Select Page

How I Went From Corporate VP to Island Girl to Cave Diver

How I Went from Corporate VP to Island Girl to Cave Diver

Kate Byars | August 25, 2016

This story is a continuation of “Why I Traded My Lipstick and Pinstripe Suit to Live on an Island” and “What Island Life Was Really Like.”

Having spent a full year away from the corporate world I felt tremendous pressure to return to my former life. I wasn’t sure how long I could put my career on hold before jeopardizing my chances for employment.

My sabbatical living in the BVIs had awakened me to the realization that alternate paths in life were possible, yet I still wasn’t sure what my path should be.

Should I continue off-the-beaten path or return to a life well-known?

Prior to living in the BVIs, my soon-to-be husband and I had become cave divers. With the inherent risks involved, we decided it would be best to pursue this extreme sport before we had a family. With Thailand no longer an option, we headed to Florida to live in the midst of world class cave diving.

I swallowed my nerves and pushed my career another year down road.

If this article resonates with you, please share it with your network! Maybe we can all become inspired and learn from each other.

Cave diving is a predominately male sport. The gear was created by men for men. If you are 6-feet tall and weigh 180-lbs then you are well suited to become a cave diver.

I am half that size. Yet, in order to safely cave dive I have to carry a minimum of 88-lbs on my back. This is problematic because accessing cave systems is not convenient. I have dived cave systems in Florida, Mexico, and the Dominican Republic. Every single one of these caves require the diver to gear up on the tailgate of a truck and heft your heavy load down long, wooden ramps, muddy slopes, or rickety, metal stairs.

Spiral Staircase Dominican Republic

In an effort to resolve my weight-carrying dilemma, I decided to try sidemount diving whereby the diver can place the heavy SCUBA tanks in the water one by one before gearing up. Once you are floating weightless in the water, you can clip the tanks onto the body, thus eliminating the need to carry weight on land.

I contacted the best sidemount instructor in the world to help me. His company pioneered cave diving gear and had a few, smaller-sized items designed for women. He was also a cave diving legend.

I crafted an introductory email and humbly asked if he would agree to train me. Just as I was about to hit “send,” My future husband added “P.S. I am a marketing expert and would love to work for your company.” Scott hit send before I could protest.

The rest, they say, is history.

My would-be sidemount dive instructor became my boss and I never did take the class. Instead, an unexpected door opened that allowed me to pursue my love of marketing and pursue my personal interests. I began to realize what had been missing from my previous life.

Cave diving scuba equipment on wooden table

When I first jumped aboard the career ladder, I was thrilled with what I did. I spent four amazing years climbing the ad agency ranks before taking a leap into international marketing. From an early age, I knew that I wanted to work abroad. At the age of 27, I found myself aboard a flight to the Czech Republic for my first international assignment. My childhood dream had come true.

For five years I was a part of a small, leadership team that traveled the world to support and grow our international subsidiaries. The parent company was not yet global and for the most part we were left to our own devices. That suited our merry band of mavericks just fine. We were creative, bold, and ambitious. We were kicking ass and taking names and it showed in the bottom line.

Occasionally the pace took its toll. Every time we made it across one finish line, a new target was set. We helped right-size Europe only to be told to do the same in Asia. We launched a new product line in one market and were then tasked to do the same in thirty more. I once asked my boss, (who I adored), why the pace never let up. “Because you get things done,” she explained. “It’s rare to find someone with the ability to see the big picture and bold enough to make it happen. You don’t ask mediocre staff to do more. You give greater responsibility to those who get things done.” I understood her point.

And it was hard to complain. My boss rewarded our small team handsomely and challenged us intellectually. It would have been difficult to walk away from such an amazing job.

Turns out I didn’t have to. Unbeknownst to me, a bloody management coup was taking place that would soon obliterate our entire team. Everyone I worked with was fired and my job because much less amazing. Although I tried to conform to the new global policies, I just didn’t fit in. I am a changemaker, not a tow-the-line follower. With equal parts fear and relief, I stepped down and began preparing for island life.

Prior to living in the islands, if I had been asked to work for a small, mom-and-pop enterprise for a fraction of my salary I would have quickly declined. Not because of the money, but because I never would have imagined the work to be interesting or challenging.

Appearances can be deceiving.

My sidemount-instructor-turned employer gave me full reign to do what was necessary to stem the tide of encroaching competition. A pioneer in every sense of the word, my new boss was keen for new ideas and new methodology.

And I was keen to deliver.

I began digital marketing in 2006 before it was standard business requirement. I found a talented agency who discovered the power of content marketing ten years before the rest of the world. Together we built an award-winning website, established an engaged social media presence, and crafted a legendary customer experience.

Content Marketing Institute Dive Rite

Although I didn’t realize it then, I was on the cutting edge of marketing and I was building success in areas I would never have been exposed to in my previous career.

It was epic.

Meanwhile I knocked off early whenever I wanted to go diving. I hung out with world-famous cave divers and swam inside a realm few dare to travel. I married and spent my honeymoon in Mexico cave diving. This new chapter in life was turning out to be pretty great.

Although my salary was one-fourth of what I commanded as a corporate executive, I was content. My work was wildly creative and challenging, yet at the same time it gave me flexibility to breathe. I no longer validated my worth by my accomplishments and was just happy with who I am.

Kathleen Byars at Mayan Blue Akumal

There is no doubt that re-inventing ourselves take courage. It’s not easy to see the forest through the trees, especially when the rest of the world tells you to stay the course and wait for tomorrow.

You don’t have to live on an island to truly live. But you do have to dedicate yourself to creating a life worth living.

Today my purpose in life is clear. I help people redefine what is possible and dare to step outside the status quo.

I am now an entrepreneur, building my own virtual company. I have given up cave diving to raise my two, young sons. And after several years of staying home, we are finally beginning to travel once again with our unschooled boys in tow.

Our life is far from ordinary. But then again, I bet yours isn’t either. Each of us is unique; living vastly different lives of our own choosing. Your life is meant to be extraordinary. How you define that is up to you. You can live on your version of an island, too. All it takes is that first leap of faith.

Thank you so much for following my story. I look forward to writing about more of my adventures, as well as the trailblazing stories of others. You’ll find my latest article here or on LinkedIn every Thursday.

I believe we all have a bit of trailblazer inside us, don’t you?  I welcome you to subscribe to my Sunday morning email. Each week I share personal stories of blazing trails in business and in life.

It’s my passion to create change. I’ve always found that disrupting the status quo leads to an amazing life where nothing is impossible.

 If this article resonates with you, please share! Maybe we can all be inspired and learn from each other.

What Island Life Was Really Like

What Island Life Was Really Like

Kate Byars | August 18, 2016

This story is a continuation of “Why I Traded My Lipstick and Pinstripe Suit to Live on an Island”.

After leaving the corporate world, the first six weeks of life in the BVIs were idyllic. The days were long and sunny and I felt a million miles away from my previous life rushing around on airplanes and in boardrooms. It was as if I had gone on vacation and every clock in the universe had simply stopped.

I treasured the gift of time. No deadlines. No time constraints. Whatever didn’t get done today was easily pushed to tomorrow. My skin was golden brown. My smile was eight miles wide. I was completely in love with my new life.

Until I wasn’t.

After an initial apprenticeship with a dive shop in Tortola, I was offered a full-time job with another dive shop located on Virgin Gorda. This meant I would now be leading dives and driving a boat. I had no experience with either.

My future husband and I were in charge of a satellite dive shop on Marina Cay. We commuted each day from Virgin Gorda; exactly a 17-minute trip. Our job was to take divers on two dives each morning, return at lunch to reload the boat, and do another dive in the afternoon.

Not bad for a day’s work, eh?

Marina Cay BVI Doci

There was only one problem. I was terrified of driving the boat. And quite often, I had to drive the boat on my own while entertaining dive guests. All by myself I had to approach a mooring ball, slow the boat, grab the boat hook, run to the bow and snatch the mooring line before my boat ran over the line and entangled the prop. I had to navigate high winds as I motored precariously in between yachts sleeping in a mooring field. Worst of all, I had to learn how to raft up to other boats while simultaneously imploring its occupants to “PLEASE DEPLOY YOUR BOAT FENDERS!” over the radio.

It was madness.

I lived in the British Virgin Islands long before a captain’s license was required. My only experience driving a boat was on-the-job training. Not that captain’s training would have helped. The Marina Cay dockmaster, who was aptly named “Big Shot” for his size and generous good humor, told me: “Kathleen, do you want to know how to drive a boat?” Increasingly petrified, I cried “Yes, Big Shot, yes I do!” “Only drive as fast as you are willing to hit something,” he laughed heartily. My heart sank in disillusion.

What I had failed to anticipate prior to choosing this new life was how scary it would be to start anew.

My inexperience was obvious.

One night I nearly killed myself during a storm. Scott and I had dropped guests off at Peter Island late in the afternoon. A gale wind hit the Sir Francis Drake Channel and we were caught with no place to run for cover. Completely clueless, we drove the boat parallel to the waves, changing course only between breaks so as not to hit the storm head-on. As we zigzagged our way across the channel the boat began taking on water as it sloshed up over our open transom. I frantically pumped the bilge as the stern of the boat sank lower and lower under the weight of water. Suddenly Scott screamed at me that we had a line in the water. If the line snagged our prop, we would be rendered helpless and blown into the nearby rocks. Without grabbing a life vest, I navigated the narrow boat gunnel, holding the rails for dear life. Cold, sharp waves whipped my bare skin. I made it to the bow and began hauling in our bow line inch by inch, grasping the rails each time a wave hit. My arms were on fire. My legs began to buckle. I was terrified I would go overboard, yet equally terrified we would foul the prop. After what seemed like hours, I managed to secure the line. Two hours later, we reached Virgin Gorda – a trip that should have taken less than 40 minutes. As we docked our boat it occurred to me that I might have drowned. An inexperienced blunder indeed.

They say the only thing on Virgin Gorda louder than a crowing rooster was Kate. I began crying myself to sleep every night. I don’t mean I shed a few tears on my pillow. I mean loud, anguished sobs that reverberated the air of my windowless neighborhood.

Virgin Gorda BVI Cottage

I was in over my head and I wanted to go home. No amount of reason could calm me. The dawn of each new day meant I had to drive that boat. I prayed the night would never end.

Of course, there was an upside, too. The work was quite physical and no matter how many cheeseburgers, chipotle french fries and economy size chocolate bars I ate, I still looked emaciated. Best diet ever.

On days we didn’t have guests, I would paddle my kayak across the bay to Scrub Island and rock climb among the hermit crabs and seagulls.

And I dove the same reefs over and over again until I soon recognized each fish by its markings and tiny scars. How wild is that? Becoming a daily spectator in the underwater realm was truly priceless.

I also got to teach people how to SCUBA dive. Watching a new diver light up the first time you uncover a brittle starfish or point out an obscure nudibranch is gratifying. I made a difference in these divers’ lives and for that I’m forever grateful.

Five months into my one-year contract, I stopped crying. Partly because I was gaining confidence with the boat. Partly because my future husband was going insane listening to me whine. But mostly because I began to realize what all the fuss was about.

I was putting a tremendous amount of value in what I did instead of who I was .

Rationally, we all know that it’s not what we accomplish in life that is important, it’s who you are as a person that matters. Yet, so much of what we strive for – and are rewarded for – in life is what we do.

Think about it. We get gold stars for perfect schoolwork. We get into top colleges based on test scores. We earn promotions and paychecks based on performance.

I was a top-performing marketing executive. And leaving a world where you are performing well to live in a world where you aren’t is an emotional whallop.

Once I began to realize how much value I had put into the accomplishments of my former life, I was able to validate those feelings and gain perspective. This self-awareness was incredibly liberating. I began to embrace myself for who I was and not simply what I was capable of.

Rather than look at my former life with a mixture of envy and disdain, I began to see what I loved about my former life, parse out the parts I didn’t enjoy, and incorporate what I liked into my future.

Despite my desire to leave my former life behind, I would wake up in the middle of the night thinking of new and innovative ways to merchandise our tiny dive shop. Part of my job was managing a tiny 4-foot by 6-foot section of retail space inside Pussers Marina Cay. I minimized the number of low-margin do-rags and increased the number of high-margin dive masks. I made space for women’s pink and purple tank tops and made certain I restocked apparel every day so no one would walk away without finding their size. I turned that tiny dive shop into a joyous little cornucopia of touristy tchotchkes and delivered record-breaking sales month after month.

In the process, I learned that I’m a marketer at heart. To me, marketing is simply matching a customer’s need with the right business that can provide the product or service to best meet that need. I love helping companies learn how to brand themselves so that customers will choose their brand: it’s a win win where everyone gets their needs met. In the islands, I wasn’t selling cheesy tank tops and dive tees – I was helping tourists access simple mementos of a great vacation and blissful time in life.

Kathleen Byars Drives a Dive Boat for Dive BVI

After months of anxiety about driving the boat, I finally began navigating the BVI waters with ease. To my chagrin, I would soon be training my replacement as Scott and I had our sights set on a new locale: Thailand!

However, in December 2004 the third largest earthquake in recorded history devastated Thailand’s coast, killing 230,000 people. The dive industry was destroyed and we were left with nowhere to go.

Should I try to find a new island gig or head back to the States and resume my corporate career? Not ready to let go of my newfound life, I did what every normal, level-headed adventurer would do.

I became a cave diver.

Please join me for the third, and final article, where I’ll share how I finally found balance and carved out a brand-new life built on my own terms.

Part III of the story: How I Went from Corporate VP to Island Girl to Cave Diver

I believe we all have a bit of trailblazer inside us, don’t you?  I welcome you to subscribe to my Sunday morning email. Each week I share personal stories of blazing trails in business and in life.

It’s my passion to create change. I’ve always found that disrupting the status quo leads to an amazing life where nothing is impossible.

 If this article resonates with you, please share! Maybe we can all be inspired and learn from each other.

Why I Traded My Lipstick and Pinstripe Suit to Live on an Island

Why I Traded My Lipstick and Pinstripe Suit to Live on an Island

Kate Byars | August 11, 2016

In 2004 I retired my lipstick and executive career to live on an island. I was thirty-four years old. I had been working since the age of eleven and quite frankly, I was tired. I was also curious. Curious about all the people who made their living leading kayak tours and whitewater adventures whilst I swam from corporate meeting to corporate meeting in a pinstripe suit. Curious about the wealthy folks who flew around in private jets from one vacation home to the next, while I racked up frequent flier miles pushing my TravelPro Platinum Rolling Garment Bag all over Asia and Europe. And curious to know if a simpler life, one that had nothing to do with the American Dream, would be more satisfying than the life I was living.

It’s never too late to be who you might have been.

I sold my 3,000 square foot home. I put my furniture up for sale on eBay. I gave away my classic, black Chanel winter coat and all the rest of my belongings. Except for a leather club chair I purchased when I was first promoted to Vice President of International Marketing at the tender age of thirty. I liked that chair. It was worn in all the right places. It smelled of high-end leather. It was a trophy for a big achievement at a young age. I wasn’t completely ready to let go. The club chair went into storage along with personal effects and mementos.

I bought seven mix-and-match, two-piece bathing suits from J.Crew. I was determined that my biggest decision each day would be what color bikini to wear.

I had recently learned to scuba dive and a few friends urged me to become a dive instructor. In the frigid 40-degree waters of a Texas lake, I earned my dive instructor credentials a few months before I departed for the Caribbean. I had possibly 100 dives. I had no idea what I was doing.

In March 2004 I spent my first night on Tortola, BVIs sleeping in a tiny bunk aboard a wooden yacht; a temporary space that the local dive shop lent me until I could find a roommate. The next day I would help tourists load kayaks onto their boats and lead dive tours underwater. I was now living, and working, in the British Virgin Islands. I barely slept that first night.

What I realize now, and didn’t realize then, is that I was choosing a path that few feared to tread.

There are lots of people who become dive instructors and work in the dive industry; and there are lots of folks who live on beautiful islands. However, leaving behind a hard-earned world of comfort and a skyrocketing career was absolutely abnormal.

Back home in Dallas I had a personal driver who picked me up for each business trip and drove me to the airport. I had a housekeeper, who took care of my home, especially when I was away. The yard guy kept my landscape looking great and the poop patrol scooped up my pooch’s nuggets. I even had a personal shopper at Nordstorm’s and another one at Neiman Marcus. For a simple girl raised with Midwestern values in a normal, upper-middle class home, this was impressive stuff. I was incredibly fortunate.

So why did I quit? And what was I looking for? Was I burnt out; disillusioned; depressed? I don’t think so. What I do know is that I felt pretty damn fine striding down the dock in my brand new Reef flip flops; getting my tan on 1,000 miles from home.

What I didn’t know is that my life in the islands would not simply be an escape from reality. Instead, I would face challenges and fears that rocked my very sense of self and forever change my life.

As the dawn broke on that first morning in the British Virgin Islands, I could only smile in anticipation at the journey I was about to take. A new world of possibilities lie in front of me and while there was no way for me to fully appreciate the changes that were about to occur, I was certainly excited and knew I was in the exact right place I needed to be…[to be continued].

Part II of the story: What Island Life Was Really Like

Part III of the story: How I Went from Corporate VP to Island Girl to Cave Diver

 

I believe we all have a bit of trailblazer inside us, don’t you?  I welcome you to subscribe to my Sunday morning email. Each week I share personal stories of blazing trails in business and in life.

It’s my passion to create change. I’ve always found that disrupting the status quo leads to an amazing life where nothing is impossible.

 If this article resonates with you, please share! Maybe we can all be inspired and learn from each other.