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.
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.
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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.
Are you a woman of color seeking to transition or thrive in the tech industry? Are you someone who struggles with imposter syndrome, speaking up for yourself or prioritizing your wellbeing at work? On this episode, you’ll hear from mindset & career coach Rebecca Garcia, a daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico. Rebecca is a self-taught developer, ex-product manager and, as of the publish date, a program manager at Facebook. With experience working in tech startups and tech giants, Rebecca inspires women of color to step into their power in tech.
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And then there’s this playing big kind of fear where you’re like, I don’t know if I’m ready to take up more space. I don’t know if I’m ready to do these things. I think I can do them but I don’t know if I’m ready yet. And so whenever you start to inch towards that playing big fear, that’s how you’re going in the right direction because you’re growing and you’re starting to take those risks.
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 each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s 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, today you get to hear from Rebecca Garcia, a mindset and career coach for women of color looking to transition into tech. Rebecca is a first-generation American and daughter of immigrants from the Philippines and Mexico. She’s worked across tech startups, big tech giants in several different roles as a self-taught developer, a product manager, and now a program manager at Facebook. I really love this conversation with Rebecca because she has a very calming presence and she helped me reframe a lot of different ideas that I had around imposter syndrome and how we really need to prioritize our mental health and wellbeing above all in our careers. So if you’re looking to transition into tech, look no further, check out Rebecca Garcia and check her out at MindsetCoachForWomen.com.
Priscilla: Okay. Welcome, Rebecca, to the show.
Rebecca: Thank you for having me, so excited to be here.
Priscilla: Yeah. So why don’t we start by just having you share a little bit about your background so that our audience can get familiarized with who you are or your personal background, and then what you do today?
Rebecca: Absolutely. So I’m so excited to share my work as both a mindset and career coach. I specifically work with women of color and started off working with women in tech. And I have grown my career as a woman in tech as a self-taught developer turned product manager, program manager, doing a lot of different shifts along the way. And by day, I am a program manager at Facebook on the developer programs team, specifically working on a lot of different partnerships and events. And I’m also first-generation a daughter of immigrants. My mother immigrated from Mexico, my father immigrated from the Philippines. Growing up, I didn’t see anybody who looked like me and I didn’t know that there was a career path for me in tech. I had been learning to code as I was growing up, copying and pasting HTML and CSS on my MySpace, my Neopets pages. It was really fun and exciting.
I knew that when I was little, that I wanted to help people but I didn’t know at the time how to be able to combine that. I ended up starting to follow that passion and built my career as a self-taught developer. I was at Squarespace as it was growing from 250 to 500 employees. I found myself as a program manager at Microsoft, managing a full-time technical training program for underserved New Yorkers, helping them to become IT and assist admins. And in between, I’ve been a technical product manager at a handful of different startups most recently at a startup helping to end the gender pay gap, and most recently as a program manager at Facebook. So that’s my little journey in a nutshell with a lot of pivots and twists.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool. So tell us what it means to be a program manager, especially now at Facebook. What are you responsible for? What does that kind of look like for you?
Rebecca: Yeah. So at Facebook, as some folks may know, there’s a lot of different emerging technologies, whether that’s augmented reality, AR, or virtual reality, VR, or technology around natural language processing, NLP. Essentially, my role as a program manager is to help get more developers and more creators on these new emerging Facebook products. It’s really fun because I get to work with a lot of different teams. So I work with engineering, we work with marketing, and we get to dream up these different programs to get folks engaged and involved and give back to the community. Some folks like to ask me, “Well, why did you transition from being a developer or transitioned from being a product manager?” And honestly, I think the role that I’m in right now is just a really fun and exciting combination of my different various experiences and it helped set me up for it. So for anybody out there who’s thinking that you have to have a straight and clear narrow career path, I’m here to tell you that you don’t. If you think about the tech industry being a, quote-unquote “young industry” there’s so many different roles out there that didn’t exist 5, 10 years ago. So it’s like sky’s the limit and yeah, it’s just a lot of fun what I get to do at Facebook.
Priscilla: Now tell us a little bit about how you decided to become a career coach and then becoming a mindset coach, and what does that mean?
Rebecca: Absolutely. So a handful of years ago, I used to meet folks for coffee very often. So I’ve spent the last 10 years in New York City and I would get reached out to and folks say, “Oh, I’d love to hear more about your background. I’d love to hear more about your story. Tell me how you that into X role at the time, whether that was as a developer or program manager, product manager.” I used to meet them for coffee and, quote-unquote, “have them pick my brain” and I realized that a lot of these folks could use a more structured way to help them to define their unique value proposition essentially about themselves and their transferable skills and how to interview and move into a new role, because tech interviewing can be nuanced and some folks might seem intimidated or scared by it, but it’s actually not that scary. It doesn’t have to be that scary. So I transitioned into coaching because I wanted to help a lot of these women and especially women of color who were struggling with how to make those pivots and make those shifts.
So I’ve been doing that work for handful of years now, and I then realized that there was an even bigger gap with imposter syndrome that, you know, even though I helped these folks move into new roles, that the imposter syndrome still followed them. How can we start to dismantle the imposter syndrome and realize that it’s not just, “Oh, you need to work harder. You need to” quote-unquote, “be more confident” especially for people of color, it’s not that easy. So that’s the work that I’m doing today is to help people understand where imposter syndrome comes from, the unique challenges that come along with it as a person of color and how they can start to essentially reprogram their brains to stop feeling — not to stop feeling that imposter syndrome but to start realizing just how amazing they are and the skill sets that they’re building and the things that they’re learning that are so much more than their imposter syndrome.
Priscilla: Yeah. And so when you got your first job in tech at a big tech company, what were some of the immediate challenges that you identified when you were first starting out your career?
Rebecca: Yeah. When I was first starting out in tech, I think one of the biggest challenges that I realized was, especially starting out at some smaller companies, at some startups, I noticed that it was very easy to get sidetracked and to want to do all the things. That’s the exciting part about tech is being able to do all the different things. But I realized that I wasn’t helping myself for the long term, for my career and honing in on what were the strengths that I had versus trying to level up all the, quote-unquote, “weaknesses” and I think that this is something that prevents folks early in their career from moving more into a mid-level or senior role is that they become generalists. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with starting out, you start out as a generalist, but I have learned from Tim Ferris to become a specialized generalist. That’s essentially how I felt my career is as a specialized generalist, where I can do all the things but I know what I am not only, quote-unquote, “good at” but more passionate about, even though I can do a lot of project management, that’s not the only value that I bring. I bring innovation and I bring rallying people to the table. How can you start to figure out and narrow down on, “Okay, I’ve grown a bunch of these different skills. Now, what are the skills that I want to start to focus on that I’m passionately moving towards?” And it doesn’t mean you have to be good at them right away but that you’re letting them push you forward.
Priscilla: Yeah. So you help women break into tech. What are some of the pain points or maybe issues that you see, some of the people that you help get tripped up on the most? Is it something like in the interview process? Is it once they’re in the door and more of that mindset challenge? What are maybe one or two things that you’re like, “Oh, people really struggle with this?”
Rebecca: Yeah, that’s a great question. I’ve got a few. So one of the first ones is definitely discrediting their previous experience, and I’ll give an example of, say, somebody went to a boot camp but they worked in finance before. On their resume, they take out the stuff from finance because they’re like, “Well, this isn’t relevant to the job that I want as a developer”. They’re leaving off all that valuable professional experience, going back to your point about the soft skills, right? So they’re missing out on that they’ve worked on multiple teams, that they understand the product, that they have this background in finance that’s valuable. That’s the first thing is discrediting their experience. And when I say experience, it doesn’t have to be working experience. It can be volunteer work that you’ve done. It can be side projects that you’ve done and. Again, if you’re feeling that you’re lacking experience, these side projects or the volunteer work is a really great way to boost that. So that’s the first one is discrediting experience.
And the second piece on the interview process, what I tend to see goes one way or the other. The first way leans back towards that other one of discrediting their experience. And so they’re not really sharing their background and how it got them where they are. Usually what I see folks doing is they start off in their most recent experience. They say, “Oh, I’m a developer at this. And then before I did this and I did this, and then I studied this in school.” And so they’re doing it in the reverse order, where they should switch the order and they share what is it that led you to where you are now? How has that built up so that they can start talking about that. So sometimes they’re leaving stuff out, or the other thing that I see is that they’re over-preparing and just talking at the interviewer. They’re like, “Oh yeah, I practiced my elevator pitch. I did this and did that but they didn’t listen to me.” And well, it’s a two-way street. You got to ask them questions too, give them room to breathe. Instead of just talking at the interviewer, see the interviewer as a person and start to get comfortable asking questions, which as a person of color, it can be very hard because you might think, “Oh, in some cultures that might be considered disrespectful” or in some cultures you’re taught not to speak unless you’re spoken to or all sorts of unique experiences that people of color and people with different backgrounds have. Those are some of the common themes.
And then the last piece, the imposter syndrome piece, where for anyone who’s not familiar with imposter syndrome, it’s this idea that you feel like you might be a fraud, like you don’t belong there. Especially if you’re a woman, you might think this because I know for me I’ve many times been the only woman on a team. And so it can feel like, “Oh, I don’t know if I fit in. Do I belong here? Is this the right company for me?” And so you start to question your experience. You start to question your capabilities. And in terms of tackling imposter syndrome, I actually think that you can flip the narrative on imposter syndrome. Imposter syndrome doesn’t mean that you don’t know enough. There’s actually a phenomenon called the Dunning-Kruger effect, where once you start to learn things, you realize how much more there is to learn. And the folks that think that they know everything, it’s because they are not willing to look at all the things that they could learn, so they’re staying stuck. You’re actually at a great point if you’re coming up against imposter syndrome. Yeah, because it means you realize how much more there is to learn and that means your potential is limitless, in my mind.
It doesn’t have to be something terrible that we keep trying to get rid of. That’s another thing that some of my work is going into, which is people from underrepresented backgrounds, we are taught to discredit our feelings. We’re taught to stay quiet or we’re taught to not let things get to us. When we push down those emotions, they bubble back up to the surface and all that resistance that you were having against taking action or against speaking up, it kind of daze itself in and it grows roots. So how can we learn to care for our emotional wellbeing instead of, I think a lot of the advice out there is “just be more confident and speak up” and the reason it doesn’t work is because it doesn’t feel safe as a person of color or it doesn’t feel right. Or maybe you’re like, “I’m an introvert. I can’t do that.” So understanding why it might not even feel right in your body and being able to work through that by working through your emotions and knowing that it’s okay that you don’t know everything. That actually means you’re growing.
Priscilla: So that’s really interesting, that phenomenon you mentioned about people who are probably doing the same thing feel confident in what they’re doing, right, because they’ve been doing it for so long. But yeah, try something different and I’m sure people will feel not so secure, right?
Rebecca: And just to that last point that you had on doing something new, I think there’s also a way that you can differentiate between the, “Oh, this is really scary and I don’t want to do this” or “I don’t know if I can do this” and that kind of “This is new and exciting. I want to do this.” Another thing I learned from the author, Tara Moore, is there is this kind of staying small fear, right, where you’re like, “I don’t know if I can do this. I’m not sure if I’m ready for this.” and you’re hiding. And then there’s this playing big kind of fear, where you’re like, “I don’t know if I’m ready to take up more space. I don’t know if I’m ready to do these things. I think I can do them but I don’t know if I’m ready yet.” And so whenever you start to inch towards that playing big fear, that’s how you’re going in the right direction because you’re growing and you’re starting to take those risks and you can start to see it as excitement rather than anxiety.
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Priscilla: Did you experience that in your career where it felt really unnatural and maybe kind of like, “Am I bragging on myself” by talking about your accomplishments or anything like that?
Rebecca: Absolutely. That is something that definitely comes up a lot, where I hear folks say that like you said, you don’t want to seem braggy, you don’t want to seem like you’re boasting. And maybe in your culture, I know that I was told be humble. I think that there is a difference between bragging and boasting and puffing out your chest versus sharing the work that you do or telling people the work that you do or the work that you’re excited and capable of doing, because that allows you to be of service to others. Because if you don’t speak up and you don’t say those things, then how are the opportunities going to find you? How are you going to make the right connections if you’re constantly — you’re waiting for somebody to tap you on the shoulder and give you a permission slip to be successful? You’re basically placing your success in somebody else’s hands versus you being able to pick the direction that you want to go in because that’s how opportunities come to you is when people know you for certain things. Or a lot of the early advice is like, “Oh, build your network”. I think of networking, it’s a long-term strategy. I think of it as a boomerang, right? You make connections and then they come back around and then they happen to be helpful later. But those connections are only as valuable as much as you let people know what it is that you want to do or what it is that you’re capable and excited to do. So just putting it out there as a reframe of it’s not you bragging, it’s you advocating for yourself, advocating for your career because you are the only person who can be that advocate for yourself. So not just a mentor, not just a manager, you get to pick the direction of your career.
Priscilla: What are some wellbeing things that you do or maybe even advise your clients, people that you work with to do to find some kind of sanity and separateness from work, because work is in our house now, right? It’s like at home all the time.
Rebecca: Yeah, that is a great question. One of the things that I like to do, especially after having a lot of Zoom calls, meetings, back-to-back stuff going on, is to take a nervous system break. I’m sure if I had just started spouting off to folks like, “Oh, you should meditate”. Everybody has heard that they, quote-unquote, “should meditate” but before even meditation, just giving your nervous system a break, meaning how can you get out of that heightened state of doing stuff all the time and go, right? Because we’re working from home, we have to create that. Whereas in the past we might’ve had it naturally built in, right? So I’ll give an example of when I worked in Manhattan, for lunch I was like, “Okay, I’m going to go walk and I’m going to go pick up lunch from somewhere and maybe I’ll listen to a podcast while I’m walking.” That was essentially a nervous system break. And now that we don’t have that built in, how can you build it in? One practice is to notice the things that help get you out of that going mode, and so whether that’s listening to a podcast or doing the dishes for 10 minutes or just being away from the computer, being away from your work. And make a list of those things that allow you to feel a little bit more relaxed and incorporate them into your day and don’t feel guilty about it because we don’t have those things built into our day now. If we don’t build them in now, it’s building these wellness practices into your life, everybody’s, “I don’t have time for that. I’m too busy.” But it’s learning to swim before you’re drowning, before you’re burnt out, before you’re really tired, before you’re just, “Oh, my gosh. I can’t function.” So just throwing that out there is taking a nervous system break here and there and the world will be okay. Your inbox, your emails will still be there. The notifications will still be there 10, 15 minutes later.
Priscilla: So true, yeah. I think those walks are just like creating your own version of a commute, right, like before or after work. It helps so much to get out of your head for sure. Well, my last question for you before we wrap up is just what is maybe your number one career lesson that you would want to impart on younger folks, especially those looking to get into tech?
Rebecca: Yeah. So one of the quotes that I love to say is from the author Jon Acuff, and his quote is “Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle.” It’s really easy for us to look at other people and say, “Well, they have this thing. I don’t have that thing. I don’t have these skills yet. I don’t feel ready.” When you look at a job description, actually see it as a wish list. Don’t see it as you need to meet every single thing on that list. I say this as somebody who has worked in hiring and has worked with recruiters, and sometimes those job descriptions aren’t even written by the hiring manager. Sometimes they’re written by a recruiting team with the things that they would in an ideal world love to have, but that doesn’t mean you can’t grow into doing those things. So that’s one thing to keep in mind.
The second piece is how important mental health is. I know that there’s a stigma against it in many cultures and where, “Oh, therapy is only for people who can afford it” or therapy means that there’s something really wrong with you or “Oh, meditation and yoga, it’s too woo-woo for me” or “I can’t do that” and you end up putting off all of these things. I wish that I had spent more time helping myself. It’s like that when you get on an airplane and they’re like, “Put your oxygen mask on first,” because how are you going to put out your most valuable work and how are you going to provide the most value if you are unable to function well? So taking care of yourself is important. It’s not a luxury. It’s a base need. So honor yourself, honor your feelings. You may have family members or cultures that don’t agree with this but at the end of the day, who is it that’s living your life and building your career? It’s you, right? So why not take that time for you? So I hope that’s helpful for folks out there who are thinking, “How can I become successful?” And I will tell you at the mid senior part of my career of working in tech at big companies and small companies, burnout is real and it happens at any stage in your career. And if you can take care of yourself now, do it. Put yourself first and keep putting yourself first.
Priscilla: Yeah, awesome. Well, Rebecca, where can people find you online and potentially even work with you?
Rebecca: Yeah. So come find me on Instagram at Mindset Coach for Women. That’s also my new domain MindsetCoachForWomen.com, if not, RebeccaGarcia.tech. I would love to connect with you, shoot me a DM, tag me if you listened to this podcast episode and you found it helpful. I do career workshops, as well as mindfulness and wellness practices, and I’m excited to help more folks with imposter syndrome. So thank you so much for having me.
Priscilla: 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 love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Diana Becnel worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant for 8 years before deciding to switch functional areas and move into sales. Today, she is a successful Account Executive and strong advocate for helping minorities break into STEM and tech careers. On this episode, Diana breaks down the importance of finding sponsors at work and not falling for the myth that hard work will equal a promotion or raise. People need to know and hear about your success, and sponsors can help do that for you. Diana inspires us to get over our mental crap and sell ourselves at work.
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Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast
Just because you’re doing a good job doesn’t mean you’re gonna get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and women. We struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that.
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. Today you get to hear from Diana Becnel. Now, Diana is an LA native and she went to Boston university where she got her BBA and stuff and since then has worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant and most recently moving into the sales world as an account executive. Diana is super inspiring because she’s a black woman in tech who really has learned what it takes to move up in that industry, and we talk about finding sponsors and advocating for yourself, and making sure that people can really see the hard work that you’re doing and how working hard is often just not enough to cut it, like, people need to see your hard work, people need to be able to understand the value that you bring, and as women, especially, sometimes, that can feel very uncomfortable or weird, but we just have to get over that.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey Diana, welcome to the show.
Diana Becnel: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here virtually with you today.
Priscilla: Me too. I’m super excited to have you here talk about your career in tech especially as a black woman, especially as a woman in STEM, someone who has fought really hard to have the opportunities that you have today. So yeah, let’s dive into your story. Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.
Diana: Sure, so I grew up in sunny, beautiful Los Angeles, California. I’m the oldest of about three kids. We grew up in LA in the city and I am back in LA now, which is awesome because I spent seven or eight years away because of different jobs in school, but back in LA and happy to be here. So, I’m excited to be here and talk about how I grew up and my experience going to college and ending up at Microsoft.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I’m really curious if you grew up with a really specific idea in terms of what you wanted to do when you grew up or were you pretty much in exploring mode?
Diana: It’s so interesting because growing up, I always had this desire to be an independent and financially secure woman, that was a huge thing that my mom and family instilled in me, but I actually never knew exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I envy people who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer. I wasn’t like that, but I definitely was really exposed to a lot of tech at an early age and business people, which I think greatly influenced my decisions in life. I knew that in order to end up having a good job, becoming financially secure so that I could help take care of myself and my family, that I needed to stay the course and get good grades, go to college, and then end up getting a job. The back of my mind was exposed to technology and business, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to be, and so I think the influences I had as a kid ultimately drove me to technology and business later on.
Priscilla: Yeah, so you mentioned financial security being important to you when you were looking for jobs, where did that really come from for you?
Diana: I think a lot of that came from my parents having some pretty honest conversations about money throughout my whole life and just how money really can make a difference in your life, how financial security is important, and some of the mistakes they made and things they wanted for us, and so I think that helped a lot with that, and look, I believe it’s really important to enjoy what you do, but I also think it’s important to be able to help my mom or pay bills, or buy a house, right, and create generational wealth, and so that was really important to me, and so I was definitely one of those people that was like, yeah, I want to make sure I like my job, but if I can make the money, especially early in my career to give myself freedom later on to really help others and do other things, that’s the way I look at it.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool that you had that super long-term view at that age because that’s something that I definitely didn’t have and I wish I had had now in my early thirties, but yeah, so that’s amazing. I know you went to BU, you went to Boston university and you ended up studying Business. How did that end up happening for you? How did you decide to go that route?
Diana: Looking back, I chose Business because I thought it gave me a little, the flexibility to still figure out what I wanted to do but know that I could make some impact and hopefully make some money after school, and so I chose Business, and originally when I was going into Business, I thought I was going to be a marketing queen. I loved the idea of marketing, I loved the excitement of it, and so I was leaning towards the marketing path and at BU, we have to concentrate in a particular, a minor, but it’s really a concentration, and so you can go everywhere from law to marketing, to finance, accounting, or information systems, which is really like computer science, and to this day, I remember the moment that I shifted my concentration and my major focus. So, for the first couple of years, I was going down the marketing path and we were in this career session and it was, I think, it was either my junior or senior year and one of the professors pulls up a slide and shows the average salaries when you graduate based on the concentration, and marketing was further down on the list and information systems, so the tech side and finance were almost double the salaries, and I remember calling my mom, like, “Mom, I am going into tech. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be but the salary and the opportunity is there,” and I remember my professor also saying to me one-on-one, there’s barely any women. There’s barely any minorities in this field, and that just triggered me. I wanted to change those statistics. That’s always been something about me, I like to prove those statistics wrong, and so I think the combination of hearing that stat and then also seeing the financial difference and the number of jobs and opportunities influenced me to make that switch in the middle of my college journey.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I know that you’re going on nine years of working at Microsoft and that was your first job after college. What ended up making you choose Microsoft and what do you love about what you do?
Diana: I joined Microsoft as a part of a college hire program. So, it’s really interesting because I had a couple of other offers that I was almost pretty much taking, and then the Microsoft offer came in and I still remember, I almost didn’t do the interview because I was like, there’s no way they’re going to hire me, and secondly, I was so tired that senior year I’d been interviewing a lot, I was working, trying to keep up with my grades and they wanted to fly us to DC, and I remember, after my interviews, I felt pretty good about it but still wasn’t sure, and they had some of their college hires talk to us and they talked to us about how not only is Microsoft one of the greatest technology companies in the world, and yes, you’re going to make good money, but it was also all the extras that Microsoft did. They talked a lot about how they care about their people, they’re big on empathy, growth mindset, you got this great gym fitness bonus, they invest in you personally, and so I remember being just blown away by all the additional things Microsoft provided, and so that’s why I ended up taking that job there when I got the offer. My first job, I was hired as what we call a consultant in the consulting organization, and really, what we were doing was going out and helping customers actually implement our software, and so I focused on a particular software that is around business applications, so we would go to big companies like Ashley Furniture, Brightstar, HP, and transform their business process when it came to financial accounting, supply chain and using some of our Microsoft software, and I was traveling to customers a lot, I was on the road a lot and really helping customers transform, which was really exciting.
Priscilla: And during your time at Microsoft, have there been any mentors or sponsors that have really helped you in your career?
Diana: I love mentors. I think you should have all types of mentors, whether they’re just peer mentors who are in the same position as you as well as executives, but I think the number one thing that is so critical especially early on in your career is finding a sponsor, and when I say sponsor, someone who is going to actually advocate for you in those rooms where they make decisions about your promotions, programs that you can be a part of, bonus leadership, all of those things, right? You really have to have a sponsor who can speak up and advocate and has the influence in those rooms for you. So, I think that is one of the most important things I would tell people in corporate America to find. I know we talk a lot about mentors which that is a hundred percent really important, but if you can find a mentor who’s also your sponsor, that is going to change your career, and that’s what happened for me. So, I had two sponsors that really knew my work and they would advocate for me, get my promotions, get my bonuses, and that translated into really good career progression, and then when I was ready to switch out of the consultant role, I had this network of sponsors and mentors, and people that I had worked with and talk to that helped me transition into the new roles that I wanted, and definitely, at these big companies, it’s not always easy to do that. It’s not always easy to jump from consultant to sales or really a product technical person, and so you got to have a sponsor and a mentor who can help you do that.
Priscilla: I totally agree, and I think also what’s interesting about the sponsor thing is that it speaks to how it’s not enough to just be really great at what you do. People have to know about the work that you’re doing, and sometimes that can feel, especially for women, a little uncomfortable to talk about what we’ve done and the impact that we’ve had. So, how did you showcase the strengths that you had and how did you make yourself more visible?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a great question and a great point. All your life, even from when you’re a little kid, if you do a good job, you’re going to get a good grade, so if you do well on the test, you’re going to get a good grade and you’re compensated for doing well, but then when you go to the career and your professional life, to your point, just because you’re doing a good job, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and, to your point, women, we struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that probably in my first year of my career and one of my sponsors and then another one of my mentors, they’ve helped me put decks and emails together highlighting the things that I was doing, and so my cadence now with even my current manager is on our one-on-ones or if I get an email, I forward it to her, I share that I let her see that direct feedback. If a customer said something really good, I forward it to her and share that. In our one-on-ones, I highlight the things that went well and that I did, and so I think that’s really important to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, but I know that I have to advocate for myself in order to get that promotion or that good review. The second thing is really making sure that you build confidence in who you are and always go above and beyond. Most people, especially at a company like Microsoft, they’re there for a reason; they work hard, they’re good at their jobs, so you have to differentiate yourself. And so you have to talk to your manager openly saying, “What do I need to do to get promoted? What are the things that I need to differentiate myself from the other person who’s competing with me for that promotion?” So, have that open and honest conversation so that you clearly understand what is required, and then take the actions and even with what he or she said you need to do, go above that. I try and do above my requirements from my boss to show off, like you said, and advocate for yourself that you deserve to keep moving up.
Priscilla: And so, what happened when you decided to transition out of the consultant role? What was next for you after that?
Diana: I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I honestly believe you have to go after and always think about your next career move.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
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Diana: One of my sponsors actually told me, he says every time he gets a job, he has a three-year plan and it doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes it may take him five years, some time, it took him seven years, some time, it took him two years, but he always has a plan for his next move within the next three years, and so I believe that you should always be thinking about what’s your next step because it takes a while to get there, and then secondly, a lot of things do just fall in your lap. Some things do just happen. Opportunities happen to come up and you have to be ready to take advantage of them, and so I think if you listen to a lot of people in their careers, they’ll tell you they thought they were going one way and then an opportunity popped up, and so I think that does happen a lot and that happened with me, but I also was super proactive about thinking about what I wanted to do next, and doing the networking, gaining the skills that would set me up for that next role that I wanted, finding a sponsor and shadowing, practicing, all of that is really important to be proactive about while you’re going in your career journey.
Priscilla: What was a skill set that for you was a little challenging to get but you figured out a way to fill some kind of gap that you think you had?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a good question, and probably the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about that because I was at that point where I wanted to move on to my next role and figure out my next role, and so one of the missing skill sets for me in my current job was really negotiation. We call it like “challenger” mindset where you’re really pushing a customer, and I am not the type of person that likes asking anyone for anything especially when it comes to money, so I would never be a good cold caller, but I knew I needed to be able to have some more negotiation skills, and so I spent the last year shadowing some different salespeople. I read several books and I listened to podcasts as well as do different trainings and that’s really where I was able to see it in action and also start practicing it more, and so when I went to interview for this new role that I got, I could speak to that and talk about the readings that I had done, talk about the shadowing that I had done and really bring everything in my experience to the table as this kind of package, like, across the board of skill sets that I had.
Priscilla: Okay, so now you’re in a sales role, right, with Microsoft? Why did you decide to make that change? What prompted that?
Diana: One of the main reasons I decided I wanted to change was because I was currently consulting in a particular technical focus and I wanted to broaden my horizon and I also wanted to have more ownership across the board. So, in consulting, you own a single project, and then in this sales role, you own the entire account, the entire customer, and so I wanted to have more of that ownership. The other main thing is I knew that negotiation and sales was not my strong point, and I stalk a lot of people on LinkedIn, someone who’s a VP, I say, what did they do to get there? And 90% of the time, I was finding they had some type of sales role, and that is because at the end of the day, Microsoft is a for-profit company; we have to sell product and licenses in order to make money, and so that is a huge skill set that is valued from leadership, being able to close deals, being able to grow your accounts and really help customers transform using Microsoft technology, especially when you think about the competition Microsoft has across Amazon, Google, Apple, and so I was like, this is a skillset, this is a type of role that I don’t have. I wasn’t able to say, “Oh, I closed $3 million with these different customers,” and I know how to manage a pipeline, like, all those things I couldn’t say I did, and so that’s what made me decide to go into sales because I knew it would make me a little uncomfortable, but I thought I could be good at it with the right practice and experience and I knew it would add this major bucket of skillset to my resume that I was lacking in preparation for whatever I do next.
Priscilla: Totally makes sense how it could be a little scary and daunting to go into that space but at the same time, you’re right, you’re bringing in the revenue and it’s one of the most highly valued positions that you can be in if you’re successful, and so I’m curious, are you one of the few women on your sales team? What does that look like?
Diana: Yup, I am one of the few women. I am probably one of the youngest people and I’m a black woman, so there’s probably like three things going on: you have the age thing, you have the sex thing, and then the race thing, but then on top of that, I’m talking to customers about transforming their business and driving business outcomes by spending a lot of money with us, and I know they look at me and I’m young and a woman and black, and there’s definitely stereotypes that come with that, and I would say that I deal with that in probably three ways. So, the first is, and I struggled with this a little bit in the beginning but I’m getting better and better every day, is that building the confidence and having the expertise and the knowledge. The first thing is, you’re stereotyped with those three things and people think you don’t know because you’re young or you’re a woman, or you’re black it’s, so number one, knowing that I know what I’m talking about and know my stuff, so I always make sure I’m up to date on that part. That’s something I can control. So, really building that confidence, knowing that I know what I talk about, and then the second thing is knowing that I deserve to be at the table and that there’s a reason that I have this job, and there’s a reason that they brought me on and I deserve to be at the table. I’m here to have a fresh perspective, I’m here to drive change and really be there for customers in a way that maybe others can’t be, and so I just always remind myself of that too. And then, the third thing is understanding and knowing the stereotypes that exist but never letting it stop you or agreeing with it, always pushing forward through it and proving people wrong.
Priscilla: What advice do you have for anyone who might be in college or even, like, early career who wants to break into tech? What do you think are some tips that you would offer that person?
Diana: Sure. Number one, do it and don’t feel intimidated by it. I was intimidated by it and I think a lot of people, especially minorities and women are, you don’t have to be the best coder in the world or even be super technical. So, I think my advice is to not be intimidated. Know that we need you and know there’s so much support out there. When I think about the changes when I started to now, there’s so many programs, so many different online boot camps, support groups, mentors there to help you pass those classes to help you learn coding and all these things. Go out there, do it, come to tech, and there’s so much opportunity here. You don’t have to be super technical or you can, you can build things or you can sell technology, you can market it, you can implement it. There’s so many different ways you can go. So, I really encourage you to leverage the resources out there. Come into tech and you really get to change the world, and it’s a great place to be.
Priscilla: Awesome. That’s a great place to end, Diana. Thank you so much for all the insight that you just offered us with overcoming obstacles and having an amazing career at Microsoft.
Diana: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time, it was great talking to you today.
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.
On this episode, Lily Trieu, a Houston native and daughter of immigrants from Southeast Asia, tells us how she made a bold career switch from the private sector to the nonprofit education world. After 9 years in the consumer & packaged goods space, Lily enjoyed a healthy six-figure salary, bonus, company car and her parents’ pride – but she just wasn’t happy or excited about moving up in her company. After realizing she wanted out, Lily went on a journey that involved getting an MBA and asking for help to make a big jump into a much more fulfilling career. Lily shares the challenges she encountered- emotionally, psychologically, career-wise, and financially – but also what made her move completely worth it.
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Lily: Half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is, you know, my parents also brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives.
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 each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s 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, have you ever thought about leaving your private sector high-paying stable career to pursue a more fulfilling and meaningful path in the nonprofit or public sector? Well, that’s exactly what we dive into this week when we hear Lily Trieu’s story, Lily left a nine-year private sector career in the consumer and product goods space to pivot into education and public affairs through the MBA. Today, she’s the Texas Director of Public Affairs at Teach for America, and has finally found what she’s looking for in her career path. On this episode, she talks candidly about how she made the switch as the child of immigrants from Vietnam, how she used the MBA to make this jump, and what she gave up, but also gained in the process.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone, I am so excited to have Lily Trieu on today’s episode. Welcome, Lily.
Lily: Hi, Priscilla. Thanks for having me.
Priscilla: Of course. So today we’re going to dive into Lily’s story of how she pivoted from a career in the private sector into the nonprofit world, and what it was like doing this as a child of immigrants. So why don’t we start with Lily, share a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.
Lily: Sure, yeah. I’d be remiss to not start off by saying I’m a Houstonian. I grew up in Houston, in Southwest Houston, super diverse community. And I think that community is a large part of what formed my values and my belief systems. I’m a first-generation Asian-American. My parents are actually refugees from Vietnam. So my parents came to the US in the early ’80s. They were that last batch of boat people who came over from Vietnam. So they literally arrived by boat. It took my mom 13 months to get to the US. And so they settled in Chicago and I was actually born in Chicago, but like they always say, they moved to Texas as quickly as they could. And so I spent basically all of my childhood education in Houston, and really grew up in that environment. I then went to UT Austin for my undergrad, and was a double major by accident. I ended up graduating with a marketing degree and a degree in Asian Studies. Loved Austin but after graduating, moved on and started a career in the private sector that allowed for me to move several times across the country. So that’s the gist of my background and the places that I’ve been. But at the end of the day, I really think that my parents’ experience and my identity as the child of immigrants really informs the way I approach life.
Priscilla: Yeah. And what do you think made you gravitate towards applying to the business school and heading in that direction?
Lily: Oh, my gosh. That’s such a great question. Because my parents were refugees, when they came to the US, they did not speak very much English, really none at all. So they were not very well-educated because they grew up in Vietnam during the war. They both had less than a middle school education. So when they came to the US, they didn’t really have a lot of career opportunities, and they decided to go into the convenience store business because they knew people who did that work. So they thought, “Okay, we’ll go. We’ll learn the trade. We’ll save up our money and hopefully become small business owners.” Which they were able to luckily do. So I grew up in a convenience store business. As a kid growing up, I was like, “Oh, I hate business. I hate doing this,” because I had to work there, right, on the weekends and summers and every break. And as a kid, I was like, “I hate this. I don’t want to do it.” So ironically in high school, when I was trying to pick a major and I knew I was going to go to UT, I kept gravitating towards the business school, and I kept gravitating towards the marketing degree even though my entire childhood, I said I didn’t want to do it. So it really just, I think, was really based on the environment I knew, right. I think as a first-generation Asian-American, as the first person in my family to go to college, you gravitate towards what you know. And what I knew was the convenience store business. I knew brands. I knew products. I knew the basic interactions in that business. And so I decided to go into business. So it wasn’t like a deep passion or anything. It was just something that felt natural in the moment. I chose to be a marketing major really by chance. So I didn’t have a clear direction.
I actually remember, my first semester of freshman year, going to an info session that Procter & Gamble hosted for undergrads. And I remember sitting in the room not knowing who this company was, what was going on. And they put up on the projector, this slide with all of their brands and logos. And I remember being 18 and thinking, “Holy crap, they own all of these brands?” And then their next slide, it was like a map of the world, and it showed where all of their global offices were across the country. And I just remember being 18 and thinking that’s amazing, that one company owns all these brands, and that this one company is in all these places in the world. It felt like world domination to my simple 18-year-old mind. And so freshman year, first semester, that’s when I decided I’m going to go into the consumer goods industry. This is super cool. So that’s what I went after.
Priscilla: Yeah. It’s really funny how sometimes these life-altering career decisions are made at such a young age and often off of a whim. And it sounds like that’s sort of what happened to you, but yeah. So what was your first job out of college, and what was it like adjusting to that?
Lily: Oh, gosh, it was horrible for so many reasons. So I joined Kimberly-Clark. I graduated in 2008, which means I joined Kimberly-Clark right at the start of the economic recession. So on the one hand, I was really grateful to have a job and it was a great job. But it forced me to have to move to Wisconsin. And like I said, I was born in Chicago. I grew up in Houston. My parents are from Southeast Asia. I had never been in an environment like Wisconsin before. So like the culture shock, that was real. I grew up in this super diverse part of Houston, super diverse campus. And then I get to Kimberly-Clark in Wisconsin, and I was one of three people of color in my department, and that was hard. It was cold. The job was in supply chain. And as you recalled, I said my major was marketing. And so I knew nothing about this first job in supply chain. And it was just a tough time. The first year, they did layoffs and luckily I wasn’t affected, but it was tough. But I will say it was a fantastic experience in the sense that it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And as a young person, you learn how to move away from everyone in life. I learned a whole new trade basically. I had to learn all about supply chain really quickly. You just become really resilient through that experience. And not to mention, honestly, everyone at the company is so kind and I’m still such good friends with so many of those coworkers.
Priscilla: Yeah. So at what point did you start to consider switching over to the nonprofit industry? At what point did that happen for you?
Lily: Yeah, it came out of nowhere. The last couple of years I was at Kimberly-Clark, by then I’d been there six, seven years. I knew everyone and I was really comfortable. My boss actually asked me, “Hey, it’s time for us to start thinking about your next role. What do you want to do next?” They’re great that way. They always push you to grow and to move into new challenges. But I remember sitting there and thinking, “Okay, if I could have any job in this company, what would it be?” Any company, any position, CEO all the way down to mail room, what would I want to do? And I literally could not think of a single thing I wanted to do. So I took that as that’s a bad sign. At the time I was still in my 20s, I think, maybe almost 30. And I was like, “This is not good. If I’m already not motivated and I don’t have anything to aspire to in this company, it’s probably time to make a change.” And so what I really did is I really just started volunteering a lot in my community. I was back in Houston by then. And I was like, you know what, I’m going to go out and I’m just going to try a lot of things. And I just started volunteering with all kinds of nonprofits to figure out what are the things that I genuinely enjoy. And I think by default of volunteering with nonprofits, I started to think, “Hey, stuff over here is pretty cool,” and I actually do have a deep passion for a social impact and mission-driven organizations. And so that just started to make sense for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, I can imagine just how scary that must have felt to be deep into your corporate career, having all that stability, your parents are proud of you, suddenly looking at completely changing courses.
Lily: Oh, it was terrifying. It was terrifying because (a) I didn’t know anything about the nonprofit sector. My assumption was that everyone in the nonprofit sector was broke. Nobody made any money. The second thing was, I was like, oh my gosh, if this is really what I want to do, where do I even begin? I’d had this career slinging consumer products to major retailers. How do you even transfer that experience into something in the nonprofit sector? And in the beginning, it really felt like a far-fetched goal to make that kind of a switch. And I really didn’t know what that would look like.
Priscilla: Totally. And I’m assuming a lot of your friends were in the private sector, right?
Lily: — friends from private sector. And I think that’s one of the things about my network and my group of friends and my tribe is the vast majority of us are children of immigrants, and we’re mostly first, second generation. And so we all live this pressure of there’s a very unique definition of success, that you need to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or an engineer. Nonprofit doesn’t make that list. So because of that, my circle of friends, very few of them did this kind of work. And so, again, I had to just go and knock on doors of people I would meet when I was volunteering. It’d be like, “Hey, what do you think of this? What do you know? Can you help me?” So it’s just a lot of asking for help.
Priscilla: And did you get a lot of pushback from your parents when you told them that you wanted to make this switch?
Lily: I don’t think I even told them initially. I think initially, I was just like, I don’t like what I do. I want to make a change. And I think the first thing I actually told them was, “I think I’m going back to grad school.” I did not lead the conversation with I want to quit my job to go and do nonprofit work. Because by then I was making, honestly, a really comfortable six-figure salary. I was getting a nice bonus every year. I had a company car. My parents thought I was living the dream. I was living their dream. So the idea of letting all that go and giving up this life I’d built, this life that they had dreamt for me when they came to the United States, I just knew I couldn’t go to them with that until I had a firm idea of what that would look like, because I think that would have been terrifying for them. I think half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is my parents also came here and brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives. And so that’s just a delicate balance. And so for me, it was like, okay, I’m 29, 30 years old. I can do this for another 30, 40 years but I’ll probably be miserable. So how do I make a change that won’t feel so traumatic for them, but that will really bring me a more fulfilling and just a more rewarding career?
Priscilla: This life decision brought you to business school, which is where you and I crossed paths. Tell us about how that MBA helped you make the transition.
Lily: Yeah, business school was pivotal. I think being a full-time MBA, you really get to spend two years just focusing on yourself, right. And you get to determine how to use every second of your time. Because before, I was volunteering, but I still had a nine to five. I had to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week still. So this whole finding myself process, you really couldn’t do except for the weekends and evenings. Business school allows you to really dig deep. I think the other thing about business school is it’s also just the exposure to the people that you’re around. And so I got to meet obviously folks like you, who bring a lot of experience and a lot of experience that I don’t have. And that gives me perspective that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It also gives you an excuse to, again, I guess you’ll hear this theme a lot, to knock on people’s door and be like, “Help me. I’m a student. Answer my questions.” So I think all of those were things that really just made business school a good opportunity to just figure out what did I want to do.
Priscilla: Yeah. And in the end you decided to transition into education specifically. So how did you use your time and your degree to transition into education?
Lily: Honestly, that was the hardest part. So when you’re a student, people are willing to bring you on to do projects for them because it’s short-term, and you’re probably not getting paid very much. And in this industry, if you’re getting paid at all. And so in the two years of business school, a lot of people said yes to me because I was a graduate student from a top tier school. And so everyone was like, “Yeah, come do this project, do this work.” But when it was time to graduate and to find a full-time job, it was difficult because (a) I’m still new. I have two years of experience, but two years of part-time experience. So I’m still not really a professional in the space. I’m still pretty new and green. The second thing is I knew a lot more than when I did when I started, but when I graduated, there was still so much I didn’t know. So people would ask me about what is it exactly you want to do in education? And it’s sometimes hard to be able to verbalize this is exactly what I want to do, because you don’t know what you don’t know. And so I would give really general answers, “Oh, I just want to do something at the intersection of policy and strategy.” And people were like, “That doesn’t mean anything. What do you actually want to do?” So it was hard. And then the last thing is you’re competing against a lot of people in the space that have other degrees. I was literally interviewing with candidates who have PhDs in education policy. And here I’m like, yeah, I worked at KIPP DC for three months. Yeah, she has a whole dissertation on that topic, but I have three months experience. So that was hard. It was really a struggle. And there were definitely moments where I was like, oh my gosh, I might not be able to find a job in education after all of this work.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
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Priscilla: Yeah, which is really scary after such a significant investment. So you and I are very much the opposite. I went into business school from education nonprofit, transitioned into private sector. You were doing the opposite of that. When you were interviewing for jobs, do you feel like your corporate background really helped you in your interviews? I personally always felt like private sector folks were very much highly valued within education.
Lily: It definitely helped. It helped in that in every interview, I was probably always the most prepared candidate. I was always the most data-driven candidate. I was always the one that thought about things in frameworks and in terms of strategic mindset. So I think employers always really loved that. The thing was though, at the end of the day, I was always lacking that in-depth experience. Having all of those great business skills is still hard to compensate when you’re interviewing against someone who’s been a teacher or a teacher coach for 10 years. They’re just going to more intimately understand the problems and the struggles that we have in the system better than I will. And so for me, it was like, you literally have to find someone who not only values your private sector skills. Because I totally agree with you, people really do value those private sector skills and those skills will really take you a long way, but you also need someone who’s willing to take a chance on you. And my experience has been in order to get that, you have to show folks that you are so willing to learn and you’re so willing to work your way up. Because while folks really value private sector skills, they also worry, are you going to be someone who’s willing to learn the system from the bottom up? Are you just going to come over and expect this well-paid cushy job because that’s where you came from, because sweetheart, that’s not how we do it in the nonprofit sector. We all work really hard. We all work really long hours. We all have to earn our keep. And so that was always the challenge, trying to find someone who would take a chance on me, knowing that I don’t bring 5, 10 years of education experience.
Priscilla: So where did you land after your MBA?
Lily: Yeah. So I graduated in May of 2019, and I was looking for jobs for the first couple of months. And actually one of my coworkers from my internship at KIPP DC connected me with one of his close contacts at Teach for America. And so they brought me on board in August of 2019. So I’ve been there a little over a year now. I am the director of public affairs for the state of Texas at Teach for America. So primarily what that means is I steward all forms of public funding. So any dollars that we get that comes from the state or local government. So it’s a little bit of lobbying. It’s a little bit of a relationship management. That’s where I still use some of my sales expertise. And then I also do some work involving AmeriCorps and state programs that bring in dollars into our program.
Priscilla: That’s super cool and very impactful, very much at the intersection of all of those different things that you were looking for, so congrats. So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk finances, talk money. I think one of the biggest concerns that people have, when they’re switching from private sector to nonprofit, is this huge concern around getting paid significantly less. So can you walk us through how you thought around compensation as you were going through this transition?
Lily: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think this is the thing that makes most folks really nervous when they’re making that switch from private sector to the nonprofit public sector. I won’t sugarcoat it. You’re not going to make as much in this sector as you might in the private sector, or at least it’s not as easy to make as much in the nonprofit and the public sector. But it does vary, if you work for a really large national or global nonprofit, then there’s more funding.
So for me, working at Teach for America, my compensation is really competitive because Teach for America is a national nonprofit. And so to recruit and retain talent, they do have to be somewhat competitive. Now that being said, I graduated making a lot less than most of my peers in the MBA. So I can share that my thought process throughout the whole experience was, like I shared, I was making a comfortable six-figure salary. When I decided to quit my job to get my MBA and make this career switch, I had to ask myself, “Am I in a place to do this? What are my salary expectations? What’s my minimum? What is the floor of what I am willing to accept that will allow for me to have the quality of life and the financial stability that I still wanted?” And that’s a really personal decision.
I was really lucky coming in because I was a Pell Grant recipient. I didn’t have any undergraduate debt. And then I was able to just save a ton of money. And because of my private sector career and because of a lot of the planning I did going in, I graduated the MBA with very little to no debt. So that was something that allowed for me to say, “I’m going to take a decently large pay cut because I knew I could sustain my lifestyle after the MBA.” But that’s not the case for everyone. And so that’s not the case, then there are alternatives. So if you can’t quit your job and make a big career switch and lose half of your salary or whatever it is, then maybe you make a gradual shift. Maybe you start off working at a big national nonprofit or maybe you start off working in corporate social responsibility, or maybe you work in a public sector or a social impact consulting company. There are other options that you can explore that maybe will provide you more salary flexibility. But I won’t sugar coat it, if you work in the nonprofit public sector space, starting salaries will be low. And I think what really motivated me was knowing that I would be able to work my way back up. No salary is permanent, but I took probably a 20-25% pay cut when I decided to make that switch.
Priscilla: Yeah. And I appreciate you being so candid because I do think people need to go into this transition with eyes wide open and having a very strategic plan in place, understanding the tradeoffs. And in your case, recognizing that personally fulfilling work and mission-aligned work for you was worth making that temporary sacrifice. So do you feel like now in your new job, you feel a lot more excited and more aligned and have found what you’re looking for?
Lily: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. The first and foremost, the work I do just has so much meaning. I wake up every day and I know exactly why I do the work I do. Secondly, I’m building another skill. I love the work I do now and I love education, but there’s nothing that’s stopping me from saying, “Okay, maybe I’ll work for the Chamber of Commerce doing education work” or “I’ll make another switch back into private sector doing lobbying work.” These are all things that I could do down the road. So I don’t feel limited at all. I just feel like my career just continues to grow and grow.
And then I think the last thing I’ll really say about all of this is your time just feels so much fuller. Before, I would try to rush through my nine to five, so that at the end of my workday, I could go and do the things I actually like to do. Now it feels like that’s a part of my life. And so when I’m done with work, I feel like I’ve just had a really productive day and I don’t feel like, okay, now I have to go and do the things I actually wanted to do today. And that is something that I think is just so fulfilling. And it just opens you up to so many more opportunities. And so because of that, I’m so much more engaged in the city and in my community in such a different way now, because this new lifestyle has allowed for me to have that time and capacity to do it.
Priscilla: Well, Lily, thank you so much for being with us today. I feel like this conversation is super inspiring for anyone who’s looking to try to make this leap. I love the faith in yourself that you have shown through this whole process. And thank you for being an example of that.
Lily: This has been so fun. Thank you for what you’re doing and keep it up.
Priscilla: 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 wondered what it would be like to have an international career in diplomacy?
On this episode, we hear from Sharlina Hussain-Morgan, a foreign service officer, who is also a child of immigrants from Bangladesh. Sharlina has a B.A. in Political Science from MIT, and a MA in Conflict Resolution from Georgetown. After working abroad in Egypt, she met a girlfriend who was a Foreign Service Officer and encouraged her to apply to become a Diplomat herself. Sharlina had never really imagined taking this path, but she took the steps and has now been in the field for nearly 10 years. Sharlina details what the process looks like to apply for the Foreign Service, what they’re looking for in applicants, and what are the glamorous and not-so-glamorous parts of the job. Sharlina’s story is a great reminder to pursue your passions despite parental pressure to take a more traditional path.
Links Mentioned In Episode:
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Critical Language Scholarship Program – A summer study abroad opportunity for American college and university students to learn languages essential to America’s engagement with the world, sponsored by the U.S. State Department.
Sharlina: I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents.
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 each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s 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, have you ever wondered what it would be like to have an international career that takes you all over the world? Well, on this episode, you get to hear from US Diplomat Sharlina Hussein Morgan, who breaks down what it means to be a diplomat, what it takes to succeed and what it’s been like to be a child of immigrants from Bangladesh, traveling abroad, and representing the US Government. Sharlina is an MIT and Georgetown grad, and she keeps it real on the glamorous and not so glamorous moments of working abroad.
Priscilla: Sharlina, welcome to the show. I’m so excited to have you here today.
Sharlina: Thank you so much for having me.
Priscilla: So today we’re going to be discussing the topic of what it’s like to be a US diplomat. So why don’t we just get started with you sharing a little bit about your personal background.
Sharlina: Thanks again for having me. My name is Sharlina Hussein Morgan. I was born and raised in New York. I grew up in Queens, New York City for the first 12 years of my life before we moved upstate to Upstate, New York. My parents are originally immigrants from a small country called Bangladesh, which is a little bit east to India. And they’ve been in the United States the longer they’ve been in Bangladesh. And I grew up with an older brother. And I guess, I don’t know if you could say a typical Asian or South Asian-American family, my parents are first-generation, my brother and I were the first in our family to go to college in the United States.
And it was very much of a working class immigrant story. My parents first started out when they first came to the United States, they were working in Burger King. And my parents scraped together money because my dad had a dream of having a small business in the US. So they finally were able to buy a small hotel in Upstate New York, which is where we settled when I was in my middle school years. And they put together enough money to put my brother and I through school. And my brother followed the immigrant parent expectations and became an engineer, but I was the black sheep and I was very interested in foreign affairs.
We’re a Muslim South Asian-American family. And I was in high school when 9/11 happened, which really was a formative experience for me. And so it really encouraged me to look more outside of the United States and think about what our relationship is with other countries around the world. So that’s where I landed to study for undergrad, political science, but at an atypical place, at MIT.
Priscilla: How did you end up at MIT?
Sharlina: Yeah, it’s really funny. A lot of people were like, “I didn’t even know that political science is a major offered at MIT.” And actually it’s one of the top 10 in the country. But I came from a very interesting perspective. My brother was an engineer. He really encouraged me to pursue my interest in math and science. I was really good in math and science when I was younger, but I didn’t like it as something that I wanted to pursue as a career. But so when it came time to apply to colleges, I kind of applied to MIT as a fluke, but I wanted to go somewhere that was diverse and wanted diverse experiences. And when I visited MIT, I was very impressed with how much the students got along with each other. And I didn’t want this super competitive environment. And so when I got accepted, I was just amazed and couldn’t believe it. And I think the entire four years at MIT, I was like, “Were they sure about accepting me?” But, you know, I think that comes with a lot of the experience as a first-generation, especially you doubt yourself and you’re not quite sure if they really meant to include you in the space, but it really was a great place. I was looking at other colleges that are typical for liberal arts, but honestly it was really a great place for me to go, even though not many diplomats really start out at MIT. It’s not a place where you learn about the foreign service. You spend a lot more time thinking quantitatively versus qualitatively about different topics and career ideas.
Priscilla: Cool. So when you were in college, did you start to think about becoming a US diplomat? When did that come onto your radar?
Sharlina: Yeah, it didn’t really come onto my radar that much. A lot of my colleagues telling me about their experiences about how long they applied and were tenacious in pursuing diplomacy as a career. And I applaud them for it. Just I didn’t really know that was a field for me to consider. And honestly still just fighting my parents’ expectations. My dad and my mom were like, “Okay. If you’re not going to become a doctor or an engineer, I think the one last option is lawyer.” And they were just still pushing me to do that. And it didn’t really come to fruition. And so I was fighting a lot of different things and I was interested in a lot of different things. And so when I left college, I was working in DC because I knew that’s where I wanted to be for policy, but I still was lost. There are so many people who learn early on that they want to become a diplomat. But for me, I was still very lost and I just knew I wanted to work in policy. I wanted to work in international affairs or domestic policy and how things work on the Hill. It took me a while to land to where I am now.
Priscilla: What was that first job for you in DC? And how did that take you to realizing, “Oh, diplomacy is something I might want to pursue”?
Sharlina: Yeah. I mean, I actually was working in consulting in Washington on education issues and it was paying the bills to be honest, but it wasn’t really speaking to my soul. And the good thing about landing in a place like Washington is that you are more aware of what other opportunities there are out there, especially in the policy realm. So I actually left my consulting gig for unpaid internships, which sadly until this day are really still very common in Washington, but they have become almost the expectation to pave your resume into something more settled. And I did two different unpaid internships to see what I was interested in. And one was on the Hill, to see how much I would be interested in working on international affairs on the Hill. And while it was interesting, it wasn’t the kind of stuff that was really keeping me excited.
And so I actually went to grad school at Georgetown and that’s when I started learning more about foreign service. I mean, Georgetown has a school of foreign service. I wasn’t at their school but I was at the school of government, and I was learning more and more about these options. But I still, to be very honest, I knew it was there but I didn’t really take it seriously as something that I could do, because I think I still had a lot of imposter syndrome and not thinking that I could be a diplomat.
And so when I graduated from Georgetown, once again, I was successful in getting a different scholarship, which anyone who’s interested in learning languages, it’s the critical language scholarship by the State Department. And I moved to Egypt to learn and participate in that program. And when it finished, I was at a crossroads where I had to decide what I wanted to do. And so I decided to stay. And I was working there as a consultant on gender issues and working on human rights issues, and a girlfriend of mine who was actually a foreign service officer, she told me, “Hey, why don’t you apply?” And I was like, “Why me?” She’s like, “Why not you?” And the great thing about the foreign service process is that it’s a very transparent and easy process. Easy not in the sense of getting in, but it’s not like a closed interview situation. It’s you have to take a test and then you keep progressing through that process. And then if you’re lucky, you make it all the way at the end.
Priscilla: So how long were you in Egypt?
Sharlina: I was in Egypt for almost a year. I was there right up until approximately six months before the Arab Springs. I was there from 2009 to 2010. And that was a really good experience for me. I mean, COVID times are a little different right now, but in a normal circumstance, I do recommend for folks who are interested in working in international affairs to dive in and get out there.
Priscilla: Do you feel like when you apply to become a US diplomat, your international experience factored into getting accepted or was that not really as much of a factor?
Sharlina: I think it was definitely a factor, but I say it with a disclaimer, to say that just because you don’t have international experience doesn’t mean you could not be selected. I think it was important for me because it was a formative experience for me. When you go through the foreign service officer process, they’re looking for a specific type of person. And to be able to demonstrate the skills that you need to not only succeed but thrive in a career like this, the kind of skills I got while I was in Egypt, I think, were really instrumental to show that I was ready for that.
Priscilla: For those who are listening and are wondering, well, what does a US diplomat actually do? What were you sort of imagining when you were applying? So before you became one.
Sharlina: Yeah. Honestly, I didn’t really know. My girlfriend who was there was already on her first assignment in Egypt as a diplomat. And she’s what we call a public diplomacy, ConEd officer. And I am also a public diplomacy ConEd officer. And in plain terms, you can come in to being a diplomat with different specialties, so you can work in public diplomacy, which is what I do, which is basically the public affairs arm of the US Government overseas. And you could be working on politics. You’ll be a political officer, which is looking at what are the political issues in the country you’re in economically. And then there are other types of specialties that you could work. And also, of course, last but very much not least, one of our most important types of officers are what we called consular officers, which is making sure that we can provide every service that an American citizen would need overseas. And as you can imagine, during COVID times, has been instrumental to make sure we can provide consular services to our American citizens when they’re in a moment of crisis outside of the United States. So those are the different types of officers, but at the end of the day, we could all be doing any type of that work, because we like to say that it’s what we — the term, the phrase is very well-known in our line of work is called the needs of the service. You sign up to be a diplomat because you’re signing up to help and represent not only United States but also to be there in a time of crisis for anything an American would need.
And so even if I’m a public diplomacy officer, if I’m overseas and my colleague asked me, “Hey, can you help with making sure that this American citizen is safe?” That is my job. And I make sure that I can assist with that. But in general on a day-to-day, it really looks very different every day. And I think that’s what intrigued so many of us to still stay in, even though it can be a hard lifestyle because it’s not the same every day, as you can imagine, not just COVID but there are crises and things that happen anytime and anywhere.
Once I joined the foreign service, I actually moved back to Egypt. That was my second assignment. But when I was there, it was during a time of protracted crisis after the Arab Spring. And any time you move somewhere, you may think that it will be the same every day, but it actually can be very different because of whatever is happening at that time. And so I think that for someone who’s interested in this line of work, you have to be willing to throw caution to the wind a little bit and be willing to fly by the seat of your pants sometimes, which to be very honest, I didn’t come in with that type of perspective. It’s really funny because so many of us are so type A and we like to have things controlled. And so I think that the funny thing is we hold on to and control the little things we can because everything else is so unpredictable, if that makes sense.
Priscilla: Yeah. And so you talked a little bit about how there’s this test and this process, what are they testing? Is it logic, aptitude? And then how long was that process for you?
Sharlina: So for me, apparently, it was not that long. It took me a little bit under a year, but I understand that the process has actually been truncated a little bit. So to answer your first part of the question, basic level of what issues may be occurring throughout the world. So whether it’s COVID or a health crisis, economic crisis, or nuclear weapons in the Korean peninsula, et cetera. So a little bit of aptitude, of course. But whenever I talk to mentees or others who are just interested in this type of work and they’re like, “What do I need to do to prepare for something like this?” All I say are a couple of things, you need to just be a regular reader of something like The Economist or the New York Times, and just brush up on your middle school slash high school civics or AP Government, because there is definitely a test of what was this amendment and basic elements of American civic background. So those are the two basic aspects of the things that you need.
And then, of course, something that is very crucial to this type of career, which is writing, and not writing long papers. So it’s not about writing long papers. And if anyone who’s interested in not just foreign affairs but just policy in general, I encourage them to think through how to write something short and succinct. So when we say, when you want to prepare for any type of interview, they ask you to prepare your elevator pitch, right? So elevator pitch, but the written style. If you had to be in the elevator, so to speak, but in a written form, how could you write in maybe even three sentences what are the most important aspects of X issue? And that is what they’re looking for also, your ability to in the very quick situation, how quickly can you synthesize information and then convey it to someone during a moment of crisis, which happens as you can imagine all the time.
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Priscilla: So once you became a diplomat and it was official, what did you realize that you enjoyed the most about maybe your first assignment or maybe even your second assignment and what interested you about it?
Sharlina: Yeah. I was incredibly lucky. My first assignment was in London in the United Kingdom. And as many people maybe already know, London is a really fantastic city, and I’m a New Yorker. So that’s really hard for me to admit. But it was incredible. I was there during the 2012 Olympics. One part of my portfolio in what we call our public diplomacy shop was cultural affairs. And cultural affairs, what does that mean? It’s like, how can we bridge the cultural divide between the US and whatever country you’re in? And so, of course, whoever’s listening will be like, “Okay. Who cares?” What kind of cultural divide is there between the US and the UK besides beer preferences, right? And that’s why it was actually interesting, when you get your first assignment, it’s this very momentous thing that we call flag day. And you get a flag for where you’re going and your family is there to support you and cheer you on because you don’t know where you’re going until that moment. And I got this flag for the United Kingdom. And I was like, ‘What? I thought I was going somewhere else. I don’t know, Cape Verde or something very different and new.” And so I was like, “Oh, this is going to be not so great.” But then I got there and I was like, “Wow, London is such an incredible city. And the UK is actually so diverse.” As you can imagine, London could be as diverse, if not more diverse than New York City. I actually don’t know the numbers. And so for me, actually, what was really interesting was that as a child of Bangladeshi immigrants, there are actually a lot of Bangladeshi and South Asian immigrants to the United Kingdom as well. And at that time, so this was 2011, I was also working on the 10th anniversary slash memorial for 9/11. And at that time, I don’t know if readers or listeners can remember, but we were still very much mired in foreign policy blunders in the Middle East. And so a lot of the immigrants to the United Kingdom took that very seriously and they actually harbored very serious anti-American sentiment. And so for me, my boss was great. He was just like, “You’re just going to go out and learn on the job.” And so he put me out, there was an opportunity to engage with the local university, with a lot of Bangladeshi- British students.
My first tour, I was 25 and they looked at me and they’re like, “Wait, you’re here representing the United States Government?” They were just floored because they didn’t expect a 25-year-old Brown woman who actually spoke literally the same language as their own parents. I grew up speaking Bangla in my house because my mother was like, “I refuse to let this language not get passed down to the next generation.” And so she made sure that we only spoke Bangla in our house growing up. And lo and behold, here I am on my first tour, and all of a sudden I had to flip from English to Bangla and speak about the war to these students as if their face had already not been amazed. And they were like, “Wait, she’s speaking Bangla to us and explaining the Iraq war to me.” And I was just like that to me was just incredible because I realized that I think it really hit home all of a sudden that I was this representative of the US Government, and I had this immense power to shape narratives and change how we talk about things. And I don’t want to say we change minds because I think public affairs means you’re trying to change the narrative or trying to change the opinions. And we can’t change the opinions of other citizens overnight, especially on some topics that are so, so complicated, the US involvement in the Middle East. But me speaking in Bangla as a 25-year-old Brown American diplomat, I think, was just a moment for them to realize that it’s really easy to vilify the US as this kind of amorphous thing that they read about in the paper. But when they see someone who looks just like them, who is able to become a diplomat in the United States, it just floored them that that could even be. And so I think that was a moment where I was like, “Not only do I have power, but look at what is possible in the United States that honestly is not possible in most parts of the world.” And so that time, it was kind of that amazing experience that I always look back at.
Priscilla: That’s so powerful. And it seems like it was like a full circle moment for you.
Sharlina: Yeah, absolutely. And there I was, I had no idea as a 25-year-old I could even have this power.
Priscilla: Very cool. So what were the most glamorous and then the not so glamorous parts of your job? If you had to keep it real with people, what are the parts that maybe are not so exciting or just more challenging? What would those be for you?
Sharlina: So there are definitely so many glamorous moments in the story I just told you. It doesn’t sound glamorous probably to the average person, but for me it was because I was like, “Wow, look at me being able to change opinions.” But there were definitely the ones I think a lot of people were like, “This is definitely glamorous.” So part of my cultural affairs job was, at that time, Sundance actually had not broken outside the United States yet. And we worked with Robert Redford’s team to get Sundance into the United Kingdom. That was really glamorous for me to meet him and to work with some of the stars and the film folks out of the US, who are coming to the United Kingdom.
And also, I’m a huge sports fan. I was a kid in New York City in the ’90s with my brother, so I love basketball. And so I was able to work with the NBA folks in the United Kingdom and help them during, of course, at that time 2012 during the Olympic year to work with all the amazing basketball players who came to London. I met Grant Hill for the first time as part of a sports diplomacy reception. And I was like, “Man, you really are tall in real life.” That was amazing as a kid who grew up in the ’90s. And so that was really fantastic.
But yes, there are definitely a lot more not glamorous moments. What the really not glamorous part is you’re moving every few years. You’re leaving and uprooting friends and/or family members, depending on where you are. And you’re living far away from the United States. You miss the holidays. You miss things like Trader Joe’s, which sounds super silly. But when you’re far away, all of a sudden you start to realize the random things that you miss. I’ve been working in Washington the last few years, so it’s been really great. The ability to just have a need and then just go out to Target five seconds later is amazing. You cannot do that in other countries. So I think it is important to remind others that whether you’re working in foreign affairs as a US Government person or just in general like you’re working overseas, there are many not glamorous moments.
And I think the other thing to say as a representative of the US Government, I think we are also people, right? So we all have our own perspectives. We all come in very informed and educated about a lot of different things and we have strong opinions. And at the end of the day, that doesn’t necessarily mean that the policy matches with your opinion everywhere you go. And so that is definitely the not glamorous part. And that has happened throughout my almost 10 years in this career anywhere I’ve been. You’re there to represent what the folks back in Washington deem as the essential part of our bilateral relationship between that country and the United States. So as long as we’re advancing our most important US interests, that’s what your job is. So I think that’s important to have that get checked as well.
Priscilla: Well, my last question for you, what’s the most fun story that you can tell about your time working abroad?
Sharlina: Well, a fun story is that when I was working in London on the Olympics, I was working with my colleagues. And keep in mind, this is my first tour. So I’m still very junior and I was working on a reception/an event, actually for, at that time, First Lady Michelle Obama. And we were working around the clock to make sure everything was set up right. All the athletes were coming in and the folks who were invited were coming in. And I was working with the First Lady’s team from the White House would come in to also work what we call their advance team.
So I was working with them and we’re all so exhausted. And I was just like, “Oh my God. I can’t believe this is happening. All these people are coming.” And I got chewed out by one of the folks from the White House team because they were like, “Does this podium look exactly right?” So in public affairs, right, we set up the events, we have to do all these things. We have to think through every possible scenario. And so we’re right off the podium, setting up all these things. And I was like, “Yeah, everything looks right. The flag is in the right place. Everything, the backdrop, et cetera.” And they’re like, “I don’t think this podium looks right for the First Lady.” And I was like, “What?” And they were like, “Do you know how tall she is?” And I was like, “No. I know she’s tall but I don’t know how tall.” And they’re like, “Oh, she’s this” — I don’t even remember anymore, but she’s this tall, and she likes to wear a kitten heels. So I had to lie down on the floor by the podium to make sure we had just the right level of what is it called? The risers so that someone can — so that the First Lady — and I was so nervous.
And so right when that event happened, and the First Lady who is by the way, one of the most kindest down to earth people I have ever met, she stood on that riser. And I don’t know if anyone around me noticed that I had a huge sigh of relief, but it was like just right. It was the first event that was launched to kick off the entire weekend of events for the First Lady for the Olympics. And so I was so worried and mortified, but then it all was fine. And in the end she was so thankful and gracious and so sweet that I was like, “Thank God that worked out,” but let’s hope that doesn’t happen again.
Priscilla: Oh, my God. Wow. That probably felt so high stakes too, even though it’s like a minor detail. Oh, my God.
Sharlina: Yeah. So minor, right? Especially for a junior officer, we were like, “Okay. This is a lot.” So it just goes to show that every little thing that you see has so many intricate details in the back that someone is doing. So now it’s funny whenever I look at any kind of event. I’m like, “Oh, who did that? Oh, who did the Twitter?” Who was actually running that Twitter because that was probably the staff member, and I think they did a really good job.
Priscilla: Very cool. Well, Sharlina, this has been such a great conversation. I’m excited for people that are interested in this career path to listen to your story and to feel encouraged because I loved what you said about not letting imposter syndrome get in the way of your dreams. And you went after it, and you’ve been living your dream. So really cool. Thank you.
Sharlina: Great. Thank you so much, Priscilla.
Priscilla: 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.