In “Lean In,” Sheryl Sandberg describes her career path as “a jungle gym scramble,” attributing the metaphor to SellersEaston Media’s co-founder and partner, Pattie Sellers. “I could never have connected the dots from where I started to where I am today,” writes Sandberg. Cameron Hardesty, head of products at UrbanStems’ career path is also more aligned with a jungle gym scramble than a linear path. Hardesty started her career at U.S. Customs and Border Protection followed by Edelman Public Relations and The White House, where she volunteered at The White House Flower Shop. So, how do you make the leap from the government to Geraniums? “The way to get the job you want is to identify what you really like working on (and what you’re good at) and make a conscious decision every day to spend more time doing that and less time doing the stuff you don’t like and aren’t good at,” says Hardesty. “You’ll never get to spend 100 percent of your time doing exactly what you like — you’ll always have to do some tasks that don’t make your heart soar — but you alone are responsible for building the day-to-day life that you want to have,” she adds.
Elana Lyn Gross: How did you end up at UrbanStems? What was your career path?
Cameron Hardesty: When I was 21, I found myself using — or, to be more accurate, not using — my honors English degree as the assistant to the chief of staff at U.S. Customs and Border Protection. I was not very well-suited to the role, but luckily I had a wonderful boss who let me pursue whatever crazy dreams I had during my downtime at work. That meant writing speeches and magazine articles and learning photography, in between scheduling meetings and preparing briefing books.
From age 21 to 23, in addition to my day job and the side gigs I carved out for myself in other offices, I spent a lot of time figuring out how I really wanted to spend my day-to-day. I identified that writing was my “true North” professionally — that one thing I was both really good at, and which I enjoyed. Then, I created three file folders titled “Poet,” “Journalist” and “Lawyer” (such an English major!) and created action plans for each role and a list of pros and cons for each path.
But, in the midst of the Great Recession, none of those paths seemed particularly viable. The future of the journalism industry seemed in jeopardy, indebted JDs everywhere were writing thought pieces about how no one should ever go to law school and, let’s be real, there aren’t very many poetry jobs, and the ones that exist aren’t exactly lucrative. I thought I might want to work in public relations, which, in 2008, seemed to still be an intact career path, so with the help of a wonderful woman in the Customs and Border Protection commissioner’s office who was then deputy chief of staff, I transitioned into the Public Affairs Office. (Anne Marie, wherever you are, thank you!)
Gross: You previously worked at Customs and Border Protection and The White House. How did you end up switching from government to tech?
Hardesty: I really, really wasn’t suited for the slow, predictable pace of government work. I chafed against it and hated all the rules and labyrinthine processes. I also had a strong desire to move back to Spain following an incredible study abroad experience, so I hit the “reset” button on my career and moved to Madrid for a year, where I became fluent in Spanish. From Spain, I started interviewing with Edelman Public Relations, and when I moved back, I accepted a job on their digital public affairs team in D.C. That brought me valuable experience in a growing field and made me an attractive candidate for a digital strategy role at The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy. A friend I had made at Customs and Border Protection’s Public Affairs Office became the communications director at The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, and he ended up hiring me to join his team. So, as has been the defining characteristic of my career, I got really lucky — but I also made choices and gained experience along the way that enabled me to capitalize on luck.
At The White House, I was a stakeholder of whitehouse.gov and got involved in the tech team and the Office of Digital Strategy very early on. So, even though I was in government, I was also in tech — and I learned from some of the smartest people in the industry about product and project management, development and implementation, content and social media strategy. That background has been invaluable in my work at UrbanStems, where, as an e-commerce company, tech drives and, in some ways, defines our business strategy.
Gross: What were your responsibilities as director of digital strategy and speechwriter then deputy associate director of public affairs at The White House Office of National Drug Control Policy?
Hardesty: First, to gain a deep understanding of President Obama’s drug policy goals, then, to find creative ways to communicate those goals and our progress toward them, to the public. It wasn’t an easy task because unlike the majority of Democrats, we joined the President in firmly opposing the legalization of marijuana due to serious, well-researched public health concerns around its use. We were often vilified for that policy stance in the media. Too often, marijuana became the theme of media coverage around drug policy, even as we descended into the worst opioid overdose epidemic in the history of the country.
So, digital was key to our communication strategy because it allowed us to speak directly to the public about pressing, life-or-death policy issues that weren’t making it into media coverage as quickly as we would have expected. I managed and more than doubled the size of our Twitter following in a year, opened up a Facebook account for the office and a Spanish-language Twitter account. I also worked on a whitehouse.gov feature that we debuted and was re-used for key White House initiatives, campaigns and a State of the Union Address. As a speechwriter, and later as the deputy associate director of public affairs, I drafted speeches for the director of the office to give at big public events, traveled with the director, pitched stories to press and maintained relationships with some incredible journalists at The Washington Post, USA Today and The New York Times.
Gross: How did your time at The White House make you more successful at your current role (aside from volunteering for the chief floral designer at The White House Flower Shop)?
Hardesty: Two ways: The White House chief of staff, Denis McDonough, had a policy that my chief of staff also adopted: “Bring me a solution, not a problem.” That taught me to do my research, problem-solve independently, freaking Google it, and come correct to meetings, briefings and especially media appearances. I tried to never bring anyone a question I hadn’t exhaustively tried to answer myself first. It made me really resourceful, and it was empowering. It made me realize that I had the power to solve problems myself, and I (usually) didn’t have to look to anyone else to get what I needed to get the job done. There really isn’t a more applicable lesson for startup life!
The White House can be a chaotic work environment, and it’s always fast-paced, especially when trying to coordinate big policy announcements with other departments on the president’s schedule. There are a lot of egos and strong opinions, so if you don’t stand up for your issue or yourself, you can get lost in the mix. Being in that kind of environment definitely helped me become more assertive and vocal, which you need to be as you’re helping guide the development of a young company.
Gross: What is a workday as Cameron like? Please walk me through a day!
Hardesty: No two days are the same, honestly. I can walk you through today, though! I grabbed two almond milk lattes at 9:30 am, one for me, and one for our amazing director of public relations and partnerships, Megan, and we drove up to NBC 4 to do a television segment with local anchor Eun Yang (who I love) to talk about our Valentine’s Day offering. I love to talk, which translates well to TV, so I’m always up for a broadcast opportunity.
Then we came back to our corporate headquarters here in D.C., where I have been adjudicating last minute Valentine’s Day logistical changes and delivery schedules with our vendors, meeting with the two incredible ladies on my team, Cecilia and Tugce and tracking our Valentine’s Day pre-orders with the rest of the management team. After at least another cup of coffee, I’ll firm up our April products with vendors and start thinking about Mother’s Day. Usually, I have a couple calls scheduled every day with a vendor, distributor, trucking line, investor, manufacturer, supply chain expert or flower farm. Sometimes I get to travel to farms, which is such an incredible perk.
Gross: What are your responsibilities as head of products at UrbanStems?
Hardesty: As head of products, I lead a team responsible for the company’s floral and non-floral product development — that’s the fun part! I am also the company’s point person for our supply chain, farm and vendor sourcing, selection and relationships and vendor-to-distribution center logistics. My team buys all of the flowers and other products for the whole company, and we work closely with our data team to forecast sales. I’m also lucky enough to get to make media appearances and travel quite a bit.
Gross: How did you land your role?
Hardesty: I created it! First, years ago, when I was still working public relations, I knew that I wanted to pivot into a career that spoke to my soul. I’m a creative at heart, and I have always loved floral design. I started volunteering with The White House florist at the same time Jeff and Ajay started UrbanStems and, because Jeff is married to one of my former White House co-workers, they would ask me for flower and branding advice. Over time, I let myself dream that UrbanStems could be my full-time gig and as the company developed, that dream came true — after many conversations with Jeff and Ajay, of course.
Gross: What are the most important characteristics someone needs to have to be successful in your role?
Hardesty: A zen-like state of calm in the two weeks before Valentine’s Day. But, seriously — being able to turn on a dime, appreciating the power of data and acting on it, being able to communicate well with a wide variety of folks and a resilient sense of humor.
Gross: What are the most important skills for doing your job and how did you develop them?
Hardesty: Creativity and entrepreneurialism. I like to joke that I’m an entrepreneur with the soul of an English major. A big reason why I’m successful in startup life is because of my liberal arts education at Davidson College, which taught me how to synthesize vast amounts of information into understandable points and communicate them clearly.
I credit my all-girls’ school, Hockaday, for instilling me with the entrepreneurialism and courage needed to take the leap to working at a startup.
Beyond that, working in crisis communications at Edelman taught me how to work super quickly, double check everything and give the right advice at the right time.
Gross: What’s the biggest lesson you learned at work and how did you learn it?
Hardesty: The way to get the job you want is to identify what you really like working on (and what you’re good at) and make a conscious decision every day to spend more time doing that and less time doing the stuff you don’t like and aren’t good at. You’ll never get to spend 100 percent of your time doing exactly what you like — you’ll always have to do some tasks that don’t make your heart soar — but you alone are responsible for building the day-to-day life that you want to have. I learned that early on when I felt like my talents were underutilized in my first job and, over the years, I side-gigged my way to my dream job.
Gross: What is your favorite thing about your role and working at UrbanStems?
Hardesty: My favorite thing about working at UrbanStems is that I love my job. I’ve seen a lot of people in jobs they didn’t like or had no energy for. As lucky as I was to work at The White House, I knew I didn’t want to spend the rest of my career in drug policy, and I felt called to do something more creative and entrepreneurial. So, there have been times where I wasn’t as excited about my work as I would have liked to have been. And now I feel like I’ve really found my place — somewhere I can grow, take on a lot of responsibility and work alongside ridiculously smart, talented, motivated and kind people. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Gross: What is one thing that you wish you had known when you were starting out your career?
Hardesty: I wish I had known what I was doing! It took me a couple years to figure out what I really wanted to do, and there were some false starts like paying $1,500 for a LSAT prep course and going to two classes. I wish I had had a mentor in the digital and tech space (I still don’t), but I’m so grateful for the guidance and support I received from the mentors I have, even though I didn’t follow their career paths into the legal field.
Gross: What is the best advice you’ve ever received?
Hardesty: Lots of people spend too much time trying to fix stuff that isn’t working. Instead, focus on a bright spot and replicate it.
Gross: What is your career advice for other young professional women?
Hardesty: Always ask for the business women’s lunch special a la “Romy and Michele’s High School Reunion.” But, seriously, everyone says this, but it’s true — find a couple great mentors and treasure them. They’ll push you when you need motivation, advise you when you’re not sure what to do next and give you their hard-won wisdom. Then be generous with your time when you’re in a position to return the favor.
Elana Lyn Gross is a content strategist at mllnnl, journalist and the founder of Elana Lyn. Elana Lyn is a personal and professional development website that provides millennial women with actionable job search, career and wellness advice.
This was originally published on Forbes.