A New Job

Life is a book and tomorrow marks a new chapter. I’m starting a new job with Venture for America as their Recruiting and Social Media Associate, and I couldn’t be more excited.

rockin’ our awesome American Apparel Venture for America fitted tees!

I’m excited because the direct mission of Venture for America is simple:  recruit the best and brightest college grads to work for two years at emerging start-ups in lower-cost cities.  Commendable, right? But what ultimately draws me to the organization is its multiple layers of potential impact.

1. Companies in less-recognized communities who otherwise lack the resources for securing top talent, now receive exactly that. (The first class of VFA fellows is pretty impressive.)

2. Communities that fellows are based in benefit from an economic boost with the influx of talent.

3. Fellows become mobilized as entrepreneurs, learning how to create business opportunities for themselves and others. Ultimately they have the potential to launch their own companies and create jobs.

4. As a nation, we reap the benefits of a revitalized economy, more jobs, and a redefined version of success.

At its core, Venture for America is out to create jobs, and rightly so. I’ve said before- youth unemployment is the issue of our generation.  It’s a cause I get incredibly riled about. 54% of Americans between the ages of 18-24 are unemployed. A sense of dissatisfaction plagues our youth, mainly because we suffer from lack of ownership in what we do. Unless our country’s employment prospects are drastically improved, America will no longer be the passport to the good life.  People will flock to places that actually have jobs, like Asia.

We need to secure America’s enterprising talent NOW. My job with Venture for America will involve identifying those individuals and engaging with them via digital media.  More broadly, I am out to convince our nation’s best that small but high-potential companies can be viable post-graduate options, if not the best.

It’s crazy to think that just a few months ago I moved to New York City with high hopes, a few contacts, and a tepid bank account. I wasn’t sure what I was looking for. But thank goodness for instinct. It led me to this opportunity, this chance to work for a company whose mission resounds so strongly with my beliefs. VFA founder Andrew Yang touches on the mission in his well-written post about restoring the culture of achievement.  I am honored to join him and the rest of the VFA team, all of whom boast an impressive record of achievement and belief in the mission.

We will create 100,000 jobs (or more) by 2025. A lofty target, but I am up for the challenge.

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A special thank you and shout-out to my friend Sarah Kaiser-Cross who was the first person to tell me about VFA, all the way from Turkey!

College, Part II

I was at a networking event the other day, mostly for the tasty hors d’oeurves and the opportunity to imbibe free drinks, but figured I’d entertain some awkward conversation so my freeloading wouldn’t be so conspicuous. When someone approached me, I’d hurriedly finish my chewing (lest the silence be deafening) and begin talking mouth full with a load of quiche crumbs tumbling out. I’d chirpily extend my hand, “Hi my name is Lynne! Nice to meet you. What’s yours?!”

Nothing like an overly enthusiastic greeting that labels the “new girl on the block!” title square in the face.

So be it. I’m a Florida girl at heart and if my sunny disposition makes people squint, get some Ray Bans.  Being from Florida in a cold city actually works to my advantage because it immediately creates an easy topic for conversation: weather. Inevitably, weather talk leads to the ultimate ‘elephant in the room’ question “What do you do?” which subsequently triggers an incessant chatter up in my prefrontal cortex on how to explain who I am, what I studied, and what on earth I think I’m doing here in the city.  I panic, realizing I have no lucid way to introduce myself. So I usually start with, “Well, I drink a lot of wine…” (true story)

I’m not in any position to bestow wisdom on how to create your perfect elevator pitch and I’m not writing this post to pretend like I’m close to figuring it out.  I probably won’t ever know how to describe myself in a witty one or two-liner and the day I can, my life will be officially pathetic.  We are more complex (and interesting) than titles allow us to be.

That said, all this weather talk reminds me of another time not so long ago when I partook in a lot of chatty mingling, albeit in a less classy environment. Memories of a frenzied freshman year of college when I rushed to sign up for every organization offering community, value, and free food flood my guilty psyche. “You’ll find your best friends here!” “Make an impact!”  Back then social situations were more beer pong and club meetings offering free pizza, less wine and cheese with keynote speakers from [insert reputable global organization].

I’m about 9 months out of the old stomping yard (college) and while it’s fair to say I’m no longer a college student, I still feel endowed with a somewhat privileged collegiate mindset. Perhaps even more than I did during my four lecture-sitting years.

I don’t roll out of bed and spring to class anymore, and I don’t bump into people I try to avoid every five minutes.  Instead, I dress up, hopstop to work among suited up strangers, and carry a brown tote that looks slightly like an old man’s briefcase (it was the only one at the thrift store that could fit my dang laptop!).  During my subway ride, I whip out my cranny nook and read up on design. Trust agents. The digital sphere. Or “how to get rid of that gut!”, which just conveniently happened to be on the latest cover of Shape.

After graduation, the learning doesn’t stop.  My current line of work forces me to think digital, social media, and e-commerce while tasting new products and writing about them (which involves wine…what a bummer).  It keeps me busy, but the knowledge appetite is still not satisfied. Curiosity widens like the mouth of a hungry child with a bottomless stomach. Now that I don’t have professors to direct my questions to (ironically whom, I barely spoke to when I was actually in college), I am more curious than ever.

As a newcomer to the city, I am still trying to determine the activities and people that are worth my limited time and energy.  Of course, in order to play the game, you have to put up with some ‘small talk’. Slowly but surely, in this so very refined adult life, you whittle down the prospects to your truest, deepest interests, one glass – escargot – smooth talking schmooze-at a time.

Tomorrow I begin a wine tasting class called ‘Raise Your Wine IQ’.  (Shameless plug- my boss is teaching and you can register here!) I’m also enrolled in a month-long online course called “How to launch your startup idea for less than $5000” which sounds gimmicky, but I’m getting information far more valuable than what I sat through in college without spending a penny.  The class is being offered through the education startup Skillshare, a cool company that is trying to revolutionize education. I’m very interested to see how I can apply what I learn to a possible venture.  Throw in my dance class and bible study, compounded with the professional life, and I have my own class schedule!  I’ve never been more excited to learn in my life!

The Florida sunshine is probably blinding you but before you put on your blockers, keep this in mind:

“Your 20’s are your ‘selfish’ years. It’s a decade to immerse yourself in every single thing possible. Be selfish with your time, and all the aspects of you. Tinker with shit, travel, explore, love a lot, love a little, and never touch the ground.”

Kyoko Escamilla (a.k.a Brain-Food)

Even without a bell tower or quad, the collegiate mindset stays for however long you allow it. I am experimenting and exploring more now than the past four years.  Do I regret not doing more of this when I was actually in college? Yes and no, but it’s never too late.

Moving In, 2012

Not for me. On New Years Day, I officially moved to New York. So far, it’s been a dream too good to be true; part of me is just waiting to wake up. Fortunately the Chrysler building proceeds to stare back from the window every morning.  For now, I’m still in a sweet sweet dream.

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I came to the city last month for a job interview, though in reality I didn’t care much for the job . As fate would have it, they didn’t care much for me either.  I was then able to continue with my real reason for coming up: to learn more about the NY tech startup scene.

The great thing about the tech industry is that it lives online. Everything is open, connected, and completely accessible. Startup offices don’t have front desks or secretaries.  There is no barrier to entry.  If you really want, you can waltz right in to startup headquarters with no appointment, no affiliation, not even a suit or tie.  So that’s what I did.

I visited the offices of a few startups, including Grooveshark, Skillshare, and 33Across.  I attended a Foursquare talk. I talked with fellow free-lancers at co-working spaces like the New Work Community. I’ve been able to meet talented and forward-thinking people like filmmaker Jason Silva who are willing and kind enough to dish out helpful advice to a tech newbie like me.  Not coming from a tech background, I initially wasn’t sure what niche I could fill. My training has been in producing content, but all I have are a few bylines and reporting standups to my name, none of which are entirely relevant to a digital cutting-edge world.  Anyway, the question remains: “How do I stand out?”  The answer is still being drafted.

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For the time being, I’ve found some part-time gigs to pay the bills and quench my entrepreneurial thirst.  I’m working as a personal and editorial assistant for the owner of a vintage wine shop in Harlem. While it’s slightly comical that I, of all people, am charged with organizing someone else’s life (if you looked at my room right now, you’d laugh), I actually think I’m suited for the job.  I flex my social media muscle, build online strategy, help write a wine column, and drink wine!  All while learning about the serious business of owning a local business. It’s completely different from academia, but I’m intrigued. It has since spurred my interest in learning about strategy behind some of the most successful small businesses.  Walk the streets of New York and there are so many examples of ingenious business brands.  Since I am charged with the task of ramping up social advertising/PR efforts for the store, I am using the city as my textbook.

In the meantime, the flexible nature of my work allows me to continue dabbling in other fields I want to experiment in, mainly:

– Videos/Film-making/Storytelling

– Networked Knowledge

– Emerging Technology

– Education

Eventually, all of these will converge.  Here’s to moving in, 2012.

Lesson #3: Beyond the transaction, connecting is key.

How did we ever find good restaurants and services before the Internet?  I remember the days when observations like “Mrs. Smith told me that her friend’s son’s girlfriend’s mother’s ex-husband recently opened an Italian restaurant that’s pretty decent” were considered highly useful.  Based on these sole recommendations, off we’d go to the pizzeria- such adventurers- usually only to be…disappointed.  Ah, back to the same old Chinese takeout then.

These days, not a whole lot has actually changed.  We still discover places through word of mouth but the web of connections is definitely not single-sourced, and certainly not expressed so confusingly.  Instead, the tangled web of connections is known simply as “Yelp”, “Foursquare”, or “Foodspotting”.

I’ve always been a fan of trying new places. When I reviewed food in my little college town of Gainesville, I was like Mowgli exploring the Amazon.  So you can imagine what fun I’m having exploring a metropolis like New York.

Yelp and Foursquare have been my travel partners in crime. They’re like those trendy friends who know the ins and outs of the city. They are the go-to experts on everything ranging from the best peppermint cocoa in Brooklyn (Gimme Coffee!- thanks Yelp) to the cheapest salon in the area for an urgent eyebrow waxing need (thanks Foursquare).

However, amid all the plethora of choices, I’ve begun to yearn for a regular go-to place. You know, like that favorite neighborhood diner you frequent far too much?  In Gainesville, that was my dear Maude’s (coffeeshop with the best cheescake).  Today, I think I found the first locale to start my New York list.  The Masala Wala is located on the Lower East Side just a block away from the famous Katz’s Deli. It greeted me with rich brown decor, reminiscent of the aromatic spices of India.  The place is small, but that adds to the appeal.  I felt comfortable whipping out my laptop and working like I was at Starbucks, even while people around me formally dined.  Certainly helped that there was free wi-fi.

My first night here, the waiter gave me a free sample of mango lassi.  I ordered the Masala Chai (their staple drink), which paired well with the vegetarian kofta (a pan-fried dish with carrots and beets, pictured above).  I returned for the second time today not so much because the food was delicious (though it certainly was), but because of the impeccable service. My waiter last time was so attentive and I couldn’t forget the owner’s welcoming smile, a friendly Indian man who encouraged me to stay as long as I wanted for good food or even just the free wi-fi.

While sipping on Masala Chai today, I met the vision behind the restaurant, Roni Mazumdar, who emerged from the kitchen to tell me the story behind its opening just a month ago. A joint venture between him and his now-retired father, The MasalaWala is the product of years of experimenting and loving authentic Indian food.  With a flair for India’s street food, it brings you fast-casual with the usual naan but also some lesser known dishes found under Chat-Pat (Street-Side Favorites).  The menu is a mere two pages, not too overwhelming, which thankfully means it might actually be possible to try every dish here at least once.  Deliciousness cannot go to waste.

As if I didn’t already like the place enough on taste and decor alone, after hearing Roni’s passionate recount of why he opened the business, I felt more compelled to write and share the goodness of it to all.  Roni is a man of many trades- engineer by day, an actor on the side, owner of a production company, and now entrepreneur- but that’s not much of a surprise because you can see all of this incorporated into the restaurant with its sustainability (100% biodegradable tableware) and technological know-how (e-receipts and iPad point of sale!) Super impressed. This is how local business should be done.

I should mention that I stumbled upon this place through a TastingTable newsletter titled “Triply Good Chai in New York” (which by the way was forwarded to me from a friend in Florida).  After reading the article, I perused Yelp for reviews (perfect 5-star rating!), Foursquare for tips, and the restaurant’s website for general information and presentation.  When a place gets high marks from nearly all parties, you’ve found a gem that cannot be missed.

With the unveiling of some exciting new additions in the near future (Happy Hour with South Asia-influenced drinks, plus Indian-Chinese fusion dishes?!?!) , I am certain that The MasalaWala will be at the forefront of some up-and-coming fast yet sophisticated Indian street food movement.

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In a city like New York where transactions are done in 1-2-3, connection is still key.  Most customers will come back to a place for its great taste and value, but the most loyal ones are baited for far greater reasons: strong purpose translated into action, a vested interest in customers, and serving them well.  Beyond the transaction, connection is key.

My experience today would not have been possible without modern social digital tools. Thanks to TastingTable for notifying, Foursquare and Yelp for verifying its legitimacy, and the thousands of people for writing, rating, and recommending, allowing places of real value to surface.

By the way, The MasalaWala hasn’t had to spend a dime on advertising.  When the product is good and you have an engaging online presence, there’s no need. May the word continue to spread.

Lesson #2: Making Community

I can’t stop raving about how great NYC is. Call it naive wonder or puppy-eyed love, the novelty of this glorious concrete jungle hasn’t worn off…yet.

Several natives have warned me that when I move here permanently, the dazzle in my eyes will fade as quickly as the fast-talking businesswoman who snaps at missing her train. Sure, it seems endearing now but wait until you are tired and cold and pissy- the New York mentality will seem far from comforting.

Maybe I’m too stuck in LALAland to care but I’d like to think I can avoid the jaded apathy.  I can see how behind the big lights, good food, and intense drive, there can be something dark and cold about this place. On second thought…nah. It’s all about attitude.

There are countless ways to immerse yourself in the environment. One friend mentioned Young Woman’s Council. Another mentioned a New York Night Owls session for nocturnal folk. There’s Skillshare. Food crawls. Meetups. Try meeting friends of friends. Before you know it, you’ve built your community within a mecca. It makes everything a little less intimidating and a little more manageable. It’s really not so different from living in your hometown with a set group of high school friends….except the fact that it’s New York. When you’re tired of them, go for a walk in Central Park. Eat a delicious Magnolia cupcake.

I believe the key to happiness is creating community in a stimulating environment. If you accomplish that in New York, to me, that’s the best of both worlds: comfort and familiarity in your personal sphere, plus ambition and competition in the outer sphere to keep you active and motivated.

I’m lucky to have friends in the city. They’ve welcomed me graciously- introducing me to their friends, arranging lunches, outings, adventures.  I realize that it’s not Central Park or 5th Avenue or even that incredible Magnolia cupcake that’s brought me happiness these past few days. It’s the friendships, the people, the community.