When you were 17, what did you want to be?
Well, it was probably 50/50, singer and interior designer. Ideally I wanted to be a singer who wasn’t famous, but was popular. I honestly don't even know what would’ve looked like, but that's what my dream was. I wanted to be able to support myself singing, but I really didn't want to be recognizable to anybody, I didn't want to be stopped on the street. I just wanted to be myself in the world, but also record some CDs and make millions. And that seemed achievable at the time.
And then I was also really into interior design. I don't know if it was watching HGTV or what, but I was just really interested in the emotional relationship with space and place. I wanted to study how just moving things around, floor plan, and color can change the way you feel. I started taking classes in interior design through the UC Santa Cruz extension when I was 17. I was meeting a lot of cool people and thinking we should start a business, and then I remembered I was 17 and should also go to college. So between those two career paths.
How did you decide to attend University of California, Davis?
I was rejected from almost every college I applied to. My college of choice at the time was UC Santa Barbara, and I was really crushed that I didn't get in. I met a woman in my interior design classes who had gone to Davis, and I just liked her and I wanted to be like her, so when she told me I should apply to Davis, I did. So I basically went because a woman named Lauren told me to, and I'm so glad I did.
I think like all college experiences, it was a mixed bag. I actually went to community college first and did all my general ed courses, and when I transferred, I had a little bit of a feeling of arriving late because everybody had already made friends and joined sororities and were in clubs. And there was no transfer student housing, so I was on Craigslist trying to find an apartment, trying to figure out the layout of Davis and who to live with, it was stressful. So I think the first year was probably like a lot of people's freshman year, totally overwhelming.
And then it got amazing. The next year I lived with two girls who I adored and became really close friends with. I ended up staying a third year because I changed majors, and having the third year was incredible. So I feel like I had a really rich and wonderful college experience, even though at the time it felt sort of counterculture.
How did you choose your major?
I started out as an interior architecture major, but Monday, Wednesday, Friday furniture design at 8:00 am is rough. And also loud, because we were legit making furniture. So I loved the major, but I was also taking some communications classes and found myself really being more drawn to that. The assignments I was given in interior architecture were things I had to, and the assignments I was given in communications were a gift.
So I graduated with a degree in communications and a minor in contemporary leadership. That program was a compilation of a lot of different concepts from a lot of different departments like sociology, business, econ, which I liked. It was just about what it means to be a leader in today's world, and I really appreciated what I was able to learn there. I think there should be more programs and required courses that fall into that bucket. I remember my favorite part of that minor was learning about followership. They talked a lot about how leadership is obviously really important, but it's equally important to have followers, folks that are going to execute the vision and contribute to it too.
How did you get from college to where you are now?
Before I graduated, I didn't know what to do next, and it was that point in senior year when everybody has gone to the job fairs and they've had their interviews and they're narrowing down what they're going to do for an internship or a job, and I had not done that. I was doing some informational interviewing that last semester of the school, and I talked to eight different people who were in fields where a communications major might fit and might be able to add value.
I got the idea from Lauren, the one who told me to go to Davis, because she had really become a mentor. She said, “Think about everybody that you know, and write down the names of those people - don't omit anyone - your dentist, your uncle, your friends, parents, me, all the people that you know, and that could teach you something or provide value to you. That’s your network. And those people will help you.”
Most people want to be helpful, to share personal advice, stories, and connect you to other people. So it’s okay to reach out and say, “I don't know what I'm doing, I'm about to graduate and I just want to learn more about your work.” So I did that with eight different people and one of those people ended up hiring me. He was in corporate social responsibility, CSR, which was a field I knew nothing about, but immediately after talking to him, I knew that I wanted to be in that field.
I asked him about some of his favorite things about his job, and I remember really distinctly that he told me that the best days were the days when he gets to take groups of employees to volunteer with nonprofit organizations. And I thought, “You get to do that for work? That's awesome.” I realized that CSR was a lot of what I'd been doing. I started the microlending club at UC Davis, and I was really interested in recruiting people to join charity walks and runs; a lot of the stuff I did in my free time were things that he was doing for work, and I was so excited to think that I could do that in my everyday work. So I joined him as an intern the summer following graduation at this company called Synopsys.
For smaller companies, you kind of do it all. So you're involved in making grants to nonprofit organizations; vetting the organizations and deciding where to invest resources. And those resources can take the form of employee time and skills and pro bono work, or in more traditional volunteering, or it might be dollars. It might also be product. So you're sort of the liaison between the company and the nonprofit. And then the company will generally have a social mission as well as their corporate mission, so understanding what that is and being able to make connections between the company’s employees and the organizations that could benefit from their skill sets. And then recruiting employees, motivating them, congratulating them, recognizing them, all of that. And then externally, the PR side of things, making sure that, because it is a company at the end of the day, the social mission of that company is being promoted.
I was with Synopsys for a summer internship, and then I started with Microsoft in July. And that was again, just pure networking. My manager at Synopsis knew people at other tech companies, and he did a really good job of being an advocate for me and a promoter of my work.
I was with Microsoft for seven years; I left in January of 2017. There's a lot that I'm proud of from my time there, but for me, the most important part of the work was helping people find places to invest in. What I spend the most time thinking about and feeling proud of are the people at Microsoft that I was able to help make those connections, whether it was somebody who moved here from a different country and had a passion that they wanted to invest in, but didn't know anything about the organizations in this area; or somebody who had lived here their whole life and were just now learning about philanthropy and making enough money that they felt like they could build that into their own personal investment portfolio, maybe join a board. All of those were things that I was really privileged to be able to advise on.
I would still describe this phase of my career path as exploratory. I think when I was at Microsoft I was totally on a path, and at some point I just realized that I wanted to learn some new things, and I felt like I was at a point where I had learned as much as I could in that role. So now I'm exploring what the next chapter will look like, and I don't know how long this phase is (or how long I can afford for this phase to be) but I'm really grateful to have this time.
Looking back, what seems clear to you now?
I definitely feel like networking is not a natural inclination for me, and I've thought of it a lot as kind of... disingenuous? I always felt awkward asking for help, asking for what felt like favors when it really was just advice. But when I was at Microsoft, I had an hour on my calendar every Friday for informational interviews, because that had been so valuable for me along the way that I just wanted to make sure that my lunch hour every week was open if somebody wanted to sit down and talk to me about CSR. And actually that was oftentimes one of the highlights of my week. So I wish that I could have learned that earlier on, known that that in itself was a gift that you were giving somebody when you asked for help. Everybody you know is in your network, and they probably do want to help you.
Also, you can learn things the hard way and that's absolutely okay; it’s okay to try something and not like it. Which is one reason that internships are incredibly valuable, so if there's any way you can secure a summer internship while you're in college, I think that's absolutely worth doing. I didn't have an internship until after I graduated college, but it would have been so valuable to learn something totally different every summer.
I would really encourage everybody to see as much of the world as they can, on whatever budget you have. Go backpacking, stay in hostels, be safe, but see the world. Because, really, that's taught me every bit as much, if not more, and in different ways than my career path has. And don't worry about gaps in your resume. We all have them, in one form or another, and sometimes that can just show that you are a contemplative person who takes time to make decisions that you're going to feel confident about.