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Alumni career advice: Keep open mind, do something you enjoy
STANFORD -- Given the scarcity of interesting and challenging jobs for recent graduates in today's economy, the keys to a successful career may be simply to stay open-minded and do something that makes you happy.
So four recent Stanford graduates agreed at a panel discussion Aug. 22, part of the Young Alumni Weekend sponsored by the Stanford Alumni Association.
In the case of one panelist, something as simple as botching an order of white belts for a department store helped him decide on a career path.
The panel discussion, which attracted about 100 people, featured Anne Robinson, '70, chief executive officer and co-founder of Windham Hill Records; Jeff Pinsker, '81, marketing director, University Games; Shauna Jackson, '88, JD '91, associate attorney in the Los Angeles law firm of Latham and Watkins; and Eric Abrams, '85, assistant director of admissions in the Stanford Graduate School of Business.
Anne Robinson: Capitalizing on her love of music
Robinson told the audience that she had always had a "passion" for music.
During her Stanford years, she said, she would drop anything (including her studies) to jump into an old Volkswagen bus and drive to the Fillmore West and other San Francisco venues to catch the hot new bands of the 1960s.
She said, however, "If someone had asked me 20 years ago if I would be involved with the music industry, or any kind of business for that matter, I would've laughed."
After dropping out of Stanford in the spring quarter of her senior year (she completed her bachelor's degree in history in the 1980s), Robinson ended up in an eclectic string of jobs.
"Let's just say I did a lot of strange things to make money," she said. Those included: teaching art to prison inmates, being a roofer, a cocktail waitress, a bookstore clerk and a graphics designer.
Robinson was a product of her times. She remembered wanting to place as much distance as possible between herself and "the system."
When she eventually decided to settle into a career, she said, she turned to her passion.
"You have to be true to your interests," Robinson said. "I'm a music junkie. I loved music and I loved art, so I just had to find a way to put that together and make something out of it. I'm not a musician, so I decided to go into music from another angle.
"I took $300 and with one other person transformed it into a $25 million, 45-person company, without any investors, or any debt," she said. "That's something to be proud of. I have been the company's bookkeeper, bad bill collector, graphic artist (the company has won many awards for excellence in graphic design), and I've worked in the shipping department.
"I've learned a lot about my ability to stick to something and make it happen through my career," she concluded. "I learned that tenacity and endurance here at Stanford."
Jeff Pinsker: Beyond practical jokes
Pinsker ('81, '82 and '83) is among the few Stanford graduates to have marched in three consecutive commencements. He earned bachelor's degrees in political science and economics, and finally a coterminal master's degree in economics.
Like many college graduates, Pinsker was unsure of what to do with his life when the ceremony was over (for the third time, in his case).
He and a few friends decided to start a "practical jokes for profit" company called Amazing Events.
"We sat down and tried to figure out what we wanted to do, which basically drew a bunch of blanks," Pinsker said. "After looking for a common bond among us, we had the groundwork for Amazing Events. We realized that we've been pulling practical jokes all our lives, so why not try to get paid for it?"
They borrowed $5,000 from friends and family, and Amazing Events was born. Pinsker said that the company used a system of networking to find clients. "Basically, we went to each major company we could think of to find clients," he said.
"With the four of us networking in this way, Amazing Events became successful very quickly," Pinsker said.
"We wanted to convince the companies that this was the kind of entertainment services that employees wanted. We had to educate them into believing that our way was the only way to make their people happy," he said.
The practical-jokes-for-profit company eventually evolved into a corporate entertainment firm, providing such services as organizing company picnics and banquets.
Pinsker said the goal of the company was "to find the line between the credible and the incredible and stretch it as far as we could."
When the competition for professional practical jokes and corporate entertainment increased in the late '80s, Pinsker and his friends at Amazing Events decided to pursue other interests.
Pinsker then ventured into the more traditional business world, working for two years as executive vice president at an advertising agency, and spending another year as a vice president with a marketing firm.
University Games, a growing manufacturer of board games, offered him a job. Pinsker said that he was wary at first about having another "frivolous" job appear on his resume, but the board-game company made him an offer he couldn't refuse.
He is currently in charge of marketing and product development. Despite the technological advances in the entertainment industry, Pinsker said, there always will be a market for the traditional board game.
Families, he said, when faced with the expense of buying computer games and other "modern" forms of entertainment, often remember board games "and how much fun they were. It's a $20 to $30 investment that will bring the family closer together and will last for years."
In his parting words for alumni, Pinsker said, "Finding something you like to do, and using your creative skills to turn what you enjoy doing into something productive for your life is the best piece of advice I have for making a successful career."
Shauna Jackson: Self-motivation is the key
Jackson said she got very little support when she decided to seek a law career. But she said her strong interest in working with people and solving problems was enough to overcome this obstacle.
"I decided that I could find a way to be a lawyer, still be a human being, and be true to myself and my interests," she said.
"When you choose to practice law, there are a number of decisions you have to make," she said. "What kind of law you want to practice - whether it be corporate, environmental or tax law - and, to some extent, what kind of lawyer you want to be. It's a lot like choosing a major and picking classes."
Jackson said she likes working at her Los Angeles firm because it reminds her of her first years at Stanford, when she was deciding on a major.
"They give us a couple of years to decide what general area of law we want to work with," she said. "In the meantime, we (the associate partners) are required to take on a number of different types of cases. It's a lot like distribution requirements.".
Jackson also got involved with the "Rebuild L.A." project, which developed after the 1992 riots, by calling one of the senior partners and asking to be assigned to the effort on behalf of the firm.
The next day, she got her wish: Jackson would represent Latham & Watkins on the project.
"I went to Rebuild L.A. because I knew it was something I wanted to do," she said. "If I had waited for the project to find me, it might never have happened.
"This is the kind of initiative and self-motivation that I learned at Stanford," Jackson said. "If you want to do something, you have to go for it. It's the best skill I received from college."
Jackson received her J.D. from Stanford Law School in 1991. She was the first black woman president of the Stanford Law Review and has been recognized for her accomplishments in the New York Times, U.S. News and World Report, National Law Review, Glamour and Ebony Magazine, which profiled her as "one of the top 25 leaders of the future generation."
Eric Abrams: No place like home
As a young graduate, Abrams went from job to job until finally "coming home" to his current position in the admissions office at the Graduate School of Business.
"About three or four weeks before graduation, I realized that I had no career," Abrams recalled. "Here I was, about to graduate from Stanford with a double major in political science and drama, and I didn't really know what I wanted to do."
After graduating, Abrams worked as the marketing director for Stanford's men's basketball program, then left campus to be a department manager and assistant buyer for May Co. in the Los Angeles area.
An order of 7,000 white belts ended his brief career in retail.
Abrams looked at the order and thought it must be a mistake. Nobody wears white belts these days, he figured.
Three days later, his supervisors informed him the order indeed was valid and should have been filled - the belts were requested by the May stores in the Palm Desert area.
"The only place on earth where people still wear white belts," Abrams said.
With a generous severance package, Abrams went back to school. He got a master's in political science from the University of California-Los Angeles in 1990, and returned to Stanford in August 1992.
"I had the chance to come back to Stanford, where I belong, and I knew I had no other choice," he said.
The four speakers agreed that their careers came about because they simply decided to pursue things they enjoyed.
"If you do what you like, you'll be good at it," Abrams said, "and if you're good at it, you'll be successful."
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