As millions of highly skilled Americans exit corporate life for the freedom and fulfillment of starting their own ventures, they are accelerating the American workforce’s shift to 33% self-employment by 2020 and creating value on their own terms

Grit Daily spoke with Lauren Cooney, a former Senior Director at Cisco, on taking the 1099 gamble and finding joy in Spark Labs’ mission of coaching candidates through career barriers. Lauren shared her transition from corporate life, her consultancy’s pivot from building business models to building careers that bolsters inclusion, and her perspective on #MeToo’s invitation to continue the diversity dialogue.   

Grit Daily: What was your inspiration for trading senior roles at large tech companies for the uncertainties of consulting? 

Lauren Cooney: In retrospect, there are really two or three major factors that I see as the tipping point for me leaving my “big company” career and taking a go as an entrepreneur. 

First, I wasn’t being challenged anymore. I’d built amazing products, changed the way people thought about companies, worked to shift cultures, built more accessible and open ways to obtain technology, and built very large revenue generating businesses. I needed a new challenge, plain and simple. And I thought business consulting would be that. 

Second, I wasn’t seeing anything super exciting in the technology space. What I saw that was exciting was in the finance and distribution spaces – new revenue and business models, new software delivery models, unique partnerships and more – and that flexed my brain in the direction that I wanted to learn more about.

Third, I wanted to work where I wanted to work. If I wanted to travel to an event, I wanted to do that. If I wanted to work from a vacation, I could do that. If I wanted to take calls while walking my dog – that was possible – and is possible.  I knew I wouldn’t be working less, but I knew that it would be more flexible. 

GD: Why did you pivot Spark Labs from helping companies grow to focusing on inclusion programs?

LC: In consulting, you get to work with amazingly smart people that have big ideas. Often, it’s your job to tease these ideas out, add to them, make them actionable and help put them into a plan. It’s also strategy work. Sometimes companies hire you that think they want change, but they really don’t. More often than not, consulting isn’t the big ideas and the white boarding. It’s giving folks the stark realities of what they need to do to make things work – whether it be to fire someone, move product in a different direction, align and work with teams that don’t like each other, and more. It wears on you after a while.

When I took time to think through and process what made me happy, it was working with people who hadn’t had a fair shake of things, and help them get that job, raise, promotion, etc. It was mentoring these folks and helping them to get ahead by breaking stereotypes that companies have been muddled with for decades and help these folks to really shine. I love doing that – and I wanted to do that all the time and at scale. 

I think at times it surprises people that I didn’t get a fair shake of things either – but I had the luxury of being a white female who had bosses that believed in her and were pretty awesome. I worked really hard and overcame many challenges, learned how to jump through the “hoops” and play (or not play) the politics, and not. I think it’s my turn to give that advice, these learnings, back. There is immense joy in doing that. 

GD: How has MeToo helped promote inclusion?  

LC: It absolutely has helped. People like Ellen Pao and others made it okay to say something, okay to stand up for yourself, okay to tell the truth. And it wasn’t okay to do that before – I don’t care what people say – it wasn’t. 

People are afraid of getting backlash or being accused of things that were not intentional. So we need to work to keep doors open, to bring others that don’t look like us to the table, to promote people that not only deserve it and are the best choice – but that might be different than we are. We also need to keep the door open for questions, for tough discussions, for dialogue – so that we can create these safe spaces for people where they live and where they work. 

GD: What makes Spark Labs different from other career coaching programs and initiatives at large companies that are focused on inclusion?  

LC: There are lots of executive and leadership coaches out there. Many have degrees in psychology or have decades in the business or such. 

One, I’ve been there. I’ve been in the trenches with the teams working 24/7 to push product out the door. I’ve been passed over for promotions and raises – but more than not, I’ve pushed back and gotten them. I’ve worked with and built massive divisions in companies and understand the benefits and tolls it takes on leaders – and I’ve successfully worked through these. I’ve built internal programs for women at many Fortune 500 companies that are still standing and working well today. Many coaches don’t have this expertise. They don’t know the courage it takes to ask for that raise, that promotion, that role, that seat at the table. I do. I also know how to get it – because I did. 

Other coaches are great at personality tests or resume building or work/life balance – which is needed, absolutely. I’m in it though to really punch through and have my clients be successful in whatever their goals are – and I’ve created and successfully tested methods by which to get there, which I have implemented in my practice. 

Two, my network and community: I’ve worked in high-tech and venture capital for 20 years. I know the leaders, companies, people, employees, start-ups and more that my clients want to meet and know. If you work with me, I work to give you access to my network for whatever you need, whether it be a senior leadership role, big customers, a personalized strategy of how to stand out across multiple industries, and more. I also know who the not so nice people are – and I’ll work to ensure my clients don’t have to engage with them to be successful.

GD: Are there any success stories you’d like to share from the last 11 months since your pivot to inclusion programs? 

LC: Since Spark Labs’ has pivoted to focus on programs around diversity, inclusion and career acceleration, we have worked with men and women in finance, technology, healthcare and telecommunications. We’ve created new platforms and strategies for technology and visibility for two leading executives in the technology space, increased four clients’ base salaries and improved bonus structures with new negotiation strategies, and have helped 3 women land new roles – two entry level and one mid/senior level.

The clients we find the most success with are those that have passion in a particular area but may want to shift roles, companies, be frustrated with career movement or need to get perspective on how to create a new career – either because they’ve decided to move onto different things or have experienced burnout or imposter syndrome. We work closely with those that have experienced both of these as well. 

I recently launched a leadership series program for new managers and directors to help them accelerate their careers and also to improve teams and company’s employee retention. The more effort we can put into retaining women and diverse groups in technology and in business overall, the more success we will see as output across many industries.