The woman I want to be
The other day, a friend of mine put in a good word for me for an amazing internship opportunity. He wrote, “Laura is not corporate polished, but she built a cosmetics manufacturing enterprise with no science background at all. She hustles and makes it happen. If she doesn’t know how to do something, she will figure it out and learn it inside out.”
I was not pleased with the assessment, but I agreed. I realized I am not corporate polished, and I knew why. At age 13, when my mother committed suicide, I decided to say “f*ck it” to everything I disliked, namely social norms. She was an artist with dreams, but she felt trapped in a conservative housewife role with six kids and didn't feel free. I felt that one of the things that led to her depression was having to sacrifice who she really was for who she “had to be.” I didn’t want to live a life dominated by fear, so I became a bandit. As Steve Jobs would say, “It's more fun to be a pirate than to join the navy.”
I embodied this role, especially when running for student council president at my high school. My campaign was all about being a nonconformist, and when I won, the faculty was worried I had revolutionized the student body and tried to veto my candidacy. To their dismay, I prevailed. I carried this attitude with me when, later on, my start-up’s manifesto was “The Woman I Want to Be.”
I created a line of chic natural cosmetics for Latinas called Vonne. It was inspired by a promise I had made to my mother, Yvonne. She always had business ideas, but I knew she would never pursue them, so I would always tell her, “When I grow up, I promise I will do them for you.” The Vonne manifesto encouraged women to be free and authentic in an ultra conservative society. In Latin America, a place full of machismo, the bandit feminist approach became a marketing success for the female audience.
After coming from the jungles of Latin America, where everything is 20 years behind, to MIT, where everything is 20 years ahead, and while looking for a job, I realized I needed to say goodbye to this bandit persona. The friend who wrote me a recommendation told me, “I think it sucks that this ‘corporate polish’ undermines your true potential.” Nonetheless, we were on a mission to “sophisticate” me, and he offered me his “polishing” services. His first lesson: “Laura, do you remember the discussion you had with our IDM professor, Matt Kressy, in product design lab about the importance of a product's packaging? ‘Polishing’ is packaging for corporate employers.”
The professor argued that companies spent too much time deciding on packaging, and it involved too many people’s opinions in the process. The product inside was more important, he said, and weirdly enough, it took less time to develop than the packaging. I strongly objected and argued that packaging was equally important because if the packaging wasn't good, no one would pick the product off the shelf.
Some of us spend more time developing our private personas while others focus more on their “corporate polished” public personas. In the end, I realized I agree with the professor. Developing your private persona should take more time than developing your “packaging.”
However, I felt it was time to invest in my packaging. I needed to pay the bills. I needed to wear heels and make deals. Learn the jargon. Sign up for “Power and Negotiation” in the fall semester. Learn finance and ramp up my technical skills. Rehearse for recruiting. I looked in the mirror and asked myself the typical Behavioral Interview Questions: What is my background? Why should they hire me? Why am I interested in them? Why do I want this job?
After going over these questions repeatedly, I took a long pause and realized I rejected the idea of being corporate polished. I didn't want to sacrifice who I am for who I “had to be” like my mother did. Somehow, the teachings from my Case Studies in Logistics and Supply Chain professor, Jonathan Byrnes, kept popping in my head. In every class for the whole semester, he repeated that when you are stuck on a problem, you need to take a walk by the river, and so I did.
After 20 years of this painful internal struggle, I finally became deeply aware of why I did the things I did. Being at MIT has helped me realize that I needed to balance my inner product and my packaging in order to be successful. It finally dawned on me that this corporate polish would enable me to really become “The Woman I Want to Be,” because this sophistication would open new and bigger doors for me. This rehearsing for recruitment wasn't solely about getting a job; it was about finding, trusting, and believing in myself.
I need to look and feel the part; I need to be professional and confident. I am only going up, not down. I realized how silly I was being and that it was time to move on, away from my past. I need to go beyond making peace between my private and public personas. I need to reinvent myself. I need to push the envelope instead of fine-tuning an obsolete, broken 13-year-old bandit.
Laura Yvonne Facusse is a first year in the MIT Integrated Design and Management graduate program.