Profiles in Post-Collegiate Courage: Sara Runnels

Calling courageous post-collegiates! Our interview series is back with a vengeance as a semi-regular blog feature!  Want to nominate a courageous post-collegiate to be featured (including yourself)?  Email postcollegiateblog [at] gmail [dotcom].

When I started this blog, I wanted to have an opportunity to talk to people who seem to be kicking ass at the whole “life after college/being a successful young adult” and share their stories with you all.  Luckily, I happen to have a great group of friends who are willing to bare their souls for our enjoyment.  I’m especially lucky that, by coming of age in social media, I’ve been able to keep in touch with one of my very few friends who, like myself, chose to leave Texas and pursue a life outside the Lone Star State.   Sara is a fantastic writer who leads an envy-inducing life in New York City and somehow still manages to be self-deprecating, kind, and generous, particularly in agreeing to share a little bit about how she makes it all work.

Sara posing on the Metropolitan Museum of Art's gorgeous rooftop garden -- one of her favorite spots in the city.

To start, tell our readers a little about yourself.  

First of all, I’m honored to be featured on PostCollegiate!  (Ed. note:  We’re honored to have you!)

Secondly, brevity has never been my forte. When someone asks about my “background,” it is my nature to write 1,500 words about the day my parents met and go from there. That being said, I will do my best to make my answers as concise as they can be. Postcollegiate life is fantastically busy – no one has time to read my mini memoirs.

I spent the first 18 years of my life in Houston, Texas – a city that always felt like an eternal summer (and not in a good way). I was fortunate enough to be conceived (OMG they had sex) by two wonderfully open-minded, well-rounded, artistic parents, who constantly encouraged and applauded my burgeoning interest in reading, writing and creating. They built a solid foundation for my future investment in words as both a passion and a career. Texas A&M University is responsible for my collegiate days. There, I majored in my native language and was arguably the most liberal person on campus. I’m currently living in Midtown Manhattan working as a Senior Editor at a children’s book publisher, and just celebrated five glorious years on this fascinating little island.

This is pretty impressive stuff, considering we’re nearing our 10th high school anniversary next year!  What was your initial plan when you graduated from A&M?  

I visited New York with my father when I was 17 and became so enamored by the culture and the glamour and the energy, that I vowed to return after college and make it my home. During my last semester at A&M, I furiously applied for editorial jobs in Manhattan to no avail, but I wasn’t going to let that teeny-tiny setback stop me from purchasing a one-way ticket. My plan then became to figure it all out upon arriving – something that was risky, but something I had faith in because I wasn’t going to sit back and just let it unfold. I was prepared to do whatever it took (support myself with unfavorable jobs) to give the city a fair chance to prove what I knew to be true – that anything was possible with a little luck and a lot of hard work.  This plan, of course, became an elaborate exercise in character building – one that ultimately paid off. You can read about my first day on my blog.

It’s a very bold choice to move to a big city, especially one as notoriously expensive and challenging at NYC, without a firm plan.  You really took a chance by allowing yourself to let the next few years unfold.  What opportunities have you pursued that you weren’t expecting?

I had no idea how this next chapter of my life was going to play out, but my initial goals were simple: land an editorial job, make some friends, fall in love with the city, never stop writing. Those four basic ambitions have led me to literally every single significant (and insignificant) opportunity in the past five years – new experiences, jobs, friendships, adventures — and ultimately, writing material.

In Battery Park on the fourth of July during the first year in New York. (This was before Sara claims to have learned how to pose / dress.)

So how did you get from one-way ticket to the Big Apple to pursuing a job in children’s publishing?  It’s a bit of an unexpected leap.

After an internship at a well-revered publisher in Chelsea and a stint at a small union newspaper, I started as an editorial assistant at a mass-market children’s publishing company in January of 2007. I did not actively seek out a gig in children’s books, but I was happy to have ANY job in the industry. And it just so happened I had a knack for developing and writing licensed activity-based books. As a child who always created worksheets and word games and puzzles for her stuffed animals (I promise I had real friends too), it blew my mind (and still does) that I was doing this for a living. In the last 4 1/2 years, I’ve worked my way to the top of the editorial ladder at my company and I’ve been privileged to work on a variety of well-known licenses like Fisher-Price, My Little Pony, Lisa Frank, Smurfs, Disney, Care Bears & Hello Kitty – brands we all grew up with. There is also no greater feeling than seeing your work in bookstores around the country.

My challenge with this job is that I don’t know if I’ll stay in children’s books forever. I’d like to branch out at some point and try editing Young Adult or Real Live Grown Up Adult People fiction; however, it isn’t easy to start at the top of the chain in another genre after spending five solid years in a very specific position.

Above and beyond any career goals and challenges, my most immediate mission is to write a novel. I have the title, the plot, the outline, the characters and luckily, an entire lifetime of fantastic material; I just haven’t started it (which apparently is the most important part). I do spend a lot of time writing thoughtful posts on my blog about life in the city though, so that has served as an acceptable distraction from finally writing The Book (among other writing projects).  But I am almost out of excuses.

It might seem to some that everything has worked out fairly easily for you.  But there are always challenges to face.  What have been some of your greatest challenges and how do you face them?

My greatest challenge post-college has been something that’s followed me for years – time and money management. Like many creative types, I have a tendency to procrastinate…I like the urgency and dramatics of making a deadline, and I’m convinced I do excellent work under pressure. But the reality is, I could do even better work if I was more regimented in my writerly ways. Money is only an issue because I live in one of the most expensive cities in the world and I don’t work on Wall Street. (The discrepancy in pay between People in Numbers and People in Words makes me nauseous.) It’s true that some of the best things in life are free, but I’m sure whoever said that never lived in New York City. I’ve made concerted efforts to prioritize creatively and financially, but not enough to completely overcome either issue. (Staying out of bars is a quick remedy for both problems, but that’s easier said than done.)

Sara's former co-worker (and current bff) Michael dressed up as Hannah Montana a few years ago (for no other reason than pure entertainment). This is Sara showing "her" some of the books she wrote and edited.

As a writer, could you share a couple must-read books for quarterlifers?  I believe that books can truly help soothe the savage souls of us struggling postcollegiates.

The book that’s made the greatest impact on me personally in the last few years is Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying. After devouring it one afternoon several summers ago, I had this overwhelming urgency to get over my literary fears, write like I’ve never written before and perpetuate Jong’s eternal belief in the guilt-free female writer. It is a beautiful thing for a book to change how someone feels intellectually, sexually and spiritually, and I saw a lot of myself in her twenty-something misadventures and struggles with writing (it’s fiction, but follows her life closely).

I don’t quite have a must-read list for struggling quarterlifers, but I feel like everyone stumbles upon their own Jong at some point on a quest to soothe their savage souls. After Fear of Flying, I read her follow-up novel, How to Save Your Own Life and her non-fiction hardback, Seducing the Demon: Writing for My Life – and they were all earnest reminders to start (and finish) what I ultimately came to New York to do.

Many, many, many effusive thanks to Sara for sharing her inspiring experiences with us and giving some great, witty advice!  As you can already tell, Sara is brilliant, so you’ll want to follow her on Twitter and add her blog to your list of favorite sites!  As always, feel free to leave additional questions in the comments section and I’ll be sure that Sara answers them!

Profiles in Post-Collegiate Courage: Abe Loper

Calling courageous post-collegiates! Our interview series has been so popular, it’s going to be a regular blog feature!  Want to nominate a courageous post-collegiate to be featured (including yourself)?  Email postcollegiateblog [at] gmail [dotcom]

This week, I was fortunate enough to get some great advice from a professional source!  Abe Loper is the Executive Director of the Young Professionals of Central Virginia, an organization dedicated to finding new ways for young adults to connect with the community and grow both professionally and personally.  Since Abe works daily with post-collegiates, I thought  I would pick his brain on advice for getting the most out of life in your 20s.


Abe Loper at the YPCV offices in downtown Lynchburg

Abe, please tell us a little about yourself and your background for our readers.

I received my Bachelor’s degree in both English and Visual Arts from Albion College in Albion, Michigan, and hold an MBA in Organizational Leadership from Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia.  I’ve worked in the educational and nonprofit sectors for seven years, lecturing and hosting workshops at the University of Chicago, Loyola University, DePaul University and others throughout Chicago and its suburbs.  I developed curriculum for programs aimed at helping go guide at-risk young men in urban high schools on the West side of Chicago and have spoken as a business consultant on the topics of workforce retention, leveraging social media, and generation gaps in the workforce.

While living in Chicago, I was appointed to train new employees in product awareness and sales skills at a regional telecommunications company after consistently receiving honors as top sales associate in the region.  Currently, as you know, I’m the Executive Director of YPCV where I get to work along side the Economic Development Council, Local Government Council, and three other organizations that make up the Region 2000 Economic Development Partnership.

As Executive Director of YPCV, I’ve led rebranding initiatives, reworked the organization’s strategic plan, doubled the organization’s membership, and provided leadership to the over 900 young professionals who have sought involvement in YPCV.  I’m also a founding member and Vice President of the Social Media Institute, an organization bringing knowledge of online marketing and social media leveraging to businesses throughout Central Virginia.  Finally, I’m a published guest columnist for the Blue Ridge Business Journal and, and have been featured in both the Lynchburg News and Advance and Lynchburg Business magazine.  Last, but certainly not least, I’m married to the woman of my dreams, my best friend, Emily, and we’re expecting our first child, a son, this November!

That’s quite an impressive resume!  What was your initial plan when you graduated from college?

My initial career plan when graduating from college was to work in full-time nonprofit work.  I wanted to change the world.  I had fire in my eyes, a lot of energy, and the determination that I was certain would move mountains.  I imagined that I would live in a small hut overseas someplace and that the world would remember me as someone great.

Quite an ambitious dream but one I think many of us share.  Many readers write me about how idealistic they are at 22, 23 and how that changes in the real world.  What are some things you’ve done since graduated that weren’t part of that original plan?

After college, I did get hired by a nonprofit and, after extensive fundraising, I was assigned to train and mentor college students in Chicago.  The job was incredibly fulfilling, but it wasn’t exactly what I had had in mind for changing the world.  I took a sharp turn in my career when I quick that job and became a mortgage broker.  From there, I sold cars, took time to mentor young men, sold internet services, and now, am working in economic development.  Honestly, none of my current life has been part of the plan.  I was even engaged to marry a girl, 6 years ago, who called off our wedding.  My current life is nothing like the life that I had envisioned for myself…it’s better than I could have hoped for.

Abe with students at Sweet Briar College

What are some of the most common concerns that you find in your work with YPCV?  What advice would you give to young professionals right now?

It seems that young people are often times overly concerned with being entertained.  Our generation has a short attention span and isn’t used to looking for what we want.  Companies and products are thrown at us by marketers on TV, the internet, in print, billboards, text messages, radio, mail, on our grocery receipts, and everywhere else we turn, and as a result of this continual onslaught, we have forgotten how to search for what we want.  We’re not a very proactive group of people.

I try to tell young people that with the right attitude, almost anything can be fun.  And, regarding finding a job, that any job is better than no job.  Too many YPs are unwilling to take that “in the mean time” job.  I can tell you right now, if I lost my job today, I’d be applying at Kroger, Chik Fil A, and Sears, by tomorrow.  Also, I tell them to apply for jobs that they think they would enjoy, even if they’re not “qualified” for them.  If you have a degree in education and you’d like to manage an HR department, apply for the open position.  Let the employer decide whether or not to give you an interview.  Don’t make their mind up for them by not even applying.

As someone whose been unemployed, I can definitely attest to the importance of being proactive about your job search as opposed to waiting for the perfect job fit!  Aside from being proactive, what advice would you give to recent college graduates about the challenges they’ll face?

The challenges facing recent grads are significant.  The job market is a tough one, traditional investment opportunities (it’s never to early to start thinking about retirement) aren’t very profitable, and, to be honest, most Baby Boomers, and even Gen Xers, (the groups doing the hiring) have a negative opinion of current graduates.  It should be comforting, however, to know that there are jobs out there.  You probably won’t get your dream job right out of school, but nobody really does.  You have the opportunity to move to almost any city in America and know that, within a few years, there will be jobs available in that place.  Because the job market is so weak right now, you can be fairly certain that it will at least pick up a bit, at some point.  This gives current graduates the luxury of picking their city before they pick their job, knowing that an “in the mean time” job can give them the time to make connections in the city of their choice, laying the foundation for a successful job search when the market improves.

The YPCV Members participating in Day of Caring

Many of our past profiles have discussed the power of random happenstance.  Is there an example of that in your own career?

Is there ever!  This story is also an example of the power being proactive.  When my wife and I were dating and decided to get married, I was living in Chicago and knew that I would have to find a job in Lynchburg.  Emily (my wife) was working as an English instructor at Liberty University at the time.  So, I logged in to my LinkedIn account and did a people search for “Lynchburg+Liberty+jobs”.  I was looking to find a person, anyone, in Lynchburg with whom I could find some common ground and who may be connected to someone who could hire me.  The first person that appeared in that search was the VP of the Chamber of Commerce.  I messaged her and told her my situation.  She was incredibly helpful and offered to share a few conversations over the phone with me, as well as some leads to companies who were looking to hire.

A month later, after applying for the position with the Young Professionals, which I had found online, I called my contact at the chamber and asked her if she knew anything about the job.  She immediately told me that she was sorry, she would have to hang up the phone, because she was on the search committee for that position and that she did not want to create any conflicts of interest.  I complied.  Months later, I got a call from another member of that search committee asking me why I had not responded to their request for answers to a set of essay questions.  I told him the truth.  I had not received any essay questions.  Instead of assuming that I was no longer interested in the position, they had called me to ask if I had received the questions, and that only because the Chamber employee on the search committee had emphasized that I was incredibly serious about my job hunt and wouldn’t have blown the essay off.  The committee postponed the review of the essay questions for 24 hours so that I could pick up a hard copy of the questions and return my answers in person.  After making the cut with my essay responses, several other interview steps followed.  Two days after returning from my honeymoon, I received a call from the interim Director indicating that YPCV would like to offer me a job.  I believe that there’s purpose behind everything, but agree that what appears to “random happenstance” has played a large role in my life and career thus far, and will likely continue to play that same part.

Finally, if you could go back to your college graduation day, what advice would you give yourself?

I would tell my self to respect the gravity that every one of my decisions holds.  I would remind myself that drive, intelligence, training, and self-promotion are less important than kindness, peace, integrity, and perseverance.  I would remind myself that any job is better than no job and that every job is within my reach.  I would force myself to memorize what have become my three work-related sub-pillars (below the four listed above): Think positively.  Be daring.  Move fast.

The YPCV members working with Big Brothers/Big Sisters

Many thanks to Abe for sharing his experiences with us and giving some great advice!  If you live or work in the Central Virginia region, you absolutely must scope out YPCV on the web – become a fan on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, and attend an event.  I encourage readers to find their own young professionals group in their area – it’s a great way to connect, meet people, and jump start your career!  As always, feel free to leave additional questions in the comments section!