Make It Work is a column by Justine Haemmerli that takes a peek into the lives of folks with unconventional careers — the entrepreneurs wearing many hats, the doers of many things, the folks with full-time jobs and big side hustles — to shine a light on those doing good in unique and creative ways.
Over sandwiches at her favorite coffee shop — Buzz Café in East Kensington — I found myself asking my friend Rebecca if she thinks she’s weird.
“Sometimes,” she replied. “I think that in professional spaces, I am weird because I prioritize playfulness. And that is misconstrued as immaturity or naivety. But I think of myself as average.”
Rebecca Fabiano is not average. She has done things that seem, to me, like small miracles: She has lived abroad; her home smells like fig candles; she knows how to be fully present in an African dance class in a way that isn’t an embarrassment to herself and those around her; she is unapologetic. Most impressively, she has multiple side hustles and still, somehow, seems to keep it all together with grace and humor.
But I learned throughout my lunch with Rebecca that many of my assumptions about what makes her tick, and how she handles her business(es), were wrong.
An introverted community-builder, Rebecca spends many a day working from her home office, nestled under a wall shrine to Frida Khalo and surrounded by photos of her travels. She had tried coworking spaces but quickly realized that after spending her days teaching, convening and collaborating, what she needed most was the balancing quiet of solitude.
She runs her own consulting practice, Rebecca Fabiano Consulting Services (RFCS). She created and runs after-school programming at Norris Homes, a Philadelphia Housing Authority community, every afternoon for the teens who live there. She hosts a few film screenings a year for young people and folks who work with them, and runs city-wide conferences for youth development practitioners.
She also co-owns leadership development business Pop-Up Play with two friends and colleagues, Folasshade Laud-Hammond and Jen Breevort; hosts a biannual Leadership Lab with Michele Martin of the Bamboo Project; runs the monthly networking group/breakfast club/personal development workshop Sandbox Collective (which is how I met her); serves on approximately 27 boards; and makes jewelry in her spare (?) time. I am in awe of her, as are, surely, the many do-gooders with whom she surrounds herself.
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And so I was surprised by her answer to my question of what the hardest thing is about working for herself.
“Finding my people,” she replied without dropping a beat. And not just people, but “finding other role models, and a cohort of people who are my thought partners, who provide accountability. That’s been tough.”
For all her playfulness, Rebecca is a serious woman. For all her loving and connecting, there is a fierce independence about her. It’s a challenge to be both at once, and to find the tribe that supports your wholeness.
Is managing her many projects another struggle?
“No, actually,” she shared. “I feel my plate is deliciously balanced in terms of how I spend my time. I do Norris Homes every afternoon, RFCS throughout the day, I balance Pop Up Play meetings and events with my co-owners and their schedules, and that picks up in the spring and summer when RFCS slows down, Sandbox is one Thursday a month — so I feel there’s a great rhythm and variety to my days and weeks and months.”
She doesn’t get stressed about it all, she claimed. But frustrated? Yes — about titles, of all things. When you work for yourself and your title is something as vague as “consultant,” it’s hard for people to understand how much expertise you have, what your qualifications are.
When you first take the plunge into working for yourself, as Rebecca did after a decade of working as a teacher and in the nonprofit sector, there is, first and foremost, the question of making self-employment work out financially. In the beginning, she said, it was hard: She had worked to build up savings for this reason, which she ate through in a year. Before jumping ship, she secured one consulting contract that made taking the initial leap feel less crazy.
But she acknowledged that this doesn’t work for everyone.
“I was able to make it work for myself, but I think that for anyone looking to move to self employment, you have to look at your own situation,” she said. “You have to see what you can, and are willing, to risk. And that’s going to look different for everyone, based on their life circumstances, their personality, and their goals.”
What kept her going?
“The things that motivate me to hustle are my wanting to try new things. Wanting to be in the know. I love connecting people. And I do have, despite what I said before, some ‘above average’ moments — moments when I think ‘ I could do that, and I could do it well, maybe even best.’ That gets my hustle flowing.”
More than just a love of the work, it’s a restlessness of intellect, a fierce authenticity and an an insatiable appetite for newness keep Rebecca stretching, expanding, experimenting and moving.
“My greatest joy in my work is that I am in the field,” she shared. “I am working alongside kids every single day. And so when I come back to talk about this work on a conceptual or strategic level, I’m not disconnected from it. I am living it every day. And at the same time, the greatest gift and privilege of working for myself, I feel, is that I get to try new things every day. I get to experiment and choose and learn. I’m so grateful for that.”
As for what’s next, Rebecca has a few things in mind: For one, she’s working on her Spanish and ASL so she can work as an interpreter in her (so-called) retirement. She’s also considering opening a weed café with a bed and breakfast upstairs, run by the youth she has mentored and taught over her career; she’s so serious about it she recently applied for her distributor’s license.
And yet, despite her ferocious, lifelong commitment to working for herself, she’s also open to leaving it all for a position at the right organization.
“I feel like I have learned so much in running RFCS, but I wonder whether my learning has tapped out in a way,” she said. “And I wonder how much more I could learn in a leadership role at an organization, at an executive or director level. I’m less attached to the self-employment than I am to the opportunity to learn.”
I had entered our conversation wanting to learn how Rebecca “makes it work” in the usual ways we think about it, such as, “How do you balance it all?” “How do you pay your mortgage and health care?” and the age-old, “How do you have no pills on your sweaters while also running three businesses?”
And I got some of those answers: Be relentlessly driven and focused; surround yourself with thought-partners and colleagues who can hold you accountable and share the weight of the work with you; create a work space and schedule that fit your unique temperament; hire an accountant; and get a 20 percent deposit on all contracts up front. (And the pill-free cardigans, well, that’s some Illuminati-level business, so I didn’t pry.)
But the biggest surprise was in learning that the way Rebecca makes it work is not just laser focus, but openness — to learning, playing, experimenting and to what work actually looks like. In that openness, opportunity is free to find you — and nothing is more important than the constant opportunity to learn.