As a sophomore in college I needed to find a job that was relatively close to campus, allowed me to work full time, and paid enough so I could cover rent, car insurance and living expenses. At 19 years old I had no idea that job would turn into a corporate career lasting more than 20 years. During my career I had incredible professional and personal opportunities, but I also became an expert at operating within the confines of corporate life. I unintentionally built a lifestyle centered around navigating corporate bureaucracy with a reliance on what I perceived as a secure financial path.
Ever since I was a little girl I had this feeling in my gut that I was going to do work that made an impact. I have always been driven to succeed and to be my own person. So how did I end up spending most of my adult life (up to this point) in an environment with very specific “rules” for success? Did going down this path mean I no longer had the ability to truly be who I had always intended to be? And was it all bad that I had chosen to grow my professional career in large organizations? Almost one year in as an entrepreneur I have had some “aha” moments and I have come to some conclusions that might be surprising.
Making the Leap
A few years ago, if someone had suggested I leave my role as a senior leader in HR at an incredibly successful global company to run my own company, I would have laughed out loud. Why would I walk away from a good salary, bonus, and stock to take the risk of starting a company. I would have also expressed uncertainty that I have what it takes to build a company, doubting I had the skill set or the creativity. For me that was probably the most challenging barrier, being able to see myself as uniquely positioned to lead and help others. It was the downside of truly believing I was part of a team, part of something bigger than myself, and operating collaboratively at the expense of my own identity.
Many people I worked with during my career would likely say that I am outspoken, confident and authentic. But what looks bold and different in an environment that emphasizes governance, compliance and the unwritten rules for career advancement, can be an effort to keep intact some pieces of identity and not totally lose sight of the leader I had always hoped to be.
So last summer when a good friend made that suggestion that I go out on my own, I had a moment of complete terror. Then I started thinking, why not? Contemplating building something that reflected my ideas and values, I realized that for too long I had allowed myself to be constrained by my own doubts and fears. I paused and reflected on the direction I want to take my career and realized that taking risk, making a bold move, and creating something that was really an authentic reflection of me was exactly what I wanted to do.
Can a Corporate Woman really become an entrepreneur?
It would be easy to assume that by choosing the big company path for so many years, the one that provided me a fairly clear career progression and steady pay, I would not be well suited for this role as the owner of a startup business. But in fact it is just the opposite, all those years have positioned me well and here are a few reasons why:
o I know exactly the type of work environment I want to be part of and I want to help others create. This was formed through some really great experiences and by some that left me feeling disconnected and in a constant state of stress. With this clarity it feels quite natural to build a company based on authenticity and collaboration, and to help others do the same.
o After more than 15 years of my career dedicated to Human Resources I have come to some conclusions. First, HR is a dirty word and leading with that closes doors. Second, my drive to invest in people and to fundamentally transform the employee experience is as strong as ever. Third, because I am so committed to the employee experience it is my obligation to shatter the perception of HR. And finally, I want to run a business that reflects my personal belief that human resources leaders must demonstrate strong business acumen, provide a strategic perspective, and at times be fearless in their communication with executives.
o Being a HR leader in a large company afforded me unparalleled access to business strategies and results, making the connection between employee experience and customer experience crystal clear. Leveraging this knowledge and perspective to influence the people strategies of small and mid-size companies has become my passion.
o Vulnerability is essential. This was a hard lesson for me, as I tend to be a perfectionist and at times careful about taking action. I was raised in a conservative environment and that sense of being cautious, not offending others, and taking a more measured approach is my natural tendency. It was through my corporate experiences, specifically my involvement with inclusion work, that I had an epiphany about the value of vulnerability. I have carried that through as a consultant and entrepreneur, committed to being genuine and inviting productive conflict. I believe this is what leads to connection and true change.
o I have invested 15+ years of my career in human resources, with roles that have developed my breadth and depth of knowledge. This includes experience in talent development, labor relations, talent acquisition, strategic planning, and global leadership. I have come to appreciate that and realize I am uniquely positioned to teach, influence, and lead change.
o In a large company it is easy to form a false sense of security. For many years I was “head down” completely focused on my work, confident that the formula was hard work, performance, then promotion. And while there is value in this belief it doesn’t allow for the complexities of business and it doesn’t acknowledge the politics that are inherently part of complex organizations. As I have witnessed many well-respected colleagues be negatively impacted by reorganizations and business challenges, I have become more honest about the role each of us must play in creating our own outcomes.
The defining corporate experience that led me to this place
Looking back over my career I have come to realize there was a defining role that prepared me for the future entrepreneur I would become. It wasn’t the most senior position of my career and it wasn’t the largest team I managed. It was however the opportunity to be part of creating a new global division within a much larger company.
This experience allowed me to be uncomfortable every day, to jump into a business that I was previously unfamiliar with, and to engage employees and leaders whose life experiences and perspectives were radically than mine. Being completely honest, the first couple of months were really tough. I felt a sense of being overwhelmed and not quite getting it right on a daily basis. As I continued forward with the work I came to appreciate that I was building something new and there was no script to follow. I got to create that script, which sometimes I got right and other times not so much. But by trusting myself to take the chance, by connecting across the total organization to create partnerships and solve problems, I realized that I had the ability to be resourceful and collaborative and truly make a difference.
So what does the future look like?
These days I embrace the fact that I can’t predict it, and I realize now that I never could. But what I do know is my passion to make a true impact by influencing companies to provide a meaningful employee experience and to enable strategic organizational development, drive me forward as an entrepreneur. I am energized by doing work that provides leaders, in business of all types and sizes, to have the opportunity to lead authentically and to intentionally connect employee experience with customer experience (and ultimately company performance). And I am confident that I can handle whatever challenges I am faced with, because I am inspired by the adventure of making a difference in my own way.
Andrea Cooper is a human resources executive with more than 20 years of retail experience, most recently serving as the head of human resources & talent acquisition for Shopbop (an Amazon.com company).
She previously held multiple senior leadership roles with Walmart Stores Inc., including: head of human resources and talent acquisition for the Health and Wellness division, director of organizational development for the global procurement division, and serving as senior director of global diversity and inclusion.
Andrea operates strategically and influences organizational change, introducing employee-centric strategies that align with business success. As an experienced global leader Andrea has worked in 15 countries, leading teams and providing guidance to executives around the world. She has designed and implemented programs and solutions aimed at improving business outcomes and increasing employee engagement, recognizing that one size does not fit all. She consistently delivers meaningful employee experiences and makes a business impact through effective organizational analysis and talent planning. She has achieved strong results with a proven ability to diagnose organizational opportunities, create strategic plans, deploy the right resources and drive for results. Andrea is one of the key team members at Luce’ Media