Job: Professional Development Program Associate, Unum
Location: Portland, ME
I met Ally when I lived in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and we sort of hit it off right from the beginning. She was still living there when we did this interview, but now she is back in Maine and has recently started a new role with the same company. Her new title is Portfolio Manager in Digital Strategy and Incubation, which is the second rotation in her program with Unum. I think you will find her path from neuroscience to insurance just as interesting as I do, so read on to hear Ally's story.
Tell us about yourself and how you ended up at your job with Unum.
I grew up in the suburbs of Detroit for most of my life. I always knew I wanted to move outside of the state to experience something totally new, so it all started with my college search. I was really originally interested in psychiatry and psychology because I wanted to understand how people's behaviors are influenced and shaped. Among the schools that I had gotten into, Bowdoin was the only one with a neuroscience degree and it also provided strong financial support. I loved my time there and finished with a neuroscience degree, but after studying a bit of psychology and neuroscience, I felt that there were more effective ways of understanding people. I’m also very extroverted, so working in the lab wasn’t energizing me.
So what made you want to make that switch?
When I give my rationale for why I switched fields now, it sounds very intuitive. But at the time, I had to sit myself down with myself for many different sessions and really dig deep and do some soul-searching. It was very scary to come to grips with the fact that I was going to change course because I had spent the last four years working my butt off to understand molecules, and not other more “practical” topics.
How did you decide where you wanted to work after recognizing this?
Once I came to terms with the fact that I would not be applying to neuroscience positions post-college, I didn’t have a lot of time. It was the end of my junior year of college, and I found out that the “business” hiring process was at the very front-end of senior year. This was so different from the sciences, where you didn’t even start looking for jobs until the second half of senior year. So I started my senior year with my eyes wide open looking to figure out where I wanted to be. I went to every networking event and applied to almost any job that was loosely related to “business” that sounded interesting. Everything not STEM was business to me at that point (lol), and I later understood that I was applying to totally different fields (banking, consulting, data analytics, etc.).
The search ended when I came across the Professional Development Program at Unum. It’s a pretty stellar program, and that’s where I am now, three years later. First, it’s right near downtown Portland, Maine, where the quality of living is very high, and it’s rotational, so I get to try a lot of different jobs. Unlike many of the consulting firms I looked at, Unum didn’t make me feel disposable. Another thing that was appealing about this program is that you graduate at a director level position in a career and department of your choosing. Lastly, the culture is rock-solid. The culture is so supportive here in Maine, and I’m so thankful that I work for a company with strong values about how to treat people. Long answer, but that’s how I ended up at Unum.
What do you do in your current position, and what do you like and dislike about it?
I’m a portfolio manager for Unum’s digital strategy and incubation team. That means we look at new technology in the market (oftentimes start-ups) and we see whether it would be valuable to apply their technology to our company. I love that I get to learn about cool new technology as part of my job. I talk to a lot of start-ups, and now that I’m in IT (plot twist), I’m learning a whole new discipline all over again. A challenging aspect of my current job is that I have to teach myself a lot of this. My team is small and very busy, so I have to be as resourceful as I can about learning and still figure out how to be useful to the team. I think it’s a good learning opportunity, but man is it hard!!
Looking back, are you surprised at what you're doing now?
I am very surprised to find myself in IT. I don’t have technical coding abilities and have never really considered myself “techy.” I am, however, so happy to see that I have pushed myself outside of these boxes that I’ve put myself into in the past. If I want to learn something, it would be silly to discourage myself from learning it just because I haven’t ever learned it before!
Has age played a part in your experience, and what have you done to overcome this factor?
Unum is an older company. The average age is over 30, and there are a lot of "lifers" at Unum who spend their whole careers there. I am definitely the youngest person on my team by a lot. As an Asian American, I also look a lot younger than I actually am. This can be challenging when I’m working with very tenured people and I’m supposed to be managing the project. Managing perceptions is not always fun, but it is a real aspect of working with others. I dress professionally to work, I talk very casually but don’t use slang speech unless I’m comfortable and joking around with my team. Above all else, I try to gain respect by working the hardest and bringing in results. At the end of the day, I am very young, but if I show people that I’m also effective, they will still respect me as a colleague.
What do you like about being a young professional?
Since I work at an older insurance company, I almost never see anyone my own age. I also work a lot of hours or am traveling for work, so I’m not able to make the young professional get-togethers. So, in a social sense, I haven’t really developed an identity as a young professional. At the same time, there is no escaping the fact that I am indeed, a young professional. The great thing about being young is that people are often more patient with you and are willing to spend some of their time mentoring or helping you out. I ask a lot of questions and play the curious cat card.
What is your work-life balance like?
This is something I asked myself a lot in college too. Work-life balance shifts depending on the many phases of our lives and it’s a matter of where your equilibrium is. It doesn't mean equal amounts of two things. It's a point where you can maintain balance. Mine is much more work vs. play. During the week, I work a lot of hours, but then on the weekend, I take those hours to play. I’m careful not to make work my entire life, but I also enjoy when something demands all of me to be good at it. Right now, I’m definitely working more than I usually do, but this won’t last forever. I go to the gym from 7am - 8am, work from 8am - 7pm, and then study for the PMP exam from 7-9pm. If I ever don’t feel like studying or working hard because I feel burned out, I have no problem skipping a night of study or coming into work late and leaving early. I manage my time the way I want to (usually), and I try not to do something if I don’t want to.
What advice would you give to people who are moving to a new city where they don’t know anyone?
No matter where you are, the things that make you happy in life are social connections. You don't have to have a lot, but just having people who care about you and who you are comfortable with will make you feel like you're at home, even if it is a temporary home. With that in mind, remember we can only confidently use the “new person card” for a short period of time, so you have to put in a lot of front-heavy investment when you are first in a new place. I have this friend who has a rule for herself. When anyone asks her to do something and she has never hung out with them before, she will always say yes because if you say no to an invitation with someone you have never spent time with before, the chances they will not ask you to hang out again are high. Even if she doesn’t really have time, she still goes because first impressions are important and you have to get yourself out there.
What advice would you give to someone that wants to jump into a corporate career?
The word corporate can mean a lot of different things. I would ask them what aspects of a corporate lifestyle they like and if it aligns with their values. I would also ask if it aligns with their personality, short-term or long-term goals. I know this is a cop-out response, but I’d also ask them which specific companies they’re considering. Corporate at Unum is very different from corporate at American Express, for instance.
What do you like to do for fun?
I love to hang out with people whenever I’m not actually working. I like to run and I like learning new things. I don’t think I have any regular hobbies; I just like a wide smattering of things that might look like hobbies. I write, I read, I play my violin/viola/ukulele, I run, and I work out at the gym. Unlike most people who can keep at a few activities very consistently, I like to jump around all these different activities depending on my mood. Keeps it interesting!
Do you think you know yourself?
This sounds very rhetorical (*eyeing me over her glasses*). Being young and just life, in general, is all about just figuring out what you want and who you are, as cliché as it is. For young people, in particular, we have to find our own personal strategy to find that out. To your question about knowing myself, I am definitely still learning. There are some parts of myself I know really, really well. But there are also other parts I am still learning that I find myself surprisingly finding all the time. It’s like I lift a rock up and I think I didn’t know that was there, but there it is!
The YoPro Know's Takeaways:
- When you're young, if you show that you're effective, older coworkers will respect you as a colleague
- Ask a lot of questions; that is the only way you'll learn
- Being young is all about just figuring out what you want and who you are