Our Salary Paths series aims to give fellow Elphas a reference point for salary negotiations and encourage more women to talk about compensation. We hope that opening up the conversation will contribute to more pay transparency and equitable pay.
Interested in sharing your Salary Path with us? Please fill out this form here and we will get back to you (can be posted anonymously, too! 😉 ).
It was my mother who coached me on salary negotiation for my first two jobs.
When the father of a family I babysat paid me half of what was due and kept claiming he did not have cash to pay the rest, I continued to call to ask for the remaining balance. Finally, I told him that if he didn’t pay me I would let the rest of the neighborhood know. After a month of stalling the money showed up immediately.
At my next job, I worked part-time in wholesale jewelry sales at the Atlanta Apparel Mart during the Christmas holidays for about five years. This experience taught me how to work on a commission and how to approach customers of different ages and backgrounds. Our showroom owner also had a communication style that could lead to intense rounds of negotiation. Early in my work there – and with help from my mom in determining my approach – I reminded him about the commission percentage we had agreed upon and that it was higher than the payout I had received. I also reminded him that I was selling more inventory at a faster pace than many of his full-time employees.
Then in 2002, I started working for the Air Force and my first full-time salary was just over $25,000 per year - not counting a tax-exempt allowance that supported housing costs. This was a standard rate based on time in service. As an Air Force officer serving in the early stages of two wars, I spent much of this phase sleeping on cots in tents throughout the Middle East, helping Air Force and Army personnel operate more effectively.
By the time I left, two things I knew with certainty were that I excelled at what I had been doing but was ready for a change and that I wanted to work in an environment where I was not one of the only women present.
Searching for Opportunities
I knew I wanted to travel. At the time, I was also working on an online graduate degree from Norwich University focused on international diplomacy and post-conflict resolution.
My interest in travel and diplomacy was in large part due to my grandparents’ deep WWII legacy.
My grandfather had launched the Hiroshima Peace Foundation with legends such as Pearl Buck and Norman Cousins. It was much later in life that I learned these names were public figures in addition to being friends of Grandmother Green. During her celebration of life, I discovered that the United Nations once asked my grandmother to be their head librarian but she declined because she wanted to prioritize time with her family.
So, in search of global opportunities, I landed on teaching English and moved to Russia – where my grandparents were originally from. They had won lottery tickets to the US when WWII ended and after having survived Holocaust labor camps.
In Russia, my EFL job paid $4800 per year and included housing and food provided by a host family. I did not eat out often but did learn how to teach, how to function in another language, and how to think like an entrepreneur building an individual brand. I loved the opportunity to understand my family’s culture better.
When I returned to America, I traveled to Washington DC believing that our nation’s capital would offer an opportunity to positively impact the world.
Because of my military background, I was not welcomed by most international policy and humanitarian organizations. I reprioritized. I needed a steady paycheck and to regain access to practical things such as health care and an income level high enough to buy meat, fruit, and vegetables on a more regular basis.
I interviewed with federal contracting companies and said no to anyone who tried to hire me at a junior level, holding to my prior track record and letters of recommendation. The job I accepted at age 27 offered me $100K+ working in a senior role at a startup company. Because of the range of responsibilities offered by a smaller company, I held simultaneous roles across business development, instructional design, and course instruction/management.
I pivoted after rescuing a project with Deloitte that significantly increased my weekly working hours and our revenue but did not come with a raise or career advancement. I had much to learn about the world of consulting but after a year as a subcontractor, I was welcomed to Deloitte full-time with a 10% raise and a signing bonus. Much of this bonus was spent on Ann Taylor suits and trying to figure out if and where I fit in the world of D.C.
After a few years of consulting, I felt that something was missing personally and spiritually. During this time, I met three Marines who had launched a non-profit which loosely consisted of individuals with military, medical and first responder backgrounds who traveled to locations such as Haiti to seek out unmet needs in difficult circumstances.
Pursuing a Passion
After many drinks together, our pickup game evolved to a point where I found myself joining a 2011 trip to Alabama to help explore whether there was a domestic mission. The answer was yes. Hooked on the potential, I spent several months experimenting with approaches to recruiting and activating a volunteer base in the DC metro area.
A year later this led to an ask of whether I would leave Deloitte to help the organization grow. I didn’t exactly tell them this but the offer represented a 60% base salary cut. I said yes. I wanted to do something more real. I was able to join full-time just before Hurricane Sandy.
It was not an easy or guaranteed path but over the eight years that followed we were able to build the organization to $50M+ and 120K+ volunteers in over 300 cities. My salary also evolved, in 2021 eventually reaching a 20% increase from my 2012 salary.
As a large-scale, long-term thinker, my career path became complicated as we grew. Members of our team whom I had considered highly capable during our startup phase became increasingly confused by needs related to program management, communication, role definition, staff and systems development, and resource prioritization.
Our senior leadership team had deep experience leading small teams in person and minimal exposure to handing off authority, responsibility and resources. Despite managing our geographic growth and functional operations across all 50 states, I had no support to hire a deputy or balance an exponentially increasing workload. There were warning signs that I ignored. Being asked to manage a peer who was earning 33% more. Annual goals associated with the success of people and projects for which other staff members were responsible. Feedback that team members I hired were intimidating.
I struggled deeply during this period. I visited startup incubators in Israel and listened to stories of innovative companies whose mindset held them back from scaling. I spoke to retired Delta Airlines executives who helped their company turnaround plummeting performance metrics and reinvigorate customer service culture. I tinkered with EOS, learning about visionaries (I am 74% this trait) and integrators (I am 94% this trait). I realized that our team was good at idea generation but did not understand sustained execution. This research helped to depersonalize what was happening but did not make it easier.
I joined a few networking groups whose membership focused on traits such as women, growth, intelligence and general operations. I joined Elpha and Mensa as well as Operators Guild, the Junior League and the Renaissance Collective. One member to whom I will forever be grateful called to critique my resume and help me think. He said that I needed to accept that I had outgrown my non-profit and find a new challenge. I met with a career coach who told me I was burnt out and needed to prioritize a normal schedule at a place where I was supported and felt valued.
Re-Invention - Finding Growth, Respect and Balance
I was deeply sad during this phase. I tried not to think about the time and tradeoffs I had spent over the past decade on what I thought would be a lifelong path. During this time, I also invested in myself. I bought a house and rented the basement to make it more affordable. I raided money that I had put into the S&P 500 twenty years earlier. I went on a holistic retreat in Mexico and danced on the beach at sunset. I bought an infrared sauna blanket and tried to bring down my cortisol levels. I bought a Lululemon Studio home gym. I went to brunch with a friend on our technology team who told me that this moment in time was equivalent to seeing a child off to college, and I needed to let go.
I called an old friend whom I had worked with in Spain, Iraq, California, Texas and Virginia. He encouraged me to consider product management at TransUnion. I spoke to his connection at TU who told me they had acquired three companies during COVID and needed help. A new department was forming that offered a range of inaugural roles which focused on prioritizing market-specific growth and integrating disparate departments. I interviewed and quickly received an offer to apply many of the same team-building and chaos-navigating skillsets in a new context.
TransUnion is a global company with a culture that includes a high percentage of female executives and a range of ages, industry experiences, sexual orientations and employees whose first language is not English. This career change offered several things, including re-credentialing me professionally at a publicly traded company complete with a stock purchasing program and a 13% raise - while shifting roles and industries.
When I reflect on my salary path, it has continuously evolved based on my values and priorities with highs and lows that are not taught in classrooms or by advocates of the idea that there is a prescriptive path for career choices.
Lessons that stay with me are:
- It is worth taking a risk for something you believe in.
- There is peace that comes from holding to a set of values.
- Seek change quickly if you do not have the authority or resources necessary for the impact you imagine or the responsibility you hold.
- Always advocate for yourself.
- Search for opportunities which value personal and professional time and space.
- There is truth in the saying that your network is your net worth.
- Look for people and communities that embrace your identity and your strengths.
- Pursue environments that do not fear change, challenge, competence, communication, collaboration or accountability.
- If you are non-linear and/or a futurist, understand where this gift is valued and consider whether becoming a founder or growth leader may be a perfect path.