Career Learnings From Taking the ‘Path Less Chosen’

Lauren Johnson is the founder and chief executive officer of The Hyacinth Group, and has over 10 years of experience in the digital space, which began as an assistant internet merchant at Victoria’s Secret. Seeking to propel her career forward, she went on to receive an MBA from LIM College, with a focus on entrepreneurship. After earning an advanced degree, Johnson was recruited to work as an internet manager at Steve Madden, where she focused on customer retention and website engagement and launched the company’s social media integration program.

Soon after, Lauren began consulting for brands such as SK-II and Aerosoles, bringing their digital programs to the next level with the creation of responsive sites and comprehensive marketing campaigns. Now, Lauren uses her digital expertise to help companies grow and engage online consumers through her own agency, The Hyacinth Group. Here, she shares her career path and insights learned along the way.

WWD: How would you describe your career path? What were some of the challenges you faced?

Lauren Johnson: I would sum up my career path with the phrase, “Choosing the path less chosen.”

Definitely, my most challenging career hurdle has been landing a full-time position. I would always get so close. I was even flown out to Chicago on several occasions for interviews.

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The interview process can be grueling. I even hired a career coach for assistance. I landed interviews at top tech companies like Facebook and Google, but it always came down to me and another candidate, and I was never the chosen candidate.

I got so frustrated. My mind was solely focused on finding a full-time digital career, and it felt like I was failing. But my career coach, Bianca Jackson, reminded me that I have a history of helping major brands like Victoria’s Secret, Steve Madden and Aerosoles make millions online.

She said if I could make these brands millions, why not do the same for myself? That got my wheels turning. As of last year, just 3 percent of computing-related jobs were held by African American women. So after six years of trying to make it in the 3 percent, I chose to start my own digital company.

WWD: What is The Hyacinth’s Group’s mission?

L.J.: At The Hyacinth Group, we turn browsers into buyers. Our mission is to engage online consumers. We create digital solutions that work for both client and consumer.

WWD: How did your coursework in your master’s degree program help inform your career decisions?

L.J.: As an entrepreneur, the most helpful class was financial management. That gave me the tools I needed to create financial projections for numerous grants applications and pitch competitions for my digital start-up.

My experience in grad school also taught me how to work alongside people with diverse cultures and personalities. In the digital space, you’re often collaborating with a ton of different people, so knowing how to work with various personalities is the key to success. That’s especially true for digital careers that demand collaborating in hectic, fast-paced environments — where everything is due yesterday.

I arrived at LIM with a clear mission to further my career in the digital space and land a senior leadership position. And I did just that. Graduation was May 31, and I started at Steve Madden on June 3 as an internet merchandise manager.

WWD: Have you had mentors in the industry? How have they helped you?

L.J.: I’ve had some truly impactful mentors. My first was Paul Barrett, the manager at Barney’s New York. Then at Steve Madden, I became friendly with the director of retail and e-commerce solutions, who became a key adviser throughout my digital career. And since starting my own company, I’ve received a lot of great guidance from a career and business coach.

But my sister, Alexis Johnson, a serial entrepreneur, is my most influential mentor. She was not only my first client, she was also instrumental in creating a results-driven business framework for me to follow in my own business.

I was also fortunate to have a conversation with Chris Neumann, founder and CEO of Cro Metrics, a successful conversion rate optimization agency, and he became a mentor and adviser. It’s great to have someone who is successful in the same industry provide tips and advice.

WWD: What advice would you give someone considering a career in digital marketing?

L.J.: I would tell them it’s a continual learning process, especially in digital. Marketing is all about evolution. You have to evolve, or you’ll get left behind.

Even though I have a bachelor’s degree in design and merchandising from Drexel University and an advanced degree from LIM, I’ve added several certificates to my collection over the years. These include user experience design, digital marketing and, most recently, product management. I brought this philosophy to my own agency as well. Our motto is “As innovation and technology continue to evolve, so do we. Just like a hyacinth, we are always blooming.”

I would also say to never give up. After a hundred “no”s”, there could be that one “yes.” Even if you have to create it yourself. There isn’t one path set in stone that everyone must follow. A single corporate job may not have been my path, but it’s about the journey, not just the destination.

WWD: And if you could go back in time and give career advice to your younger self, what would that be?

L.J.: Say yes…and be willing to grow. There were two job opportunities I regret not accepting when I had the chance. When offered a job that wasn’t my ideal role, I turned it down.

I would tell my younger self to look for the right company, not just the right position. If I had realized that back then, I could have grown with a great company and eventually found my niche. Looking back, that was a mistake. But had I done that, I may have never started my own business.

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