When Melanie Popp was laid off from her engineering job in the oil and gas industry, she turned into an advocate for others who’d lost their jobs, helping them find ways to thrive despite economic depression and a lack of career option in the field that people had invested their lives in. Popp readily admits that being laid off was a humbling experience, but says, “I want to be the inspiration to show people what bounce back looks like.”
Popp is currently working with Calgary Economic Development on PivotTECH, an event that will help skilled unemployed and underemployed people in Calgary transition to careers in tech. She also consults for the oil and gas industry, and raises her seven-year-old son as a single parent. We wanted to know about her work, and how that meshes with raising a son solo.
Why did you start doing what you do?
The thing that’s the most difficult about what’s going on in Alberta right now is that there’s no playbook on how to get out of an economic slump. There are no directions about how to pivot your career into another industry. That’s scary, and it is exciting at the same time because we get to do something completely new.
There are a lot of groups that are talking about doing these things, and they have these events that are about getting people to leave feeling good. Well, feeling good is not an outcome for me — I want action! At the PivotTECH event, people are going to be able to talk to post-secondary institutions and register for classes, and meet with 75 companies, so that we can capture their imaginations about where they are going to go next, and where we can take this city and province next. That’s what is most exciting for me.
What does this work bring to your life?
I get a lot of satisfaction from making those connections for people, from creating that network and helping people feel supported. I listen to their stories and know that I’ve been there.
Why is this work important?
A lot of these technical professionals are not great at selling themselves. They’ve never had to. They’ve never had to create a value proposition. I’ve got some amazing people, like this guy who after he got laid off started doing energy efficiency programs around his house and his electricity bill went down to $3. I said, “Why don’t you start a business doing that for other people?” and he told me he was too scared. I’ve been meeting with him and saying, “What do you need, let’s do this and get you up and running!” Once you’ve been laid off and gotten rejected, there’s a lot of fear in trying something else and getting rejected again. That is a tough pill to swallow for some people, I want to help them get out of that mindset.
Has parenthood changed how you view your work?
Yes. When I took the job that I got laid off from, I’d explained that I was a single parent and needed flexibility. When I got laid off my boss said, “Well some people didn’t like that you weren’t at your desk all the time.” I said, “Was there ever a question about the quality of my work or the timeline on which it was delivered?” He said no, and I replied, “Then what the f*** does it matter if I was at my desk the whole time or not?” That was what started happening in this industry when we got into scarcity mode. People were sat at their desks not necessarily contributing, but because they were there they were perceived as having value as opposed to the other ones. When I go into any situation now with work, even when I’m contracting with a company, I have to say these are the demands I have, I have to work flexibly, I’m a single parent so if my kid is sick I have to be with him.
What does your kid think about what you do?
I don’t that he thinks very much about it. I’m very careful with my verbiage though. I never say that I have to go to work, always that I get to go to work, because I never want him to see work as a perfunctory task.
What’s one piece of advice you’d give to other parents about working/living with purpose?
Really get in touch with your values and what’s important to you. I know what my purpose is and what I want to stand for. I did this values quiz online once, and it told me that my most important thing was my family, the second most important was the relationships that I have in my community — my tribe as I call them, and number three was my leadership roles and who I am as a leader inside my community. I call it living in alignment. If you get your head, your heart, and your gut all going in one direction, you can’t lose and great things are going to happen to you. Everything that I do is in alignment with my values.
What do you think you have in common with other moms?
The mothers I find that I identify with more are those that have softened as they become mothers. There’s so much power in giving birth, and to me it is the ultimate act of feminine grace and power, and that is doing something incredibly difficult, but doing it with love. And I think that’s the thread that ties us all together. There’s definitely a synergy between mothers, and if I have any issues with my kid, it is my friends that I turn to for advice. A lot of our challenges are the same, and hearing, “I’ve been there,” makes it easier.
What’s been hardest about what you do?
Not getting paid for my advocacy work kind of sucks, and there’s obviously a need for this. My ex-husband has been in the hospital with Lou Gehrig Disease for the past four years, so when it comes to raising my child, I’m it. So as much as I’d like to believe that altruism generates income, it is very difficult to do that.
It is also difficult because there’s obviously a need for talent in the city, but nobody wants to hire anybody from oil and gas because these people used to make tons of money and the assumption is that they’ll go back to that industry. There needs to be a paradigm shift.
What other moms do you admire?
I have a few parenting heroes, my friend Nicole and her husband JP are just phenomenal — they didn’t sacrifice their individuality to have a family, they’re still the same people and have biting commentary about everything. I told Nicole that I really liked the way she was raising her kids, and she said, “Oh my children thrive on neglect,” and I loved that because I want my son to be independent.
The Whole Family Happiness Project is a group of moms exploring our connection to our individual purpose, our family happiness, and the happiness of the world around us. Come join us on Facebook.