Sydney Magruder, 25 - freelance professional ballerina
Ballet is an art form revered by all, but attempted by few because of its complexity, gruelling body standards and institutionalized barriers to entry. Despite being told she was “built more like a gymnast,” professional ballerina, Sydney Magruder refused to let that determine the course of her career, or her dancing style. “Decide who really has a say in what goes on in your life,” says Magruder. “You, or these people who went out of their way to make you feel poorly? Spoiler alert - it's you.”
1. What made you choose this career path? What has been your greatest achievement?
It was almost by default. Once you get to a certain level in ballet, there's an automatic assumption that you want to become a professional. Ballet sucks you in so intrinsically that it's hard to get yourself out. I love what I do, but I don't think I've had a greatest achievement yet. I'm waiting for it, but I know it's coming.
2. What’s the biggest criticism/stereotype/judgement you’ve faced in your career?
I am short and muscular, built more like a gymnast than a ballerina, and have had multiple teachers tell me over the years that maybe I should pursue modern dance instead of ballet. So while I may have been told I was too short and too built to be a ballerina, I'm on the way to proving them all wrong.
"In my last year of school, my modern dance teacher told me to my face, and in so many words, that I’d never be a ballerina. This was said with an acidic certainty that I’ve not forgotten all these years later. I went home and cried for hours, so convinced that he was correct that I vowed I’d never dance again."
3. What was the hardest part of overcoming this negativity? Do you have an anecdote you can share?
Other people and their negative judgments. There's a predominant stereotype that Black girls cannot adapt their bodies to classical ballet technique, so I’ve been completely underestimated throughout my career. I never needed to adapt - I was born with near-perfect feet, generous flexibility, a predisposition for the athletic stamina required to dance full length ballets, and a knack for the physical poise and epaulement upon which classical ballet technique is founded. In my last year of school, my modern dance teacher told me to my face, and in so many words, that I'd never be a ballerina. This was said with an acidic certainty that I've not forgotten all these years later. I went home and cried for hours, so convinced that he was correct that I vowed I'd never dance again. I fell asleep crying that night. The next day I woke up, and I went to ballet class. I refused to let the ugliness of one person will not tear down my lifetime of work.
4. How did you #SWAAYthenarrative? What was the reaction by those who told you you “couldn’t” do it?
I accepted my first ballet contract 3 years after that teacher told me I would never achieve such a thing. Then, I started speaking out about what it's like to be Black, have mental illness, and have Asperger's syndrome in the ballet world. Other dancers came out of the woodwork saying that they'd struggled too, and that no one had been there to stick up for them before. I became that person. I #SWAAYthenarrative in favor of those who have never had a voice, recognition, or someone to relate to in the very narrow world of classical ballet.
5. What’s your number one piece of advice to women discouraged by preconceived notions and society’s limitations?
Decide who really has a say in what goes on in your life - you, or these people who went out of their way to make you feel poorly. Spoiler alert - it's you.
In many ways I am a shining example of the American Dream. I was born in Hungary during the Communist era, and my family fled to Israel before coming to the U.S. in pursuit of freedom and safety. When we arrived, I was just a young, shy girl who couldn't speak English. After my childhood in Hungary, New York City was a marvel; I couldn't believe that such a lively, rich place existed. Even a simple thing like going to the market and seeing all the bright, colorful produce and having so many choices was new to me. I'll never take that for granted. I think it's where my love affair with color truly began.
One thing I had was a strong work ethic. I worked hard in school, to learn English, and at jobs including my first job at Dairy Queen -- which I loved! Ice cream is easily my favorite food. From there, I moved into the garment district where my brother-in-law's family had a business. During this time, I was able to see how a business was run and began to hone in on my eye for aesthetics and willingness to work hard at any task I was given.
Eventually, my brother-in-law bought a dental supply company in Los Angeles and asked me to join him. LA, a place with 365-days of sunshine. How could I say no? The company started as Odontorium Products Inc. During the acrylic movement of the 1980s, we realized that nail technicians were buying our product, and that the same components used for dentures were used for artificial nails. We saw a potential opening in the market, and we seized it. OPI began dropping off the "rubber band special" at every salon on Ventura Blvd. in Los Angeles. A jar of powder, liquid and primer – rubber-banded together – became the OPI Traditional Acrylic System and was a huge hit, giving OPI its start in the professional nail industry. It was 1981 when OPI first opened its doors. I couldn't have predicted our success, but I knew that hard work and faith in myself would be key in transforming a new business into a company with global reach.
When we started OPI, what we were doing was something new. Before OPI came on the scene, the generic, utilitarian nail polish names already on the market – like Red No. 4, Pink No. 2 – were completely forgettable. We rebranded the category with catchy names that we knew women could relate to and would remember. The industry was stale and boring, so we made it more fun and sexy. We started creating color collections. I carefully developed 30 groundbreaking colors for the debut collection -- many of which are still beloved bestsellers today, including Malaga Wine, Alpine Snow and Kyoto Pearl.
There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does.
With deep roots in Tinseltown, we eventually started collaborating with Hollywood. Our decision to collaborate with the entertainment industry also propelled OPI forward in another way, ultimately leading us to finding a way to connect with women beyond the world of beauty, relating our products to the beverages they drink, the cars they drive, the movies they watch, the clothes they wear – even the shade they use to paint their living room walls! There is no other nail color brand in the world that touches the totality of industries the way OPI does. It also propelled my growth as a businessperson forward. I found myself sitting in meetings with executives from some of the top companies in the world. I didn't have a fancy presentation. I didn't have a Harvard business degree. I realized that what I had was passion. I had a passion for what we were doing, and I had my own unique story that no one else could replicate.
Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today
Bit by bit, I grew up with the business. Discipline, hard work, and passion gave me the confidence to grow from that shy immigrant girl to become the person that I am today -- an author, public speaker, and co-founder of OPI, the world's #1 professional nail brand.
I learned quickly that one can be an expert at many things, but not everything. Running a business is very hard work. Luckily, I had someone I could collaborate with who brought something new to the table and complemented my talents, my brother-in-law George Schaeffer. My business "superpower," or the ability to make decisions quickly and confidently, kept me ahead of trends and competition.
Another key to my success in building this brand and in growing in business was being authentic. Authenticity is so important to brands and maybe even more so now in the time of social media when you can speak directly to your consumers. I realized even then that I could only be me. I was a woman who knew what I wanted. I looked at my mother and daughter and wanted to create products that would excite and empower them.
There's often an expectation placed on women in charge that they need to be cutthroat to be competitive, but that's not true. Rather than focusing on my gender or any implied limitations I might bring to the job as a female and a mother, I always focused instead on my vision. I deliberately fostered an environment at OPI filled with warmth. After all, at the end of the day, your organization is only as good as its people. I've always found that being nice, being humble, and listening to others has served me well. Instead of pushing others down to get to the top, inspire them and bring them along on the journey.
You can read more about my personal and professional journey in my new memoir out now, I'm Not Really a Waitress: How One Woman Took Over the Beauty Industry One Color at a Time.