Suzanne (Sue) Bernstock knows all about how to make a successful career change. Before becoming the President of Workville, a coworking space located in Midtown Manhattan, she worked in the fashion industry, making her way to the top as a buyer for Saks Fifth Avenue and Vince.
She found herself in fashion, hoping to combine all of her interests, after she’d graduated from Tufts University with a degree in Architectural Studies. She knew she never saw a career in fashion, but she wanted the experience in her 20s to learn and pay her dues.
Before she made her final decision to switch to a completely new industry, she spent a year prepping herself and building a solid foundation so she had the tools, experience, and skills to make that career change. She did everything except go back to school, from interviewing industry experts about topics she’d never studied to taking workshops to learn about new lines of business.
And while she had no idea what industry she’d end up in next, she knew what excited her and what she was interested in doing: helping and interacting with people, solving problems, and overseeing how people experience architecture and a space.
That year and the time she spent soul searching, led her to Workville. She walked in one day off the street – she didn’t have an interview and she hadn’t researched the space at all. As she walked around with the founder, she blurted out, “Hire me.” He asked her a few questions and the next day she had an interview with eight of Workville’s partners. Eight ‘thank you’ notes later, she was hired. No planning, no prepping (unless you count the intentional year she spent grooming herself for this next big chapter in her life).
Her story is phenomenal, and she is a phenomenal woman who has a lot of useful advice to offer those who are on the brink of switching careers, who’ve thought about how to get into a new industry, and are considering some serious changes in their lives.
Watch a snippet and read the entire interview below.
AP: Tell me about your journey. How’d you get “here” as President of Workville?
Sue: I’m gonna back track and start with college. In college I was an Architectural Studies major. I loved architecture, real estate, design, and the social psychology of how people experience architecture in a space.
I interned in real estate and advertising, and after college I didn’t really know how to combine all of my interests, so I went into fashion. Everybody always said, “You’re all over the map.” But to me it made sense. It was me combining all of my interests.
Fashion was great. I really had some fantastic training. Fashion is kind of like being a small business owner, because I was in the buying office. When you’re in the buying office, you’re following the whole lifecycle of a product. You’re seeing how the product fits in the space and in the store, where the displays should be, and the storefronts: Is it good real estate? Or is it on a dead end street where there isn’t any parking?
I was in fashion for a long time and I meant some really incredible people. I also met some terrible people. It was an amazing foundation, but I never really saw a future in fashion. I wanted it in my 20s to learn and be a sponge, to get experience and to pay my dues.
I know that’s a very old school way of thinking, but I really believed I had to pay my dues. One of the benefits of starting at a corporation in fashion, is that there were a lot of different buying offices to go through. I was at Saks Fifth Avenue and I went through as many different buying offices as I could.
Each time I got a promotion, I was like: Now that I’ve done outerwear and swim, I’m going to move into mens, and now that I’ve done menswear, I’m going to move into handbags. It gave me a lot of exposure on how to run a different type of business and the different types of personalities that are attracted to different business.
AP: I love that you said, “Pay your dues.” I think a lot of people want to jump straight into senior level and CEO positions without having foundational skills to be at that level.
So tell me about the process of switching from fashion to the coworking industry.
Sue: Yeah, and it’s true. It’s practice. If you’re an athlete, you don’t go right into game day. It takes a couple of years of experience.
Yes, there are going to be some people who come in and have the foresight, but I’m not one of those people and I’m aware of that (laughs). I thought I should be taught and I should be trained.
I was also kind of lucky that I worked in fashion during the recession because being fiscally responsible is the most important lesson that we can learn. Having that training was good. Of course it was scary working during that time, but I was thankful that I was young and wasn’t in charge. I only had to focus on learning.
So I was at Saks and then I went to a vertical company, Vince, so I could learn how to build a business from end-to-end. Saks is horizontal, so you’re buying from other people and other companies. I learned so much at Vince, and on a personal level, I learned that I was really unhappy (laughs). It was no secret when I left Vince, I was like, “No. I’m done with fashion.”
I worked at Vince for a full year. About two months into it I was like, “This isn’t the right fit for me”, but again, pay your dues. I don’t think you should quit without really trying to understand: Is it me needing to get out of my comfort zone? Being a part of a business for a year, you can learn a lot. If you only dabble in it, then it’s harder.
“I started to pay attention to people around me who weren’t complaining about work, and I was like, ‘Oh my god. If you’re complaining, it’s your fault.’”
Once you have that foundation, then you can be a consultant or whatever. That’s fine. But I didn’t have building a vertical company as a foundation yet, so I did it for a year. But because I knew this wasn’t my future anymore, I started to ask around. I started to pay attention to people around me who weren’t complaining about work, and I was like, “Oh my god. If you’re complaining, it’s your fault.”
In this city, it’s great. All you have to do is open your eyes, turn to the person next to you, and ask, “Hey, so what do you do?” I started very slowly and I started having those conversations, turning to anybody who was in production, owned their own company, or made a career change. I kind of knew that the startup world was what I wanted because everyone’s very curious and helpful, and open-minded and hardworking, trying to fix something.
I knew I would work hard for that year, but that I was going to change after that. I went to my best friend who had done the same thing. She coached me through everything. She said, “Take as many informational interviews as you can. Shadow a person for a week, because you don’t know what it’s really like to work somewhere, until you’ve been there.”
“Take as many informational interviews as you can. Shadow a person for a week, because you don’t know what it’s really like to work somewhere, until you’ve been there.”
I started talking to everyone, and once you start talking to people, they direct you to someone else. If I didn’t know what they were talking about, I’d go take a class or a workshop. It was really exciting. A career change is really hard as far as society pressure, but personally it’s so exciting. You’re taking charge.
It’s not like you have to go to business school. I just went and took workshops. Or I would call people who had built something and I ask if I could take them to lunch. Then I’d ask, “Will you teach me the top five things that you do everyday?” One of my friends is phenomenal at sales, and I asked her, “What do you think is important in selling? Is it consultative sales?” I didn’t know anything about selling.
“I started talking to everyone, and once you start talking to people, they direct you to someone else. If I didn’t know what they were talking about, I’d go take a class or a workshop. It was really exciting. A career change is really hard as far as society pressure, but personally it’s so exciting. You’re taking charge.”
I also think that because I paid my dues and because I had a good foundation, that takes away the fear of a career change. It’s all building blocks. I firmly believed I had these great experiences and now I just had to put them to use in a different way. I actually couldn’t have done this earlier.
The other thing that was important is that my friends asked me, “Who do you admire and why?” So don’t look at just who you are, look at where you’re going. That was very empowering.
“Don’t look at just who you are, look at where you’re going.”
AP: President Obama said something similar, “Don’t look at who you want to be. Look at what you want to do.”
“It became: This is what I’m good at. This is where I’m going.”
Sue: Right. And when I had enough experience, I took it as far as – when I worked on my resume – I took off stuff that I didn’t want to do anymore. It became: This is what I’m good at. This is where I’m going. Instead of being pigeonholed.
AP: So did you always know you wanted to start or run a business? Was that in the back of your mind?
Sue: I think so. I didn’t know where or how, but I always knew I liked problem-solving and I’m curious. And you can’t go into work and not be curious. And the way to do that is if you own a project or you own a business. I also like the personal connection of talking to people everyday.
How I ended up a Workville, I was consulting up the street and I just kind of walked in to check it out. And at this point, I’m in between consulting, taking workshops, going on informational interviews, and reading my own business school books, like “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People”. I was just on this go-go-go hustler attitude.
I walked in. I’m looking at the build out. I was talking to the co-founder, and he was so friendly and nice that I thought, “This is what I want. This is what I pictured as my future.” I wanted that small-town feel in New York and I felt like he had that.
So we’re walking on the tour, and I just blurted out, “I want to work here.” And he was like, “Okay cool. Like an office?” And I was like, “No. I want to work for you, here, and I’m qualified.” He asked me some questions, and he was with the partners who own the building. They asked me a few questions, and again, when you’re hustling, your 30-second pitch is there. It does not phase you. And he was like, “Okay, done. Hired.”
I basically walked in off the street and said, “Hire me.” No resume. Nothing. He didn’t ask, “Where’d you go to college?” Nothing. He just asked me some questions and I answered them. I did meet all of the partners after that and I did have a job interview. It was the next day.
And I barely had time. I didn’t even do that much research because the whole thing was so spontaneous. I met eight partners, and eight different ‘thank you’ notes later, I was hired. And it wasn’t planned at all.
AP: Wow. Very serendipitous and also intentional on you part – you had prepared yourself up until then, for that moment. Were you immediately hired as President?
Sue: No, definitely not. I knew from doing research that the coworking industry had everything I liked about fashion: being like a small business owner in the buying office, the customer service part of it, the problem-solving, and fixing the disconnect between the customers and the problems.
Somehow coworking popped up on my radar. I didn’t specify coworking. I just wanted to be a part of the change. That’s all I knew. I wanted to be a part of a community of people being engaged and curious.
I had a college friend who started Grand Central Tech. I was really inspired by his story and his daily interactions. I visited him at Grand Central Tech and listened to him talk about how great it is everyday to come in and work with such great, fantastic people. So maybe subconsciously I knew I was getting into coworking, but it was not a conscious thought.
I came into Workville and because I’d done a lot of research, I always knew changing industries, you might start at the bottom. I just assumed that they were a new company, and they were going to be hiring for a community manager job or some type of entry level job. That’s all I asked for.
I said, “This is what I’m going to offer, but I’m assuming you have this position open, so let’s make it work.” So no, I didn’t start as president. But I’d done enough research that I knew it wasn’t extremely scarce when I asked them to hire me.
AP: Knowing what you know today, what advice would you give your younger self?
Sue: To find my voice earlier.
AP: What advice do you have for people who are trying to find their voice?
“Find a good mentor because you don’t have to have all of the answers…Don’t just find mentors who will just console you. While that’s nice, it’s not really helpful. You want them to be able to push you. That’s really important.”
Sue: Find a good mentor because you don’t have to have all of the answers.
It’s nice to be self-aware and to know where you are on your personal journey. So if you don’t know how to handle a situation, find a person who will guide you.
When you’re taking something to heart, find a person who will tell you, “Look, toughen up.” Don’t just find mentors who will just console you. While that’s nice, it’s not really helpful. You want them to be able to push you. That’s really important.
AP: What’s next for you?
Sue: Just gotta keep my head down and keep working hard. And also balancing out my personal life. In New York everybody takes pride in how burnt out they are, and I am proud to say, “I am not burnt out and I am not working to burn out.” (laughs)
AP: Right! Why do people like these phrases “Hustle and grind” and “Rise and grind”? Why should life feel like a hustle? Not that you shouldn’t work hard, but there needs to be balance.
Sue: Right. People always brag like, “I worked so hard”, and I’m like, “I didn’t. I left work at 6:30.”
It’s not good for your work. You go home and get perspective, talk to family and friends, and all of a sudden that thing you were trying to figure out, clicks. But if you’re looking at the same problem all the time and if you’re always at work, you’re not going to have a fresh mind.
AP: What does having an Amazing Perspective mean to you?
Sue: It means having a fulfilling life by defining what you personally need, by finding your own voice and making it happen. Just go out there and do it.