Imagine being 17, sitting in the audience during opening night of Don Quixote eagerly waiting to see the incredible Laura Young and Fernando Bujones light up the stage. Suddenly… it is intermission and you find out Laura injured herself during First Act and is unable to continue.
Bruce Marks, the Director, looks at you and says, “you need to go on”.
Jennifer Gelfand was that 17 year old. And her movie like rise to stardom in the dance world was just the beginning. She says the gods were smiling that day, and her fearlessness in youth and comfortability on the Wang stage where she grew up helped her to step in and successfully save the day. That fearlessness soon propelled her to the top of the dance world and to become one of the most beloved Principal dancers with Boston Ballet. It then helped her to reinvent herself as the highly successful Real Estate Broker she is today.
Jennifer retired from Boston Ballet in 2003. I had the honor of dancing beside her for for only 3 short months… and 15 years ago, when she left the locker room, she handed down her corner locker (with an extra half locker and window shelves!!) to me. This is only one of a few real estate deals I’ve worked with Jennifer on, but I have to say… it is by far my most successful! That locker is still mine today and it felt only fitting to circle back and have her as the inaugural PowHER Profile.
The day after stepping in for Don Quixote Jennifer was offered a soloist contract with Boston Ballet. On her 18th Birthday she danced Juliet as a newly promoted Principal dancer. Throughout her extraordinary career she had the opportunity to dance on stages all over the world.
Jennifer is known for her incredible work ethic and energy both on and off the stage. She graciously sat down with me to discuss her transition from ballet to business and share some of her unique insights.
K: Were you always business savvy as a dancer? If not, when did the idea of planning for a second career come into your mind?
J: No, it wasn’t prevalent in my thought at the beginning. For a while, it was all about ballet. I was dancing so much and as a Principal at that time I danced all the roles and didn’t have to really negotiate my contracts. I always did well in school, and when I came back to Boston I was actually accepted as a visiting undergrad at Harvard University. I was hoping to try to take classes, but it was too much, my focus and my world was at the ballet.
My first season in the company I had the opportunity to purchase a condo in Boston and soon found myself (somehow!) running the condo association. There wasn’t much to it at the time, but I enjoyed it and enjoyed real estate. I hadn’t given much thought to it, but when I sold that home and bought another, the realtor who helped me called to ask if she could use my name to promote her business. I said absolutely, and asked in return if she would allow me to shadow her if I ever decided to get my real estate license.
This was 1996, I wasn’t necessarily concerned about the end of my career but I decided to think about what would come next. So I decided to get my real estate license. I enjoyed the outside perspective and working on something else. So I started slowly and at that time real estate was so different. On days off I would take class by myself and rehearse and then go work in the office. All of a sudden, between word of mouth and people walking in, I was doing business.
Part of what I loved as a ballerina was the process of rehearsing, learning and immersing yourself in a role, discovering it, getting better until the steps were second nature and fluid. Then there was the performance, but I had so much gratification in the process of getting up to that point. I loved the process as much as the performance. So it was similar to real estate, you start with people and you get to know them and it is a process of discovery and when it all ends you’ve taken a journey with them and I’ve always loved all the pieces in between.
As I realized it was a career I could sink my teeth into and a stable enough career that I didn’t have anxiety about transitioning financially, it was comforting, and when the moment arrived that it made sense for me to retire while still on my game, I took advantage of the opportunity.
Do you think this made your transition easier?
I don’t think I could have left the ballet world without the security blanket of an established second career. I think that that piece is the hardest for so many. I didn’t have to leap in to the unknown, I had the luxury of establishing myself in a second career before I retired… and I woke up the morning after I retired and I knew what I was going to do, I didn’t have to worry about where my next paycheck was coming from, which I know is a luxury not everyone has.
The most wonderful thing is I’ve been busy ever since I retired from Boston Ballet, I have had a second career that has kept me active, busy, and fulfilled.
You are known to have done real estate deals in between rehearsals and maybe even in the wings at the theatre?! How did you manage your time and focus to be so successful at two careers?
(laughing) You know… if I had a couple minutes and I could take a call! Why not?!
But in all seriousness, it has always been easy for me to compartmentalize my two roles. When I stepped up to start dancing there was no other distractions. When I was in a rehearsal or onstage I was consumed by that moment. So if it was a five- minute break or a call in the wings, it was easy for me to differentiate the two. I never felt it took away from my dancing. Because when I danced, I was in the moment, because I always loved it… and I never knew any different.
You were set up very well for your transition but was there some sort of learning curve you experienced when you ultimately did transition?
Yes, I loved the structure in the dance world. I woke up and I knew my schedule and I knew exactly what was expected of me all day. As grueling as the career is, it is simple because I was in control of myself and they were my rehearsals and I wasn’t relying on anyone else. The nature of my profession now is not one of routine. You don’t know what you are doing every day and it doesn’t have the reliability and structure of a dancers life. It was an easy transition, but there is still an unknown element always that I personally don’t love as much as the structured ballet world.
The transition was organic but did you have any concerns?
When I started down this real estate path, I had no idea it would work out. I didn’t know that I would be successful at it. But I knew I enjoyed it and I knew I would work hard at it because that is what I did. I couldn’t do anything but work at it.
I always knew I would do anything with the utmost of determination but I never necessarily thought I would be at the place I am today. Because we never give up and we keep at it. You never know what’s going to happen and I am very fortunate to have my family, my 11 year-old son, and to be named top individual broker at my company for the 2nd year in a row.
What traits do you feel carried over from your dance career to your real estate career?
All of it. We are born with a drive and determination that is slightly unparalleled. We don’t get the glory or financial gratification like sports stars but we get an incredible personal satisfaction and reward by what we did. You have to want to wake up and push through pain and do it over and over and keep working hard. I always say, Its a career I wouldn’t trade for the world but I wouldn’t wish it on my worst enemy. But why we do it and what makes us successful at it naturally carries over to another career.
We also have poise, dignity, and grace. How we carry ourselves is also incredibly helpful in business. You may stop dancing, but that doesn’t go away.
Why do you think women have a hard time stepping forward into leadership positions?
Our career doesn’t set itself up in general to pursue another career. It is difficult. It is hard to reinvent yourself in general. To try and do it all and have a family and the financial means to survive is very difficult.
But I will say, any dancer who finds something they love doing, has the drive and dedication based on their ballet career to do what they want. Because we are trained to push ourselves. You have to succeed onstage and why wouldn’t you succeed in everything else you decide to do.
Any advice for future LeadHERS?
You don’t need to figure it out right away. Pursue the things you love, and there are so many incredible avenues in this world and areas where you can get an education. Whatever your interests are that will drive you to be passionate and succeed, pursue those… because we are wired to be successful when we set our minds to it. We spent our lives doing it.
I’m very fortunate to be a successful woman, and I look forward to being up there with many more colleagues… especially from the dance world.
Thank you so much for sharing your story!