Cynthia Smoot Named Wade College Distinguished Achievement Award Recipient
I participated in a Career Day panel about Social Media for FGI a few years ago with my friend Lisa Petty. Lisa is the Editor of DFW Style Daily and one of the kids in the room raised his hand and asked Lisa if she would share a little bit about her story and how she got to where she was today. Lisa’s surprising response to this question was, “It doesn’t matter what my path was, because it won’t be the same as yours. Instead of focusing on my story, you need to create your own.”
Now, in a way this is true, but I do think that you can take inspiration from the successes of others, plus I love to talk about myself so I am going to share a little bit about my story with you tonight and hopefully you will take something from it.
I’m sure there are a handful of you in this room tonight who know exactly what your path is. You’ve probably been sewing or sketching outfits your whole life and have always known that design was your calling.
But I am guessing that there are many more of you sitting here tonight that even though you have just been awarded a degree… are sitting here freaking out because you really don’t have a clue what you are supposed to do next. And I am here tonight to tell you that it’s okay to be a little clueless.
My Mother is here tonight and she was one of the lucky people who always had a thirst for knowledge and a passion for education knew from a very early age that she wanted to be an elementary school teacher.
But I was one of the millions of lost souls who enrolled in college and having little clue what I wanted to do, I majored in Business. Towards the end of my freshman year, my parents began to try and focus me on a career path so that I could select a “real” major. I remember talking to my Mother and her saying, “What are you good at? What are your passions?”
How did I know? I was 18 years old. I had grown up in a very small town. I hadn’t traveled or been exposed to much outside of the DFW area. I had worked one retail job gift-wrapping at the local gift store. How did I know what my passions were or what I was good at?! I thought about it for a split second and answered her with, “Well, I like to shop…”
And so, I became a fashion merchandising major and decided I would be a buyer. Sounds logical, right? I transferred to the University of North Texas and did indeed get a degree in Clothing and Textiles. Except in this process, I remembered that I hated math, it was my worst subject.
I still to this day can barely balance a checkbook. And it didn’t take long to realize that buying for a large department store did not involve long trips to Paris but long hours sitting in a cubicle crunching numbers and working with spread sheets. So, I graduated with a degree and was completely clueless about what I was going to do with it.
I fell into sales at the Dallas Observer in the mid-1990s and discovered that I was not only pretty good at sales, but I was freakin’ fantastic. It was during this time that I discovered what my passions and my talents were and developed my skill set. I found that my success in sales was really a result of my marketing efforts.
I found that I LOVED working with clients, getting to know them and learning about their business or service. I loved working with the production department to help create a campaign that would communicate that message and connect them to the readers of the publication.
I now work in public relations and manage social media campaigns for Gangway Advertising where our tagline is - “At Gangway we connect clients to consumers and businesses to partners. We create buzz for your brand!”
Although my position in the industry has changed from ad sales to social media manager to publicist, my passion and my talents for communicating and connecting have played a major role in every job I have had.
Some of you might be familiar with the work of Stephanie Anne Kantis. Stephanie Anne started her career as a children’s furniture designer. She had a store on Lovers Lane for many years and was very successful, but several years ago she said she felt the need to stretch herself and explore a new creative outlet. So she moved to Mexico and studied jewelry design for a couple of years before launching her own line. Today, her jewelry can be found in her own signature boutiques as well as Neiman Marcus and Saks Fifth Avenue. Still not content, she has branched into women’s apparel. She isn’t focused on the title of jewelry designer or clothing designer or furniture manufacturer. She’s focused on her passion for creating and her talents for design.
And that’s lesson #1.
Don’t focus on the job title or the position. Focus on developing your talents and skill set and the jobs will fall into place.
Now, with all due respect to the educators in this room, I am about to say something that might be a little controversial for this crowd. And that is, that as important as book smarts are – social skills are more important. That’s right. I said it. Do NOT underestimate the power of your connections.
I’m sure most of you watch Project Runway and there’s a reason that they have them do so many team challenges. Because in life no one gets to the top by themselves. That’s why there are famous sayings like “Behind every great man is a determined woman”.
The truth is, that people want to work with people that they like and respect. When you go to interview for a job, I can guarantee you that every candidate will have a college degree and everyone will have done some sort of fabulous internship. So, the question then becomes… what else you got? That what else will be your personal and professional relationships. It is crucial to network and develop industry relationships. They will get you recommendations, referrals, clients and leads.
This is lesson #2
We are so lucky to live in a city like Dallas that has such a strong fashion and design network. People like Jan Strimple, Abi Ferrin, your mentors here at Wade College, professional organizations like Fashion Group International and The Fashionistas and major companies like Neiman Marcus and JC Penny. So my advice to you is to attend events and fashion shows. If you’re not good at walking up and talking to strangers, volunteer to work the event so you have a reason to interact with the crowd.
If that kind of social schmoozing isn’t your thing, then maybe you could donate your time and talents to organizations like Dress for Success or Attitudes and Attire who help underprivileged or abused women get back on their feet and back into the workforce. There are a variety of ways you can connect to people who can be of great benefit to you later.
I started my blog in 2006 as a hobby. I thought a blog would be a fun way to connect my son to my family, who all lived out of town. I quickly discovered the whole Mommy Blogger community and spent several years working with corporations and talking about my life as a parent in Dallas. My son was about 2 weeks into the 5th grade when he came home from school one day, stomped into my office and demanded to know why he was on the internet.
Turns out that in his home room some of his classmates had decided to Google people’s names. Nothing came up for any of them, but when they typed in his name – pages and pages of things came up. Videos and photos and blog posts. That day, in his 10-year old way, he told me that this party was over.
At that point, I had to decide what to do. I really loved the creative outlet of blogging. It combined my love of creative writing and photography. And while I didn’t want to give it up, I had to respect his request for privacy. I decided to flip the scenario and take the camera off of me and turn it onto the city of Dallas. So, I turned to my connections. I emailed every PR person I knew from my time at the Observer and D Magazine and said “I am changing the nature of my blog and I am going to start covering Dallas events. If you have anything you’d like to invite me to, shoot me an invite.” And that’s when the whole thing exploded. And it’s the reason I stand before you tonight.
Even though I had no professional experience, people respected me from our business interactions and gave me a shot. I lived up to what I had promised – to represent Dallas in a positive light. To not be snarky and negative, but to lift up the people, businesses and events that I thought deserved a spotlight. And here we are - 3 years later - and OhSoCynthia is the go-to source for information about what’s happening in Dallas and who you need to know.
Lesson #3 is that your reputation is everything.
Say what you mean and live up to what you promise. I said earlier that people want to work with people they like. But more than that, people want to support people they respect. I don’t have to like you and want to be your best friend. But if we are going to do business together, if I’m going to promote your brand, I do need to respect what you stand for and know with confidence that you are a person of your word. Focus on being a person of character and earning the respect of others.
My last pearl of wisdom has to do with Personal Branding.
For better or for worse, we live in the age of celebrity. 50 years ago, the emphasis was on the design house but today the emphasis is on the designer. When you think of Barney’s, you think of Simon Doonan. When you think of Channel, you think of Karl Lagerfeld. When you think of interior design, you think of Jeff Lewis or Kelly Wearstler. The good part of this trend is that when you make your life’s work about you and not your employer, you take your credentials with you when you leave.
In today’s workplace, Americans will stay at a job for an average of 4 years before moving on to the next opportunity. You have to find new ways to differentiate yourself and let your talents shine brightly enough to stand out among your peers.
Social media platforms offer the perfect outlet to start creating your brand. Don’t wait until you become the next great American designer to start marketing yourself. Start building your army NOW. Create channels on Facebook, Twitter, Pinterst, Instagram and capture your user name – even if you’re not ready to start blasting a message.
Another thing I would encourage you to do is to develop an “elevator pitch” to provide anyone who asks. So, the next time you meet someone new – you know at all of these networking events and parties you are going to start attending so you can build your connections - when someone says to you, “So what do you do”. You have an answer that means something.
It’s not enough to say, “I’m an interior designer.” Be more specific because very encounter is a sales opportunity. You need to say, “I am an interior designer and I specialize in green design using eco-friendly products.” You have just differentiated yourself from the 100 other interior designers I know and if green design is important to me, I will be super excited I just met you.
Just to recap, my 4 pieces of advice are:
- Focus on finding your passions and developing your talents and the jobs will fall into place.
- Continuously work on developing a network of professional and personal connections. They will get you recommendations, referrals, clients and leads.
- Nothing in life is more valuable than your reputation. Focus on being a person of character and earning the respect of others.
- Put some effort into personal branding through your website, blog, Facebook and other social channels. Start building your army of loyal advocates now. They will help you spread your message throughout the course of your career.
Thank you again for the opportunity to speak to you tonight. I look forward to following your careers and writing about your amazing successes – both personal and professional.
- Cynthia Smoot