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A Model for College Grad Career Success in 2012

In 2008, Brittany Haas left college with a newly minted degree in Apparel Design. A few months later, the stock market took a nose dive, leading to years of double-digit unemployment for young college grads. Hit worst have been those with degrees in art and design and liberal arts. But this is not another story of doom and gloom. At age 24, Brittany is US Retail Planner for a world-renowned fashion house, managing a multi-million dollar budget—along with her own business.

So how did the youngest daughter of four, who grew up on Long Island without any connection to the fashion industry, come so far, so fast? Brittany’s story is a model for any student who wants to find meaningful work in a tough economic environment; unwittingly, she followed the five smartest moves identified in Smart Moves for Liberal Arts Grads: Finding a Path to Your Perfect Career.

1) Figure out who you are and where you want to go

2) Get experience

3) Build social and networking relationships

4) Identify your competence gaps

5) Find your hook

Figure out who you are and where you want to go

From an early age, Brittany was good at math and science. But she also had a strong creative side. In high school, dancing was usually Brittany’s activity of choice, and she often spent six hours a day in class or at practice. But at 16, Brittany attended the Pre-College program at the Rhode Island School of Design (RISD) and fell in love with fashion. So, when it came to applying to college, RISD was a natural first choice. Brittany was devastated when RISD quickly rejected her application, telling her that her portfolio did not meet the requisite standard. Fortunately, Brittany had a Plan B: the Cornell University College of Human Ecology, where Brittany could study Fiber Science Apparel Design along with a huge dose of liberal arts. It was a blessing in disguise: in-state tuition, an education that combined rigor with practicality, and an Ivy-League degree. Brittany relished the academic work, taking eighteen credits per semester, instead of the required twelve. She also had an active social life and joined a sorority.

Get Experience

Brittany knew the key to her success in the fashion world would hinge on understanding the way the industry worked. And, from the time she entered college, both her parents and professors encouraged her to get internships. Brittany found all her internships using a very low-tech approach: she simply wrote personalized emails to sixty companies for whom she wanted to work. The first year Brittany received very few responses, but as her experience grew, so did the response rate. Brittany’s first internship was with the Israeli designer, Yigal Azrouel. It was unpaid and very low level, and she recalls hating it. But, in retrospect, Brittany was grateful for the opportunity to observe all aspects of a small company.

The first paid internship came the following summer, when Brittany worked for bridal boutique, Kleinfeld. This time, Brittany chose her internship specifically to gain experience in marketing. Finally, during the summer after junior year, Brittany found an internship as assistant manager at Nordstrom, which she describes as a “real job”. It gave her great experience on the retail floor, while paying her an excellent salary. To gain additional funds, Brittany also waitressed during the summer—often for four days a week.

Going to the career fair in her senior year, Brittany was an attractive candidate to the few retailers who came to campus. After two on-campus interviews, a retail math test, and a “Super Friday” at the company site, Brittany went to work for Ralph Lauren. Since then she has learned the department store side of the business by working for Saks Fifth Avenue, and started her third full-time post-graduation job in retail planning at Hermes. Asked whether Brittany is concerned that she is now totally on the business side of fashion, she replies that she takes care of her creative side by also running her own business, SomethingBorrowedNY, which rents out designer bridal accessories.

Build Social and Networking Relationships

Much of Brittany’s success can be traced to her uncanny ability to form relationships. Even so, she recalls that networking did not initially come easily to her, and she had to force herself to make the effort. If her business was to be successful, Brittany knew she had to find ways to get advice and publicity, so she started going to networking events in New York City. Organizations like Error! Hyperlink reference not valid., Women 2.0, the NY Entrepreneurs Business Network, and General Assembly, have been particularly helpful. At first, Brittany attended events with a friend and business partner, a strategy that made it easier to play off each other’s comments while discussing their new business with strangers. But, after a few years of meeting large numbers of people and talking about what she does, Brittany is now a networking pro.

Social media also plays a big part in Brittany’s life. In common with many small businesses, SomethingBorrowedNY grows through frequent use of blogging, and the effective use of Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn. Brittany reports that LinkedIn is also by far the best way of finding work in the business side of fashion—at least once you have experience. No longer does she have to seek work; now, companies and headhunters look for people like Brittany on LinkedIn.

Identify Your Competence Gaps

From the time she entered Cornell, Brittany was intent on entering the fashion world, and made decisions about academics and work experience based on what she would be able to learn. She had an interest in business, but believed she could learn those skills on the job. So, when given the option of majoring in Fashion Design Management or Apparel Design, Brittany chose the latter. She wanted to understand fabrics and garment construction—something it would be hard to do simply from working in the business. Brittany selected internships based on her desire to see all sides of fashion—from design, to planning, to retail. The variety of these experiences allowed her to relate much more effectively to potential employers. It didn’t hurt, of course, that one of those prospective employers was a Cornell grad and sorority sister.

Find Your Hook

Brittany doesn’t have one hook; she has dozens. They include:

* A work ethic second to none: she usually works from 9am to 6pm at Hermes, and from 7pm to 11pm on SomethingBorrowedNY.

* A clear focus on fashion, with an understanding of both design and business.

* Excellent math skills and a good knowledge of French—a real plus for her semi-annual business trips to Paris.

* An entrepreneurial spirit combined with the ability to get things done.

* A winning personality and unusual maturity.
None of these “hooks” are extraordinary, but few candidates possess them all. In Brittany’s case, she simply took advantage of her natural aptitudes and interests.

For most college students and grads, finding or pursuing a career in 2012 will not be easy. But it can be done. In this economic environment it pays to focus, devote the requisite time for the job search, and persevere.

Getting References for the Stealth Job Search

Q. I’m a mid-level manager who has had five bosses in eight years, and an ever-changing set of goals.  After seven years of stellar evaluations, I just received a review that convinces me I need to leave.  How should I handle references?

A. Life is too short to stay with an unappreciative boss. You’re wise to consider moving on.

Your potential new employer (let’s call her Susan) will want to talk to your current supervisor.  You can deal with this in a couple of ways.  First, you should alert Susan that your current employer doesn’t know you’re looking and a premature announcement might make life difficult. Alert her to the fact that this supervisor has been there a short time and does not know you well.  Tell Susan you’d appreciate her not calling your current organization unless you’re a finalist, and ask her to get in touch with you first.  (If she won’t respect that request, you don’t want to work there, anyway.)  You might also offer an alternative: your past written reviews.

Often, future employers will leave your current supervisor for last when calling references.  If you choose your references wisely, Susan may not feel the need to delve further.  How do you do that?  First, pick people who know your work broadly and deeply.  Former supervisors are best, or senior-level managers who understand your situation. Second, find references who can counteract possible perceived weaknesses.  If leadership is a critical component of the new position but you believe your current boss would criticize you in this area, find a reference who thinks you’re a great leader. This is a time when you can be damned with faint praise.

What if you keep coming up number two?  At some point, you may feel the need to leave your current situation even if you don’t have another job.  It’s worth getting professional advice about how you can move on – preferably with a decent severance package.  And don’t forget to negotiate exactly what the organization will say about you.  Good luck.