When you think of “pharmacist”, you probably think of your local friendly retail-store pharmacist who fills your prescriptions, right? On this episode, Manasa Murthy talks to us about being a different kind of pharmacist that works in a hospital ICU setting, watching people fight for their lives everyday. Manasa walks us through how she became a critical care pharmacist, and why she decided to leave that path behind to take a huge risk: get an MBA and lead healthcare strategy to fix the structural issues she experienced first-hand as an ex-pharmacist.
Manasa Murthy: I would oftentimes see someone almost die every single day, so really realizing that life is short and you really want to make sure what you’re doing with your life is something that makes you happy and provides meaning and so similarly, I think when you’re evaluating different paths, everything is not going to always be greener but just really making sure that you’re doing something for the right reasons and that you feel good about it and ultimately, you don’t want to have any regret.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Welcome to the Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Hey, everyone, welcome to Episode 28 of Season One of the Early Career Moves podcast. Today, I’m really excited to introduce to you Manasa Murthy. Manasa’s story is really cool. She was a… or still is a pharmacist. She has her PharmD from the University of Arizona and for several years she was a clinical ICU pharmacist working in super high intense situations in hospitals and on this episode, she’s going to talk about what that career path was like, what it took to get to that point and also why she decided to take a step back from being a pharmacist and decided to get her MBA to pivot into more of a health care strategy role and today, Manasa works at H-E-B which is a pretty big deal, a grocery retailer in Texas and she’s leading their health care strategy and yeah, it’s just like been behind the scenes working on a lot of health care initiatives. So, really excited to share her story with you. I think her last point at the end of the episode, she talks about her perspective on career and how being a pharmacist has informed her perspective in terms of taking risks and not having any regrets. So, make sure to tune in for that but yeah, enjoy this episode. I think it’s just really cool to see behind the scenes what it means to be a pharmacist, what it takes to get there and also, what it’s like to step away from such a prestigious career. All right, enjoy.
Okay everyone, today we have a very special guest. We have Manasa Murthy and super excited to welcome you. Welcome to the show.
Manasa Murthy: Thank you, Priscilla. I’m excited to be here.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah. So, why don’t you go ahead and get us started by sharing a little bit about your personal background.
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, sure. So, I’m originally from Southern California. My parents are from India and they immigrated here and have lived in the US pretty much longer than they’ve lived in India now and so I grew up in Southern California and growing up, I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do. My whole family’s pretty much kind of a bunch of doctors and health care providers, so I always was interested in that space. My dad’s a dentist and he would do a lot of community work in a lot of rural areas and there’s also a professor at a university. So, I was really interested in a lot of the science behind that and what it brought but I was always really scared of blood and so I hated going to the doctor, the dentist and ] all of that and so when it came down to going to college and deciding what I wanted to do, I always knew I wanted to do science but I was like not into going into medical school or nursing school or dentistry just because the blood aspect and we happened to have some close family friends who were pharmacists and they weren’t retail pharmacies.
They worked in hospitals and the husband was a professor at a local pharmacy school. So, I got to shadow them and I thought that was a really interesting field to play in; the science field but not have to be directly involved in patient care and so, with that, I decided to embark on a pharmacy career. So, I was debating between where to go for college and growing up in California, generally, I always thought the UC’s are where I’d end up but I randomly applied to the University of Arizona because at the time, they had a really good pharmacy school and they also had this pre-pharmacy program. So, I applied, not thinking much of it and then I was accepted but they also gave me a pretty big scholarship to go. So, I figured, why not change it up? And I mean, a pretty big decision to go out of state without knowing anybody and decided to go to U of A for undergrad and that was a really great experience. So, that’s a little bit background, I guess.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah. So, with the PharmD, like what does that path look like? Like do you have to start in undergrad to get your PharmD? How does that work?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah. So, a PharmD is very like a similar pathway to an M.D. or a DDS, so you need to do undergrad first and then apply so it’s a graduate degree. The nice thing about pharmacy school though is you can do a lot of the prerequisites and still apply for a PharmD but it’s become pretty competitive. So, for me, I finished undergrad in two years and applied but there were only two people with that. The majority of people had an undergrad degree and I think more so now, everybody else finishes a four-year degree and then applies to pharmacy school and then pharmacy school itself is four years after undergrad.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay, so you were in school like six years total?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, so I did six years and then after that, I… within pharmacy, there’s a lot of different options. I think people traditionally think of retail, CVS, Walgreens but there’s a lot of other roles for pharmacists outside of the retail setting. So, whether that’s in the hospital or an ambulatory care clinic. So, clinics that help you with chronic disease states or research or even in pharma and so for me, I always knew I wanted to be more on the clinical side of pharmacy because oftentimes, you learn a lot in pharmacy school, it’s the same, it’s equivalent of medical school in terms of duration but you don’t necessarily get to use all those skills in the retail setting. So, I knew I wanted to go on the hospital side of it so I decided to pursue a residency which is generally how you can be more specialized in pharmacy school and the residency processes, again, it’s very similar to medical school. So, it’s a match system, you interview with a bunch of hospitals and then wherever match, you go so it can be anywhere from one to two years.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so, back then, did you think like, this is going to be my forever career?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, back then I did because I still think pharmacy and a lot of these health care professions have a lot of opportunity and reach within them. Like I mentioned, within pharmacy, there’s a lot you can do and I ultimately specialize in critical care, so working in ICUs and what not and I thought that’s what I’m going to do for the rest of my life because even within that, there’s kind of a career ladder you can grow ultimately to have your own ICU or have the mix of patient care and leadership and teaching and so, that’s really what I set my goal out to be going out of… graduating from Pharmacy school.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah, I honestly had no idea that there were pharmacists in ICUs but now that I think about it, that makes total sense.
Manasa Murthy: People don’t realize because again, you always think pharmacists are just retail but like in the ICU setting, your average patient has anywhere from 20 to 40 medications and so you think about it in medical school or nursing school, they probably get one to two semesters of pharmacology. So, even though they’re great from a physician perspective, you really have the skills to diagnose and assess the patient. The therapeutic side is really where the skill of the pharmacist comes in. Understanding the evidence behind how you treat and what you should use is really important there.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: What do you think people, like young people should know about pharmacy school? What are the things that they should be prepared and get ready for?
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think very similar to all of these health care degrees, they’re all pretty competitive to get into but I think they’re all worth it. There’s a lot of opportunity within the health care field and pharmacy school itself is not easy either. There’s a lot of science and what not that goes into it but I think what they should know is I think the field of pharmacy is also really growing and changing and it’s an interesting time now, more so to be involved within it, especially as you look at some of these trends in health care where… when I graduated, I graduated Pharmacy school 10 years ago, I was pretty young when I finished and then a lot of the trend was go to hospitals and I mean, it’s more specialized but now, when we think about health care, there’s a big focus to try to make it more localized, essentially to help improve outcomes and save costs and so you can see that with changes in retailers where even things like companies like CVS and Walgreens are trying to bring medical care within the retail footprint and with that, comes changes in how pharmacies practice which ultimately, in my hopes, is to drive towards more of the skills that we’ve learned in school and not be just focused on dispensing medications but really using more of the clinical knowledge that you learn.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Mhm.
Manasa Murthy: So, yeah, that’s what I would say.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Yeah and who do you think is a good fit for this career, like in terms of strengths or interests?
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think now it’s really interesting. I think, before, it was more of a focus on science and the ability to learn and distill down information because there’s a lot of information you learn within pharmacy but I think a big… a really important skill within pharmacy, regardless of where you work, is the ability to communicate. Working in hospitals, for example, everybody knows what the role of a physician is, what the role of nurse is, the pharmacists role can change depending on where you are because even the idea of a clinical pharmacist, meaning a residency trained pharmacist, is not widespread or the same model everywhere and the ability to communicate your knowledge and provide recommendations in a meaningful way is ultimately how you can drive value for cost for patients and so I think communication is a really big key aspect that we might have the best recommendation but if you can communicate it, that’s a really important skill. I think another one is in analytics, ability to understand how things come together, especially now when more of that is driving the trends towards pharmacy and it’s really interesting when I had students who are learning a lot more analytics within pharmacy because the pharmacy space itself is really being disrupted by a lot of these [0:10:11] companies and even tech companies. So, I think if you could have those skills, you can create your own career or changing career than what we traditionally thought of as pharmacy.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so, now, take us to the point where maybe you finish your residency. Like, how old were you at that point and what was your first job like as a pharmacist?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, well, I did two years of residency. My first year was just a general pharmacotherapy residency. So, that’s really how you understand how hospitals work, working with… and you’re essentially rounding with different medical teams just like you do when you’re a medical resident. So, that’s how you get really good training and just that’s foundational to understand how health care is provided in a hospital setting. The second year where I specialize in critical care. So, working in nine different ICU, the pediatric ICU, the neuro ICU, cardiac, all of those because there’s a lot of nuances on how you treat those patients and so after that, I had an ICU job. So, like I said, I’m originally from Southern California, I did my residency in Northern California at UC Davis Med Center in Sacramento.
My first job was at Cedar Sinai in L.A and there they have I want to say six, I forget now, six ICUs and I would rotate between all of them essentially and it’s a really cool experience because as you start to realize like each hospital has its own kind of way of functioning and protocols and what not. So, Davis, where I trained, had a huge ICU kind of population. We had burn and different patient populations and a lot of trauma. Where at Cedar’s, Cedar Sinai, there’s a lot of other level one trauma centers there. So, there’s like UCLA, USC, all within kind of a short distance. So, Cedar’s was really interesting because one of the things that was different is they had a big transplant population. So, we did a lot of cardiac transplants and kidney transplants and liver transplants. So, I got to basically see different types of practices and that was really valuable.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: So, a lot of exposure in your first two years.
Manasa Murthy: Yeah and just learning about how people practice differently and even just different kinds of care. As you know, Cedar Sinai is an interesting hospital because, again, you have celebrity doctors who can come in and practice, where UC Davis is your traditional academic teaching center, where it’s much more protocolized and research heavy. So, just learning about the different fields, about how these systems work was just really valuable I think.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: So, working on the ICU sounds very high pressure, like a very high pressure environment. Did you thrive in that or what was that like for you?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I mean, I enjoy that. So, for pharmacy, I think ICU or emergency medicine, two of those are probably the more kind of high pressure environments because again, like I never worked in a pharmacy, I wasn’t touching drugs, you’re rounding with teams and telling them what they should prescribe and monitoring of patients and working very closely with physicians and nurses and other allied professionals. So, it’s really cool because you have very hands on experience with that and I mean, the irony is I didn’t go into these other fields because I didn’t like blood but working in the ICU, you pretty much blood everywhere, you are and you get accustomed to it but it is high pressure, in the sense, you have to be able to make pretty quick decisions and especially, when there’s kind of cold blues where somebody’s lost their pulse and the pharmacist role on that is really anticipating the drugs to draw up and help understand like what’s the reasoning behind these codes. So, you play a pretty big role in that as well.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And there’s also like no margin for error, right? In this role or what does that look like?
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think the value of having a pharmacist within especially the ICU, I guess you can say is, again, evaluation of appropriateness of therapy and so, you do… you’re there as a way to not only recommend and provide guidance there but also, yeah, to your point, be there as a way to reduce errors and I think that’s a really big value that pharmacist’s bring to health care in general of understanding how we can minimize medication related errors and that happens very often in the hospital setting or in the health care system in general and so, yeah, there is that pressure of like really making sure when you’re verifying medication that it’s appropriate and there’s not issues that are going to cause it but I think you get used to that as you work. So, it’s a fear that lessens as you become more and more confident in your skill.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Makes sense. Yeah. Okay, so obviously you’re no longer a pharmacist that’s practicing, right? How did you get to the point where you started to even think about leaving this career behind?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, So, I’m still… I mean, I still have my licenses, so I still have my pharmacy license in both California and Texas. You don’t practice clinically but mean like I said, I never really envision going outside of the profession but like I said, I graduated pretty early and I worked at various health systems. So, the most kind of recent hospital system that I worked at before transitioning was Ascension health in Austin and the health system there is called Seton and I had a pretty interesting role, in the sense that, I had my own ICU of 24 beds but I also had more of a leadership role. So, it’s this dual thing where, in addition to taking care of patients, I was in charge of clinical guidelines and network for the entire network of hospitals in Austin. So, there’s 12 of them and with a lot of these health systems, the focus is really on improving efficiencies and outcomes but also, minimizing costs and just in health care, there’s such strong, there’s a lot of waste that happens and there’s a big effort to reduce the waste and improve outcomes for patients but what I was finding when I was working is a lot of my time was focused on how do we cut costs, how do we cut costs?
And a lot of that’s great but sometimes, it’s not necessarily best for patient outcomes and when you work in hospital settings, what you quickly realize is that people oftentimes making the decisions are not clinicians themselves, they’re people in leadership and the people in leadership are generally MBAs or MHAs but a lot of them have never really taken care of a patient and so, although I love working in patient care and had really strong relationships with all the physicians and nurses that I work with, I started to get really annoyed by just how a lot of these decisions were being made and a lot of it came down to dollars and cents and not necessarily outcomes and then a second piece of the decision, I guess, to transition to a different role was, I felt like being in the ICU, I saw the sickest patients.
So, we would always take care of them, we’d fix them essentially, or make them better and then they’d be discharged only to find that, a week or two later they’d be readmitted and the point of that is that we weren’t really solving an underlying issue, it was just, okay, they came in for heart failure, we’ll treat them by getting rid of fluid but then the problem is not that they had the flu in the first place, the problem is that they’re noncompliant with their medication, they’re noncompliant with their diet or a lot of these underlying things and nobody’s really doing that well. So, those two things combined made me complain a lot essentially and my husband’s like, “Stop complaining about it, do something” and so I decided I probably should get these skill sets to have more of a leadership role beyond pharmacy but more on the hospital or health care lens and that’s when I realized I really didn’t have the background to understand the financials of health care and some of these other things that impact it. So, I decided to go and apply for business school.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And you talked about coming from a family of a lot of doctors and this was just maybe it was expected for you to go this path and stay in this path. Was it a scary kind of decision to make or to let them know about this change or was it pretty natural?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, it actually was because I had worked pretty hard to get to the role that I was and I was fortunate in the sense that, when I moved to Texas, the role that I got would have been a role that would have taken me probably 20 years if I had stayed where I did my residency because there’s so many trained clinical pharmacists and so it was a pretty nice job in the sense that working in the ICU is I didn’t have to work weekends or nights which doesn’t really happen, especially in critical care. So… and then in Austin specifically, like there’s not as many jobs for highly trained pharmacists or residency trained pharmacists and I was at the place where they employed those people. So, I was essentially giving up my job to do that and so it was a very… it was scary at the time because I’m like I had this nice job, there wasn’t really anything wrong with it but I just felt like I wasn’t completely happy and I knew I wanted to do more.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay, so now talk to us about the MBA like experience for you. How do you think it helped to equip you for what was next?
Manasa Murthy: I think the MBA, like for me, again, my background was completely science based, right? So, I had never even taken any business classes, like I didn’t even know what accounting was or what do you learn in finance besides how much money you have and very basic understanding of these things and so, for me, I think a lot of it was extremely valuable as, especially now as we think about how health care is changing, to understand how you can make impact like you really do have to understand dollars and cents and what’s happening from a macroeconomic perspective and I think business school is really helpful to get this broader context outside of just taking care of patients and how hospitals work for me to understand, like where can you actually move the needle?
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so when you are thinking about like your summer internship and what kind of roles you would have after the MBA, how did that evolve for you over time?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah and so, again, like going into business school, I was like, well, I know I want to do something in health care. I want to do something where I can have an impact and I want to do something where I can both use my clinical experience as well as whatever I’ll in business school. I didn’t really know what that looked like and so all throughout business school, I was just trying to put my hand in anything that was health care related and understand like is this meaningful to me? Is this something that’s actually going to drive impact and something that’s going to make me happier than what was doing before? And so, I tried different things but for my internship I was at… I tried pharma essentially because I felt like there was a lot of opportunities in the pharmaceutical space and it seemed like there… I’d had never really given that a shot even in pharmacy school. So, I was like, why not?
So, for my internship, I was at J&J and I did a marketing strategy role within Janssen which is a pharmaceutical arm of J&J and I focused on one space which is immunology which is one of their highest growing areas within the company and it was just really interesting to see how marketing works, especially from the lens of a pharmaceutical company, how they leverage their physicians and pharmacists and marketers and data to do different things. So, it was really interesting on this other side because another thing that you do as a clinical pharmacist is you do a lot of cost containment. So, you’re trying to think through like how do we make sure we’re not spending a lot of money on these expensive drugs that don’t really move the needle on outcomes? And so, a lot of what I did was police that to some extent because I was really well versed in the evidence behind it. Now, here in J&J, my role was being on the opposite side to be like, how can you get this past these hospital formularies want to pay for these?
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Mm.
Manasa Murthy: So, it’s really interesting to understand the other side of it.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay and so I know that now you’re the Director of Health and Wellness at H-E-B which is so cool. Lots of Texans just like love H-E-B. What does that role look like and how did you land this role?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, so it’s an interesting story as well. So, like I said, I really didn’t know what I wanted to do post B school and I was just applying for a lot of different things that had some kind of health care flavor or opportunity within them. So, looking at consulting or pharma or even more on the startup or VC side I was hoping a lot of things and trying to recruit as well which is really hard and also was trying to stay within Austin or Texas in general and so that kind of narrowed a lot of my opportunities and the H-E-B option came up really out of luck I would say because I was pretty involved with a lot of the health care stuff at McCombs and one day the CEO of H-E-B, Martin Otto, he routinely comes to McCombs to speak. He’s really into teaching and education and so he was at the Marketing Fellows talk and he’s really just passionate about health care. So, I think he was talking about H-E-B and what they’re doing for the community but I think he also went off on this discussion around health care and how there’s a lot of waste and there’s a real opportunity to provide more efficient offering of health care and ultimately, move the needle for outcomes and so one of my friends, Mario, was there and I think he was also really interested in pursuing H-E-B as an option post business school.
So, I was walking outside of McCombs and he’s like “Hey Manasa, would you ever be interested in looking at H-E-B?” And to me, at the time, I was like, well, I know they have pharmacies and they’re probably doing something in the space but I wasn’t really sure what they were doing. So, I was like, “Of course, why not?” So, he’s like “Send me your resume.” And so, he sent it to Lamar, who’s a professor at Marketing Fellows and he’s like, this looks good and he’s friends with Martin and just sent it off to Martin and Martin sent it to their recruiter, who basically sent me a bunch of interviews for a job that I didn’t know I was interviewing for. So, that’s how that happened.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: So, cool. Definitely like a preparation meets luck type thing., right?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I would say that for sure.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Okay and so, when they finally told you about this role, how did they sell it to you and what made you say yes? Yeah. I mean, so I had these ideas of what it would be and again, like, I didn’t even know what they were thinking of, what this role would be and they offered me two different roles and this one was more of a customer facing role, ultimately, like how does H-E-B play in the health and wellness space from a customer lens. The other role is more kind of clinical operations. We have clinics that we’re hoping to scale as well and so for me, I felt like I had done more of the health care stuff, even working in the hospitals and this seemed more of a challenge. I was really excited about this role and so where we see this, I guess this role of where we’re playing, our ultimate goal is to really be a destination for customers in our communities in Texas. We serve such a broad population in Texas itself and have a pretty big footprint here and we think we can really leverage a lot of our businesses and offerings to ultimately move the needle on health for our communities through with a primary focus on food first but also providing solutions through clinics, pharmacies or dieticians, as well as just how well integrated we are with community and so my role is really in charge of the strategy behind all of that and how does it all ultimately come together. Everything from building that journey and what that looks like to our end user customer across these businesses but also how digital and data and marketing and all of those kind of supportive businesses help support that come to fruition.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: And so this probably felt like such a different kind of role that you had ever had, right? What has the adjustment period looked like for you? I know you’ve been there now for a year, right?
Manasa Murthy: So, I actually started during business school, so my second semester I started. It was an internship but mainly I was like, I don’t know anything about groceries, let me just try to learn about it and I ultimately just ended up doing my full-time job then and it was nice to really learn and meet people early. So, yeah. So, I started in business school, I guess, almost two years now. A year and a half, I guess you could say.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: What has been like the biggest learning curves for you.
Manasa Murthy: I mean, I think it’s different working in a business setting obviously than straight health care. Here, it’s a matter of working with different business stakeholders to make sure we’re aligned with goals and communication, again, is key. So, that I think that’s a similarity but a difference is even if you have an idea, you really have to make sure that idea has legs or backing it up with financials, data and having a real strategic point of view is really important. So, I think that was what I anticipated but that, I would say, is different from working in the health care setting where you’re just going patient to patient or working on projects but here, it’s like working across a lot of different stakeholders and I think, especially working at a big company like this, realizing how many people work on so many little details that I never realized until I worked in retail itself. So…
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: What excites you the most about what you’re doing now?
Manasa Murthy: I think I’m most excited about just the opportunity to actually create impact. Like I said, I think the biggest… for us, our biggest piece is like, how do we really play starting with food? Because I think food plays such a role in chronic diseases, both from how we prevent them but also how we treat them and if you think about the populations in Texas, we have a huge population of diabetics, overweight populations and we’re primary grocery store in those towns and nobody’s really doing anything to address those things and I think if we can start to get enabling people in communities to understand how you can eat healthier and live better without the guilt and judgment that people traditionally feel around food, that really can help support that and move the needle for our customers around health and then that combined with these services, so, specifically, pharmacists who are providing more clinical services outside dispensing roles or dietitians who have more expertise in more detailed or specific dietary lifestyles, as well as just our clinics which are much more focused on holistic care than kind of this fee for service model. I think all of those things combined can really move the needle. So, I’m excited about how this can actually come to life.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: That is really cool and I wonder if H-E-B is one of the few grocery retailers that are really thinking about this. Have you seen this across the country? Have you seen other models that are doing this?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I think a lot of… it’s interesting. I think a lot of different retailers are starting to see this and it’s not just grocery retailers. It’s even non-traditional retailers like companies like Best Buy that are trying to get into health care and then your other companies like tech which just see a huge margin in waste and an area to disrupt. Like I said earlier, I think people are starting to see the value of localized care and that’s where a lot of grocers are starting to understand, like, is there an opportunity here, especially because a lot of them already offer pharmacies. I think where we can probably win is just the heart that we have for a lot of what we do which shows in a lot of our products and the experience at H-E-B in general and sometimes, when you go to other retailers, especially because they have a national footprint, sometimes that personalized feel doesn’t come across and I think that’s what you really need also in health to make people feel seen and make them want to change their behavior so that they’re ultimately healthier.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: I love that. Okay, so my last question for you. What advice would you give to someone who might have been… might be in your shoes that you were in when you were considering going this different path? Like what kind of tips or advice or things would you have them think about?
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, I mean, for me, like, again, so one thing that I really valued about being in the ICU is this idea of like just perception and how you… your view of life. I would oftentimes see someone almost die every single day. So, really realizing that life is short and you really want to make sure what you’re doing with your life is something that makes you happy and provides meaning and so similarly, I think when you’re evaluating different paths, everything is not going to always be greener but just really making sure that you’re doing something for the right reasons and that you feel good about it and ultimately, you don’t want to have any regrets. So, using that framework to decide what you think because at the end of the day, like even when I went to business school and embarked on this path, I was like, okay, well, suppose I just like suck at business school and I fail and all of this? Worst case scenario is I could still try to find a job as a pharmacist somewhere. It might not have been the ideal pharmacy job that I had pre business school but at least I tried and so really trying to frame that perspective I think would be really helpful so it doesn’t seem as daunting of a jump because I think you, essentially can do anything you put your mind to and even for me, going to business school is scary. I didn’t know anything and then I was in this room full of people who are accountants or came from banking or marketing, all these really core business skills that I just didn’t even know what these people did and so I think, if you put your mind to it, you really could do anything but just really having that perspective at the end of the day, you should be happy with your decision.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: This was such a delightful conversation. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Manasa Murthy: Yeah, no problem. Thanks, Priscilla.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes and become a part of our newsletter community and if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Growing up in Echo Park within Los Angeles, Angelica Martin knew that she loved animals and dreamed of becoming a vet. After spending time teaching Special Education as a high school student, she realized her love for helping other humans and pivoted her career goal to becoming a doctor. On this episode, learn about the financial and structural obstacles that Angelica has overcome to get to where she is today, as an MD Candidate at UC Davis. Her story will inspire you to make no excuses and get stubborn about your career dreams.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Bill & Melinda Gates Scholarship
Post-Bac Program at UC Davis
Angelica Ramirez Martin: I got accepted to medical school in November and any medical student will tell you that as soon as you get that first acceptance, it’s like brick are off of your shoulders. You are going to be a doctor somewhere, somehow. You got in somewhere. So, that’s great. So, I had that pressure lifted off my shoulders.
Podcast Introduction: Welcome to the Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable, young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Guest Introduction: Hey everyone, welcome to Episode 27 of Season One of the Early Career Moves podcast. Today, I’m so excited to welcome Angelica Ramirez Martin. Angelica is a Latina from L.A and she is currently now a third year medical student at UC Davis. On today’s episode, she’s going to break down what it took for her to get to this point, to now be an M.D. candidate, future Latina doctor at UC Davis and I love her story because it’s not a linear one. It’s one that was very… it was a winding road, it was non-linear, there were many points of time when Angelica wasn’t sure how exactly she would get to her destination but you can tell from her story how stubborn, in a good way, she was about her career goal and dream.
A little bit about Angelica: she and I crossed paths in college. She was a biology, women’s and gender studies double major. After college, she went to Boston University, where she got a Master’s in Public Health and then she worked at California Physicians Alliance, where she advoMCATed for health care reform and eventually even became an Executive Director. No big deal and after this, is when she decided to go get her post BACC which she’ll talk about what that means and how this was a really critical step to help her get to med school at UC Davis and eventually, what it was like to cross that big finish line and get her medical school acceptance. So excited to share her story with you. Before I leave you to the interview, I just want to remind you Episode 30 will be the last episode of Season One. It’s been such an amazing ride to go down Season One with you and on the last episode, I will be sharing my top five favorite nuggets that I personally got from all of the interviews that we did in Season One. So, definitely tune in for that one and I hope you enjoy today’s episode.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Hey, Angelica, so excited to have you on the show. Welcome.
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Hi. Thank you. Thank you for inviting me.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Of course. So, I’m really excited to have you on the show today to talk about your journey to med school, what it looked like. Now you’re on your way to become a doctor and so, let’s start with just you sharing a little bit about your upbringing, where you’re from and a little bit about yourself.
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah. So, I grew up in Echo Park which is a small community, well, not that small, it’s pretty big in L.A. Mostly, when I was there, actually, it’s changed a lot in the recent years but when I was there, it was a mostly immigrant community. I grew up in a single parent home, so my dad died when I was three years old. So, it was always just my mom, my sister who’s older and my younger brother and I went to the local schools, very overcrowded, my high school graduating class was 5000 students but I was very lucky to live in that community. It taught me to be independent because I had to take the bus to school since middle school and everything and walk to elementary school and all that and it wasn’t the safest but you get street smart which I really value now. So, after high school, I went to Wellesley and that was definitely different.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah, which is where we crossed paths and so I want to hear a little bit about how you decided to become a human doctor. I know you mentioned that you were really interested in becoming a vet and wanting to pursue that path. How did you kind of land in this place where you were like, okay, I want to go to med school?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, I’ve always really loved animals. So, apparently, my dad had these old National Geographic videos and when he died, I think we kept them for a while and we didn’t have cable or anything like that. So, I must have put them on over and over again and the power of a teacher was really evident throughout my elementary school trajectory because one teacher saw me and he was like, hey, we were talking about some other student and how he thought that she was
going to get a scholarship for her softball skills or something like that and I looked at him and, wanting validation as well, I was like, “Oh, what do you think I’ll get a scholarship in?” And he’s like, “I think you’re going to get a scholarship for Biology.” and ever since then, I’m just like, “Oh, okay. I think I’m good at biology.”
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
And I really liked it. Yeah. He had such an impact on my life and so I wanted to be a vet growing up and I’m a really stubborn person. So, I just kept wanting to be a vet and no one said anything to me about how difficult it is, how competitive it is to get into vet school until I got to high school and I was just like, “Oh, okay, cool. That’s fine.” and I just kept at it until I… because I was being raised by a single mother, I had to provide a lot of my own stuff, just provide for myself, take care of myself and also money was very tight, we completely relied on the social services of L.A county to survive and my band teacher because I was in high school, marching band and jazz band, my band teacher knew my older sister. My sister was in color guard and so he gave her a job during our vaMCATion time as a teacher’s aide and when she graduated because she is three years older than me, I was a freshman and he’s like “Hey Angelica. I was wondering if you wanted to take over your sister shop so that you can have a little bit of money. You’re here all the time anyway, so you can get paid for this.”
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, he put me in charge of the music writing class and running that class, there was a group of special ED kids and for one period and I just… my interactions with them completely changed my career trajectory. I’m just like, wait, why am I wanting to help animals feel better when there are people, especially people in my own community, that I can help? And I immediately thought that I was going to research and find a cure for Down Syndrome but then I spoke to a couple of people and they’re just like “You know that going into research and trying to find a cure for something means that you are going to be in a lab and you are not a lab personality. You’re little too…”
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
You need people interaction and I was just like, “Oh, yeah, that’s true. Thank you for pointing that out.” and I’m like, great, I’ll be a doctor and then ever since, then switched over to wanting to be a human doctor.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Very cool. So, you were pre-med at Wellesley. What was it like getting through the coursework? I know it’s really rigorous. Like what was that like for you?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah. So, going to Wellesley, I didn’t meet anyone that told me, “Hey, you’re not supposed to be in the science classes and you’re not supposed to want to become a physician.” and everything like that. So, I honestly was just keeping up with everyone else, you know? Everyone is doing the work, okay, I’m going to do more to. So, it wasn’t… I was just checking off boxes. It just felt like, okay, well I have this amount of homework to do, let me go ahead and do the homework. More than anything, what helped me get through the first couple years of Wellesley was making friends and just feeling at home over there, feeling like I was becoming the person that I went there to become, this confident, quick thinking individual and that was just by being surrounded by people and being surrounded by other students and trying to mimic what they were doing. So, a lot of my peers, yeah, they went to really good high schools and have been prepped since probably birth and everything like that. So, by trying to imitate them in the way that they spoke, the way that they were approaching the problems and everything in class was great for my schoolwork but then outside of that, I think a lot of my growth and confidence came from interacting with the students, my friends, on a personal level and that led into having confidence in class.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah, totally agree. So, I know then, after Wellesley, you decided to go to get your MPH, your Master’s in Public Health because you are a Bill and Melinda Gates scholar and so you had all this funding that you needed to use and so you decided to get your MPH. How did you use those two years of your MPH to get ready for med school? What was that like?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah. So, I had my full schedule for my MPH which I believe was four classes and then I had a fifth class which was at the undergrad campus, just Organic Chemistry A and then the second semester of my first year, I had that second Organic Chemistry class and then, during my second year at my MPH, I tried to start studying for the MCAT, at least towards the end so, that the second semester of my second year and because I thought that I wanted to go straight from my MPH into medical school which a couple of students did and it just didn’t end up working for me, I had to push back my MCAT just because it was too much, taking a full course load and studying for the MCAT at the same time and then trying to move back home and everything. It was a mess.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Okay. So, tell us about the MCAT process. Like how intense was it? How many hours do you need to prepare for it?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
I learned some great lessons from preparing for the MCAT. It should be pretty intense. It definitely depends on your foundation, how strong your basic science foundation is but it should definitely be pretty intense. There was a moment in time where I was studying like it was my full-time job, eight hours a day, especially during the weekends, taking practice exams and everything because the exam itself is eight hours. So, you have to simulate that during your practice exams. When I actually did well on the MCAT, it was because I was following a very strict schedule of like waking up at seven A.M. and then studying for a couple hours, taking a break at noon for lunch and I would eat the same lunch every single day and then I would also, eat the same breakfast every single day and reviewing afterwards and blah, blah, blah. So, it’s a pretty intense process and it’s also scary. No one talks about what it takes to prepare for the MCAT and for me, when I did score well, I actually took two months off of work, completely off without pay to study for the MCAT and what does that mean? That means that I had to be smart and either save up for two months worth of rent because I’ve always only relied on myself.
I can ask my family for money and no one really talks about that, students in my situation where it’s just like it’s scary to prepare for the MCAT because of the financial implications of it. So, I always try to also find free resources. I was at the library a lot and they have these books and that code that’s in the book, hey, it still works. So, I would use that as well but it’s still difficult to get all of the MCAT studying in place and to get all of your life in place that’s needed to study for the MCAT. I think it’s important to point out that I took them MCAT three times. You usually only want to take it once and score well but I took the old MCAT and I scored okay in that one and then I took the new MCAT as soon as it came out. I was part of that first group on the first day to take it. I did not score well on that one and then I actually had to retake the new one because your score is only good for three years. So, my old score which was good, was expiring. So, I took it and I did well on that one. So, yeah, I took it three times.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And is it really expensive to sign up for it?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Oh yeah. I completely forgot about that, yes. So, every time you sign up for it, I think it’s $300 or $200. There is a fee assistance program that brings it down to, I think, $100 or $150 but it’s still $100 or $150. So, it’s still a lot of money when you have none but yeah and then if you have to move your date, there’s a penalty, you have to pay for that as well and that happened a couple of times for me.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Ok and so tell us a little bit about your decision to enroll in a post BACC program and like, tell us a little bit about like what is that? Why do people choose to do that and why did you decide to do that for your path to get into med school?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, I applied to medical school a year after getting out of MPH so, I started working immediately after my MPH and I applied with the first two MCAT scores that I had and I went on one interview and I got waitlisted and I was hoping and praying that I would get off the waitlist but that didn’t happen. I ended up getting rejected. So, that’s when I started studying again for the MCAT and I took it that third time. The thing is that applying to medical school is a year-long process, it is so grueling and demanding. I mean, you submit 20 essays plus just waiting to hear anything from the schools and, of course, every essay that you submit is a $100 fee application. So, it’s just grueling mentally, economically, physically. So, I wanted to make sure that I only applied for one more time and I looked at my application and I was asking myself, how could I make this as strong as possible? Like, what is my weakness here? What are they seeing to make them think that I shouldn’t be accepted into their med school? And I was very honest with myself and I was like, well, my MCAT score is okay, it’s not bad and what else could it be in terms of my extracurriculars and everything? I mean, that’s more than okay. It has to be my grades.
So, even though I did really well in my graduate school program, medical schools really like to see a strong undergrad science grade profile. So, I looked at my grades from Wellesley and Wellesley actually sent out a letter with our transcript saying due to grade deflation, we have lower than national average science GPA. I hope you take that into consideration when you’re looking at our alumni and it’s like, okay, well, that letter is great and all but when I’m being compared to individuals that have a higher GPA, it’s really difficult for the admissions person to be like, oh, no, there’s this letter here that’s saying that they have lower GPA. So, we need to take that into consideration. I mean, I don’t know how that works. So, anyways, I was like, I need to get my science GPA up and show them that I really can do science. I know that I’ve been out of school for, at that point it had been five years, but I still can do science and I can excel at that. So… and the way that you can show schools to do this is either through a formal post BACC program. So, certain schools have these programs set up or you take upper-level science division classes as a cohort of… my program was 20 people or you can just go on your own and start taking random upper division science courses and you just stack up probably like 8 or 6 and you show the school that, hey, look, I took these classes and I scored really well, my GPA as high.
So, I ended up choosing the formal way of doing it because I knew that I also needed connections to the health care field here in California because being in Massachusetts for undergrad and graduate school, I didn’t make the connections in terms of mentors that could read over my essays or tell me that I should change this aspect of my application or speak to this person who can advocate for me because of the connections that they know or whatever. So, that’s why I chose to apply to the UC post BACC programs and so it was honestly a very, looking back on it, it was exactly what my application needed to show that, hey, I took all the science courses and at a UC and you can compare me to other students and I scored as good, if not better, in the same classes as they are. So, ignore my undergrad scores.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And was it scary to have to go the post BACC route after you were already working, already making money and have to maybe take out loans to go this direction? Like, how did you think of it like in terms of finances?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
There’s this thread in my life about having to make decisions based on my finances. So, once again, for the post BACC program, it was very scary. It wasn’t like, oh, I need to take classes, let me go ahead and take classes. It was actually very scary to think that I had to step away for a year from actually bringing in income and being able to take care of myself and how am I going to pay for the classes. So, a lot of people don’t talk about that either. They think that it’s just very easy to say, well, you want to go to medical school, you have to get… you have to take these extra classes and I wish that it was like that and I wish that’s all I had to focus on but I had to basically build myself up and prep myself to step away from earning an income and just solely becoming a student again and that was very scary.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
That is so scary. So, how did you make that work? Did you have to just save up for personal living expenses and take out loans?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, that’s basically it. I was very smart about my money and how it was spent and I saved up leading to the post BACC program and I know a couple other people in my program had to take out loans and just trying to make ends meet that way but it’s… that was part of the reason why I didn’t do a post BACC earlier because I didn’t want to have to take that scary step of not making money and not being able to take care of myself in that way. So, if any other student feels that, way which I actually spoke to the student last week who was having the same trouble making the decision, it’s perfectly normal and it’s something that each person has to find a way to navigate through and for me, it was saying… it was reassuring to myself that you’ll be fine, just save up for it. This is an investment in yourself and this is something that has to be done in order for you to get to the next step and get to where you want to be but it was very much an internal process of like, you’ll be fine.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And did you have to spend the year after that applying? Was that like a separate year after that year?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Mhm. Exactly. So, I’m leaving my job and I’m going to school and then I’m supposed to find some job for one year. So, like what’s going to do it? Where am I going to do that? Who’s going to hire me? So, that was also another panic inducing thought.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Mhm. So, how… what did you end up doing in that case?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
The universe ended up working out in my favor in that I was working at a nonprofit before starting in the post BACC program and I told them, they were very supportive, it was a health advocacy nonprofit, I told them that I was going to leave because I got accepted to the program. They were extremely happy for me. So, I was… during the post BACC program, finishing it up and the Executive Director of the nonprofit was stepping down as I was finishing the post BACC program. So, the President of the nonprofit called me and he was like, “Hey, we know you’re finishing up, we know you’re going to be applying to med school and starting next year, probably so, we would love for you to be our Executive Director if that is possible.” and I was really hesitant to say yes. I mean, I… so, I had already moved up through the ranks at this organization, I was Associate Director before I left and I loved it, I loved the work and everything but I wasn’t sure if I was ready to take on the Executive Director role. Once again, it was a very scary decision that I had to make; whether I take this role and possibly grow and learn and do some really amazing things with my one year or I try to play it safe and try to find something else because I’m just not comfortable taking the ED role but I ended up once again talking to myself and being like, you know what? Sink or swim. You sink or swim in every situation and you can take this position and just remind yourself, sink or swim, just go for it. So, I ended up being an Executive Director for this organization for a year and once again, it was a great decision and I look back on it fondly.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah, I’m sure you grew so much as an Executive Director, being so young and being in charge of so much at the time and I’m curious, when you were thinking about how to set the agenda for your year as an Executive Director, what did you… how did you choose what you would focus on?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, I looked at the organization and I was like, well, there needs to be some foundational work here so that anyone who comes after me can build on it. So, I focused on that during my year and I’m like, if I do a good job during this year that I have, I will feel comfortable saying that I was an Executive Director who contributed to this organization, to longevity of it and to the mission of it. So, that’s how I approach that one-year timeline.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
And all during this time, you’re also applying to med school and I’m assuming like interviewing and getting all of that complete.
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, I had to be very scheduled during that first summer. So, I would work and then immediately I would just go over. I like working at coffee shops, so I would just go over to a coffee shop, buy myself a drink as like a bribe basically to myself to work on my applications and I would take my dinner with me and just not leave until I got some work done. So, it was a very stressful first couple of months but it gets done if your organized.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Yeah. So, tell us about the big moment, like when you finally got your acceptance and you decided to go to UC Davis, like, what was that like?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
So, I was actually very lucky in that I got an early acceptance to a different medical school. So, I got accepted to medical school in November and any medical student will tell you that as soon as you get that first acceptance, it’s like bricks are off of your shoulders. You are going to be a doctor somewhere, somehow. You got in somewhere so that’s great. So, I had that pressure lifted off my shoulders. So, I actually interviewed a little bit later at Davis and I didn’t give my acceptance to Davis until either March or April. Yeah. So, anyways, I was having a really rough day at the office that morning and I like going grocery shopping, I just like looking at the different aisles and just walking around, I really like cooking as well, so I just like doing that. So, there was a grocery store around the corner from my office. I was having a rough day, so I ended up going to the grocery store to walk around and get myself a treat and I was in the chip aisle and I receive a phone call because Davis actually calls you and I ended up crying, of course, in the chip, I was just like, okay, well, this is definitely memorable but yeah, it was just great to hear from your dream school that you’re accepted and that they want you to be a part of their class and it was like, okay, my plans are solidified because before then, it was like, well, I’m not really sure, I’m still waiting to hear back from a couple of different schools and I don’t know when I’ll move but as soon as Davis called, it was like, okay, well, I’m going to do this and their orientation starts this day and it was very beautiful to finally have a plan for the next year. So, it was great. It was amazing.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
That’s amazing and now you’re in med school. Now, you’re finally doing the thing. If you could go back in time and tell your younger self, someone who’s trying to go down your path, what would you tell yourself?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Well, I would definitely repeat what someone else told me earlier in my career. He knew that I didn’t get accepted to medical school the first time and we were talking about it and he’s like You know Angelica…” he’s was an older gentleman. He was like, “You know, I’m old and I have been through so many different phases of my life and looking back now, I see each phase of that and I honestly believe that I was where I was supposed to be. I was supposed to learn something from that situation at some point and that is the reason why I didn’t get to this or get to that and so you should try thinking about it that way.” and ever since he told me that, I completely agree. If I would have gotten into med school that first time, I never would have done the health policy work that I’ve done, I never would have been ED and learned so many lessons from that, I wouldn’t have met my husband during the post BACC and everything like that. So, I would tell myself that it’s frustrating but try to think of it as you’re here to learn something. There’s something here that you’re supposed to take from this and then also, I think the biggest lesson that I’ve learned is that you need friends that are in similar situations. So, I would try to make more friends that are on the pre-med path specifically because even just in a science class and being like, “Hey, we have homework due tomorrow, I got these answers. Did you get the same answers?” Being able to do that completely changes everything and that’s what I had with the post BACC. 20 of us were in the same classes and we were able to run our ideas past each other, we are able to study together for the same exact exam and everything and that completely changed everything. So, I think that’s the biggest thing that I would tell myself; find friends who are on the same path as you and make sure that you lean on them and that they lean on you.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Those are awesome pieces of advice. Thank you so much Angelica for being here with us today, sharing your story. I’m excited for people to, like, learn from your path and not be afraid to like take some pauses and steps back and reassess and plan to succeed, you know?
Angelica Ramirez Martin:
Yeah, yeah. It’s definitely a winding path but I think that being stubborn and keeping your eyes on the prize definitely works out. I mean, if you stick to that, if you’re willing to take chances, beautiful things can come from it.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger:
Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves podcast. Be sure to visit ECM podcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes and become a part of our newsletter community and if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
When Jessica Leon was growing up in rural Idaho, she couldn’t imagine that one day she’d be working in New York City at Goldman Sachs. But fast forward to life post-college, and Jessica was doing just that. Everything seemed to be going great until a 5 billion dollar company-wide “mistake” led to her team becoming disbanded and getting laid off. As painful as this moment was for Jessica, she turned that moment into a catalyst for growth, and came out stronger on the other side. On today’s interview, Jessica talks about getting to MIT Sloan/Harvard Kennedy School and what it takes to break into venture capital – as a first generation, unapologetic BIPOC.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Seizing Every Opportunity
Venture Deals – “the Bible” of VC
Arlan Hamilton’s It’s About Damn Time
Breaking Into VC Resource Doc
Jessica Leon: But never give up. You need to be very persistent, ask to meet, be bold and reach out, like I think for like venture capital, you either know how to do diligence and know whether or not an investment is good, but the other part is just networking to either get new deal flow or also to get someone to invest in your fund. So, if you can really prove that you have those skills, you would be great in the venture capital setting.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Welcome to The Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color, killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned.
If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration. You’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone, welcome to episode 26 of season one of The Early Career Moves podcast. I’m so excited to introduce to you Jessica Leon. She’s today’s guest, and she is amazing. She talks about what it’s been like to be first generation Mexican American who was the first in her family to go to college and somehow was able to come across these amazing opportunities that landed her in New York City working at Goldman Sachs, and she talks about what it was like to go through a sudden layoff that had nothing to do with her, but had pretty big implications for her career, how she thought about what she really wanted, and I really think it’s a really great story that she tells about how to be resilient during times of immense challenge, especially when you’re financially responsible for not only yourself but your parents – you support them in some way and suddenly something like a layoff happens and you have to sort of figure out where to go next.
So, she talks about that amazing experience. I say amazing because it really sounded like it was a big catalyst for growth, and then lastly, she’ll talk about what it’s been like to discover venture capital as a career, what it means to work in VC, how she’s been able to break into the industry without having the experience of being an investment banker or a consultant, so she’ll go into depth about this and her interview. Currently, Jessica is an MBA and MPP candidate at MIT Sloan School of Management and also at Harvard Kennedy school at Harvard, so she’s making moves. She’s amazing, she’s such a cool, down to earth Mexicana, loved chatting with her, and I know you’re going to feel the same way too.
Okay, everyone. I’m so excited to have Jessica Leon on today’s episode. Welcome, Jessica.
Jessica: Hi, everyone. Thank you, Priscilla, for having me. I’m really excited to hear about your podcast and also to share my experience.
Priscilla: Of course. So, I would love to get started with just hearing a little bit about your own personal background before we get into your career story just so that we can get a sense of who you are and where you come from.
Jessica: Sure, as you said, my name is Jessica Leon. My parents, they are Mexican and my dad is from Durango and my mom is from Los Mochis, Sinaloa, and they immigrated early on in their lives to the United States, both legally and illegally, and I want to tell the story mostly because I feel that my story is a reflection of theirs and if it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be here today.
So my dad started working in Arizona picking oranges and then was recruited to go to Idaho to go pick rocks from the fields. I, and as well as my siblings, were born and raised in Idaho and we always get questions as to why Idaho, how did you get there? And there’s a reason, is because of that, like my parents worked in the farms and there was a lot of opportunities for them to work there. Growing up, I went to the public high school available there. I didn’t really realize that there were applications and other fancier schools until I moved to New York City later on in my life. Otherwise, I just did as I was told and as the school progressed, I went to a high school in the area, and then from there, I decided that I wanted to. Look into other careers. So, I was actually interested in being a doctor. As a daughter of immigrants, you’re either a doctor or a lawyer. Those are the careers that they know and they they seem to value the most, and with that, I was like, yes, I’m going to go be a doctor. I was taking all of the medical classes, that included even getting my certified nursing assistant certificate to become a CNA and I was also looking, foreshadowing where you go and just look at the people’s jobs and I did that for an orthopedic surgeon and a chiropractor, and I realized that, I mean, I really enjoyed it. I wanted to be an orthopedic surgeon, so I was ready, but throughout that time, I was also very involved in the Finance Academy, Business Professionals of America, BPA, and DECA. I don’t remember what DECA stands for, but it was a business club in high school. I was very involved in that, but then came around the time that I had to apply for college. I didn’t know where to go and my parents didn’t know where to point me either, just because they knew the language, they didn’t really know how to speak it that well, but they didn’t know what was available for us. There was a community college across the street, so they were always just telling me to go there. My guidance counselor actually told me that I should go do makeup or hair because I did that well, and definitely, I respect those careers, but I felt that I was being stereotyped into fitting that mold because of being Latina in a predominantly White school. After that, I decided to push forward and another teacher said I had free lunch so I can take the ACT for free and ended up taking it and then going off to a Hispanic conference later on that year, where I was later introduced to the University of Idaho, which is about an eight hour drive from my hometown and there, thankfully I got a scholarship called CAMP, which stands for Campus Assistant Migrant Program which allowed me to go to school and also allowed my parents peace of mind for me to be sent there. So, I ended up going to the University of Idaho and again, I was doing pre-med and I decided to do business as well, and during my time there, thankfully secured a couple of internships during my sophomore year, and later on in my junior year, the first internship that I had was actually at the National Nuclear Security Administration in Los Alamos, New Mexico where I was working in occupational medicine, again, because I wanted to be a doctor and also do business. I was looking at the operational efficiencies of the clinic available there, then my junior summer, I applied to this program called Sponsors for Education Opportunity, SEO. Now, I think they rebranded it called Seizing Every Opportunity, but it’s a program that, there’s different phases of it. I did the career one which allows underrepresented minorities to get into careers in finance and I ended up going to Goldman Sachs. I had no idea what Goldman Sachs was, I’ve never been to New York, I had no idea how to even, like, I’ve never been on a plane, so it was very interesting too to go there, and I told my friend, I was like, “Hey, I don’t know where to go, I have nowhere to stay, I don’t trust Craigslist.” That’s the only way, this is before Airbnb, it’s like, I don’t trust Craigslist. I can’t really rent an apartment in New York, and my friend said, “My cousin’s boyfriend’s sister lives there, let me talk to them and see if you can stay there in Queens.” Thankfully, they let me stay there and I ended up going to Queens, and it was a great experience overall being at Goldman. Later on, I did found an apartment closer to my work, but just being at Goldman and being in the city that was massive and just being in the city, coming from rural Idaho, literally, when I say rural Idaho, I mean like cows and farms and all these other things, and then going to the city, I was just amazed of the magnitude and also the people there. I realized that it was so dirty and gross. At first, I was like, where am I? I feel like I’m in a third world country just because it looks so dirty and dinky compared to the United States that I was accustomed to, but then as I mentioned, the people were amazing, the energy was just exhilarating, and I really enjoyed my internship there. I was working mostly in procurement and understanding vendor management and I, thankfully, was able to leverage it to a full-time position.
After that, I went back to Idaho, finished my year and came back, and moved to New York after graduating from the University of Idaho. I was at Goldman Sachs for about two years working in environment and social governance programs. This includes the supplier diversity and also buying renewable energy, but after that, unfortunately, my team was let go because they had to pay, like, a $5 billion fine due to the 2008 financial crisis. That was really hard for me because I was supporting my parents. They didn’t know that I had lost my job and I just felt I failed. It was really hard for me during that time, but I leveraged that as an opportunity to see where I wanted to go next and really make a deliberate choice of what I wanted to do. I think before that, I was just going with the flow as to what am I doing with my life, everything was just set up there, but this time, I had to choose, I had a choice. I now knew what business was. Before that, I didn’t know what business was, and now, after being in New York for two and a half years, I had a better understanding of what my career could take me. Go for it.
Priscilla: Yeah, so that seems like such a huge, almost like a crisis moment, right? Like, two years, it was after two years of working at Goldman Sachs that that happened?
Priscilla: Yeah, and so what did you do in that month when you found out that they were letting your team go, did you reach out to anyone? How did that look like for you?
Jessica: I wish, it was a month where I had time to go. It was just like, I went to work one day and they were like, “Bye,” so I thankfully had a severance package, that’s another thing that I didn’t know about, and I was provided with a couple months of pay in addition to outsourcing services or services to place you at another job, and so I was able to leverage all of those benefits that they provided me, but what did I do the day of, I mean, I was just crying. I didn’t know what to do, I had no idea, but thankfully, I’ve already had a network of people that I could have reached out to, and I knew that I could find the job that I really wanted. I reached out to my friend at UBS and she was amazing. She actually helped me get a job two weeks after losing my job, and I decided to say no because that’s not what I wanted to do. It was a job, but I was looking for a job that I wasn’t going to be happier. At this point, I realized having a great manager and someone that believed in you was really important and having experience bad management, I wanted to make sure that I was placed somewhere where I knew I was going to succeed, and I really looked for that, and I waited until I found it and that was at CitiGroup.
Priscilla: Amazing. I think that takes a lot of bravery to say no to something especially when you’re unemployed and maybe yes, you had that financial security for a little bit, but still, you’re always thinking what if I run out of money or what if it takes a long time? Because job searches can take such a long time, but that’s amazing that you were able to say no. What was the new role at Citi?
Jessica: So, at CitiGroup, when I was looking for my job, I decided that I wanted to do something with impact and that was something that drove me and changing the lives of other people, but I was less interested in the environment. I was most interested in the S of ESG which is around social responsibility, and I went to community development and there, I was working around the community reinvestment act which is a law that was passed in 1977 that forced financial institutions to invest in low and moderate income communities around the United States depending on where they had branches, so this is a law that I feel now should be replicated into other sectors of forcing people to invest in these under invested communities, but I was working across different divisions to do the reporting on how they were doing this, in addition, working with regulators to make sure that the firm was upholding their end of the bargain.
Priscilla: Okay, and so when you were at Citi, what does the career ladder look like? What was the level that you entered at and then what do those promotions look like for those who are wondering?
Jessica: I entered as an Assistant Vice President and that was actually a promotion from my Goldman days and also, like, they paid me more, so that’s another thing I tell people just because you’re at a company doesn’t mean that there is another thing out there. You have to be really brave and don’t pigeonhole yourself to one company without really knowing what’s available out there, so I started as Assistant Vice President. The next step would have been Vice President and then following that is Senior Vice President, and then Director and then Managing Director, etc., so that was a career ladder. During that time, I was there for about three years, it would have been in my promotion year if I would have stayed, but my manager and I had very clear communication in terms of me knowing that I was going to go to business school and him helping me get to business school, and nd I was really happy and blessed for that but I think that having that, I really enjoyed my time there and really think that a place like Citi and all these other organizations, there is that career ladder and there are opportunities to move up within the firm, but I wanted to see what other opportunities were out there. I felt that it was a great job, but I was interested in doing a little bit more.
Priscilla: And so at Citi, did you already know about careers in venture capital or when did that conversation start for you?
Jessica: Yeah, I had no idea what venture capital was at all, and even when I was applying to business school, I was like, I’m going to go be an investment banker. I want to work in private equity. Nowhere in my mind did I understand what venture capital was. I think, and I remember my consultant and my mentor, she would say, “Yes, I think you’re more of a venture capital person,” and I will say, “I don’t know about that,” but mostly, I would say that because I didn’t know what it was, but I think I started getting a little bit more interested in it because my brother unfortunately ended up going to prison and I realized that the prison industry is a $5 billion industry where mostly women of color are the ones that are contributing to funding these companies, and not funding, but like the customers of these companies, and I realized that and then thought about how old the technology was there and how I can improve it, and that was through venture capital and I looked at a couple of companies that were in that space, and then from that, I found Kapor Capital, and I was super excited to hear about Kapor Capital and what they were doing more so than actual, like, what venture capital was, and that really is what sparked my interest. I spoke to a couple of friends that had done the internship and they let me know about what they were doing and what they thought about it, and helped me through the application, and thankfully they accepted me, so I was really excited for it.
Priscilla: Very cool. So, you were there the summer before you started your MBA program, right? So, what kind of projects did you work on as an intern?
Jessica: I think the Kapor Capital internship is very unique. It’s 50-50, so 50% of the time you’re doing venture capital stuff, and then 50% of the time, you’re working with a startup. So, I had the opportunity to work with Aclima who actually just raised a $40 million round, series B around starting to buy a Latina, and they’re working on collecting air quality data all around. I think right now they have mostly California, but they hope to expand it to all around the world. So, that was a great experience, and on the venture capital side, I was working on diligencing, so looking at the different deals that were coming through, looking at pitches and seeing whether or not we would be investing in them in addition to other things within the venture capital realm, like going to events and meeting with founders, etc.
Priscilla: So, you decided that you were interested in VC during that summer internship?
Jessica: Yeah, I think I was able to really see what venture capital was and experience it, and from there, I realized that there are very few people of color in this industry, and I think that’s what really motivated me was knowing that we need more people like us, but there’s not a lot of us that are willing to pursue it because it is a long journey and sometimes, we have other responsibilities that we need to take care of first, but I was very interested in just the mission and how I would be the one choosing which companies get to live or die and investing in the community that I cared about and knowing that I had this unique perspective living in certain communities that I could bring to a deal team.
Priscilla: And so, I know you are now at MIT Sloan, so what has that experience been like for you just developing as a leader and also exploring more in finance and in VC?
Jessica: Yeah, I think that one, getting an MBA is great and I’m really grateful to be at MIT and being in this space where I can seek opportunities and really pursue them, but I think that people, at least people of color, need to realize that sometimes these spaces aren’t for you and you just need to make sure that you make it for you and you need to push forward, like I’m very involved in the diversity, equity and inclusion committees and trying to increase representation of Black and Brown people at MIT Sloan, but there is a lack of diversity in all of the programs and we need to continue to create that path, but sometimes, it just does create some sort of attacks on the students because then, that prevents them from focusing on recruiting on, or not recruiting, but like on other things that they might be interested in, maybe starting a business, etc. Being at MIT, I think that looking back, I think it was a perfect school for me because I ended up also applying to the Harvard Kennedy School which is right across the street and very easy to go to, but I think that I really enjoy the aspect of entrepreneurship and technology, and seeing what everyone is working on is really amazing, and as a future venture capitalist, I think that having that network and leveraging the entrepreneurship in combination with some of the financial skillsets that I gained will help me get into venture capital in the long run. I’ve been involved in Mint which is like a competition put on by Wharton Management Impact Investing and Training but it’s a competition where would you look for a company to invest in or to propose to invest in that is making an impact and you’re trying to get $50,000 of funds to invest in this company that you selected. In addition, I’ve been involved in internships, so I’ve been working with Luna Cap which is another scholarship that I received at MIT, not at MIT itself, but it’s across different schools scholarship, and it’s for Mexicans and for veterans, and it really depends on the funding, but it’s also another amazing network and I have been interning on their venture arm, which is the Luna Cap Ventures, and we’ve been doing more of a debt VC which is a little bit different than equity or what I was doing at Kapor, and then at New Market Venture Partners which is an ad tech and future work fund that I actually did my summer internship with as well but I did a spring, summer and I’m doing a fall into master internship because they’re working on fundraising in addition of just doing diligence on their deal flow, but ultimately, I’ve really enjoyed my time at MIT Sloan. I definitely feel that I’ve made great friends and long time friends that I will keep for my future and wherever I go.
Priscilla: So, one thing I’m really curious from your experiences, the people that you met at these funds who they’re calling the shots, they’re at the highest level, are these people who are all ex-bankers, or what are those career paths or even qualifications that you’ve seen for people that are in this space?
Jessica: Yeah, I think most of the time, it really depends what stage. So, Kapor Capital was more earlier stage. At New Markets and also at the debt fund, it’s more later stage, and debt, the investment is very heavily associated with the balance sheet and the health of the balance sheet of the company, so I think, of course, for the venture debt and for the later stage, I see more bankers and I see people that have been in banking being in that space, but I also see people that haven’t done banking. So, I’ve seen people that have started a company, been entrepreneurs, been working on the operational side of things, and then I also, in the earlier stage side, I do see people that have different experience, whether that be in finance or consulting, and thinking about operational marketing. It really just depends, but it is very heavily banking and consulting, and that’s something that I hope to change and something that we all need to change, and unfortunately, the reason why it’s like that, it’s because in order to be an accredited investor, you need at least $1 million of liquid capital and/or a salary of $250,000 a year and only consulting or bankers would really be able to have that salary. So, that’s something that traditionally, it’s been like that because of those entrance of the industry and because you’re a banker in venture capital, then you’re gonna look for a banker and venture capital, but you honestly don’t need any of that. I think if you were really talking about what you really needed to be in venture capital, is you need a lot of money, and unfortunately, not a lot of people of color have a lot of money and that’s what really draws people to it.
Priscilla: It’s such a good point. Yeah, and so let’s say someone’s listening to this episode and they’re like, “I’m really interested in pursuing venture capital but I don’t know any of this jargon or how this works,” when you were learning about it, was there like a book or like anything that you use to help you ramp up quickly and understand, like, the deal flow and like all those things?
Jessica: Yeah, so I think that definitely, there’s a lot of blogs out there about venture capital. You need to do your research on the funds that you’re interested in, know who the top funds are, who the big players, Venture Deals is a book and is what people call like the Bible of venture capital, and in terms of podcasts, like maybe the 20-minute VC provides interviews with these fund managers in addition with people in this space, but I think talking to people about it, but not just talking to people, but I feel that sometimes, people are saying, “Yeah, I want to do venture capital, can we set up a coffee chat and you set up a coffee chat?” and you don’t realize that these people have a lot of meetings every day, and you should probably do a little bit more research and background on what venture capital is or even send over a company that you think that they might be interested in that allows them to feel like, okay, I will spend 30 minutes with this person because they sent me this deal that I wouldn’t have otherwise gone, and I would say try to get some experience if you can working for free although I hate when people work for free because I feel people should be compensated for their time, but sometimes, you do have to do that in VC, just try to see if you can do a scout or start learning more about being inside the industry, but never give up. You need to be very persistent, ask to meet, be bold and reach out. I think for venture capital, you either know how to do diligence and know whether or not an investment is good, but the other part is just networking to either get new deal flow or also, to get someone to invest in your fund. So, if you can really prove that you have those skills, you would be great in a venture capital setting. But yeah, if you are from an underrepresented group, you should definitely look into your network and see, I know for Latinos, there was like a LatinX VC where on Twitter, on my Facebook, that you can join and they post jobs and articles, and different newsletters on how to get into the space, but I’m also happy to share with you, Priscilla, a link that allows people to see, there’s like a whole one pager on how to get into venture capital and blogs and books and a list of resources that you can leverage.
Priscilla: Very cool. Yeah, I could definitely put that in the show notes, but yeah, Arlan Hamilton, her book is called It’s About Damn Time and it came out in May of this year, yeah, she’s awesome.
Jessica: Yeah, that’s an amazing book, definitely read it when you have time.
Priscilla: Great, so I guess my last question for you, I want to talk a little bit about imposter syndrome. I think a lot of us who were the only ones or were the first in our families to go to these elite schools or enter these elite spaces that like you said were not designed for us, how ow have you grappled with those moments?
Jessica: Yeah, I mean, I think that being laid off, I hated it, but I always go to that moment and realizing that everything will be okay and that now, it will be even better because you have an amazing school behind you that you could leverage for whatever it is, but I think that I’ve become more confident as to who I am and what my background is, and I own it. It’s taken me a while, I don’t really remember what it did take for me to get here, but I realized that if you’re not speaking up, if you’re not the one saying something, nobody is. So, you need to be that person, regardless if it is painful, or if you really have to get out of your own bubble to do that, because otherwise, your community will not be heard.
So, for me, I do it not for me, but for other people and to bring other people together, and I think with that, it’s allowed me to find this confidence within myself to be like, whatever, like, it happened, like I did what I had to do and I am not going to change for anyone regardless of what the thing is, and I think that only comes with age, and there are times where I do make mistakes and maybe I can say things better or being nicer, or whatever that is, but I think at the end of the day, I pride myself on trying to give everyone the true Jessica and provide people with my honest thoughts without having to sugarcoat anything, and sometimes, that’s hard to do because then, you can come off as, like, people say aggressive or maybe not as refined as you would have liked, but I told you what I thought, you asked me for it, so it’s not my fault that maybe you don’t like what you hear, but I think that at the end of the day, I just prefer not to happen to regrets for me not doing anything.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I think what you’re talking about a little bit is being authentic to yourself and being unwilling to blend in or change who you are, or mute parts of yourself just to fit into another culture.
Jessica: Exactly, and I think also, it’s learning about our history and the history that Black and Brown people have faced in the United States and knowing that we have nothing to apologize. All of this has been really brought to us because people think that White people are superior or because we’ve been taught to believe those things through propaganda, through the media, whatever that is, and we’re over here trying to act a certain way for other people. No, why are we doing this? Who told us that we needed to do this? And the reality is that we need to change that.
Priscilla: That is a great place to end, very powerful words. Thank you so much, Jessica, for being here for giving it to us straight. I can’t wait to have people listen to your story and be inspired to break into VC or to go any path other than finance.
Jessica: Yeah, no, I mean, thank you for having me and yeah, feel free to reach out to me on LinkedIn or however you want, happy to chat with people, and thank you again for the opportunity.
Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever thought that changing jobs “too quickly” or “too often” is seen as a red flag and must be avoided at all costs? Or, have you ever felt like you’re “cheating on” your employer for considering other jobs and interviewing at other companies? Have you ever struggled to negotiate for higher pay? This episode is for you! On today’s episode, you’ll hear from Cecilia Harvey, CEO of Hyve Dynamics, dish out some real-talk when it comes to creating options for yourself in your career!
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Cecilia Harvey: But that was a lesson for me in that it’s go out there in the market, get that offer, and if you get countered, you make a decision: do I stay or do I go to that? But give yourself that opportunity. Don’t stay stuck waiting for somebody to tell you what you’re worth, not waiting for somebody to tell you what your options are. Go out there and create options for yourself.
Welcome to The Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey everyone. Good morning. Well, it’s good morning for me. It might be any time for you, but yeah, so it’s hard to believe that we’re already in June of 2021. This year has been flying by, but it definitely has also felt like, I don’t know, like a soap opera, telenovela, like, there’s just been so many things going on everyday in the news, and yeah. Anyway, thanks for joining. today, we have Cecilia Harvey on the show. She is a Wellesley College alumna. She went to the same undergrad that I went to and she’s amazing. I have not had anyone on the show that is quite at her level. Typically, my guests are in their late twenties, early thirties. Cecilia has just so many amazing professional and personal experiences to share. Cecilia is the CEO of Hive Dynamics and she has over 20 years of experience in finance and tech. She started her career in Wall Street doing iBanking and worked her way up the banking industry, eventually becoming COO of Citi Group Markets and Securities. She also worked at Morgan Stanley, Barclays, and IBM,a nd she’s also the founder and chair of Tech Women Today, a professional organization focused on connecting and advancing women across various areas of technology. So, this is a Renaissance woman, Cecilia was such a joy to interview. What I loved about her is that even though her resume might sound a little intimidating if you’re in your early twenties or figuring out your career, she was very approachable, she was very down to earth, and she shared some really honest thoughts on compensation, on knowing your worth, on “work-life balance,” on what it’s like to figure out a career that is really aligned with what you want personally for yourself, and she also talked a little bit about job hopping which she did a lot of in her twenties and she said that people would look down on that, but we talk about how job hopping is actually a great tool to quickly increase your income. So, I loved that part of the conversation because I think we’re often shamed into wanting to switch jobs or there’s like this weird loyalty that we have towards a company when really, no one’s going to look after our interests, but ourselves.
So anyway, I don’t want to spill the beans too much, but definitely excited to have Cecilia, and a quick reminder, we’re five episodes out from the end of the first season. We will be ending season one at episode 30, which will air sometime in July, but yeah, thanks for being part of the ride and enjoy the show, bye.
Priscilla: Hi, Cecilia, welcome to the show.
Cecilia: Hi, Priscilla, I’m so excited.
Priscilla: Yeah, I’m so excited to have you here. So, for the audience that doesn’t know this Cecilia and I share our alma maters in common, we both went to Wellesley College. Cecilia is a little bit older than I am, but that’s also why I’m so excited to have her on the show because she is at a much higher level than most of my guests. She’s a CEO and has a lot of work experience, so I’m just really excited to have you, Cecilia, have you reflect on your various roles and experiences from a little bit of a different lens, and so yeah, just really appreciate you being here.
Let’s start off with talking a little bit about your college experience, so let’s rewind to Wellesley College when you were studying there, how did you end up choosing to go the finance route and starting intern in finance?
Cecilia: My first year at Wellesley, I was friends with, well, still my friend to this day, Tanya Ziglar, and so I remember Tanya, she was a senior and I was a first year and she was going on this trip called the Wall Street Trip, and usually, it was only open to seniors who needed a job, and so she said, “Why don’t you just come along?” and I thought, no, like, I’m just a first year, and she goes, “Well, just come on,” and I went on that trip, and we met with three different banks that day. It was JP Morgan, Merrill Lynch, and Goldman Sachs, and we met with all alumni from Wellesley and to be around that I thought, wow, that is, one, these incredible women went to a university, same university I went to, and then two, just the energy and the dynamic nature of the trading floor, I thought, okay, that’s what I want to do and I just spent the next four years doing every single internship I could that was aligned to banking, doing any bit of coursework I could, any sort of research I could to just learn more, and by the time I got to my senior year, I already had a job offer after graduation.
Priscilla: That’s amazing, how one little conversation, one event, one trip led to you being exposed to this industry, this career path, and it changed a lot for you, right?
Cecilia: Definitely, and that’s, I think, the amazing thing, it’s always open yourself up to different opportunities. You never know who you’re gonna meet, the impact that you’re going to make, I remember one of the key things was for me on that trip and that experience was that I met another black female alumna who went to Wellesley and she was pretty much the lead for the Merrill Lynch team, and when you see someone that looks like you and when you see someone that has a similar background and experience as you, that representation means so much, and right then, I knew, okay, this is something that’s possible for me, because I didn’t grow up with an exposure to banking careers and really understanding that can even be a possibility for me. But when you see that, somebody that has that similarity to you, it’s so powerful, and it definitely was for me.
Priscilla: Totally agree. So, let’s talk about those first few years out of college when you were in finance and banking. It’s an industry that’s notorious for just being really tough given that there’s not a lot of women and there’s definitely not a lot of women of color, black women, so how did you handle that part of it, that piece of getting adjusted to that industry and the pace?
Cecilia: Yeah, I think one of the first things was, yeah, the pace, it’s, oh, my goodness, like when you go from university to proper job and the hours, it was like, oh, my goodness, like this is tough, but then, when you get over sort of the physical adjustment, I think, definitely, yeah, the mindset has to be there. I think the first thing that you have to realize is that you are no different from anyone else and getting out of the mindset that you are different from anyone else. Yes., it’s male dominated. Yes, there aren’t many, especially when I first started, many women of color, especially on a trading floor, so the second it gets in your head that you’re different from anyone else, that’s the first step to defeat and you really need to step into your power and really have a firm sense of identity and who you are, because no matter what the situation, whether you’re male, female, whatever, you’re going to be challenged on that every single day in terms of, do you belong here? Do you have what it takes even getting in your own head? So, you really need to be quite firm. And understand who you are as a person and not let anything shake that, so so much of it is just having a strong mindset.
Priscilla: Yeah, and I think that self-talk that we engage in every day is such a big part of that because when you’re doing something new, you’re a beginner and you’re learning, and at some point you’re going to maybe feel behind other people or feel like you’re not enough, but I think the way we speak to ourselves in those moments can make such a big difference. Was that something that you practiced, was like the way that you talked to yourself about what you were doing or did you seek out mentors that also helped you with that?
Cecilia: A key part of it was definitely, and to this day, it’s being very careful with your environment, who you surround yourself with. I think that you need to make sure that you are surrounding yourself with people who want to understand where you want to go and who’ve probably done it themselves and have the experience that they can share with you in terms of how to handle certain situations, I think that’s very important. I think also you need to surround yourself with people that have a realistic view of what it takes to get to where you want to go. I think that I’ve definitely surrounded myself with people who were going to be honest and who were going to check me when it was necessary and say, “No, Cecilia, you need to grow up, this is what you need to do.” You don’t need somebody who is just going to tell you what you want to hear all the time. I think also, it’s important that we protect our environment. Sometimes, people that you used to be around, those relationships don’t serve you any more in terms of, they’re probably not a positive influence. You’re probably going in different directions and you need to make sure that you’re surrounding yourself with people where it’s going to be a positive, supportive environment for you, and then that’s tough sometimes, but it’s something that really needs to be done.
Priscilla: So tell us about how you navigated deciding when to leave a company and when to seek another opportunity. Sometimes, there’s a lot of pressure to “show your loyalty” and stay at a place for a long time, and then I think with younger people these days, you’re seeing less and less of that, and people are being more willing to move around. How did you think through making those early career moves and changing roles or changing companies?
Cecilia: Yeah, no, it’s an excellent question because I remember everybody thought I was crazy when I wanted to leave a role and go somewhere different and people said, “Oh, you don’t want to be accused of being like a puddle jumper and jumping from one thing to another,” and for me, when I got to a point, and actually, it’s great advice I got from my mom, when I saw that I wasn’t going to be compensated in the way that I knew my peers were and what I deserved, where I knew that I wasn’t going to have the sponsorship in an organization in order to get promoted to higher levels, I sought that out at other places and I wasn’t afraid to make that move, and because of that, I think my career definitely took a trajectory where I wasn’t stuck and I kept things moving at a speed where I was comfortable and I knew where I deserve to go, I earned it; there was no imposter syndrome. So, I think that was very important, that I wasn’t afraid to make a move, and if somebody, if another company was going to give me that opportunity, why wouldn’t I take it? What did I have to lose? And I wasn’t going to be held back by somebody else’s judgment of, oh, you know, what if you’re going to be considered a puddle jumper?
Priscilla: I love that because it is so true. I mean, there are studies that are done on people who are willing to change jobs versus people who stay at a company, and the compensation increases are so significant, and it’s unfortunate that it is that way because you would think companies would want to keep their talent and really be more aggressive with the compensation offered and the raises, but it’s just not set up that way, and so I’m sure you probably saw that firsthand, just the raises that you got changing roles as opposed to if you stayed in one place.
Cecilia: Absolutely. I remember I even had a boss. He was one of the best bosses I’ve ever had and I went to him and I said, “You know what, I’ve been here a couple of years. I definitely think that I deserve a promotion and a raise.” I remember, I think I got the promotion by didn’t get the raise, and so he said to me, he goes, “Okay, you want a raise?” He goes, “Go get another job offer and we’ll match you,” and I thought, what? Why would I have to do that? And I took his advice: I went out there, I got another job offer, and I said, when I got this offer, “I don’t want to leave but this is what it is,” and not only did he match me in terms of that offer, he beat that offer, and he said, “You know what? I just want you to make sure that you stay in the company at least for the next couple of years and really do your best,” and I said, “Absolutely,” but that was a lesson for me in that go out there, it’s go out there in the market, get that offer, and if you get countered, you make a decision: do I stay or do I go to that? But give yourself that opportunity. Don’t stay stuck waiting for somebody to tell you what you’re worth. That’s so important, I mean, in terms of recognizing your power and not waiting for somebody to tell you what your options are, go out there and create options for yourself.
Priscilla: I love that, yeah. So, what was the first role for you where you felt like, wow, I have made it, or I have made it to a level where there’s just not a lot of people who look like me with my background, what was that first kind of big promotion for you?
Cecilia: I think it’s almost every role. I think in some ways, I think even from my first job, because I was graduating from Wellesley, starting a role at an investment bank, and this is something where definitely nobody in my family had gone into that career, going into a role in an environment where, yeah, there weren’t many people that looked like me, and I always was so, there’s different ways in which you can receive that, and I think for me, when I walked into a room and if I’m the only woman there, if I’m the only black woman, I embrace it, I love it because I know I deserve to be there, and I think that’s how we should all feel. I know that I worked hard. I know I deserve to be here and because probably before you, there were none, so you need to celebrate that. And it’s given me perspective and I’m so grateful and I feel so blessed and it’s something that I just don’t take for granted.
Priscilla: How have you learned to brand yourself in your roles, different companies? Have you given a lot of thought to self-branding? And I ask that because I do feel like people who get ahead are often people who are very self-aware about what is their brand and how do they talk about their own accomplishments, and a little bit of self-promotion that I think can be seen negatively for women, but it is part of what you have to do to get ahead. How have you thought through that?
Priscilla: When I think of your brand, I think that it’s so important to, especially as you becoming more and more of a leader in organizations, you need to be the type of leader you need to be the type of person that people want to follow, that people have trust in, that people put belief in. I think that’s the most important part to your brand, it’s what people say about you when you’re not in the room. For me, I’ve always wanted people to say, no matter whether they liked me or not, this is somebody who has integrity. This is somebody who we can trust. I think that’s just paramount for me, and this is somebody who, when she says she’s going to do something, she’s going to do it. I think that’s key in terms of you’re putting out the behaviors and the actions that give a sense of you’re somebody of integrity, you’re somebody that we can trust. I think that’s paramount for any type of brand. So, no matter what you’re putting on social media, no matter what you’re trying to portray in terms of lifestyle or who you are or what you do, I think that’s the most important thing and that’s the most foundational thing of any brand integrity. Trustworthiness, transparency.
Priscilla: Yeah, yeah. When you became a COO at Citi, I’m sure that was a huge accomplishment, what were some of the biggest challenges you faced at that level? I think, yeah, when you get, as you move further on in your career, a lot of people will think that certain jobs are the dream job, but I think it’s making sure that it’s aligned to ultimately where you want your life to go. I remember when I got promoted into Citi and of course, it was a great accomplishment in itself, but then also at that time, I really wanted, I took a think about, okay, well, what do I really want to do next within my career? And many times, we get caught up where we’re on this hamster wheel and we can get so caught up in terms of here’s a job title, here’s the salary, here’s the company, but ultimately, making sure that you have that alignment between personally and professionally what you want to do is quite key, not necessarily balanced, but I think definitely alignment in terms of who you are as a person, the job that you’re walking into every day, the environment that you’re walking into every day, is that an environment that you feel is nurturing and ultimately where you want to go within your career? So, for me at that point, it was a turning point in that you definitely reach a certain pinnacle in your career but also, you want to ask yourself, okay, what’s next? Like, where do I go next? And do I have that alignment between not only the career that I want to have but the life that I want to have.
Priscilla: Yeah, and so I think we probably get to a point where you’re like this checks the box in terms of maybe compensation, maybe fulfilling exciting projects, influence, but then, I’m sure that it, what you look for in a job changes over time. So, at what point were you like, okay, I think I’ve gotten what I need to get out of this experience, and decided to leave that role, which I’m sure people would probably stay in that for a while.
Cecilia: Yeah, I think that we all evolve as people in our values, what we want in life, what matters to us, what doesn’t really matter to us, we mature, and for me it wasn’t about corporate title anymore. It wasn’t about the name of the company. It was about, am I happy each day waking up and going into work? Do I feel like I’m learning? Do I feel like I’m in an environment where I enjoy coming into every single day? And I think that also in terms of what I wanted to do, I love technology. I loved the idea of essentially working towards creating a company and a culture within that company, that really was something that I completely believed in, and I knew that I had to eventually get on that track if I was going to start working towards that goal. I knew that I wanted to be somebody who was a leader, not only within a company, but within the broader technology industry. I knew that I wanted to be someone similar to what I had when I was at that first Wellesley on Wall Street event and saw somebody that looked like me, I wanted to be someone that could be a role model of where people can look at and say, “Wow, if she did that, maybe that’s something that’s possible for me,” so I had to be honest with myself about wanting to pursue that dream and start getting on that track and not looking back.
Priscilla: Yeah. So, tell us about Tech Women Today: how did this idea come to be? What is it? Yeah, just tell us about it.
Cecilia: Yeah, Tech Women Today started, I’ve been involved in so many companies and initiatives that focused on diversity inclusion and definitely being in the tech industry, wanting to encourage more women to join the industry because I absolutely loved it, and I thought, wow, this is a great career path for so many women. Of course you see that the numbers aren’t very high when you look at new terms of women in tech. So, I started Tech Women Today because one, I wanted to really broaden the definition of what it meant to be a woman working in technology. You don’t have to have a STEM background; I was a political science major at Wellesley, you don’t have to be a programmer or a hardcore engineer or some developer, you could be a project manager, you could be a business analyst. You don’t have to work at a technology company per se, you could work in fashion and have a tech career. You can work in art and have a digital career, you can work in healthcare, all of these different sectors because tech just penetrates all of these different areas, of course, all these different industries. So, I really wanted to expand the definition of what it means to be somebody in tech and give visibility to what those different career opportunities are, and then also I want it Tech Women Today to be a resource for nontechnical female entrepreneurs and female founders that really need to understand how they needed to use technology in order to grow and scale their businesses and connect them with the various resources that can do that, and recently, one of the things that Tech Women Today has been doing is helping companies with their diversity and inclusion plans and strategies. So, in order to create and cultivate a pipeline of strong, diverse talent that grows within that organization and ultimately prepares people for successful opportunities and leadership within that organization, so that’s so exciting for me because it’s something where one, anybody’s going to agree that diversity in any organization is going to create the best technology, the best services, and ultimately serve clients in the best way, but really, to help organizations strategically create that is so exciting and being able to leverage all the experiences that I’ve had over the years in order to advise on that is an exciting opportunity.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool and I love that you’re doing this on the side of your full-time job and that you’re able to balance your passions and your impact in different ways. I think sometimes, people think that their full-time job has to check all of the boxes for them when in reality, there’s different ways to find fulfillment in different, it doesn’t just have to be your full-time job.
Cecilia: No, definitely, and when I think of so many impressive women that I look at as role models, when you look at Serena Williams, amazing tennis champion, but there’s so many other things that she does. There’s so many other businesses that she has, but she’s still on top of her game. When you look at a Sheryl Sandberg at Facebook, there’s so many other initiatives that she does that focuses on female empowerment and other activities. So, I think it’s so important for me in terms of being a leader and an authentic leader is not only just focusing on my day job in terms of the technical aspects of that, but also being a good leader to my organization within the tech industry and leveraging my skillset and my experience in order to bring broader impact the tech overall.
Priscilla: Yeah, so you bring me now to this next question that I have around “work-life balance.” Do you believe in work-life balance? Yeah, I’m definitely a realist and I don’t believe in balance. I think that you’re not going to have, especially if you have very ambitious goals and you want to do so much, you’re not going to have everything all at once perfectly balanced at the same time or even for a few weeks here and there. I do what I call, I fiercely prioritize, so there might be a situation where I am very full-on with work at Hive and there’s a particular project or a client opportunity where it requires me to have absolute tunnel vision on that and be very focused on that. That’s my duty and that’s my responsibility to my team, is to be at my best for that particular initiative. So, there will be no distractions. I’ll say to friends, “You know what, nope, have time for that dinner. You’re not going to see me for two weeks,” and then I know that once that passes yeah, of course, I’ll make time. Nope, not going to be able to go on holiday for the next couple of months, but I make sure that okay, in a couple of months, once things calm down a bit, absolutely, I’m going to take that two-week holiday. So, I think it’s about fiercely prioritizing and realizing that you know what, no, everything’s not going to get done. No, you can’t multitask all over the place. A lot of times, you do need to have laser focus on things and it just is what it is, and I think that you will have those people in your life that will understand that, you will have that support system that will be able to get you through and encourage you. That’s so important because balance is a myth, in my opinion.
Priscilla: Yeah, totally, agreed, especially as women and especially people who are balancing child-rearing and family obligations, life, like you were saying, we evolve over time and all of those things shift, and it’s not going to be the same every year.
Priscilla: Our priorities shift, right?
Cecilia: It’s true, and I think you need to really prioritize your mental health, you need to really prioritize yourself because you can’t pour from an empty cup and you need to make sure that you’re doing the things necessary so that you are not completely depleted. I think that’s so important to do, to really make sure that you’re focusing on those things where ultimately, you’re not juggling too many things. I think that we need to stop trying to glorify multitasking all over the place, burning ourselves out. To what purpose? It’s not necessary, and I think that’s why I’m really about focusing on those key priorities that you really need to focus on. Other things, okay, it’s going to be pushed to the side for a bit. It doesn’t mean that it’s not as important. It doesn’t mean that you’re never going to get to it, but we’re only human and there’s nothing wrong with that.
Priscilla: Totally. Awesome. So, my last question for you is, what do you think is something you wish you had known about your career years when you first embarked on your first job ?
Cecilia: My goodness. Yeah, if I could go back and do things differently, I guess, I think one thing I would do is have more fun. I think that I was so serious about everything and I was just trying to be so professional, and I think, I wish I would have spent more time hanging out with my coworkers, having fun just in life, hanging out with my friends a bit more because ultimately, we’re not going to get a second chance at this thing called life, and I think I could have really learned a lot from people on just different aspects of just life and living, and also career, so I wish I would have just took more time and just been less serious and just had more fun, and I think people could have also gotten to know the real me a lot sooner also. So, that’s definitely one thing, and I think the other thing is that I learned over time was create options for yourself. Don’t wait for somebody to tell you what your options are. I remember so many situations, and I see it now, even where people are like, “Oh, well, I’ll wait to see what happens at year end,” and then they’re disappointed once year end comes and they have that performance review and they get in that room and they don’t get told what they were expecting to be told and they don’t hear that number that they were expecting to hear, and it doesn’t have to reach that point where you’re just going to explode. Constantly explore your options, interview even when you absolutely love your job, understand what’s out there, keep in contact with at least two executive recruiters that will constantly tell you what the going rates are for people in your industry with your years of experience in terms of salary and compensation. I think that’s so important. You owe it to yourself, and I think sponsorship is so key also. If you don’t have the right sponsorship in your organization, so those people that are going to champion you for promotion in different opportunities for you to really showcase what you can do, then I think it’s one of the things where you need to start exploring your options.
Priscilla: Awesome. Thank you so much, Cecilia, for being with us today, you dropped so many gems and I can’t wait for people to hear your story.
Cecilia: Brilliant. Thank you so much, Priscilla, it’s been great.
Thanks for tuning in to The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever thought about the story that you’re telling others when it comes to your career? On this episode, Aaron Wilson tells us about the career story he’s been crafting ever since he graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in business. As a Black-Asian child of working class parents, Aaron’s story has included: moving to the West Coast to change functions and industries, navigating the ad agency world, deciding to pursue elite management consulting, and eventually landing at McKinsey, post MBA, as an associate.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Aaron: I remember I had a mentor at Capital One. He was Asian so he looked out for me. He knew I was half Asian. But he told me like some people at the company knew that I used to play football and I’m black. So if I walk around slow, people might think that you’re not super energetic or something like that. To a 21-year-old, coming fresh into a job, you’re just like, “What does that even mean?”
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color, and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration. You’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone, how’s everyone doing? I am really good, actually. You know, yesterday, the CDC came out saying that you don’t have to wear a mask anymore if you’re vaccinated, which my brain still can’t really compute that. I feel like we’ve been through such a roller coaster ride in the last year in terms of guidelines. It’s been a trippy year where we don’t even know what to do or whatever. So But anyway, I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel and so that brings me a lot of joy because I do feel excited to start to incorporate some socializing and just seeing people in my life again, safely. And so, anyway, that’s just on my mind. But welcome to episode 24 of the first season of the early career moves podcast. Today, you’re going to hear from Aaron Wilson, who went to UVA Darden School of Business, he is an MBA, and he also went to UVA for his undergrad, his bachelor’s in business where he focused on brand management and actually worked at Capital One after he graduated in brand marketing. But later made a series of pivots that took him to work for Sony Pictures and for an ad agency, but the whole time you’re going to hear in his story that he was always sort of thinking about his next move in a very strategic way, even if he didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
So I think Aaron is a really great example of someone who stays ready, like he was doing the work, whether that was building a super marketable skill set that he could use later, or asking himself, you know, did he get what he needed to get out of a sort of experience? Where was he trying to go next? Not everyone is like this and that’s okay. But, you know, Aaron is someone who you can tell his story, is very much thinking long term, playing a game of strategy in his career, and it’s definitely paid off. Aaron is an associate McKinsey, one of the most elite management consulting firms in the world. And I won’t be surprised if one day we see his name as CEO. Okay, I’ll stop here. Enjoy the interview. Let me know what you think. So I’m excited to have you share your story of how you went from brand marketing to analytics to working at an ad agency all the way through Business School, and now working at McKinsey. But before we get into that, will you share a little bit about your own personal background?
Aaron: So, yeah, hello everyone. I’m originally from Washington, DC. My family are from the Northeast area of Washington, DC. But my father, he was originally from Chicago, the West side of Chicago, father’s black. My mother’s Korean, she’s actually from South Korea, so she was an immigrant. So most of my time, I was raised in Northeast DC, but also spend some time in Washington, Maryland, which is PG County, and then Alexandria, Virginia. So like a real full around DMV. So I went to high school in TC, played football, track, basketball as well and then played football at the University of Virginia in the ACC. When I first started, I studied Business Commerce at UVA, which was a pretty prestigious at that time. And then, once I graduated, I actually went to Capitol One for brand marketing.
Priscilla: Okay, so brand marketing was your first job. How did you ended up deciding to go down that path? And what was it like being in that program?
Aaron: So, yeah, I originally did brand marketing for Capital One straight out of undergrad. One of the reasons why I chose to do brand marketing was more of like, my mother was a cashier. Father, he was in the military. So I’d never saw what professional jobs looked like in the past. So for me, it was like, “Oh, marketing, would love it. Would love to do that type of job. It has a lot of outreach, a lot of influence.” And then if I ever got to the position high within the company, then I could be the one making decisions of how we’re utilizing that budget, and making differences in the world beyond just adding additional profits for the company. So that was my original thought trying to go to Capital One doing brand marketing. And on the other side of that Capital One was a heavily invested sponsor for the University of Virginia, so there was a big relationship there. A lot of alumni that came from the University of Virginia so it just made sense at the time. I oved it, great people, gained a lot of skill sets that I never had before, thinking strategically as well as working with advertising agencies. So I worked at Capital One for two years as an Associate Brand Marketing Manager. During that time, I was actually exposed to advertising agencies and seeing how they work. So it was very interesting in that time, because at Capital One, we were doing a lot of the strategy, providing a lot of the insights from data that we have within the company. But the cool things that usually think of as marketing goes is usually what the advertising agencies do, the advertising and the media agencies. They’re the ones who actually create the actual creative based upon the original strategy, and execute to expose it to the consumers. And in a way that makes sense. So there’s a lot of components to that I was intrigued, very interested, I wanted to see what that side of the world was like on the agency side, and additional opportunity popped up to move to Los Angeles. As I mentioned before, I’ve always been from the Washington DC area, went to UVA. So DC, in Virginia, Maryland, that whole scene is something that I knew majority of my life. So I thought, “Hey, why not? Let’s try something new and get exposure to a whole another area.” Who wouldn’t want to go to West Coast to do a little LA action, surfing and all?
Priscilla: Yeah. So before we get into you moving to LA and changing jobs, I would love to hear just your first job at Capital One. What were some of the stumbling blocks that you faced entering corporate America for the first time? What was challenging about it? How did you manage that?
Aaron: Sure. So one thing I want to start with is capital was an amazing place, very smart people, high caliber. But with that, I don’t think there will be one company that’s perfect. There’s always a lot of good things with it, but and then sometimes some setbacks. So one thing for Capital One, everyone was super high performing. But with that, it’s hard to get promoted, right? It’s hard to move up within the company if everyone’s high performing. The company treats everyone well. No one really wants to leave. You don’t really find that many opportunities that fast. And then beyond that, it’s like, how do you separate candidates who are all doing their job well? So the thing that I would say was, like separating people is more of like, how much do you like this person, right? Do they seem like they’re fully energetic? Do you feel like they’re super nice and willing to help each other? A lot of those things that aren’t pretty subjective. And honestly, like me, coming out of college, black Korean guy, there was maybe two other black people in the whole brand department of Capital One at the time. Right now, this is Sunday, so I’m feeling energetic. But when I was at Capital One coming out of college, like, I wouldn’t jump out everyone like, “Hey, how’s your day going?” And those are the things that can cost you at moving up in the company, or standing out as someone who’s 14 players, fully smart, etc. So those are some of the things that I struggle with, some of those things that it’s not on paper that you learn you should do to move up in the company or in the world, so I struggle with that. And this is probably even more personal level. I remember, I had a mentor at Capital One. He was Asian so he looked out for me. He knew I was half Asian. But he told me like some people at the company knew that I used to play football, and I’m black. So if I walk around slow, people might think that like, you’re not super energetic or something like that. A 21-year-old, coming fresh into a job, you’re just like, “What does that even mean?” So those are some things that I dealt with just trying to like navigate through like, the political system I will probably say within corporate world. I didn’t really fully understand that at the time. But I think that was just also just being young in my career.
Priscilla: Totally. I really liked that story because I remember when I was young, getting similar feedback like that I seemed disinterested, or that I didn’t seem enthusiastic. And later on, you realize that’s really highly valued. So totally understand that. But yeah, so let’s jump back into your story and what was the job that you moved for in California? Like what happened next?
Aaron: So I went over there for this media advertising agency called OMD. So that’s an agency under the umbrella, Omnicom. So similarly, like consulting firms and similar to some law firms, just like a big four of agencies. And Omnicom is one of those big agencies that’s worldwide, very prevalent in New York City and Los Angeles and Chicago. So I switched to that side and I was very purposeful with what position I picked. The position was for Marketing Analytics. So this is what like, end of 2014 beginning of 2015. I definitely wanted to get exposure to analytics because I knew that big data was going to be a big piece for all types of marketers out there, whether you wanted to be on the brand strategy side, or whether you wanted to be on the execution side, or whether you had aspirations to become an executive, big data was always going to be important. So I switched over to work for OMD in Los Angeles. There I worked on two accounts, I worked on the activation Call of Duty account, so think like Call of Duty Black Ops 3. I work on that campaign. So I did everything from what is the strategy like, what type of partner should we use in media? And what that means is like, yes beyond just like the Google search and featuring advertisements there and working with YouTube, via Google for YouTube videos. There’s a component outside of social media, which also includes like programmatic channels, where it’s a little site that people go to whether it’s blog sites, whether it’s a website site for video gamers, they may know like IGN, you’re featuring advertisements where people go to, and that’s kind of like what the media agency job is.
Priscilla: Okay, cool. Yeah, that’s sounds like such a huge change, right? Like, not only did you move from the East coast to the West coast, where you didn’t have any routes, but you also changed industries a little bit and also function. So what was that like making those switches and what was maybe hard about that?
Aaron: Yeah, I remember telling some friends that, “Hey, I’m going to move to Los Angeles in a month.” Some people thought I was joking. It was just something that I had to move with before I second guessed myself, because I knew I just wanted to change for myself, just because I’ve been in the DMV area for so long. So that’s what just prompted me and pushed me over the edge in order to do so no matter what the challenge is. As far as how I dealt with, like the switch, functionally in and from an industry standpoint, I think it was just pure curiosity. One thing that I think stands out to me no matter who I worked with and in any industry, any company is, if a person is intelligent, and they have the will to learn and work, I think you’ll be fine anywhere. When I started working at the media advertising agency, very different world than a financial bank, especially like a fortune 100 company. So the media advertising agency, I mean, was totally different from a culture standpoint, like we had a basketball Court, inside our building, you can have your dogs at work, we were working with entertainment companies left and right, Disney was another client of ours for the advertising agency, etc. So it was a shift, but hey, I’m not going to complain about those things like, I loved it. I think the biggest thing was more the fact that just showing that I was passionate and which was authentic like, I was excited to work at this advertising agency and try something new. I think that’s something that people have heard over time, who are very successful, when they make transitions, it’s usually because they felt like the position, they were previously in felt stale, or they weren’t learning anymore. I think whenever you’re in a position where you’re not learning anymore, like it will come across to other people that you really aren’t learning more, and then your passion and curiosity might falter. So I really leaned on that when I was starting a new function in a new company. I showed that I was curious, I was attentive, I learned and picked up fast. And then, I just let that kind of carry my weight all the way through. Put in the beginning, it’s obviously going to be more time and effort, but over time, started gaining more expertise, and then just kept trying to push the boundaries of what we could do at some of these media advertising agencies, and even leveraging my past experiences working at Capital One, knowing that I was on the client side of advertising agencies in the past. That kind of gave me like, a leg up of oh, this is probably what they may want to see or what they’re looking for what type of insights will be most helpful? So, again, I think two parts, really leaning on that curiosity point, learning fast. And the second point of utilizing past experience, whenever it fits, I think that’s always shows like a unique perspective, and showing how you’re a unique asset.
Priscilla: What are some things that you think people should know about the advertising agency world if they’re considering entering and breaking into this work? Sure.
Aaron: So I would probably say there’s probably like three different things. One, I would say location does matter, especially, if you’re thinking entry level. The cities with the most agency activity and opportunity would definitely always be Los Angeles and New York City. So I’m just going to be very straightforward on that front. That’s not to say that there aren’t advertising agencies and other big cities in the US like, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, there are, but nine out of 10 there’s way more opportunities and job openings in New York City and Los Angeles. So that’s just a very direct piece of advice, at least from my perspective. The second piece, I would say is, there’s different types of positions they’re looking for in agencies. One, they’re looking for creative, so that’s what you think about as graphic designers, people with artist in skill sets, and craftsmanship, photographic or video recording skills, that creative sector. They’re also looking for analytics. That’s actually a growing space in advertising agencies. Utilizing data and measuring especially for digital media just, because everything is gravitating towards that. Budgets increasing, advertising spend in the digital space, so if you have any type of analytic skills, that’s working with Excel, working with SQL, working with Tableau, it’s huge. So we definitely highly recommend leveraging some of those skills and those platforms in order to get a leg up in the advertising world. And then, three, which some agencies are known for are more of the strategist. So those are the people who don’t have as much heavy analytic skills. But I would say and pre-warn like, that’s more based upon pure experience. Strategist can move up and become VPs, executives, etc. But the road from the beginning is going to be a little difficult because in the beginning, I don’t think that pays huge for strategist coming in to agencies. But as far as like, how to get in, it’s literally more of just like, making sure your resume matches up finding the right opportunity and the right timing, if you want to come in as a strategist.
Priscilla: Okay, so you were saying that you were at the ad agency, what ended up happening next, how did you end up moving up and getting to the point of going to business school.
Aaron: So then, I got promoted, worked as a manager within the media agency where I shifted. And there, just working on different accounts really shine light on how you have to change your strategy and the tools that you utilize to reach out to the consumer. A video game, for instance, like they release once a year, annually. So what you’re doing is you’re trying to build hype and engagement throughout the year slowly but surely until the person like, unconscious things like, I have to get this game, versus Levi’s and Dockers, where you’re dealing with retail, people are usually thinking about buying clothes two times the year, at least, which is usually spring and fall. Preparation for the wintertime and spring when you’re preparing for summer, as well as getting close for that spring and fall season. So that’s how like campaign shifted, the type of sites and partners you will utilize, the way we were analyzing engagement was totally different, and that was one of my responsibilities was at the agency OMD. Before, I actually shifted again to work for another agency, a media agency called Universal McCann. And that’s where I was contracted out to Sony Pictures. So that’s where I spent my last year and a half two years before going back to my MBA program. I am working for Sony Pictures, doing audience targeting for all the different Sony Picture movies like, Spiderman Homecoming, Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle. So this was back in 2017. That’s what I was doing before the NBA.
Priscilla: So when you were making all these career decisions in your 20s before you went to business school, what were the things that you were looking for in your next opportunities? Like how did you think through that?
Aaron: Yeah, for sure. I was thinking about if probably from a 3.1. I was like, “Where did I want to live?” As far as city position, what type of lifestyle that I want as far as what job I was going to choose? People I think automatically guys like compensation, what account, is this any work. So that’s like the short term. So that was like the bare top superficial things I was looking at for jobs and switching jobs. The second piece I’ll probably say is, I was thinking about what story like my resume was telling and how I wanted to grow. And it wasn’t just literally like jumping back and forth from like a zigzag standpoint, but more of like, it didn’t have to incrementally stack up on top of each other as far as how my experience was building. But how was I growing? How was I evolving as if I want to be as an executive. I think I have a very heavy marketing background, but also marketing and strategy. And I knew that something that I wanted to be a part of my core of what I would be known for whether it’s five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. So from that standpoint, I always wanted to make sure I had a little bit of piece of what I did when I first started working way back when I worked for Capital One doing brand marketing. And I did Sony Pictures was a little bit different, because every movie is going be totally different, right? The way you’re marketing a movie for Spiderman is going to be very different than you do for Peter Rabbit kids movie. So that changed a little bit. But that job, for instance, was still connected to my previous job doing marketing analytics. I was building upon what our to learn about data. And then, I was targeting audiences, so I was building further from my previous job working with Sony Pictures connected to OMD working at that agency. So that’s that second point, I was talking about is how was my resume building over time, incrementally, from position to position. And then, the third piece, I wanted to mention was like more long term, the thing I was thinking about is, how could it put me in a position. For instance, I knew I wanted to eventually switch to management consulting will put me in that position. I was thinking about that probably since 2015. And I graduated from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in 2020. So there were some thought into that, will put me in the best position, what would tell that story of why did I want to get there. So that was the third piece that I think played a role in how I was choosing positions and companies.
Priscilla: That’s really cool. It seems like you were really intentional about your strategy throughout the years, which is I would say pretty rare and unique, but obviously it really served you well once you were in business school and you knew you wanting to do consulting. At what point did management consulting get on your radar? How did you know that that was something you wanted to pursue?
Aaron: From the undergrad business school from UVA, there’s actually quite a few people who go into consulting. I wasn’t exposed to it just during that time. I didn’t even know what to look for. So my mind was always brand marketing. But soon after, when I was at a Capital One, and I started talking to some more friends, meeting more people and find out, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” Like consulting, you get exposure to multiple different companies, you get to travel, something that piqued my interest, not something that I was sure that I wanted to do, but it was something that was like, potentially in the future. And on top of that, before I move on to the second time, I want to say like, at all times, when I was building my career, I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to be. But it was more of thinking about, I wanted to leave room where it made sense if I went that way. So like if, say, if I wanted to go into music with Spotify, I will want to have works that could connect me to be able to go that direction. So I never exactly knew like, hey, I always wanted to be at Sony Pictures when I was at Capital One but it was more of a thing like, I was always incrementally building upon my past experience, so that I could be able to go that direction. So just wanted to make that clear. So after the first point of when I was exposed to consulting the second point, I was actually exposed to one of the MBB firms when I was working with Sony Pictures. And that’s when, you know, I was fascinated. The team was very smart, very intelligent, structured, high performing, move fast, and I learn more about them. The fact that the type of work they were touching, even at a young age, I just knew like beyond just the opportunities that were open for management consultants at high prestigious firms was the soft skills that they developed. How exact and professional they spoke with their client. Every meeting wasn’t just a meeting just to have or cover track, it was always with intention in mind to move the problem solving and trying to find the solution faster and forward. People know. Sometimes I imagined who’s listening to this podcast. Sometimes you have meetings where it’s just kind of cyclical. And then, there’s just another thing you have that meeting but then no one steps back and as like why like how are we pushing, you know, the solution in these 20 minutes to make sure that we are further along than we were 20 minutes ago. This is what this firm did. And that really spoke to me. So I would say that was time I was like, hey, like whether something I will want to do for the rest of my life afterward. I know that I will want a career in consulting because I want to develop those skills almost at an unconscious level. So that’s probably the second time I got exposed and I was like, Oh, I could see myself in the consulting industry.
Priscilla: Okay, so now let’s talk about your MBA journey. You decided to go to UVA Darden, you had other options, you got a McKinsey internship offer, you accepted a full-time offer to join McKinsey. And that’s where you are now, McKinsey is one of the top three management consulting firms, one of the most elite, right? A lot of people would say, it’s the best one. MBB, for those who don’t know, stands for McKinsey, BCG and Bain. And so, yeah, like what did it feel like for you to get that internship and to now be in this full-time like, that must have been like such a huge accomplishment.
Aaron: I was ecstatic. It was a hard road. I’m not going to lie. The networking and the case prep, I was extremely excited. One, just the amount of work I put in but two when I was working at Sony Pictures and even applying for the MBA programs, my thought process as far as like applying. What I will want to do post MBA was always like consulting firm like McKinsey, right? Like, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get the opportunity to work for McKinsey so it was always a consulting firm like McKinsey. So at the back of my mind, like it wasn’t only the hard work that I’ve done, but it was also the fact that I felt like it was a dream come true. The people I met at McKinsey were amazing folks that well, they weren’t just smart, they knew how to engage how to influence and I was very happy about that Atlanta office, in particular, there are already three women black partners, so they mean to just say they were about diversity, they actually had them in leadership. So a show like this company actually stood behind what they said. So I was Yeah, I was very happy about getting that offer.
Priscilla: That’s amazing. So switching gears here a little bit, I want to talk about imposter syndrome. We talk about it a lot on the podcast and I just want to hear like, did you experience imposter syndrome throughout your 20s? How did you manage that?
Aaron: Sure. So yeah, I’ve had it a few times across my career. I think the first time ever was when I first started working for Capital One doing brand marketing. At the time, I was working on the Quicksilver credit card so I was pulling it then. I was working with all this senior leadership that’s had excellent past experiences and expertise in the field and I’m the one trying to add my piece to make this national campaign happen. I started second questioning myself. Oh, is this work? Absolutely. 100% unequivocally correct. I don’t want to be that black guy who got something wrong, but over time, it was just trusting myself. I had mentors and sponsors who spoke up for me And when you keep Hearing it again and again, you start thinking like, hey, you’re right, I did do good work. And I did it again. And then again, like maybe I am fit for this. So that was probably the first time. The second time was probably when I first got promoted to manager at OMB, the advertising agency, and I was actually managing someone who’s about the same age as me maybe even like a year older. So one, there’s different dynamics going on there from how comfortable they feel talking with someone who’s their age, and then trying to walk that line between should I be doing this? I am the manager. How do I do this? Am I even cut out for this? Maybe I got promoted too soon. These are the things that were running through my mind. and managing is not easy. Like I think that should be highlighted a lot more in a lot. A lot of corporations like management is not just about being able to do your job. Well. It’s also about being able to build relationships and adapting to the working styles of the people that you’re managing. So it was definitely a learning curve. And I would like to say that I got it correct. The first time I don’t think I necessarily did. But I think maybe like the second year, when I started managing a new person, I started learning how people’s personalities were different and how it could adapt. That’s when I started thinking like, okay, at least I think I’m somewhat competent at it and something that I can definitely do in the future. And then the third time was definitely here at McKinsey. There’s like Olympians walking around everyone’s valedictorians, etc, definitely felt some of that. But I was very happy because even at McKinsey, we have affinity group called the McKinsey black network. And I cannot state how many times people have reached out to me to for support, or even on a higher level for the entire new NBN class of like we do good work like we’re very special people before we got to the firm. So not to ever lose sight of that because the firm did make a special, we were like that before we even got there, getting those reassurances were definitely helpful. And then again, sometimes just given a time, like, I definitely feel in a much better place than I did when I first started working again full time, even after the entire internship. So I think that feeling is always there. But it’s more of just like having patience, giving it time. And then building that support network around you to get that gain reassurance.
Priscilla: I totally agree with everything that you just said. It’s almost like learning how to live with it and creating systems of support to slowly build our confidence over time. But yeah, so my last question for you, Aaron, what kind of advice would you give to someone who was in your shoes maybe a few years back and is trying to move forward in a similar path to yours?
Aaron: Yeah, I think my one piece of advice would be what do you want to stand for? And what I mean by like, what do you want to stand for? This could be at a personal and professional level? Like, do you want to stand for hard work, then come to consulting? Because you’re going to be seeing a lot of hard work? Do you want to be known for impact? Like what type of impact do you know. I’m saying like what really resonates and matters most to you, because I think whatever you choose to do, as far as what you want to stand for, your curiosity is going to run wild. So you’re going to do good work, you’re going to learn you’re going to progress, you’re going to get better, you’re going to evolve. And then, if you’re finding out like what you stand for, I think that’s going to be good for you. When you’re even building your resume. You’re trying to pitch in interview with the different companies because if you know what you want to stand for, you can build, you know your brand of like what you’ve done in the past and what you will do in the future, it will start becoming a lot more clear when you start from there, like knowing like what you want to stand for, that will help you dictate what jobs what industries you want to work in, that will help you even focus on like what you’ve done in the past. Because no matter what, there is a path behind you and ahead of you that is connected. So I think knowing what you want to stand for is that connector to making sure that whole thing tells a story.
Priscilla: Yes, and storytelling and branding, like truly your own career path is so key to a lot of this is like, how do you sell yourself? How do you tell your story? So I love that you ended on that note. Aaron, thank you so much for being with us today. You’re such a great example of what’s possible when you work hard and have a plan. And so yeah, thanks for being with us.
Aaron: Absolutely. Thank you for having me much appreciate.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ecmpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.