Q. I'm thinking about quitting my 9 to 5 job as an executive assistant to fulfill my dream of starting my own yoga studio. But the thought of walking away from my health insurance and biweekly paycheck scares me. Do you have any tips on the best way to get started? - Darrell M., Tulsa, Oklahoma
You first need to know what this career shift will entail. Many people love being their own boss, but owning a business is a major commitment. You'll need to be organized, able to make your own decisions, and prepared to do everything from painting the studio to managing the finances. If you're not sure whether you're suited to the task, visit the United States Small Business Administration Web site (sba.gov), which has a self-assessment checklist as well as a free small business start-up guide to entrepreneurship. It's also a good idea to talk with other yoga studio owners, asking about the challenges and pitfalls they face. Better yet, work at a studio for a while to learn firsthand what works and what doesn't.
If, after this research, you're still excited by the idea of owning your own studio, the next step is to develop a business plan, which defines your business, identifies your goals, and serves as your firm's resume. "Going forward without a business plan is like starting a journey without a road map," says Phil Holland, founder of MyOwnBusiness.com, which offers a free online course on creating a plan. You'll also want to consider the financial aspects of your company. If accounting isn't your cup of tea, find a good accountant to help review your business plan and tax situation. He or she can also help set up a retirement plan for you and your employees. Last, make sure you have enough savings to tide you over until your business succeeds to the point that you can draw a salary. Many small businesses fail not because of a flawed idea, but because their founders didn't allow time to become profitable.
With your passion for yoga, a conscious awareness of the requirements of entrepreneurship, and a good business plan in hand, you'll be ready for the fun part -- inviting students into the sacred space you've created for mind/body wellness.
Q. My grandmother passed away and left me some money. I'd like to use it to take a vacation, but I feel guilty about not putting this windfall to more charitable use. Can I have my vacation and also honor my grandmother's benevolent heart? - Jill J., Sheboygan, Wisconsin
It sounds like a volunteer vacation would be right up your alley. These altruistic adventures provide travelers with the opportunity to have fun while making a positive impact on the regions they visit. From building schools to planting trees, you'll immerse yourself in an area's culture in places around the globe. You'll still have time to see the sights, and your trip can result in meaningful and lasting cultural exchanges.
Volunteer vacations range from a few days to a month or more and cost anywhere from $500 to $4,000 per person, plus transportation to the main site. The most reputable organizations use profits to fund activities and research that benefit the community you're visiting. A few worth looking into include:
1. The nonprofit EarthWatch Institute (earthwatch.org) sends service-oriented travelers to assist scientists with conservation field research. Volunteers can measure changes in coral reefs in the Bahamas and study climate-change patterns in Australia's rain forests.
2. Founded by the family of a pilot killed during the Vietnam War, PeaceTrees Vietnam (peacetreesvietnam.org) supports Vietnamese efforts to reverse the damaging impact of war on its communities. The organization trains and equips experts to remove land mines that plague residential areas in the former demilitarized zone. Then volunteers from the United States and Vietnam plant trees, turning the former minefields into parks.
3. Global Volunteers (globalvolunteers.org) dispatches nearly 2,000 people around the world each year to do everything from teach English and repair homes to assist in conservation efforts and offer medical services.
4.Crooked Trails (crookedtrails.com) guides small groups on trips to Nepal, Peru, India, Thailand, and Kenya. Their main focus: fostering connections between travelers and locals through homestays and work projects such as making bricks to build a Masai school and helping Peruvians map ecologically sound hiking trails.
Q. I hate the idea that I could be inadvertently supporting bad social and environmental practices through my investments. Can I invest in companies that share my values? - Mary S., Los Angeles, California
There is a way, and it's called socially responsible investing (SRI), which means directing investment dollars to support honest business practices and respect for employees, communities, and the environment. By reflecting your values when you invest, you're ultimately helping to create quality products, safer workplaces, and a healthier environment. And there's no downside: The market's long track record shows that socially responsible investors enjoy the same returns as conventional ones.
So how do you determine the good funds from the bad? Consider hiring an SRI financial adviser (to find one, visit socialinvest.org). Armed with the latest research on social and environmental performances of all publicly held companies, an adviser can keep your investments from funding companies with problematic practices by using "avoidance screens." These screens exclude stocks from your portfolio based on a given company's environmental impact, product safety, and labor practices. You can also ask for "positive screens," which search out companies with positive business practices, such as those that pay all workers a living wage, have an impressive record in promoting women, or take care to curb greenhouse gas emissions. Responsible mutual funds such as the Domini Social Equity Fund (domini.com) and the Calvert Large Cap Growth Fund (calvert.com) offer another great option. SRI fund managers avoid companies with poor social and environmental practices and invest in forward-thinking businesses. (Socialinvest.org also has a list of such funds.)
If you don't want to change advisers, ask yours if he or she'd be willing to screen your investments. Some SRI research firms make their data available to all financial professionals. With a little extra research, any adviser can explore the world of SRI.
About the Author
Tracy Fernandez Rysavy is publications editor for Co-op America (coopamerica.org), a national nonprofit that provides green living, purchasing, and investing tips and resources.