Forget the “track”: From Engineer to MBA to Freelance Writer to FounderFeatured
I always thought I had to follow a very specific path to get ahead, like I was building a glass castle and the pieces had to be stacked just right; one slip-up and my career would collapse. The early part of my career was fairly by-the-book. I took on a staggering amount of debt to attend a good school and majored in electrical and computer engineering so I could be sure to pay back said debt. This was nearly twenty years ago, when most people still had AOL accounts and concern for “diversity” wasn’t really a thing. That tech would be such a fundamental part of the future and that efforts would be made to get more women in the field didn’t occur to me. By the time I graduated, all I wanted was to not sit in a room full of men day in and day out.I refused to drop out of computer engineering, but as soon as I graduated, I went into consulting. It felt like a stable choice - a way to figure out what I wanted to do without having to commit to anything, pay back my loans, while building my resume. But after the novelty wore off, I didn’t feel fulfilled with the work. Still, I was terrified of veering off the professional “track.” I left my consulting job for business school as a way to explore my options while also maintaining my resume. I had nearly half a dozen jobs after business school, building and scaling various products and programs at nonprofits like Girls Who Code and tech companies like Etsy, but even my dream jobs ultimately left me feeling unfulfilled. I found myself wanting, very desperately, to create something of my own, something that could only come from me. That’s when I started writing. The first time I published an essay, I was thirty-three. I had never taken a writing class in my life. But in my free time I talked about relationships, specifically online dating, with my friends constantly. I was fascinated with how tech was shaping the way we interact with one another and devoured stories from people about their experiences. I was eager to share my own and draw connections and hypothesis about the space. Eventually, I started writing them down and as soon as I started, it was all I wanted to do. My first essay was called Love in the age of Venmo about a one night stand who I had to Venmo for the morning after pill. Needless to say, it’s beyond weird to publish essays about your love life when you’re managing a team and building your career in a field that has nothing to do with writing. But by that point I had, for better or worse, realized I cared more about being my authentic self than I did about what I was beginning to call my “day job,” even though it was the job I’d worked my entire life to get. If my co-workers and team didn’t accept me as a full human, I concluded, it wasn’t a place I wanted to be. Luckily, the particular company where I worked prized authenticity and not just accepted my writing life, but celebrated it. Eventually, though, I got so into writing that I quit my tech job, and took time off to write while consulting on the side to make money (there is no money in writing). I thought that was it for my career, that I had to sacrifice all the work I’d put into building my credibility in the tech industry to pursue this other thing--like it was an either or. But I wanted so badly to do my own thing and to create work of my own.I began taking writing classes and immersing myself in that world. My classmates were mostly people 15 years younger than me with English degrees. I felt beyond out of place; I was starting all over at an age when I should have been at the height of my career. But I kept reminding myself that I was as young as I’d ever be and if I didn’t pursue this now, I’d always wonder. Within a few years I established myself as an essayist about relationships and dating. The women I took classes from became my mentors and my friends. I was a top writer on Medium. And over time, my product and business itch crept back in. After thinking and writing about online dating dynamics for years, I had an idea for idea an app where friends swipe for friends, specifically targeting “older” daters (30+) who are tired of swiping and their partnered friends who are eager to swipe for them. Everytime I mentioned the idea, the reactions were not just positive but emotional--both single and partnered people needed this. As I shopped the idea informally, soaking up feedback for over a year, I saw other startups try to build a similar product and fail. What they were missing was a clear narrative about the state of dating and our culture. They were selling a product, but they needed a story, too. After a while, I couldn’t shake the idea. Someone was going to build an app where friends swipe for friends--the market was demanding it. Between my background in tech and business and my platform writing about dating and relationships, it occurred to me that I was as good a person as any, certainly better than most of the guys who were trying to do it. So I founded Chorus.Within a few months of fundraising for Chorus, I was able to raise pre-seed capital with nothing more than idea. Sure, my tech and business background helped, but it was my writing, the intensely personal writing that once felt like a liability, that compelled my investors most of all. It was clear I had a pulse on the culture, that I could tell a story; I had been doing it for years.Eventually, all the things in my life came to an oddly neat head, and in some sense, of course it did. There’s no “right” path to take. You just have to trust yourself to follow your interests and live authentically, and know that the layers you create in yourself will not get in your way. They’ll build on one another, and that complexity is the thing that will, above all, make you stand out.Emily is founder of Chorus, a matchmaking app where friends swipe for friends. She's worked with tech companies and nonprofits such as Etsy and Girls Who Code developing and scaling products and programs. Emily also writes regularly about dating and technology for Medium, and has published essays in Salon, Slate, Vice, The Rumpus, Catapult, and more. She has a B.S. in electrical and computer engineering from Cornell and an MBA from UC Berkeley.