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Episode 71: Take a Risk - Jen V. and guests on the DYBP podcast

On this episode, Take a Risk, we share a compilation episode from the 2020-2021 podcast, Ditch Your Backup Plan. This was Jen V.’s first podcast where she interviewed guests in the performing arts on what it means for them to follow a risky career path.

In this episode, each guest answers the question, “What has been your biggest risk?”  Some of their reflections may surprise you.  

This is also the exact episode that inspired Jen V. and JRT to chuck it all and resign from their positions in higher education to launch Voice First World®.  It was a huge risk and they have not regretted it for one single second!

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Read the transcript below

Hey, it’s Jen Vellenga, co-host of the Speak with Presence podcast. I’m solo today. My co-founder, Jennifer Rettele-Thomas, JRT, is putting together more on location interviews with leaders in the Kansas City area. This Episode 71: Take a Risk is a big part of our story as entrepreneurs and business owners.

It was fun to put together. It’s a throwback to the Ditch Your Backup Plan podcast that I created and produced in 2020 and 2021. I recorded 51 episodes, and you can still find DYBP, Ditch Your Backup Plan, on all podcast platforms. So stay right here because I’m sharing a DYBP collage episode on taking risks right here on the Speak with Presence podcast.

This is to remind you that it’s always worth it to take a risk. Ditch Your Backup Plan is an interview podcast that features stories of rewarding careers between starving artist and celebrity. I launched it right before we knew anything about the pandemic, so it’s an interesting archive of that time period for one of the hardest hit industries.

My guests are Emmy, Tony, and Grammy Award winning artists, actors, writers, comedians, costume designers, set designers, and arts educators. They’ve worked on Broadway, TV, film, Disney for Marvel or Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, Apple TV, Warner Brothers, Miramax. I promise you, you have seen many of them or heard their words or seen their designs, but you probably don’t know their names.

My goal with DYBP was to create a podcast where students who wanted to pursue careers in the performing arts could hear what it’s really like. These interviews had an additional effect on me personally. The more I asked the question, what was the biggest risk you’ve taken? The more I started to wonder if I’d been taking enough risks myself.

I asked JRT to listen to this specific episode back in early 2021, and it changed both of us. If you’ve been following us, you know that JRT and I stepped away from our full-time positions in higher education in June 2021.  Me, as a tenured, full professor leading the theater unit at a major university, and her in development and fundraising as an associate vice president of a university foundation.

Resigning for us was a risk we took to launch our communication consulting and coaching company, Voice First World. We are two years and four months into the journey, living our lives as business owners and entrepreneurs. Taking this risk has not been without its ups and downs, but we have been successful by all accounts.

It’s gratifying to know that it pays off. Not always immediately or directly, but ultimately it is worth it. And any risk requires you to endure the comments from naysayers and negative Nellies, and there are plenty of them. Do it anyway. You don’t have to be an artist or an athlete or an entrepreneur to take a risk, but it does lead to fulfillment in your life, and that means living a life highlighted by growth and change.  It’s certainly been worth it for us. 

Many of our clients and followers also face risks. Maybe they’re not wired to resign their positions and start a business, but they are still taking risks that are big in their lives. They’re launching speaking careers, consulting work, stepping into new leadership roles inside and outside of their organizations. 

They’re running for public office, starting podcasts, creating change with their ideas that were previously buried behind fear of judgment. Those ideas are seeing the light of day and creating change and growth in our clients’ lives and their industries. I offer you this episode to ask you, what’s the biggest risk you’ve taken?

Here’s Jen V from 2021, just six months before she stepped away to start Voice First World with Jennifer Rettele-Thomas. Here’s Episode 71: Take a Risk on the Speak with Presence podcast.

Hey fearless friends, it’s Jen Vellenga with Episode 40 of the Ditch Your Backup Plan podcast. This is a collage episode from guests of 2020 answering the question, what was your biggest risk? I didn’t capture every single guest, but I got pretty close. At the very end, you’ll get a little bit of advice from Dr. Alisa Hurwitz as well.

Next week, it’s another collage episode of guests of 2020 with the question, have you made it? If you haven’t done so already, please go over to Apple Podcasts and rate and review the show. Even if you don’t listen on Apple Podcasts, they really are the biggest player in the space and that’s how other people can find me.  If you know someone taking a big risk soon, artistically, or otherwise, share this episode with them to give them some inspiration.

Here are guests from 2020 answering the question, what was your biggest risk? 

Becca Kötte, we talked about your leap of faith with ending the Rock of Ages contract. Was that the biggest risk you’ve taken, or do you feel like there’s other big risks when you look back?  That’s probably the biggest one because I really, at the time, had no idea that something was coming. And I don’t even think I mentioned this before, but four months after I left, the show closed. I mean, you know, hindsight’s 20/20, but I had no idea. So that was a pretty big one.

Lauren Hirsch, what do you think the biggest risk has been for you and how did you prepare for it? I think saying yes to going out on that tour was a pretty big risk, you know. I didn’t know, it could have been really great, but it could have been really terrible. And I said, yes, because you never really know what’s going to happen. So, like, I didn’t know what a Guardian was. I had spent like a month in rehearsal with Guardians.  That’s the extent of what I knew about them. At that point, I was just jumping into a job I didn’t know anything about to travel the country with people I didn’t know. It worked out.  

Clyde Voce. I don’t know if it’s a common risk. But I think my risk moving to New York as soon as I was done with school.  And it was during the recession. That was a huge, huge risk for me because I didn’t really understand. I don’t think anyone can really, unless you live there before and go to school in the city. No one really gets how expensive New York is. And not only how expensive it is, but how fast your money goes. It just goes away so quickly.

Sarah Schreiber. Honestly, I don’t even remember having too many thoughts about it. I just did it. Was moving to California, moving to Los Angeles. I want to live a life of no regrets. I loved my seven years in LA. I go back now and I said, this is not it.  I don’t even remember that person. Like being like, I 100% remember that person. I’m just so different now, New York, LA, oh my gosh, the opportunities, the excitement. And I love the pride of conquering or being in those cities, because I didn’t necessarily conquer per se, but I did what I was supposed to do in those places. 

Ross Evans, what are some of the risks you’ve had to take? I am really, I’m kind of a dummy when it comes to risk. I don’t think about it, which makes me, I think, a good and bad risk taker. Like, in hindsight, someone is like, oh yeah, that’s a giant risk you take. I’m like, oh, I never even thought of it that way. It’s just what I wanted to pursue. I’m not great with this question, as far as risk is concerned, but I’ve definitely taken some risks. 

One of the first jobs that I got in LA was John had just been hired to direct this animated movie, and they were looking for writers. John and I were not being considered as writers for this project. We decided, you know what, why don’t we just write the first 30 pages of what we think the script would be and give it to them for free and see if they’ll hire us.  So that’s what we did. We took a risk and we wrote the first 30 pages and we handed it in, and they hired us. And nobody asked us to do that and our agent said, that’s a big risk. I don’t know anybody who’s ever gotten a job like that. But it works.

Katie McClellan. Probably the biggest risk I’ve taken is what I’ve just done, actually, which is moving out to LA after being in New York for 10 years. And like I was saying, when you switch coasts, it’s all new casting directors and reps and, and not to mention just uprooting myself at 33 and essentially starting a lot of my career over out here. It was really daunting. Of course, just getting my life in order in a new city is a beast in and of itself. Socially, I’m very lucky we have a big contingency out here. It’s been amazing to come out and already have a built-in social network intact.  That’s been such a blessing to be able to reconnect with all these people out here and have people that we’re close with already here.

Tim Murray.  Turning 30, moving to LA, and starting stand-up comedy. That was like, you know, everything changed for me overnight. I basically followed my boyfriend to Los Angeles, because he’s on the Aladdin tour, and they were going to be here for three months.  And my nannying job was over in New York in December, and he was going to be in LA in January.  So I was like, okay, and my lease was up on my apartment. All signs are sort of pointing towards go to LA, give this a try. I landed in LA, and I felt completely lost. I felt like I didn’t have my support system, and I didn’t have my community and any forward motion I was feeling in New York, I felt like was gone. And I decided to try to do stand up. It was so scary to reinvent myself in what felt like so late in the game.

Mariand Torres. Did you go straight to New York after? I did. So, what do you feel your biggest risk has been so far in your career?  I think that initial choice to even major in musical theater. Not even knowing what it was. Definitely, I graduated in May and within a month I called my classmates who I wasn’t even super close to in college.  I called them because I knew they were moving to New York. I called and said, do you guys need another roommate? Because if I don’t go now, I’m worried I won’t go. If I stay in Miami and get comfortable, then I won’t.

Logan Jones.  Moving to Chicago and doing so for an unpaid apprenticeship and not really knowing what my financial situation was going to be in all of the revolving things around that.

Did you have a survival job? I mean, how did you make money? Did you save in advance or how did that go? I had a little bit of savings before I moved here from working during college. Had saved up quite a bit before college as well. I was fortunate enough to leave college without really any student debt.

Jenna Rubaii. What’s been your biggest risk so far, Jenna? Staying in New York and not taking certain jobs that would take me out of New York. Tell me exactly what that means. That means giving up job opportunities elsewhere. There are so many jobs in like Vegas or even sometimes in California.  Even cruise ship gigs long or short.  There are just longer contracts elsewhere that you are giving up those opportunities of guaranteed long-term work for the opportunity of staying in New York and waiting. Maybe having an opportunity to work on a new workshop. Even so much of the biz is like doing new work.  Now you said you put all your stuff in storage, which means you gave up your rent, right?  Yeah. So, you’re pocketing your rent money. And you’re presumably making bank while you’re on tour. Yeah, so that’s the other side of the risk is saying yes to the money and not saying yes to maybe another opportunity. I don’t know. You have to go with what you’re feeling in the moment.  What do you do in the off time? Do you have a survival job when you’re waiting? Yeah. I mean, you have to make money some way.

Alanna Saunders. My biggest risk? Well, I mean, in terms of like my life, one of the scariest things I’ve ever done was last summer. I went and traveled abroad by myself for five and a half weeks. I know it’s not career related. That’s okay. No, I mean I happen to think that artists don’t really register risk the same way or else they wouldn’t follow the career that they do, right?

Anne Cofell Saunders.  I want to speak to something you had talked to me before about which is this notion of a safety net. I think that’s an absolutely essential quality to have if you’re successful in Hollywood is to be able to live with risk. Yeah, have a temperament or a life situation that allows you to take on risk.  I mean if I had had my children before I came to LA, I wouldn’t have been able to come to LA because I made so little for so long. It is a job that has a lot of ups and downs and if you’re a person who needs stability in terms of a day-to-day stability, then teaching is probably a better choice. That was my fallback position. 

I got my MFA thinking, well as a fallback position, I can teach with an MFA.  The fact that my parents weren’t able to pay for OU or pay for a lot of things or have my back other than like you go girl. We got you. You can do it.  Made them want me to have a fallback position, which was that English degree.

I think, in general, parents need to be wary of giving advice about things they don’t have direct experience of.  Thank you. Yes. Yes. If you come from music videos and you want to give me advice on music videos, I’m all ears. If you have no experience with it, you cannot advise either for or against it.  Because I can look back and say, if I had gotten that undergraduate theater degree, I would be much further along in my career because I would have focused sooner. Alternatively, I went on a lovely journey which then informed my writing. I’m always able to look back on my international time, etc., which is wonderful.

There’s no point looking back. I don’t like doing it. I’m pleased with my life experience. But I will say that temperament is everything and drive is everything and if you have a student or a child or your child has an internal drive to be an artist of some kind. Then throw everything in your power behind them. Trust them. Because what I find is being a generalist gets you nothing.

Lindsay Levine.  Oh, wow. That’s a good question. I think the first biggest risk I took was just pivoting or transitioning to casting from performing. And just jumping and believing it would all work out and it did. And then I would say the second risk was leaving Tara Rubin’s office to move to San Francisco because I had a really great job and she’s the best boss ever.  It’s a wonderfully warm office and my relationship with them is ongoing and still really great. But I did leave my position and I left my shows that I had been working on to kind of focus on my family for a little bit and see what’s next.

Carrie Compere. I think the biggest risk, honestly, at least it felt like that at the time, was making the decision to be away from my family and be away from my kids for such a long time and not knowing how that would affect them. Not knowing what that would do to our relationship, not knowing what that would do to them as little people.

Joshua Henry.  I mean, I think from the very beginning, yes, thankfully coming out of college I had a job. I was going to go to Paper Mill Playhouse, and you know be Judas in Godspell, which was huge.  But that was, I believe, like a three-week run. So that’s 21 days of employment. I went to New York in a Penske truck from Florida with $1,500 to my name.  Maybe $50,000 in debt. So, I think even though people are like, oh, you booked that thing. You know, it’s like, yes, and I had an amazing blessing to be able to work right out of the gates.  But to me, looking back, I’m like, that was a huge moment of leaping.

Josh Fiedler. The biggest risk, I guess, you know, the biggest risk I really pushed us to produce a show. It was called The Performers by a writer named David West Read. And it was a hard journey, but we got to Broadway. Those are my favorite things I ever worked on.

Travis Cloer. Probably just moving to New York for the first time. You know, I didn’t know anyone. I take that back. I knew one guy, the guy that I moved in with for a few months. And, it was scary. I’m not going to lie. It was super scary. You know, whenever you’re faced with going after your goals and your dreams, there’s always that fear of like, well, what if they don’t happen?  Then what? You know, what do I do then? So that was a risk, you know, to confront what you really want to do and what you really want to achieve. Trying to figure out how to do it and survive while you’re doing it. There were a few years in there that you would get a gig and then wait tables for a while, right? Oh yeah, absolutely. You know, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone in the acting world that didn’t wait tables or temp or something like that at some point.

Nick Francone.  I don’t know.  I mean, I think when I moved to New York right away. I mean, maybe risk doesn’t register for you. I think it sort of doesn’t. Yeah and I’ll tell you why. There’s a very good reason.  Because I got married at 21 to somebody who’s great and who has always had like a regular job. And that’s given me a lot of freedom to be like, I might not have work on Thursday. I might not have work next week. I’ve always been hustling for our family, but I haven’t had to hustle for toilet paper.  Do you know what I mean?

Shaun Brown. The biggest risk? Yeah, the risk is, I guess, inherent in itself, because there’s so many factors that play into if you get the role or not. And a lot of the factors you can’t control.  I would say 90% of them, you can’t control. You have to have tough skin. And I know we keep hearing that in the industry. You have to have tough skin, tough skin, tough skin.  But you really do because a lot of this whole thing has nothing to do with you as far as TV and film is concerned. It has nothing to do with your talent. Talent is a prerequisite and everything else is just do you fit it or not. 

Maya Lynne Robinson. The biggest risk I’ve had to take in my career? Like in terms of what? 

What does that mean? I’m asking you. I think that’s a great answer because I happen to think artists don’t register risk the same way other people do. Yeah. So, like, I think you risk every single time you put yourself out there.

Michael McElroy. Acting wise, I think when I stepped into Sunday in the Park, the Revival, I haven’t done a lot of covering of roles. And I had to cover, I think, four roles and just be in the ensemble of the show. And it was interesting because, you know, I had been away from the acting and doing Broadway for a period of time. I’d probably say around five years.  So, to step back into it at high profile, the show that was the very first Broadway show I ever saw, my favorite Sondheim piece, and covering four roles while actually being on stage the whole time and learning them, was terrifying. And ending up having to go on for one of them, only went on one time.

Qui Nguyen. I, you know, it’s like, I bet you in the moment, if you asked about any of those big moments, it all felt like big, big risk. But like in hindsight, from this point behind, you know, looking back, like none of them feel that major anymore. Because all I honestly, like, you know, all I see are the good things that have happened from every choice that I’ve made versus how scared I was in making those choices.

Chantal Bilodeau. Did you have family support for you going off to the U. S. and following this artistic creative passion? Well, I was 29. So, I was too old. Oh, so you didn’t need it. Yeah, I was too old to have family support. I know you asked some of your other guests, like the biggest risk that they’ve taken.  And this was actually mine.  Because I left, just before I quit my job in Montreal. I went and got a car. I didn’t have a car and you know to be able to be accepted for credit to get to buy a car, you have to have a job. So I got a car, then quit my job.  Then moved to the US with not even enough money to pay for the tuition for the first year. I was just like, man, I’m going to try it and if it doesn’t work out, I’ll come back. Because the school system, like in Canada, school is free or next to free.  So, you can’t get big loans like you can in the U. S.

Bliss Griffin. I wish that we were more honest as an industry with our students about what kind of risks they’re taking. And I don’t want to take dreams away. Right? Like at all.  But we should be looking at what’s going to keep you whole because there’s nothing worse than feeling stuck in your restaurant job. You want to go to an audition. You want to take that role. But you’re crushed under debt that you just can’t possibly manage, right? Like you might have been better off just coming to New York and getting the table waiting job right out of high school and taking classes in New York than saddling yourself with miles and miles of unmanageable debt.

Kiki Rivera. Oh gosh, I think the biggest risk was moving out here and trying to live as an artist full time. Because I’ve never lived away from home. And I told myself that if I stayed home, I would have to just get a regular job and go back to, you know, the 9-5 life. And, if I did that, I would be stuck.  And I didn’t want to feel stuck. 

Jerry Jay Cranford. Gosh, I don’t know. Biggest risk? I think any of it becomes a risk because you need money for rent and food.  So anytime the job ends, there’s that, Oh God moment after it. So, it becomes this frantic search or need to find the next thing.

Laura Camien.  I think the answer is in something we already mentioned. And that was the real turning point for me.  The real deciding moment was just when I determined I’m a 100% in this.  I’m going to admit that I made a mistake in getting married.  You know, $400 in my pocket. Committing all into New York and if it wasn’t Blue Man Group. It was going to be some other show, some other theater. Some other project that I threw myself into and worked hard for. 

Vince Cardinal.  I only know the risks in retrospect because I never thought of them at the time.

Well, you’ve heard me say on this podcast before, I don’t think artists or creatives register risk the same way as others. Yeah, I really don’t. I quit my job as a high school teacher before I had a graduate program to go to. Those kind of moves where you’re like, oh, it’s time to move now. And you just know it in your gut that it’s time to move on. And you just do and then things are there. So leap, and the net will appear. There’s my metaphor. Yeah, I think so. I mean, I also think sometimes it doesn’t appear.

Dr. Alisa Hurwitz.  Is there any advice that you could give in this moment about self-care and mental health and just kind of staying on track? Yeah, two things come to mind. One is self-care. I always say that my job as a psychologist, that self-care is the most important part of my job. Actually, in my role as a mom, self-care is the most important part of my job. You won’t have it to give away, if you aren’t refueled. So know, discover what those things are. Know what those things are that refuel you. Know if you get refueled by spending time by yourself or by spending time with other people. Know that being in nature refuels you. Know if stillness and quiet refuels you. Or know, exercise refuels you. Know these things about yourself.

I also think about how, kind of beyond the logistical advice, you are as a human in this world really, really matters. And I think especially for female identifying folks that we get this message, that kindness and assertiveness are mutually exclusive. And they’re not. I think to be successful, which doesn’t mean rich or at the highest supposed echelon of your career. But for me, successful means existing as a human in the world who creates positive change in whatever way that is for you.  That you can be a kind person and truly treat people the way you want to be treated and have good boundaries. And be able to say no to things or that’s not okay with me. Those two things can coexist and that will help you have success as a human in your life. Which translates to success across the board.

Thanks for listening to the Speak with Presence podcast and the Ditch Your Backup Plan podcast. I’m Jen Vellenga. If you know someone who is facing a big risk, go into your app and share this episode with them. I’m just saying it changed my whole career path. Next week we will release another DYBP episode where I ask my guests, have you made it?  This is a question that artists get asked very often and many of them are irritated by it. That’s Tuesday. Thanks for listening.


Jen V. & JRT

Jen Vellenga and Jennifer Rettele-Thomas are the co-founders of Voice First World®, a communication and executive coaching company. They train executives and leaders on the Presence Paradigm™, a communication technique created from Jen V’s decades of training actors to perform authentically, with presence, on stages, on audio, and video. If you want to learn more about how to speak and lead confidently, book a discovery call at

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Jen has been magical in helping me to identify my voice and my VOICE! The ways that she has holistically addressed my strengths and my areas of improvement have all made me feel so much more confident.

-Cate R.
Politician, Chicago, IL