Mastering mid-life career change

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Barbara Ruben

Tammy Darvish was able to translate the skills she honed during her long career at family-owned car company Darcars to a new position as a vice president at the credit union PenFed in January. In the process, she says she found happiness in her career for the first time. She will share advice on how to make a career transition later in life at the Beacon’s 50+Expo on Oct. 18 in Silver Spring, Md.
Photo by Rey Lopez

Cars have been a driving factor in almost all of Tammy Darvish’s adult life.

As the daughter of Darcars founder John R. Darvish, Sr., she and her two stepbrothers were groomed to take over his Washington-area auto empire, consisting of more than 25 franchises. She majored in automotive management in college, then worked her way up from the salesroom floor to executive vice president, as she became the public face of the company.

But in a very public split from Darcars last year, Darvish alleges in a lawsuit that her father went back on a promise that she would own part of Darcars when he retired.

Instead, her stepbrothers became president and chief operating officers of the company and told her to clear out her office. So she walked away, bewildered and trying to find a toehold in the next chapter of her life.

“It’s a place I never expected or wanted to be. I was very hurt, very surprised, very let down,” said Darvish, who is 51 and lives in Potomac, Md. She said she only speaks to her father now through her children, who are both students at the University of Southern California.

In January, she filed a lawsuit in Montgomery County Circuit Court asking that she be given shares in Darcars equal to one-third of the value of the company. Darcars balked, filing a countersuit that was dismissed. The original suit continues to churn through legal channels.

Today, Darvish still drives a Lexus SUV as she did during her Darcars days, but its license plate now reads PENFED — the credit union where she was hired as executive vice president of business development and government and community affairs in January.

How Darvish switched gears, found a new career she says that has “for the first time made me completely happy,” and became a role model for others floundering at mid-life will be the topic of her keynote speech at the Beacon’s 50+Expo in Silver Spring, Md., on Oct. 18.

A new career

When Darvish walked out the door at Darcars, she took a look at what she’d done for decades and thought creatively about how to translate that work to a new field.

“The past year has been one of great adjustment,” Darvish said. “When you spend 30 years at a company, you never think about a different career, never think about taking skills from one industry and being able to apply them in a completely different industry and be successful.

“For me, I’m fortunate. [Changing industries] was a risk that has seemingly paid off.”

Not everyone thinks about career change that way. “If you look at [automotive] sales consultants or sales managers or service advisers, when they leave a dealership, they typically just pop back up at another dealership,” Darvish noted.

But it doesn’t have to be like that. “I think it’s interesting that they have skills that many other industries need that the automotive industry really does a great job in developing in people — like customer service, communicating, messaging.

“Beyond customer service is the ability to sell. Not just sell a car, but you could sell a product, you could sell a service, you could sell software.”

Darvish extends this advice to job seekers over 50 as well, whether they are exploring a new career direction by choice or because they have lost their job. “Rather than focus on the industry, focus on your talents,” she advised.

Darvish, who served as the first female chair of the Washington Area New Auto Dealers Association and on the executive committee of the Greater Washington Board of Trade, noted that, “At the end of the day, you have to be happy.

“I’m fortunate because for the first time in my life I’m doing what makes me happy. I’m serving myself. But it’s risky. I can see where a lot of people would be very afraid [of making such a change],” she said.

Doing well by doing good

What appealed to Darvish about PenFed is its nonprofit nature and mission to help customers become more financially savvy. She and others said the skills she honed at Darcars translate well to her job at PenFed.

“Bringing her aboard was based on much more than the respect for her business success in the automobile industry,” said James R. Schenck, PenFed’s CEO and president. “Tammy’s commitment to the greater Washington community is without equal.

“Her demonstrated track record of helping others, and her community outreach, is in lockstep with the cultural values of PenFed, PenFed’s employees, and the spirit of the credit union movement of people helping people,” Schenck added.

Darvish also recently stepped in as the director of PenFed’s foundation, which helps members of the military, veterans and their families with programs on financial education, credit-building, home ownership and short-term assistance.

“There’s a very fine line in life between those who need help and those who can help. And you never really know what side of that line you’re going to be on,” Darvish said. “I found myself on the other side of the line, [needing help] unexpectedly. But I saw how to move forward,” she said.

Darvish says she thrives on helping other people understand credit scores, mortgages and other financial information that often doesn’t get taught in school.

“I have a deep passion for financial readiness training. I call it financial readiness versus financial literacy. I think the tone of the word ‘literate’ implies that you’re not,” she said.

“When it comes to preparing for your financial future, you have to be ready. I think I’m a walking example. You have to be ready for anything.”

Darvish’s work in financial readiness helped her earn the William Donald Schaefer Helping People Award in April. The award “honors the legacy of public service exemplified” by Schaefer, former governor of Maryland, comptroller and Baltimore mayor.

Current Maryland comptroller Peter Franchot created the award four years ago, and called Darvish “a dedicated philanthropist, a champion for financial readiness, and exceptional citizen to our region and our state.”

Fundraising acumen

Darvish has long been involved in helping nonprofits raise money for their causes. She was named Philanthropist of the Year for Montgomery County last year, and works to raise money for organizations that work with the homeless, as well as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society and the Parkinson’s Foundation.

She lost a cousin to cancer, and her father has Parkinson’s, so often the causes she champions hit close to home.

“You can become a victim to it, or you can get mad and understand the only way to solve this problem is research. You can’t find a cure without research. You can’t complete research without funding,” she said.

But Darvish doesn’t just want to write a check, she wants to use her business acumen to help fundraise more efficiently so that more of the money raised can be used by the charities.

Darvish helps nonprofits leverage in-kind donations for fundraising galas to help trim costs for flowers, food and graphic design. She helps them negotiate for better rates on things like the band. For a wine tasting fundraiser, for example, she had attendees bring their own wine to share.

Once, a group asked for her help, but when Darvish heard their address was near the White House she turned them down, thinking that the organization should not be paying top dollar for a great address, and that the money should instead be used to support its services rather than overhead.

And Darvish encourages people to give to charity no matter how small their donation. “A lot of people want to give, but they just don’t feel like they have value if they can’t write a check for $500.

“What I think I’ve always been very good at is raising a whole lot of little money — $25 here, $50 there, $100 here, $1,000 there. You’ve still got to sometimes get those big checks, but a lot of little donations make a big difference,” she said.

Darvish also places value in helping other women succeed. Through her work, she has seen women who are divorced, raising children alone, and drowning in debt. Some have been in abusive relationships, but are afraid to break free because they have no idea how they will support themselves.

And since her high-profile split from her famous family, more have come to see her as a role model. Recently on an airplane flight, some women recognized her.

“They came over and started hugging me and saying, ‘Please don’t give up. You’re fighting for all of us. You’re going to make a difference for all of us,’” she recalled.

Darvish relishes the fact that she can be seen that way because it’s a role she never foresaw.

“Twenty years ago, ten years ago, even two years ago I could never have envisioned myself doing what I’m doing,” she said. “A lot of it has to do with confidence, not allowing other people to dictate to you what your value is.

“Your value has to be self reflected. You determine your value. That’s one thing I think I have 100 percent control over.”