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What 5 Entry Level Jobs Taught Me About Running My Own Business

Career

Generally speaking, people don’t typically expect Ivy League MBA’s to be applying for entry-level jobs. But I was fortunate to be that unusual applicant after leaving my Columbia degree behind to pursue the food industry. I use the word “fortunate” without any derision; it is a pity our society takes such a snobby view towards so-called “entry-level” jobs, rushing through them without proper mental focus and never grasping the long-term learnings. Of course I had a similarly hard time swallowing my ego during my years as a freelance entry-jobber. But now that I run two successful businesses, I realize those jobs taught me instrumental lessons about my abilities, work ethic, and perhaps most importantly, created a tough mental construct around failure that gave me the courage to be an entrepreneur.


1

Treat your employees the way you want them to treat your customers

One of my first jobs after leaving Columbia was being a barista inside of a posh co-working space. While the coffee training was fantastic, the work environment was toxic. The management staff sneered at our lack of beverage knowledge and to prove a point, one of the founders asked me for a cappuccino and complained loudly at how foamy it was. Our coffee consultant, the one man I respected at the company, quietly reassured me and defended my cup of joe.

Despite another founder’s occasional attempts to seed our tip jar, our employee loyalties ended with our beloved consultant. Instead, we internalized management’s contempt for us and in return, began to project our frustration onto the customers. I now understood why cashiers at Duane Reade would snap at me for swiping my card incorrectly; their needs and feelings had been dismissed and the only outlet for respite was to push that negative energy back onto the customer.

Now that I advise businesses, I see why certain places have high staff turnover and unhappy customers. Fostering a positive work culture requires genuine respect to flow both ways; otherwise, loyalty is grounded on a paycheck. I strive to be an example when I am working with third parties, whether it is an independent contractor I’ve hired or an agency I’m collaborating with. If I want all my clients to leave with a positive impression, it starts from treating everyone with the respect they deserve.

2

Find the right people and empower them to leap

During my journey as a chef, I witnessed the inner workings of a variety of kitchens: some set up its cooks for success while others hinged on the word of one self-important authority. Food and acclaim are poor indicators for the restaurant’s long-term sustainability; I believe the closest marker of continued success can be easily observed in the form of employee empowerment.

I have been fortunate to work under three empowering chefs. During my externship at Market Table, I saw how an open ladder of advancement fueled every kitchen member to work harder. Our dishwasher would learn the garde manger setup during his down time; our garde manger would pick up occasional hot dishes during brunch. After I moved to San Francisco, I spent time at SPQR and watched how Chef Matt opened opportunities for green but ambitious cooks to push past their own limitations.

They became masters in the kitchen - butchering whole sides of animals, making perfect pastas, and keeping our food costs leaner than Chipotle. My last kitchen experience at Atera echoed that of SPQR: many of us were in positions above our pay grade, but Chef Ronny believed in our abilities. He persisted in giving his new sous chef freedom to lead our team, and watching her grow into an executive has been nothing short of inspiring.

I firmly believe people are incredible beings who will rise to the occasion if you give them the opportunity and tools to do so. What I use to guide my own hiring practices, and those of my clients, is that the right person is not necessarily the one with the perfect background. Rather, look for the person who will jump at the opportunity bigger than themselves and fill it without hesitation.

3

You can’t sell what you don’t believe in

My first job in college was selling advertising for our school’s newspaper, The Daily. I was surprisingly awesome at sales and quickly became their top advertising executive. During my long stretch after culinary school, I figured a commission-based role would be a great fit and landed a job selling juices and smoothies to venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. I visited both Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners with my rolling refrigerator of fresh juice and poured samples for the partners during their lunch break.

In the end, I never sold a single subscription - and I knew why. No matter how much I smiled and touted the benefits of drinking these concoctions, I couldn’t conjure up that excitable energy around the healing qualities of my product. On the contrary, when I shadowed the company’s founder on prospecting calls, the response was instantaneous. The truth was, I wasn’t that interested in selling juice. I could never recreate that same sentiment because I simply didn’t believe in the product nearly as much as he did.

There is a lot of truth behind the saying “your biggest asset is yourself”. When I started my own business, I was struck with imposter syndrome and my lack of conviction in myself cost me clients. My ultimate sell is my brand and the value I know I can provide to my clients. If I don’t believe in my own work, I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wants to pay for it.

4

Everyone has a story - listen

I think being an intern is one of the most underappreciated aspects of our career. It’s a stimulating learning environment with full liberty for failure. For a few months, I was the Business Development Intern at the New Amsterdam Market. We were in the full swing of drafting a grant proposal and I was tasked with interviewing our market purveyors to better learn about their production needs.

Every day I sat down and took notes about each of these entrepreneur’s lives. We always started with business: what equipment they had, the cost of raw materials, packaging woes. But as the conversation wore on, personal stories would slowly seep in. Deeply personal anecdotes about the hardships of owning a business, hilarious moments of success and failure, even small bouts of petty frustration. From established chains like Luke’s Lobster to small shops like Runner & Stone, I was able to peek below their marketing facade to something much more intimate. It taught me a new perspective in regards to how I liked to view the world: things are never as black and white as they seem.

I still fell into the trap of not listening enough for my first few clients. I was so caught up in fixing their problems, I bypassed the human aspect of the relationship.

In turn, I was confused why my clients would not listen to me when I presented them with solutions. Now, I’ve learned how important it is to balance being emotionally attentive while giving professional advice. As a result, clients feel I am holistically invested in their business and are receptive towards difficult conversations.

5

Hiding the truth only hurts you - transparency is key

I distinctly remember how elated I felt when the partner of a top-tier restaurant consulting agency called to offer me an internship. I had been desperately applying to every culinary consulting firm without any response. It was my first real “gig”, and the partner took no time in talking up the importance of my tasks. I was to jet into Los Angeles and assist two seasoned chefs in creating the menu for a giant restaurant client. I was such a special intern, he said, he would even pay me! That he didn’t do for any other interns.

I didn’t realize until later, but the partner was having this exact same conversation with the two other interns. By pitting us against each other, he thought we would “bring our best” to work.

Instead, it resulted in a cutthroat environment where we could not function as a team. Every day was a war, all of us battling to impress the founder while slamming the oven door on each other’s soufflés. In the end, it was revealed there was only one full-time position available, all but guaranteed to another intern, but the news had been hidden from the rest of us. I promptly quit. Had the situation been explained to me upfront, I would have reciprocated his transparency by finishing the project instead of quitting before the go-live.

That was one of the absolute worst jobs I’ve held, but also one of the most important. I learned that if you can put aside your ego and speak to people honestly, the majority of your audience - employees, co-workers, bosses, friends - will understand. Transparency is key for building any relationship that is worthwhile, and that principle has shaped how I run my business. If I made a mistake, I fess up immediately; if I’m unsure about some part of the business, I admit I don’t know. These are the small instances where trust is gained.

My experiences as an entry-level worker and intern strongly shaped how I started and run my own business. The biggest piece of the puzzle for every business, no matter the size, is the culture between its people. This is something theory and academia will always regurgitate, but only by fully experiencing it can one harness its teachings. There really is no such thing as “just any job”. There are important learnings in our everyday, some of them cleverly disguised as monotonous, entry-level work. Don’t let them fool you into complacency because you have no idea what you may be missing.

Culture

A Modern Day Witch Hunt: How Caster Semenya's Gender Became A Hot Topic In The Media

Gender divisions in sports have primarily served to keep women out of what has always been believed to be a male domain. The idea of women participating alongside men has been regarded with contempt under the belief that women were made physically inferior.


Within their own division, women have reached new heights, received accolades for outstanding physical performance and endurance, and have proven themselves to be as capable of athletic excellence as men. In spite of women's collective fight to be recognized as equals to their male counterparts, female athletes must now prove their womanhood in order to compete alongside their own gender.

That has been the reality for Caster Semenya, a South African Olympic champion, who has been at the center of the latest gender discrimination debate across the world. After crushing her competition in the women's 800-meter dash in 2016, Semenya was subjected to scrutiny from her peers based upon her physical appearance, calling her gender into question. Despite setting a new national record for South Africa and attaining the title of fifth fastest woman in Olympic history, Semenya's success was quickly brushed aside as she became a spectacle for all the wrong reasons.

Semenya's gender became a hot topic among reporters as the Olympic champion was subjected to sex testing by the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF). According to Ruth Padawer from the New York Times, Semenya was forced to undergo relentless examination by gender experts to determine whether or not she was woman enough to compete as one. While the IAAF has never released the results of their testing, that did not stop the media from making irreverent speculations about the athlete's gender.

Moments after winning the Berlin World Athletics Championship in 2009, Semenya was faced with immediate backlash from fellow runners. Elisa Cusma who suffered a whopping defeat after finishing in sixth place, felt as though Semenya was too masculine to compete in a women's race. Cusma stated, "These kind of people should not run with us. For me, she is not a woman. She's a man." While her statement proved insensitive enough, her perspective was acknowledged and appeared to be a mutually belief among the other white female competitors.

Fast forward to 2018, the IAAF issued new Eligibility Regulations for Female Classification (Athlete with Differences of Sexual Development) that apply to events from 400m to the mile, including 400m hurdles races, 800m, and 1500m. The regulations created by the IAAF state that an athlete must be recognized at law as either female or intersex, she must reduce her testosterone level to below 5 nmol/L continuously for the duration of six months, and she must maintain her testosterone levels to remain below 5 nmol/L during and after competing so long as she wishes to be eligible to compete in any future events. It is believed that these new rules have been put into effect to specifically target Semenya given her history of being the most recent athlete to face this sort of discrimination.

With these regulations put into effect, in combination with the lack of information about whether or not Semenya is biologically a female of male, society has seemed to come to the conclusion that Semenya is intersex, meaning she was born with any variation of characteristics, chromosomes, gonads, sex hormones, or genitals. After her initial testing, there had been alleged leaks to media outlets such as Australia's Daily Telegraph newspaper which stated that Semenya's results proved that her testosterone levels were too high. This information, while not credible, has been widely accepted as fact. Whether or not Semenya is intersex, society appears to be missing the point that no one is entitled to this information. Running off their newfound acceptance that the Olympic champion is intersex, it calls into question whether her elevated levels of testosterone makes her a man.

The IAAF published a study concluding that higher levels of testosterone do, in fact, contribute to the level of performance in track and field. However, higher testosterone levels have never been the sole determining factor for sex or gender. There are conditions that affect women, such as PCOS, in which the ovaries produce extra amounts of testosterone. However, those women never have their womanhood called into question, nor should they—and neither should Semenya.

Every aspect of the issue surrounding Semenya's body has been deplorable, to say the least. However, there has not been enough recognition as to how invasive and degrading sex testing actually is. For any woman, at any age, to have her body forcibly examined and studied like a science project by "experts" is humiliating and unethical. Under no circumstances have Semenya's health or well-being been considered upon discovering that her body allegedly produces an excessive amount of testosterone. For the sake of an organization, for the comfort of white female athletes who felt as though Semenya's gender was an unfair advantage against them, Semenya and other women like her, must undergo hormone treatment to reduce their performance to that of which women are expected to perform at. Yet some women within the athletic community are unphased by this direct attempt to further prove women as inferior athletes.

As difficult as this global invasion of privacy has been for the athlete, the humiliation and sense of violation is felt by her people in South Africa. Writer and activist, Kari, reported that Semenya has had the country's undying support since her first global appearance in 2009. Even after the IAAF released their new regulations, South Africans have refuted their accusations. Kari stated, "The Minister of Sports and Recreation and the Africa National Congress, South Africa's ruling party labeled the decision as anti-sport, racist, and homophobic." It is no secret that the build and appearance of Black women have always been met with racist and sexist commentary. Because Black women have never managed to fit into the European standard of beauty catered to and in favor of white women, the accusations of Semenya appearing too masculine were unsurprising.

Despite the countless injustices Semenya has faced over the years, she remains as determined as ever to return to track and field and compete amongst women as the woman she is. Her fight against the IAAF's regulations continues as the Olympic champion has been receiving and outpour of support in wake of the Association's decision. Semenya is determined to run again, win again, and set new and inclusive standards for women's sports.