Knox alumna Mrinalini Chakraborty '12, national field coordinator for the Women’s March, was recently intervi...
Editor, Knox Magazine
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By Adriana Colindres
Photos by Peter Bailley '74
Jane Strode Miller '81 has found success again and again in the corporate world -- as CEO of Rudi's Organic Bakery and as a top-level executive at Heinz, PepsiCo, and Hostess. Sure, she could simply revel in her achievements, but she is committed to helping others find their own version of success.
Two years ago, Jane Strode Miller launched her own career advice website, JaneKnows.com. She released her first book, Sleep Your Way to the Top (and Other Myths about Business Success), last year. A combination of humor and practical advice, it has earned positive reviews for its useful content and lively tone. The book's title and its cover -- a cartoon drawing of the legs of a woman wearing black fishnet stockings and red high-heeled shoes -- are a little provocative, and so is some of its language. That was a deliberate decision, Miller says.
"I didn't want to be the boring old CEO. ‘Blah, blah, blah, blah, blah, this is your mother talking,'" Miller says of her approach to writing the book.
Rather, she wanted her writing style to reflect her extensive business experience while at the same time presenting her insights "in a way that was funny and lighthearted and a bit sassy, a little smart-alecky."
Her website, too, displays a combination of solid career advice and lightheartedness. Along with short videos and excerpts from her book, there's Jane's Store, which sells Sleep Your Way to the Top lingerie, such as a black nightgown and pink pajamas.
Miller says the idea for the book came about when, after many years as a "corporate vagabond" moving from place to place, she decided to put down roots in Colorado. She became involved as a mentor with the University of Colorado and with the Unreasonable Institute, a Boulder-based organization that assists early-stage entrepreneurs with their socially minded, world-changing ventures.
The people she was interacting with, mostly in their 20s, kept asking her the same sorts of questions.
"They weren't technical questions or technology questions," she says. "They were questions about personal interactions and difficult situations. What I realized -- I had this real ‘aha' moment -- was that although I was working with young people who wanted to change the world and had all the ideas, what they didn't have was the experience."
"All of a sudden, I thought of myself almost as an entrepreneur, ‘Oh my gosh, the thing that I've got, that they don't have, is [at the time] 30 years of experience.' And so, how do I put that all into one place where somebody can go and get practical advice on situations from horrible bosses to leaving a job to interviewing for a job?"
The book "really came out of the fact that I was feeling that there were consistent themes that were happening to young people, and they were consistent with the themes from when I started out," she adds. Those themes needed to be addressed, Miller believed, and she had the skills and experience to do it.
Miller, a Russian studies major at Knox, originally intended on a career as a lawyer and never took a single business class as an undergrad. Even so, she credits her Knox education for providing "the foundation of my whole career."
"I grew up in Peoria. No one in my family had gone to college, and the opportunity here was one where I could get an excellent education that would give me options," she says.
"My grandfather, who was the biggest influence in my life, was a person who basically said to me: With an education, a person has options in life. Without an education, you don't."
Miller's first job after college was as an administrative assistant at a bank in Texas. There, she developed a growing interest in the business world. But money was tight. To earn more, she worked a second job selling ties in a department store.
She eventually took the graduate school admission test, scoring well. She also discovered that she could attend graduate school for free, thanks to the Zales Corporation, which sponsored a full scholarship for someone who had worked in retail and wanted to get a master's degree in business administration.
That's one example of what Miller calls the "serendipity" -- some might call it luck -- of her life and career. Throughout the book, she calls on readers to create their own serendipity.
"Luck does happen, but you can create your own luck," says Miller, whose career in business started to take off after graduate school. "You can create good luck, like preparing yourself for an interview. Or you can create bad luck, like being super-negative when you leave a company and ruining your reputation. All those things, you actually have control over."
One of the key themes of the book is that reaching the top is different for everyone. In other words, instead of trying to reach "the" top, people should strive to get to their own top, whatever that might be.
"Everybody has a different journey that they're going to go on," says Miller. "My book is not about becoming a CEO of a company. It is about trying to figure out what is the important thing to you that means success, and that you feel like you've had the accomplishment that's important to you."
"I think why this really resonates with me is that we are all different. We can't all aspire to the same things, and we shouldn't all aspire to the same things."
Miller makes a point of not portraying herself as a "superwoman" who can do everything perfectly. "I probably share more things I did wrong than I did right in the book, to some degree. I think it's more vulnerable in that kind of way," she says.
Another key message in the book, she says, is: "You're going to make a lot of mistakes. But here are some obvious ones that I made, so you don't need to make those."
"Make your own mistakes," Miller adds with a laugh. "A number of things I did, like quitting a job without having a job, being super-emotional at work, some of those things you just don't have to do. But if somebody tells you about their mistakes, maybe you'll avoid those so you can carve out whatever your own mistakes might be."
In addition to the book, website, and mentoring projects, Miller shares her knowledge in other ways, too. She recently started co-teaching a class at the University of Colorado, for example. She also returns to the Knox campus periodically, most recently to deliver a keynote address and participate in several sessions at the College's Career Impact Summit in December 2014.
The annual summit, designed to help liberal arts students navigate the job market, is organized by the Bastian Family Career Center and sponsored by the John D. Carlin Career Development Support Fund.
"Jane has led an incredible career, and there have been ups and downs along the way," says Knox student Chanda Harrell '15, who attended Miller's presentations and joined her at dinner during the summit. An economics major with minors in business and management and Spanish, Harrell has accepted a job with KPMG in Chicago, Illinois.
"Jane has worked for very large corporations herself, and she told me that it is important to stay true to yourself and remember to not let yourself be intimidated by the thought of working in such a big place," Harrell says.
During her visit to Knox, Miller mentioned that she is considering an opportunity for a job as a venture partner.
Miller admits she isn't an expert on finance, but says that doesn't really matter for the type of work she'd be doing: helping businesses to succeed and grow.
"Even though it's a job about investing money in people -- that's the finance part of it -- the bigger part of it is making bets on businesses that can win. And that's the thing that I bring to the party. The bet that I'm placing is that although I don't know how to structure Preferred Class A Options or any of that stuff, what I am going to be able to do is look at women's businesses and help them get their wings -- which is what I'm really excited about."
Miller says her new job opportunity also is a reflection of the intellectual curiosity she developed while at Knox.
"I feel like I could do literally anything I want to do because I've got this super-strong foundation. I could learn business, [and] I could learn how to be a venture capitalist because my brain is wired to be intellectually curious, to solve problems, and to like complexity. I think those are things that are fundamental in a liberal arts education."
Sleep Your Way to the Top (and Other Myths about Business Success) is organized into six sections, with titles such as "Branding Yourself, Interviewing, Networking, and First Jobs" and "Catgirls, Bullies, Disturbing Guys, and Things That Suck." Each section consists of several short chapters, with each one presenting a "myth" of business success, and Miller's anecdotes, advice, and encouragement. Some of the "myths" she writes about -- and knocks down as untrue -- include:
1. Stay connected to Knox. Why do you want to stay connected? Because staying connected to the school keeps you connected to people with similar interests, backgrounds, and experiences who could potentially help you.
2. Define your "top" for you, whatever that may be. It may change over time, but be very clear what is important to you -- not to somebody else.
3. Don't be afraid to make mistakes. They are so much the fabric of the person that you're going to become. Unless you do something illegal, every mistake is something that you can coursecorrect from -- if you're learning from it.
4. Help other people. Don't wait. You can still be 22 or 23 years old, and there's somebody that's in college or high school or a peer who could use your help. You don't have to get to be my age and to be a senior person in business to be a mentor. Mentorship should happen at all ages, and you're a better mentee if you're a really good mentor.
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