I’m the Chief Market Engagement Officer at a predictive technology and market research company – and a millennial working with world-class cultural institutions who publishes her own, frequently cited website. Here’s how I got here.
It’s graduation season – that time each year when my email inbox gets more pings than usual with the popular question, “Will you please share your career path and any advice you have?”
Unless I am guest speaking with a class of upcoming graduates, I often shy away from the question. After all, a majority of my readers are cultural executives, and the most valuable content on this site is industry data supplied by IMPACTS. Why would anyone care about the career path of an overly enthusiastic nerd who is directionally impaired and has a habit of putting ketchup on nearly everything she eats? Who cares about that person?
But then I consider that Nina Simon’s 2010 post, “How I got here” may still be one of my favorites on her site.
I’ve also accomplished some things: I’ve built a brand that is frequently cited as a primary resource within the cultural industry and I’ve had the opportunity to work with board members and executive leaders within some of the nation’s most impactful organizations. I maintain a lengthy subscriber list of cultural executives and board members from leading cultural entities, have spoken for several ivy league and top-tier graduate programs, keynoted in four different countries (and enough times domestically that I don’t have a ready list), been cited as an expert on sources ranging from Stanford Social Innovation Review to NPR, and I am one of few millennials serving on the Board of Directors of an organization serving more than a million visitors each year.
What just happened? I blacked out through the brag-fest.
But I’ve worked hard, thought outside of the box, and – though I do believe that luck plays a role in (my) life – I don’t think I’m only lucky. I’m proud of what I’ve built thus far. If sharing my path may be helpful, then I’d like to help.
I don’t know that I’m qualified to give life advice, but I can certainly share my story. Here’s an overview of my career path organized by three, key themes that I’ve learned along the way thus far. I’m not sure how applicable these lessons I’ve learned are to others. I’m only sure that have been helpful to me. I hope that they are helpful to you.
Know your own bone
Discovering my backbone
I was an art nerd in high school and I received varsity letters in speech team and academic bowl. (Nerds are winners, too, folks!) I double majored in English and Visual Arts, with a minor in Art History from The University of Chicago. As a student, I was a docent at the Smart Museum of Art and volunteered in the education department at The Art Institute of Chicago. I received a fellowship over the summer going into my senior year to work with an organization called After School Matters that provides innovative art programs for youth in Chicago.
When I graduated in 2007, I wasn’t yet clear on what drove me: art, transformative experiences, or getting people excited about them. In an effort to get to the bottom of this passion, I moved out to Seattle and worked at Pacific Science Center. I coordinated large-scale special events. For two years, my personal cell phone was filled with the numbers of alpaca farmers, model railroad collectors, and science circus performers. I was a work horse wearing dozens of hats at the bottom of the science center food chain – and I loved it. I’m grateful that I got to do some things that still make me proud – from building partnerships to playing a leading role in launching a science café.
As more and more people were using the web, I experienced first-hand the common tension that existed within visitor-serving organizations at the time: The push-pull of old communication channels vs. new ones, hierarchical vs. horizontal structures, entertainment vs. education, and mission vs. revenue. The environment was at-odds and energizing. And all of this was happening in the backdrop of a world increasingly influenced by the Internet.
“Do we really need to be on this Book-Face website?” one leader asked.
At the time, it was unclear.
I decided to go to the University of Southern California to get my Masters of Public Administration with a specialization in nonprofit management, starting in 2009. I was eager to get a bird-eye view of the nonprofit industry, but I was anxious to lose my place in the visitor-serving organization hierarchy.
Know Your Own Bone was born while I was wearing pajamas at a friend’s kitchen table in Detroit one night before making my move to Los Angeles.
Henry David Thoreau wrote, “Do what you love. Know your own bone. Gnaw at it, bury it, unearth it, and gnaw at it still.” Anyone who has met me may tell you that I have two, defining characteristics: I am enthusiastic and I am curious. I knew that I was inspired by cultural organizations and how they were evolving. That was my bone. From the beginning, this site has been about the evolution of the industry – even before I had primary source data.
I often thank my past self for not calling this website something cringe-worthy like, “Colleen’s cool cultural corner!”
Thank you, 2009 Colleen. Thank you.
Once I’d identified the fuzzy outline of my own bone, my world changed. I had no idea how or if my passion for following the evolution of cultural entities could turn into a career. I had clarified my mission. I started graduate school without a clear path, but with a compass. Can a person “be” a specialist in cultural center evolution?
My key lessons:
- Find what makes you excited
- Try to identify the outline of that north star, even if it’s not fully formed
- It’s okay if it doesn’t have an apparent “clear path”
- There’s something to learn in every experience
Evolve and stay curious
Working on my wishbone
Like many of my peers, I also went thousands of dollars into student loan debt to follow this crazy ambition of working within mission-driven visitor-serving organizations. I worked two jobs as a full time student: One at the USC Roski School of Art and Design, and another doing marketing for a small nonprofit helping teens transition out of foster care that was run by Jeff Probst – the host of Survivor. (Can you live in LA without working for a celebrity?)
This is when the “putting ketchup on everything” habit really took off. Ketchup goes further than marinara sauce.
Living on dreams… I’ve been there.
I also kept writing Know Your Own Bone, compiling and sharing thoughts about the evolution of the cultural industry. I had little idea if anyone was reading the website, but I was consistent. As it turns out, some people were reading it. Folks at the Institute of Museums and Library Services (IMLS) asked me to conduct my first webinar in 2010 and more people started reading it! People at the American Association For State And Local History (AASLH) were reading it. I was beginning to get speaking requests.
I was not paid for any of these speaking gigs beyond basic travel expenses. (Pass more ketchup, please!) I’m glad I went. My life changed at a mid-year conference of the Association of Zoos and Aquariums in Chattanooga in 2011. I was presenting about social media to several people with whom I would (unknowingly at the time) soon be working. Leaders from the National Aquarium, Shedd Aquarium, and Tennessee Aquarium (especially) all told me about a data company called IMPACTS, and they told the company founder about the “rogue millennial talking about new trends.” I was hired a few weeks later.
I never thought that I’d work outside of the nonprofit sector. My “plan” was to get a job within a museum – but this company that specialized in helping entities evolve by shining light on perceptions, behaviors, and motivations aligned too well with my own passions to pass up.
“Do I need to stop writing Know Your Own Bone?” I asked
“Let’s see what happens,” the company founder said.
As my readership grew alongside my lessons working on the ground with cultural executives, I asked leaders in the company if I could make some of the valuable, non-proprietary data from the National Awareness, Attitudes, and Usage Study public on the website. They said okay. Readership grew. So did my already unstoppable nerdiness and my drive to share the information to help cultural organizations.
That’s essentially how I ended up creating my own job and the one I have now: Analyzing, sharing, and communicating trend data regarding how people think and behave surrounding cultural organizations.
I was hired because of the Internet. That’s the world we live in today, folks. If I set in stone a five-year plan, I would not be here. My five year plan was not, “start a website, get on the speaking circuit, find a data company willing to support my related side gig, build my own position, and work with world-class institutions and dive into big questions for a living.” That’s a plan that I think only luck, timing, hard work, and opportunity can draw up.
My key lessons:
- Stay curious and ask questions
- Five-year plans can be good, but don’t let your path be set in stone
- Allow for change and opportunity
- When you are clear on your mission, it becomes possible to carve your own path
- Connections really do matter. (It’s not just a tired saying.)
Soft skills are a superpower
Embracing my funny bone
I’m thirty-three and I have been with IMPACTS for nearly seven years. My job is not a list of duties in one location, but a series of adventures and projects all over the world. Here’s what a month in my life is like.
Today, I am thankful that Know Your Own Bone is the cornerstone of my job. I carry out work with IMPACTS clients, and I’m also an intraprenuer for the company carrying out opportunities (articles, workshops, speaking gigs, meetings) to share nonproprietary data and analysis about visitor motivations and behaviors. While with IMPACTS, I’ve worked with and presented for dream organizations ranging from Monterey Bay Aquarium to San Diego Zoo to Naples Botanical Garden to Wildlife Conservation Society to Exploratorium to a consortium of 41 museums in Europe.
I have a brand, but I’m not at all an island. IMPACTS supplies the data in accordance with the queries I submit, I work with awesome professionals from client organizations, I connect and get great ideas from conversations with readers, and my colleagues edit articles to help correct for unintentional biases in my analyses. I carry out workshops alongside my fantastic colleague, Jim Hekkers, a leader in using data within the industry and the former Managing Director of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. “Connection” is a theme in my career path.
Certainly, knowing a lot about data comes in handy in my work. So does knowing a thing or two about behavioral economics, marketing, and business. The skills that I keep working toward and am most grateful for, however, are soft skills: communication, self-motivation, leadership, problem solving…
What can you do with a liberal arts degree?
Just about anything, I think.
(Except brain surgery. Please get special training for that.)
What’s funny is that I don’t think I realized the power of paying attention to soft skills until I was writing, speaking, sharing, and helping leaders think through data for a few years. In addition to my undergraduate and masters degrees, I’ve completed professional programs at Harvard University (digital engagement), University of Washington (public relations), London School of Economics (strategic marketing), and Yale University (behavioral economics). To be sure, the skills and information that I’ve learned through these programs are valuable!
That said, all of these programs combined do not hold a candle to one, difficult day spent with executive leaders of a struggling organization working through inconvenient market research. Attempting to deliver (sometimes) tough data with grace and patience – while minimizing defenses and getting a group of leaders (with their own complex interpersonal relationships) excited about solutions? That is an education.
I’ve built a brand by being myself and I work hard not to stray far from that. So we’re all on the same page: “Myself” is an enthusiastic, blonde(ish), millennial data geek (the kind who dances to herself when there isn’t any music)… with research that is most impactful when in the hands of cultural leadership – still a largely male, hierarchical bunch.
“Understand your audience” is a lesson that I’ve learned over and over – sometimes successfully and sometimes not-so-successfully. I am honored to work primarily with baby boomers and older members of Generation X. This may be the most rewarding aspect of my job. So I must include this advice to students and young people in the industry during this time of transition and change:
Be yourself, yes. But be a “yourself” who is true to you and also balances that with what you are trying to do and achieve so that you can do so effectively. This balancing act is a soft skill. I can be strategically sassy on this site at times, but nobody wins by playing the “bull in a china shop” game in real life. I’ve learned that how and when a message is delivered can be just as important as the message itself.
This awareness is critical in my job, but it’s also important for serving on the board of directors at a major institution.
My key lessons:
- Don’t undervalue soft skills like writing, speaking, listening, and leading
- Some of the most valuable lessons come outside of a classroom
- Stay connected to others. Get support and give it.
- Know your audience
- Be yourself… Be a “yourself” that is conscientious of others and aware of how to best be true to you while being most effective.
- Respect those who built this industry (They have the best lessons)
I still love ketchup – except now I eat it out of desire rather than necessity.
In my opinion, one of the most wonderful things about working with cultural organizations is that “spark” that industry professionals share – that sincere love of learning, science, art, theater, music, botany, dance, history, animals, or the ocean. These professionals glow.
I see the articles and hear the stories about people leaving the cultural sector. They are doing it because they feel that they are overworked, and are not being heard, valued, or paid. This is a big deal and a big problem. I hope that organizations will work to create cultures that better value these leaders and cultivate their passion rather than snuffing it out.
…And if you are one of those passionate folks with a dream of helping cultural entities and are at your wits’ end, consider this: There are also thriving companies that specialize in helping museums and performing arts entities better fulfill their missions. From here on Know Your Own Bone to Museum Hack to Capacity Interactive… I believe that even better, more relevant, and more inclusive experiences are on the horizon for the cultural industry as they keep moving forward. I hope we keep you.
I hope that this story of my career path to date is helpful or interesting to you. Thank you for reading it and for working hard to educate and inspire the masses through your own work with or support for cultural organizations. Indeed, ours is an industry of connected stories.
Congratulations to all of the new graduates this year! Go forth and bring your spark into cultural organizations! Blaze trails, encourage conversation, and shake things up with your fresh perspectives.
We are lucky to have you.