Professional SpotlightSpotlight

When it comes to girl power, who does it better than the Girl Scouts? We’re huge fans of this empowering organization, especially because the Girl Scouts encourages learning, adventure, fun, friends, and dreaming big. We had the incredible opportunity to sit down with Stefanie Ellis, the Girl Scouts of Western Washington‘s Public Relations Director.

Stefanie is energetic, enthusiastic, and a lot of fun to talk to. Her career came about at a completely unexpected moment, but it turns out life throws curveballs at you and teaches you new things about yourself. Originally attending pastry school in London, Stefanie knew this wasn’t the career for her as soon as she saw a job listing as a writing specialist for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington. Stefanie is very inspiring and optimistic, and we couldn’t be more excited to share her story with you.

Fun fact: the above photo is of Stephanie (right) with the country’s oldest living Girl Scout, Emma Otis.

Name: Stefanie Ellis
Education: B.A. in English with Secondary Certification from University of Missouri-Saint Louis
Follow: girlscoutsww.org / 52lovestories.com@stlfoodgirl
Location: Seattle, Washington

Carpe Juvenis: How do you define “Seizing Your Youth?”

Stefanie Ellis: I define it as living in the present moment and being very clear about who you are and what you want. Taking time to enjoy the challenges as well as the successes, and not letting either hold too much weight. It’s all about the journey.

It’s about trying, falling – maybe even tripping and ending up on your face – and then getting  back up. It’s about not giving up, not giving in to pressure or stereotypes and doing the things that matter to you. I also firmly believe that seizing your youth never stops just because you age. I’m still seizing my youth this very moment, and I don’t plan to stop!

CJ: What sparked your passion for public relations?

SE: I never set out be in public relations. In fact, I was pretty darned shy most of my life, and tended toward careers where I could play it safe behind-the-scenes. I’ve been a food writer for 15 years, and when I turned 30, decided to go to pastry school in London. I thought that’s where my life was headed, but I was diagnosed pre-diabetic three days before I left so I couldn’t eat any of the pastries.

I came home to Saint Louis and questioned what I was going to do with my life. I saw a job listing for the Girl Scouts of Western Washington as a writing specialist. Instantly pastry-making flew out the window and I knew that this was my job. I moved to Seattle and was a writing specialist for a few years, but then one day we had a big event for 7,000 girls, and I was doing all the marketing for the event.

The CEO came up to me and told me that we had been invited on the news to talk about it, and said they chose me to go. I laughed and politely declined. She asked why I was declining, and I told her I was shy. She told me I wasn’t. I politely thanked her again and told her that I know who I am. She said, “I challenge you to look again. I think that the woman who you really are isn’t necessarily the woman who you think you are.”

I agreed to go on TV thinking that if I embarrassed myself she would never ask me to go again. Turns out, I was pretty good. I would never have discovered that had someone not invited me to challenge my own perceptions. That basically was the changing point for my whole life. Shortly thereafter, the public relations person moved and I was invited to give the position a shot. That was nearly four years ago and I have had to stretch myself in ways I never thought I would.

I had to get over a lot of perceptions I had about myself and my abilities. I have been able to change my thinking, which is exactly the point of Girl Scouts. It allows you to stretch beyond who you thought you were and step into who you really are, while building a comfort level along the way. You get to choose how you’re going to share your gifts with the world. I owe so much of who I am now to Girl Scouts.

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CJ: As you mentioned, you went to pastry school (Le Cordon Bleu) in London. What was that experience like ?

SE: When I was in high school and college I waitressed, so I thought I knew what the food profession was like. I have so much more respect who are on their feet 18 hours a day, pouring their heart and soul into something for someone else. I learned about the art of creation. For me that happens to be food. I look at art very differently in the museum now.

It was an amazing experience because there were people from all around the world in one place. Everyone had to learn how to work together. I never cut my fingers more in my entire life. Those knives are so dangerous, and I never mastered the art of looking graceful while wielding a finger-cutting weapon!

CJ: What makes young people so important and why has their empowerment become a primary focus in your career and life?

SE: I believe everyone has a voice and sometimes young people don’t think they are allowed to use it, which is unfortunate to me. Organizations like Girl Scouts help young people see that they have a voice and gives them so many opportunities to practice using it. I didn’t find my voice until my thirties, but I spend my days watching everyone from age six to 18 develop skills, talents, find their strengths, and become empowered. They are the ones who will be leading us into the future, and we have a responsibility to nurture and support them in their journey.

CJ: What advice would you give to a young person hoping to set themselves up for success in the world of public relations?

SE: Talk to everybody everywhere you go. Even if it’s at the grocery store or in the aisle of a hardware store. Ask questions and make observations. Practice active communication. Communicating is something we’re born knowing how to do but not necessarily a skill that we develop, especially now with texting and social media. I truly believe these things can be a detriment to our ability to form and nurture relationships. I straddle both worlds, but prefer to live on the side where people actually sit across from each other and look one another in the eyes. I see so many people eating dinner together, but texting. We can’t lose conversation! We can’t lose real and meaningful relationship building. This isn’t just about PR – it’s about connection. I also believe these natural practices will dramatically influence how effective you’ll be in your career.

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CJ: What has been one of the most unexpectedly interesting parts of your career to date?

SE: An unexpectedly amazing part of my job that I don’t think I’d experience if I did not work where I work happened when I accidentally ran into Dave Matthews at the gym. My co-worker and I had been trying to figure out how we could incorporate him into our campaigns for years. When I ran into him I was unprepared, and knew I only had 15 seconds to ask him something!

I walked up to him and said, “Hey Dave, can I ask you a question?” And he said, “Yeah, sure!” And I said, “Would you ever consider dressing up as a Girl Scout Cookie?” He said, “I can honestly say that’s never been a dream of mine, but I love making people’s dreams come true, so I’ll think about it. Can I ask why you asked me that?” I was so caught off guard that I forgot to tell him where I worked! When I told him, he just smiled and said it made a lot more sense now. I love that I have a job where I can ask people silly things. I love that I can bring people cookies, and use my creative mind to dream up things that make people smile.

CJ: Every day in your life must be different depending on your projects and the time of year, but what does a Monday look like for you?

SE: There’s no typical day in my job, which is what I love most about it. I might go on TV to talk about cookies; work on organizational campaigns and initiatives; build partnerships and collaborative opportunities with folks in the community who share our mission; pitch media stories about amazing things girls are doing; interview Girl Scout alumnae for our Awesome Woman series; write scripts, and coach girl speakers at our luncheons or give talks about Girl Scouts. Sometimes I dress up in a cookie costume just because it’s a Tuesday.

CJ: Leadership skills training is an important focus in the Girl Scouts – what are some ways young people can become better leaders?

SE: Join groups that focus on topics you’re interested in, and volunteer to have a lead or supervisory role. Talk to everyone. Watch the people who are heading things up, and see what they do. Make note of what you like and don’t like about their style. Same goes for when you’re in the work force. Watch people around you. See who inspires you the most, and take notes! Better yet, ask to interview them or go for coffee, and ask them for pointers and guidance for how you might get to a similar place in your own career.

The best things I learned about leadership came from my bosses. They were my best mentors. I loved how they were clearly in control, but never made big decisions without group input. They were fair and open. They wanted to see me succeed, so they asked me how they could help me reach my goals. It was amazing. All I had to do was watch and absorb. Then I learned how to be the kind of leader I admired, while sticking to my own personal style. That’s maybe the most important part: Don’t ever give up who you are! Just pepper who you are with awesome bits and pieces from those around you.

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CJ: What is an area, either personal or professional, that you are working to improve in and how?

SE: For me it’s not to take anything personally. That’s one of the most difficult but simple things for most of us. I’m working on it one day at a time. In this line of work, you ask people a lot of things. I don’t believe that any dream is too big, so I ask everything. You ask and if it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work.

Sometimes you get attached to an idea and it’s a bummer when it doesn’t work out. Who knows why someone doesn’t agree to do something? It could be for a number of reasons. As long as you try and as long as you ask, you’re golden. If someone says no or doesn’t respond, move on to the next idea.

It never hurts to follow up, though. I always tell younger people to politely bug people they want to talk to. There’s a right and a wrong way. As long as you are kind and gracious and can respect personal boundaries, most people won’t mind. I never mind it. When I’m busy and forget, I appreciate when people remind me.

CJ: Having a loaded schedule can sometimes be overwhelming. What do you do when you’re having a bad day and need to unwind or reset?

SE: I cook and bake. I cook dinner every night no matter how stressed out I am. I eat chocolate. I lay on my couch and call someone I love. I always plan a reward for myself. At the end of cookie sales, for example, I’ll treat myself to a trip somewhere. Or I’ll look forward to my favorite tea when I get home.

CJ: If you could have lunch with anyone, who would it be and why?

SE: Oprah Winfrey. She is a powerhouse, and she worked very hard and for a long time to get there. She never gave up, and look where that got her. She’s the poster child for tenacity, and I’d want to high five her, then ask her for advice!

CJ: What is your favorite book?

SE: Blood, Bones & Butter: The Inadvertent Education of a Reluctant Chef by Gabrielle Hamilton.

CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

SE: Stop worrying! Just go with the flow a lot more. I was and still am ambitious and there’s nothing wrong with that. And I worked really hard. But I don’t think I allowed myself enough grace and room to relax and breathe. I was maybe too focused on all the things I needed to do, which really took me away from focusing on the present moment, which is all we have. There’s nothing wrong with having goals or planning for the future, but a lot of times it can take you away from where you are right now. Mellow out a little bit, darling!

Stefanie Ellis Qs

Images by Stefanie Ellis

Professional SpotlightSpotlight

Deepa Subramaniam, the Director of Product at charity:water, is always looking for ways to push herself both personally and professionally. When Deepa is not building awesome products with impact at charity:water, she makes time to meditate, do yoga, attend tech meetups, and set daily goals for herself. After taking a computer science class at U.C. Berkeley, Deepa discovered her natural passion and made a career out of it by working at Adobe and moving up the ranks. However, despite growing up, going to school, and working in California, Deepa recognized that it was time for a change and moved to New York City for an entirely new adventure in the non-profit world. Determined to continually challenge herself and live a full life, Deepa is incredibly inspiring and is living proof that you can wear many hats, be hardworking, stay involved in the community, remain curious, and in an effort to grow as a person, leave your comfort zone and embrace the unexpected.

Name: Deepa Subramaniam
Age: 31
Education: Bachelor of Applied Science in Computer Science from U.C. Berkeley
Follow: Twitter / charity:water

Carpe Juvenis: How do you define ‘Seizing Your Youth’?

Deepa Subramaniam: I think youth is subjective. I have met people who are the most youthful, joyous 60-year-olds and I have met 18-year-olds who feel as hardened and put upon by life as older people. Youth is what is in your heart, not your age – it’s how you feel.

I think it’s so weird when people are embarrassed about their age, it’s just a number. There are people who look 20 and are actually 40. I think age-based shame is a bad thing in our culture, and something we all should help nix. I remember being super excited about turning 30. I was really proud of what I had accomplished by 30 and I am excited about the next 30 years.

Seizing your youth is taking advantage of every single day that you have available to you. Make the most out of the time that you have. Just do and create and put things out in the world. Don’t worry about whether it is finished or polished and what other people are going to think. Live a fulfilling life and take advantage of your youth. I look back on times when I wasn’t learning or doing or creating, and that is a real bummer.

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CJ: You majored in Computer Science at U.C. Berkeley. How did you determine what to study?

DS: I started school undeclared though a lot of people thought I would be a lawyer. I was good at science and math, but I wasn’t sure if that was what I wanted to do with my entire life. When I went to school, I realized that science was where my natural skill and interests lay. I had no idea about computer science at all. My sister studied computer science and she kept telling me to take a CS class. I shunned that for whatever reason – sometimes being told what to do by a family member is the best way to not do something.

So I started off studying physics. And I found astronomy really interesting. I finally gave in to my sister’s advice and took an introductory computer science class. It was so fun that it didn’t even feel like school! There was a lot of problem-solving and my brain was able to solve these programming puzzles without it feeling like a lot of effort. I guess that’s natural passion, and it was the first time I ever experienced that. This was late in my second year, but I decided to switch majors because I felt like that was the right thing to do. It took me four and a half years to graduate.

CJ: What made you interested in studying engineering?

DS: I like the problem-solving aspect of it. I was interested in how to make things better, how things work, and analyzing the natural friction point in systems. Computer programming was really fun and it didn’t seem like hard work so that was the best engineering pursuit for me. I thought that it would be amazing if I could make a life out of it. I read something recently about Jerry Seinfeld where he said he chose comedy because it seemed like the farthest thing from work for him. Problem solving through programming or technology is like that for me.

CJ: What does it mean to be an engineer?

DS: Engineering is so broad, there are so many different applications of it. I think engineering and being an engineer is about making systems better, whether the system is an airplane, a building, or a software program. Taking the time to understand and propose the right changes to make to a system – that’s engineering.

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CJ: You recently moved to New York City from San Francisco to be the Director of Product at charity:water. What has your experiencing moving to the East Coast been like?

DS: I was born and raised in California, went to school there and I worked there for a very long time. I’ve basically always been at minimum, an hour away from family, friends, and parents. Moving to the East Coast was an intentional decision in order to challenge myself to see if I could thrive away from them. It’s a weird thing to admit in your thirties, but that’s just the case. I wanted a personal challenge and I wanted to try being in a new city with a new job in a new domain. I thought I was getting too soft and too comfortable in San Francisco so I wanted to change it up and rely on my inner hustle.

Also, New York is so inspiring right now for anyone interested in design, technology, or creativity. I think what’s happening in New York at this time is what the people a generation before me experienced in Silicon Valley. The energy around New York’s tech & creative communities is addictive and truly energizing.

CJ: What does your job as Director of Product at charity:water entail?

DS: Product is such a broad term. I work closely with our amazing creative and engineering teams to build out products so that it is the best experience for our supporters. As Director of Product, I help road map and improve products in our portfolio so we can raise more money and help provide more people with clean and safe drinking water. With the right products, we can connect money easier to the field so that we are building and sustaining more water projects for longer and ultimately giving more clean water to more people.

Right now I focus on what we can do online, such as our donation flow, our fundraising platform, and the educational components of our website. By having people learn and understand the water crisis, we want to inspire them to act, whether that’s through giving money, fundraising, or just spreading the word about the water crisis.

As a product manager, I analyze data to figure out where our customers are successful and where they are not and how our products should grow. My job synthesizes different aspects of the business from engineering to creative to data analysis.

CJ: You used to work at Adobe. What skills did you bring from Adobe to charity:water?

DS: I was at Adobe for a long time. I was a lead engineer and then switched over to technical product management. I definitely think people should work multiple jobs and work a variety of jobs in their lifetime. Going from a large, corporate company to a small, non-profit has been really interesting. At Adobe, I learned about working in large teams, how to clearly define what the goals and key initiatives are, how to report back to people, and how to ask for what you need to be successful in ways that are going to be met with action.

The people I worked with at Adobe are a very mature group, so I grew up in a business environment but also had a lot of fun. I learned about quality software development, mixing quantitative and qualitative skills, and how to use data to improve products. Because of my time at Adobe, I came to charity:water with a solid foundation and confidence  so that was definitely a good transition.

CJ: What do you love most about working at charity:water?

DS: It’s so meaningful day in and day out. The people I work with and the work that we’re doing is incredibly inspiring. There are so many creative, smart young people who could be working elsewhere but chose every day to work at charity: water. We are all here working on something that will hopefully outlast all of us. That passion and commitment is rare, and to see that among a group of 50 people is fascinating.

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CJ: What does a day in your life look like?

DS: I’m up pretty early. I like to stretch and try to do a little meditation, 8-10 minutes per day. It helps me find balance and composure in a busy day. I come into work and then the busy day begins. I meet with my team, discuss on-going projects and get a sense of what is most important to accomplish that day. This is a habit I have formed, where I jot down 5 things I want to accomplish that day – both personally and professionally – and anything beyond that is cake. I power through things based on that list and work tends to fly by.

I tend to do many more things with my day in New York than in San Francisco. I’ll go to a design or tech talk, meet friends for dinner, or go to yoga, and then try to get home at a decent time so I can get more sleep. As I’ve gotten older, I have become more dogmatic about self-care. When I was younger, exercise, eating well, and quality alone time was not as high on my list.

To achieve long-term goals, you need the discipline of being able to achieve wins in much smaller increments. So I rely on daily rituals and weekly rituals to keep me focused. If you’re consistent about accomplishing those rituals and are defending them from change or competing priorities, that cadence and discipline will translate to hitting year-long goals. Be critical about what goes on your daily list of things to accomplish. If something isn’t a “hell yeah” I want to do this, then it doesn’t go on the list. I am more careful about the time and energy that I put into something and that means I am ultimately happier with the outcome of my days.

CJ: What is the best moment of your career so far?

DS: So many, I feel blessed. I have just worked with so many great people. One of the things I am most proud of is when my co-workers and I had an idea about a new tool and we pitched the idea to Adobe executives. I convinced them that there was a real need and opportunity and that I was the right person to run it from an engineering and technical perspective. I built a team of engineers and then most of our managers forgot about us till we debuted the tool at our annual user conference. We sneaked the tool and it was met with such excitement and ended up having a great release. That is where I learned that with a little space, a team, and a high dose of passion, we could take something from idea to execution quickly.

That tool, by the way, is called Adobe Scout.

CJ: What advice would you give teenagers or young adults who are interested in being engineers?

DS: There are so many ways to learn about design and technology. You can buy a book, take a class, or just jump in and start playing. The barrier to entry is a lot lower.

Even if you have a tiny bit of interest in programming or design – just try and learn it. A quick Google search will help you find those resources or a local meet up to learn with other people in a social environment. If that hunger comes from within instead of having to create it, then you’re on the path to working on something with passion.

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CJ: Did you face any adversities in the workplace or school for being a woman in a predominantly male profession?

DS: There have been situations where something has happened which made me feel weird. Things that I shrugged off in my twenties are things that I would challenge now. For the most part, though, I have been surrounded by amazing people, both male and female. I always intentionally sought out great people to be around, both in school and work. Here’s one bit of advice: don’t wait for someone to ask you if you need a mentor. Go up to people you admire and ask to them to mentor you – you’ll be surprised how often people say yes.

CJ: You are a South Indian Classical dancer. How long have you been involved with dancing and how has it impacted your life?

DS: I still dance and have started choreographing a bit more. I have been dancing since I was six-years-old. Having a creative and artistic outlet has been incredibly important for me. Dance is so great, it teaches you composure, it’s physically great exercise, and it is a great mixture of expression and movement. There are so many amazing dance communities in New York – I love it. I would not be the person I am today without having a creative outlet that I love, which for me was dance. It is a great way to play when you’re not working on your other passions.

CJ: What motivates you in your everyday life?

DS: I don’t like to do the same thing, I like to do a bunch of different things, such as write a book, do a dance show, ship a great product, etc. Learning new things is how I define growing, and growing is what motivates me. I want to squeeze as much as I can out of every day!

CJ: What advice would you give your 20-year-old self?

DS: I would tell myself that it’s okay to break some rules and not do the things that you think you are expected to do. Do things that you think are expected of you only if they are in alignment with who you are and what your core values are. So I guess I would tell myself to rock the boat a bit more.

Another bit of advice is that you don’t learn nor do you get better without making mistakes. I still make mistakes every day, and that’s a good sign. In the moment it might feel uncomfortable, but I look back on it and realize that those moments translated to real growth. Force yourself to make mistakes when you’re younger because the bandwidth to recover is so much higher.

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