One of the best things about working here at the Studio is that we get to meet incredible people with incredible stories. Which is why I am so excited to share today’s career interview with Mary Jane, also known as MJ, who at the age of 51, is one of our interns.
We met MJ at an event at The Wing, where she asked us if she could intern for us! We were thrilled to have her—she has a background in financial journalism and her story is really incredible. I won’t give away too much, but MJ is a fighter who is jumping back into the world of media feet first after a nearly 16 year break from working. I’m inspired by her every day, and just hope that she’s finding inspiration in the work we’re doing here! [Editor’s Note: get your tissues ready!]
I was born in Manhattan, but I grew up on the Jersey shore.
What did your parents do?
My mom was a stay at home mom and ended up building a career when we were a little older. She went back and worked in special education in schools, and then she moved on to the corporate world, where she worked with the diversity group at AT&T. Neither of my parents went to college and they really built their own careers and were successful in what they did without a college degree.
What was your dream job as a child?
I wanted to be an art teacher and live in a studio apartment with a dog! I think I wanted to make $500 a year!
Where did you go to university and what did you study?
I went to the University of Scranton in Pennsylvania. My mother always felt that I needed to get a business degree, something that would help me get a career out of college. I didn’t want anything to do with business; I wanted to do something more creative. Anyway… I was an accounting major going in.
Looking back, I always loved to write. I would always prefer to do a 20-page term paper as opposed to taking math test. So I cried to a Jesuit priest who taught at the business school and asked for the most creative major there. He told me to do marketing, so I changed my major and I wound up graduating with a marketing degree.
The trajectory that my career took was working for a big corporation. I realized that there was no way I could do this for the rest of my life. I knew that it wasn’t for me. I put time into it, but I wanted to know what was next.
And didn’t the stock market crash around the time you were graduating college?
I graduated in 1988, so it crashed in 1987. There was not much out there and when I graduated, I looked at advertising jobs but they were paying literally nothing. I had student loans to pay… I thought I was going to live on my own but I ended up living with my parents for a year.
There was an opportunity at a big company, MetLife. I had a relative who worked there who said they were looking for young people in her department. She said, “Why don’t you interview, and if you get it, there’s a great job-posting program, and you can stick with that for a year and then you post out into advertising.” So, it paid money that I needed to support myself and that seemed okay. Meanwhile, I never thought I would be sitting behind a desk. I took this job, and it was really interesting because companies were getting rid of their pension plans, and moving towards defined contribution business, a 401K program. So, my first job was actually processing these old pensions, which is ironic because I’m hitting that age where technically, people take early retirement at 55 and I can’t believe I’ll be in that group soon.
For a short period of time I thought it was great! I was really into working for a big company, learning all of this stuff, and feeling like I was actually doing something important. I realized not too long after, that if I had to do this for the rest of my life, you could just shoot me now!
Reflecting now, that corporate world is gone. People who worked for MetLife started working there right out of high school and would retire and get great benefits at the end, and that doesn’t happen anymore.
Were there a lot of women working there?
Not in positions of power, they were mostly in administrative positions. It was definitely an all boys network.
Did you have the chance to intern in college?
I had an internship 30 years ago at an advertising agency in Scranton, at the The Lavelle Miller Group. It was a small advertising firm, and for someone in college I got to do some pretty cool stuff. I don’t remember everything, but I did work on some ad campaigns. There was an advertising awards dinner that I helped put together and I worked on their PR.
But the trajectory that my career took was working for a big corporation, working in pensions and then selling investment products to 401k plans. I realized that there was no way I could do this for the rest of my life. It really was, at age 26, a midlife crisis for me. I knew that it wasn’t for me. I put time into it, but I wanted to know what was next.
Did you think about grad school?
I asked 15 schools for information on their MBA programs. I seriously thought I should go back for an MBA. My sister was going back, she was at Columbia, and she worked on Wall Street and we were roommates. She knew what she wanted to do, she worked for the Fed, and was working with incredible people and I felt very stuck. I sat and went through all of these applications and I was reading the questions like, “Where do you see yourself in 5 years?” and “How do you see the MBA getting you there?” and they would have a list of all the companies that recruited, and I thought, “Oh my god, I don’t want to work for any of these places.” I couldn’t even say what I would want to do with an MBA.
At the time I was taking a lot of classes at the New School and at NYU and I happened to see that NYU had a program for magazine publishing. I loved magazines, I collected them, I read them ferociously. I looked at the application and thought that this was exactly what I wanted. You learn about writing for magazines and how to run a magazine, how it’s all put together, the business side, the editorial side, and I thought, this is it!
Being honest like that, there are so many people that are willing to help.
Were you doing this program while you were working?
I was working full time, still at MetLife, and this was my saving grace, knowing that at some point there would be a light at the end of the tunnel. I think I applied to 75 magazines telling them that I was in the program and that I wanted to make a career change.
In order to pay for my tuition, in addition to working full time and studying, I also waitressed for a catering company on the weekends. That’s what you should be doing in your 20s, if you have the opportunity. I was very lucky and I was very focused on figuring out what I was supposed to be doing in this world.
By the time I graduated from the program, I was actually working at a magazine. I was writing all day and I would come home and do more work, but it was to my husband’s credit, he would lock me in a room during the weekends so I could get my school work done!
So, you’re changing careers, going to school, working part time, and you got married at some point during all of this…
Well I should back up and tell you about how I got the job at a magazine. It was through one of my dearest friends who I met at MetLife. She met this woman on the subway who was a writer for Institutional Investor. She gave her her card, and my friend applied and wound up getting a job, so she would send me in-house postings. I saw something that could really work for me— it was in the editorial research department at Institutional Investor. They were the team responsible for producing the statistics for all of the ranking features published in the magazine.
What was your job there?
The department I applied to basically run the editorial research. So, we would send out all the questionnaires, we would have that information tabulated, we would edit everything, we would literally sit and read statistics to each other five times to make sure that everything was perfect. Those were the results for those features. We would have people calling us saying that they would do almost anything to find out if they were on the list.
My pitch to the woman who ran the department was, “Look, my clients right now are the people you’re soliciting to actually vote for your rankings, so I can really help you out with that. But in the meantime, I need my foot in the door to work for a magazine, I want to write, and I’ll give you two years and I’ll work as hard as I can, with the idea that I hope to have an opportunity to write.” So, they hired me.
Because I wanted to write, I started doing extra work, like getting the results and getting the questionnaires that we sent out and putting together a synopsis of what people were talking about and sending it to the writers. My boss didn’t like that too much. So, she ended up firing me. I went to human resources, and they told me I could file a complaint but then they would have to remediate, but I didn’t want to cause any trouble, I just wanted to write!
But it was very lucky, because the editorial department was looking for a reporter researcher, and my boss said, “There is a job downstairs, I talked to the managing editor already, and you can go interview for that.” So, I interviewed and got the job. The people I worked with there were incredible, everyone was from Forbes, Fortune, Time Magazine. They were all highly regarded in financial journalism. They were really smart and really passionate about what they were doing. Finance wasn’t really my first choice though.
Did you think about shifting at some point? Your past experience set you up for financial journalism but did you ever have a moment of questioning what you were doing?
Absolutely. In the beginning when I was writing for institutional investor, it was just the whole idea of being a part of the creative process and being with these brilliant minds talking about these subjects. I was interviewing these captains of the industry; they were taking my calls! I was so nervous!
I got to work with the art department and I got to see how things come together in story meetings 3-4 months before, and spending hours talking things through. Just that process was great and there was a real camaraderie amongst all of us. You really felt a part of something. I just learned a tremendous amount.
So how did you educate yourself on these things?
I never slept! I read everything. The more I did it, the more confident I got. I would call an analyst and just say “look, I have this story and I’m new to this topic, could you please give me some background?” Being honest like that, there are so many people that are willing to help. I did a lot of those interviews first to get comfortable with the subject; I would read everything I could out there about it. The Internet was just really starting then, so it was mostly going to the library and finding stuff.
How long were you there for?
I was there from about 1994 to 1999, so about five and a half years.
To this day I am so grateful for that… he was the greatest boss anyone could ever have. I learned so much from him but just his big heart and generosity was such a gift.
What did you do next?
The managing editor at Institutional Investor was hired to start a Mergers & Acquisitions newspaper called The Daily Deal. I knew financial journalism wasn’t what I really wanted, so I really started to think about what I wanted to write about. I remember applying to Wine Spectator, because my husband collects wine and we love to drink it, and I thought that would be fun! I knew I wanted a change, and my managing editor wound up hiring me for the Daily Deal. So, while it was still financial journalism, it was a completely different animal, it was a start-up newspaper.
During the course of a less than a year, everything started to shift, and more and more publications started going online. They completely changed direction and hired all of these people to help us become a “.com”, an internet company with the idea that it was going to be sold and everyone was going to get stock options. Most of us were in our early 30s and there were all of these young 20 year olds taking over. There weren’t even enough seats! I remember sitting there thinking “What is going on?!” It felt like a seismic shift.
What was your title?
Senior writer. For me that was an accomplishment, I felt really proud. While I had been thinking about my next step, and it was validating to say, “Okay, you are a writer.” I started to apply, to test the waters, to the Observer, and then had a connection at Spin Magazine. I love music. So I was applying there, and a good friend of my husband was best friends with the publisher, and he was going to talk to me and that was a huge deal.
But during that time, I had just gotten married, I got the promotion, and I’m thinking about pursuing the Observer or Spin Magazine…and then I was diagnosed with cancer. The day after I found out I had cancer, Spin called me. My head was spinning.
How old were you?
I was 35. When you think about it, life just throws you a curveball. I was having severe pain, had a CAT-scan and learned I had to get my gall bladder taken out. I couldn’t have the surgery right away because I was getting married so I postponed it for a few months. It wasn’t until I had my gall bladder out that the surgeon found a mass on my kidney. My doctor called me and told me I had to go for another CAT-scan. I said, “What are you talking about?” He told me the surgeon found something on my kidney. I went the next day, and the doctor said, “Yup, that’s exactly what we expected, you have cancer, I made an appointment for you Monday morning at Sloan-Kettering, my father had this and he’s still alive.”
It was exactly like something you see in a movie, white walls and everything. I was standing there, dizzy, and I couldn’t comprehend. I called my husband crying, and then I had to go back to work. I was just beside myself and didn’t know what to say. I waited to tell my boss. I told him and he was very sad, obviously, and supportive. I had surgery to take out part of my kidney. With the type of cancer I had, they either catch it early and operate or there is no hope. So because of health reasons, I left work and was out for two months. Then I started slowly going back and I was working from home, but felt like crap. I called my doctor and they did some tests and I found out I was pregnant. And then I didn’t know what to do! I was getting ready to go back to work and now I’m pregnant!
Did you want to have kids?
I did, but so much had happened so quickly and it was just such a shock. When I look back, I always had problems with my period and I always thought that I would have to go another route to have children. So it was just the furthest thing from my mind. It was definitely a high risk pregnancy and I didn’t know what to do.
I called my boss, and I told him I was pregnant, and he said, “You know, you’ll always have a job in this business and when you’re ready to come back there will be something for you. But if anything happens to this child, you’ll never forgive yourself.” To this day I am so grateful for that and he was the greatest boss anyone could ever have. I learned so much from him but just his big heart and generosity was such a gift.
I’ve been so lucky. There are so many women who don’t have that option of opportunity and I really was blessed. I wish more women had that option.
That’s incredible. [Editor’s’ note: I’m literally crying right now] What did you do during and after your pregnancy?
I freelanced during my pregnancy, and then I had my baby. I wasn’t sure what route I was going to take, I definitely thought I was going to go back to work , but then noticed something wasn’t right but I didn’t know what it was. I had been getting sicker and sicker again and I was afraid to find out. I was diagnosed with ulcerative colitis; they thought maybe it was Crohn’s, and I was sick for a very long time after that.
My son had a very bad dairy allergy, so he was sick. There were so many highs and lows. I was at Sloan-Kettering one year and then a year later I was at New York hospital having a baby. I had a beautiful healthy baby and I was back in the hospital again. It was just such a rollercoaster at the time. Through it, I was writing on my own, trying to freelance, and every time I tried to do that I had another health setback.
I remember one night working on a piece, my son never slept, and I was in between flare-ups. It was in the middle of the night and I was freelancing for this magazine and I had him in my arms and I remember nodding off. I turned the piece in the next day and apparently there were so many mistakes, which is something I’m such a stickler for, they never hired me back and they were incredibly upset and I completely understood. It was in that moment that I realized that I needed to take a break and take care of my health. When it’s impacting your work and family. My husband was extremely supportive and he was a rock during that time, as was my family. It really takes a village to raise a child and if I didn’t have the support of my husband and family during that time I don’t know what I would have done. My stay at home story is a lot different, I’ve been so lucky. There are so many women who don’t have that option of opportunity and I really was blessed. I wish more women had that option.
And your husband was working at that time?
My husband was working. After 9/11 happened, he was working at the World Financial Center, and the floor he was working on was damaged, so they had a temporary office in New Jersey. He was commuting to New Jersey and then coming home and I was sick, so he did everything. He was also traveling a lot back then, sometimes overseas, so I would have whoever was around to come and help me. It was a really crazy time.
One time when he was commuting, I was so sick that I couldn’t even take care of the baby; I couldn’t even pick him up because I had such a high fever. My husband was stuck in traffic and there was nothing he could do. I just kept getting sicker and sicker and I finally called the doctor and had to go to the ER. I called my brother who lived a mile and a half down the street, he was having a party, and he left the party, left everyone at the party, had the music clicker in his hand and came up and stayed with my son all night until my parents came. I don’t know what I would have done without the support of all of my family. I’m forever indebted to them. That was my life.
Did you ever consider having more children? Was that an option for you?
At 40, I was still on lots of medication, and my doctors told me I needed to figure out if I wanted another baby. That was a difficult decision, but we realized I couldn’t have another child with me being sick again. I already felt horrible that I had to leave my son in the middle of the night, it wasn’t fair to my husband or my family. We talked to my doctors at Sloan and to my gynecologist, another male, and he said “it’s quality, not quantity.” We’re so fortunate to have one child, where so many people struggle to only have one, so I feel like it was somehow meant to be.
I had a lot of different health crises during that time. Every time I tried to get myself back to work, something else set me back. I decided that it was best for me not to work, so I wound up throwing myself into volunteering at my son’s school. I was the co-communications director and I wrote the newsletters, wrote the auction catalogs, and did the marketing teasers. I was trying to work on jobs where I could do some writing, and I also did some freelance work for some websites. I wrote a patient pamphlet with a doctor of mine about side effects. As time went on, my son was getting older, I’d been asking myself at what point do I re-enter? And where do I fit in this world?
How old is your son now?
He’s 14. He’ s a freshman in high school. I knew I had to get him into high school last year and that was a whole big process, but I really have been trying to figure out what my next big step is. I left work thinking I would be writing for Spin Magazine, and this is the trajectory that my life took. But it’s been so great getting to see my son grow up, and knowing that he’s going to be going to college in a few years. I think about had I been working the type of job I was working, I would have never been able to have gone to the assemblies or volunteer in the class. I would have been on the phone the whole time. It’s really been a blessing and a privilege that I’m so fortunate to have experienced. But now, I’m ready, I’m healthy and it’s time!
In a way when I look at it, I feel like I was cryogenically frozen for all of this time that I was out of work. Now, I literally plopped into the future. I feel like I really landed in the middle of the modern world.
And now you’re an intern here! Where did your interest in fashion and lifestyle come from?
When I was sick, sometimes being on a lot of different drugs, I couldn’t think about anything. But it was through some of the fashion magazines, that just looking at pictures and planning outfits for when I’m feeling better and I want to go to a U2 concert or go to that wedding and I’m going to wear this. I really used that as a tool for hope or to just get out of my head. It really helped! InStyle, Lucky, Vogue all of those magazines! Sometimes you just want light and that’s okay. It gave me something to look forward to.
So that’s when I thought about fashion and doing freelance writing for fashion magazines. We renovated our apartment, and that’s when I got interested in interior design and I took classes for that. When I found out that I if I wanted to go back to school for an interior design degree, I would be close to 60 after an apprenticeship, and realized that was probably not the smartest route to take.
But you were still taking classes?
I always did, even when Patrick was a baby. I did everything. I was a member of the News Women’s Club of New York, and I went to a lot of workshops and classes through that. I took Grammar for Grown-ups last year at the 92nd Street Y! It’s probably not the best to say that as a writer but the rules have changed. I took a memoir class, and it was a total disaster for me. I just wanted to get a personal essay written so maybe I could pitch it to a magazine, and everyone else was writing chapters of their memoirs and no one was a professional writer except for one woman, we became lovely friends.
I took a journalism boot camp class with the society of professional journalists, which was so eye opening to me. I also took an art of the narrative class in this big room, and I looked up, and it was all young people. Everyone was on their phones, and it just showed me the great divide. It’s constantly moving. You have a whole generation in the workforce now, and this is the lifestyle they’ve gotten used to. They’re talking about how important it is to get out there and tell the story and look at the personal aspect, but you have this whole other group of people that the objectives have changed. It’s important to still have the journalistic integrity and to report the story and to be honest, but then there’s a whole other business side of things.
Let’s talk about how you came to us! I think this is amazing. What made you decide to get in touch with us?
I had been following the site for a while, and again, it was just one of my little pleasures. It was so nice to just shut out the noise and have 10 minutes in the morning to check on the computer and see Garance Doré and a couple of other ones. It was the froth on the cappuccino!
For a couple of years I was simulating my own blog, I actually took a blogging class as well, just to get into the habit of writing every day, and about anything that came into my head. I would take one word and just type. Things seemed to be moving in the blogging direction. You have influencers who are right up there with some established publications, and I thought it would be kind of cool if I could do some freelancing and do some work for a blog. I thought it would be a good match for me. I toyed with the idea of starting a blog for years, and talked to friends, but I never got it off the ground.
The further away I got from having my name in print and being out of the working world, the more I felt like “Who the heck is going to read me?” So, I’m on Instagram and that’s when I first saw a post you had that said you were looking for interns. I was going to an iRelaunch Conference here in New York for women who had a career break, and how to re-launch. In the spirit of that, I thought, why not! I’m going to apply for the heck of it! And I still have the cover letter! I couldn’t figure out how to merge my resume and cover letter, and I wrote that I was going to the seminar and that I would learn more computer skills!
I was in bed one Sunday morning on my phone checking emails and I saw an email from WIE network saying Garance was talking at the Wing on this night, and I said, “I need to meet her! I need to figure out what it takes to get this internship!” So I bought two tickets for me and my friend, and we went. I had another friend who went, and I said that I was going to go up to Garance afterwards. I was acting all badass before I got there and as the night went on I kept thinking, “I don’t know, maybe we should just go to dinner. I don’t know if I can do this!” But my friends encouraged me to go say something. So I did.
And now you intern for us!
Yes! It’s been such an incredible experience. In a way when I look at it, I feel like I was cryogenically frozen for all of this time that I was out of work. Now, I literally plopped into the future. I’ve been out of work for so long, so I’m coming with that mentality, knowing things have changed so quickly. I’ve gone to classes, seen it, experienced it, but I haven’t really been in the thick of it. I feel like I really landed in the middle of the modern world. And now with the perspective and age and experiences, and being able to see this now, it’s been really exciting. You guys are an established blog, so you are going through growing pains of getting to the next step. It’s cool to see the second phase of a start up and how it’s going.
What has given you the courage to pursue this internship and get back into work at this stage in your life? You seem to be very uninhibited by your age!
I have always felt that I still had a lot more to accomplish. I took a career break at a time when I was progressing up the masthead into a more senior level position. While a lot of time has gone by since then, and so much has changed including myself, I never want to have regrets. I am not sure where I fit into this modern world of media, but in order to continue to grow and learn, you need to challenge yourself and do things that make you feel uncomfortable. I am blessed to be in this situation, and while I am a little anxious about where this is all leading, it’s refreshing. At 51, that’s a pretty good place to be.
The biggest challenge is figuring out where I fit in and what I’m going to do. Because I don’t know where I belong in this world right now.
And have you been working on anything in addition to this internship?
Given my health issues, an opportunity came through my sister-in-law who was going through chemo. She used to run clinical trials, she’s a doctor. I had thought about medical health writing and there was a posting for volunteers to be on an institutional review board, and she said if I wanted to get into medical health writing I should consider this, that I’d be with the best and brightest minds and would learn a ton.
I wanted to do volunteer work that was a little more substantive, and I thought it would be a great opportunity. So I’ve been on this board now for three years. I review clinical and research trials that are being done at the hospital and determine if what they’re doing is ethical for patients and not too risky. So I edit documents and try to understand the science, which is a whole other language. Talk about intimidating, they’re doing incredible things. I’ve been in clinical trials, my son has been in clinical trials. I thought as a parent and a patient, but also as a writer and an editor I can see where I might be able to help people. So that’s another aspect I’ve been pursuing.
So now that you’ve been interning with us, what are you excited about exploring in the future?
I see what the modern world looks like—certainly media—and it’s given me an idea that this is another option, blogging is another option. And again how fast things move. You can read about that, but to see it and be in the thick of it is a whole different animal.
What I’m impressed by is that everyone is so young and the level of responsibility is huge. And you’re all doing it! When I was out of school it would take years to gain that level of responsibility, and you might have to go back for an MBA to get there. So what young people are doing now and achieving now is incredible.
It makes me realize that I still want to write, I always knew I did. I still hope I can freelance old media pieces, and also maybe get a little more active on social media. Just get the confidence to get out there again.
Do you feel that you have a mentor?
I’ve had several mentors at different parts of my life. But I’m very close to my sister. She gave up a big job because she couldn’t get the child care that she needed. She worked on Wall Street. We talk things through with each other, and I think at 51, mentors are the people in your life. My parents are still healthy and I go them for advice, and even friends – bouncing things off of them. Also being at the site, I also look to you guys. You’re young, you guys are the future, I’m sure you could give me a lot of advice too.
What do you think the best piece of advice you’ve ever gotten has been?
I think the advice I got from Bob, about being able to always go back to work. You feel guilty, so many people don’t have this option, but his words have always resonated.
What are you most excited about at this moment in your life and career? And what’s the biggest challenge.
The biggest challenge is figuring out where I fit in and what I’m going to do. Because I don’t know where I belong in this world right now.
And I’m excited to be back in it! And with young people! My friends are asking what it’s like working with the millenials. It’s a refresh! I was basically retired for 16 years, and now I’m going back. I’m much older, hopefully wiser, and the world has changed so rapidly, but I’m ready to jump back in.
What would your advice be to anyone who has taken time off and is interested in getting back into working or trying something new.
Take the step. Don’t be afraid, and take the step. It’s intimidating and overwhelming, and you may not be doing what you stopped doing, but you also change. If you have the opportunities and it’s what you want to do, go for it. You only live once. Life is short and you don’t know what’s up ahead.
What’s your dream for your future?
If I can work in something that I love, if I can write about things I love and get published and have dinner at night with my family and have a few laughs, I’m happy. It’s simple, that’s all I really want. Having had a lot of health issues I don’t know what’s ahead. I’m feeling good and I’m ready to go and I want to enjoy my life.