Founder 31st State
Describe your career path in two or three sentences including any twists or turns ending with where you are now.
I started in PR and for the next 12 years climbed the ranks. I stopped to have children (I slightly regret that I didn’t keep my toe in the business) and after kids, I worked for a fashion designer, co-founded a luxury travel business and then out of a great need started 31st State, a skincare range for teen boys.
I was thinking that the analogy for my career is the Pacific Coast Highway. I’m from California and my business is named after California. The Pacific Coast Highway is a very storied road that runs the length of California – it’s marked by curves and long stretches and unexpected pin-turns – a little bit of everything and arriving at a place of great beauty and fulfilment. For me, that really describes my career because I have done a lot of different things. In each career turn, there are always personal challenges that can either derail or inspire you, so I like the idea of a highway as a reminder that you have to stay fluid and flexible. Sometimes things feel really out of your control but you do have a choice about how you navigate them.
What was the inspiration for 31st State?
The reason I started it was that my boys were suffering through adolescence, like girls do, but no one was really talking about how boys navigate it. Specifically, the fact that boys are also impacted by their appearance, by acne and by a lack of self-confidence because they aren’t feeling good about their physical appearance. When I looked, I couldn’t find anything on the market for my sons that had the attributes I wanted for them. I wanted them to start using more natural-based products, I wanted a cleaner routine and they only wanted things that smelt great and looked cool on their shelf. So they wanted Linx and I wanted Tom’s of Maine. With this problem, I felt this creativity in me that I could finally exercise. Never in a million years did I think Oh, I’m going to launch a teen boy grooming range. What I liked about it, was it took inventiveness, from the design to the ingredients, to how it was going to feel when it came out of the bottle and I realised that my whole career had been missing this creativity.
What experience proved to be the most helpful to your career?
This is a funny one and a little bit painful. My first paying job was for a PR agency, I was 23 and essentially a secretary. I sat outside the office of my boss, this was 1994 and email had just started and my boss would make me print out her emails. One day one of those emails was about me, sent to someone else and it basically said, I think we need to fire her – she is disorganised, she is not up to scratch, she can’t keep up. And it related to all the things I hated doing like making photocopies, collating presentations, filing, grunt work. For me, it had nothing to do with authority, my job just used no creativity.
It was humiliating and devastating. Here I was thinking I was doing a good job and apparently I sucked at it and she wanted to fire me! So, I called my Dad, crying and he said ‘Well, you can do two things. You can quit or you can choose to change the situation’. He said, ‘You have a choice in everything. You think you are following a path but it really is a choice you are making and you can choose how you navigate the situation’. And then he said, ‘If I was you, I would not say anything to your boss and I would fix every single thing that is a flaw in your performance’, and I did. I thought about what job I wanted and that was the one above me so I busted my ass for a year and I hated it but I stayed and I was promoted. It was a really humbling moment and it stayed with me. I still think about it and because I was young, it was a turning point. I think you always have a choice in your path. That really was the fundamental lesson.
What advice would you give your 20 year old self knowing what you do now?
Well, in the middle of Covid-19, I would say study biochemistry and develop vaccines. That might be handy!
More seriously, I would tell myself that you have the power to find work that you love, it is just a matter of taking steps confidently to get there. You need to be flexible and don’t wait for permission. You need to seize control over your career. I know this is easier said than done because it’s easy to lose confidence but it is important to remember that you have the power to find work you love.
What do you think are the most important qualities for sustaining a fulfilling career(s) as you grow older?
I don’t think it matters what age you are – I think these are timeless qualities:
- Curiosity, about other careers, about what other people do, about the world.
- Flexibility. I believe we have a lot of power but not necessarily a lot of control over what happens, outside of our own conduct, so we need to remain flexible.
- Self-awareness to really understand the personal factors that drive you and what makes you happy. Also recognising that the markers of success or the things that we think are going to make us happy are very different at 25 then they are at 45 or 55.
What do you think is the biggest challenge for people making a career re-entry or re-invention later in life?
The number one thing for me is confidence. I didn’t work outside the home for about five years and it did a real number on my self-confidence. From an emotional standpoint, I think you need to address what is holding you back and from what I have seen it is mostly our self-confidence. You need to be vulnerable and admit to feelings of insecurity and try to find ways to overcome these.
So that’s the emotional part and then there is the tactical. When I was ready to work again, I didn’t know how to re-enter the work-place. This is often about access to people and understanding what is out there for people of our age group, although age shouldn’t matter. For me, what was helpful was finding a community. I’ve joined a lot of female founders groups and found like minded women who are trying to re-invent themselves. But again I think one of the challenges is just accessing this information.
What do you think are the opportunities for people wanting to work in their 50s and 60s and beyond.
There is such a huge need for the wisdom that people our age have to offer. I noticed this with my own business, I wanted to build this youthful brand so hired all these young agencies with lots of young people and I kept making a lot of mistakes and at the end of the day all I really wanted was a grown-up to help me. I needed that wisdom that only comes from years of experience.
What have you learned about cross-generational workforces?
What I’ve come to realise is that there is always going to be some generational tension going on but I think that this is something to celebrate. I try to recognise that all of our employees, from ages 18 to 56, have a distinct set of skills to contribute to the overall big picture and the greater good so I try and just ignore age. In a weird way, I feel insecure myself sitting at the table with quote-unquote a bunch of kids, it can be very humbling but I think that they have a lot to learn from me and I have a lot to learn from them.
What is your top tip for people thinking about re-inventing their careers?
I think sometimes it is more about reinventing yourself rather than reinventing your career. I knew I wanted to do something, I just didn’t know what it was. I think it is really important to take stock of what’s important to you and understand what’s important to you at 25 is very different than say at 49 or 55. So, I had to get to know myself in a different way. You also have to put yourself out there, find people who can help and that takes confidence because it is admitting to your own vulnerabilities. So my tip is dig deep about what you want and what you care about as a person and think about what success means to you. Mine was about creativity and creating something.
Recommendation: Favourite book to read, website to browse or podcast to listen while sipping coffee?
The website I would recommend is 35Thousand – it’s a brand new site for women on the go, providing inspiring stories and great life hacks around business travel and how to juggle day-to-day career/life issues.
I love The New York Times – especially The NYT Cooking section
The podcast I really like is How I Built This with Guy Raz
In terms of books, one of my favourites is The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. For a more work-related book, I recommend The Originals: How Non-conformists Change the World by Adam Grant and also Grant’s podcast, WorkLife.