for her children. Her passion turned out to be supporting fellow parents at The Mom Project, where she currently serves as president. She was initially hired as Chief Product Manager.
Rapakko describes herself as an ambitious person who has “always worked hard,” but she was willing to compromise on compensation — a roughly 40 percent pay cut — and name recognition — Instagram has two billion users, compared to The Mom Project’s one million, but no. the work itself.
To justify her move, Rapakko says her work needs to remain impactful and present new challenges relevant to her professional experience, such as presenting to The Mom Project board, managing multiple functions and coaching colleagues to think strategically. In short, it’s the job and role of a values-driven C-suite executive that likely would have taken Instagram many more years to achieve.
Just because a startup’s work is smaller and often underfunded doesn’t mean it’s less intellectually stimulating or done by mediocre employees who couldn’t cut it elsewhere—quite the opposite, says Kirk. “When you’re dealing with a startup, especially in the early stages, everyone has to be great,” he says. “It’s very easy to identify who isn’t performing or not performing at the required level.”
Barad says he often misleads Sony and Disney employees who work in games or visual effects because those industries burn out even the most dedicated workers. Some of his new recruits, he says, feel like they’ve “found the promised land where they can practice their skills, help people and not be pushed into the ground until they’re useless and discarded.”
Therein lies the real problem. It’s not that these Fortune 500 expats are adverse to long hours; they want an employer that values their unique skill set, perspective and talents. “I can take a generic role as a product manager or manager and excel,” says Kirk. “But that’s less exciting to me than a company saying, ‘Hey, we don’t want just anyone in this slot machine.’ We need your unique experience, skills and perspective.
In start-ups, employees can also help shape the corporate vision and achieve results that go beyond KPIs and shareholder value. “It’s gone from measuring scale in terms of how many people are touched,” says Rapakko, referring to Instagram’s reach, “to measuring this mission that you’re trying to push out into the world.”
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