How this Fine Arts Major transformed into a Head of ProductFeatured
Back in 2007, while I was following the fine arts degree I received at Howard University with a masters film program at Chapman University, I took a job with a well-known Beverly Hills paparazzi agency as a night editor to help pay off my student loans. Britney Spears was the most famous celebrity at that time and the bread and butter for the agency. Every night I would cut sensational videos of Spears, Paris Hilton, Lindsay Lohan, and Kim Kardashian with other celebs living the Hollywood life. These videos would be posted to the online gossip site, and purchased by well known entertainment news shows. We were ahead of our time, as this is before the social media platforms supported video content. It was fun and lucrative, but it wasn’t my passion or why I went to film school. Needless to say I pursued my creative endeavors on the side.Then, in 2009, the housing market crashed, sending the country into a recession. Like many people, I found myself unemployed. And there were still those student loans. For eight months straight, I literally applied to hundreds of jobs in film, television, editing, assistant roles, and anything else I thought I was qualified for. I even took a minimum wage job working at a yoga studio, just to keep my sanity. One night, I was on Craigslist looking at some editing and photography jobs and saw a posting from ABC.com for a content distribution producer position. I actually didn’t even know what content distribution was or how this was the beginning of the VOD streaming platforms. But as it would turn out, I had already been doing it for years. Thanks to my work with the paparazzi agency distributing iconic videos of Britney Spears, I got the job. At Disney ABC, I started my career at the bottom. As a content distribution producer, I was the last person to touch the content before it reached the public. Yikes! All this responsibility of publishing the episodic content was on me and my outdated ThinkPad. The job was easy enough, but there were always hiccups in our workflow process and I just wondered: why? How can this be the only way? How can we make this experience better? After asking questions during a team meeting, I was told, “you’re thinking too hard, focus on what you should be doing...publishing content.” I was learning on the job about this whole new episodic content distribution world. From time to time a White male colleague would say, “you don’t look tech!” and you ask lots of silly questions. At this point in my career, I just wanted to keep my job. So often women of color are confronted with microaggressions and do nothing for fear of retatillon, like many I just accepted it and kept working harder. It wasn’t something that happened everyday but when it did I knew exactly what they were saying. I didn’t have the same background as everyone else and I was the only Black woman in my department, and that's OK! My differences and my creative background allowed me to think differently...I always wonder what is missing when we would brainstorm as a team. And it was this curiosity that led my supervisor to tell me I should think about product development.Once again, I didn’t even know what product development was, but I saw an internal opportunity. Even though this was the beginning of my career and a very entry-level position, I wanted to make it better. I saw a post for a Product Specialist role at ABC Family, and I went for it. I brought it up to a few Black Senior HR women executives that I had met at various Disney networking events. I shared I felt limited and my current role and wanted to have more of an impact and decision making. I didn’t think I was right for the product specialist role or that I had the right background, but they encouraged me to apply and even recommended me for the role. These Black women executives looked out for even when I was doubtful about my skills. As tribute to those women in my career I often encourage other young women to get involved in tech even if they are uncertain, I truly believe in opening doors and connecting the right people. Success! I got the job, and this started my career transition to product. But as excited as I was to leave the content distribution world, I had serious imposter syndrome. I didn’t get much training for my new role if any at all. I was told I’d figure it out. Okaaay. I wouldn’t say I had the lay of the land in this role. But I was persistent and kept asking questions like, “Is this analytics report really driving our decision making?” This report took eight hours for me to create, and after I questioned the validity of the report a few weeks into my new role, senior management agreed it was duplicative and unnecessary. Even with that win, I was told by a more senior product manager that I didn’t think like a product manager or engineer. He didn’t mean that in a good way. From that comment, I decided to partner with an engineer to help with the learning curve, to help me think more logically, more left-brained, in the arena of feature development. Shortly after this jump to the product specialist role, I was recruited by FOX.com as a product manager. I know, it’s crazy, here I was new to the product development world and another company was reaching out for something better. This taught me to never underestimate my experience and to not limit myself by how long I had been in a position. At FOX.com, I had more responsibilities and more opportunities to succeed -- and to fail. FOX taught me to be resourceful, juggle multiple product launches, bigger budgets, and tighter timelines. I didn’t see myself going into a leadership role, but I was building a reputation of getting shit done, always delivering, and building cross-team partnerships. Despite that fact, there were some in leadership that told me I didn’t meet the mark, that others on the product team were superior. I share this to say each career jump was not a bed of roses, especially because I wasn’t always supported or encouraged by leadership for whatever reason. As difficult as that environment was, I made strong relationships with other teams and filled the gaps without being asked. From FOX I went to Beachbody and really became a leader in a director role. I was recommended for a Director of Product role by a former FOX colleague that knew my work. Before my title became Senior Director of Product, I was managing a web platform team. But I saw an opportunity to develop mobile apps more efficiently and I volunteered to take on that team. This was really the beginning of me making my mark as a leader. Leadership isn’t defined as everything being perfect; it's what you do when there are challenges and limitations. Often you’ll do the job before the title and compensation come. The big titles look sweet on paper but when you get into the day-to-day, you soon realize how difficult it can be to deliver the needs of the organization and manage expectations of the C-suite, and lead a team of different personalities. It’s easy to let that negative comments or difficulties shape you, which only gives me more appreciation for female leaders who don’t let politics destroy their character and integrity. A year ago, Disney reached out about becoming Head of Product for Movies Anywhere. At first, I thought, “Am I ready to go back to entertainment? What’s next?” But my current role allows me to be a catalyst for change, to grow and develop talent, and be strategic with the Product vision, all while having a seat at the table with studio executives. I have just been appointed to a Diversity and Inclusion team to bring more people to Disney that look like me. If I could go back in time, I wish somebody told me to speak up and be brave sooner, that my voice mattered. I also wish I knew it was okay to make mistakes and take risks, that perfection is the enemy. It takes time to understand that; I just wish I had realized it sooner. There’s no prize in making yourself small. One of the keys to my success is building relationships, keep learning, keep evolving, and bringing others who are behind me. I do firmly believe that my success in tech is not in spite of my creative background, my race, my gender, and different way of thinking, but because of it.Here are my career takeaways:Have a vision for yourself - I think of myself as a brandLet NO and rejection be the motivator, not the discourager - everyone will not see your visionKnow your value and how to add value Know when to leaveBe flexible to changeNever stop learning - attend conferences, events, workshops, etc. Join & network in tech communities and share your storyFind a mentor - I have had many at various points in my career Fill in the gaps - What can be better? Mistakes are part of the journey Progress over perfection If you can’t serve you can’t lead Find Kasha Stewart on on her website www.kashastewart.com and Instagram @BuiltByKasha.
Your story is so inspiring. My mentor tells me all the time, "no time to be shy. Keep showing the world who you are" and I can't agree more with you that "there is no prize in making yourself small!" Thank you for sharing your journey! 👏🏻
@ChloeSeo Sounds like you have a wise mentor! Thanks!
Thank you for sharing! I always find people's career journeys so interesting, because so many of us end up so far from where we started, and also where we thought we'd end up. But I also think you make a great point (well, you make a lot of great points) - that having a diversity of experiences and backgrounds is always going to be valuable for ANY industry, team, company, role, etc. You can't innovate when everyone is thinking the same way.
Thank you for sharing! I was a dance major in college and love hearing how your arts background translated into technical roles in product and leadership. Love your website, would you recommend any platforms or tools for building a consulting services website?
@jennapetok Thank you for your thoughtful note. My website is built using Squarespace by a female designer! FYI has several free resources for Freelancers from proposal & invoice templates. I am a big fan of Product Hunt https://www.producthunt.com/e/tools-for-freelancers. Penny is an invoicing app for startups and freelancers. Best of luck to you!
Thank you for sharing. Do you mind sharing some advice on finding mentors? I am still shy from asking someone I admire to become my mentor because I am afraid that I would bother him/her.
@TranNgo Thanks for your question. Think about what you want from a mentor and who you admire. Do you want advice or to broaden your network? Or someone you can check-in with regularly with goals? If you are in corporate or a large tech company, I would ask Employee Relations if they have a formal mentorship program. Also, join organizations that encourage mentorships. For my industry, specifically, Women in Product is a fantastic resource. Don't be shy, and I know that is easier said than done. Even if the person is busy, you never know until you try. I would make a list of at least 5 people you admire and why. I would create a short and sweet email template and personalize your email for each recipient. Have a friend proof your message. Be persistent even if you don't get a response; it may take several tries. It's perfectly fine to send a follow up 2 weeks later. Best of luck to you, and it only takes 1 reply!
Hello Kasha, I find your story inspiring and wonderful over all the trials that you went through in the industry you wanted to be in. However, I wanted to know if we can discuss more of your career path and have a quick chat. Please let me know what you think.
Thanks so much for reaching out. Due to my scheduling, I wouldn't have time for a 1:1. Did you have a specific question or transitioning in general? Or feel free to DM me :)
I wanted to know, how did you know when it was time to transition? What gave you the confidence to do so.
Thank you for your question. I knew it was time to transition when I was no longer challenged or engaged with the work. In large organizations or startups, the executive team can change overnight; I found myself in that situation and didn't feel supported anymore to grow within the organization. Although I was a strong contributor, I wasn't a decision-maker. In my significant career jumps, I wasn't always 100% confident, but you know that old saying fake it till you make it. I also knew my current situation wasn't getting any better; that was motivation enough. Finding the right opportunity takes time; even if you aren't sure you want to leave or what's next, just put yourself out there. Get comfortable talking with recruiters and expressing what you are looking for in your next opportunity. Think about what is missing in your current role and start to list your must-haves and nice to haves to give you clarity and motivation. Know what environments, org structures, and leadership styles work for you. Think about how you would describe your career and goals to someone who didn't know you in 2 mins or less; what factors make you unique. The elevator pitch is real! Take your time, practice, and trust your instincts. As women, we are our biggest critics and want things to be perfect. There is no magic formula besides continuing to move forward even when the path isn't clear. Best of luck to you!
Such a great post! I have a background in Healthcare and I’m transitioning into Tech/Product and I’m met with a lot of push back and not much support because of my health background. Your experience is inspiring. As the only woman of color in my organization I find it difficult to get support in learning more about product/tech I’ve reached out to people I admire but I feel like I don’t have enough experience to even engage with a mentor. Any advice for someone only 1-2 years in the tech/product space and eager to learn more and gain experience.
@martinandrea - Thanks for your question! We definitely need you, healthcare is probably the largest opportunity for tech to disrupt things. You can always have a mentor at various stages of your career, think about what you hope to gain from a mentorship -advice, networking, or technical brainstorms. I recommend joining https://www.blackproductmanagers.com/apply and blackwomeninproduct.slack.com these are both incredible resources for any stage of career and will help with the learning curve. Both communities have advice and mentor opportunities. Best of luck to you and remember we need you!