Career Risk Pays Off

Imagine having two job offers from which to choose, one from a relatively unknown startup and one from a Fortune 500 corporation. That’s the career situation faced by Kelly Gray soon after she graduated from college. In this interview, Kelly shares her story with

Where did you attend college?

Kelly M. Gray

I attended college at the University of Colorado at Boulder School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

What was your college major?

I considered pre-med and anthropology but advertising was the one I stuck with in the end. I also graduated from the President’s Leadership Institute with a Certificate in Leadership. I highly recommend people listen to their heart versus the expectation to be a doctor or a lawyer or whatever “safe bet” expectations may be placed upon you. I was lucky enough to have parents that stood behind me 110%.

What volunteer experiences and college internships did you complete?

I volunteered on several occasions with Habitat for Humanity, helped Josie Heath and the Community Foundation with the Culture of Giving Campaign, started a nonprofit on campus called CSAC (College Students Against Cancer), and interned with El Pomar (where they taught us how investments work by giving us make-believe money to invest in different markets).

During my Junior year, I also interned with Pepsi (PBG) in the Denver Marketing dept. While at Pepsi, one of my most dear mentors, Linda Doner, empowered me with knowledge, responsibility, and high expectations. I started out interning over a summer to promote the Mountain Dew, Pepsi, Livewire, and Dr. Pepper brands via street teams. Once the summer ended, I was hired on to continue working with Pepsi through my senior year. I worked M, W, F and weekends at Pepsi, and had classes Tu, Th at CU. During the Pepsi experience, I learned not only how to market, but how crucial it is to work in conjunction and support of the most important department, Sales. I then completed the interviews for their College Hire program, received a job offer, and accepted on the condition that I could start three months later so I could take a quarter-life crisis trip to see the world.

You had this job offer from Pepsi and you planned a big trip. How, then, did the second job offer happen?

A bit of background: During my senior year, this nice guy named Lyndon “Duke” Hanson walked into our advertising class led by one of my favorite professors of all time, Bill Weintraub. He had this silly, “fugly” (fun and ugly…to most people) boating shoe with holes in it and he wanted to see what types of creative campaigns we could brainstorm. A few groups of us had a fantastic time developing campaigns that not only highlighted the shoes’ boating benefits, but the lightweight, anti-microbial benefits. (Looking back, we should have positioned it as the perfect kids’ shoe that adults can cleverly wear, too!) Hindsight is 20/20. The shoe was known as Crocs™ and we all had a blast thinking about how to market it. I even got a free pair of baby blue Crocs™! After wearing them and loving them, I went and bought a red, holy pair of Beach Crocs™ for $30. Best investment I ever made. I graduated, kept in loose contact with Duke, borrowed money for a plane ticket from my younger brother, sold my beloved 1987 Jeep wrangler to pay him back, and hopped on a flight to London.

I was happy to have the job offer from Pepsi and I loved working there. But I was haunted during my trip by the idea of working for Crocs. I didn’t have a job offer from them, but there was just something about Crocs that made it a super appealing prospect. I knew that it might be more interesting, less established, less structured, and would allow me to be a bigger fish in a small pond. I was still a tadpole compared to those with whom I was about to go to work, but my 22 year old ego made me feel unstoppable.

Red Beach Crocs™

Crocs™ Beach

As I traveled through Granada, Spain, and Chiang Mai, Thailand, hobby photographers would stop me to ask to take pictures of my shoes. My red Beach Crocs™ captured everyone’s attention. No one had seen anything like it. One specific instance I remember was when we were in a flower village in the mountains of Chiang Mai. I was sitting on a stoop of a home with dirt floors, beautiful children, and a Pepsi sign written in Thai. There I was, in the middle of a foreign country, and Pepsi was there and had been there for a long time. Yet the shoes on my feet had never been seen or worn there before. They wanted to see more…or at least take pictures. Mind you, I had braids in my hair that went down to my mid-back, but no one wanted to take pictures of my hair…they just wanted to focus on my feet.

When back in Bangkok, I sat down at an internet cafe and started stalking poor Duke via email. He was always super nice and open-ended about potentials, but made no promises. So I continued to check in at every chance I could. I also sent him pictures of me and my Crocs™ in foreign countries along the way. I was sort of shameless and I am so lucky he didn’t put me in his spam folder.

The trip continues, we end up back in LA a month or so later, at which point I realized I had no money to get from there to Denver. In steps mom and dad, who flew me home to Colorado Springs. Once again, I emailed Duke, and lo and behold, he asked if I could be in Boulder the next day for an interview. I unbraided my hair for nine hours, borrowed clothes from my mom for the interview, borrowed my dad’s baby (his Mustang), and drove up the next day. I saw Duke for a few seconds, and then I was led into a room to wait to speak with the VP of Sales, Mike Margolis. I had never met anyone like him. He was fast, furious, told me I was perfect for the job, and boom – he was gone. Off to the next sale.

I then worked out the details of the position with Crys Margolis, who was clearly the one herding cats. Long story short, the money available for the position in this startup environment was $20,000 less than what I was offered at Pepsi. Seeing the mixture of my desire, concern, and uncertainty of which way to go, Crys was nice enough to give me 24 hours to think about it. I don’t even remember the car ride home. But when I got there, I called her back and took the job. My gut said to go for it and I was young enough to take the risk and deal with the consequences of it being the wrong choice.

How did the people at Pepsi take the news?

It all worked out. With Pepsi, the city of my assignment changed and there was a restructure in management as to whom I would report, so since the terms of the job offer had changed, we mutually dissolved the contract. I am still a fan of Pepsi and when I drink soda, I still prefer Pepsi. There were some really wonderful people there and I enjoyed every minute of my learning and mentoring experience there.

Can you describe how you made your career decision?

To sum it up, I guess I considered the following:

1. What is my growth opportunity at Pepsi/? Is that the path I want?
2. I know what the next 5-10 years will look like in their system….am I OK with that kind of predictability/preset path?
3. Where can I learn the most about business as a whole versus just marketing?
4. Do I want a sustainability product to work with or one that is skyrocketing, yet unpredictable?
5. Where can I make more impact?
6. Which one seems more fun?
7. Where can I network most and meet other industry players?
8. Which one might I only get one shot at in life? (Crocs won)
9. Which one does my gut want? Why?
10. Which one is a bigger growth challenge?

Did you feel confident about your choice or did you have moments of doubt?

Are you kidding? I was terrified. I didn’t sleep that night. Mostly because of the money I left on the table and how much that meant to me at the time. I felt confident in my decision, but ones like that can be somewhat numbing. Especially when some people thought I was insane for taking the road less traveled. The way I got over it quickly was to accept that I had made my decision, stop asking others to share his/her opinion, and to own MY decision and stop wasting time questioning myself. After the first week of not having time to think in that startup environment, I was having so much fun that doubt really never returned as to whether or not I had made the right decision. I felt so fortunate to work with the people at Crocs. Mike Margolis is probably the most brilliant salesperson I’ve ever met. George B. Boedecker, Jr., Duke Hanson, and Scott Seamans were visionaries and it was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn from them. None of them were (or are) conventional, and they were therefore magnificent in their unique ways.

What would you have done differently, if anything, if you had the chance?

One, I would have taken better care of my health during the time I worked at Crocs. I gained about 30 pounds and I didn’t even notice it happening until I saw some pictures and didn’t recognize myself. All of this was completely preventable. I was too concerned with being the fastest racehorse in the bunch. It became a goal to get there before the VP of Sales (sometimes as early as 5:30 am) and stay until everything I had on my desk was finished. This was an unhealthy rule of thumb because when you’re in a startup environment, it’s nearly impossible to get everything done in a day. I stopped teaching fitness classes for a while, and I was so exhausted when I returned home in the evening that I’d simply eat, have some wine to relax, and hit the bed. Wash, rinse, repeat. Over time, I just developed unhealthy life/work balance that is all too common. It can burn people out, even if they don’t think it will get to them. Eventually, I got myself back on track. I now teach fitness classes most every day of the week, and I walk the talk of promoting healthy life/work balance.

Two, I would have been less afraid to ask for what I wanted in terms of pay, exploring shares, etc. I didn’t pay close enough attention to some of the evolutions taking place and I knew hundreds of people were waiting in line for my role. I was too afraid to ask for what I wanted in fear of what….that they’d say no? It makes no sense when I look back. Rookie move.

Overall, are you happy with your choice to go with Crocs rather than Pepsi?

Yes! It certainly paid off in terms of experience, knowledge, networking, and know-how. I had vested shares when we went public. While I certainly could have tried to negotiate for more, I did OK for a person my age and the CEO was generous to allow me to have any participation.

I don’t have any villas anywhere as a result, but it was a strong launching point for someone in her early 20’s. Some people go an entire career without experiencing that type of momentum or IPO environment.

What are your future career goals?

I love marketing, the constantly evolving world of technology and social media, and ways to use it to change opinions and behaviors of the masses. My goal is to use my skills in this area to serve the greater good. I think that there is a huge amount of responsibility that marketers and advertisers should acknowledge and use wisely. We have the ability to speak to the masses, and that can often be abused for the right marketing budget. I feel like I have a responsibility to know that whatever I’m helping proliferate in the market isn’t going to harm the kid in front of me in the grocery line in some roundabout fashion. I see lifestyle brands and health and wellness brands as my passion industry, but I love any challenge that crosses my desk/inbox. Products and services are so much fun to position, brand, and place on shelves, online, or on influential people. In a broad sense, my goal is to continue to work with visionaries who have products and services I believe in. I like to be the “hired gun” and the “Marketing Department down the hall” that can work in lockstep with them to work toward the same common goal. I want to travel more with my career.

I want to help create more success stories. I want to do more freelance writing for publications. Writing is an enormous passion of mine and I need to dedicate more time to it. If I’m lucky, a million dollar idea of my own will sneak into my brain at an unexpected moment as well. Truth be told, if I did win the lottery tomorrow, I’d still want to do what I do. I’d just be a little harder to catch on my frequent flights around the world.

What advice do you have for other people just starting their career?

Each scenario is different and requires special considerations. That being said, I do think it’s very important to be honest with yourself and others as to what type of work environment you thrive in. Some people shine in corporate environments where there are systems, protocols, and paths in place. Some people shine in startup or smaller/privately held environments where you can wear several hats and pitch new protocols and ideas. I like both environments, but I find that new ideas and systems are well-received in non-corporate environments most of the time. My brain just happens to operate on the “what could be” plane versus “this is what it is…don’t tinker” plane. Some people operate under a predefined “to-do” list. Others need little direction and just run with projects. Some people thrive at both, but at different times in his or her life.

Know what you’re getting into and WHO you’ll be working with. Know the expectations up front and don’t be afraid to ask where they see YOUR role going in 2, 5, and 10 years. Often we are asked that question in interviews, but we don’t turn the table and ask what they are willing to invest in us.

I can’t stress how lucky I have been to have the mentors and opportunities I’ve had. People can make or break your work environment and your development and you have a choice as to the people with whom you will align and from whom you will learn. There are many good managers, but try to seek managers who are leaders who want to also teach you leadership skills. Seek environments where they don’t just groom you to fit the role they need filled, but groom you to grow and thrive as a person and as a professional. Now more than ever, workplaces are trying to create a healthy and evolving work environment focused on investing in their human capital.

Lastly, don’t just depend on what you learned in college. Especially in my industry. Your career grows when you make the effort to stay in lockstep with the developments in your profession. My marketing and advertising textbooks said nothing about Facebook, as it wasn’t mainstream yet. Social Media hadn’t boomed yet. Now we can’t imagine what life would be like without it.

The game change. Make a commitment to change with the technology and trends that will continue to shift moving forward.

Kelly, thank you so much for telling your career story.