Their Approach to Career Changes? Find a Niche, and Fill It

The difference now is she is earning far more than she did in her previous career, through a mix of commercial illustration, books, lectures and classes. Online sales alone are well into the six figures.

Not all people made career changes for financial reward. After finishing law school at the University of Pennsylvania, Aaron Walker joined a corporate law firm. But he decided the work wasn’t for him, and he switched to an education nonprofit organization. Then, in 2013, he started Camelback Ventures, a nonprofit fund that promotes entrepreneurs of color for roles like portfolio management in impact investing, a type of investment with a social conscience.

“There are definitely days when I’m reminded that if I’d stayed at the law firm or done something else I would have made a lot more money in the last five years,” Mr. Walker said. “But I get to wake up every morning and do what I want. I’ve also made more money in the last 10 years than my mother has made in the last 30 years.”

These people made their career changes voluntarily. But others were forced to move out of economic necessity.

In her late 20s, Katie Warner Johnson found herself at a turning point in her career. Despite professional ballet credentials, including a stint in the musical “Cats,” and an undergraduate degree from Harvard, she was working as a trainer in Los Angeles and had just been rejected by every business school she applied to.

“Being a fitness instructor at $80 an hour sounds great, but you’re only working 11 to 21 hours a week,” she said. “I had no wealth.”

So in 2012, she decided to start a business, thinking that it would help her business school application the next time. The company, which became Carbon38, an online store for women’s athletic and leisure apparel, started by raising money through the usual route of going to family and friends. She then won a venture capital competition, which led to additional funding.