Photo by Craftsmen Agency
Originally published on SWAAY Media
Generally speaking, people don’t typically expect Ivy League MBA’s to be applying for entry-level jobs. But I was fortunate to be that unusual applicant after leaving my Columbia degree behind to pursue the food industry. I use the word “fortunate” without any derision; it is a pity our society takes such a snobby view towards so-called “entry-level” jobs, rushing through them without proper mental focus and never grasping the long-term learnings. Of course I had a similarly hard time swallowing my ego during my years as a freelance entry-jobber. But now that I run two successful businesses, I realize those jobs taught me instrumental lessons about my abilities, work ethic, and perhaps most importantly, created a tough mental construct around failure that gave me the courage to be an entrepreneur.
1. Treat your employees the way you want them to treat your customers
One of my first jobs after leaving Columbia was being a barista inside of a posh co-working space. While the coffee training was fantastic, the work environment was toxic. The management staff sneered at our lack of beverage knowledge and to prove a point, one of the founders asked me for a cappuccino and complained loudly at how foamy it was. Our coffee consultant, the one man I respected at the company, quietly reassured me and defended my cup of joe.
Despite another founder’s occasional attempts to seed our tip jar, our employee loyalties ended with our beloved consultant. Instead, we internalized management’s contempt for us and in return, began to project our frustration onto the customers. I now understood why cashiers at Duane Reade would snap at me for swiping my card incorrectly; their needs and feelings had been dismissed and the only outlet for respite was to push that negative energy back onto the customer.
Now that I advise businesses, I see why certain places have high staff turnover and unhappy customers. Fostering a positive work culture requires genuine respect to flow both ways; otherwise, loyalty is grounded on a paycheck. I strive to be an example when I am working with third parties, whether it is an independent contractor I’ve hired or an agency I’m collaborating with. If I want all my clients to leave with a positive impression, it starts from treating everyone with the respect they deserve.
2. Find the right people and empower them to leap
During my journey as a chef, I witnessed the inner workings of a variety of kitchens: some set up its cooks for success while others hinged on the word of one self-important authority. Food and acclaim are poor indicators for the restaurant’s long-term sustainability; I believe the closest marker of continued success can be easily observed in the form of employee empowerment.
I have been fortunate to work under three empowering chefs. During my externship at Market Table, I saw how an open ladder of advancement fueled every kitchen member to work harder. Our dishwasher would learn the garde manger setup during his down time; our garde manger would pick up occasional hot dishes during brunch. After I moved to San Francisco, I spent time at SPQR and watched how Chef Matt opened opportunities for green but ambitious cooks to push past their own limitations.
They became masters in the kitchen – butchering whole sides of animals, making perfect pastas, and keeping our food costs leaner than Chipotle. My last kitchen experience at Atera echoed that of SPQR: many of us were in positions above our pay grade, but Chef Ronny believed in our abilities. He persisted in giving his new sous chef freedom to lead our team, and watching her grow into an executive has been nothing short of inspiring.
I firmly believe people are incredible beings who will rise to the occasion if you give them the opportunity and tools to do so. What I use to guide my own hiring practices, and those of my clients, is that the right person is not necessarily the one with the perfect background. Rather, look for the person who will jump at the opportunity bigger than themselves and fill it without hesitation.
3. You can’t sell what you don’t believe in
My first job in college was selling advertising for our school’s newspaper, The Daily. I was surprisingly awesome at sales and quickly became their top advertising executive. During my long stretch after culinary school, I figured a commission-based role would be a great fit and landed a job selling juices and smoothies to venture capital firms in Silicon Valley. I visited both Sequoia Capital and Greylock Partners with my rolling refrigerator of fresh juice and poured samples for the partners during their lunch break.
In the end, I never sold a single subscription – and I knew why. No matter how much I smiled and touted the benefits of drinking these concoctions, I couldn’t conjure up that excitable energy around the healing qualities of my product. On the contrary, when I shadowed the company’s founder on prospecting calls, the response was instantaneous. The truth was, I wasn’t that interested in selling juice. I could never recreate that same sentiment because I simply didn’t believe in the product nearly as much as he did.
There is a lot of truth behind the saying “your biggest asset is yourself”. When I started my own business, I was struck with imposter syndrome and my lack of conviction in myself cost me clients. My ultimate sell is my brand and the value I know I can provide to my clients. If I don’t believe in my own work, I’d be hard-pressed to find someone who wants to pay for it.
4. Everyone has a story – listen
I think being an intern is one of the most underappreciated aspects of our career. It’s a stimulating learning environment with full liberty for failure. For a few months, I was the Business Development Intern at the New Amsterdam Market. We were in the full swing of drafting a grant proposal and I was tasked with interviewing our market purveyors to better learn about their production needs.
Every day I sat down and took notes about each of these entrepreneur’s lives. We always started with business: what equipment they had, the cost of raw materials, packaging woes. But as the conversation wore on, personal stories would slowly seep in. Deeply personal anecdotes about the hardships of owning a business, hilarious moments of success and failure, even small bouts of petty frustration. From established chains like Luke’s Lobster to small shops like Runner & Stone, I was able to peek below their marketing facade to something much more intimate. It taught me a new perspective in regards to how I liked to view the world: things are never as black and white as they seem.
I still fell into the trap of not listening enough for my first few clients. I was so caught up in fixing their problems, I bypassed the human aspect of the relationship. In turn, I was confused why my clients would not listen to me when I presented them with solutions. Now, I’ve learned how important it is to balance being emotionally attentive while giving professional advice. As a result, clients feel I am holistically invested in their business and are receptive towards difficult conversations.
5. Hiding the truth only hurts you – transparency is key
I distinctly remember how elated I felt when the partner of a top-tier restaurant consulting agency called to offer me an internship. I had been desperately applying to every culinary consulting firm without any response. It was my first real “gig”, and the partner took no time in talking up the importance of my tasks. I was to jet into Los Angeles and assist two seasoned chefs in creating the menu for a giant restaurant client. I was such a special intern, he said, he would even pay me! That he didn’t do for any other interns.
I didn’t realize until later, but the partner was having this exact same conversation with the two other interns. By pitting us against each other, he thought we would “bring our best” to work. Instead, it resulted in a cutthroat environment where we could not function as a team. Every day was a war, all of us battling to impress the founder while slamming the oven door on each other’s soufflés. In the end, it was revealed there was only one full-time position available, all but guaranteed to another intern, but the news had been hidden from the rest of us. I promptly quit. Had the situation been explained to me upfront, I would have reciprocated his transparency by finishing the project instead of quitting before the go-live.
That was one of the absolute worst jobs I’ve held, but also one of the most important. I learned that if you can put aside your ego and speak to people honestly, the majority of your audience – employees, co-workers, bosses, friends – will understand. Transparency is key for building any relationship that is worthwhile, and that principle has shaped how I run my business. If I made a mistake, I fess up immediately; if I’m unsure about some part of the business, I admit I don’t know. These are the small instances where trust is gained.
My experiences as an entry-level worker and intern strongly shaped how I started and run my own business. The biggest piece of the puzzle for every business, no matter the size, is the culture between its people. This is something theory and academia will always regurgitate, but only by fully experiencing it can one harness its teachings. There really is no such thing as “just any job”. There are important learnings in our everyday, some of them cleverly disguised as monotonous, entry-level work. Don’t let them fool you into complacency because you have no idea what you may be missing.