“What I learnt on the job” Career lessons from Michelle Obama, Tina Fey and more
Tips from 10 protégés who’ve worked with idols ranging from US First Lady Michelle Obama to actress Tina Fey.
“Michelle Obama taught me that I belonged in the room.” Kristin Jones, special assistant and director of special projects for First Lady Michelle Obama
So you’ve landed your dream job working alongside inspirational powerhouses. What next? Once the pleasantries and polite conversations are over, it’s time to start watching and learning. That’s what happened to the 10 women profiled here. We’ll let them tell you the rest.
As one of the few people in residence with the US president and first lady before official events, I’d found a thousand things to do rather than brief them about the heads of state or delegates they’d soon be meeting at a private reception. I’m naturally shy, and I was nervous. The stakes are high! The First Lady realised what I was doing. She started beckoning me over for the briefing. When people tried to interrupt, she’d tell them to stop. She would look at me and say, “Kristin, continue.” She always said, “You belong in the places you’re finding yourself because you got yourself here. So if you’re hesitating because you don’t feel like you belong here, that’s you limiting yourself; that’s not reality. That’s a feeling; that feeling isn’t a fact.”
“Astrophysicist Neil degrasse Tyson taught me to weigh the pros and cons.” Emily Rice, research associate in astrophysics
While I was working at the Hayden Planetarium, where Neil is the director, a major astronomy research institution offered me a job in public outreach, a shift away from academia. Neil had faced a similar decision once. He laid out the pros and cons of the two worlds to me, and suggested that I think about them in relation to my long-term goals. Analysing both sides of the coin led me to my decision: continue teaching and researching. I’ve never regretted it.
“Tina Fey taught me to learn from the assistants.” Tracey Wigfield, co-executive producer of The Mindy Project
I was a marble-mouthed 23 year old in a room of 12 loud writers in the 30 Rock writers’ room. Often, I or another junior writer would quietly pitch an idea, and Tina would say, “Wait, say that again.” She made sure that everyone could be heard, even the newer and more timid writers. Those moments drove home the point that all voices were important. Recently, when I was running the The Mindy Project writers’ room, an assistant sitting in the corner was taking notes and said, “I have an idea for a story.” Of course I let her speak, because that was me, eight years ago. She suggested a good plot twist involving Mindy’s character, which I brought to Mindy. It was a really great idea, and we worked it into the show’s script.
“Makeup artist François Nars taught me to use my nervous energy.” Lena Koro, fashion and celebrity makeup artist
Even though I’ve done makeup for A-list celebrities like Jennifer Lopez and Kirsten Dunst, I still get nervous for a big shoot with a new photographer, actress, singer or model. When I was François’ assistant, he told me, “If you want to work with the best, you have to be the best.” He taught me how to channel my nerves into preparation and to come on set having done my research, with a clear point of view. So that’s what I do. Being prepared gives me the confidence to walk into any situation feeling ready – and it helps me do my best work.
“Winemaker Abrie Beeslaar taught me that teamwork is the key to success.” Elmarie Botes, assistant winemaker at JC Le Roux
As part of my three-year internship with the Cape Winemakers Guild Protégé Programme, I had the great privilege and pleasure of interacting with a range of Guild members and cellar teams. Abrie Beeslaar, from Kanonkop Wine Estate, taught me something that I’ve carried with me ever since those days: the importance of teamwork and the value of every individual in that team. It’s impossible to achieve and maintain success and excellent quality without the dedication of the whole team, so it’s crucial to invest in people, to inspire them as you go along, and to ensure that they feel appreciated for being the backbone of the organisation.
“Former Twitter CEO Dick Costolo taught me to raise my hand!” Sara Haider, lead staff engineer for the app Periscope
In 2012, when Twitter acquired Vine, the company was looking for a lead software engineer to build the app’s Android version. Even though I’d risen up through Twitter’s engineering ranks, it didn’t occur to me to apply. I thought that there were more qualified people for the job. Dick, who I’d worked under, called me into his office. He went over my experience and wanted to know why I wasn’t throwing my hat into the ring. His pep talk gave me the confidence I needed to nominate myself – and I got the gig. Today, I do the exact same thing with my own team. Sometimes, that little push is all you need.
“DJ Zan D and DJ Dimplez taught me the importance of learning the basics.” Ms Cosmo, DJ
A few years ago, I told DJ Dimplez that I was interested in Djing. He encouraged me to go for it because, he said, the industry needed more women, and I have always been grateful for that positive response.
I enrolled at the girls-only DJ school, Fuse Academy, where I met DJ Zan D. He taught me everything I know, including beatmatching and scratching – all on vinyl! Learning the basics, like catching a cue and being able to count the beats per minute, have ensured that no matter what method I use – CDJ, vinyl or USB – or where I’m playing, I always have the confidence needed.
Once I started getting booked for club gigs and events, I continued to call on Dimplez for advice. He taught me DJ etiquette and how to build a set for a gig. He even helped me pick my DJ name! We went out for drinks with a mutual friend, and three cocktails later, we got the name DJ Cosmo. Dimplez took to Twitter and promoted my name to his followers, and that solidified everything. I later added the ‘Ms’ in front to highlight the fact that I’m female, so it all came full circle to his original advice!
“Chef David Higgs taught me that you can never work hard enough.” Julia Hattingh, head chef and restaurant owner
When I began my studies at Meerendal Hospitality Academy in Joburg, I had a very glamorous idea of what life as a chef would be like. This was quickly put to rest when the first pan was thrown across the kitchen, followed by a couple of profanities! With chef David Higgs, my teacher on the hot kitchen’s savoury side, there was no such thing as great results without great effort, and that meant taking in everything that was going on in the kitchen, from writing down recipes to helping everywhere I could. Chef David showed me that excellent service is impossible without good teamwork, and he taught me to respect the hierarchy that’s involved in that service, from the chefs to the cleaners. Ten years later, I still turn to him for advice and support, and it’s largely thanks to his inspiration that I opened my own restaurant, Reverie Social Table, in Cape Town last year.
“Fashion designers Mary-kate and Ashley Olsen taught me that I’m only as good as the rest of my team.” Tanya Taylor, fashion designer
I was fresh out of design school when I started working at the clothing store Elizabeth and James as an intern, and later as an assistant designer. Mary-kate and Ashley had launched the company only a year earlier, but as busy as they were, they still took time to sit with me and learn about me in my first week. I saw how valuable their personal interactions were to team building, and now I do the same thing with my employees at Tanya Taylor.
“Fashion designer Stefania Morland taught me that there’s beauty in everything we say and do.” Nicola West, fashion designer
When I started working at Stefania Morland, I had no idea of just how great an impact she would have on my life; it was a combination of experiences and lessons that would change my perception of the fashion world.
Working in her studio was my introduction to the industry. Growing up, I wore secondhand clothes that were mostly synthetic, but once I started working for Stefania, I began falling in love with natural fabrics.
I learnt that we are all the same regardless of how much money we have, and that even the most beautiful woman can dislike something about herself. Most importantly, I learnt that if you’re going to do something – sketching, helping a customer, or dressing a mannequin – take pride in it and do it beautifully.