Note: The work I currently do in education is centered around helping college students and recent grads navigate the difficulties in the transition from 16 years of education to the world of professional work. If you’re a student who’s struggling (or struggled) with this transition, I’d love to talk to you. You can also fill out this form if you’re interested in future content/advice!
Back in the fall of my last year of college at the University of Virginia in 2018, I made the decision to take a non-traditional path after college and forego a well-paid consulting job at McKinsey or APT.
For every person that has been supportive of my decision not to go to McKinsey or APT there’s been at least ten others who think I made the wrong choice. And, when things got tough during my first year out of college, a part of me wondered if they were right — if I did make the wrong choice.
It was hard to make the decision to forego a salaried job immediately after college. The vast majority of my peers were recruited at prestigious consulting or finance firms almost a year ahead of their start dates, and signed 6-figure salary offers. I’ve had many, many people ask me how I had the nerve to turn down job offers that would have paid me $100K+ after graduating. And I wish the answer was that I was confident in myself, or that I had a “passion” that I couldn’t let wither away.
The fact of the matter is, one of my best friends and former co-founders, Andy Page, was the real motivation & support that I needed to make that leap. I still clearly remember sitting down for dinner at Zoe’s kitchen with Andy at the beginning of our fourth year. We were both considering 6-figure salary offers from firms that were interesting, but that we knew were not well-aligned with the kind of work that we saw ourselves doing 3–5 years out into the future.
Over the course of that dinner, we thought what if we got a group of our most-talented friends who wanted to do something interesting together, and we all worked together on building projects/businesses that mattered after graduation? If he jumped, I would jump too.
We quickly became obsessed with this idea, and a group of ~10 friends ended up deciding to join us on this very non-traditional path. At the time, I was working with Daniel Autry and Emily Yun on Mindbrush, a tool geared at helping students practice better mental hygiene.
While working on Mindbrush, I watched Andy start to work on what would eventually become Radify Labs, an online learning course that teaches college students in demand tech skills. Having started the Node program to teach data science at HackCville, I was extremely interested in helping Andy on Radify Labs as well. I briefly worked on both projects before realizing that I was more naturally drawn to education, and decided to continue to work full-time on Radify Labs with Andy.
We quickly brought on both the amazing Matt Quan and Allison Garrett to the team, and ran a kickass summer program helping students gain real-world skills entirely online over the course of 12 weeks. Our success that summer took us to Lighthouse Labs — a nationally ranked accelerator program in Richmond. Lighthouse was an amazing experience, one that forced me to confront my own worst qualities and to grow in ways I have never been challenged before.
It seemed like the direction of our business would change every other day in Lighthouse — and we could never agree as a group which direction to push forward in. I’ve always considered myself good at pitching, at strategic thinking, and at team conflict. As a result, I let my own ego push my actions in ways that were ultimately detrimental to the team. I was insensitive to other people’s feelings, and put an inordinate amount of pressure on my teammates. I was domineering in conversations and pitches, and overly critical of our group’s direction.
Without realizing it, there was suddenly a deep wedge in our team. We tried our very best to repair the damage that had been done, but it was ultimately unsalvageable. One week before the end of Lighthouse in November, I left Radify Labs, and my best friends.
I was fortunate to not be immediately unemployed. I had some savings from working my last two years of college — in addition to a part-time job as a high school teacher at St. Anne’s Belfield that I had taken up as a part of our strategy for Radify. I knew I wanted to continue building companies/concepts, but I felt extremely alone in my journey.
So when I came back to Charlottesville I tried to rally together the original group of ~10 friends that stayed behind after graduation. But, after being gone for 3 months, a lot had changed. Everyone was now either working a full-time job or searching for one, and there was little to no interest in continuing to work on projects. Cue, further loneliness.
I attempted to start working with the amazing Kavya Ravikanti on a financial management/budgeting concept for college students before realizing that my true interests were still in the education space (Kavya has kept strong in the finance space though — check out her blog!).
But once again, I found myself truly alone in the work that I wanted to do. I would wake up every day with the desire to do work, but the fear that I wasn’t good enough. I wondered day in and day out if I was just wasting my time — and that of the people around me. Who was I to continue working on something “interesting” and “innovative” in education? After all, I’d already failed at working on an awesome company with friends I loved and respected. How would I fare with strangers, or on my own? I felt terrible with what happened and alone and without realizing it, I sank into a depression nearly as bad as the one that ensued after my car accident in college.
I have Kate McGinn, my former co-director at HackCville, to thank for pulling me out of my rut. She is amazingly passionate about changing the landscape of education, and bringing better opportunities to students everywhere. Together, we developed a concept for practical internship education for high school students, and pitched a concept for a TA system at the American Innovators Cup, where we reached the finals and won $1000.
Working with Kate reassured me that I wasn’t the evil egotistical maniac that I made myself out to be. I had learned a lot from my mistakes at Radify Labs, and I continued to work on myself. She helped me rebuild my confidence in myself, and in my ability to do work that mattered.
Towards the end of the year (April/May), Kate found out that she had been chosen to receive a Fulbright to research something she had always dreamed of doing in Hungary. It was an opportunity that she couldn’t turn down. So once again, I was left working alone — but this time, I was in a far better place.
Since then, I’ve been fortunate to have a plethora of experiences that have provided me with the resources, community, and people that I need to continue forging my life path. I participated in the altMBA — and made friends that I still catch up with on a weekly basis. I found a community of others who were struggling to do hard, but meaningful work, and that has also made a huge difference in my mindset. I’ve picked up another partner along the way, the wonderful Angelica Fasano.
Fast forward to today, and I’m stunned by just how nonlinear my life journey has been over the past year. What I realize in hindsight is that every experience — good or bad — has been an immense learning opportunity for me. I’ve been chasing fulfillment over status and money. It hasn’t been easy, but nothing worthwhile ever is.
Something else that shocks me is how widespread these feelings are. It doesn’t matter if you’re a consultant, an investment banker, a data analyst, a sales representative, or something else — most of my friends that I still keep in touch with have the same issues that I do about the direction of their career and their life journey.
I’ve spent the last week or so on back to back phone calls with college students and recent graduates about these problems. No program or class does a great job of helping us chart our life paths, or telling us what’s normal vs. what’s not. Everyone I’ve talked to is struggling to figure out what they’re interested in doing, what jobs might provide them with those experiences, and how they can prepare to be the best candidates they possibly can be for those roles. If any of those issues resonate with you — I’d love to talk to you more about what you’re feeling. Shoot me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or schedule a time to chat with me at this link.
“Follow your own passion — not your parents’, not your teachers’, not your friends — yours.” — Robert Ballard