Episode 107: Expect the Unexpected

Show transcript:

Welcome to The Broad Experience, the show about women, the workplace, and success. I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte.

This time…when you think your career is heading in one direction, and then it takes an unexpected turn…

“And maybe it’ll get back, maybe it was just a detour, maybe it was a side street to get me back into the parade. But I have to say these last two to three years have really impacted my perspective on life.”

Coming up – dealing with the unexpected, in career and life.

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So in this show we’re going to re-visit a guest I first interviewed a few years ago. I re-released that show two weeks ago – it’s called Authenticity vs. Conformity - so hopefully you’ve had a chance to acquaint yourself with Lauren Tucker. Lauren is longtime advertising executive and a specialist in data-driven marketing. I’d been wanting to catch up with her to find out what she did next. Because when we first spoke I knew she was getting itchy to do her own thing. One thing you may remember about Lauren: she always looks on the bright side.

AM-T: “When I last spoke to you, which was in the summer of 2014, you were still at the Martin Agency, an ad agency in Virginia…but even then you were talking about the possibility of going out on your own and starting your own business. Take us back and talk about what happened next.”

“Yeah, so I started Cooler Heads Intelligence in January of 2015. Data, at least at that time, it just wasn’t as integral to what the Martin Agency was doing. I thought it might be great opportunity at that point to start my own company.”

The chief data scientist also left the agency and came on as Lauren’s business partner. She says they wanted to be successful enough that they could hire plenty of women and people of color (Lauren is both) – and help make the STEM field more diverse. And they did add a few employees as the business grew. Lauren spent a lot of time going out and making contacts, landing new business.

“We did well, especially for our first year of business. The challenge is you have to have a stomach for it. You have to have a stomach for discomfort. You have to be comfortable with ongoing discomfort. And my business partner was not comfortable with that.”

AM-T: “Do you mean just all the insecurity of starting a new business and doing everything yourselves and being out there in front?”

“I think that’s a major part of it. I think um, you know it is – if you have to have a salary, you feel like you have to have that kind of security, it’s a challenge. You have to be willing to sacrifice. I also think he had a difficult time working with somebody, a black female who was the majority owner of the business. So that was probably the more shocking part of it.”

And she was shocked. Because she had hired this guy at their former agency and he’d worked there for five years. Obviously there was a hierarchy at the agency, and he hadn’t worked directly for Lauren - he had worked for the guy under her. And as their relationship began to sour, she started looking back to his time at their former employer…

“Maybe I just didn’t get it that he had these issues. It wasn’t till later till I started having trouble with him that I found out from other women that worked with him and for him, again, two more layers down, right, that he was a problem.”

AM-T: “Why did you only find out later, d’you think?”

“I am finding this out more and more as I talk to younger women, they don’t tell you at the beginning when things are a little calmer and you can get in a little easier. I found they wait until it just blows up; then they come and talk to you or they leave and they go someplace else and you don’t get the truth until later. And that’s really what happened. And so I was very interested, I was like, well why didn’t you tell me these things when they were happening? And I think there’s a lot of fear at first about – I think they’re questioning themselves, maybe it’s me, I don’t know, then they go through a period of ‘well, maybe she’s not gonna believe me, even though I know we have a good relationship’ – that’s what was so shocking, is I had good relationships with all the women who told me this about him.”

And if at this point you’re wondering what exactly are we talking about here – was this guy rude and dismissive of women, was it worse than that? – you’re not the only one. I was probing until Lauren told me she couldn’t discuss the details, because...

“My lawyers said you know what, you both need to just move on and no one needs to besmirch the other.”

Yup. Things got to the lawyer stage.

Despite the fact that the business was doing pretty well, there had been disagreements over how much they should invest in marketing. And her partner felt he deserved more of a cut. And of course I only have Lauren’s story here, I have not talked to her former business partner. But she says he resented that she was the face of the business. She was majority owner as well – the business was backed with some of her savings. She says he seemed to feel that what she did was over-valued, and what he did was under-valued.

AM-T: “Was it all quite nasty at the end or did you…”

“Yeah, I mean I was Yes. Luckily I had great lawyers and I brought them in and they handled the ongoing conversations. Because there’s a certain point where I’m not gonna engage in ugly fights. I’m not that kind of a person, I don’t want to be that kind of a person. I’m not gonna take someone yelling at me on the phone and yell back. I mean that’s just not the way I work, it’s just not professional.”

She says when she told her business partner, OK, if you’re going to say these things, you can talk to my lawyers…he backed off. He didn’t want things to go that far.

 “But by that time I was done. My father was becoming extraordinarily ill at that point, he had congestive heart failure, and I needed to refocus on my life on my family.”

So they shut the company down. And he went off to start his own business. This was not what Lauren had imagined when she quit her job to become an entrepreneur. She had been so excited, and they were getting some great clients, doing good work. And then after 16 months, it was all over.

AM-T: “Do you regret doing it?”

“No, no, and I would have regretted not doing it. It was a good time to do it. I’d saved up the money and that’s what I tell a lot of younger women. Be smart with our money so you have the freedom to do the kinds of things that I did, whether it’s my own business, where to live I went through some significant savings, but I always paid my mortgage, paid my bills, I didn’t get into tremendous debt and I never touched my retirement. So it’s important if you’ve got that kind of ability financially, you might as well take the chance and do it.”

AM-T: “You sound pretty sanguine about it at this distance, but was it…the whole coming apart, and deciding, go our separate ways, break up the business, I mean was that emotionally really tough?”

“Yes, and I was angry for a very long time after that. I mean for me. I’m not a typically angry person.”

AM-T: “But you can’t help but hold a grudge in that situation.”

“Yeah, I mean it’s in part because I was forced to actually de-classify the business. It would have been great if I’d been able to take Cooler Heads and just keep moving forward with the assets we had built, the website. The fact that we had to take it down made me really angry. But there’s an irony to this – once the business was down, that was when my father really started to get sick.”

Lauren turned her attention to her parents. They lived in the same town, while her brother was 5 hours away. She was glad she could be around so much while her father’s health got worse…

“Being able to have that kind of time, you know, going over there all the time, making sure everything was OK, giving my mom some relief from the situation, taking her out to dinner, all of that was great.”

Lauren’s father knew she had been mulling something for a while – a move away from Virginia, up to Chicago. She’d lived there before and was eager to go back, start afresh in a bigger city. He told her – do it, just go, I won’t be here for much longer, your mother will be fine.

“Literally I moved to Chicago at the end of June, and he died about five days later.”

AM-T: “Wow. That’s a lot to go through in one year.”

“Oh, trust me, I do not need to have another year like 2016. I definitely will say that. That was a very, very hard year.”

Culminating in the election of a president Lauren never thought would get the job. Right now she volunteers her time as the director of marketing and community relations for Indivisible Chicago…the organization set up to resist the agenda of the Trump administration.

In a minute, Lauren begins a new life in a new city. And comes face to face with some stark realities.

So after 13 years of living in Richmond, Virginia, Lauren moved to Chicago a year ago.

AM-T: “So tell me about Chicago, because you did mention that it was always your dream, it’s great that you’re there. But making a big change at this point in your career is not without issues.”

Oh, lots and lots of issues [laughs]. Yeah, there are a couple of things: the great part about it is that I’ve lived in Chicago before which is why I wanted to come back and I’m living in same neighborhood I did before that I loved. I have a lot of friends I’ve made over the years that are here in Chicago. So it wasn’t like I was coming to a place where I didn’t know anybody.”

On the other hand, the research and analytics job Lauren had secured in Chicago didn’t work out.

“I never really encountered this until my business and then this job…that I had when I came up here when I’d just run into an abusive person.”

She was there for seven months. After that experience, she decided it was time to go back to the world of traditional ad agencies. But all her contacts were on the east coast. She really hardly knew anyone in advertising in Chicago. And then there’s the question of who she is. She does not look like most other people in the ad business. She says she has always been a ruthless optimist, but…

“Along with that comes persistent naivety – as much as I know intellectually that being a black woman is a challenge in an industry where there are maybe a hundred, I think the last census, there are only a hundred senior African-American women in advertising in this country. That’s shocking and it’s tragic.”

But in typical Lauren fashion, she began to think about how to turn the challenge into an opportunity. She decided to be totally upfront on the job hunt…

“...just be open about, OK, I’m an African-American woman and I know how difficult it is for agencies to find African-American women with a lot of experience and who can operate at a very senior level, well here I am, I am gonna put myself in the path of opportunity. And so I was open, very transparent about it in every email I sent out, and that certainly got me initial interviews. As my father said, ‘if being black and a woman works against you, you may as well use it to work for you once in a while.’ So I did. People might have questioned that approach but I felt like if the ad industry was going to make a big deal about diversity, then I’m going to make a big deal about it in my initial approaches to the agencies, and say, ‘if you’re serious about diversity then you need to be serious about talking to me.’”

She says it’s worked to the extent she’s met some senior people at local agencies and had great conversations – conversations she hopes will lead to a job offer. At the same time, she says the recruitment machine is broken.

“I think especially for ad agencies, the ebb and flow of human resources needed to staff accounts forces a situation where…hiring managers are like, I need somebody! I have to hire somebody now!  OK, great, that doesn’t leave a lot of time for looking in different places, to get that kind of diverse talent, not just in terms of people of color and women but just some different thinking, right, people think differently from different backgrounds. So they keep going to the same well, over and over and over again, partly because it’s expedient. But also because I’m more comfortable working with people who look like me, is what I think happens. I think from standpoint the CEOs who are tasked with increasing diversity, I mean you think about what their primary job is, their primary job is to make money for that agency – so increase revenue, show growth, show profitability.”

She says they may genuinely want a workforce made up of different types of people, but realistically it’s just not top of mind compared to making a profit. So her advice for women and people of color…

“I think you really have to go aggressively, and be transparent, ‘I am a black woman who is right here in front of you and has the capabilities that are really gonna help you achieve your goals.’ For me, that may be the only answer to diversity I have. Because I’ve been in the ad business for 30 years and we’re having the same conversations we had when I first started. So why haven’t things changed? In part because the entire way diversity is being talked about is still making the diverse candidates the problem, not where the problem lies which is typically with the predominantly white and male management. And think at the end of the day, I don’t want to see another panel with a bunch of black women talking about us as the problem.”

She wants to see a panel made up of white, male CEOs where the onus is on them, where the audience can ask…

“…what is going to get you guys motivated? Let’s have an honest conversation…I get it. You’re tasked with growth, and diversity isn’t always a straight line to growth. So what would get you to put this on the front burner and make this a real initiative for you? And I think no one has really investigated that.”

AM-T: “Well I really hope something great comes up with you for one of these firms so you can start making a difference.”

“Yeah, I mean I actually think something will come. It is interesting, I’m getting ready to go take my mom to Europe. That was a thing my father said, “you go ahead and do that, she deserves to go,’ and he was never gonna do it, he was a World War Two vet and was never gonna go back to Europe, I think he had had enough [laughs]. So I have this time to be with her for 2 weeks, and then when I come back hopefully, I think I’m set up to find something pretty quickly after I come back.”

She’s looking forward to spending some one-on-one time with her mum while they’re sailing down the Rhine…

“My mother’s 85 and as she says it may be the last time she can go on such an undertaking. This is a woman who, we moved her into a new place a couple of weeks ago and it’s interesting how she’s embracing this new chapter of her life and she’s embracing all the good stuff that comes from being 85, which I think is really neat. She’s letting her hair go grey, and she’s like, ‘you know, your father never liked that, but I’m gonna do that,’ she’s redecorating and painting walls…I realize she’s just totally embracing her life after being a wife, and that’s kind of interesting.”

AM-T: “Right, not that she didn’t love your dad, but now he’s gone she’s making a new life on her terms.”

“Yeah, and that’s what’s really cool. Because quite frankly they were so close and interdependent on one another I thought it might go the other way and she might just give up on life, but boy, she is, it is like a whole new thing for her. So she’s so excited and happy about this new chapter of her life that now I think, it’s like, the boxes have been checked. She’s happy, my brother’s happy that she’s happy, and so now I think I have the chance to focus on my life here in Chicago and really leaning in and getting involved with civic life in a way I’ve never done before. And as I’ve told everyone I’ve interviewed with, I will continue the work with Indivisible Chicago because I will not allow myself to become complacent about our democracy ever again.”

She says she’s always been a planner. Next steps have always been laid out in her head. But recent events have changed her way of thinking.

“Things have just happened that have turned my life in a totally different direction than I ever planned on. And maybe it was just a detour, a side street to get me back into the parade. But I have to say these last two to three years have really impacted my perspective on life and have changed the way that, as I told my mother who said to me, ‘I hope I just don’t get on this trip and annoy you for two weeks.’ And I said, ‘Mom, after the last two years that I’ve had I’m thinking nothing you could do could annoy me at this point.” [Laughs]

Now when I spoke to Lauren she was about to leave on that trip to Europe. She just got back, I checked in with her and she says she and her mother had a fabulous time together.

That’s The Broad Experience for this time. As usual I welcome your comments – you can post on the Facebook page, under this episode at The Broad Experience dot com or tweet me or email me.

And you know I mentioned in the last show that I’d been pretty busy with work lately, and that’s why the show’s schedule had been a bit off? If you’re interested in checking out what I’ve been up to for the past several months, I’ve been working on a podcast series for Gimlet Creative and Virgin Atlantic and it’s called The Venture. It’s about pioneers in business – everyone from a highly successful self-deprecating female chef to the guy who essentially invented reality TV to the very interesting and unusual family behind the Dr. Bronner’s organics brand. You can find The Venture on Apple Podcasts or anywhere else you get your podcasts.

Next time on the show…in the US we are living at a highly divisive time. And liberal and conservative women do not always talk to eachother…

“When we made the decision to reach out and create a bipartisan organization I needed Republican women and I needed Republican board members who would support me, and I didn’t know any.”

That’s next time on the show.

I’m Ashley Milne-Tyte. Thanks for listening.