Written by Janece Shaffer Tuesday, October 23 2012
One of the first questions often asked of successful women is “How do did you do it?” We thought we’d break that question down into something even more basic, “What was your first (high school) job and what did that job teach you?” Here are responses from six successful women – including an economist, a media strategist, corporate professionals and others – who got their start doing everything from detasseling corn in Iowa to waitressing at a truck stop in Texas.
Erika Machamer, Senior Vice President, Human Experience Strategy at Starcom MediaVest Group, New York, N.Y.
I waited tables at a truck stop in a small town with more cows than people. Buffy's was covered in taxidermy, and we served mostly truckers, ranch hands and cops mostly breakfast and fried meats covered in white gravy. My dad got me the job when I was 13. I learned how to carry hot plates stacked up my arm, how to avoid unwanted advances and how to make as many tips as possible. I wasn't saving for anything in particular, but I loved having a dresser drawer full of $1 bills to show for my work.
I don't think I can tell you anything new about what waiting tables teaches you. It taught me to smile more (people prefer happy), get organized (people like to get what they ordered) and move faster (people like to see a little pep in your step.)
Sunday mornings were my favorite shifts to work because I had the Colorado Room, which was non-smoking and had 20 two-tops. As long as I could keep the tables happy and the cups filled with coffee, it was a highly profitable day. I always loved when regular customers came in. I loved knowing exactly what they wanted and how they wanted it and making them happy. I think working there made me love going out for breakfast on the weekends – it's such a pleasant ritual.
Today I'm a media strategist in New York, and I'm grateful I don't have to roll silverware, stand on my feet for hours or wear an apron covered in gravy. I still smile a lot, though.
Tisha R. Tallman, President & CEO of The Georgia Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Atlanta, Ga.
When I was 14 years old I detasseled corn in the fields of Iowa. I would catch a bus at 4 a.m. that would take us (teenagers) to a different field every day. We got to the field by dawn, and we would put on trash bags over our clothes – jeans, long-sleeve shirts – and handkerchiefs over our faces because the field would be heavy with dew and you didn’t want to get wet for the rest of the day. I was only 5’ 2” tall, and I would reach to the top of the stalk and pull the tassels off. When you do it, it makes a smacking sound. The work was hot and horrendous, but I loved it.
I became a checker in the first couple of weeks, which meant I got paid more and I checked on the work that my sub-group of the crew did in the fields. I was literally a supervisor in a male-dominated field.
Above all, my first job taught me that my work ethic could supersede my gender. The job also provided an empathy and understanding I wouldn’t otherwise have of my heritage and of laborers in general. You know, my grandparents were migrant farm workers and being a teenage farm laborer gave me somewhat of an understanding of what the people who came before me had to do. I only had to do it for a summer for extra money, but this was their lives.
Dawn Conway, Senior Vice President, Global Content Licensing, Cision, Chicago, Ill.
Between my junior and senior year in high school I was a restaurant hostess at the San Diego Zoo. If you wanted to find us, you went through the turn styles and hung a right at the flamingos, and the restaurant was right there. At the time it was the only sit-down restaurant in the park, so it was constantly swamped. The hardest part about the job was managing people's expectations, and I am just as guilty today of saying, "I don't want to sit by the kitchen door with the clanging dishes. I want to sit by the window." People weren't always pleasant. The crowds were large, and I got paid minimum wage. It wasn't easy.
The happiest moment of the day would be when customers approached the restaurant right as we were closing at 4 p.m., just as we were changing the sign from open to closed. I relished seeing the disappointment on their faces. How bad is that?!
What lessons did I take from my job at the zoo? That job – working with the general public – was a real wake-up call for me. I remember how I was treated, like I was a no-nothing hostess, and as a result I always treat people as if I was sitting on the other side of the table. I treat everyone – from the receptionist to the CEO – with the same respect. That is a life lesson that you take with you all the way to the corner suite.
What's interesting is that I've made my two daughters start their careers with public-facing jobs. It's important and useful to have that perspective.
Manisha Thakor, Founder & CEO of MoneyZen Wealth Management, Santa Fe, N.M.
In high school I had several different jobs. I babysat, taught tennis lessons and one summer worked as a cashier at the local gas station. I grew up in a small town in Indiana, and the range of summer job options back in the mid-1980s wasn't exactly robust.
One of the things I remember vividly from all three of those jobs was how good it felt to earn money in exchange for providing a service/job well done. I liked the sense of power and freedom that came from earning pocket money. At the same time, my parents had also taught me and emphasized the importance of saving for the future. so even back then I saved some in my IRA and also liked the discipline of knowing I was building some security for the future. My parents always emphasized living within our means, so I can't ever remember "blowing through" my earnings.
Looking back on it, I can see that I was lucky to get the message of how the art of earning and spending money is the art of balancing joy today versus joy tomorrow – and to view that as a positive, not a negative trade-off. As a result, as an adult the practice of regular savings was like brushing my teeth – something that would just feel yucky not to do!
Sandra Feinsmith – Senior Tax Director at BDO USA, LLP, Atlanta, Ga.
In high school, my first job was working in my uncle’s office. He was a doctor, and I did everything from getting lunch, filing, answering the phones, copying, etc. The best day on the job was when I finally understood the switchboard and was able to get seven patients on the line ready to talk to the doctor at once.
My first job after college was in the assurance practice of a large local CPA firm. I was there for six years. I learned the importance of teamwork and being flexible.
My best day on that job was when I found a client had doubled a payment on a bill. The company was having financial issues, so they were able to get a refund and stay a float a little longer. My partner and client were very pleased, and I got a great recommendation from that client. I kept that recommendation for a long time to remind me what a difference “thank you” to someone for a job well done can make.
More hardworking women:
Former restaurant server Delia Champion first delighted breakfast lovers with her successful franchise The Flying Biscuit and now she's attracting late-night eaters to her Sausage Stand.
When Francine Manilow sees a need for a business, she fills it. She has been a successful serial entrepreneur since 1963, when she started her first of many businesses all while working as a flight attendant for United.
Tired of being overlooked for promotions in favor of men that she trained, Mary Kay Ash took a chance by founding the company she wished she had worked for. You might have heard of it.
Janece Shaffer, senior editor of Womenetics, is also an award-winning, professionally produced playwright. Her plays have been produced in theatres across the country including the Asolo Repertory Theatre, Alliance Theatre, and Taproot Theatre. She also has more than two decades of experience in the communications field and has held communications positions at Emory University, The NAMES Project Foundation/AIDS Memorial Quilt and the Alliance Theatre. Shaffer holds a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Georgia and a master’s degree in communications from Georgia State University.