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I gave my boss my resignation letter. I'd written it a year ago. After I gave him that letter, I was on cloud nine.
Jen MCFARLAND, MPA - HOST
I never looked back. Everybody that I worked with said I was a different person in those last three weeks before I left the city. I think it was because instantly I became me again, or at least a version of me. I think that every day since starting my business, every day since leaving behind that corporate world, that public service world, I began to see how entrepreneurship is so appealing. I think it’s mostly that I get to be me.
Jen shares the journey that led to Foster Growth (now Women Conquer Business) and why she is so passionate about helping businesses owned by women and people of color.
Connect with Us / Connect with Our Guest(s)
- Your Recipe for Success: Curiosity and Imperfect Action
- What’s Your Next Evolution?
- How is #MeToo Changing Business?
- Truth in Business and the Impact of Women-Owned Business
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Jennifer: Welcome back to the podcast. I’m Jen McFarland.
I’m feeling very reflective today. I sat down and met somebody for the first time. His name is Nate Frazier. He’s a neat man who owns two local businesses here in Portland, iGeek Consulting and Swell, and we were talking about the podcast.
I was also reflecting on last week when I was speaking about women and people of color in business and how we contribute so much to the business world as business owners, employers, contributors to the local economy, and yet many of the women and people of color have smaller businesses. So although there are many women on businesses, the sales don’t match up because the companies are typically smaller.
I was talking to Nate and explaining how the stories I really enjoy on the podcast are when people reflect on a time when they were stuck and how it led them to where they are today. The lessons within there have been so eye-opening for me and hopefully, for you, the listeners.
I’ve been really struggling with what to talk about today because I didn’t really know how to follow up and talking about women on business and truth in business, all of those heavy topics.
As I was talking to Nate, he said … We were talking about the stories and I said, “Well, you know, everybody just loves to talk about themselves.” So it’s really freeing when someone just asks you, “What do you do” and “Tell me about a time when it wasn’t perfect.” I was thinking that I hadn’t really shared or been that vulnerable with you in the podcast.
Early on, some of the stories were more funny and talking about my “Idaho is showing” and things like that. It’s true. My Idaho is showing all the time. I do like to have a good time and I do reflect a lot of the fun and doing the best that I can in getting out there and being seen.
But it wasn’t always like that. I don’t know if my story is one that people can learn from or if it helps people get unstuck, but I feel like before we go on, it’s important for me to share a little bit more about how I got here in the hopes that maybe there’s somebody out there who needs a little boost and needs to feel like, “Yeah, that’s me. And if she can do it, I can do it, too.”
Because I got to say, everybody I’ve talked to, whether it’s Tim McCain or Brian Fowlie or a few of the guests that we have lined up are pretty phenomenal, too, and have really great stories. So I’m going to give this a go. I haven’t really talked about all this stuff out loud maybe before or ever.
It’s interesting because I always had this dream to be in the Peace Corps and to travel and it was very difficult to get there. I think if you don’t go right after college when you’re single, I mean it’s just really hard to pay off all of your bills, pack up all of your stuff and go. I’m fortunate to be married to one of the best people in the world and he embraced my dream.
It happened at a time where I was really in like a big transition. I had worked for about 10 years as a professional graphic designer. I did a lot of in-house graphic design work, marketing a lot of just collateral out there. It was largely before websites were really what they are today. The web work was starting to get more into the mainstream of what a graphic designer did, but most of the work that I did was for print. It wasn’t fulfilling for me and I didn’t know why. I was just incredibly frustrated and stuck.
I wanted to go overseas. I wanted to see the world. I was this person who had always grown up in small town Idaho, although my small town isn’t so small anymore. I wanted to meet people from other places and I wanted to have these experiences. I had this idea that if I could meet other people, that it would change me as well. I think that that’s definitely true. I think that it’s impossible to go to another place and not have it change you, unless you really have your mind set on just being the same.
Going overseas and having that experience with my husband, it was definitely a game-changer. We were in Kazakhstan from 2004 to 2006 teaching English and people always want to know, “How old were they? How old were the kids that you taught?” It was like all ages. I had a couple classes with kindergartners and first and second graders, all the way up through university. I traveled to the city for a while and taught in university, but the work I really loved was in a village called [Turgan 00:05:30].
I was primarily teaching kids in eighth grade through high school and then also teaching … I had a little group of young women that were in the local college and it was mostly just sitting around and drinking tea and talking. We called it English Club, but I think that it’s different than what you would experience in like a, I don’t know, the Russian Club here in the States.
It was really just having conversations and it wasn’t a lot of structure in English Club. School was different, but English Club was really just let’s just practice talking and you just tell me whatever it is that you want to tell me in English and I will help you. We will laugh and cry and just become great friends. I still think about my friends from Kazakhstan all the time who technically were my students.
But being overseas isn’t always easy. Kazakhstan is a former Soviet country. It is to the south of Russia. It’s the largest land-locked country in the world and life there isn’t easy. We didn’t have central heating or air-conditioning, which was less of an issue. But when it’s -20 … And Celsius and Fahrenheit kind of come together when it’s supercold. When it’s -20 and you don’t have central heat, you find yourself being really cold, even if you’re one of those people that’s never cold. It really does make you cold.
One time I sat so close to a heater that was really just like two electrodes kind of tied together with screws, plugged into the wall. It was just a giant fire hazard. I sat so close to it I actually burned a hole in my pants. I wasn’t until we smelled the fabric burning that we realized that I had sat too close to it. Thankfully, nobody was hurt. It was just that cold.
So you can imagine the disappointment when, because you’re the outsider … And this was a place where people loved us. They wanted us to be successful. They loved the work that we did. But no matter what, we were never truly a part of the culture because we weren’t born there, we were not native to the language, we weren’t native to the environment. We were neither Muslim, nor a member of the Russian Church.
We just weren’t part of everything. So you can imagine the disappointment when you get ready for school on a -20 day and you’re slipping and sliding in the ice. It’s so cold that you have to blink a lot because the vitreous fluid in your eyes might freeze. You get to the school and there’s a padlock on the door because there’s no school. Nobody told you and so you have to walk back.
Things like that happen to all of us volunteers. That’s not a sad story, but it’s one of those stories that, when it happens, you start off and you’re really angry. You think, “Why? Why does this have to happen? This kind of thing doesn’t happen to me in America. This is a terrible place.” It sounds like really being dramatic, but it’s kind of how you feel, right, when you feel completely excluded from what’s going on around you. You don’t understand why and you feel like you’re really, yeah, just not part of it. Not that you expect to be, but kind of.
When things like that happen the first year of Peace Corps because Peace Corps is a two-year commitment, it’s really disappointing. You take it personally and you find yourself saying things like, “Well, if they just have their act together, they would just figure this out.” Honestly, for me, that’s the beauty of Peace Corps being two years, is that by the second year those feelings transitioned into, “Wow, I’m really fortunate in the United States because I’m part of it. I’m always in the know and I’m not a member of the Other.”
When as an English major at the University of Idaho, we talked about the Other a lot and the Other actually is almost like a character in fiction, right? It’s the Other is always the person on the outside. The Other is always the person that isn’t quite in. Maybe it’s a villain, maybe it’s a person who just doesn’t get it. It could be the geek in Sixteen Candles or something like that. It’s the person always on the outside for one reason or another, the outcast, the Other.
I think that sometimes we need to consider those times when we are creating the Other. When I came back from Peace Corps and I realized how fortunate I was and I realized that I was fortunate because I was white. I realized that I’m not as fortunate because I’m still a woman, but that every day is white day in America and that every day there are people who are considered the Other. Every day there are people who look at people who are Muslim or look at people who are a member of the LGBTQ community or a person who is African American and they consider them to be not a part of this wonderful, beautiful world, but consider them to be the Other.
Or there are people who think they’re color blind and that’s not true. No one is color blind. There have been so many studies about race and implicit bias. In fact, I would encourage everybody to go and take the Harvard test about implicit bias. I’ll put it in the Show Notes for you if you’re interested, just that you can see how, even if we’re not aware of it, we all have biases. We all have things that we do and things that we say and assumptions we make that are based on where we grew up, what we look like and the experiences that we have and how those experiences can change us.
So my experiences in the Peace Corps changed me and that I came back and I started to see things in a much different way-
PART 1 OF 3 ENDS [00:12:04]
Jennifer: … came back and I started to see things in a much different way, because I had experiences as being the other, I began to be a lot more aware of when other people were made to feel like they should be on the outside. Particularly, for the Muslim community, watching people cross the street because they were fearful and just bearing witness to what is in the media. Then when I worked at the city of Portland, I took a lot of courses and I joined the City-Wide Equity Committee. I really worked on improving policies to try to make equity a bigger part of Portland.
Portland has a really terrible history, Portland, Oregon, has a really terrible history in terms of race, and in terms of the way in particular African-Americans have been treated. I would encourage people to watch the Oregon Public Broadcasting documentary called Local Color. It will give you a lot of information, a lot of information about the history of being an African-American in Portland, Oregon.
There’s a lot of work to do in this community that I live in. A lot of work that I still need to do as a human of this Earth. That changed me. In the work that I did at the city, I came back from Peace Corps, I ran a project for a local non-profit. I went to Portland State and got a Master’s degree in Sustainable Development and Leadership.
In the time when I left Portland State, it was the great recession. There just weren’t grants to go back over seas and work. I had landed a position at the city, just a part time gig, the year before my second year of Grad school, the whole time I worked at the City of Portland. It grew into a full time gig, the summer after I left PSU. I thought, well I’ll just kind of hang out until the money comes back. It took a while longer than anticipated for the economy to bounce back.
In the mean time, we bought a house and life kind of got started. I stuck with the same agency at the City of Portland, and did some good work in terms of equity, and did some great work in terms of projects and really leading some really cool initiatives. Turning around projects that had languished on the vine, sometimes for over a decade, and made dreams realized, basically. Started just really shining and seeing a lot of progress, yet I was completely unhappy, because my light wasn’t really allowed to shine.
No matter what I did, I worked in tech. No matter what I did, if I said it, I had to wait for a guy in the room to say it before it got heard. If I had a really good idea, I always had to make it somebody else’s idea before I could see it happen. There were just so many challenges. The bureaucratic process, even though I studied government, it’s maddeningly slow. By the time some ideas come to the fore, it’s like well we can’t even do that anymore. You’re kind of stuck because it took so long for a policy to pass that you’re stuck with this old process and this old way of doing things, yet you have to do it because that was what was agreed upon.
Then you add to that a layer of institutional knowledge, which is fantastic, except it also leaves us with that’s the way that we’ve always done it. It’s really hard to make change happen. Since what my real bailiwick is, is bringing change and ushering new and bringing new initiatives to light. All of these things bind together, just made it really difficult for me to be me. Tech is so male dominated that I found myself becoming more and more masculine. I found myself getting more and more frustrated, and yet, my skills were getting better and better. I wanted to participate more and more. It was basically just eating me up inside. I didn’t really know what to do.
I just kept working harder and harder, and longer and longer. To this day, I still don’t know why I did that. I knew the outcome wasn’t going to change. I knew that the people that I was working for were just going to keep using the ideas without providing any feedback, and without sharing where the ideas came from. I knew that if I worked longer, then the expectation would be that I always would work those hours. Yet, I had created these expectations that I always had to keep meeting and meeting and meeting.
I became this tape recorder that was just running over and over and over again, going home to my husband and talking about how difficult work was, and how much I didn’t like it. All of the things running about what I didn’t want, what I didn’t like, this and that and the other thing, instead of really focusing on all of the good things. Instead of focusing on all of the skills that I had developed. Instead of realizing all of the projects that I had turned around, everything that I had implemented, everything that I had done. All I could see was the bad. I think that, I know that you get more of what it is that you focus on.
When I left my job, and I should have been just absolutely fearful for this unknown chasm of what owning a business was about. Yeah there was a little fear. But overall it was like, okay well, now we just get to see. Now we just get to see what happens, and what happens next. That’s freedom. That’s focusing on the good, and then having an expectation that more good will come to you, and wanting the good things to come, and wanting the good things to happen.
Has it all been good? No. That would be crazy, that would be me lying to you and telling you that it’s something that it isn’t. Owning a business isn’t easy and it isn’t all good. But it isn’t all bad. I think the biggest things that I’ve learned from people, that I’ve been talking to for the Third Paddle, and even clients that I have, but the thing about having a business is, it’s all on you.
That’s why I talk about things like truth and authenticity, and project management and all of these things. Because, well first of all project management is kind of my thing. I kind of like talking about that, I like working on things and getting things finished. But these are all things that underpin good business practices, and that help you put some structure behind what makes you, you, all the good things.
Like in the E-Myth Revisited, they talk about how we’re all such great technicians. But we need to know how to run a business, and we need to know how to create more good. We need to know how to focus on the good. We need to know how to focus on self care. I’m just going to tell you right now, it’s hard to focus on self care when you have your own business, but it’s worth it.
I will tell you this, it’s not always easy to be a woman running a business. I have friends who are people of color, and it’s not always easy for people of color to run a business. I think that based on my experiences, of not being listened to in the corporate or government world, and then hearing a man saying the exact same thing and get credit for it. I think that going overseas and being treated like a queen, except one of their little details that are actually really important, like is school open today?
I think that when you have all of these experiences, it’s what makes you better in business, and it’s what makes for great networking stories and things like that. But I also think it’s what drives you at the end of the day to be the best you. And what helps you with figuring out what your why is, with figuring out what your passion is. I think that as much as sometimes we all struggle with what’s good and what’s bad, and what’s easy and what’s hard, I think that we just need to acknowledge that we’re here, and we’re brave, and we’re doing everything that we can. And we need to do everything that we can to support each other as a community.
I can tell you that when I was just ruminating night after night after night, in my old job, and when I would just … was just soul crushing trying to figure out what I needed to do to make my job work for me. What I needed to do to make me feel good about it, at the end of the day, and what it was like the night before I decided to quit. When I crumpled to the floor in my kitchen, and looked at my husband and said, “It’s gotta get better than this, I need to just leave.”
And it felt like such a horrible end to this public service career that I had built up in my mind as being what I wanted to do. I wanted to help make the city of Portland a better place. A better place to live, a better place to be, because it was this place that I’d always loved and admired, and it wasn’t working out. It didn’t work out. That felt like a failure. It felt like I was leaving my family in a worse place. I felt like I had my heart ripped out. Then I gave my boss my resignation letter, which I had written about a year prior, because I had known for a long time that it wasn’t working out. I just didn’t have the guts to leave.
After I gave him that letter, I was on fucking cloud nine. I never looked back. Everybody that I worked with said I was a different person in those last three weeks before I left the city. I think it was because instantly I became me again, or at least a version of me. I think that every day since starting my business, every day since leaving behind that corporate world, that public service world, I began to see how entrepreneurship is so appealing and yet, so hard, and yet so worthwhile.
I think it’s mostly that I get to be me. You can like me, or you don’t like me, I’m here to help, but I also get to choose. That’s freedom that I didn’t have before. I get to choose who I work with, I get to choose if we don’t get to work together anymore. I do good work, and I put in a lot of time. One of the reasons that I left my job was because I didn’t enjoy the people that I worked for, and I ultimately ended up with a lot with people that I was working for. If it’s not fun, and if you’re not getting something out of it, like learning something new, or working with cool people-
PART 2 OF 3 ENDS [00:24:04]
Jennifer: Out of it learning something new or working with cool people, or hopefully both, and making some money along the way. Man, it’s just not worth it. It’s just not. I think that that is the biggest thing for me was that I was so stuck in this idea that I had to please somebody else, that the money mattered more than anything else. The money mattered more, the pleasing other people mattered more, but it doesn’t. It’s all about you and your family, and the wealth of knowing who you are and what you bring and why you’re doing it.
I talk about women and people of color in business because those are the people that I want to serve. I think that we deserve all of the same benefits as a big corporation. I think that we deserve the services and the ability to automate and lead and build big companies if that’s what we want to do.
I’m here to help you do that. That’s what I do. That’s what I did before I ever left the corporate world. The reason my company is called Foster Growth is because the top of my resume for, like, the two years I was looking for a job before I ultimately started my own company, the top of my resume said “I foster growth and change for … I foster organizational growth and change.”
Then when I went to go start my company I was like, “Okay, foster growth. That’s what I do. That’s me.” It’s kind of like the third paddle is kind of an extension of that. The third paddle is like, yeah, you’re stuck. Hey, do you need another paddle? Here, I’m going to help you with that.
It’s because service is such a big part of who I am. I thought that it had to be public service within this certain structure. I thought that public service had to be this label that I had placed on it, and then I began to realize, man, public service is, like, service to your community, it’s service to others, it’s service to businesses, it’s service to yourself, it’s practicing self-care. It’s doing all of those things.
I think that that’s one of the most important things that we can talk about. Those are the things that I’m passionate about. That’s why I’m here. I think that’s why I’ve always been on this earth is to work hard and be of service to others, but the piece that I was missing until I started my own business was that it also needs to be fun, and you need to work with people that you enjoy.
You need to do this so that you can learn and grow and change and help the people that you most want to be with, and make enough time for your family and your self-care, and if you’re like me and you have a Boston Terrier, that too.
Yeah. That’s my story. I’m just continuing to grow and change. I’m actually grateful for the experiences that I had that led me to here, and I know there’s going to be even more as I continue to grow and change and serve more people and work with more dynamic projects and communities.
I’m just grateful that I’m not stuck anymore. That’s why I’m passionate about helping you get unstuck. That’s why I want to keep finding these fabulous stories of people in service to you. Thanks for listening.
In addition to solving hairy marketing operations problems, I host one of the best business podcasts for women, the Women Conquer Business podcast, which provides actionable strategies, business how-to’s, and real-world advice from subject matter experts and entrepreneurs to help you grow, nurture, and sustain your business. But if you want the REAL story, I am an uber-nerd who loves dad jokes, building seamless systems, and helping leaders find more joy in their work.