Careers

Could A Nontraditional Career Path Suit You? Check These FAQs With A Freelancer

Sarah Lynn Fraire

“In the 21st century, careers are no longer narrowly defined by jobs and skills but through experiences and learning agility,” Deloitte’s 2018 Global Human Capital Trends report highlights. Conventional employment is no longer the preferred or expected way to make a living. Ever since Charles Handy coined the term ‘portfolio career’, the pursuit of nontraditional career paths, which offer diversity, independence and alignment with personal preferences and interests, has become quite common.

College Confidential recently chatted with Heather Raftery, who epitomizes Handy’s idea of the portfolio career, and she shared her experiences, insights and advice. Raftery has figured out how to grow professionally while engaging in a passion of hers: Brazilian Jiu-jitsu.


Let’s start with an easy question: Who is Heather Raftery?

A Swiss Army knife: I’m technically a freelancer who does a number of different jobs and kind of fell into this position. With five to six different clients, I do any number of jobs: marketing, journalism, research, customer service, website management, video editing and teaching jiu-jitsu at several different academies.

What’s your academic journey and how did it confirm or change your career path?

My career path has changed many times and not always by choice. In undergrad, I studied photojournalism and anthropology with a minor in Spanish. My dream was to become a National Geographic reporter. When I graduated, however, all content was moving online and there were no jobs for someone like me, someone with no experience. I had no idea what I wanted to do but knew I had to do something to figure it out. Traveling seemed like a good choice so I spent the summer in South Africa, working at a wildlife game reserve. That’s when I decided to pursue a graduate degree in international development.

A few months after finishing grad school, an international investigative firm hired me and I moved to Florida to work for the company's Latin American headquarters. I missed the West Coast, so after two years, I quit my job with nothing else lined up and moved to San Diego. There, I found a jiu-jitsu e-commerce business and reached out, pitching an idea and creating a role that didn’t previously exist: as a marketing manager. During that time, other businesses and individuals reached out asking me to help them with projects, having heard that I had a certain skill set. Soon I realized that I made more money as a freelancer than as a full-time marketing employee so I quit my full-time job and kept my former employer as a client.

Currently, I’m essentially doing what I was trained to do but through the interesting vehicle of jiu-jitsu, which also happens to be my passion. And the best part is I’m not stuck in an office. 

When and how did you become interested in jiu-jitsu and did you always know it can be a career?

I started in 2009 and since then have trained at over 60 different academies on four continents. My dad encouraged me to start training for self-defense, but I had no idea it could be a career path.

During my graduate studies, I developed this idea that jiu-jitsu training would be particularly valuable for at-risk youth and thought of starting my own nonprofit. After I graduated, a government shutdown put my idea of launching my own nonprofit on hold. At the same time, I was contacted by a nonprofit that focuses on teaching jiu-jitsu and similar activities to youth in an economically depressed area of Tucson, my hometown. I developed the organization's first jiu-jitsu curriculum and taught there for four months, but moved to Miami (driving from Arizona in a 1970 Volkswagen beetle) when I was hired to do investigative work. While in Miami, I became more serious about Brazilian jiu-jitsu and worked with one of the best teams on the East Coast. When I moved back west (this time in a 1970 Volkswagen bus with an adopted stray cat in tow), I joined Atos Jiu Jitsu, one of the best teams on the West Coast, and thus began my journey as a semi-professional athlete.

So what’s next for you?

After leaving San Diego earlier this year to move closer to my family, I now dedicate a significant portion of my time to teaching jiu-jitsu to at-risk youth in South Tucson. There’s a lot of stigma associated with “teaching already violent youth how to fight.” That’s missing the point, though. The fighting is what appeals to them, but once in, they learn about discipline, respect and honor, as well as social and emotional skills that allow them to respond to challenges and stressors in a more positive and constructive way. Most of them come from troubled families with history of abuse, incarceration and behavioral problems, so the nonprofit is a like second home. Many of our alumni are succeeding academically in college or have joined the military. They’ve experienced a dramatic change for the better.

The nonprofit’s after-school program has been running for more than ten years, but this is the first year we have been able to offer the jiu-jitsu curriculum in public schools, as part of a special collaboration between the nonprofit and the school district. Instead of P.E., a handful of students learn our jiu-jitsu and judo curriculum, which has key social and emotional learning (SEL) elements integrated into it. Our vision is to have this idea expand to other US cities and maybe even the world.

Have you ever thought about leaving the nontraditional path?

Definitely. I’m considering the possibility of joining full-time the nonprofit where I teach, but I enjoy having the flexible schedule of a freelancer. I also have many other aspirations and would love to one day do investigative work again. But at this point, I couldn’t tell you. I take opportunities that present themselves and follow the path to see where it leads. I don’t feel restricted by personal deadlines and boxes I have to check: reaching such-and-such position by a certain age or having 2.5 children and a big house with a white picket fence. This has not been my path so far and it’s not going to be in the future. And I’m okay with that. In fact, I’m excited about what the future holds … whatever that is.

What’s your advice for students who may be considering a nontraditional career path?

It will be scary. The lure of traditional jobs is security, but don’t be afraid to say yes to an opportunity if it’s not secure or glamorous. You don’t know where it will take you, and in many cases, it may lead to developing skills you didn’t even know you needed. When I was in Miami, I wasn’t thrilled about working for a private firm and the work was boring at times, but I learned valuable skills I use to this day. Also, remember that having a nontraditional career takes hard work. We can’t all be social media superstars. In fact, on social media, it looks like that’s what I’m doing: traveling around the country and world having fun. But behind the scenes, I work hard. Sometimes I work shitty jobs (literally, I’ve shoveled horse manure in the past). I know that in order to have the freedom to do what I want, I’m going to have to do this or that. I just get it done, even if it’s hard, boring, tedious, whatever. Because if I do this job now, I can play tomorrow.