Life After Stanford: Stories from five Cap and Gown women

Written by Laurie Rumker and Eleanor Walker.

Four years of college seemed like a long time when we were freshman, but inevitably our time at Stanford comes to an end.  But where do we go after The Farm? And how do we navigate that unfamiliar territory?

The second to last Saturday in February found a collection of Cap and Gown Actives settled into the couches of the Women’s Community Center. The sun-drenched Old Firetruck House was playing host to Cap and Gown’s Life After Stanford panel, featuring five of our own distinguished alumnae members.

The panel, organized by Actives Board Vice President of Finance Rachel Waltman, addressed topics relevant to junior and senior women alike:  choosing a career path, balancing work and family, finding career mentors, and discovering the nexus of skills and passions. We are deeply grateful to the alumnae who served on our panel: Naomi Waltman (‘85), Melissa Luu Van (‘06), Kathryn Kilner (‘08), Kathy Chou (‘85) and Carol Benz (‘85). Their counsel is too valuable to keep to ourselves, so we hope through this blog post to pass on the stories and advice they were generous enough to share with us.

Serving as moderator, Rachel encouraged the panel to speak candidly about their paths after Stanford:  about successes and failures, choices that led to unexpected opportunities, and advice they would give their Stanford-aged selves. The panel also shared their thoughts on topics especially germane to seniors facing the prospect of life in the working world.  Below is an abridged transcript of their remarks that includes their most inspiring anecdotes!

Now that spring has come, and along with it, Graduation, we are more grateful than ever before for the advice of the Cap and Gown Alumnae.  We hope that you, readers, may also benefit from their words of wisdom, wherever you are in your own careers!

Rachel Waltman: How did you navigate the job market after college?

Kathy Chou: I was a Chemical Engineering major for two years doing pre-med at the same time. But sophomore year I had a very very influential internship at HP, so I switched to Mechanical Engineering and ended up with a co-term in manufacturing systems. But I realized that even though I was good at this technical quantitative stuff, I didn’t like doing it. I didn’t want to be an engineer. I thought, “I have to get an MBA!”

        The most helpful thing I did was taking a job in Boston that had a rotational program, so I could figure out what I really loved. I knew I needed to be in front of people and not behind a desk. I also tried consulting, but I realized that the lifestyle didn’t work for me.

        Then, when I graduated from business school I decided to look for a ‘regular’ job. I had 12 offers, but I knew I wanted to [settle down and] have a family, so I took the lowest paying one at HP. [Kathy worked at HP until 2012, when she moved to Intuit. She is now the Vice President of Sales Strategy and Operations at Informatica.]

Rachel Waltman: What were your keys to success?

Melissa Luu-Van: Oh gosh, I don’t see my career as long enough to say, “I have succeeded!” But I would say that taking risks and not being afraid to take risks has been the most important thing for me. After a couple of years of working at Facebook, they asked me to help start our first office in India. I’d never been to India before—it was terrifying. And I would have to hand off all this interesting work I was doing to live in India for the better part of a year.

        But [after talking to a mentor] I decided to go for it. Things that are scary are great ways to learn about yourself… Every big change has been the result of me saying, “This is terrifying, but I’m going to try it out anyway.” None have really backfired on me, so far! So I guess I’m saying, if something seems kind of scary, do it. [Melissa Luu-Van has been at Facebook since 2007. After helping establishing Facebook’s first offices in India, she moved back to California and is now a Facebook Product Manager.]

Rachel Waltman: So you mentioned mentorshow did you find good mentors?

Melissa Luu-Van: I’ve gotten lucky in that I’ve had some really, really good managers. You don’t get to pick your managers, so I feel sort of lucky. I try to seek out people that are more senior than me that I really respect and form a real relationship with them.

        But when it comes to actually sitting down with someone you look up to you can’t just be like “Mentor me!” I would ask questions about my work, especially when it related to his expertise, or stuff I really wanted his opinion on. Going in and saying, “Put your wisdom in front of me!” doesn’t work. But I think what I did was a good way of building credibility.

        So my advice would be listen to your mentors when they give you advice or encourage you to take risks.

Kathryn Kilner: Persistence pays off. You have to understand what “no” means. Does “no” mean not now, or not ever? You have to figure out when to back down and when to keep pushing or pivoting—almost all of the promotions and raises I got came from me initiating a conversation and it’s the same for finding mentors.

        [On asking superiors about promotions and salary raises:] It’s really really hard to have those conversations… But no one is looking out for your career like you. You have to make your case:  this is what I’ve done, this is the value I’m contributing to the organization. You just have to know the right moment to ask, and you have to understand what you’re bringing to the table. [Kathryn worked her way from marketing intern to director of corporate marketing at a startup and now does content marketing at GE Software.]

Kathy Chou: A mentor is someone that gives you advice, but it’s kind of passive. A sponsor is someone who advocates, who will open doors for you. You need both. You have to find work mentors and life mentors. It’s not just about work, it’s about who you want to be.

Rachel Waltman: So speaking of who you want to be, how do you balance work and family life?

Melissa Luu-Van: This is something that I think a lot about. Two things: one, work life balance isn’t “spend this many hours doing this thing.” It’s more fluid. If you have to spend a lot of time at work for something, follow this up with a focus on your life. It’s not day-by-day, more like time period by time period.

        Two, if you do want to get married and have kids, choosing the right person to do that with is incredibly important. Have equal space in your lives for career, and equal space for family. I would say your partner is the biggest factor in achieving that balance.

Naomi Waltman: You have to figure out what’s important to you… You have to know what you want. I’ve worked part time, I’ve worked full time, and now I telecommute. I will say that proving yourself early makes it easier to work part time. [Naomi Waltman serves as Senior Vice President and Associate General Counsel for CBS Broadcasting.]

Carol Benz: Become a really good decision maker. And in doing so, learn how to say no. Be thoughtful about what you say yes to. And something that works for me, when everything you’re doing feels really hectic, set aside a little bit of time every day… and just spend 5 or 10 minutes thinking about what you want to do that day or the next day. [Carol Benz works in financial planning as co-managing partner at Bingham, Osborn & Scarborough, LLC.]

Kathy Chou: Choose your work carefully. Choose the company carefully. Choose a company that believes in people, in families. Choose managers that are family friendly. And when you have a family, advocate for yourself. Even if that means saying something like: “I will always get the job done, but I will sometimes have to leave early.” Being up front about that has always served me really well.

Rachel Waltman: Is there anything you wish you’d done at Stanford? What advice would you give to your 20-something self?

Melissa Luu-Van: One thing I regret not doing… I never went abroad. I was an RA for two years, which I loved. No regrets at all about that. I learned about life, and how to be a good human being. But going abroad gives you opportunities that you would never have otherwise.

Naomi Waltman: Absolutely, I was really glad I went abroad. To my twenty year old self: Figure out what it is that you want to do, then do it. If something’s not working, change! Don’t let inertia happen. It’s a job, and it’s great… but take risks and do what you want to do.

Kathy Chou: Absolutely. Take more risks. When you’re young, you basically can’t go wrong. You learn more from your failures than your successes.

Kathryn Kilner: I felt like I wasn’t living life fully if I wasn’t tired! There’s a lot of value in taking care of yourself and living a life that’s sustainable. When you start working, take your vacations, don’t get burnt out. Think through how much sleep you actually need, prioritize. Sleep!

Carol Benz: Your life will take different paths, and you won’t end up remotely close to where you thought you would. It’s very pressure-filled today and people feel like they have to find their passion right away. But truly, leading a volunteer organization taught me more about leadership than my job, and that was something I was doing just for me because I loved it. And I wish I had taken golf at Stanford!

Question from Active Rachel Lee: How exactly do you figure out what you want to do when there are so many options? How do you decide what to say yes to?

Kathryn Kilner: I’ve thought a lot about this! I like to think about being human as a holistic thing. Search for growth in all aspects of your life. Sometimes that has to do with work, with volunteering, and with just living life. Be conscious of not letting one overpower the other for too long.

Kathy Chou: This is what I like to call the “sweet spot”: where your strengths and your passions align.

Carol Benz: Try not to focus on having just one [passion]. You’ll have a lot.

Question from Active Eleanor Walker: How do you walk the line between advocating for yourself and not being overly aggressive?

Kathy Chou: Earn the right to advocate. At one job I was told, “You’re advocating too much, you need to inquire more.” Asking good questions is very important, like indirect advocating. Also, it’s better if other people advocate for you. That’s good for relationship building as well. For example, say “my team” instead of “I”. Having the facts can sort of diffuse the self-promoting thing. Do what’s right for your personality.

Carol Benz: You need to be present and have your presence be known… Even if you’re thinking, “I don’t know if my idea’s a good one so I might not put it out there…” But you do have to be vocal. It might be awkward, but you have to be present. You have to put your voice out there.

Kathryn Kilner: Absolutely. And keep doing it. And keep doing it. Even if your coworkers don’t acknowledge that something is your idea, keep doing it. And when it comes to picking the right timing to advocate, have all your ducks in a row. Also, have the hard conversations before the salary decisions are made, before the project decisions go out, because doing those projects is what will support your case for the contribution you are making.

Melissa Luu-Van: Make yourself talk even when you don’t want to. Because being present is crucial, and that means making your voice heard.

        [On having a Sociology degree and working predominantly with engineers:] I just always remind myself, I have as much to contribute as everyone else does, as well as something else to contribute since I have a totally different background. And I have a ton to offer, and no one else is going to say it unless I say it. And I always just think, “I don’t want somebody else to say what I was thinking.”

        And like Carol said, You don’t have to be Ms. Genius every single time you open your mouth. You can be present without being perfect. If people know that you know what you’re talking about and you take initiative, opportunities come to you.