(note, this was originally published on my LinkedIn profile here)
In early July 2019 I attended the Youth Exploring STEM (YES) Networking event at The Science Center’s John S. McDonnell Observatory.
I had been thrilled the week before to get invited, during a meeting exploring different ways for GreenLeaf Market to work with The Science Center. I didn’t think that I belonged, but I was assured that my variety of jobs and resilience were stories that the teenagers needed to hear. I hadn’t really told anyone too much about myself, but I was too flattered to refuse.
Thursday morning I got my name tag and seated myself at a table with three other adults. One was a CEO at a large local company, another one retired but actively involved in projects that local news outlets have covered, and the third was a college professor originally from Africa.
I felt very out of place amongst such accomplished professionals. I never went to high school because my mother was paranoid “the system” was after us, and I started taking college courses at the community college before I got my GED. My first job was picking bad pickles out of an assembly line. Here I was, “another” marketing professional in a room full of much more focused and smarter adults.
Amongst such leaders in St. Louis, who am I but some chick from a small town who missed the bus when it came to the early Internet? It was a friend I met off of ICQ whose ecommerce business survived the dot-com bubble of the early 00s, and it was someone who I met off Hot Or Not who made thousands of dollars a month in Lebanon Missouri creating websites for public figures. At that time, I only updated my HTML site writing about small town life and was embarrassed at the attention I got because when people searched for “Springfield Missouri” on Lycos or Altavista, and they found me. I switched from community college to university because I made friends on Yahoo Chat who went to Southwest Missouri State, they seemed like they knew what they were doing.
After college I got sick of Springfield Missouri, and moved alone to Buffalo NY because some guy I met off the internet while hanging out with another friend I met off the internet in LA, told me that he had a place for rent up there. They ended up doing business together, and I got a cheap place to rent that turned out to have burst pipes (winter starts early in upstate New York). I’m still friends with my old roommate I met on Craigslist, Caitlin, who saved me from freezing that winter of 2004.
Answering an online job advertisement, I ended up on the outskirts of NYC living in Long Island working as a secretary for a couple of hedge fund database/data-feed programmers. My landlord was a firefighter who had saved lives and carried out bodies during the immediate aftermath of 9/11. I’m still friends with the cabdriver I met on Myspace who was moonlighting as a guitar player. I was a backup dancer just one time for his band’s show at The Pyramid Club. I publicly realized that I am a terrible dancer, but I regret not taking his offer to fill-in for his regular gal at CBGB’s.
The hedge fund markets crashed and I moved back to Springfield and promptly got bored. Within months I became a featured Youtube vlog with a clip I made about skipping out early from a boring work event. I took all my vlogs down, because I couldn’t deal with the hateful comments (I was wearing a fluffy fur coat, with my two cockatoos crawling on me and jumping on my head, I wish I had saved that clip).
Once in St. Louis, which seemed like an easy move compared to cross country, personal stuff and the economy took a nosedive at the same time. I left a very abusive guy, with no support from family or people who I thought were my friends at the time. I came very close to being homeless, but I found someone off Craigslist who sublet me their apartment. I found a job off of Craigslist. Another web designer found my portfolio/resume website, thanks to its search engine optimization, and gave me his freelance clients since he was going out of business to get more regular work as a truck driver (one of the few industries hiring at the bottom of the Recession). I got a part time job doing marketing for a retail store that was moving to ecommerce, and then another part time job at Reflex Media Solutions as a secretary that became full time as project coordinator and office manager…. all because of connecting and being open to connections via the Internet.
My more recent resume is better known, but I got my last two positions (including current) off of LinkedIn, and previous freelance clients via a mixture of SEO, online branding, and word of mouth. The digital social experience is increasingly becoming seamless for everyone.
When it was my turn at the YES Networking table, I told the teenagers about the importance of personal branding (because the digital professional/social IS increasingly becoming seamless with the physical), the power of connecting with others online especially in times of distress and confusion, that a little bit of hate online might mean that you’re doing something “right” (but use critical thinking skills to judge who/why and strategize the best way to react). In a few of the 20 minute session small group discussions I brought up that it’s okay to feel a little uncomfortable because that means that you’re being challenged and growing, and I admitted to the teenagers that I was slightly uncomfortable amongst all the other very accomplished professionals at this event!
The three other professionals at the table were imparting advice on the importance of knowing how you best learn, developing teamwork skills, following up with potential opportunities… and other kernels of wisdom. I had many “lean in” moments, and was not the only adult at the table making notes!
The first networking session, I was guarded. Interacting with teenagers for the first time since I was a teenager brought back lots of unexpected emotions. By the fifth and last session, words were coming out of my mouth with confidence that I never knew I had. One of the professionals whose words I was hanging on, told me that I should do a TED Talk based on what little about my life that I’d said.
I was one of the last out the door (talking with and meeting more new people). I left the YES Networking event feeling overjoyed and moved through all the connecting with others from such diverse walks of life, and feeling profoundly more connected with myself and my personal/professional story.