Staying the course: How 5 LA tech leaders conquered professional challenges

May 10, 2018

In the working world, the likelihood of facing a seemingly insurmountable challenge is as close to certain as it gets. Whether it’s a layoff, a failed business venture or a project that never seems to go right, life can feel like it’s over — but that’s just not true.

It might come as no comfort, but those hurdles and how we react to them make us stronger. Along those lines, Built In LA spoke with five local tech leaders about challenges they’ve overcome, what they learned and how those challenges made them better individuals.

 

belkin international los angeles e-commerce
photo via belkin international
Melody Saffery
Senior Director of Product Management

Spending nearly two decades at one company might seem inconceivable in today’s working world, but that’s exactly what Melody Saffery did. That is, until changes necessitated layoffs. Instead of moping around, Saffery took a positive approach, eventually landing a new position that allowed her to grow professionally — and ultimately rejoin Belkin International, where she is now a senior director of product management.

 

What was one career challenge you experienced?

During the recession, my department at Belkin consolidated and I was laid off after working for the company for 17 years.

 

What helped you move on?

I took the time to reflect on my career. I looked back at my accomplishments and figured out what I wanted to focus on next. At this crossroads, I realized that I wanted to really make a difference, not just in managing and developing brands and product categories but also in making an impact through the network of people I meet and work with. Eventually, I found a new role with a different consumer electronics company and was able to expand my experience and skill set.

 

Looking back, how do you feel about that period now?

At that time, I was very enthusiastic to start a new job at a new company. It was like the first day of school all over again. Learning new processes, making new friends and developing a new routine helped me grow. It had its challenges, but looking back on that time, I was able to truly make a difference, take on new responsibilities and develop new skill sets. With increased confidence and a newfound focus on making a difference, I was able to take my second tenure at Belkin to new heights.

 

How did that experience make you a stronger person?

Anytime we are taken out of our comfort zones is an opportunity for growth and evolution. I learned work-life balance, how to navigate corporate structure, how to manage up and many other important life skills. These lessons are now incorporated into my work at Belkin and I am glad that I had the opportunity to step away and refresh my skill set.

 

mavenlink orange county tech startup
photo via mavenlink
John Reese
Senior Vice President of Marketing

The dot-com bubble and subsequent burst came with plenty of ups and plenty of downs, but for Mavenlink Senior Vice President of Marketing John Reese, the hurdles it forced him to overcome have had lasting personal and professional effects.

 

What was one career challenge you experienced?

I was working for a promising software startup during the internet bubble days, and like everyone else in tech at the time, we were all wrapped up in the IPO craze. Everyone was working an unhealthy number of hours to accelerate product development and market traction in an effort to reach the coveted IPO milestone that would — of course — make millionaires of everyone at the company. That was the market narrative at the time. Some people were sleeping in the office. I was there from 7 a.m. to 9 or 10 p.m. daily, completely foregoing personal life and any buffer during waking hours.

When the bubble began to burst, our rapidly growing company was forced to dramatically reduce cash burn to stay afloat. Our workforce shrunk by two-thirds almost overnight and I was part of that reduction. With all that I sacrificed over my time there, it was an awfully painful experience.

 

What helped you move on?

Candidly, my incredibly supportive wife, my faith and the small professional network I had developed at the time. Also, I spent a lot of time reflecting on the experience and why it stung the way it did. Ultimately, I realized that it was my substantially lopsided work-life balance that was at the source. My priorities were out of whack.  

 

Looking back, how do you feel about that period now?

Today, I see that moment as a major learning event for me. Although it was confusing and painful at the time, I feel fortunate that it happened to me when it did. It’s kind of like a scar that comes early in life as the result of a poor choice you made. What I learned through the experience has stuck with me, and has helped me to make better decisions ever since.

 

What advice would you give to someone going through something similar?

If you haven’t assessed your individual priorities, including what a healthy work-life ratio looks like for you, don’t wait. It could save you some pain down the road. Also, build strong personal and professional relationships. You may need to lean on them down the road.

 

 

Los Angeles screenplay startup
photo via coverfly

Getting fired from a job might lead many people to question whether they’re in the right line of work. That was certainly so for Scot Lawrie, who was once terminated from a sales position and used the opportunity to recalibrate his professional goals. That moment set him on a path to becoming the CTO of screenwriting talent-discovery platform Coverfly, where he serves today.

 

What was one career challenge you experienced?

I took the wrong job and ended up selling software to dental practices. After about three miserable months of struggling, they (rightfully) fired me.

 

What helped you move on?

Fortunately, I had already begun teaching myself to code before I was fired. Suddenly, I had a lot of time to focus on learning, and I discovered that I had a real passion for it, so I spent six months sleeping on my brother’s couch, writing code every waking minute. It was probably the most stimulating and fulfilling period of my life.

I learned to focus on my strengths instead of trying to mitigate my weaknesses. Now I only do things I’m either good at, or that I like. That’s when I find success. I suppose that lesson has made me a stronger person.

 

Looking back, how do you feel about that period now?

Naturally, I was a bit embarrassed at the time, but I also had a chip on my shoulder, and I was motivated to prove my value to myself and others. Today, I reflect fondly on that period of my life. The setback helped me discover my passion and forced me to take a risk that has defined who I am as a person, both personally and professionally.

 

pavemint los angeles parking startup
photo via pavemint
Sarah Zurell
Co-Founder, Executive Vice President and Chief Brand Officer

Sarah Zurell couldn’t have been more thrilled to be working for a fashion app, but when that app failed, she took it hard. While reflecting on what went awry, she unearthed new motivation to redefine herself as a professional, which helped lead to her current role as executive vice president and chief brand officer of peer-to-peer parking marketplace Pavemint.

 

What was one career challenge you experienced?

I was brought on to work as head of content for a fashion app. It was my first time working in tech, and I was absolutely over the moon. Unfortunately, the app failed fast, shutting its door less than a year later. I was devastated and wished there was something more I could have done to make that company successful.

 

What helped you move on?

After a few weeks of reflecting, I realized that the reason the app went under was because its branding wasn’t strong enough. I immersed myself in all things brand-related, from the science behind it to the trends, and set out to be a branding expert specializing in tech companies. I was fortunate enough to gain a few clients before I met my current partners, Randall Jamail and Karen Romine. I had become so confident in my knowledge of branding that my pointed feedback got their attention and they brought me on to help them build Pavemint. We launched in Los Angeles last October.

 

Looking back, how do you feel about that period now?

At the time, I thought my life was over and that I would never professionally recover. It helped me become much more resilient and showed me that I can learn or re-learn anything with hard work and determination.

 

skyryde on-demand air taxi service startup los angeles
photo via corsair aviation
J.B. Adkins
Co-Founder

Professional challenges are scary enough, but when they begin to affect a person’s personal life, the stakes change drastically. When J.B. Adkins’ first business, a Van Nuys-based aerial tour company, failed, it led him and his family along a path that led to their getting evicted. Adkins said he relied on his wife’s unfailing support to dust himself off and start fresh with Skyryde, an on-demand air taxi for those who need to skip out on LA’s notoriously awful traffic.

 

What was one career challenge you experienced?

I started and failed an aerial tour company while my wife was pregnant with our first child. We went broke trying to get the company off the ground and ended up getting evicted from our LA pad with a four-month-old baby. We ended up spending five months on a friend’s couch in a cramped apartment trying to get things sorted out.

 

What helped you move on?

I'm tremendously lucky to have the most supportive wife on the planet who probably believes in me more than I do. During that critical time, she could have, and probably should have, given up on me for subjecting her to those unfortunate circumstances. Instead, she was patient, forgiving and gave me the encouragement I needed to find my footing and keep dreaming.

 

Looking back, how do you feel about that period now?

Back then, I felt like a complete failure. I was ashamed of myself for having put my wife and young son in such a dire situation.

Today, I look at it as a testament to my marital foundation and resilience. I feel like it was a test to see if I truly possessed what it took to innovate in a major way. The fact that I was able to overcome that without losing my mind solidifies the fact that I can conquer anything that tries to set me back.

 

What advice would you give to someone going through something similar?

Have a clear vision and be totally willing to accept whatever challenges lie ahead. Be willing to put everything you have into your dream, but give yourself some credit. You're much stronger and more capable than you imagine. Leverage your strengths to get to survivability, work your tail off some more, and don't ever waiver from that vision.

 

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