"Since the ninth grade I knew I wanted to work in the U.N.," says Mayra Alejandro, 40, a United Nations political affairs officer who helps schedule and organize the work of the General Assembly. "I knew I wanted to do something to help make this a better world, and to me, the U.N. was a place where things were done for the good of humanity." After 15 years, that sense of mission still sustains her. "Most people I know work to earn a living. When I wake up, I'm ready to go to work -- and I'm ready to stay there until I finish the job."
"Capitalism can be crude and painful," says Fred Zuckerman, "but it's also kind of wonderful how it can work. It's a lot of fun to buy a company and make it better." After many years as a corporate treasurer (for Chrysler, RJR Nabisco, and IBM), Zuckerman, 62, struck out on his own in 1995. A self-described merchant banker, he invests in everything from real estate to health care to garbage. "Every day there's a different transaction," he says. "Yesterday I was in the guts of Seventh Avenue, evaluating a clothing company. My experience in that area approaches zero. It was fascinating."
When Laura Fernandez, 21, started working at the Save Mor Copy Center two years ago, she thought she'd be bored. But the job's turned out to be very satisfying. "Everyone gets along, everyone is calm, and we all laugh a lot." And Fernandez enjoys the interactions with the shop's regular customers: "It's like being a psychiatrist, or a bartender. They come in and tell us their problems."
She likes it so much that she's delayed plans to study accounting. "I know I can't work here for the rest of my life, but it's hard to imagine leaving."
"I suppose it goes back to all the old movies -- you know, Gene Kelly, Fred Astaire, and all the old songs that make you want to move," says Derek Roofayel, 32, who has been in the competitive world of ballroom dancing in one form or another since he was 6. These days, as the owner of a Fred Astaire Dance School franchise, he teaches amateur competition students. "It feels great to help someone get to be as good as they can be," says Roofayel. "I'm making the circle larger. I'm giving back to the dance world what the dance world gave me."
After two years fighting to get women into nontraditional fields, Barbara Kairson, 48, wanted a job where she could see she was making a difference. Now Kairson administers educational benefits for a municipal employees' union -- and gets that satisfaction. For example, she says, "we have a course for members with dyslexia. One student always wanted to be a chef. He came through the program, took the test for a culinary school, and was admitted." Says Kairson: "It reminds me that we can facilitate change. In a lot of jobs you never get to see that."
"I love the idea that you can have control of every aspect of what you do. You can change something like four times in 10 minutes. It pushes you to go further," says Kerri Mahoney, a freelance Web site designer. Schooled in filmmaking and animation, Mahoney, 26, jumped to Web design two years ago. She and boyfriend Peter Mack launched the award-winning kids' Web 'zine Jinx and are working on a site for Nickelodeon. "The coolest thing about doing what I do is getting e-mail," she says. At Jinx, one of her first letters was from an 11-year-old in Bangkok. "A letter from a kid halfway around the world. That kind of stuff is so amazing."
"I've always loved children, I've always loved storytelling, and we had the space available," says Mary Rothschild, 51, explaining why she opened a children's center in her Brooklyn brownstone. In addition to running craft and storytelling programs for kids, she also gives educational workshops for parents. "Supporting good parenting is a real joy to me," Rothschild says.
After working for the U.S. Customs Bureau for many years, "this is the first job I've had that I can actually call mine and not something I'm doing for a paycheck," says Rothschild, who earns about $22,000 a year. "I am doing what I was meant to do."