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.
3 Min Read
"How did you ever get into a business like that?" people ask me. They're confounded to hear that my product is industrial baler wire—a very unfeminine pursuit, especially in 1975 when I founded my company in the midst of a machismo man's world. It's a long story, but I'll try to shorten it.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up—even if it involved a non-glamorous product. I'd been fired from my previous job working to become a ladies' clothing buyer and was told at my dismissal, "You just aren't management or corporate material." My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Over the years, I've learned quite a few tough lessons about how to successfully run a business. Below are five essential elements to keep in mind, as well as my story on how I learned them.
Find A Need And Fill It
I gradually became successful at selling various products, which unfortunately weren't profitable enough to get me off the ground, so I asked people what they needed that they couldn't seem to get. One man said, "Honey, I need baler wire. Even the farmers can't get it." I saw happy dollar signs as he talked on and dedicated myself to figuring out the baler wire industry.
I'd never been interested to enter the "man's" world of business, but when I discovered a lucrative opportunity to become my own boss, I couldn't pass it up.
Now forty-five years later, I'm proud to be the founder of Vulcan Wire, Inc., an industrial baler wire company with $10 million of annual sales.
Have Working Capital And Credit
There were many pitfalls along the way to my eventual success. My daughters and I were subsisting from my unemployment checks, erratic alimony and child-support payments, and food stamps. I had no money stashed up to start up a business.
I paid for the first wire with a check for which I had no funds, an illegal act, but I thought it wouldn't matter as long as I made a deposit to cover the deficit before the bank received the check. My expectation was that I'd receive payment immediately upon delivery, for which I used a rented truck.
Little did I know that this Fortune 500 company's modus operandi was to pay all bills thirty or more days after receipts. My customer initially refused to pay on the spot. I told him I would consequently have to return the wire, so he reluctantly decided to call corporate headquarters for this unusual request.
My stomach was in knots the whole time he was gone, because he said it was iffy that corporate would come through. Fifty minutes later, however, he emerged with a check in hand, resentful of the time away from his busy schedule. Stressed, he told me to never again expect another C.O.D. and that any future sale must be on credit. Luckily, I made it to the bank with a few minutes to spare.
Know Your Product Thoroughly
I received a disheartening phone call shortly thereafter: my wire was breaking. This horrible news fueled the fire of my fears. Would I have to reimburse my customer? Would my vendor refuse to reimburse me?
My customer told me to come over and take samples of his good wire to see if I might duplicate it. I did that and educated myself on the necessary qualities.
My primary goal then was to find a career in which nobody had the power to fire me and that provided a comfortable living for my two little girls and myself.
Voila! I found another wire supplier that had the right specifications. By then, I was savvy enough to act as though they would naturally give me thirty-day terms. They did!
More good news: My customer merely threw away all the bad wire I'd sold him, and the new wire worked perfectly; he then gave me leads and a good endorsement. I rapidly gained more wire customers.
Anticipate The Dangers Of Exponential Growth
I had made a depressing discovery. My working capital was inadequate. After I purchased the wire, I had to wait ten to thirty days for a fabricator to get it reconfigured, which became a looming problem. It meant that to maintain a good credit standing, I had to pay for the wire ten to thirty days before my customers paid me.
I was successful on paper but was incredibly cash deprived. In other words, my exponentially growing business was about to implode due to too many sales. Eventually, my increasing sales grew at a slower rate, solving my cash flow problem.
Delegate From The Bottom Up
I learned how to delegate and eventually delegated myself out of the top jobs of CEO, President, CFO, and Vice President of Finance. Now, at seventy-eight years old, I've sold all but a third of Vulcan's stock and am semi-retired with my only job currently serving as Vice President of Stock and Consultant.
In the interim, I survived many obstacles and learned many other lessons, but hopefully these five will get you started and help prevent some of you from having the same struggles that I did. And in the end, I figured it all out, just like you will.