Jen Lawrence is a writer, speaker and businesswoman with experience in finance, leadership, investment banking, consulting and blog management and execution. She’s also a writer with The Huffington Post, mother of two and working on her first novel.
We connected with Lawrence after following her blog on the Post and loving her advice on how to live (and be) like a boss. Lawrence has a story that so many of us can relate to. And on that note, we invite you to indulge and open yourself up to the lessons that await!
1. You have accomplished so much in your life so far – what is one accomplishment you are most proud of? Why?
I’m most proud of the fact that I’ve been able to achieve success when people said I couldn’t. I was told that it would be a huge mistake to drop math after grade 11 to pursue a degree in English Literature. I ignored that advice, focusing on what I loved. Because I was passionate about my studies, it was easier to get great marks and when I decided to go into an MBA program, those marks made it easier to get accepted. Once in the MBA program, I was told that I’d never get a job in banking because I was “too artsy.” It turns out that media companies need bankers too and I was able to speak their language so I got hired as a banker even though I’d abandoned math. The key takeaway: doors are never closed. You might have to upgrade a specific skill at a later date but if you pursue your passion, doors find a way of opening.
2. A lot of your career has been focused on writing and business – did you always see this as an outcome for yourself?
I have always been a writer first and foremost. As a child, I wrote short stories for fun. In high school, I was paid to write obituaries for the local newspaper. In university, I was an English major and wrote every opportunity I got. I assumed I’d work in publishing but when I graduated, that market was in decline and so I got a job as a travel agent and wrote stories on the side.
During my MBA, I continued to write and volunteered for any writing opportunities that came my way at work. And I always belonged to writing groups, even when I was a busy banker.
When I was at home with my two children, I finally had some real time to write so I started to blog and began to take on the occasional freelance role.
My first book, Engage the Fox: A Business Fable About Thinking Critically and Motivating Your Team, was published last year. It’s a business book written as a novel, since I believe fiction to be an ideal teacher. It’s now being used as a textbook for a few universities. Now I am working on muy first novel. Which brings me full circle.
Should I have written full-time from the beginning? I don’t think so. My careers exposed me to all sorts of things that are now elements of my work. I think that my work is more seasoned and mature because of my other experience.
3. What was your first job and what is one of the biggest lessons it taught you?
My very first job was working for a partnership and PR agency that brokered sponsorship deals between corporations and arts organization: we might find a company to fund the ballet, for example. I had exposure at an early age to the blending of art and commerce and that’s become a theme throughout my career. Also, the job had a bit of a Devil Wears Prada vibe and I learned that I’d much prefer to be the boss than the assistant!
4. Are there any lessons you’ve learned now that you wish you could tell your 20-year-old self?
I wish I’d taken more career risks. I married young and got locked into a lifestyle of working to pay the bills. I’d tell myself to travel, to not be so serious, and to realize that life is long. You have years to achieve and acquire: your 20s should be about having some fun and discovering who you are.
5. Describe a risk you took in your 20s that you’re so thankful for today!
I realized I was in a dead end job so I decided to go back to school for my MBA. I started it part-time while working, which was not fun but manageable and allowed me to still make money while in school. I was able to get a much better job post-MBA, which gave me a foundation that today allows me to write.
6. What do you hope your career path teaches your children?
I have a son and a daughter, ages 10 and 12. My son wants to host Top Gear and my daughter wants a job involving teaching hamsters to do mergers and acquisitions work. I don’t discourage either dream, even thought I’m surrounded by a lot of helicopter parents who believe there is one narrow path to success (involving straight A’s and playing a rep sport).
My belief is that life is long and the world is wide: follow your passions, work hard, keep your eyes open for opportunity, and let serendipity play a role in your success. If you are too set on one path, you may be missing out on paths that are even better!
7. Describe your worst case of writer’s block…
Every time I sit down to write my Huffington Post blog, I am sure I have nothing to say. I’m also quite convinced that the state is permanent: I will never have anything to say ever again. Then, I force myself to sit in front of my laptop, and eventually ideas start to flow. It’s funny how hard work brings forward the “muse.”
8. You’ve written a lot about engagement and motivating teams from a management perspective. What motivates you?
What gets me really pumped is feeling that my works connects me to other people and to something larger than myself. I write a lot about how to get through hard times, because when I went through a rough patch, I relied on other survivors to get me through. When I’m doing something I care about, the work is almost effortless. When I’m asked to do something I don’t think matters, it’s so much more tempting to take a little break and binge-watch The Ghost Whisperer.
9. You’ve also had your share of experience with mommy blogs. How did you manage to make the shift from finance professional to blogger?
I had decided to stay home with my children for a whole bunch of reasons, including a bout with post-partum depression. But it’s hard to go from running banking deals to sitting at a baby gym being serenaded by a clown puppet. I started my first blog, T.O. Mama, in late 2003 and it was literally a list of where the working elevators were on the Toronto subway system since I was forever getting stranded with my stroller. I then started to chat about my day with my readers. Because I was anonymous, I could vent and talk about my fears. It turned out that there were a lot of women out there saying, “Me too!” and my career as a blogger was born.
10. What’s the scariest part about changing careers? Why are these risks so important?
The scariest part is that we could fail spectacularly. Because we make money from our careers, there is also that fear that we might end up living on a park bench as a result of our failure. The most important thing I learned in my career is that everybody feel this way. Everyone feels like an imposter. Nobody knows that they are doing at first. You can let those feelings hold you back, or you can take a deep breath and make the leap. Victory belongs to the brave.
11. What’s the best part about changing careers?
I’ve had a very interesting life because of all of the careers I’ve had. Had I not made all of those changes, I’d have a narrower perspective and don’t think my writing would be as informed.
12. You’ve also written a lot about women in business – bringing your MBA in finance and passion for writing full circle. Why is this topic so important for you? For people of all genders?
I’ve worked in consulting and in investment banking and both are still male-dominated cultures. I’m a huge fan of diversity, not only in terms of gender, but also in diversity of thought. Different people bring different perspectives, and that’s vital if you want to connect with a diverse client base and bring fresh thinking to an organization. One of the reasons I love reading so much, is because you get to peek inside the heads of people who think differently from you. It helps you see issues from a different perspective.
13. Who is your business idol and why?
Right now, I love Carrie Green, who runs Female Enterpreneur Network. I love how she fosters community and collaboration, and how she encourages female entrepreneurs to support one another so we all get ahead. The group is very generous with teaching others what they know so we can all improve. I’m also quite obsessed with Brené Brown. Although she is a social worker by profession, she has a lot of amazing things to say about bringing a culture of vulnerability to the workplace that I think is so important. People have to feel safe in order to take the risks needed to innovate and change. I think that what she has to say on this topic is better than a lot of what you will hear in a management theory class.
14. Who is your favourite writer and why?
Oh, this is a hard one: it’s like being asked to name your favourite child! I have so many favourite authors who have touched my life in a meaningful way. I love Elizabeth Wurtzel, Cheryl Strayed, and Anne Lamott for their honesty. I love Anne Patchett, Margaret Laurence, Alice Hoffman, Liane Moriarty, Caroline Leavitt, and Marian Keyes for capturing the female experience so exquisitely. If you are a writer, run, don’t walk, to read Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. And if you want to read poetry to restore your soul, Alice Anderson is your woman.
15. If there is one thing you could encourage young writers to do, what would it be? Why?
If you want to write well, I’d encourage you to get an editing job, even if it’s voluntary. When I first started to blog after having my kids, I had been out of school for over 10 years and felt rusty. I started to edit pieces for the literary journal, Literary Mama. I found that reading the work of really great writers helps you hone your own craft. It’s also useful to read good books and take note of why they succeed. And then write, write, write.
16. What advice would you share with business graduates about to venture into “the real world?”
Take the job where you can learn the most. Look for great mentors and companies that will let you take risks and try new things. You have plenty of time to take a safe job in middle management when you have to worry about the mortgage and paying for your children’s orthodontics. When you are starting out, look at joining a start up, look for international opportunities, or try your hand at entrepreneurship. The time to try on a career on for size is now.
17. Anything else to add?
Take it from a 40-something, the 20s go by in a flash. Take this time to take some risks, and try some different careers. Right now, the focus is on trying enough things to get a sense of what you might like to do for the rest of your life. Once determined, you have years ahead of you to deepen your skills and develop an expertise. Good luck!
A huge thank you to Lawrence for taking time out of her schedule to share her story and her career progression. For more information about our lovely interviewee, follow her on Twitter!