Finding myself in “Fight Club.”

Over the course of the last two weeks, a handful of people have caught glimpses of my arms, heavily bruised from a new practice of Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. These were the responses I received:

“Jeez…that’s disgusting.” — One friend

“Did someone take a baseball bat to your arm?” — Another friend

“I still don’t understand this new hobby of yours, but if it helps, all the more power to you.” — Mom

“I always thought of you as a fighter. This actually makes perfect sense.” — An ex-boyfriend.

My relationship with jiu-jitsu officially started on March 22, 2017, but the story of how I found myself in the basement on Broadway goes back a little farther than that.

The interest in martial arts and fighting isn’t terribly new. I took karate as a kid until age 13, when I was two belts away from being a black belt, but, choosing to focus my spare time and energy on academics, didn’t pick up any fight sports again for another 10 years.

When I returned to fighting, it was six months after I moved to Boston. Joining the club of folks who make fitness resolutions in the new year, I started boxing in January 2013. Based on what I wrote about it at the time, I liked it a lot and felt like a total badass doing it, but once the Groupon expired, the gym became very expensive, and I never found enough of a sense of camaraderie at the gym to keep me coming back. The experience was very individual. People came to class and left. Boxing was a part of their workout routine — not so much a meaningful part of their lifestyle. By the end of March, I, along with all the others who hopefully take up new athletic hobbies on January 1, left the gym.

After that stint in fighting in 2013, I tried yoga, spinning, and pilates by way of free classes around Boston and services like ClassPass for the next four years. Still, I found the same thing to be true: no matter how frequently I went — or how much I paid — the studios never felt like home. Despite my regular attendance, no one knew my name or seemed to care whether I was there or not. There was no sense of continuity or community. At their worst, the environments made me feel like I had to put on an act and be someone other than myself. No matter what I did or how hard I attempted to embody athleisure, I always left class feeling like the biggest, sweatiest, most brutish girl in the room with the least fashionable clothing and the gnarliest hair.

If you have read anything else I’ve written in the last year, you’ll already know 2016 was a year of transition: out of graduate school and into the workforce, into a new industry and role, and out of a major relationship. The adjustment to all of these changes was extremely slow-going, and I finally “bottomed out” in March 2017, right around the end of a major work project.

With the project launch complete, I was finally able find my footing and listen to the advice from caring friends who saw me struggling over the course of the previous months:

“You should get more time outside of that office and do something that gives you a sense of purpose. You’re too wrapped up in your work.”

“You should try new physical activities that are fun and don’t make you feel so self-conscious.”

“You should do something completely badass that will help you get your swagger back.”

In early March, all these pieces of advice together when I went out to dinner with with a business school friend. Continuing to add to reasons why he’s probably the most interesting person I know, he told me he had recently added Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu to his repertoire of fight sports, including Krav Maga and Muay Thai. If you ever met him, from a few minutes of conversation, you could easily tell this he could “rip you a new one” with words, but from the boyish face, you might not guess that he could seriously mess you up. (I think it’s pretty awesome).

Somewhere in our conversation, he encouraged me to come to a jiu-jitsu class. While I’m sure he makes the offer to many friends, I’m not sure how many of them take him up on it. After thinking it over, and after a particularly rough week after we met up, I told him I was in for next Wednesday.

By the time Wednesday arrived, I was having second thoughts and contemplating ways to get out of the commitment, but by noon, he had shot me a text on when to arrive and what to expect. I couldn’t flake now.

I left work at 5PM, sharp (a rarity), and headed to the gym in South Boston. Arriving at the building, I laughed. The last time I was there, it was December 31, 2013 for a “New Year’s Flow and Meditation” class in the yoga studio upstairs. “How things have changed,” I reflected, and instead of heading upstairs to the more familiar place, I descended into the sweaty, mixed-martial arts cage-bowels of the building and entered another world. As I signed my waiver, I watched in awe of the men and (scarce) women in blue, black, and white gis as they rolled around, grabbing and attempting to immobilize their partners in different holds. My friend welcomed me, showed me how to do a basic hip escape move, and told me where to stand in the lineup (at the very end, as the newbiest of newbs).

“Welcome to ‘Southie Fight Club’,” I thought, as I bowed to the instructor and class began. One hour and many cross-collar chokes from my partner later, my ego had also been choked out. As I’ve written before, in most of my life, I am biased toward selecting activities that I am likely to be good at over trying something new. Even when I try something new, I tend to pick things up quickly and get decent at them without trying too hard. BJJ was clearly something I would not be good at for a long time and not without a lot of practice, patience, and effort.

When I got dinner with my friend after class, I don’t think he expected me to come back. Frankly, I’m not sure I expected to come back, but I was determined to give it an honest try of 3 classes before shooting it down. I showed up to a class on Friday and returned for a class on Monday.

Even though it was only my third class, the teachers and students I worked with already remembered my name. They were kind, encouraging, and humble, teaching me moves with tireless patience as I continued to screw them up in new ways each time. I noticed how they came early and stayed late after class, smiling and chatting and helping each other practice different holds. I thought, “These are the kinds of new friends I want to have. This is the kind of community I want to be a part of.”

After those 90 minutes flailing, falling, and frustrated, I was physically fulfilled; my brain, typically overwhelmed by all things work, was free of its usual chatter. I couldn’t believe it. I got so tired from getting beaten up that I didn’t have the energy to beat myself up. I was forced to be in the present and fight back at the person in front of me instead of fighting myself and the things in my head. Even as I was getting completely destroyed by my partner, the whole experience was was liberating and addictive.

As I packed up to leave, it occurred to me that this gym was the first place where I had truly checked the rest of my life at the door. As I asked other students what they did when they weren’t at the gym (students, bartenders, waiters, and more), it occurred to me that my professional credentials, personal identity, and all the things for which the outside world valued me, were inconsequential and — refreshingly, delightfully — unimpressive in this context.

I resolved to keep coming. I recalculated my budget and signed the papers for a six-month membership. Six months of getting up more often than I fall down. Six months of bruises changing the color of my arms. Six months of being chest to chest, head to crotch, and otherwise physically close to strangers in ways I would otherwise never fathom until a sixth date. (Needless to say, choking people makes for an interesting foundation for friendships, but that’s pretty much how it’s all likely to shake out.) Six months of something I will likely not be good at for at least six years. At the very least, after six months, I hope to have some clue for what to do with my hands in guard, a healthy amount of core strength, and a kinder attitude toward myself.

While I am far from free of my tendencies to obsess over the past and worry about the future, I now have 5–10 hours of dependable relief from that (largely self-imposed) psychological burden. Many aches, bumps, and bruises later, I’m noticing the physical resilience is making way for mental resilience.

I find it ironic that after years of trying to “be kind to myself” in yoga class, I’ve gotten closer to that mantra by getting my ass kicked in a jiu-jitsu class. For whatever reason, I have faith that something about this will pay off — I believe there’s more magic there on those mats in the months to come.

So begins the journey to quietly becoming the most lethal person I know.

(Originally posted on Medium on April 9, 2017)

March 2017: “The Perfect Trap”

I have heard all the truisms. Perfect is boring. Perfect is impossible. Perfect is dangerous. Still, none of those lines stopped me over the years from wanting to be perfect and trying to be perfect.

If you looked inside my brain, this is the dysfunctional chain of thinking you’d find: first, wanting to be perfect. Next, because I cannot be perfect, wanting to be the best at something compared to anyone else around me. Then, if I cannot be the best at something compared to anyone else around me, wanting to be good at something — but when I say, “I want to be good at something,” what I really mean is “I want to be good at something the minute that I try doing it.” Not only am I perfectionist, but also I am extremely impatient.

The worst part about it? Becoming good at things does not end up making me happy enough to justify the self abuse along the way: I am hard on myself when trying to become good at the thing, I tell myself I can only be happy once I have become good at the thing, and even if I eventually become good at the thing, I feel like I don’t deserve to be happy because I am still “not good enough” at the thing.

This is kind of a ridiculous way to think and live, isn’t it? There’s more to life than being good at things and enjoying life does not require being good at things. I would argue that enjoying life demands moments of being stupid and being thoughtless and getting in trouble and embarrassing yourself and adventuring without knowing what’s around the bend. In other words, a life well lived is a messy, imperfect one.

Why have I held myself to absurd standards and logic? The short answer is they served me well enough that it was worth putting up with them.

I have a decent history with perfectionist thinking and behavior— the most vivid memories come from when I was learning to play tennis as a kid. You’d think my dog had died if you saw how upset I got at myself for hitting a ball into the net or getting a fault on a serve. The behavior continued all through school, when I’d destroy myself for scoring anything outside of the A-range on a test or paper. Unhealthy as it was, grinding myself into a perfectionist pulp worked for a while — at least as far as getting me into college and graduate school.

Now, in my last 8 months of attempting perfection as a product manager and in my personal life outside of work, the cost is no longer worth my mental and physical health. I’d hardly compare my level of stress to that of Obama or Bush, but looking at these pictures of aged Presidents, I’m a case in point of the same phenomenon. Never has one experience aged me so much in such a short period of time as my current job.

Even though everyone I know has told me at some point to cut myself a break and be nicer to myself, I could never envision what life would look like for me if I were less hard on myself. This month, I think I started to see the light as I started taking improv and doing jiujistu.

I intend to write more about both of these experiences, but in a few sentences, what I like about them is that there is no way I can be perfect at either of them. My next line or move depends on the person matched up with me, and there is only so much I can anticipate or prepare for.

All I can do in improv is say “Yes, and,” and continue the exchange on the stage. All I can do in jiujitsu is try to extricate myself with what little technique I possess. I am inelegant and completely graceless, lacking the luxury of time to think through a next move and lacking the intuition that comes with experience in both improv-ing and fighting. I have to roll with the outcome — in the scene and on the mat.

The irony of all this is that one of the activities helping me learn to be less hard on myself is an activity that is physically hard on me.

Regardless, this is as close as I’ve come to escaping “The Perfect Trap.” Not by working harder or writing more, but by doing more things that forbid me from thinking.

Isn’t that a perfectly poetic solution to the perfect problem?

 

(Originally posted March 26 on Medium)

February 2017: “A Little Bit Sad”

Dear whoever is reading this,

I won’t lie to you. February has taken its toll on me and it’s no secret to people close to me that there were moments this month when it’s felt like this was the lowest I’ve ever been (and it very well might have been). What cemented this idea was something while having drinks with a coworker outside the office one day: “I like chatting with you and hanging out with you, but you always seem a little bit sad.” Even though he was fairly drunk at this point in the conversation, I couldn’t help but take his comment to heart. I tend to write off comments from people who don’t know me extremely well, but in this case, it almost meant more to me that someone who barely knows me but works with me has the impression that I’m “a little bit sad.”

It is true. In the last year, I have been “a little bit sad.” For what it’s worth, the last year has had an above-average amount of upheaval. I graduated from business school, moved into a new apartment, started a new job, and had a trying first 90 days adjusting to it. The pieces of my personal life I relied on most and relied on for their stability were suddenly in flux. With all that life change, the strength and confidence on which I pride myself took a huge hit.

I’m reassured looking back at my 5-year journal, where I started doing a daily log of my days on January 1, 2016. Looking at the entries from last February on top of the ones from this February, I was anxious and depressed pretty much the entire month last year, too. I didn’t come out of the funk until March 5. This gives me hope for the same this year — that the feelings are at least partially influenced by the winter season and that the storm clouds will lift as the daylight extends. I can’t afford to think of an alternative that’s anything but positive.

When I finally get off the waitlist for a therapist, the first thing I will say to him or her is, “I’m afraid I’ll always be ‘a little bit sad.’ I don’t want to be known — in work or outside of it — as the person who is ‘a little bit sad.’”

Because I am still at least 5 weeks away from getting matched with a therapist, I am trying to find things in my life to look forward to next month. Because my life lately has revolved around work, the thing I am most looking forward to involves work:

Just as my personal life hit the fan three months ago, I was conveniently given a project that would consume my entire life and distract me from any thoughts about anything but work. Barring any “Ides of March” hiccups, the launch goes live to the public on March 15.

When job-hunting in business school, I asked myself often, “What kind of projects do you want to be doing in your job after your MBA?” My answer was something to the effect of, “High profile, extremely cross-functional projects with superhero-level impact. I want to be doing things that are unlike anyone in the company has done before.” I got exactly what I wished for: It’s a stay-at-the-office-late, test-your-resolve, nearly-break-your-team kind of project. I know the scale of it is huge when my company, despite being notoriously frugal when it comes to swag and spending on food, signed off on letting us get have a party with catered food and team T-shirts.

I hope that by the time we are celebrating this launch, I will be closer to being a little less sad. If nothing else, I’ll be just two weeks away from a 5-day trip to California, and I am optimistic that getting to a different state will help put me in a different state.

Yours,

E

January 2017: Back to the Blogging Basics

Dear whoever is reading this — hopefully more than just my mother (but because I know my mother will be reading this, I’ll just say it: “Hi, Mom. I love you”),

I hope you’re doing well since I last wrote, about a month ago. It’s a strange new year and if your January was anything like mine, it was a rough one. Wherever you are, I hope you are finding and practicing kindness, both with yourself and with whoever you know in this world is in need of it.

It seems that 2017 will be a roller coaster, and it’s tempting to for me to shut down with the fury toward this new “president” and the endemic imbalance of work and personal life. But writing has been my only form of accountability, and in addition to sharing a #dailymistake every day on social media, I am honoring my plan to write something publicly that’s more than a Facebook post’s length at least once a month. 

Cheers to checking the box on “January.” It’s the little things.

My blog, first “A Summer Crossing,” then “Boston Uncommons,” was started in 2012 on the premise of writing “the open letter” to anyone who wanted to know what was going on in my life. This year, I am taking my blogging back in that direction for the sake of fulfilling my writing dream of becoming publicly known as a writer. 

Over the last four-and-a-half years since I began blogging in earnest, my style changed from a weekly story of something that happened in my (then-new) life in Boston to a longer-form style, generally aimed at sharing something on the theme of personal growth and development. I very much like the direction my writing has taken and am quite proud of it. The more I nurture the writing, the more love and support I unlock from family and friends and sometimes strangers. However I generally can’t submit essays that have been previously published — even on personal blogs — to publications, unless I rework them to the point of being very different.

So I am working in the shadows on these longer-form pieces, not sharing them here unless they get categorically rejected and they can’t find a home somewhere other than erica-zendell.com. But if you ever what to know what I’m writing about outside of these update letters, just ping me. I can always use the brainstorming help. One piece I’m working on is about adopting an agile product management approach to life design, another on the role of cartoons — especially some anime — in my childhood, and the rest are largely about romance. There are plenty of product managers and anime-watchers in this world who would probably relate to the two former pieces, but my stories on dating and relationships tend to be the most entertaining and most relatable. I’m betting on those. If nothing else, it’ll be fun to have them documented for my grandchildren — or my friends’ grandchildren, since my more stable friends have decided to live vicariously through me — to read and enjoy one day.

While my memory is quite good, I’d be foolish to trust it with all the hilarious details even five years from now. My best okcupid stories from 2012 and Tinder stories from early 2015 have become crippled in time, reduced from their fifteen-minute scope to a witty tweet’s worth of content.

For example, my story about the yoga teacher who wasn’t a yoga teacher was epically told back when it happened in November 2014. Now, it’s encapsulated in a single scene: in a Downtown Crossing apartment on Temple Street, awkwardly cuddling after flaccid-then-failed coitus on a winter night. Turning on “Suits” of all things, and pulling me in closer with a compact-but-toned bicep (which was not the only compact thing about him since I had “intimidated him” into a flaccid state), he said, in accented English that had sadly ceased to be sexy, “Just pretend to be my girlfriend. Just for a little while.” Thankfully it was a Sunday night and I could use the excuse of work the next day to GET THE F — — OUT OF THERE. And I did. I BOOKED IT back to my old apartment in Boston’s hospital-land, the non-neighborhood of the West End.

Point being: who doesn’t love a good love story?

Anyway, because of this decision to reserve the more polished think pieces for other outlets, I will use this platform to be a little less groomed than I typically am when writing publicly. I won’t be so unpolished that a reader couldn’t follow, but turning off my tendency to self-edit will lead to me writing more frequently and vulnerably in the moment, instead of over-analyzing and reworking the writing about my emotional state until it’s “perfect” (it never is and never will be). It is this kind of self-editing that prevented me from writing something in the moment when all the events I describe in “Dear World” happened. Especially the election.

I’ll probably do a kindle book of these epistolary posts in the future if they turn out to be any good. It’s likely the things that come up in these letter-style posts will inspire what I write next for a long-form essay. But anyway, there’s a lot of joy in experimentation here, and after reading “Big Magic,” I grudgingly agree with the insufferable-but-sometimes-inspiring Elizabeth Gilbert, that this creative process must be a one of joy and light and mess and community — not darkness and isolation. Here’s to embracing it.

Wishing you strength and stamina for February,

Erica

2016 End-of-Year Update: "The Year of The Thicker Skin"

If you want to get on the mailing list for posts and updates like these, here’s a link to subscribe. And if you have any ideas how I can make my creative dreams come true in 2017 (to become a published and more publicly-known writer and speaker) let me hear them. 

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Happy Chanukah, Merry Christmas, Happy New Year—whatever you celebrate! As you read this, I hope you’re in the company of people you love in the coming days, especially since the last two months in America—and outside of it—have been full of fear and violence and vitriol. 

As I write, I’m chugging along on the faithful Northeast Regional Amtrak train, en route to visit family in New Jersey for the holidays. With the holiday hustle at Wayfair over and half the office out of town on vacation or working from home for the next week, there’s finally some time for me to think and reflect about something other than Q1-Q2 planning. 

Professionally, my update is a net positive one. It took the full 90 days before I really felt like I was getting the hang of big company life, tech life, and product management life. Since I hit that threshold, Wayfair has really started to feel like home. I got tapped to lead a challenging, cross-functional, and high-visibility project, the kind I was hoping for after graduation: if all goes well, it will launch in March to significant PR. My coworkers, especially the other female product managers, are genuinely good people, and I enjoy spending time with them off the clock as much as many of my peers from business school. My engineers have become a little tribe after the first three months of instability with people leaving the company or being added to the team. My most memorable moment was in November, when we had a karaoke outing with our pod, when the quietest, most polite engineer on my team, out of nowhere and to everyone’s surprise, took the mic and did a jaw-dropping rendition of Eminem’s ‘Lose Yourself.’ 

I’m still trying to figure out how to collaborate with my very tricky tech lead, who had been the greatest source of frustration in my first months on the job. Then again—no one ever said management was easy. I should have expected how our dynamic would be less than ideal when, in our first lunch together in July, he expressed his skepticism and distaste for business and MBAs. His behavior and attitude toward me demonstrates his lack of trust in my judgment, and he has repeatedly undermined me in front of the team to the point that one of my engineers flagged her concern to me at how “openly disrespectful” it was. The win here is that I’ve learned how to appropriately escalate this situation to supervisors instead of trying to handle everything on my own (as I tend to do), and my skin has gotten thicker—I don’t spend my weekends and spare time in agony at the prospect of having to talk to and work with him. The next time I walk into an interview and am asked, “Tell us about a time when you worked with someone difficult,” I will be able to paint a very vivid picture of what I did and how I got through it: 1. By making him feel empowered and accountable with as many facts as I have to share from the business side 2. By getting a gut check from his very equal-minded manager when my intuition tells me that he’s saying something weird, misleading, or straight up inaccurate. 

Personally, my update is more mixed. First, for the sadder stuff. My relationship of nearly two years with the boyfriend I would have thought I’d be married to in the next five years is on the rocks and may be over. 

I don’t know what comes next, but whatever happens next month when we communicate again and he is back in the United States, the break has reminded me how many people I have in my corner, and that I have many other people in this world who love me who would never hurt me like this. For what it’s worth in this, my skin has gotten thicker in my personal life, as well.

Now for the happier stuff—and there’s a lot of it. I have four cousins and all of them had babies this year, the last one born just a few days ago. My 75-year-old father is transitioning into retirement from his law practice, which has relieved a ton of stress at home, especially for my mother, who has worked for him since they got married. Tomorrow, they celebrate their 35th anniversary, which gives me a reason to elevate the Jewish tradition on Christmas of Chinese food and a movie with a little bit of champagne. I’m still blogging once a month, with the highlights in the tail end of the year being a post about meeting Bruce Springsteena post about Halloween costumes and self-expression  and a reflection on 2016 on Medium, which I’m using as an a bonus blogging platform to my personal website—the tracking is better, posts are easier to share, and the design is superior to what I’m capable to riffing up on my Squarespace site (that said, I’m hoping to spruce up the personal site with the help of my coworkers. I’m lucky to now have a slew of creative tech folks I can consult to help me make my online identity sing). 

A not-so-secret secret I have is that this creative work is something for which I want to be known in a big way one day. And not just writing—public speaking, too (the podcast I started last year was a small step in that direction). For now, and for lack of better ideas, I’m planning to refine and edit posts I’ve written on my blog the last 4.5 years and turn them into an e-book of personal essays. If the goal is to give my work more public exposure outside of my personal network, there’s nothing like the universe of Amazon. It’ll also be good to get a little bit of criticism and rejection from total strangers, at least in the cases where it makes me a better, more thoughtful writer (and help me develop a thicker skin against internet trolls). For 2013, one of my new year’s resolutions was to submit a piece to the New York Times’ Modern Love column, and four years later, I have yet to find the courage to submit anything. Maybe now is the perfect time, in the embers of a heartbreak and with the dawn of a new year, for me to write that piece. 

In all seriousness, if you have any ideas to help me make the writing and speaking dreams come true, please share them. I’m currently in the midst of evaluating what I write, where I write and speak about it (online/offline, certain media outlets, etc.), and how I can get my voice out there in the world to the people who would benefit from hearing it.  

With that, I wish you and yours warmth, light, and joy this holiday season and in the new year. Whether you’re near or far, please be in touch—I’d love to hear how you’re doing, even if it’s just a quick “Hi” back. Thank you for caring about me and reminding me that the world, for all the pain of the last year, is still a place worth cherishing and saving. 

All best wishes,

Erica

Dear World,

The holiday season makes my soul crackle with warmth and light. I walk around rapt by the magic of icicle lights and pine garlands snaking around city lampposts. I dream of parties with balsam fir-scented candles burning, crystal bowls filled with eggnog. I’m wearing a dark velvet dress with black stockings and red lipstick, embracing a friend with one arm, holding a glass of champagne with the other. I feel warmth. I feel at peace with my sense of self and truly believe in joy as carols quiver in the wintry air of the east coast in December. 

Even if all this vision comes true for me this holiday season (that I magically fit into that velvet dress and that the red lipstick does not make my skin look sickly pale, but “Russian novel protagonist alabaster”) my body and spirit will be heavy — and not just with the weight of Thanksgiving indulgence or gluten-free fruitcake. World, you have taken some serious hits this year. There are not enough gifts I can give, letters I can write, or kisses I can blow to make those hits better for you, for myself, or for those around me. I’ve shed my tears for the violence in the Middle East and Europe, for the rising toll of BLM and police deaths. I’ve mourned the collective heartbreak of liberal, Muslim, LGBTQ, and ovaried America with the election of the notorious DJT, whose fledgling administration gives me pause, as just a year ago, I was in Yad Vashem, staring at the shoes of Jews who were gassed and incinerated during the Holocaust, thinking, “The world would never let this happen again, right?”

For all the horror, fear, and pain, I must remember that this was not a lost year:

I delivered my “grad school baby.” My cousins delivered real babies. 

I recommitted to Boston for at least two more years (or until something worth breaking my lease for comes along). 

I watched Bruce Springsteen in concert and met him in the flesh eight months later— the stuff of adolescent dreams, fulfilled. 

I led events where student peers and faculty opened their hearts onstage, sharing stories about themselves at their most vulnerable in front of the rest of the community. I still have no idea how I did this in the context of a MBA program, which is all poise and pretense and polish. 

I discovered Austin, Texas, and survived SXSW. I rediscovered Miami’s Coconut Grove. 

I served as [wo]Man of Honor at a close friend’s wedding in Middle of Nowhere, Missouri. I was asked to serve as Maid of Honor at a close friend’s wedding in Beautiful Somewhere, San Francisco. 

With the help of the latter friend, I discovered (and then revered) the music of ‘Hamilton.’ 

I learned what a sideboard was and what an endpoint was and what a Product Manager wasn’t.

I nurtured new relationships and cemented the older ones. I almost healed the one with my father. I partly healed the one with my body, as I finally wriggled back into the most-cherished item in my closet.

I lost some of my identity. I found some of my voice.

There are countless reasons for me and for others to cry about the broken state of you, to wring our hands in despair or bury our faces in them. But as the year ends and the snow begins to fall, I thank you, World, for reminding me that I still have reasons to smile through the holidays this year, to remain enlivened by the spirit of connection, compassion, kindness, and cookies.

Dum spiro, spero. While I breathe, I hope.

And I hope, World, for all the people who would wish you dead or have you end, that you smile and spin on. 

-EZ

Inspired in part by the “The How Life Unfolds: Letters of Peace” campaign

Beyond the Tricks and Treats: Finding Truth on Halloween

Today is Sunday, October 30, 2016. Even though Halloween is still one day away, by tomorrow, I have already celebrated it 5 times over.

  • Wednesday, I celebrated Halloween by watching a bit of the office’s children’s Halloween parade. I’m biased, but my boss’ angelic one-year-old girl as a bumblebee was certainly the most adorable tot in the lineup.
  • Thursday, I humored the “grown up” Halloween festivities at the office, where more than half of the 3,000 people in the building ended up dressing up, myself included, as a tiger. In an office full of engineers (and therefore a ton of Star Wars, Pokemon, and Game of Thrones costumes) I’ll remember the engineer who defied convention in his costume by walking around with a Union Jack shirt and an Exit sign around his neck. Get it? #brexit
  • Friday, I endured Halloween on my Lyft home from dinner, as my driver plowed through side streets teeming with costumed masses waiting to get into trashy Theater District clubs. Were I not completely cold and exhausted, I would have loved get in line to talk to the guy dressed up like a box of Crayola crayons. I’ve just never seen that costume before. 
  • Saturday, I went to an actual Halloween party, where the best costume were a pair of friends dressed like the Boston subway stops Alewife and Brainstree (as in one was a wife bearing ale and a tree with an exposed brain. I'll never think about the Red Line the same way ever again).
  • This morning, I watched hungover college student-zombies fill their baskets at CVS with Gatorade and Tylenol, as I bought the store out of its clearance Halloween candy to use for Christmas baking. 

For all the Halloween fatigue I’m experiencing, I’m generally a fan of costumed holidays. My favorite holiday—bar none— is the Jewish holiday, Purim. Most people don’t what it is, but many have implicitly “celebrated” it by eating a Hamentaschen cookie (which looks like this) at some point in their lives. Similar to Halloween, it’s a day for children to dress up and eat sweets, and for adults to sometimes dress up, and definitely drink up. Unlike Halloween, Purim has a pretty sophisticated story behind it, and the holiday places as much emphasis on merriment and self-indulgence as on charity and giving to others. Still, barely 2% of the U.S. population is Jewish and even in a city like Boston, which has strong pockets of Jewish people, it looks pretty weird to see people out in costume in March, when Purim tends to fall. 

The thing I like the most about Purim and Halloween and that I have thought about much in the last few days is how holidays like these give us a judgment-free pass to be somebody else for the day (or longer, depending on how long you and your friends celebrate). Whatever we choose to wear on an ordinary day showcases our personality in some way, but on Halloween, we can take that self-expression to an extreme. Take away the alcohol—Halloween as a holiday is a social lubricant. We can feel safe enough to show pieces of ourselves that, for whatever reason, we don’t feel comfortable showcasing on every other night of the year. I’d argue that the people who dress up in costume are more themselves than the people who go to a party and say “This year, I’m being myself.”* 

I always think of the line from the movie ‘Mean Girls’: “Halloween is the one night a year when a girl can dress like a total slut and no other girls can say anything about it.” I have to say that girls who do that should be able to dress and express themselves however they wish: I don’t like when girls dress a certain way for the attention of men when it’s coming from a place of feeling inadequate and craving validation but am fully in favor of women dressing a certain way if it’s coming from a place of confidence and empowerment. Are you a woman who feels like her sexuality has no outlet to express itself or is otherwise under lock and key? By all means, channel your Dita von Teese or Pamela Anderson, and be yourself on this night for the first time, when it’s safe to be “somebody else.” 

Last year, I was Holly Golightly and Carmen Sandiego—the classically glamorous silver-screen socialite and the sexy, sleuthing, mysterious globetrotter. In previous years, I was Wonder Woman and Katniss Everdeen from the Hunger Games—two powerful, headstrong heroines, leading and fighting for justice in their respective stories and on an American media stage historically dominated by male heroes. This year, at the office, I was a tiger—not my most inspired costume, but it was tremendously joyful day holding team meetings that included a panda, a cow, a sloth, a chipmunk, and a giraffe, and going out for lunch at one of Boston’s highest-traffic malls in an animal onesie. But even choosing to be a tiger served another purpose beyond being part of a team costume and getting to use that costume again for a college reunion. They’re smart, beautiful, regal, a little fearsome, and “solitary-but-social” animals. What I think about these costumes inevitably says something about me. Wearing them is a way that I express how I think about myself, what I aspire to be, and how I want other people to think about me. 

It’s a holiday that makes me wonder about all the ways in which I hide in plain sight from people about how I really am. Last weekend, I got into an argument with my dad about politics, and I never felt more myself and in a state of flow than when exchanging blows. He’s an aggressive lawyer with forty-plus years of court under his belt, and I have spent much of my life simultaneously arguing against him and trying to please him and have him be proud of me. Anyway, when we debated, I was confident and full of conviction when speaking to him and explaining my beliefs, even if exposing those beliefs put me at risk of making him angry to the point of him kicking me out of the house. In the company of friends and coworkers, I wish my I could express my voice so strongly on other topics about which I feel passionate. I generally have a strong perspective on many things but hesitate to share it for fear being disliked, ruffling feathers, losing friends. Sometimes this voice comes out in writing, and I’m doing better to have it come out more in writing and outside of it. That strength of voice and opinion is something that deeply defines who I am and what I value and like about myself, but it’s not something that people really see much from me or that I allow to come out. I believe this is true for many others as it is for me.

So this year, if you’re going out (again), I encourage you to pay attention to what you wear and what your friends are wearing and what typically-hidden thing people around you are choosing to show about themselves for the night. If you decide to get psychoanalytical about it, there’s a lot you can learn about people by observing what people chose to be. Even the person dressed up like a hot dog because it was the only thing that they could borrow at short notice or get in time for Halloween with Prime shipping. 

I hope you’ll take advantage of the night to fully express yourself and find the courage to show a little more of your costumed self on the other days of the year.

Happy Halloween!

*Unless the person doing that is a new-age-y friend who’s stoned or tripping on something else. Then it’s more likely they’re being themselves. 

The Remarkable Mr. Springsteen

I have spent the last month and a half waiting for this Tuesday. I have plenty of books on my bookshelf, but I’ve saved a top-shelf space for the occasion. A new book is joining my library and it is Bruce Springsteen’s memoir. 

I have never bought Vanity Fair, but as soon as I read Bruce Springsteen's interview in it online and learned from it that he was coming out with a memoir, I bought the magazine when it hit newsstands so I could own the issue in glorious print. I might cover it in plastic, as comic book collectors do their precious issues. I don’t want to let a mite of dust fade the Annie Liebowitz portraits or a careless spill of water to log the pages of the interview. 

I didn’t always love “The Boss,” even though I probably should have had his music in my bones as soon as I left the womb. I was born in Long Branch, New Jersey at the same hospital where he was born, and my mom’s side of the family has a long history with Asbury Park, where he and the E Street Band got their start at the beachside rock bar, The Stone Pony. 

Growing up, my tolerance of Bruce Springsteen was low, because it was circumscribed to “Born in the USA” on the Fourth of July in New Jersey, and what other pieces of his music I heard were in my dad’s car, where my dad, half-deaf, played the music so loud you couldn’t decipher the words. "Bruce Springsteen" was what I called the raucous, growling sounds of family car rides down to weekends at the Shore to visit my grandma and cousins. 

Around 10th grade, my first boyfriend changed my perspective on “The Boss.” 10th grade was the year I had to memorize Shakespearean sonnets for English class and write cuentos inspired by the master of magical realism, Gabriel Garcia Marquez for Spanish class. It was my year of imagination. 

We were sitting on the floor of his room one afternoon, and while talking about our favorite musical artists, he started searching through his CDs. I asked what he was looking for, and when he said a Bruce Springsteen album, I immediately groaned. He finally found the CD he was looking for, and as he raised it into the sunlight to blow off the dust from it, it created rainbows across the room. I know that CDs do this all the time, but something about those rainbows in that moment made me believe that something special was about to happen. He pressed play, and this time, at 60 decibels instead of what felt like 600, I could actually make out the words of the songs, and they struck their first chords with me. 

Weirdly enough, my “gateway songs” for Bruce weren't the classics like, “Thunder Road,” or “Hungry Heart," but Bruce's folk rock take on the spiritual “O Mary Don’t You Weep” and “Outlaw Pete,” a sprawling but catchy 8-minute cowboy epic. “Outlaw Pete” was released my freshman fall of college, about a month after that boyfriend and I went to see Bruce Springsteen in Madison Square Garden for his birthday. It was my first Bruce Springsteen concert and it was characteristically overwhelming experience, but I remember a few things: 1. How bowled over I was by the man’s vigor. 2. How little of his music I actually knew at the time. 3. How confused I was when I saw Elvis Costello join the band onstage to conclude the show with “Your Love is Lifting Me Higher.” 

There were only two stable things in my life as a college freshman: my boyfriend—the rock, and Bruce Springsteen—the rock and roll. Both got me through physics and linear algebra that fall and then out of my engineering major by the end of the year. 

By the time my relationship with that boyfriend had ended, halfway through college, and after nearly 6 years, I had developed my own relationship with Bruce Springsteen. Luckily, Bruce Springsteen didn’t have to choose a side in this breakup, and we were both able to keep a piece of him with us. But if only one of us could have him, I’d have fought like hell to beat the boy for “The Boss.”

No longer having to compare or benchmark my understanding and passion for the music against my ex’s, my love for Bruce Springsteen’s songs grew. I spent the last two years of my time in my college a cappella group trying to get the group to agree to arrange “Born to Run.” My next boyfriend and I talked about him learning the piano melody and me learning the lyrics of "Thunder Road” to perform it somewhere. As an upperclassman, I was finally able to have a car on campus, and whenever I got out of the suburban side roads and hit the New Jersey highway to head home to the Shore, that was my cue to put on “The Essential Bruce Springsteen.” “Atlantic City” for the more contemplative nighttime drives, ”Cover Me” for the more energetic daytime ones, or to cheer me up in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Turnpike. 

The Boss left my life for a while when I moved away to Boston. My connection and sense of identity associated with New Jersey disappeared for about a year. Then I went through the exercise of self-reflection and reconnection that was applying to business school and Bruce broke his way back into my life, my muse in full musical force. One of my essays was even themed around a few Springsteen songs, but because it was an application to Berkeley, I’m guessing it sent the opposite message I was intending to send to the admissions committee. I have no doubt by the time they finished reading it that while this "Jersey Girl” was a decent writer, she would never get in a “Pink Cadillac” and move across the country to California for school. Because I’d managed to get into MIT, they were right on that count.

Springsteen fell off of my playlists again as I dove into statistics and strategy, barely returning to the surface until my last year of business school. My dad has boasted for years of his “connections,” which had yet to come through for me in my professional or personal endeavors save for this: two tickets to this year’s “The River Tour”  at Boston’s TD Garden. It was a hectic last first week back at school, but February 4, 2016 would be worth every bit of exhaustion on February 5.

It was my second Bruce Springsteen concert, and very unlike the first, which I’d seen about 8 years before. I was with the first person who put a roof over my head when I moved here: a dear family friend who I consider my "Boston big sister," who also grew up at the Jersey Shore. I was weary of school and anxious to start the next phase of my life in Boston, with graduation four months away. I was impressed by Bruce Springsteen's vigor after all these years on stage, putting an 80s workout star to shame. I was delighted to discover new favorites ("Independence Day" and "Point Blank") as Bruce and the band played through the entire “The River” album plus 12 more songs to bring the concert to a whopping four hours. I marveled at all the things that had and had not changed in my life the last ten years of conversion to the gospel of Bruce Springsteen. 

The night opened with a line I’ll never forget: "Are you ready to be entertained? Are you ready to be transformed?”

I was entertained. I was transformed. I can’t wait to be both entertained and transformed again, this time by the book on my shelf. I haven’t decided if I’m going to devour the book or try to savor every single page because I won’t want it to end once I begin. Even though I know a little bit about of what to expect from the memoir from reading all the advance press and parsing the lyrics of his songs, I'm certain the book will find its ways to surprise me in its 510 pages. I’m excited to see how much of his life went written and unwritten in his songs.

It’s as true now as it was when I was a college freshman: the two most stable things in my life right now still are my boyfriend (a different one)—the rock, and Bruce Springsteen—the rock and roll. Bruce Springsteen always shows up when I need him most, and this book has come at just the right time on this new-ish job.  I’m two-and-a-half months into work, haven’t hit my stride yet, and feeling frustrated at feeling unsettled. Enter Bruce to help me get my life back on track: to bring me back to a state of purpose and confidence; to put back the song in my heart and help me find the courage to sing it in an environment where my voice is still shaking; to help me be my most creative while off the clock, as I muster the spare focus and energy to keep my writing dreams alive.

The man lives his truth every time he steps onto a stage. He gives his whole self to each performance, jumping around, leathery, muscled and vital as ever at 67. I pray that at 67, I’ll look just as good as Bruce Springsteen does and will have had a lifetime of doing the work I was born to do. If I’m lucky, I’ll have more than a few fans screaming my name by then, too. 

 

Until then, in pursuit of that sense of purpose,, working hard at becoming a boss at my job, I’ll be counting the days to my first day off in October, when I'll meet the "The Boss," the man, myth, and legend, and have him sign my copy of his book. 

10 Weeks a Graduate: A Post-MBA Update Email

Views expressed are solely my own and do not express the views or opinions of my employer.

Twice a year, I write update email to my old professors and bosses, keeping them posted on what I've been up to in the half-year since we last connected. Below is what I wrote in the most recent update. I found it fitting to post this letter as this month's piece since this blog began four years ago as "the open letter" to anyone who cared about me and wanted to know what I was doing in my life.

~~~~

I’ve had a hard time writing since June. Or, more accurately, I’ve made a lot of excuses to not write over the last two months. “Post-MBA life is so busy,” was the main one, and, “I’m afraid of having nothing to say,” was the second. At any rate, this weekend, four weeks into a new apartment, new job, and fully-formed new life after graduate school, I decided to put both these thoughts aside and put fingers to keyboard.

Here’s how I’ve spent the last few months:

Since graduating on June 3rd, I spent the next month decompressing from business school (as I wrote in the last post) and taking a few trips—Chicago for a long weekend of food, drink, and improv shows, and twice back to NJ/NY to see family and celebrate friends’  weddings, which are suddenly becoming frequent commitments. The travels weren’t as exotic as some of the global adventures my peers took after graduation, but I never really bought into the “extravagant trips” part of the MBA experience, and I’m relieved that that part of my life is now over. I saved most of my spare money and energy this summer for moving into a new apartment with my boyfriend in Chinatown. It’s a 20-minute walk to my new office, and while it’s summer in Boston, it’s nice to be outside and take in the sight of Boston Common and Copley Square in my morning commute before they’re teeming with Pokemon Go players. 

Speaking of the job, I started at Wayfair in Boston four weeks ago as a Product Manager for the largest of its four Lifestyle Brands, Joss and Main. After 2 years at MIT, I had hoped I’d have a better answer to the question of “What does a Product Manager do?” The best I can say to friends and family these days is, “It differs by company, and even differs within my company, but in my specific role, anything that involves the look, feel, and functionality of Joss and Main’s website on a laptop and phone is my responsibility." Most of my time is spent identifying problems to fix on the website (totally real example: your shipping address doesn’t show up when checking out) or brainstorming new things to build and getting senior management to buy into them (totally fictional example: if there were a multi-million dollar opportunity in making a filter feature to better help animal-loving customers find wall art exclusively with pictures of dogs, I would be the one making the case for building the filter and then leading my team to make it happen). 

Despite graduating with a master’s degree from a school of management, I’m far from good at the management part of my job yet. This makes sense because I’ve never actually managed people before—and when it comes to managing people, managing engineers has its particular challenges. Then there’s the added challenge of communicating with and managing the expectations of my business stakeholders in marketing and merchandising. They’re mostly ex-"Big 3" Consultants who are hardcore data junkies. So to the engineers, I need to speak in code, and to the stakeholders, I need to speak in numbers. 

In that regard, my life seems like it hasn’t changed at all since my life as a Comparative Literature major in college—today I’m still learning new languages and practicing them simultaneously. In the effort to be patient with myself in this transition, I’ve even likened this job to my experience learning Chinese: in the first two months, I could barely say two words without one of them being a mistake, but by the time I was nine weeks in, things were starting to click and I could say a sentence with confidence. Tomorrow starts my fifth week, so I’m hoping in another month, I’ll feel like I’m getting closer to “proficient” in all things Wayfair, and maybe, six months in, approaching “fluent."

Especially with the Olympics on, I've had an interesting time to reflect on how my sense of identity has changed pretty much every year for the last five years. Five years ago, I was in Beijing and Rio doing thesis research on the Olympics, and people in college knew me as “the language person.” When I started my job at HBS and wrote case studies on Chinese companies for the MBA program, I was “the China expert.” Next year, starting up the baking business in Boston, I was  “the food entrepreneur.” My last two years, I was “the MBA blogger/storyteller/podcaster” and “the girl who was interested in the food industry but interned at Sephora.” I want to be known for more than being a product manager at Wayfair, but it means actively considering the questions of who I am and what I care about outside of the office. But for now, I’m just trying to find some solid ground in a time of major transition. Or, to continue the Olympics talk, trying to “stick my landing” like all these very inspiring gymnasts.

I hope you’ve been well and would love to hear what you’ve been up to the last few months. And needless to say, if you’re in the market for home furnishings and decor, let me know. I’m a little biased, but Joss and Main has a fabulous selection and you’ve got someone inside with a great corporate discount :)

Warmly,

Erica

The "Real Job" and the Clean Slate

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It’s been just over six weeks since I graduated with my MBA and a lot of people have asked me how I feel and how I'm spending my time now that business school is over. My response: "Decompressing from the last two years.” Decompressing for me meant spending the first three weeks balancing my sleep deficit and the following three weeks binge-watching 'Silicon Valley' and 'Jane the Virgin.' 

In moments where my heart wasn’t breaking and head wasn’t spinning on account of the violence around the country and world, I spent a fair bit of time preparing for what’s next: a "real job."

This isn’t to say my job at HBS before business school, the one that got me out of New Jersey and into Massachusetts (and, for small bursts, over to China) wasn’t real, but anyone who met me while I was a Research Associate knew how absurdly flexible the job was. I came to campus maybe once or twice a week, and when I did, it was rarely for more than a 4-hour day. There wasn’t much work to be done and when there was, my professor’s "management style" was exceptionally hands off, partly on account of his temperament and partly on account of his crazy schedule—he was traveling about 75% of my time working for him. 

The thing I’m most excited about my new job tomorrow? Having a manager. The thing I’m most afraid about my new job tomorrow? Having a manager. I accepted my job for a few different reasons, but the biggest one was the manager. I took a leap of faith on someone I hit it off with during the fall who, based on our conversations, was someone I’d be excited to work for and someone who could help me get to where I want to go next in my career. Or where I think I want to go next in my career. Because two years of business school and two seasons of podcast interviews later, my only conclusion is that no one really knows what they’re doing. But if they’re lucky, they like what they’re doing or are at least learning something from it. 

I was catching up on the phone with a friend of mine last week and she asked me, “What makes this job ‘real’?” The answer I think I gave—or the answer I would give now—is accountability. I’ve never had to be fully accountable to anyone for my work for more than an internship’s worth of time. The beautiful thing about the end of internships is you get to cut your ties at the end. You’re no longer accountable to your coworkers or responsible for the success of the organization and its people. 

From tomorrow until the day I leave, I have to be fully invested in and committed to working at my company. I’ll no longer have the same luxury of thinking, “This is just for a few months,” like I did in college and graduate school. This is for a longer haul. The longest time I’ve held a full-time job is ten weeks. For this role, it’s likely I’ll need to put in at least two years, or develop a substantial track record that makes me eminently employable elsewhere—whichever comes first. I don’t think I’ve ever suffered “fear of commitment” with romantic relationships, but I might when it comes to jobs. It remains to be seen.  

Aside from this being my first “real” job, this job is a major transformation in my experience of Boston. So long as I’ve lived here, I’ve either worked at an academic institution or attended one. Even before I lived in Boston, I prided myself on achievements that were largely academic in nature. Without attending a school or pursuing a degree as a way to identify myself and give myself a sense of value and purpose, I’m not sure who I am anymore. 

Tomorrow, starting my new job, I get a clean slate. I can finally be known for something more than where I went to school or what I’m studying. And now that I’ve finally decompressed from the last two years, there’s space for me to expand into the person I want to be.

At the very least, I’ll be a Wayfa(i)rer. 

“Boston Calling”: One Woman’s Journey through Two Years in Boston (B)

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Harvard Business School

[HBS Shield Logo, Copyright Protected]

 

HBS Case No. N9-716-023

Revised June 30, 2016

Erica M. Zendell

“Boston Calling”: One Woman’s Journey through Two Years in Boston (B)

On June 21, 2016, a sunny Tuesday morning, Erica Zendell ventured out to Boston’s Copley Square Farmers Market, browsing the options for what to cook for dinner with her newly-free time. It was just over three weeks since her graduation from the MIT Sloan School of Management and she was getting back in touch with the people and places she loved but had largely abandoned while consumed by MBA life, from her coworkers at HBS to her teammates at sweetgreen. 

At the Copley Market, she ran into her food business mentor from her Zen Cookery days. As they caught up, Erica realized just how much had changed for the both of them in the last two years. Her mentor had grown her business by leaps and bounds and was leasing a physical storefront in Somerville that was thriving. Erica had chosen to go in a very different direction when it came to her career—much to her surprise, it was away from food and into furniture. She was one month from starting work as a Product Manager at Wayfair, just across the street from this very market.

As she walked home from Copley Square through the Back Bay, she soaked up Boston’s long-delayed summer sunshine and reflected on just how much had changed for her in the last two years. 

Happy [Z]endings

 “When it comes to Zen Cookery, there are three days I’ll never forget: There’s the day I went to my first Farmers Market in Cambridge to sell my products. There’s the day I received my wholesale license approval in the mail—on the same day I decided to shut down operations. And then there’s the day I walked through the Boston Public Market (Boston’s equivalent of the San Francisco Ferry Building Marketplace) and saw an allergy-friendly baking company there, in the space I almost rented. I know things worked out for the best, but I often wonder what my life would have looked like if I had not gotten into business school and had stayed the course with Zen Cookery.”

One of the biggest decisions Erica had to make in 2014 was whether to continue her food business, Zen Cookery, when she began her MBA. She already knew she couldn’t operate on the same scale that she had been were she to continue running the business alone. Besides doing the actual baking, selling at multiple farmers markets, managing retail and accounts, finding creative ways to attract new customers consumed more than 12 hours of her time each day.

Concerned that hiring an intern would require too much time and training, Erica considered outsourcing the baking to a copacker to eliminate the physical baking time from her schedule. But after evaluating the risks and the costs of bringing a copacker into her supply chain, she decided against it. “I came to the conclusion that keeping the business as a retail and wholesale baking business would leave me with too much to do to take my education seriously. So I did what any startup does in a situation like this where the core business needs to change for the sake of the company’s survival—I pivoted.”

Over the course of the summer and early fall, Erica worked with a web designer who redesigned her website with a new food blog template. This would allow her to shift her strategy and reinvent the business as a health and lifestyle brand instead of a food brand. “My thought was I’d be able to blog at my leisure, adding new recipes and things I’d learned about diet and nutrition from my two years on a largely plant-based gluten-free diet.” Later on, Erica hoped to identify blog followers and Boston locals who might be interested in paying for cooking lessons or personalized nutrition coaching.

 Erica researched a number of leading food blogs like “Smitten Kitchen,” “Oh She Glows,” “Love and Lemons” and “My Name is Yeh,” analyzing the authors’ writing styles, types of recipes shared, their approaches to email, social media and affiliate marketing. She implemented what she learned from dissecting these blogs, publishing a blog post and adding a few pictures and recipes to the Zen Cookery website in the first few weeks of school. “No matter what I did, the blogging just didn’t feel right, and forcing the business into continued existence was making me miserable.”

Then it dawned on her:  The thing she loved most about these blogs was what she called “the appearance of effortlessness” in all dimensions, from the photography to the recipes to the storytelling bringing them both together: “The reality was that these bloggers were working full-time to make their effort look effortless. These women were making their careers out of this thing I was trying to do while studying full-time in business school. So I decided to stop putting so much pressure on myself to make this blog work when I just didn’t have the time or the drive to do it: it could be a pastime at least and a part-time job at most while I was at Sloan—not the center of my life.”

Erica felt confident in her ability to become successful in the packaged foods or food blog space should she decide to come back to it later. While she felt like a failure for not having “made it” with Zen Cookery and felt uncomfortable explaining to people that she was no longer running the business, she was excited to put her entrepreneurial pursuits on hold. She could finally make space in her head and time in her schedule for all the things she could learn while at MIT.

First Year: September 2014-May 2015

 "My ‘freshman year of business school was 20% daydream and 80% nightmare. I was so grateful to have gotten into the program and loved the cool new people I was meeting, but on four days out of the five I spent around campus, I felt like I was drowning. My brain was being bombarded with new concepts and lingo and none of it seemed to stick in my brain .The only person who knew how stressed out I was was my boyfriend—he broke up with me three weeks into the program."

Academic Life

Erica knew that starting business school at a place like MIT wouldn’t be easy. The place had a reputation for being more academically demanding than many of its peer schools that were less “quant heavy” and team project based. Moreover, the MIT MBA program was structured so that first year students took all their required coursework in the first semester instead of over the course of the first year. Once she survived “The Core,” the intense fall lineup of accounting, statistics, economics, leadership communication, and organizational processes, she’d be free to take any classes she wanted in her remaining three semesters.

The classes were structured to ‘teach to the middle’ of the experiences and backgrounds of the people in the room, making things challenging for Erica given her age and roles prior to attending business school. “I consistently came on the low end of expertise in these classes, and the breakneck pace of “The Core” made it hard to keep up. Even with tutoring, I barely made it through. By the time I made it to Thursday afternoon for Organizational Processes, the only class I really liked that fall, I was too tired to pay attention.“

First year students were required to complete the majority of their assignments as “Core Team.” Working at HBS, Erica largely completed her projects alone, which made working on a six-person, assigned team of peers for a semester very challenging for her.  “My ‘Core Team,’ the Pacific Petrels, was perfectly engineered for the diversity on which MIT prides itself: it was half male, half female; half international, half American; half with a consulting background, half without. Half of us were also ‘planners” ’and the others were ‘just-in-timers’ when it came to completing work, but somehow we got everything done.”

Coming in as a writer and entrepreneur, Erica felt that her contribution was doomed to be minimal—most of the class work played to the strengths and expertise of the individuals with consulting, accounting, and economics backgrounds on her team. “I still don’t understand anything we did in Excel, but I wrote pieces of the reports we had to submit, so I wasn’t a total ‘good-for-nothing.’ By the end of the semester, some core teams end up being best friends while others want to murder each other. Luckily, we were pretty neutral.”

By second semester, things felt more natural to Erica. “I had three of my best classes of my MBA career that semester. An advanced communications class, an accounting class that made me less afraid of dissecting a 10K, and a leadership class structured around studying leadership principles through Shakespeare and putting on a performance of Julius Caesar for the whole school. When I wasn’t recruiting or recovering from recruiting during the spring, I felt like I was actually engaged in class.” 

Social Life

 “There are 3 reasons people tend to go to business school: to go back to school for particular skills or knowledge, to change careers, or to go on vacation for two years with a bunch of ambitious people with high career potential.  I’d say my motivation was 50% career-switching, 25% going back to learn skills, and 25% meeting people. Some people it’s 100% partying, which is totally fine. It just wasn’t me. From that perspective, I’d say many of my peers had way more fun than I did in business school.”

On top of the academic obligations, Erica had to balance a very heavy social calendar. “People tell you that networking and socializing is a huge part of business school, but I don’t think I realized just how huge it was until I had to live it. Every week there were at least 10 major social events going on outside of class from international trips to birthday parties to drinks outings—and those were just the 10 or so that I knew were happening.” Erica’s dietary needs made some of the socializing around beer and pizza impossible, so she tried her best to connect to people in contexts that were quieter and more manageable for her, like lunch dates and coffee dates.

Erica felt particularly strongly about her Ocean, her 70-person MBA cohort with whom she took all her fall classes. “The Pacifics were a positive, energetic group, and made it easier to get through a really tough beginning to my MIT experience. And by the time I hit December, I cared about some people enough to write them holiday cards, which was a really nice feeling.” She was especially proud about a award she had quietly initiated earlier in the semester: people in her Ocean would recognize someone for being kind, helpful, or otherwise spirited within the Pacific community and the person recognized would wear a Hawaiian lei for the day until awarding the lei to a new person the following week. 

Over the course of the year, Erica signed up for many clubs, but eventually pared down her extracurricular commitments. At the beginning of the year, she had applied for nearly 10 leadership positions in student organizations and conferences. “In high school, college, and in pre-MBA adventures in Cambridge, I managed to ‘do it all,’ but it wasn’t possible in business school. I spent the fall signing up for things and the spring getting rid of them,” she laughed. “Once I survived marketing a Sustainability conference on campus, all I was doing by the end of the year was writing for the ‘MBA Class of 2016 Blog’ for Sloan Admissions and organizing a student storytelling event called ‘The Yarn.’” These were the things Erica cared most about and refused to give up, even when life caught up with me. “They kept me grounded, and I had no way of knowing this at the time, but they would also be my legacy at Sloan and define my identity within my class. Ironically, I came into school wanting to be a quant and lose my squishy ‘poet’ self, but when I leaned into those tendencies, that’s when I was actually able to do my best work.“

The Internship Search: Rough Beginnings

“I experienced a ton of rejection in the recruiting process. I’m grateful for it because it forced me to broaden my career prospects beyond the food industry. I definitely wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing next without all those doors being slammed in my face.”

When Erica applied to business school, she expected to use her time there to work on Zen Cookery and take steps to grow it into a nationally-scalable fast-casual restaurant. When she finally got to business school, her perspective had changed: the MBA was a chance to do something different. She believed her time at business school, professionally-speaking, would be best spent trying to work at a traditional ’Big Food’ or consumer products company. She believed getting more conventional experience at a place like McDonald’s, Coca Cola, or Procter and Gamble would give her the right connections and relevant knowledge to go back to the startup food world and really win at it.

 However, when Erica began recruiting for food companies, she became disillusioned. Most companies in the food and beverage space didn’t hire MBA interns and the ones that did had strong, preexisting relationships with other business schools. Because Erica came into Sloan more interested in entrepreneurship, she had not paid much attention during her MBA application process to the school’s recruiting strengths. Now she realized that Sloan’s career connections were concentrated in consulting, tech, finance, healthcare—not food:

“Getting an internship in a given industry—even if it’s not the school’s wheelhouse—is possible as a MBA. It just takes a lot of due diligence to figure out who the recruiters are and if there are alumni there who can connect you to someone with hiring power. In my case, though, by the time I found the right person to talk to in these food companies, I had missed the deadlines to submit my application,” Erica reflected. “When I did make it to the next phase, my chances at getting the one MBA slot left open at General Mills or Pepsi to someone who wasn’t from Kellogg or NYU Stern were slim to none. I’ll never forget going to this MBA Marketing event at Clorox with two girls from Sloan and the three of us realizing, ‘Wait, they have no intention of hiring anyone from MIT. What are we doing here?’”

Even though dropping her resume for consulting would have been easy, she reminded herself that the lifestyle and work of consulting was out of alignment with her sense of self and sense of purpose in business: “to create products that help people live happier, healthier, more fulfilled lives.” She held onto this mission and became more creative over the course of the fall in searching for job opportunities: reading the career digests from different clubs at Sloan about internships, talking to her mentor, and even scouring opportunities on social media: “My entire process with Nestle started from tweeting at someone in Human Resources!”

 The job search for Erica and many of her peers was like having a third full-time job on top of the full-time academic and full-time social commitments. Because the opportunities she was seeking were not with companies that came to campus, Erica felt she was constantly searching and applying and generally “going the extra mile” to pursue these companies. “I spent Veteran’s Day Weekend splitting hairs on my application to L’Oreal, and the minute I finished my Core Semester finals—when I should have been drinking and celebrating with my classmates—I was on a plane to Cleveland in a last-ditch attempt to move forward in my recruiting process with Nestle. I spent much of Martin Luther King Day in a $50 Uber to do ‘field research’ at the nearest Walmart so I’d be prepared for my interview with their Strategy and Finance team the next day.”

Her interview weekend with L’Oreal, “A Taste of L’Oreal” was a particularly taxing experience. “It was insanely competitive, 50 MBAs competing for 5 spots. It started Thursday night and ending Saturday morning with an in-office interview. Friday was spent locked in the Times Square Westin in a conference room, with about 12 tables of people. We were total strangers in groups of 5 or 6 and had half-hour increments to complete pieces of a marketing case together Employees clad in black silently scrawled notes about us as we worked—after this, I have a lot of empathy for lab rats, because that’s exactly what I felt like. I could sense that people in the room on Friday or Saturday didn’t like my approach to solving the problems put before us: ‘How can we make this skin care brand relevant to millennials?’ ‘What’s the target market for this new mascara product?’ Much as I love skin care and mascara, I was certain I wouldn’t fit in there.”

Though challenging, Erica believed her time at L’Oreal was a great experience: “The best part about it in hindsight? I got a swag bag worth $500+, met a really cool team of women at my case table with whom I stayed in touch, and went out on a great first date the minute I got back to Boston with the guy who would later become my boyfriend. Not to mention, I dodged a bullet on company culture—I would have been miserable there.” Even so, getting the formal rejection still hurt: “I remember sitting in the Denver airport after the MBA ski trip on the weekend of Boston’s first big snowstorm. My flight had been cancelled twice and I was sitting through my hours of flight delays waiting for L’Oreal to call. They didn’t. When my roommate from the weekend texted me letting me know she got an offer, I felt completely defeated. ”  

The Beautiful Breakthrough

By February, Erica was feeling frustrated. She had foregone her final round interview with Nestle to go for L’Oreal and had nothing to show for it. “I was so upset because three of my classmates went to final rounds with Nestle and two of them got offers—I beat myself up every day whenever I thought, ‘If I went for Nestle instead of L’Oreal, I’d have a great offer for the summer and be done recruiting already.” She was talking with Burger King and Bimbo Bakeries but didn’t feel excited about the work or culture of either company based on her conversations with employees.

In March, things started to turn around. “My parents were on vacation in Florida and a friend of a friend of theirs knew someone at Dr. Pepper Snapple Group (DPSG). For the first time ever, one of my parents’ connections pulled through. Suddenly I found myself in a lovely, hour-long interview with a hiring manager, who told me the company still had one spot open for a MBA Brand Management or Consumer Insights Intern.” Right around the time Erica was talking to Dr. Pepper, she heard back from a company she adored and to which she’d applied on a total whim back in February: Sephora. “I was sitting in a Dunkin Donuts in suburban Massachusetts before my final round interview with Ocean Spray when I got an email from Sephora inviting me to interview for dotcom strategy and store digital teams. I had not applied to either of these positions and had no idea what the teams did, but I didn’t care.”

On the morning of March 19, Erica flew down to Dallas for her final round interview with Dr. Pepper. She spent the plane ride reading the company’s annual report and thinking about questions to ask the people she was supposed to meet. “I had been rejected by Ocean Spray a few days before and was determined to crush this interview—it was my very last thing in the pipeline.” As Erica was preparing to get off the plane, she received some unexpected news. “I turned off ‘airplane mode’ on my phone and checked my email to see an email with the subject ‘Sephora Internship.’ ‘Hi Erica. Apologies for sending this via email, I am traveling and in a noisy airport at the moment. I really enjoyed our discussion last week.  I would love to extend an offer to have you join the Sephora Store Digital Product Management team as an intern…’ If I hadn’t been stuck in the airplane cabin waiting for everyone to slowly de-plane, I’d have been jumping up and down.”

Erica still had a day of interviews ahead of her in Plano, Texas at the DPSG Offices. She put the joy of the Sephora office aside for the moment to keep her focus. The following day, March 20, Erica sat in the airport to return to Boston. Hours after leaving the DPSG offices, she received an offer to be a MBA Brand Manager there for the summer. “DPSG was a big food/beverage company giving me the title I wanted with excellent money. Sephora was a retail company giving me a job I didn’t even know how to describe with awful pay. But I knew I couldn’t see myself building a career in Plano, Texas and was curious about what it would be like to work in tech, in San Francisco, and at a company I’d secretly wanted to work at for years. The next week, I made my calls to DPSG and signed with Sephora.” 

Summer in San Francisco: June-August 2015  

“My only experiences of San Francisco were visiting a guy I’d been in love with at Stanford in January 2012, and visiting my college friend Eileen while in November 2013, and January 2015. Spending a whole summer there was a big bet.“

The final two months of Erica’s first year in business school flew by, and on June 5, 2015, Erica flew out to San Francisco to settle into life in California before her internship. “I stayed with my friend Eileen for the first few days, and then moved into a ‘Hacker House’ loft for the rest of the summer with 4 rising college seniors and one random person who switched on the weekly.” Erica had largely lived alone since moving to Boston in 2012, so moving into an apartment built for two but accommodating 6 in bunk beds was an adjustment. “Luckily, my roommates were lovely and our schedules lined up really well. We went to Napa together, had near-weekly dinners, met our significant others, and supported each other through the tougher parts of our summers. It could have been hell, but it wasn’t and I couldn’t be more grateful for that crew.” (See Exhibit 1 for the blog post Erica wrote about her roommates).[1] Even though the Hacker House was an overpriced Airbnb, it was a 30-minute walk from her work, highly accessible by public transit, and right next to the Embarcadero and AT&T Ballpark.

The job at Sephora was a major experience for Erica, since it was the first time in recent memory she had held a formal “9 to 5” office job. The last two years, her job at HBS had a flexible schedule and her startup filled up every spare moment of her schedule. She had worked at Telebrands, an infomercial products company the summer before she started college, and had a summer internship her junior year of college, but that was it. Erica was surprised at how much she liked the sense of stability and routine that came with the job: “I was essentially being paid in makeup and not money, but it was a pretty good lifestyle: I woke up at 5:30 and went to Philz when it opened, sat and wrote for a bit, went to work out around 7, showered and rolled into the office at 8:30, made up and dressed “in concept” (Sephora’s dress code: red, white, black, grey, and/or the Pantone Color of the Year--Marsala in 2015). I left by 6 or 6:30 every day. On weekends, I went to the Ferry Building Farmers Market and sampled fruit from every stone fruit vendor.“

While Erica enjoyed the routine she had developed, the people she met, and the work she did over the summer, she couldn’t see herself living in San Francisco after graduation: “I loved my team and my MBA cohort at Sephora and was learning a ton about the organization, the beauty business, and the place (or lack thereof) of tech in retail. I liked the work of product management, and wanted to explore it more thoroughly after graduation. But I had little patience for the Silicon Valley tech culture and a lot of reservations about San Francisco. I came back to Boston ready to come back to Boston in September.” (See Exhibit 2 for the blog post Erica wrote about her impressions of San Francisco.)

Second Year: September 2015-June 2016

 “I remember nothing of my second year of business school. Did it really happen?”

When Erica returned for her second year at Sloan, she came back with renewed sense of focus. “I didn’t care about the classes or grades anymore. I was more committed to enjoying the people around me while they were still around me.” When not spending time in one-on-one contexts with different people at school, Erica was focused on organizing community events, like ‘The Yarn’ student storytelling event and later ‘The Last Lecture,’ an event where three faculty members give speeches imparting life wisdom to the graduating class:

“When I started working on ‘The Yarn’ in September 2014, it was hosted in this crappy Coffee House room in MIT’s student center and barely 50 people attended it. Two years passed, and the audiences grew. We had to host the final one in May 2016 in the Sloan auditorium. There were at least 300 people there, not including the folks sitting in the aisles. It was the first time I felt I’d actually built something and I was moved to tears. Looking out on the audience and delivering the closing remarks at ‘The Yarn’ that week and‘The Last Lecture’ the following week are probably the proudest moments of my life so far.”

 Despite her focus on community engagement, Erica had a stronger academic experience in the tail end of her second year of business school. She worked in New York City at West Elm for a course called L-Lab (Exhibit 3), cross-registered for a course at her old casewriting grounds at HBS (Exhibit 4), and took courses on career-building, social media management, and service operations with exceptional faculty with whom she intended to stay in touch. She also attended South By Southwest Interactive in Austin for the very first time during her spring break (Exhibit 5). Outside of these trips, classes, and activities, the thing that most consistently took up most of her time was starting a podcast with one of her classmates, Lily, “The Business of Being Awesome,” (Exhibit 6) and getting help with it from a few friends. The podcast, by nature of its mission to help listeners ‘not quit their daydreams,’ reinforced her commitment to following her own path, even as the stress of full-time recruiting began to build. 

The Full-time Hustle

Erica’s full-time job hunt was more targeted than her internship search. She wanted to work in a tech role in a company that sold physical products rather than digital ones, and she wanted to be at a company focused on serving everyday people rather than big enterprise clients. “I liked being a PM at Sephora because the tech I was working with, from hair scanning to foundation matching, was so tangible, personal, and human. That’s why I couldn’t be a PM at a “pure tech” company.” Based on her friends’ experiences from Google over the summer, she thought: “If I were working at Google as a PM on Gmail, for example, the most work I could do is take user research to upgrade the Gmail layout with a new icon or feature, That’s cool, sure, but I have a much easier time imagining—and getting excited about—someone feeling empowered by using technology to find their perfect lipstick than using an icon on Gmail.”

Erica searched for Product Management roles not only at retail and consumer products companies, as before, but also at media companies. “The media thing came out of loving my trip out to LA while in California over the summer and hitting it off with a few people in the media and entertainment industry at conferences in Cambridge—I had some great conversations with FOX and goop, the lifestyle brand headed up by Gwyneth Paltrow, of all things.”  In the end, she most actively pursued five companies of varying sizes and levels of establishment: The Walt Disney Company, Wayfair, Estee Lauder, Starbucks, and The Honest Company.

Erica was rejected from Disney after the first round on account of her nontechnical experience and never heard back from Estee Lauder after her first round interview. Both her friend at Starbucks and people she knew at Honest told her to circle back in the spring to see what openings were actually available, since both companies hired in more of an ad hoc fashion. Erica did a final round interview at Wayfair on November 12 and got an offer to join as a full Product Manager on November 16. “I was in the middle of a recording session for the podcast,” she remembered. “Lily and my friend Sydney, who was being recorded, were watching me on the call and couldn’t tell whether I had or hadn’t gotten the job—the HR guy was weird. ‘The team likes you, but you’re not experienced enough, but decided to give you a shot.’ Not how I would have delivered the news, but hey, I was hired!” 

Evaluating Wayfair

You’re going to mess up on this job every day at the beginning—at least for the first three months you’re going to be making mistakes all the time. Every day I’m going to ask you what you learned. So long as you keep applying what you’ve learned, we’ll never have a problem. I have no doubt in just a few months, you’ll be a rockstar here.”—The Manager

 While delighted to receive the offer, Erica had some reservations about joining Wayfair: “I wasn’t particularly keen on staying in Boston, and compared to beauty, I had no real interest in furniture or interior design.” Erica was also concerned about the financial components of the offer. “Because I knew a lot of the compensation numbers for my fellow MBAs (both in and outside of Product Management) I was disappointed when I saw the pay package. My offer was justified given I’d only done 10 weeks of Product Management in my entire life and how inexperienced I was compared to members of my potential team, but it was still demotivating to hear my peers’ negotiation success stories knowing that I was getting barely half of what they were getting from their employers.”

Erica spent the following month reflecting on whether she should take the offer or continue recruiting. “Over the next few weeks, I had three big realizations around the money, in particular. The first was that the compensation number I’d have wanted for myself, including benefits and bonuses, prior to business school was the number Wayfair was giving me. My thinking that this number ‘was not enough’ was the result of warped perspective from being in a MBA program.

The second realization I had was that everyone I knew and liked at Wayfair had chosen working there over staying at a really prestigious company with a higher salary. They seemed to care more about building a great company and having a great quality of life outside of work than they did about making the extra few thousand dollars. Given that these people could probably work wherever they wanted, I was convinced Wayfair’s culture had to be good enough to attract them and hold onto them. The last realization came when I thought back to my friends in college who ended up in investment banking: they made a ton of money, but worked insane hours and barely had lives. That extra money is the difference between a company employing you and owning you, and I didn’t want to be owned.”

After consulting her coworkers from Sephora, her family and friends, and reflecting on her own, Erica believed that Wayfair would be her best next step. “I had a strict list of 11 things I needed to have out of my post-MBA role that I’d written right when I got back from San Francisco—Wayfair checked every box. I don’t think any other company in the realm of my consideration could have hit all 11.” The item on Erica’s list of 11 that stood out most with regard to Wayfair was working for someone she respected. She believed she had found that person in The Manager:

 “I met The Manager at the Product table at Wayfair’s MBA Open House. We really hit it off, and the next time I saw him was in my final round interview. He was my last interviewer of the day. He didn’t waste my time with questions about my resume or ask me for stories about times I’d failed or what I was doing in school. He said, ‘Tell me what you want to achieve in the next three years and I’ll tell you if this is a place where you can make that happen.’ We talked about the people he had mentored and what kinds of work they were doing now, and I could see myself in their stories. I left the interview thinking, ‘If I get the offer and I can work for him, I don’t care that I’ll be selling lamps instead of lipstick next year. I’m in.’

With the understanding that she would be able to work for The Manager, she signed her offer letter on December 18, 2016 to work as a Product Manager at Wayfair starting Summer 2016.

Happily Ever After?

“Anyone can be cool, but awesome takes practice.” Lorraine Peterson

Erica graduated from MIT Sloan with her MBA on June 3, 2016. While she was sad to see some of her friends leave town, she felt relieved. “My schedule wasn’t stuffed to the gills anymore. I slept until 11 for like a week and a half (totally unlike me) and polished off book after book from the library (a little more like me). It was delightful but also completely disorienting.” Erica also enjoyed seeing and reconnecting with her non-MBA friends in the weeks following graduation: “I feared I’d lost a lot of friends in the all-consuming MBA experience—I’m grateful that the good ones stuck around and were still standing by me.”

With just a few weeks before her start date at Wayfair, July 18, Erica was feeling a little bit anxious.  She had lived in Boston for four years now and had expected to leave the city after business school. Because she wasn’t, she was hoping that starting work, along with moving from the West End to Chinatown, would be just the changes she needed to see the city and herself with new eyes. “I’ve reached the point in Boston where it feels like I’ve seen it all and done it all, but the good thing about it is that even though the city hasn’t really changed, I know that I have.” For the first time, Erica was living in Boston and not working at or attending a school. “I spent the last four years trying to convince people that I was more than an academic—and now I finally get to make it happen. I finally got the business job I wanted, the identity I wanted. Though whether I’ll actually be a good Product Manager is a whole other story.”

 Still Erica had no intention of losing her creative self while pursuing her career. She and Lily had plans to do a third season of the podcast and after Erica’s success getting a MBA blog post on The Economist, she was determined to take her writing more seriously and eventually get published. Encouraged by one of her professors and one of her close friends to not stop writing, she began to make a list of writers whose work she particularly admired and to assemble a portfolio of work worthy of their caliber. “I started writing my blog four years ago, and it’s time for me to stop pretending that I don’t want to make something from this. I do. I really, really do.”

As she walked through the Back Bay toward the Charles River Esplanade, Erica took a minute to pause and watch the sailboats along the river. She knew she’d be ready to sail away someday, but for now, she couldn’t complain about being in safe harbor. It would give her a little more time to prepare to make a bigger splash.   

[1] *Erica’s best roommate moment of the summer, save for those reading aloud lines from “Grey” and watching BoJack Horseman was this: “I was in Santa Monica for a few days when a guy I’d met on Tinder in Boston reached out to me. He had had his passport and money stolen while hiking Yosemite, needed a place to stay in San Francisco. Since we were still friendly and his situation sounded awful, I agreed to help him out. I told him there was probably a bed in the Hacker House that was open and that I would ask my roommates if they were cool with him staying for a night or two. He did, but was gone by the time I was back from LA. I asked my roommates about the interactions with him. Nothing was particularly extraordinary save for this one conversation. One of my roommates asked the guy, “So, how do you know Erica?” “Uh, from the Cambridge community,” he answered uneasily. My roommates knew me and my story well enough by this point to know, “Yeah, this guy met Erica on Tinder.” The mildly hilarious aftermath is that this guy was lazy and decided to leave his camping gear in our apartment, including his ice axe “as a gift.” We took pictures with it and one of my roommates, a talented photoshopper, took the guy’s Tinder Profile and did some creative editing of it as we posed with the camping gear. The final kicker? He and one of my roommates were on the same flight back to the East Coast. They took a picture together and sent it to me. I couldn’t believe this whole thing had happened.

 

Family Matters, Part 1: Cousins

Family is far from easy, and I'm finally getting to writing about mine. This is the first of a few posts to come. Subscribe here to stay up to date!

Everyone tells you that business is about making tradeoffs. Business strategy is as much choosing what to do as choosing what not to do. 

The choice of going to business school, like any business decision, is loaded with tradeoffs: how else you could have spent or saved the money put toward tuition and travel; how high you could have been promoted had you clocked in 2 more years at your current gig or somewhere new; how much better your body and brain feel without subsisting on caffeine, alcohol, and convenience food.

My business school career was filled with tradeoffs, but it was a decision I made in the first week of classes that keeps coming back to me as the tradeoff that has had some great repercussions the last two years. Like many of my most interesting personal stories, it involves my family. 

I grew up as an only child, and the closest thing I have to siblings are four cousins on my mother’s side and three half-siblings on my dad’s side from his first marriage (I’m from marriage number 3; he had no kids in the second one). The relationship with my cousins is stronger in part because they’re a lot closer to me in age: my oldest cousin is 8 years older than I am, while my youngest half-sibling is about 20 years my senior. 

Even though I spent more of my childhood growing up in Northern New Jersey, when people ask me where I’m from, I tend to say I was born down by Jersey Shore, because that’s where my first, best, and most tender memories are.

Many of those memories are with my cousins. We swam and made sand castles together at a beach club on Ocean Avenue. We drank my grandmother’s signature Diet Peach Lipton iced tea in the summer and sampled Jordan almonds and other mysterious grown-up candies from her candy drawer. So long as the weather was warm, we’d go out and hit tennis balls, or, when Thanksgiving rolled around, tossed a football before feasting on turkey and yams with marshmallows. 

In the last 3 years, my cousins hit the sweet spot of getting married. The first two weddings I went to as an adult were my cousin B’s in October 2012 and P’s in June 2013. I’ll never forget B’s because the timing turned out to be precariously close to Hurricane Sandy, and I barely beat the storm on my flight home from Miami. I’ll never forget P’s because I had just gotten back from three weeks in China. After spending most of the month suffocated by pollution and largely alone, it was an indescribably joy to breathe in salt air--and breathe, period-- to be in loving company, and to bear witness to something as beautiful as P’s wedding.

Because of school, I missed the other two cousins’ weddings: L’s because it was the first week of classes in school and my cohort was supposed to attend a mandatory “Team Day” that Friday; M’s because it was the on the Friday of the first week of my internship in San Francisco last June.

At the time, I didn’t understand that at Sloan the word “mandatory” was interpreted more like “attendance strongly suggested” instead of truly “mandatory.” There were definitely people in my cohort absent from the “mandatory” event. Had I known this would be the case, I might have flown down to Georgia that Friday for L’s wedding. Regardless, because I’ve always taken school very seriously and because I feared letting down my first-semester academic work team, my “Core Team,” on “Team Day,” I missed it. Because I feared missing my onboarding training and getting off on the wrong foot in my first days at my internship, I chose not to go to M’s wedding, as well. 

M was very understanding about it—he and his fiancée both went to law school and knew the importance of developing rapport and making a good impression on their managers in their summer jobs. L was more hurt by my absence, and I had no idea how much my absence would affect our relationship in the years to come. 

I remember calling L on her wedding day in September 2014 to congratulate her and express how sorry I was for being unable to attend the ceremony, but never heard back. The first communication I received from her was a text about 10 months after that call. The tension between us quietly poisoned the select family gatherings I managed to attend in moments away from my MBA. Whenever I saw my aunts, uncles, and cousins, I would say, “I still feel terrible. Has she forgiven me yet?” The first time I saw her since the wedding, last Thanksgiving, we barely spoke, let alone made eye contact. Despite exchanging holiday cards, I know the bad blood hasn’t completely dried. And I still feel guilty. 

My cousins are now reaching the point of having babies, and last week, foregoing the MBA trip to the British Virgin Islands, I made it a point to meet P’s 3-month-old baby, my first cousin once removed. 
I intend to be there to meet M’s and B’s babies when they make their way into the world in the coming months. But most importantly, I plan to fly down to Tampa this fall when L has her baby and try to make things right. I hope making the effort of going down to visit her and being present for this second major occasion in her life will put us on a real path to healing our relationship.

Returning to the discussion of tradeoffs: I’ve been quick to prioritize my academics over self-care, as my last blog post discusses, and have been just as quick to prioritize my school obligations over my family relationships. One of the things I am most excited about with the end of my MBA, official Friday, is that I will not have to choose between my academics and my family. But I’d be kidding myself if I said that my MBA was the last time I will have to make the choice between professional and personal obligations, and for matters far more serious than a “Team Day” or summer internship.

As I start work at my first real, non-academic job in July, this will become the thing I need to most remember: if I want to bring my best and fullest self to work, I will need to seek out work places that care about me as a person with a family. If my managers happen to be people who care less about family, I will need to find the courage to set clear, incontrovertible boundaries over my family. If I’m going to count, “making time for the people in my life who matter, family above all” as one of my core values, I actually need to do make the time. 

In other words, even as an aspiring leader and soon to be Master of Business Administration, I need to be reminded to the importance of choosing people over profession. I am not my work: jobs will come and go, and I hope the job I begin in July will be the first of many happy ones. But family—both the friends I choose as my family and my blood relations, for better or worse—is forever. And with graduation, I am committed to giving that forever the space to command its due respect, attention and care.

"And love dares you to change [your] ways..."

Marathon Monday is one of my favorite days of the year in Boston. It’s a day to celebrate the triumphant runners from all around the world, and since 2013, it’s become a testament to the recovery of Boston and the strength of its spirit. On Marathon Monday and the days following it, I’m typically invigorated with hope for humanity.

This year, I couldn’t escape a sense of complete and utter hopelessness. 

I’ll remember April 18, 2016 as the day I fell, a teary heap, into the arms of one of my best friends, J., outside of a Shake Shack in downtown Boston. We spent the next hour walking off and talking out my feelings instead of burying them in a milkshake. I met her in late 2013, working together for at the bakery during my food startup hustling. During those four months, we saw each other at our absolute best and absolute worst. 

For this reason, among others, J. is of the few people I don’t feel ashamed of seeing me as I was Marathon Monday, completely untethered and upset. My partner is one of the others.  

Unlike J., who lives about a half hour away by bike and who I don’t get to see more than once every other month these days, A. has been dating me for over a year. He sees me more (and sees more of me) than anyone else I know. Our relationship has been a gift, and I have no shame in expressing my feelings to him or being vulnerable in front of him.

Anyone who has met A. or heard me talk about him knows knows this: he’s generally misjudged as reserved because he's so calm and collected (and consistently so). He’s exceptionally talented, mature, and supportive. He dresses and styles his hair impeccably. But most of all, he accepts me and loves me as I am—and I never have to question it. 

Three months ago, he moved in with me. It’s been going very well by all accounts, but I can’t help but feel guilty: the emotional outburst I experienced around my friend J. on Marathon Monday has been something A. has had to witness on more nights than I’d like to admit. It’s reached the point where it has become a near-daily routine.

As an entrepreneur, he already experiences the ups and downs of his own startup during the day, and has ended up experiencing to the ups and downs of my own emotional state during the night when he gets home. When he walks through the door at 10PM, it’s a bit of a crapshoot for which Erica he’s going to see—the ebullient, motivated, passionate one or the depressed, overwhelmed, weepy one. 

On Thursday night, he was lying down next to me, practically hysterical again. The remains of my mascara were tattooed on my white pillowcase. Even without the glow of the candle on my nightstand, you’d know my face was blotchy and red from crying. In between tears and gasps of air, I found the resolve to open my eyes and look back at A. His expression was off to me. I searched his eyes for compassion but couldn’t find it. 

“What are you thinking?” I pleaded.  “Come on. What is it?” 

Nothing. No words. No change. Still quietly staring at me, not blinking and not breaking eye contact. 

From the look in his eyes, I knew I had to push my characteristically stoic boyfriend to speak his mind. I wasn’t prepared for what he had to say. 

“Tell me,” I demanded.

Finally, he did. Lovingly but gravely:

“I know you know the answer to this problem—I’ve heard you coaching yourself through it. What I don’t know is if you have the willingness to take responsibility for it. If you don’t, I won’t do this.”

By “this", he was referring to moving in together to a new apartment in July, but since we already live together, "this" had another clear implication: I love you but I won’t stand for this anymore. If you love me and, more importantly, if you love yourself, you’ll get your stress under control. Otherwise, we won’t have a future together. I’ll have to walk away from this relationship.

*****

I’m not sure I’ve ever been good at coping with stress. It doesn't help that I’m practically addicted to putting pressure on myself. Some of that self-imposed pressure motivated me into the doors of an Ivy League college and a top business school as well as into two startups in the last three years. Other times, that pressure caused me to crumble on account of the most insignificant things. I wish I were kidding when I say that losing a tennis match in elementary school used to make me feel as woeful and angry as Hamlet after discovering his father was dead and his mother married his uncle. 

I’ve struggled with anxiety and depression for a while, but have managed to keep them under control in the last few years. In July 2013, I went off of medication completely after four years leaning on the prescription that got me through college. But for much of my time in graduate school, and especially since the beginning of 2016, I’ve wondered if I needed to be taking something again.

I haven’t written about depression on this blog since spring 2014, because even in a community as welcoming and supportive as MIT’s, business school is not really a place where it’s socially acceptable to express anything but a networking-ready smile and sunny-side-up disposition. But I’ve reached the point where I can no longer keep up appearances. 

With the imminent end of school, start of work, and some family drama associated with both of these things, the last few months, I’ve gone from being bad at coping with stress to being unable to cope with it: I over-schedule myself and wonder why I don’t have free time. I covertly binge on food at home and wonder why I can’t lose weight. I don’t make time for self-care and wonder why I feel so ugly. The stress has reached the point of threatening the most important relationships in my life—with my close friends, with my mom, with A., and above all with myself. 

David Bowie and Queen said it best in “Under Pressure.” Right now, love is daring me to change my ways of caring about myself. It begins with being honest. And the only way that’s ever really worked for me to be honest is to write. The willingness to write all this down is the beginning of my taking responsibility for it. 

I’m in a relationship with a phenomenal man. I’m less than two months from graduating from a phenomenal school with phenomenal people. I’m three months from starting a phenomenal job with a phenomenal manager that will help me reach my goals of 100% financial independence. Provided my health situation continues to be stable, I have everything I need to build a phenomenal personal and professional future for myself. 

Now it's time for me to take responsibility for living, as the only thing I deserve is a phenomenal life.

 

“I am but mad [south-south-]west."

(quote from Hamlet, adapted for a 21st-century tech company audience)

You know you’re in business school when your definition of “long-term planning” is planning anything over a week in advance. By that definition, my planning to go to South by Southwest over 7 months before the first day of Interactive was practically an attempt to predict the future. 

It started at happy hour with my manager in my last weeks in San Francisco in August. The conversation began with relaying team feedback about working with me and extended to her own career and things she had done--attending SXSW among them--to build it and continue learning along the way. Two drinks in and one week away from the end of my internship, I found the courage to approach the topic that was really on my mind: 

“I know they don’t do offers here, but if I’m still looking for work when I see you next at SXSW, would you hire me again?”

“Sure.”

“Great. I’ll see you at South by.”

I bought the ticket in October. Even at the earliest “Early bird” rate, the ticket would set me back financially. Then there was accounting for the flights to get there, the housing to take care of, and the typically overpriced gluten-free meals at restaurants.

I ended up rationalizing the cost in three ways:

  1. If you don’t have a job by March, this is the money you’re investing to find one. You can talk to your manager and recall that conversation, but more likely, you’ll find a company you like down in Austin or you’ll get to chatting with someone pleasant in a coffee line who has “a friend of a friend who is a hiring manager at [dream company] and can put you in touch.”
  2. If you do luck out and have a job by March, this will be a great place to learn about forthcoming trends and exciting things happening in and outside of your industry. Or just to meet people doing cool s*** you didn’t know was possible.  
  3. Job aside, you deserve a spring break--and this trip is still a third of the cost of the average MBA spring break excursion to some faraway corner of the world. 

I apologized to my credit card as I typed in the digits into the payment page. I found some cheap flights, called upon the kindness of friends and strangers for housing, and it was official: March 9-16, I would be in Austin, Texas for my very first SXSW Interactive—and my very first time in Texas outside of an airport or outside the context of a job interview.

SXSW has been around for decades but has truly blossomed in the last ten years from an indie music festival to one of the best-known conferences in the country (and given the number of international booths I saw at the trade show and the fact that two of the ten people in the house where I was staying made the trek from Norway, perhaps the world). It’s where tons of fledgling bands try to get their breaks and just as many fledgling startups try to do their beta launches.  There’s no conference I’ve heard of that combines media, technology, film, and music the way that SXSW does, and even if there is one, SXSW probably has it beat on execution. 

The way I’ve decided to describe SXSW is “controlled chaos.” The best analogy I have for the city of Austin during the festival is a bag of microwave popcorn: for all the unpredictable popping and bouncing and craziness cooking, everything is impressively well-contained.

Below is the shortlist of diary-style recollections recapping my few days at Interactive in Austin:

Day 0 of Interactive: March 10

I am woken up at 6:30AM by one of the four cats in the house where I am staying. Even though it is early, this is the first time I have ever had a positive interaction with a cat and I am absolutely delighted. 

Understatement of the year. #sxsw2016

Understatement of the year. #sxsw2016

I embark on the pre-SXSW “Startup Crawl” around Austin and learn about a female-founded month-to-month rental startup (genius) and a “Tinder for Recipes” called Dindr (this doesn’t make much sense to me--but hey, free koozie). Visiting a startup incubator and at least five startup offices, I witness a brogrammer to ping pong table ratio approaching that of San Francisco.

I fall head over stomach in love with an Asian-inspired restaurant called Koreinte and its gluten-free spicy tuna bowl. 

Drowning out the sound of drunken patron chatter, 6th Street exhales in music. 

Day 1 of Interactive: March 11

I find a Charleston, SC travel guide on my seat at the first panel at SXSW. It says there is a tech conference in Charleston in April. I start looking at flights in between tweeting morsels of wisdom from Jonah Berger’s keynote. 

I go to a Parsons exhibit on connected fashion and a panel on wearables and connected retail featuring Uri Minkoff. My Rebecca Minkoff brand crush escalates.

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Returning to Koriente for lunch, which now has my undying loyalty, I get to talking with the person next to me for lunch. She is the female founder of BeatBox Beverages a boxed jungle juice company, that went on Shark Tank and has Mark Cuban as a full-on investor. #casual. #onlyatSXSW

By the time I reach the end of the day for an exclusive concert with Bloc Party, I’m too tired to go on, take a Lyft home, and play with my host’s cats.

Day 2 of Interactive: March 12

I successfully chase down the co-founder of Gimlet media after a panel on monetizing podcasts and other free content. I play the MIT Sloan card (he’s a Sloan alumnus) and he concedes to my wishes to take a selfie.  

I am pleasantly surprised by a Pandora-hosted brunch I was randomly invited to attend: Pandora does more than just internet radio these days and its employees are so cool and friendly that they make me rethink my feelings about working in the Bay Area. 

I spend the rest of the day happily carrying my backpack of “survival supplies” from Pandora’s party to panels. Inside it is a knock-off Swell water bottle, a “first-aid” kit with earplugs, chapstick, and ibuprofen, and an iconic tote bag of a cat with headphones high-fiving an otter.

I meet up with a graduate from Sloan and crushing it up on a panel and hang out with her and hear about her entrepreneurial adventures in her home state of Arkansas. She tells me that organizing a panel gets you a free Gold pass to SXSW. I make a note and decide that next year, I will try to organize a panel. 

I stumble upon a Nap Truck from the sleep startup Casper. I am unable to sign up for a nap, but their swag bag has contents as perfect on the inside as the slogan the outside: “We like to party, and by part we mean take naps.”  I decide that I will have to socialize this finding as much as possible (eventually I do a Facebook post and write a blog post for my MIT class on Social Media)

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I visit the Whole Foods headquarters/store mothership with Catherine, my MIT classmate’s sister who has become my de facto South by partner in crime for the rest of the trip. We buy a pommelo. It is glorious. 

Day 3 of Interactive: March 13

I take a lap through the Interactive Trade show and pick up some free sunglasses, a sample of Bulletproof coffee and their new protein bar, and go in search of a quiet place to get some schoolwork done. I find a bar seat at Houndstooth Coffee Shop on 4th and Congress. The sun is shining and I am productive and life is good. 

Life gets even better as I stumble down a random downtown street into a store called PRIZE and get to enjoy a happy hour sponsored by Laurel + Wolf, a startup I already like and grow like even more after hanging out with a few of their interior designers over drinks and coloring books.

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I meet up with my summer manager for drinks, following through on the “See you at South by” from August. I am grateful that our conversation is about her love of Jimmy John’s and things we’ve learned at the conference and has nothing to do with employment

Back at the house, my host is throwing a barbecue party, which leads to a grocery-buying experience at a H.E.B. Walking down the aisles and observing the people perusing the items for sale, I think, “This is America.” The two Finnish men who drove from New Orleans also staying at the house for SXSW hull out the watermelon we bought and turn it into a keg.

Day 4 of Interactive: March 14

I attend my best panel of the entire week on women in tech and negotiating for what you want and deserve. I tweet at all of them and poach at least half of them for the podcast.

I run into someone I knew in college from the a cappella scene who now works in Seattle and a friend of a friend, also from Seattle, who I was supposed to have met in November when I was last in Seattle. My favorite person in the panel I attended during the morning lives in Seattle. I wonder if this is a sign that I, too, should be in Seattle. 

I get some work done for the podcast in a cafe that, days before, had been overtaken by Friskies for a special event featuring "Grumpy Cat." Because South by Southwest

I am convinced that SXSW is now a weird "Cinderella Story" and Austin“turns back into a pumpkin,” metaphorically speaking, the moment the festival ends. I wonder how much of the city I would recognize if I came to visit when the Mashable House turns back into a normal bar or the IBM Hub becomes its former self: a barbecue joint. 

I go to the happy hour for 6Sensor Labs, which makes a gluten-free food sensing device that I have beta tested. One of the founders graduated from Sloan in 2014 and I admire her greatly. I laugh when her cofounder gluten tests the restaurant’s food, all of which is supposed to be gluten-free for the event. The fried chicken is not. 

In the evening, we have a photo shoot back at the house. This picture of me wearing all of my swag and trying to offer some to one of the cats is taken:

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Day 5 of Interactive: March 15

I have given up on hustling and forego panels on product designing for downward dogging at a local yoga studio and exploring parts of the city I have yet to explore: South Congress and South 1st Streets. 

I have not brought sunscreen to South by, and fearing sunburn, I wear jeans and a jacket. I sweat like a fool and get some “Honey, clearly you’re not from around here” looks, which I return with one that expresses, “Believe me, I know it’s 85 degrees and sunny and I look completely ridiculous.” 

Once the sun dies down, I change into the floral romper I bought from a small boutique to cool off. Paired with the cowboy boots and the trucker hat I accumulated at some point in the last five days, the look is perfect: as weird as Austin itself.

Catherine (see Day 2) and a classmate of mine meet up at a concert in the backyard of TOMS, which has a vibe somewhere between Brooklyn, New York, Portland, Oregon, and Venice, California with the beverage selection of PBR beer, Underwood wine, and bottles of Suja juice. To my total surprise, the closing act is a guest my cohost and I had interviewed 10 days before for the podcast. I had yet to see her perform live with her band. It was awesome. 

The city starts to show signs of transitioning from the Interactive to the Music part of SXSW. After dinner, I witness my first show of drunken nudity since I arrived. As I pack at home, I am grateful that I did not follow through in volunteering for the Music portion of the festival

Day 1 of Recovery from Interactive: March 16

At 4:45AM, I reached the Austin-Bergstrom Airport, exhausted, with a significant sleep deficit and a significant addition of weight to my checked baggage on account of tech company swag. The smell of barbecue and breakfast tacos was radiating from the people in line with me at the Security Checkpoint. 

I think, “Did I really survive this?” Looks like it.

...

Day 9 of Recovery from Interactive: March 24

I think, “Could I really do it all again next year?” Absolutely. 

“And what you are is beautiful.”

Someone tells you, “You’re beautiful.” How do you react?

I usually shrug and half-smile. If I make it to the point of words, I say “Aww, thank you,” halfheartedly or deflect the compliment with some reason for why I look especially good that day: current favorite lines include, “Finally invested in a good mascara!” or “It’s amazing what wearing black can do!” So long as it isn’t coming from a sketchy stranger I’ve encountered on the streets between the hours of 10PM and 2AM — in which case I avert my gaze and pretend I didn’t hear the person — I take the compliment as graciously and appreciatively as I can and move on.

No matter my response, the underlying sentiment is this: I’ll have a hard time believing you if you tell me I’m beautiful.

Apparently, I’m not alone in feeling this way.

In December 2015, this video from Shea Glover, a student at the Chicago High School for the Arts, starting making the rounds on the Internet. It’s reached nearly 9.7 million views on YouTube and has 10+ pages of Google search results of content written about it. The video begins:

“I conducted a social experiment at my high school. I asked students and teachers to allow me to take their picture for a project. Some of them I knew. Most of them I did not. As I recorded them, I told them the purpose of my project: I’m taking pictures of things I find beautiful.”

In the YouTube description of the video, Glover notes: I want to clarify that my intentions were not to get a reaction out of people. I was simply filming beauty and this is the result. Here it is.

One of the 30 “beautiful people” filmed in Shea Glover’s video

One of the 30 “beautiful people” filmed in Shea Glover’s video

Given my “likes” of yoga bloggers, body positivity, and healthy living influencers, from a Facebook analytics perspective it made perfect sense that this video showed up for me on my newsfeed. As soon I as I started watching it, though, I could see why it was showing up for many others. I cold see why, more than showing up for many others, it was being shared bymany others.

My two cents in three thoughts on why it went viral:

1. Because unlike most media (social or otherwise) associated with beauty, the video isn’t trying to sell anything. Years ago, Unilever began the “Dove Campaign for Real Beauty,” a campaign with intentions as good as its execution.

But for all Dove’s merits, there was still a Unilever marketing team behind it trying to get people to buy more soap and shampoo (to say nothing of the face that Unilever’s Axe completely undermine the good done by Dove). Glover, in contrast, isn’t marketing anything. Even at the end of the film, she doesn’t urge the audience to do anything. Her final words are less a call to action than a call to attention to the audience to appreciate the abundance of beauty around them: “There is so much beauty in the world. If you blink, you’ll miss it.”

2. Because it gently challenges — but still challenges — the American standard of beauty. For all the work done and progress made in recent years to diversify the look and meaning beauty in the United States, the question of “What is beautiful?” remains answered by well-photoshopped, highly sexualized advertisements featuring a narrow spectrum of sizes, shapes, and colors. Much of the initial success of American Eagle’s #aerieREAL marketing campaign, lauded for featuring “unretouched” models in its lingerie shoots, was thanks to the involvement of actress Emma Roberts. 

Emma Roberts for Aerie by American Eagle in the #AerieREAL campaign

Emma Roberts for Aerie by American Eagle in the #AerieREAL campaign

Roberts— much as I love watching her on camera — still represents the mostly-white, mostly-blonde, and unequivocally thin standard of beauty for women in America. In Shea’s video, beauty is not conditional on being seen from the right angle or in the right light. It doesn’t demand being waxed, tanned, muscled, or styled. Shea isn’t complimenting the beauty of the people on film — she’s affirming it.

3. Because it’s hard not to see yourself in it. Going back to the idea of “real beauty,” the “real beauty” of the video comes from that of the people filmed in it — a little rough around the edges and unaware of the effect it’s having on others. It’s humble, effortless, approachable, and overwhelmingly human. Even though I wasn’t the same combination of age, color, shape, and size of the people in the frame, I could relate in some way to all the ways they respond to being called beautiful: With laughter. With shyness. With joy. With insecurity. With disbelief. Even with anger. I have to believe that other people who watched, liked, and shared felt similarly as I did, and that they, too, could see what I saw: Themselves.

We are connected by media that celebrates beautiful things, places, and beautiful, but mostly of that beauty is on the outside. Shea Glover’s piece is a too-rare reminder that beauty is not an external goal or thing to aspire to. It is something that simply and inherently is, something that comes with the territory of being alive, and something that you already — and completely — are.

(Originally published on February 13, 2015)

If you [write] it, it is no dream: "Unpacking" Birthright

At the end of my best trips, I put off unpacking my suitcase as long as possible. Part of me believes that if I don’t unpack—or at least if I don’t do the laundry—then the trip isn’t technically over. 

The way I feel about writing this post is the way I feel about unpacking a suitcase, that if I don’t debrief it, perhaps it won’t have to end. Could I float on the surface of memories as effortlessly as I did on the Dead Sea? Could I live life captured midway through a Sabbath song or a prayer at the Western Wall? Could I linger in the interstitial between sleeping and waking, safely curled into a soldier's shoulder until the following stop on a seemingly-eternal bus ride? 

If only those bus rides were truly eternal. Those 10 days slipped away too soon. 

I could leave the suitcase unpacked, but then there’s this risk to consider: the luggage occupies a corner, days pass and dust collects as my life gets lived, and the rolling bag becomes a stationary fixture, motionless and about as meaningful as another piece of furniture. By the time the next trip comes, I'll finally open the luggage to unleash its contents but forget the existence and significance of everything interred within it. To me, suffering the apathy is sadder than daring to unzip the suitcase and admit it’s over. And so I blink back the tears as I get my head, hands, and heart around the clothes soiled with memories, the tchotchkes spontaneously purchased with my last coins at the airport, and around the heartbreaking sight of the bag, completely emptied. 

No matter what I do, I will never do this trip enough justice in writing. I will never be able to fully express everything this experience was for me. But I owe it to myself to capture these moments at their remaining richness and I feel like I owe others at least some answer to the question of “How was Birthright?”

This is what I have to say.

~~~~~~

Much like the State of Israel itself, my being on Birthright was pretty much an impossibility until the day it finally happened. When I boarded the Blue Line toward Boston Logan Airport on December 20th, it was a quiet triumph. 


Growing up “a good girl” for the past 25 years, save for not pursuing an investment banking career at Goldman Sachs, I had never found the courage to go against my father, even when I believed the stubborn, volatile lawyer who makes up half my genetics was truly and deeply wrong about something. But somewhere along the last six months of my decision making process in going to Israel, a little voice in my head started gaining traction in my thoughts: “If not now, when?” it asked. I didn’t have an answer for it, but that didn’t stop it from bothering me until I found myself finally opening one of many Birthright emails I’d written off as spam for the past two years and applying for my “Free Trip to Israel!” 

By Thanksgiving, this voice, which had started as a question and as a whisper, had become a resolute shout: “You’re going on this trip. The worst thing that can happen is you’re miserable for 10 days. You don’t know what’s the best that can happen.” 

The last time I planned to go on Birthright, in January 2014, I had just started a business, was still working my day job, and was inordinately reliant on my family for financial support in Boston. This time I had no excuses. I had nothing planned for winter break. I had a job offer in writing. And—15 years of therapy later—I had gathered enough chutzpah to disregard my dad and go abroad without telling him.* The fear of never going on this trip had outweighed the fear of my dad’s rage, and I was determined to choose my vision for my life over his.

All the marketing says, “Birthright is a gift.” This was the gift to myself. This was also the overweight baggage I was carrying with me to the airport. 

By the time I arrived at the El Al counter, I was already exhausted—and this was just the beginning of ten days of me being tired and sleeping in and on strange places and people—but I was proud. Three months of keeping things secret and the last three days of tying up loose ends in Boston had brought me to where I was standing: propped up on my blue suitcase, small talking amid the 40-something people I vaguely recognized from 2 on-campus orientations, waiting impatiently for my check-in[terrogation]by the airline representatives. When I finally touched down in the trilingual terminal of Ben Gurion airport, none if it felt real, but the words in Arabic, Hebrew, and English made me feel welcomed home. 

The organizers made our group, newly joined by 7 Israeli soldiers, link arms and shuffle in a circle shouting “Brothers! Happiness!" in Hebrew. Catching my breath in what proved to be a more athletic exercise than I anticipated, I had two thoughts:

  1. "Now I know why everyone says Birthright becomes a hookup trip for college students. How are all the soldiers so attractive? Does the Israeli military screen for hotness when staffing Birthright trips? Why didn’t I go on this trip when I was a senior in college, sexually semi-frustrated and single?" (At 25, this is the closest I’ve ever felt to being a cougar, checking out a bunch of 21-year-olds.)
  2. “Brothers? Happiness? Uh, I doubt we’ll feel like brothers and sisters at the end of this trip, let alone be happy with each other or the State of Israel after hours caged on a bus or on a highly-confined itinerary."

Over the next ten days, I definitely witnessed Thought One in action as some people began to pair off—myself, platonically and emotionally, included. Thought Two would be dashed and defied. After hiking three mountains, swimming around a sketchy, sulfur-filled hot spring, painting each other with mud from the Dead Sea, and smuggling materials to party together after hours, how could we not feel like friends? After sleeping together and eating together in a range of modest to marvelous accommodations and supporting one another through some of the most wrenching sites and stories in Jewish and Israeli history, from Yad Vashem to Har Herzel, how could we not feel like family? By day 10, I’d even find myself performing a rap** I’d written expressing the degree to which our group had bonded, shared in our final moments as a “mishpacha" on the bus together back to the airport on December 31. 

Business school has left an indelible mark on me. Being at MIT, in particular, has oriented my mind toward data and using it as the sole factor to make reasonable decisions. Even as a former engineering student and closeted math nerd who can appreciate a beautiful proof, this is not a worldview I find particularly elegant or romantic. Even as a future product manager writing stories for different categories of users with shared needs and preferences, I don’t believe in treating people as numbers or in technology’s ability to totally decode the whims of the human heart. 

This trip divorced me from technology and put thousands of miles between the person I thought I was and the person I forgot I had in me: the former, the constantly-striving, led-by-her-head, wildly-ambitioned Erica who would stop at nothing to reach the top of her field; the latter, the spontaneous, led-by-her-heart, spiritually-inclined, Me’i’ra who would stop at nothing to speak to the world in all its tongues and scale every mountain at sunrise. Needless to say, I came home with an identity crisis.

Israel was a portal to renewed reverence, faith, hope, and love. By Christmas, in Grinchlike fashion, my heart had already grown three sizes. By the time I got on the plane home, I felt sore and stretched by the spectrum and depth of emotions I forgot I was capable of experiencing. As for what I will remember, all these things and more: 

I’ll remember basking in the glow of the Negev moonlight and in the peace of a desert sunrise after a sleepless night under the stars. I’ll remember the “postpartum” joy of planting the two carob seeds I’d held onto since I was ten that I hoped to bring to Israel one day and finally planted in a JNF nature preserve. I’ll remember Shabbat morning I spent in Neve Shalom, sugar high on hot chocolate, never feeling more inspired from writing and never feeling more tired from a run with two trip-mates in the hills outside Jerusalem. And I’ll remember the insurmountable dread in my stomach hearing that a second soldier could get called off our trip and back to base. 

I’ll remember feeling big and hopeful and connected to the world speaking Portuguese with another Birthright group around a campfire and Chinese to some Hong Kong tourists on top of Masada. I’ll remember feeling small and impossibly insignificant, enveloped in the "mausoleum galaxy" of the children's Holocaust memorial of Yad Vashem.

I’ll remember the warmth of embraces and the feel of the tears on an “Angel Walk,” being heard, affirmed, and supported by my peers and giving back that love in spades. And I’ll remember the energy and connection shouting our opening chant once more before parting at the airport, our voices echoing before being silenced by the noise of security sensors and plane engines.

~~~

I’m now back stateside, a week since returning from Israel, experiencing withdrawal. Save for the chatter of WhatsApp correspondence, the closest to Israel I’m getting for now is indulging in photographs, eating mediocre hummus, finding a Rasta bar in Brooklyn reminiscent of the one I visited in Tel Aviv, and visiting an aroma espresso bar in TriBeCa, though I know its signature chocolate won’t taste as sweet as it did sitting with no-longer-strangers in a strip mall in Israel. 

Life is beginning to go on. The pain of missing people is easing. I'm bringing back pieces of my experience by practicing my Hebrew more and giving myself an actual "Shabbat" where I truly rest from sundown on Friday to sundown on Saturday. 

But for all the returning to "normal," welcoming in this new year on a wave of self-discovery, there’s only two thoughts I have and things I know for sure after this journey.

  1. Israel kept a piece of me
  2. Whatever it takes, I must go back.

~~~
*At the point of writing this, I still don’t have enough chutzpah to tell him and may not for some time. Without getting too far into it, my father had (and at this point still thinks he has successfully) bullied and manipulated me off of the trip. 

**Yes, a rap, because somehow freestyling and rap battles a la ‘8 Mile’ had become part of the group identity on the trip. 

 


The Promised Land

When I was growing up, I went through the usual phases of things I wanted to be: 

  • An astronaut—because didn’t we all?
  • A doctor—specifically, a reconstructive plastic surgeon until I realized I’d be doing more "boob jobs" than skin grafts on burn victims in order to stay financially solvent
  • A spy—I had some legitimate potential for a career in intelligence when I was still fluent in both Arabic and Chinese with ambitions to pick up Russian. I still hold onto hopes of becoming an international woman of mystery regardless
  • A CEO of a major company—this one looks like it won't be a passing phase.

But there was also the phase—no joke—when I really wanted to be a rabbi. Mind you, I wanted to be a secular rabbi, “a cool rabbi," whatever that would mean.* I have dark, curly hair and would probably look good in the black hat often worn by Orthodox Jews, but I’d probably have to be a Reform rabbi: I don’t think I could ever grow the nest of sideburns or feel comfortable in any denomination of Judaism that would prevent me from reading from the Torah just because I’m a woman. 

Most people who know me in Boston or even from college don’t know I’m Jewish (being gluten-free is hard enough without keeping Kosher). But people who know me from my childhood know that in the past, Judaism used to be everything for me. 

My parents wanted to make sure that I felt at home with the Jewish community wherever I went in the world. So they sent me to a Conservative Jewish day school until the fifth grade, “The Gerrard Berman Day School Solomon Schechter of North Jersey” was tiny and there were never more than 18 people in my entire grade. I spent my day half in Hebrew and half in English for seven years.** I had classes in Biblical history along with American History. I knew—and still know—more about the State of Israel than the State of New Jersey. We got off of school for every Jewish holiday you’ve probably heard of (Yom Kippur and Passover) and many you probably haven’t (Simchat Torah and Purim). We prayed 3 mornings a week, and if you had asked me before age thirteen what I’d save from my house if it were burning down, I’d have said the first siddur (prayer book) I ever received with a glittering Jewish star and my Hebrew name carefully stenciled with neon fabric paint.. 

Nearly twenty years since receiving that siddur, I have a lot of conflicted feelings toward Judaism. I think it’s a beautiful religion and culture in many ways and I certainly wouldn’t be the person I am without being brought up in it. But I don’t want it to be the first thing people identify with me: there's a lot of misinformation out there. I don't want to be associated with religious beliefs I don’t necessarily have, cultural norms I don't necessarily observe, and political views I don’t necessarily agree with. Judaism somewhat informs but far from encompasses the brand of my belief.

The last time I really dared to directly engage with Israel or my sense of Judaism was in college. When I was younger, I always knew that I was getting a skewed perspective on the story of Israel given that my first Hebrew teachers all served in the Israel Defense Forces. In college, I decided to study Arabic in pursuit of the balanced perspective my early education lacked and did my junior independent work on the portrayal of Israelis in Palestinian poetry during the 1960s and 1970s. The poetry was full of anger, introspection, and compassion, and reading It irrevocably assigned human faces and heaps of bodies, both Israeli and Palestinian, to the wars I was told about in elementary school. 

It’s one thing for me to study Israel in classes and read all the books on it. It’s another to go to the country and see places where all the things I’ve learned over the years actually happened. And it’s another thing entirely to have ten days on Birthright to reckon with my head, my heart, and my heritage and figure out how I connect to this country that I've romanticized for twenty years but never thought I'd visit. 

I don’t know what will unfold between now and when I come home for the New Year. The only thing I’m sure of it that nothing is off the table: I could return with renewed ambitions to become a Rabbi and making it my mission to convert my goyfriend. I could return even more disillusioned by the realities of the Middle East. I could even return completely unmoved.

It remains to be seen, but for now, I’m excited to embrace this trip in all its clarity and confusion, to go completely off the grid with regard to technology, and to dive deeply into Israel and into myself in search of the Promised Land. 

Traveling East to the Western Wall, 

Erica

*Thinking back on it, the rabbi path makes some sense based on the person I am today and the things I’ve done and want to do: regularly speaking to motivate and inspire others; bringing communities of diverse individuals closer together; scrutinizing literature and making it relevant to the people and circumstances of present day; calling attention to the little things we all take for granted and celebrating the bigger picture. All the things I want to do in leading a company are essentially the skills I saw myself using to lead a congregation.  

Highway in the Holy City  (Jerusalem, 12/30/15)

Highway in the Holy City  (Jerusalem, 12/30/15)

In Memoriam, On Teachers

My body is in Boston, but my head and heart are often elsewhere.

This week they've been in Baghdad and Beirut and this morning  in Paris on account of the tragic events that unfolded last night and wreaked havoc on one of the world’s most distinguished and universally-adored cities. 

But thousands of miles nearer than France, my head and heart are also in Englewood, New Jersey, at the funeral of one of the most influential, universally-cherished teachers from my high school.

I have a love-hate relationship with Dwight-Englewood, the school I attended between 6th and 12th grade. Outside the scholastic realm, the experience was middling for me. But for all the confusion I experienced in my teenage personal life and all the stress I felt when thinking about applying to college and "planning my future" (because if you know me, you can imagine that I was already "planning my future” at age twelve) my academic experiences in high school were largely wonderful. Perhaps I’ve had bad luck or just done a poor job in picking my classes in the last six years of my higher education. Still, by sheer percentage of “good teachers encountered," my high school far surpasses the more famous institutions where I’ve studied (and educations for which I paid many thousands more dollars).

There was Señora Kanter, who introduced me to “el realismo magico” and the world of Spanish literature and poetry. Had I never studied Don Quijote with her, I doubt I’d have had half as interesting a Common Application essay on the power of imagination. And had I not witnessed her generously bake every week for her officemates and students and create a cult community following around her blondies and galletas, I doubt I’d have ever started a food business. There was Mrs. Devito, who was the toughest, sharpest, most worldly teacher I ever had. She gave me an incomparable appreciation for art and is the only reason I’ve ever been to Europe: I was lucky enough to join her for two spring breaks on brilliantly-executed trips to across the continent. Then there was Mrs. Sagan, a delicate woman whose age I could never guess, who spent the entire year doing an independent study with me on Anna Karenina and wrote my honors society induction speech. If I ever earn the privilege of being written about again, that person will have a very high bar to clear: Mrs. Sagan brought me to tears. 

My encounters with Mr. Krauthamer, affectionately known as “Kraut," were very few. I knew his wife better as my 7th grade history and first--and best--lacrosse coach. But they were not so few that I couldn’t stand in awe of the man. He was my Debate Team coach and my running coach for the one spring season I ran track instead of lacrosse. 

Kraut, the quiet, wiry-framed genius, was almost certainly privier than he let on about the half-furtive relationship with my halfway-to-boyfriend debate partner between 10 and 12th grades. As a teacher, coach, and friend, he was almost certainly amused by our borderline "rom-com" dynamic in cross-examinations and closing statements. 

At my parents’ home in New Jersey, there are a few debate team awards lining the foyer, but more interestingly, a DVD on my bedside table of me racing the 800-meter the day after my senior prom. Kraut made it for me “to share in the future.” “With whom?” I remember asking him. He said something to the witty effect of “with your children one day,” and I laughed in disbelief as a maladjusted feminist who thought that children would never be something I could want if I wanted to be successful. I plan to watch that video the minute I get home for Thanksgiving.

There were many other teachers I could name, people who my friends from high school will know and remember but many of those reading this post will not. Suffice to say that they irrevocably shaped the course of my life and education, as great teachers do. If I have any hope of leaving the world a better place than when I found it, it’s because I left their classrooms a smarter person than when I entered them. In the fall of my last formal year of schooling before “the real, real world” and in the month that revolves around Thanksgiving, I’m grateful to my teachers. For teaching me things that make me a more intelligent, more compassionate, and more interesting human being. For giving me an education that empowered me to choose how to spend my life. For believing in me more than I believed in myself and teaching me how to believe in others as they believed in me. 

Kraut: May your body rest in peace. May your soul keep running. 

Of Entrepreneurs and "Non-trepreneurs"

Even though I started a business a little over two years ago, I rarely call myself an entrepreneur. Part of it is because I feel I need to hit a certain revenue, raise a certain amount of funding, or hire a certain number of employees to really earn the title. Part of it is because the word has French origins and—at least in American culture—connotes a glamour that I never associated with the process of starting and running these projects: the baking business, in particular was a labor of blood, sweat, and sugar, in that order. When I talked about my role at Zen Cookery, I called myself a founder or a small business owner rather than an entrepreneur, reserving “the 'e' word” for two situations: branding purposes in my business school and job applications and when talking to fellow “entrepreneurs."

The greatest part of my discomfort using the word “entrepreneur” is that most people I know who call themselves entrepreneurs are pretty obnoxious. Spending the past four years in and around business schools, where the hip thing to do is to "have an idea [you’re] working on,” it’s a nauseatingly common buzzword. I feel some shame of being a member of the contemporary cultural phenomena to which one of my favorite bloggers, Steve Tobak, refers in this article. My favorite tidbit follows:

“…instead of getting a job and building a career, large numbers of people are finding ever-more creative ways of hiding the fact that they’re unemployed, all the while telling themselves it’s OK since they’re entrepreneurs building their brand, platform, presence, following, or some other such nonsense.”

I’ve hit up quite a few networking events in my time and hooked up with a handful of “entrepreneurs” over the years. Mingling at meet-ups and playing with fire on Tinder, my operating assumption became, "Beware of the entrepreneurs.” When meeting new people, while was open to being proven wrong, I generally treated entrepreneurship as euphemism for 'lost, confused, unemployed, commitment-phobic in love and business, and bad at working with or for anyone else.' This approach was a bold and useful filter as much for vetting future co-founders as well as future boyfriends. When I was out on a date in January and the guy taking me out told me he was an entrepreneur, one of my first questions for him was something like, “Are you an entrepreneur because you wanted to work for yourself or because you can’t work for anybody else?”* As time went on, he proved it was the former. 

There are more startups in this world than those started or chased after by educationally-pedigreed, Caucasian, twenty-something men in Silicon Valley. Whatever I can do to change this culture around who an entrepreneur is and what an entrepreneur does is action worth the while. 

For all the hype around startups in general and around startups at business school, in particular, my friends and peers are working on some truly meaningful stuff, from equalizing opportunity in the test prep space (Prepify) to reducing enterprise foodwaste (Spoiler Alert) to facilitating emergency communication (RapidSOS). Closest to my heart and stomach is the venture making it safe for people with food allergies to eat out at restaurants (Nima). And those are just a handful of those businesses that have funding, to say nothing of the ventures in their infancy and the rough-hewn ideas in the earliest stages of development. 

Outside of b-school, I know two people from college with a recruiting startup in Kenya--based on the vestiges on social media, DUMA Works is kicking ass. I have a friend nearly four years into a healthy pet food business, FedWell who just hired her first full-time employees and is undertaking her first official funding rounds--I’m hoping her recent feature on the PBS series ‘Start Up’ gets her one step closer to sharing her incredible story and pitching on 'Shark Tank.’ I have another friend who dropped out of undergrad who, against all odds and a few businesses later, is growing a successful venture and helping put his siblings through college.*

There was me, two years ago, tired of getting sick when eating out and disgusted by the ingredients in the few things I could safely eat. I knew I wasn’t the only one with this problem. I refused to suffer, chose not to settle, and got cooking—literally—to solve it. Then there’s me now, sitting with my motley ideas, most recently a social enterprise-powered beauty brand, a service facilitating wedding planning at any price point, and this recently-released little podcast for which I have very big dreams

What do all of these things have in common? Visions for a better world and someone risking everything to create them. Dreamers, but more importantly doers. People who don’t let failure get in the way of success. People who help others help themselves and make it their mission to fill the cracks in a broken world. 

Identify with any of the above? Then startup or not, you’re an entrepreneur at heart. And I’m right there with you. 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~

*In all honesty, that friend is now a "more-than-friend" and happens to be that entrepreneur from the fateful date in January. I asked him for some words of advice to any aspiring entrepreneurs who might be reading this and he offered this: "Lack of resources won’t hurt you but a lack of resourcefulness definitely will.” Needless to say, I like him very much.


"I lost my head in San Francisco..."

A few weeks into my adventure out west, trying to build a playlist of upbeat songs to listen to while at work, I decided to search Spotify for songs about San Francisco. One of the first hits, unsurprisingly, was a song by a band I’d never heard of before named the Mowglis called “San Francisco.” Loving the band name’s inherent reference to the Jungle Book character, I clicked ‘play.’ I loved it so much that I clicked ‘play’ again and continued to do so until I’d committed it to memory. 

It ended up being the song of my summer: the one I’d hum semi-consciously on the weekday walks to work, bound for the third floor of 525 Market; the song that swirled in my head while waiting in line at Blue Bottle Coffee or ambling on the Embarcadero on a quest to sample stone fruits at the Ferry Building Farmers Market. It was the song that saw me through the early morning mist and drowned out the sound of the creaking bunkbed on which I slept all summer, the harmonious voices singing the opening lines: “I’ve been in love with love and the idea of something binding us together, you know that love is strong enough...” 

I grew up in the academic and professional pressure cooker of the tri-state area, where the old generation’s idea of "living the dream" is making it in Manhattan, retiring in places like Westchester, Greenwich, or Alpine, and summering in the Hamptons. But that was never my dream, and twenty-two years of my life spent within 90 minutes’ commute of Manhattan and two experiences living there left me believing there was something more in store for me beyond the New York City skyline and suburbs.

After college, I had the gift of getting to move to Boston for work. Though not so far away from my roots, the five-hour driving distance between me and New Jersey gave me space to grow up, and between a new job and, later on, a new degree program, I found favorite places and loving friends that transformed Boston from the place where I lived into a place that I loved. But ever since a 4th-grade project for which we were assigned to research a state in the U.S. and write a report on it, I’d dreamt of what it would be like to live out in California. 

I’d been to California three times before beginning my internship: the first time to see a friend at Stanford, another time to do startup research and visit business schools, and the last time to get away from the East Coast winter while flirting with internship recruiting. None of these trips left me with California love, save for the first--and that was mostly the result of being infatuated with the person I was visiting at the time. 

Last year at school, I was surrounded by people who talked about the Bay in the spirit of worship--and not just as a refuge from the winter’s cold It was the land of endless hills and eternal sunshine. The place of bountiful burritos and competing coffeehouses. It was the land of opportunity. Despite my lukewarm experiences in the past, after the snowiest winter on record in Boston, I nurtured visions of grandeur of San Francisco.

For many in the business of business—and especially the business of technology, San Francisco is considered Mecca, the pilgrimage of a lifetime for professional purposes. The rate at which newly-minted MBAs head out to the Bay Area, you’d think there was another gold rush in California. Much like 1848, 2015 brings forth a whole new generation of people prospecting opportunities on the Golden Coast (with the same problems of land and locals being displaced in the name of money and progress.)

 If Frank Sinatra were alive today, he’d have to rename his song “New York, New York,” as “Frisco, Frisco.” Swapping in one city of the other, the lyrics would ring true all the same for many a yuppie: “Start spreading the news, I’m leaving today/I want to be a part of it Frisco, Frisco…/If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere,/It’s up to you, Frisco, Frisco.”

I met with a few of my old professors who know me well during my college reunions in May, and at least one of them joked, “You probably won’t come back [to the east coast].” So when I touched down on June 5 to start my summer in San Francisco, I was hoping something would suddenly shift in me and make me feel like that was the place where I belonged. 

I was aggressive in my efforts to get to know the area. Over the course of the summer, I trekked from Noe Valley to Nob Hill and from the Mission to the Marina, exploring nearly the entire city by foot. I biked the Golden Gate Bridge to Sausalito. I ventured by BART and by Caltrain to Berkeley and Palo Alto. I drank up in Napa, drove down to Big Sur and Monterey, swam in Lake Tahoe, and hiked Mt. Tam in Marin. Aside from exploring Death Valley, Twin Peaks, Muir Woods, and Yosemite I did everything I could have wanted to do on the weekends in the Bay.

Maybe, working in retail while many of my friends were in tech, I didn’t have enough money to feel comfortable. Maybe my living arrangement felt so unrealistic that I couldn’t get a sense of what it would be like to actually live in San Francisco. Maybe the knowledge that it was only 12 weeks and wouldn’t be forever meant I wasn’t incentivized to really settle in.

I wanted to see the city clearly and feel the excitement that so many close friends and family harbored for it. I desperately wanted to love San Francisco and to be loved back.

I was in love with the idea of loving San Francisco. But it didn’t work. I found myself lost in the fog.

Much unlike Boston, I never felt safe to walk around after dark where I lived: as soon as the sun dipped below the horizon, I whipped out my Uber app, convinced that paying for a cab was worth the cost of not being cursed off, followed, or affronted yet again by a mentally ill person on the street. The late August sunshine wasn’t enough to cast a light on the darkness of it all.

I felt as unsafe as I did broken-hearted: the homelessness made me so upset that I made a point of writing a plan for a business to help eradicate it. All the while, the hoodie-clad computer ingenues on scooters reminded me that the money in this town wasn’t going toward solving its most immediate problems—just toward buying the best coding talent and funding yet another on-demand delivery service or cloud-based platform. The East Coast has its own version of superficiality, largely concentrated around Ivy League reputations and financial wealth. The West Coast has its own breed of pretension in tech entitlement.

As a peer of mine put so well that I had to add it into this post: "Software coders, newly minted deca-millionaires, and tech visionaries have failed to design and run the institutions needed for anyone, but particularly a lone female, to walk around after dark."

San Francisco is my Venus de Milo, I tell my friends. She sets the standard of beauty in the Western world as San Francisco does for opportunity and joie de vivre on the West Coast. You look at her and you can’t stop. But then you draw nearer to her, linger awhile, and the cracks begin to show. And the next time you see her, she’s still beautiful, but you can’t see her the same way. You realize that no matter how much you love her, you can’t help but remember that she's full of cracks and she’s not who you wanted her to be or thought she’d be. And that she doesn’t have arms to hold you, comfort you, and love you back. 

None of this is to say I won’t return to San Francisco. I had a great experience on the job and made some excellent friends. The city has some of the baseline things I require for the next place I occupy after Boston, and I’d be crazy to forego the tremendous work opportunities out there, if offered to me. But it’s not the only place I can build a career and is far away from being the only place I could be happy. My post-MBA happiness depends on three things: getting paid to learn on the job, being near the water, and being within a few hours’ distance of people I love. And I’m grateful there’s more than one place that fits that bill.