Dancing into Ops - How I got my job – Zara BartelsFeatured

I spent my childhood training in dance - Ballet was my first love but as I grew older it became Modern, like my dancing I’m always open to changing my mind and exploring a new path. For undergrad, I was in the inaugural class of the Fordham University/The Ailey School BFA program, and a double major with a BA in History. University reminded me that once I was studying what I wanted, I was all in, which served well for my future career move. All my hard work and missed sleepovers took me from Trinidad & Tobago to New York and finally to London as the Dance Captain of Disney’s The Lion King in The West End for a decade. I’m an atypical dancer - I knew this wouldn’t be my only career and I didn’t have to stay in the Arts my entire life, unlike most artists. I wanted to retire with my body intact, and at the top of my game and have a 2nd career that wasn’t involved in the Arts.I started my career transition 2 years before actually taking the plunge, by getting my MBA from The Open University which I did part-time while working. It was a hard slog for 2 years balancing the demanding life-consuming schedule of being a professional dancer/athlete with my schooling. But doing what you love can give you limitless energy to get things done. My MBA was crucial for the business world to know that I understood and had the knowledge of business because they likely wouldn’t know that being the Dance Captain much more than being a skilled dancer. I spent 10 years managing the performance of 56 dancers, actors and singers, leading auditions, managing casting and solving any issues that occurred during performance. One show took 150 people working simultaneously to make it happen - my life was lots of quick creative problem-solving, big-picture thinking and understanding the nuances that were needed to lead a team that had various expertise and requirements working in real time with big budgets at stake if we had to cancel or stop a show for too long. In some ways, it was more operationally challenging than what I do now but I knew I had to convince the business world of that. While completing my Master’s, I researched industries to understand a good fit for my skillset, where my inclination toward operational efficiencies could be enhanced and one I could be passionate about. I wanted to continue to build beautiful things as I did with The Lion King. I decided on an approach that I thought would be a smooth transition and allow me to do some more exploring - recruitment for creative industries. I understood the people in those industries to forge relationships, and I leveraged some of the people in my professional network. At the same time, I’d be able to do some spying for myself and get to know and understand the companies that I would want to work with. I spent the first 11 months after retiring from the stage recruiting for creative companies and exploring what interests me about them. I decided that startups were a good fit, because they are more open to people with experience in a different industry and creating something that not many people actually had first experience doing it; we would all be on the same steep learning curve - which is a great leveller. I kept doing the typical job search using my exposure to creative companies as their recruiter to guide me - search the job sites, read about companies, apply to the roles, write the cover letter that clearly drew similarities. And it happened, I got the job – the one I knew would transition me fully from recruitment consultant to operations - at a music tech company, ROLI, and the rest is history. It was very kizmit - the hyper-growth company is full of music lovers and is open to people of different backgrounds who are flexible and want to learn. I confirmed my passion in Operations, built the business operations for the company and used my recruitment experience to scale the team from 30 to 130 people in 2 years. The beginning of the rest of my life as an Operator. Since retiring from stage 6 years ago, I’ve worked in music tech, health tech and even did brief stints consulting in games and PR, developing business and people operations - learning and absorbing everything I could, exploring and minimising my expertise gaps.The most difficult part of this journey is not being nearly as confident in my expertise as I would like - YET. I have to keep reminding myself that this is still a whole new world where things change constantly. Luckily, I like being on my toes! I’m proud of my first career in dance and it spurs me on to keep achieving in this one as an operator, and I spend my evenings and weekends appreciating the hard work of the performers, who are still some of my favourite humans and I love seeing them share their talent. I may have not gone full steam with a complete industry change if my performing family didn’t support and show full faith in me and I’ll be forever grateful, so I return the love whenever I can. Being able to pivot our career is a woman’s prerogative and should be exercised how you choose. If you plan to pivot your career, know that you’re not alone. I didn’t have great communities like Elpha. I didn’t have a network of people who were in the space I was trying to move to, so I read all the industry news I could, networked so not comfortably and kept learning. Communities like this make it easier and less lonely, so feel free to reach out. Now that you’ve gotten all the way to the end. Here’s how I sum up starting a new career:1. Be sure this is what you want and need, it isn’t going to be straightforward - you will need a touchstone2. Do a gap analysis on yourself - upskill if you need to for where you want to go3. Find the companies that do what interests you and absorb all you can about them - you’re going to need to have a deeper understanding than others who have been doing this for a while4. Find the connections in your skills and the role/company and write about them, in your cover letter talk about them in your interviews, scream about them in all manner of ways5. Go Hard and Get Yours!Zara is a business and people operations obsessive dancing through the ebb and flow of the startup world, spending her days tackling important problems with talented folks and supporting teams to do their best work, and her evenings and weekends connecting with people, wandering in museums and eating. She believes in investing in people and process to build successful impactful companies with empathy to create useful solutions.Currently, managing operations for a Health Tech company [but not for much longer], and a once again seeker of new challenges, industry, environment, and people to build things with and make their lives easier without them even knowing it.
Thank you Zara for sharing your job hunting journey and lessons with us! We're excited to feature more public posts written by Elpha members. Also, let us know via email ([email protected]) about the members that you want to hear stories from, and we will invite them to write for the How I Got My Job series.
My pleasure and thank you for your editing skills!
Wow! Zara, this is absolutely awesome! I am always so interested in women who make seemingly very pivotal and 180-degree career changes (as I feel like I am in the midst of deciding to make one myself, also from the arts to the tech realm). I really appreciate hearing your story and the advice you gave, especially about the gap analysis and upskill, along the way. Thank you! :)
Glad it was of help Lauren.Let me know if you want any help or just need an ear.Good luck for when/if you make the switch
Impressive indeed, Zara! Thanks for taking the time to share your story here with the Elpha community!When it comes to scaling/ growing the organizational talent, how do you do this without loosing the "closeness" of smaller organizations? TIA for your response and wishing you continued success moving forward!
Hi Whitney,Great question - this is going to be cliche but I think it’s most important to maintain open communication and transparency.Take the time to check in with team members (especially after a roll out - see how they like it, is it what they expected etc), it lets the team know you’re always there even if there are more bodies in the space.Schedule coffees, break room chats - make it part of your day. It’s also how you learn and understand what changes are needed or don’t work.And always share they why and how for any organisational change and use a test group and the more you keep in touch with folks the more they’ll want to spend 15 mins helping iron out any kinks in organisational change.Hope that answers your question, and always happy to answer more! Have a great day!
This is really inspirational. I particularly appreciated learning that this pivot took years of preplanning. Everyone thinks it "just happens" but a lot of work & learning goes into transitions like this. I suspect you were more capable with technology than you thought yourself to be several years back, but you could only take the final step when you felt ready as well. I am so happy you finally took the plunge and then shared the process with us. Thank you!
Hi there clion, I appreciate you taking the time to comment and show your appreciation.
I appreciate the story of your pivot/transition. I am in the middle of mine and it is challenging both in good ways and not so fun ways. It is nice to hear about your challenges and successes to keep me going! Thank you!
Thanks so much for your appreciation. It's definitely a roller coaster but so fulfilling when you've decided on it. Feel free to drop me a line if you ever need an ear or encouraging word. It will be great!
Love this sentence: "But doing what you love can give you limitless energy to get things done."I've been experiencing this lately with a passion of mine that I'm slowly developing on the side. It's so energizing to me that I can't wait to spend time on the weekend "working" on it. It never feels like work, though! Thank you for sharing your story!
So encouraging!