I have leaned in twice in my life, and both times got me to where I am today.
Since early childhood, I was conditioned for a life in science. There wasn't a single moment in grade school or high school when I had not simply accepted that I would eventually become a scientist. I excelled in math, biology, chemistry and all the other STEM subjects so, naturally, when I started college, I majored in both biology and chemistry on the pre-med track.
I don't come from a wealthy family: I grew up in South Chicago in a quiet suburb on the very edge of cornfields, my father was a vocational education teacher at Chicago Public Schools for 35 years, and my mother was a children's librarian. Although they didn't earn enough to send me to college, they were sufficiently well off to limit my potential for financial aid such that I had to decline offers to NYU, Boston University, Northwestern, Depaul and the University of Illinois. I chose to attend University of Illinois at Chicago instead.
During my time in college, I worked full-time as a movie theater manager in a nearby town. It was during this job that I was first introduced to marketing; due to need, and because I was the only manager willing to take on more work, I started running promotions and events for my town. To my surprise, I was not only good at it, but I loved it. By the time I ended my sophomore year of college, I knew that I could no longer continue down a path in science.
In a very risky move, I switched my major to marketing. Despite losing nearly two years of classes (and the equivalent in tuition), I was determined to pursue something I was passionate about. At the time, Facebook was very new and it had gained significant traction at our school (as a sister campus of U of I, we were one of the first colleges to gain access to Facebook back when a college email was required). Digital marketing was not incorporated in most college marketing programs, but I immediately saw the importance of social media and digital applications as marketing tools, so I tried my best to focus all of my projects and papers on the subject.
Upon graduation, I had to begin paying off my student loan immediately, so I worked for Target as a store manager. Although the job paid well, I sincerely disliked the kind of work it required and, more importantly, it distracted me from my desire to pursue work a digital marketer.
In 2008, I took a risk (and accepted a major pay cut) to become an entry level associate in the eCommerce department of ULTA Beauty. At the beginning, I frequently questioned my decision to change careers, and even considered returning to a management role. Despite setbacks early on, the learning curve was massive. I made it my job to learn different aspects of digital strategy; every time I came across an opportunity to lead a project or take on a new challenge, I raised my hand. I worked across the company, with marketing, IT, finance and even the group in charge of running the loyalty program. My now husband and a handful of great mentors, including my boss, were incredibly supportive and pushed me forward along the way.
I stayed with ULTA for four years before I decided to leave the corporate side to become a true digital strategist, consulting with a PR agency in the city. I saw a clear need for social and digital programs in PR and luckily my vision aligned with that of the agency.
In short, I love what I do. Not many people can say that. Even though my industry is always challenging and constantly moving forward, even though it's risky and sometimes scary, it's nothing less that awesome. Had I never taken a chance, never listened to those who supported me, never challenged myself, I would not be where I am today. I would not love what I do.
My advice to anyone is to do what you love. Get in. Lean in. Just make it happen.