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My Journey to Forty Under 40: From Failure to Fruition

My Journey to Forty Under 40: From Failure to Fruition

I am a PRSA Georgia Chapter Forty Under 40 honoree. This achievement has given me a moment to take a step back and appreciate how I got here because it suddenly feels like I’ve finally arrived. Reading my name listed next to so many amazing, accomplished people in this industry gave me the chance to reflect on why this matters so much to me.

My aptitude for marketing and public relations has always run deep — the innate desire to persuade. If you think I’m joking, you should see my childhood Christmas lists, which were 10-page presentations of puns and jingles housed in shiny plastic binders. The first pitch I ever gave was actually to my parents, and it included a PowerPoint presentation filled with research rationalizing why I should get a VW Beetle for my 16th birthday. It was also the first pitch I ever won.  

Despite this aptitude, the path to where I am today was winding and difficult. The year I graduated college with my Advertising degree in hand, I experienced things that would set the tone and trajectory for the next decade of my life and career. We were on the cusp of the 2008 recession, jobs were minimal, and I grappled with the enormity of possibilities. Just a few months after receiving my diploma and starting out on my own, my older brother died at the age of 24 — leaving me numb and in an existential paralysis. The following years were a master class in “failure to launch” as I found myself crossing what seemed like an endless plateau. 

In my early career, I held marketing positions that oftentimes equated to sales jobs or managing promotions. I didn’t want to move to the advertising epicenters of NYC, LA, or even Atlanta — because honestly, I was afraid of failing at something I really wanted when it was so much easier to fail at something I didn’t. My dreams of a career akin to Mad Men had been dashed and my ponderings at attending a portfolio school easily quashed. 

Trapped in quicksand of my own making, I sank deeper, resigning to stay in a city in Florida where there were few exciting marketing opportunities but ample familiar relationships. In an effort to pretend I didn’t want to pursue marketing, I grasped at passing interests. I became a hair stylist for a year in an attempt to be “recession proof” but was unsatisfied and not particularly talented (unless you really wanted orange hair). 

My great moment of clarity came when I was on my knees scrubbing a toilet, one of my many cleaning duties as an assistant hair stylist at an upscale salon. Earlier that week, the receptionist jokingly referred to me as Cinderella, as she bellowed for me to remove a dead cockroach from the lobby. I don’t want to call it rock bottom, but the phrase “circling the bowl” comes to mind. This is when my life seemed to come into sharp focus. An understanding that where I was in this exact moment and what I was doing was the result of my choices and mine alone. 

It was this defining moment when I stopped blaming the economy, my parents, or even the grief for the status of my life — a college-educated, talented marketer scrubbing toilets and sweeping floors at the age of 27. That moment was when I started to take responsibility for the fact that when you are not happy with where you are in life, you are both the problem and the solution. 

Shortly after my “circling the bowl” moment, I packed up all my things and moved to Atlanta. I left my house, my relationship, and moved in with my family who lived in the city. I was finally ready — ready to fail maybe, but also ready to actually try to have the career and life I wanted. I had always wanted to be in PR or Advertising in some capacity; it was always what I was good at. Now it was time to come into my own. 

After moving to Atlanta, I scored an interview with my now boss, Danica Kombol through a family connection, and she gave me the opportunity to work at Everywhere Agency. The year was 2011 and the agency was very much so a start-up. I truly started at the very bottom at this and worked my way through every possible role, beginning as an hourly contractor doing scut work until I earned my role as Vice President. I still recall Danica saying in my interview, “I’ll give you $10 an hour and we’ll see what you can do”. Thanks to her, I’ve been able to find out. 

The structure of a small agency gave me the opportunity to be seen and to make a real impact. Being able to create my own path through merit and competence changed everything for me. I continually pushed myself to be uncomfortable by taking on new challenges and with each success my confidence in my abilities grew. 

I have had the opportunity to work with incredible Fortune 500 brands like Georgia-Pacific, Carter’s, Macy’s, Cox Auto, Newell, and more. I have been on the ground floor of new forms of marketing in social media and influencer marketing. I’ve helped build a company of empowered women and been a part of award-winning campaigns. My work has taken me to places I’d never considered like Haiti and Quebec. I’ve pitched ideas about marketing moonshine at the Anheuser-Busch mansion and organized events for celebrities. I’ve presented in glass skyscrapers in NYC and experienced my first mad dash to LaGuardia during a snowstorm. I’ve spoken at conferences and to auditoriums filled with people, and somewhere along the way — I built the career I’d always wanted. 

I need to acknowledge the fact that I am inherently privileged — as a white woman with a supportive family and a good education my desire to just change my circumstances by my will is not available to all. In the past, I’ve been embarrassed that my background has been so varied, that my pedigree in PR came later in my career. However, those years crossing the plateau taught me something about resilience, empathy, resourcefulness, and tenacity — and for that I am grateful to my past and my failures. 

I hope that if anyone reading this is somewhere they don’t want to be or afraid of reaching for their dreams, they might be inspired to do something. Quit, move, forgive, learn, connect, try — all of these are actions that are catalysts to change. And change is the vehicle to where you want to go.

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