I can’t believe this is my 50th blog post! It certainly doesn’t feel like I’ve written that much. In fact I actually thought that wordpress had it wrong- that maybe it was including my draft posts. But sure enough when I went back and counted, there are 49 published and this makes 50. I thought about various posts I could do to commemorate this milestone- perhaps something about how to build your own blog, what I’ve learned, etc. But I kept coming back to the desire to share the story of how this blog came to be and why it’s so significant that the 50th post happens to coincide with this week of all weeks. I’ve had a fairly unique path and it’s my hope that by sharing my story it will: 1. Empower others to take a chance on changing their path and 2. Help hiring managers and HR to recognize that non-traditional experience can be incredibly valuable to an organization. So here it is (and it’s a long post so buckle up…):
The Prequel: Living in the Library
I have a BA in International Affairs from GWU and a MA in Politics from NYU. My passion was studying post-communist transition and democratization. I’ve always wanted to understand what underpins motivations and why people have certain sets of beliefs and subsequently take certain actions. In transitional societies most of the rules that people grew up with get thrown out the window. They are entering an entirely new system and form new communities. I worked to understand how and why these communities formed and why certain people moved towards nationalism while others moved towards more inclusive attitudes. I decided that a career in academia would be the most suited to pursuing this course of study. After a few false starts I was accepted into the Politics PhD program at the University of Virginia and moved to Charlottesville, VA.
Episode I: A Startling Discovering
I started my PhD in 2011 at UVA and couldn’t have been happier. Finally I was doing what I loved and my path seemed very clear. I would do 2 years of course work and then spend 3-4 years focused on my dissertation. Then came that fateful course: Spring 2011 I took a class on public opinion and participation. I became interested in several theories that looked at how the media and various “opinion-leaders” (as they’re called in political science) impact political beliefs. I began to see how social media, in particular Facebook, could have a very transformative impact on these studies. Specifically, the way that it could help us move from a broad brush-stroke depersonalized quantitative focus and towards a qualitative understanding of opinion formation that could be backed by analytics. Unfortunately at the department at UVA is quite invested in quantitative methods and I hit wall after wall when I tried to explain my theory. I might have gone so far as to drop it but then…
Episode II: 17 Days in June-What just happened??
On June 10, 2012 I received an email announcing the resignation of UVA’s President Theresa Sullivan with no real explanation. Sullivan was the first female president of a University that has had a strong history of intentional and unintentional sexism (some of which I was experiencing in the politics department) and had only served for 2 years at a University where Presidents averaged decades. She was quite popular and well respected by all. Subsequent emails directed faculty and students to just go with the decision and not ask any questions. I’m not one to take that lightly.
On June 13th I saw a petition going around demanding an explanation by the Board of Visitors for the resignation. I immediately signed and shared it. Then I began to read the passionate comments left by fellow signatories talking about how frustrated and betrayed they felt. I noticed a similar group under the single story the Washington Post had written about the sudden resignation. I realized that perhaps if these people had a forum to talk to each other we might be able to get the attention of other journalists to keep their attention on the story and get a real explanation. So I formed a Facebook Group- “Students, Friends and Family United for the Reinstated of President Sullivan”.
The full saga of what we accomplished can be found here. It was nuts. My group swelled to 17,000 members and served as a base of operations from which we held a rally at the University bringing out 2,000 attendees from all over the country. On July 26, 2012 President Sullivan was reinstated as President, a position which she still holds.
This landed me my first job as a social strategist- working for UVA. Apparently it was better to keep me inside than outside! But from a bigger standpoint, it made me see that those theories I had batted around in my political participation class had merit. Social media had the power to bring people together to created meaningful and lasting societal change. As such it was a challenge to much of what I was being taught.
Episode III: This isn’t going to work
During Fall 2012 I wrote several papers working to tie my theories to existing scholarship and demonstrating their validity. The last straw was when the professor who taught political behavior, who I knew I would need on my dissertation committee, looked over a paper I had written and said “just remove all mentions of the internet”. Winter 2012 I began to make my preparations to leave my program. I had put my heart and soul into getting into a politics PhD program and I was quitting. It’s the hardest yet best decision I ever made.
I started my blog in February 2013 to begin to work through some of my theories and also as an opportunity to begin to develop my voice. After lots of research I decided that the right position for me was that of “social strategist”. A position that would allow me to continue my research and analytics while also working to execute strategy. My blog was my outlet during that last semester. I sat in classes feeling everyone staring at me- the quitter. It didn’t help that my activities during the summer had made professors in my department wary and uncertain how to treat me. It was with a sign of relief that I got a position at Social Media Today and could officially leave after the Spring 2013 semester.
Episode IV: Do I really belong?
My new position started June 2013 and it was a rough transition. I felt that I had to succeed to demonstrate to myself and others that I had made the right decision. This all came crashing down when, after 5 months, I was laid off. I turns out that the expansion of the company had occurred too soon and I was expendable. I was so humiliated. I put all of my former PhD cohort on a limited Facebook visibility. I didn’t know how I could face them.
But I kept blogging on my site. It was my outlet to explain to the world my strategies. I wrote a post called “Why a social strategist should be your next hire” that was basically a description of everything I could do for an organization. But I also felt lost. I didn’t have a degree in marketing and I felt that it showed all to often. I could understand and speak fluently in high level concepts but was befuddled by certain terms such as the “C-Suite” and “Integrated Marketing.” I felt totally out of place and while I still knew that leaving my PhD was the right choice it felt incredibly selfish particularly when I had to move back in with my in-laws and get financial help from my parents. What had I done?!
Episode V: It starts to come together…
I was finally hired by a small agency called Purematter to work primarily on their new contracts with IBM. This was when I finally had the chance to build out real social strategy and implement new ideas. I worked on multiple influencer programs, constantly working to build better types of measurements and identification strategies. I built out tweet chats, and communities and all the while I kept blogging. My blog became my outlet. It’s where I wrote out strategies that couldn’t be fully implemented or, in a few cases, where I could be far more blunt than I could be in client conversations in terms of what would and wouldn’t work. But I still struggled. I felt that I had gotten lucky to find an agency willing to use my skills and I was uncertain whether that would happen again. There were still gaps in my vocabulary and knowledge.
Episode VI: The Next Adventure
At the end of May 2016 the agency decided to switch to a contractor model and I was out of a full-time job. I accepted their offer to finish up my programs with IBM and Cisco as a contractor while I looked for other positions. I put together my resume and crossed my fingers that it would make sense to someone. After all I only have 3 years actual full-time”experience” and I’ve now been laid off from both companies I’ve worked for. But I have extensive training in research methodologies and their applications which allows me to create new types of strategies.
My blog was all I had to demonstrate this and so that became a major outlet for me. My number of posts increased and I made sure that when I tweeted them out they all linked to the Pulse versions so that those reading them would also see that I was on the market. And low and behold the calls and emails came in.
But it was Oracle that caught my attention. The opportunity to work with them as Head of Social Strategy, North America under Tami Cannizzaro whose work in influencer programs had inspired me in some of my early strategy work. This was the opportunity I had been looking for since leaving my program. A chance to innovate and stick with it in a way that you just can’t at agencies. I said yes.
I start my new position at Oracle next week. See why I said that the timing of the 50th post was eerie?! One thing I left out was that I also started teaching Social Media and the Brand as an Adjunct Instructor at NYU this past summer. I’ve always loved teaching and it’s what I missed the most about my program. The opportunity to do so once again is so gratifying and rewarding.
I always knew that I made the right decision by leaving my program but that doesn’t mean I wasn’t full of self-doubt. It’s been a very rocky road but I’ve met amazing people along the way who have inspired and assisted me to get where I am today. I’m embarking on a new adventure at Oracle and it’s going to be a big change. There will be new challenges and potential pitfalls but that’s how life goes.
There’s a lot of talk about taking a chance and changing paths. But the one thing that many posts don’t include is just how hard a road it will be and how much you need to commit to moving it forward to make it work. I’m so glad I took that chance but it’s taken me 3 and a half years before I’ve felt comfortable writing a post like this. Follow your dreams but be prepared for many sleepless nights where they feel completely out of reach.
So that’s my story and those are my words of wisdom for whatever they’re worth. Many thanks to everyone who has been there for me along the way. Your support has helped empower me to keep going and believing in myself and my dreams. Here’s to 50 more posts!