Aliza Licht is a social media superstar widely known as the voice behind @DKNY PR Girl on twitter. She was a pioneer in that space and today the @DKNY twitter account has over half a million followers. The twitter account is how many of us got introduced to her but anyone who follows her knows that in addition to getting an inside view into the world of fashion PR she dishes out career advice. Lucky for us, she’s no longer limiting this advice to 140 characters and she’s now the author of a 200+ page mentorship manual called Leave Your Mark: Land Your Dream Job. Kill It in Your Career. Rock Social Media.
On Thursday June 11th, Licht was the featured guest for #HerAgendaLive that we produced with AlleyNYC. The event was packed with women eager to hear her story, learn insider tips, and meet the woman behind the twitter handle. We gathered at Ceros in Chelsea and Licht let us hear the good, the bad, and the brutal honest truth. Be authentic, be confident, and be respectful are just a few of the essential tips Licht shared with Her Agenda that night. She didn’t hold back. She was herself, unapologetic, and open.
Read on to get a little peek inside the agenda of this social media, and communications powerhouse that’s been dubbed “America’s Next Top Mentor” by the New York Times:
Her Agenda: Like many success stories, your career journey wasn’t straight forward. So let’s start at the beginning…you were in school on a full scholarship as a pre-med student and suddenly as you’re going through this process you realized wait, this is not what I want to do. You talk about this in your book but can you share a little bit with us about what that experience was like?
Aliza Licht: I was a neurobiology and physiology major at the University of Maryland and I wanted to be a plastic surgeon. My junior summer I got an internship at a hospital and, I went, and everyone I was with was so into it, and every day at lunch they’d be discussing cases. It was really meant to simulate really being a doctor, and I kept looking at them thinking ‘God, they’re so into it. This is where my vanity, and I will quote Diana Vreeland again, she believes in vanity not narcissism, I was like okay, the hair net, the face mask, the red lipstick, the clogs, the scrubs, the whole anti-fashion garb, killed me. That was the superficial part of it. The other part of it was that my grandmother had a stroke 13 years prior, and she lived with us and she was kind of dwindling. It was like a mini-hospital in my house and then I would go to this internship where everyone was uber-excited about this and I would be there thinking I love the academic part but…it was depressing. I felt like there was so much sadness everywhere so I decided I didn’t want to do it and I told my parents that. That, was step one but, step two, plan B, I didn’t have.
Her Agenda: How did you muster up the confidence to come to your parents to tell them that you no longer wanted to pursue medicine?
Aliza Licht: I come from a very outspoken home. My parents raised my sister and I to never be afraid to say it like it is, so I knew I could talk to them.
Her Agenda: Once you did figure out a plan and you wanted to work in a magazine, you had to create your own opportunities. How did that happen?
Aliza Licht: I had the epiphany, and it really was an epiphany, in my apartment in Maryland where I had this book by Arthur Elgort who wrote a book called Models Manual—he’s a fashion photographer—I’ve had it since high school, loved it. I was sitting on my bed one day just thinking (and by the way still having to continue with neurobiology and physiology cause it was too late to do anything about that) I looked through it and all of a sudden I was like “oh duh, fashion.” I had grown up while papering my room with fashion magazines. I just didn’t know that that was a job cause I didn’t know anyone in fashion and there was no internet, and no Google, and no LinkedIn, and no Her Agenda. You kind of just did the typical path. So—I was in D.C.—I immediately researched magazines that were in D.C.
Her Agenda: You started in ad sales, normally I feel like someone would say to themselves, “Oh actually I’m going to wait or try to get into the fashion department.” So what made you take take that internship and how did you use that opportunity to leverage your next move?
Aliza Licht: It’s like press—you get the story, you can’t postpone it. You need to get the press while you get it and you need to get the experience while you can get it. I figured, as long as they were going to allow me to come into that office every day, I could figure it out. So I did the ad sales responsibilities and then I would really use that internship to understand how the magazine worked, who are the people, what are their jobs, who’s that guy writing restaurant reviews, who’s this person reviewing gadgets, and I figured it out. One of the most important things that I learned on that internship, because again I didn’t have anyone to ask, is that Conde Nast and Hearst existed. I didn’t know that they were publishing companies that owned all these magazines. So that was my little tip and then I was like “Okay, now I know what to do.”
Her Agenda: Career breakthroughs happen at the intersection of readiness, opportunity, and hustle. How did you create that intersection in your career?
Aliza Licht: First of all, I’m a very strong believer in you don’t leave a job until you have a job, because that can take a very long time. You can’t leave a job even if it’s miserable until you get a job. Stay still and use that office and use it to get you to your next thing. Also, I think we need to look at our own networks and really mind them because we all know a lot of people. If you really sit down and think about who you know or who your friends know, the viral nature of that can bring you a ton of contacts. I really believe that tomorrow, help someone you know, make a connection…do something. You don’t really know that power of being that person who connects other people. Do all your favors now because then when it’s time for your return, you feel so confident asking for that help because you know the kind of friend you were.
Her Agenda: What’s one of the biggest challenges you faced building your career?
Aliza Licht: I’m very direct and I don’t sugar coat things and I think that I can be abrasive when speaking to other people. If you know me, you know I’m just me. But back when I was starting out in magazines I think that I was probably too in your face. I’m not saying that I would be less confident, but I would understand the people better. I would understand who you could do that in front of and who you might want to take it down just a notch because they’re threatened by strong personalities. I also now would tell myself then that you really don’t want to work in an environment where people want to squash your spirit. I don’t believe in hiding who you are in an interview because if they don’t like you in your interview then you don’t want to work there. You’re not going to reach your potential if you’re constantly dumbing yourself down so that other people’s egos aren’t freaking out.
Her Agenda: What’s also clear from the book is that relationships are essential to success. How do you build an authentic and supportive network offline as you’re building your career?
Aliza Licht: Being a sincere person, being a kind person, being an authentic person…especially in fashion you can see right through people who aren’t. And when you build up a reputation for being just a nice person and a good person, people want to help you. I think that’s what I’ve been able to do successfully because I genuinely care about the relationships that I’ve built in fashion and I care about the reporter I’m pitching. They’re friendships, not contacts, and I think that’s a really big difference.
Her Agenda: On their career journey often many women become frustrated or feel stuck because they aren’t able to find mentors, what are your suggestions when it comes to finding a mentor?
Aliza Licht: I love this question. It’s not like a boyfriend. I don’t believe that’s what a mentor has to be—I don’t think you have to declare it. You can have a lot of mentors. You can have your mother as a mentor, you can have your best friend who’s that perfect sounding board for a specific thing. It’s great to have a network of people that you can go to for different things. Putting yet another pressure on ourselves to have a mentor, don’t do it. You don’t need to do that. You just need to have people who you think are smart, who maybe have done what you did and are a few years ahead, who you can start a relationship with, and get answers.
Her Agenda: You mention in your book that you are “always on”– as social media evolves and your following grows, how do you stay balanced and sane as you manage everything?
Aliza Licht: I’m not a good relaxer. I’m not. It’s something I need to be better at but I still maintain: I’ll rest when I’m dead. I find Twitter relaxing. I try not to do it out with people, when I’m out to dinner. I don’t do it when my kids are awake because it’s that limited time during the week.
Her Agenda: What time management tips can you offer ambitious millennial career women?
Aliza Licht: I don’t believe in to-do lists. I believe in doing things the minute you learn it needs to be done. So everyone will go to a meeting and they’ll have their notebooks and they’ll be making these massive lists. I don’t have to-do lists. Just get it done.
Her Agenda: What’s your advice for someone in the early stages of their career on how to craft a strong personal brand?
Aliza Licht: I think you always have to start with what your goal is. In social media too, it’s like why are you on this, what’s your goal? I believe that personal branding is putting your best foot forward every day.
Her Agenda: Something you say that really resonated is on the importance of having a voice. You say “even if you’re uncomfortable having a voice it’s okay to force yourself through it.” What’s your experience with this both at the start of your career and also now as an executive?
Aliza Licht: That’s been the opposite of my problem. I’ve been too outspoken at times. But I will tell you, I just coached someone yesterday who said that she has two years of experience in some industry. She gets great reviews, she knows she’s great at her job. But she does not present well when she’s in a meeting. A girl who is less experienced then her and the same level is super confident and always the one to bring ideas to the table. And I said to her, “You have to remember, it is okay to have a bad idea. Your boss doesn’t have perfect ideas.” So if you can wrap your head around being wrong and not being scared to be wrong and throwing out the dumb idea…if you’re wrong, you shrug it off. No one has perfect ideas and I do think that when you talk about company restructures and lay-offs…the quiet people, they’re the ones who are going to go first because there is no emotional connection to that person.
Her Agenda: Something I love to talk about with ambitious people is the idea of holistic success, so being successful not just in your career but also your personal life –whatever that looks like. You have your dream career and you also are a wife and a mother of two children. Which to me that’s the epitome of achieving holistic success. On a surface level, would you mind sharing with us how you found a supportive partner as you were growing your career in such a demanding industry?
Aliza Licht: I never felt the need to be at every event. I didn’t because I put the work in and the face time and during the job, during the day. I felt like my boss was covered, she knew that I was doing an exceptional job, I was indispensable to her, responding to her emails in two seconds, but me going out every night…what is the point when you have a life outside? This is my theory, and I may be wrong, but between 22 and 28 or even 29, you work your ass off, as hard as you can, so that you can get to a level whereby you can meet someone and if you want to have kids, you’re not this junior person anymore. [Then] you have more leverage to say, you know what? I would really love to work from home on Wednesday. So you’re not an assistant that they can replace in two seconds. I think that if you’re too comfortable, and you’re under the age of 30 and you have a really great work life and you have really great working hours, you might want to consider your job because now is the time to kick ass so you don’t have to be burning the midnight oil in your 30s.
Her Agenda: You’re always pushing yourself to meet new challenges. One challenge was writing this book, but that’s done, so what’s your next new challenge?
Aliza Licht: The next challenge, which is a very long, long challenge, is going to be making my kids into good people who are motivated and want to work hard because it’s so easy to think that these kids just parent themselves or it’s just the teacher’s responsibility. And honestly it is so much work, it is so much harder than any job or anything. And that’s my responsibility, and that’s my goal.
Check out the photos and tweets from the evening below: