Whitney Wilkerson is an entrepreneur, a Marketing and New Media expert who has held positions at Giorgio Armani and Condé Nast Publications, and currently the Founder and CEO of Next for Women, a vibrant online community of young professional women offering career advice and guidance from experts in a broad range of fields. She is passionate about the arts, philanthropy, leadership, and long distant running. Find her on Twitter.
My mom had a difficult job - raising three children born within 4 years of one another, one of whom was terminally ill. My father supported our family and commuted three hours a day via bus to work. I seldom recall hearing him speak about his work life and when I did, it was only to complain at the dinner table about how the females who worked with him kept getting pregnant and quitting their jobs, wasting the company money. I developed a complicated outlook on women, work, and where exactly the two intersected.
In college, I thought I would have the opportunity to explore what I found interesting and to discover all the ways that knowledge could be applied in the world. I felt for sure that I would be prepared by my professors to enter the world a polished, eager professional. I could barely wait to graduate, make an impact on the world, and be that successful working woman that my father never spoke about.
And then I graduated.
I successfully networked my way into a job as Assistant to the Vice President of Marketing and New Media at Giorgio Armani. Unlike so many of my colleagues, I wasn't a fashion junky desperate to break into the industry, but an eager professional willing to start at the bottom. I was the note-taking, intense young woman who came to work early and left the office late but didn't know merino from cashmere. I showed up my first day at work, at one of the world’s premiere fashion companies, on the back of my brother’s motorcycle with a black skirt and a dress shirt wrinkled from my ride to the office.
I got promoted and eventually recruited into magazine publishing at Conde Nast Publications working for House & Garden - a shelter magazine once led by Anna Wintour. There I ran into bigger issues than what one should wear the first day on the job. I discovered that I needed to know what to do when my manager asked me to cover for them on their expense report and say that we had a work related dinner together - when she had really taken her fiancé out for a night on the town. I needed to know how to cope with a difficult co-worker who would stand in the middle of the office screaming when she didn’t get her way.
I was overwhelmed. And I was making mistakes. I wanted someone to guide me, to help me make well thought out and educated decisions. But my mother had been out of the workforce since we were babies and my father’s advice was out of touch. What he learned in the 1960s and 1970s when he was early in his career, while valuable, had nothing to do with the experience that I was having as a modern young woman. I read the newspaper. I bought books. I looked online. Yet there was a dissonance between the experiences and advice that I read during my commute and my own working experience.
I could see other young women struggling all around me, sidestepping grenades that they never saw coming. How do you break news to your boss that you made a major mistake that has cost the company money? Should you ask for a raise when you know that revenue is down? When the job turns out to be nothing like what you expected do you stick it out or quit and leave a blemish on your resume? I wanted to avoid traps like these, and I also needed to know the basics that my college’s career resource center hadn’t prepared me for. Was salary the only part of a compensation package that could be negotiated? How can you highlight the skills that you have gained volunteering in your community to a potential employer? Is the handwritten or email thank you note more appropriate - or both?
My career continued to take off. I went from the back of a motorcycle to the set of The Devil Wears Prada to owning my own rapidly growing company whose clients were some of the most well respected, prestigious companies and organizations in the country. My network was thriving, the company was garnering national accolades, I got married to my college sweetheart and bought a beautiful home. I should have felt like I had it all together, that I knew where I was going. But I didn’t. Something was missing for me. I was still looking for answers to my professional questions and my company, while lucrative and enjoyable, had left me wanting and needing a different challenge.
Then I won. And my life changed at 30.
Sitting on community non-profit boards and being a leader in my professional network garnered me a nomination, and a win, for a 40 Under 40 Leadership award. Along with the bottle of champagne and the trophy presented to me at the award ceremony was a scholarship for a leadership and executive coaching program. The 3 day retreat gave me insights and tools, it gave me perspective and confidence. This course changed my life. It also left me ﬂabbergasted. There wasn’t a single other young woman in the room.
I was curious and I was also inspired. I knew from the many conversations with my friends and colleagues that I wasn’t alone with my quest for answers to my professional and personal challenges and a sense of community. Yet if there were so many of us looking for guidance and inspiration then why hadn’t the room been filled with young women just like me? Was it the hefty price tag? Or was it that coaching had been traditionally reserved for executives, servicing those that had already ‘arrived’ instead of those that ‘could be’? I didn’t want to read another CEO’s autobiography talking about his adventure to the top. I wanted real, honest experiences. Real, honest feedback. Real, honest insights. That I related to. And so did other young women.
So I created it.
I founded NEXT For Women as a small, professional community in my home city offering workshops, structured networking events, and online resources. It was exactly the challenge that I had been craving. We have since revised business plans, experimented with our offerings and grown our network. I have had the privilege of working with some of the brightest young women. Those that have embraced our philosophy, used our resources, and leveraged the NEXT for Women community are finding real success in the toughest economy in generations. They are finding their first jobs, obtaining their next internship, building their own networks. What they are not doing is making the same mistakes that I did. The last several months have been an incredibly busy for us as we have launched the beta version of our online community, developed national and international partnerships, and seen our mailing list grow from hundreds to thousands. NEXT for Women is still in it’s infancy but every time I see a young woman ask a hard question or get an honest answer I see that dream move forward.
Women now comprise more than 50% of the U.S. workforce and more than 50% of all new undergraduate degrees. The world does not lack intelligent, driven young women yet in industries such as science and technology 52% of females continue to drop out before they reach senior executive positions. Still only 2% of Fortune 500 CEOs are women. What the world lacks is adequate mentorship, trusted resources, and formal and informal networks for women to learn, succeed, and engage in our personal and professional lives. The need is greater than ever right now and NEXT for Women is working to change this equation one intern, one college graduate, one eager young professional at a time.
By offering free and life stage relevant advice on every aspect of a woman’s budding career we have democratized the concept behind executive coaching and leadership training. With NEXT for Women you don’t need to be Ivy League educated or be the ‘it’ girl in your office to receive access to professional development tools. We bring the advantages of a retreat like the one I experienced to young women regardless of educational background, location, or income.
NEXT for Women has gathered peers and experts alike to exchange ideas and advice in a way that speaks to young women. The platform provides access to the acquired wisdom of a greater community and fosters a space for questions and discussion. That way, the advice given by the site isn’t limited to our articles and videos alone: other users who read your questions about, for example, building a personal brand, can share their acquired wisdom through commenting and user generated content.
I refuse to to chalk up my own career speed-bumps as simply paying my professional dues. I want to take those experiences and turn them into something vibrant and positive that answers both want and need. I struggled. And now I find myself solving those struggles for other women like me. My father couldn’t answer my questions - nor could my mom. So now I’m answering them for myself.
How have you worked through obstacles and celebrated your successes?
Where do you turn to for advice?
Are there young woman in your life that could benefit from NEXT for Women?
We would love to hear from them and from you!