I’ve been thinking a lot about entrepreneurship recently–its inherent financial risks, the unique “type A” drive required for it, the amount of time and commitment involved. I’ve also been trying to figure out why the heck anyone would be idiotic enough to try his hand at entrepreneurship in these trying economic times.

I just read an article in The New York Times about the increasing number of twentysomethings who decided to create their own jobs rather than endure the grueling process of searching for a job as the country climbs out of the recession. I can’t believe what these young people, some my age or scarcely older, have accomplished. Twenty-six-year-old Lauren Berger founded Intern Queen, an internship database for motivated young people looking for experience–people not unlike herself. Josh Weinstein, 24, got a PayPal founder to back his social-networking site CollegeOnly. Two 22-year-olds started an online magazine for college women called HerCampus. They’re my age–and they’re turning a profit!

These are a few success stories among, as you might guess, many stories of failure. It’s always difficult and risky to start a business, especially when you’re young and broke. But right now, it’s even more difficult. So are these kids crazy…or are they onto something?

I’m a highly logical person and haven’t been known to take huge risks, but I’m starting to believe in recession-era entrepreneurship. It’s not just happening among young people; the number of startups founded in the last couple of years is much larger than the number of startups founded before the recession began–and there’s an explanation for the madness.

Say you’ve been working at a big company in Silicon Valley for a number of years. You’re happy for now, but you have vague thoughts of taking that idea you’ve been mulling in the back of your mind and making it into something on your own in the far-off future. Then, suddenly, your company’s earnings are way down and you’re laid off out of necessity. What now? All the other tech companies are doing the same thing, so finding another job with equal pay and benefits might not be a possibility. Suddenly, that vague idea you’d been mulling is at the forefront of your mind. You’ve got intelligent colleagues, also recently laid off, all around you. You’ve got some money. You don’t need a whole lot of office space, so rent won’t be too high–and neither will the cost of marketing, thanks to social networking and the access you have to big tech companies’ clouds.

Suddenly, you’ve got yourself a startup.

It’s called accidental entrepreneurship, or necessity entrepreneurship–when people take the gigantic step to become their own boss after they’ve exhausted all other options. With lots of spare time to think–you can only spend so many hours scouring CraigslistMonster and CareerBuilder, something I know all too well–the unemployed start to get creative, and big ideas often start to blossom into little companies.

As it turns out, founding startups in recessions isn’t unheard of–in fact it’s common. The Kauffman Foundation found last year that more than half the companies on 2009’s Fortune 500 list were founded during a recession or a downward market trend. Among the recession-born companies: Starbucks, Intuit, PetSmart.

How do we re-energize the economy? Maybe the startups that come from the big ideas people get during unemployment are the answer to that question. Maybe it’s startups that propel us up and out of economic woe.

If that’s the case, could the creative news ventures people are building now be the saving grace we need to get us out of this “newspapers are dying” funk? Interesting, promising things are happening in journalism despite continued financial hardship at traditional news organizations. One of my favorite ideas is Spot.us, where people can bid on investigative story pitches from journalists all over the country and can later read the stories that get enough financial backing. Voice of San Diego, a small news organization of former editors and investigative reporters founded in 2005, resulted from a frustration its founders felt in the San Diego Union-Tribune’s lack of hard-hitting local news coverage. In the last few years, it has been lauded for its excellent investigative reporting and original financial model.

Journalism, like this state’s government, needs to make some drastic changes, financially and logistically, if it wants to stay afloat. Let’s hope these creative new ventures, many started post-layoff, point journalism (and the economy!) in the right direction.


“You tell people they might see snowflakes out their windows tomorrow morning and then nothing happens…but you give no forecast at all and then I-5 is a skating rink.”

Ah, the weather reporting catch-22–as neatly summed up by a Seattle Times editor.

Today all the editors (I sat meekly in a corner and took notes) met to discuss how they’d handle the next “snowmageddon,” the nickname for 2008’s Northwest snowstorm, or other natural disaster. Among the questions on the table: Do we call in the troops at 3 a.m.? Do we let everyone work from home and post pictures and blog items to show how hard their neighborhoods were hit? Do we use bit.ly bundles so readers can be informed and prepared before The Big Storm hits? Should the information be prominent on the homepage, or does it deserve only a tiny square of seattletimes.com real estate?

At the root of all these ideas were two questions whose answers were more complex than just a “yes” or “no”: What exactly do locals want or need to know in the event of a major snowstorm? And do we have the resources, capacity and desire to give those locals exactly what they want?

Here’s the answer to the first question. Readers, they concluded, read the paper’s weather stories every morning not to marvel at meteorological miracles but to see how the weather will affect them personally. That’s why, if the city wakes up to a snowstorm, the most important information to disseminate immediately is road conditions, school closures and information on anyone who was hurt. People need to know how (and whether) they’ll be able to get to work, whether their kids need to be dropped off on the way, and whether everyone they know and love is safe.

Here’s the answer to the second question: no.

If everyone is most concerned about how the weather will affect them, they’ll probably be eager to know when a snow plow will visit their street, whether it’s safe for two-wheel-drive cars to drive in the neighborhood, whether the local convenience store is open, which day their youngest child’s daycare will be up and running again and whether church/bridge club/rehearsal/24 Hour Fitness will go on as it always has.

People have a lot of questions. For news agencies to answer all of them, they’d have to have an unlimited budget and an endless supply of reporters working around the clock. But let’s face it: not even The New York Times could–or would, for that matter, even if they could–supply all the above information.

However, it’s fascinating how much information we can provide in a short amount of time.

Among other things, Times editors want to tell people how many inches of snowfall their neighborhood has seen in comparison with other neighborhoods in the city; which major roads in their neighborhoods are open or closed; which school districts have announced snow days; and what the weather looks like later that day and beyond.

Someday, they also want everyone on staff to post pictures of the weather scenes near their respective places of residence and map the pictures in an interactive graphic. They’re also mulling posting reader-submitted photos in the same package, à la The Washington Post during its own snowpocalypse.

As for the catch-22, The Times has decided to err on the side of caution, informing people of any and all possible turns the weather could take on its brand new blog, The Weather Beat. So far I’m the blog’s sole contributor, but come snowmageddon season, I’m sure the entire staff will pitch in.

A look back

Tonight I stumbled across a New York Times story about the increasing competitiveness of college admissions. Universities such as Tulane, UCLA and Georgetown saw record applicants, tens of thousands of them, for so few spots that they began to wonder whether having so many applicants to choose from was a blessing or a curse.

Accompanying the article was a blog post on how high school seniors should prepare for interviews with admissions departments and alumni at the schools to which they’ve applied.

These two pieces got me thinking about my own college application experience. I struggle to remember specific details of the process–it was only five years ago, yet the whole thing is just a blur of stress, confusion and raging emotion–but I soon realized two things. One was that if college admissions continue to increase in competitiveness, Stanford and Harvard will soon be home to young cyborgs, underrepresented minorities and not much else. (OK, I kid.)

The other was that in 2005, at the beginning of my senior year of high school, I was apparently grossly underprepared to apply for and interview at some of the more competitive schools I’d set my sights on.

The one specific admissions-era memory I have is an interview I took at Whitman College. I remember staring out the window of the admissions dean’s office, in awe of the fall colors in the trees. I remember stumbling over my words overeagerly as I tried to explain to her what a passionate and well-rounded person I was, struggling to stay on topic and wondering how long my diatribe should last. Most of all, I remember how young, naive, unprofessional and unintelligent I felt sitting in that antique chair, facing the woman in the cashmere sweater and the window with a view of the fall leaves and the main quad, where far superior people (or so I imagined) walked along the pathways.

In the New York Times post, the author advises prospective students to dress in business casual attire; I was wearing jeans and a T-shirt.  In the comments section, a schoolteacher advises students to bring a resume with them to interviews; at 17, I had no such thing.

David Kogler, a college admissions officer, said, “I’m surprised at the number of students who can’t easily articulate why they drove six hours to visit our campus”  and how they’d take advantage of their time there should they be accepted.

I’m not. Most of these teenagers haven’t taken speech and communications classes, haven’t experienced professional job interviews (minimum-wage retail and food service jobs don’t count) and haven’t yet figured out their identities or future goals. How can they be expected to talk about their ambitions with certainty when they haven’t yet entered the stage in their lives where they actually start discovering those ambitions?

On that fall afternoon at Whitman College five years ago, I had no idea where I was headed. Vague ideas of art history classes, stacks of classical Greek literature and busy choir schedules floated through my head. If the admissions officer was looking for someone who was certain, focused and as articulate as a college graduate, she certainly didn’t get it–and why should she? It should be high school seniors’ enthusiasm, passion and curiosity that gets them into their colleges of choice. They shouldn’t worry about getting a polished business-casual wardrobe and credentials that are perfectly in order until they’ve lived a little.

Though applications have only continued to increase since 2005–and even then, college admissions were more competitive than ever–high school seniors shouldn’t have to put on a show in which they become someone else entirely when they interview at colleges. If they do, my cyborg theory may actually become reality.

(Oh, and in case you wondered…I was waitlisted and then invited to join Whitman College’s class of 2010 on the condition that I start in the spring. I declined and went to the University of Oregon in September. I’ve never regretted it.)

Concert Days

It’s nice to have an outside-of-school choir life again. It means more weekend concerts.

In school, when our end-of-term concerts were on Thursday nights just hours after classes ended, everyone seemed so anxious to get home after the gig to study for finals that there was minimal fun to be had. I missed the days when I could spend my pre-concert Saturdays studying my music, carefully pinning up my hair and nervously warming up while adjusting music folders and dress hems. I missed my in-car warmups on the way to the church/concert hall, bonding with other choir members as we were waiting for the gig to start, and losing track of time in post-concert conversations.

Now I get all of that again.

This afternoon, Seattle Pro Musica is singing a mass at St. James Cathedral on First Hill. My fellow members make excellent company, the cathedral itself is breathtaking, and the music we’re performing couldn’t be better. And soon, concert season will really begin and we’ll be singing holiday repertoire all over the Sound. Yet another reason to love the holidays.

I was reminded of how much I love holiday concerts when I stumbled across a blog post from four Decembers ago. I volunteered to usher at a Cantiamo! Cabrillo concert, mostly to see the group perform for free, and saw old friends who reminded me why I went all the way to Eastern Europe to sing with them:

It had been more than a year since I’d seen Cheryl Anderson or really anyone Cabrillo-Chorus-related, but when I walked into Holy Cross Church at 7:45 last night, I felt like I’d never left. There again were those sparkling blue empire-waist dresses I could never decide whether I liked or loathed; there were those faces I had known so well before, unchanged. I could name every single one of them: Nell, Art, Jenny, Liz (“Hey GLEN!!”, I thought), Colin, Kent, Kathy, Lucy, Sandy,…Trevor?! There was Vlada at the piano, and although I couldn’t see him, I knew John was somewhere above me in the balcony, clad in dark clothing and big headphones. And at the center of the madness, there on the podium, radiant as ever, was the blonde beacon herself.

Nothing changes around here and I love it.

Cabrillo Youth Chorus, circa 2003

What football taught me about post-grad life

College football season is in full swing, and when your alma mater is ranked number one in the country, it’s pretty hard to ignore the hype. Evidence of lively rivalry is all around. It’s at the Seattle bars, where our Duck gear gets scowls from Husky fans. It’s on television, where my roommates cheer for the underdogs and boo the top-ranked teams Oregon might later face in a bowl game. It’s in the University District every Saturday, when the entire neighborhood dons purple and white.

The exhilarating fact that Oregon is still undefeated has made me far more invested in football than I’ve ever been before. I now spout facts and figures that last year were a foreign language to me. And even though I still don’t take football too seriously, I think there are a few (slightly cheesy) things I can learn about persistence and success from watching the games.

1. Don’t let your guard down when you’re ahead. Since graduation, it’s been tempting to stop thinking about the future when I’m content in the present. During my internship at The Seattle Times, I didn’t apply for any jobs until my last week there; I’d been so happy with the job that I forgot to think about how discontent (and jobless) I’d be in a matter of days. I’ve learned my lesson: even though I have a job now, I haven’t stopped thinking about where I might want to be a year or two from now. I still scour job sites regularly and look for future “dream jobs” or freelance writing jobs I can do on the side.
2. Things are better when you keep your cool. At the beginning of last football season, Jeremiah Masoli had everything going for him. He was among the best players on the University of Oregon team, people were already murmuring his name in the same sentence as “Heisman,” and students at games worshipped him. Then he was linked to the theft of a laptop at an off-campus fraternity, he was cited twice for marijuana possession, and police arrested him on charges of driving under the influence of alcohol. Finally, Masoli left the team–and Oregon–for good. I don’t have a tendency toward violence or illegal acts, but Masoli’s unproductive outburst taught me to stay calm and reasonable even when things aren’t going my way. Things turn out better.
3. Two heads are better than one. Teamwork doesn’t just work in sports and in business–it works in job hunting. When I’m nervous about missing typos in my resume or cover letter, I have a friend read over it. When I’m at a major job-related crossroads, I get a second opinion from someone I trust. And when I land an interview, especially at a publication, I’m more likely to stand out if I prove I know how to work with editors, photographers, designers and bloggers to produce the best content possible.
4. Winning isn’t easy. I know–I should have learned this by now. But to be honest, I’ve lived a privileged life–one with endlessly supportive parents, intelligent friends and a tolerant local community. All this made it easy to do well in school, to dabble in multiple subjects, to choose whether to get a side job–all without financial or social pressure. Up until now I’ve never had to pull out all the stops to succeed. Now I know that the real world demands more of us than school ever did.

Something’s in the water

I’ve now been through two weeks of Seattle Pro Musica rehearsals, and never have I felt so quickly assimilated into a choral group before. It reminds me of other, very different first rehearsal experiences I’ve had since I started singing in choirs at 14.

I remember walking into Cabrillo Youth Chorus auditions as a middle school student absolutely petrified. I’d been dragged there against my will, and as a result only halfheartedly sang “America the Beautiful” for the director, Cheryl Anderson, and grudingly glanced at some children’s music with other timid youngsters. Several years later, the days CYC rehearsed became my favorite days of the week.

In high school, the first time I sang with the jazz choir was intimidating: I was a sophomore in a crowd of juniors and seniors, some who would go on to study at prestigious music conservatories. But several trips to jazz festivals later, I felt right at home in the group.

In college, too, I was one of only a handful of freshmen among mostly upperclassmen and music majors when I joined University Singers. In the middle of my late-summer audition, my cell phone rang, leaving me flustered and embarrassed. I was so scared I’d embarrass myself again in the first University Singers rehearsal–Sharon Paul still let me in after that awful blunder!–that I didn’t initiate a conversation with anyone. Luckily, a gregarious bass next to me asked to borrow a pencil, sparking a long conversation about British comedy shows. He and many other fellow Singers became my closest friends in college.

Seattle Pro Musica’s members are so genuinely and unfailingly nice that I felt right at home uncommonly quickly considering my shy personality. Just like at The Seattle Times, the veterans have approached me and introduced themselves sooner than I’ve found the courage to approach them–and they seem genuinely interested in learning more about me.

There must be something good in this Puget Sound water.


Our last brown bag session of the summer was a full two weeks ago, but some of us are still talking about it.

It was all about “networking,” a word I confess I detest. Even in high school, the idea that I could get a job over someone equally qualified by simply knowing the right people horrified me. Unlike everyone else I knew, I didn’t get my first job through someone who knew someone else. I literally flipped through the white pages and dialed local restaurants, shops and cafes until I found one that was hiring.

But since the economy has worsened, browsing companies and cold-calling, especially when you have a specific career in mind, won’t get you anywhere nowadays. Newspapers that publicly announce job openings on journalismjobs.com are so flooded with applicants that we recent grads hardly stand a chance. It seems increasingly apparent that the way to get a job isn’t just through hard work–it’s so much about being in the right place at the right time.

Since almost all of us interns are recent grads struggling to find post-internship work, we were on the edge of our seats to hear what the three reporters leading the brown bag had to say about how we could get gigs. They had us sell ourselves effectively in quick introductory speeches where they encouraged us to use enthusiasm and the word “I” often. They put us in a faux-mixer situation and had us interrupting each other to get a word in edgewise when standing in groups with a prominent person. They stressed that if we wanted something from someone, we had to ask them for it sooner rather than later–usually with some form of the words, “Do you know anyone who is looking for a reporter?”

I’m sure that works for lots of people. People in public relations or advertising, people in modeling auditions. Lobbyists. And maybe even some journalists. I know a lot of publishers or editors who might appreciate such a blunt and forward approach, who might reward an aggressive attitude.

However, I don’t naturally have a personality that hits you in the face the minute I walk in the door, nor do I really want one. I’m going to put my best foot forward and be assertive, sure, but I’m not going to stray too far from my personality. If I do, I’ll mislead a future employer.

Though all of us felt we wouldn’t follow the brown bag leaders’ advice to a tee, we learned valuable lessons on how to pitch ourselves to important people and how to  make sure to ask for help rather than assume someone knows you want their help. But we also learned that one approach doesn’t work for everyone. We vowed to tailor the advice to our specific personalities and tone down the aggressive maneuvers.

Jill Kimball, uncensored

An article that will appear in Sunday’s New York Times Magazine takes a look at exactly how much information about us is available online. According to this lengthy story, if we don’t bother to tinker with privacy settings or protect our information in some way, especially on social networking sites, any Google-savvy searcher has a large, clear window into our work, social and personal lives.

The article includes several anecdotes of people whose digital trails have gotten them into trouble. A 25-year-old woman working as a teacher’s aide was denied her teaching certificate after she uploaded a picture of herself dressed as a pirate and drinking out of a plastic cup, labeled it “Drunken Pirate,” and set it as her profile picture on Facebook. She sued, citing first amendment rights, but lost. A 16-year-0ld Brit was fired from her job after announcing she was “so totally bored” on Facebook at work. A Canadian who tried to visit the U.S. was barred from entry after a border guard Googled him and found an academic paper he had written in which he admitted to using LSD 30 years ago.

Whether people consider this ethical or not, it’s a conundrum we’ll all have to face soon,  if we haven’t already: should we just be honest on the Internet and attempt to live our lives uncensored by our own privacy settings, or should we clean ourselves up for a more impressive presentation that will potentially save us from getting in trouble or facing rejection?

It’s especially important for recent college graduates like me to decide what to do with all the photos, video clips and written words associated with our names that aren’t employer-friendly. Should we think twice before posting that hilarious picture from last night? Should we avoid relaying last night’s events to our friends on the Internet, even metaphorically? Should we take down the blogs we kept in high school where there exist badly-written ten-paragraph diatribes on horrible teachers, cute boys and backstabbing friends?

For me, the answer is “no”–mostly because I’m not a rebellious, wild, scandalous person. None of the pictures of me on Facebook involve illegal drinking, drugs or anything that could be construed as  lewd behavior. Half my family and most of my family friends are granted full access to all those pictures and my entire Facebook profile. I don’t talk about my personal life online, but I also don’t talk about it outside the Internet to anyone I don’t trust or know well.

I believe in presenting myself honestly to any possible future employers. I think they deserve to know from a Google search exactly what they’d be getting themselves into by hiring me (which, considering my personality, is really nothing bad anyway). After all, if they do take me on, they’ll get to know the real me soon enough anyway.

Thoughts on graduation

When I graduated from the University of Oregon, I felt like I was on top of the world. Over the course of two days, I got praised endlessly. I got awards, certificates, honor cords, honorary pins and diplomas that finally recognized all those years of hard work. It was sunny, I was wearing a pretty dress, all my friends and family surrounded me and all I did was sit there and smile.

That’s all, just smile. I seemed unable to turn off the grin through both those days. Probably because I didn’t know what else to do. I’ve never received compliments well; I never figured out how to react or what to say, so I always just smiled and said “thank you” over and over.

Getting a compliment never felt right. To me it always seemed like the conversational version of a see-saw: while one person is doing all the work to pull the see-saw down, the other is just enjoying the ride to the top without pulling their weight. So when my advisor, a no-nonsense kind of guy who doesn’t do sappy, presented me with a journalism award along with a glowing laundry list of my merits, I felt like marching up to the podium to set the record straight and give him the partial credit he deserved for my accomplishments.

My point: the praise I received blinded my smiling self into forgetting just how hard I worked to earn it all. The awards and the graduation ceremonies boosted my ego but made me forget about my past work ethic. I forgot that, once college is over, we have to start all over again to prove we’re as great as our diplomas say we are. Sure, we got a degree. Sure, our grades were good and our teachers liked us and we held leadership positions in school organizations. But when our skills are put to the test in the workplace, will we deliver?

I’ve worked really, really hard this week to impress people—people whose journalistic background is awe-inspiring and totally intimidating. It’s been a challenge. But I’m glad my temporary graduation amnesia is gone and the work ethic is back.