A liberal arts education is the start of an adventure that can lead anywhere.
Penn Arts & Sciences alumni are exploring paths as scientists, storytellers, doctors, lawyers, and entrepreneurs, as leaders in finance and government, as seekers, creators, and visionaries who are working to make the world a better place.
Penn Arts & Sciences at Work is a photoblog project where we tell the story of the extended Penn Arts & Sciences community. Through images and personal vignettes, we aim to capture the diverse paths of our alumni, focusing on their daily work life.
With someone trying to rebuild their life after they’ve been away in a carceral setting, whether it’s for a couple of months or decades, we walk alongside people.
Co-Founder and Co-Director at Youth Sentencing & Reentry Project (YSRP)
Urban Studies Major, Hispanic Studies Minor
Penn Arts & Sciences at Work
There’s something about living in Philadelphia—I grew up in suburban Philadelphia—that sports are more than just sports. It’s the center of your weekend. It’s one of the first things you talk about when you see your family and friends. Parents won’t throw their kids’ birthday parties on Sundays if there’s an Eagles game; restaurants would rush to get your order in before kick-off; you would never call people during a game.
When I graduated I wanted to work in entertainment, so I took a number of informational interviews. People looked at my resume and said, “Oh, you’re an English major. You should do public relations,” and many moons later, here I am. I ended up working in the music business. At the time, record labels were farming out a lot of the PR work when it came to hip-hop artists, so I went out on my own and started a company at 23. It was tough, but turned out to be a great experience.
I love being able to bring diverse perspectives to the table at critical moments. For example, we collaborated with the team that develops sensors for any Google products with cameras in them. They worked hard to ensure that the sensors accurately detect the skin tones of people of color—so really bringing that human perspective.
When you’re coming from a background of doctors and lawyers and engineers, and making a shift into something that’s completely new territory, you don’t really have a mentor to tell you, “you need to do ABC steps to get to point Z.” I’m carving my own trajectory and figuring it out along the way.
I started writing for magazines for about six years. It was just sort of like stumbling upward. I had always wanted to write a book, as many people have. I got the Penn Gazette, and in it, a woman a couple of years ahead of me, Sara Dunn, was announcing publication of her second novel. I thought, she’s a few years older than me and she’s on her second book. What am I waiting for? This is crazy. I’ve written every magazine article I can possibly write and it’s time to try something new, even if that felt daunting.
I recently led an advocacy training for women with disabilities in Nepal. It’s very rare for women with disabilities to have their own space to talk about issues that are important to them, especially to talk about barriers they might experience when they participate in political life. Just being a convener of that kind of space—where they could talk about the intersectional and unique barriers that they experience—is really meaningful to me.
One recommendation I would share is to make a written map of your life decisions. From education—where and what to study—to professional—what to do—to social—who to learn from and share your time with. No need to share this with anyone. Just look back and think about your mental model at each junction. How has your process for making decisions evolved? Which ones forced your hand later or opened new paths? When are you proud of the process followed, versus proved lucky despite it?
There’s so much work to do. We’re at this really pivotal moment in criminal justice reform locally, but also nationally, and with all of the energy and fire in the belly that we feel around this work, it can sometimes be difficult to not over commit and under deliver. A mentor said to me years ago, as a guidepost, don’t do that. I really try to stick to that as much as possible.
I had done the budget on Eternal Sunshine for my friend Anthony Bregman, then I went to do this film down in Florida that fell apart. I came back and I called Anthony, and I said, “I’d like to post-supervision the film, if you want.” I wasn’t planning to do that, but I needed to work. It wound up being one of the best professional experiences of my career–just a really difficult, but wonderful, project.
The freedom to explore is a privilege—and I took full advantage at Penn. In my first year I studied everything from human biology to religious studies with a Star Trek twist!
CEO/Founder of Encircle Labs; Board Advisor at Simplee; Angel Investor at One Shared Mind Ventures
San Mateo, CA
I’ve centered my life’s work around political communications, not only to continue to be an active participant in our democracy, but to make sure that my people—people who are all too often left out and left behind of critical policy conversations—are getting the information they need to make sure their governments are working on their behalf.
What inspires me is the opportunity to help people, to bring a little more light and justice to the world. I spent several years investigating subprime lending abuses in the suburbs of Charlotte, North Carolina. And that work really brought those problems to people’s attention. It resulted in significant legislative changes, and it helped a lot of people in those neighborhoods. That’s probably the work that I’m most proud of.
In 2013, we had Hurricane Sandy come through our Freeport facility. We had millions of dollars worth of inventory on the floor ready to go to ship to our customers. And then six feet of saltwater came into our plant. I saw our chocolate floating in the parking lot. The facility was dark. The machines were inoperable. What happened then, though, was one of the coolest things ever.
My freshman self couldn’t imagine I’d be designing products and services. After roles in project management, marketing, and business development, my partner encouraged me to explore my interest in design. Long after my freshman year, I discovered design is more than just visuals; it’s an approach to making human lives easier and more delightful.
Tea was a big passion for me. I was fascinated by the fact that you could get both health benefits and different flavors by putting something in water. I began building Brew Lab, and then Owl’s Brew locally in New York, seven years ago, through different restaurateurs that I knew. Along the way I became a tea sommelier.
I think agenting is a very personal thing. Your identity is wrapped up in your job when you’re pitching yourself to potential clients. A hard part of the job—and if you want to do it, you have to get over it—is that there is a certain degree of rejection. You’re rejected by publishers all the time, and you’re rejected by potential clients. And so you have to distance yourself to some degree from that part of the job. There’s a lot of no’s in the business and you just have to move on.
I’ve done a little bit of everything for 30-something years now. Looking back on my career, you can connect the dots, but at the moment, the guiding force for me was, this looks really interesting.
Executive Vice President of Post Production & Worldwide Delivery, FilmNation Entertainment
New York, NY
In government, nobody wants to be wrong and misstep. But there are so many opportunities, especially in the kind of civil rights work that we do, where we can really reach out much further than we think we can. We just have to be willing to do the outreach, or make the claim, or work with people to figure out how it is that we can advance equity while preserving business interests. You have to go out and have the conversation in order to figure a potential path.
The thing that keeps me motivated is finding positive ways to come at the issues. Instead of trying to build a building that’s less bad, I’m trying to build a building that generates more power than it uses with battery storage for the building located in a car that can then also be shared by the community, and thinking about different ways to use waste and water to power and fertilize a greenhouse that provides food for the residents. I want to be able to demonstrate the positive ways that we can shift our systems to align with natural systems, draw down carbon, empower a local workforce, and put our survival needs back into our own hands.
Freshman year I considered transferring into Wharton. Then I thought I might be an Econ major. But then the fall of my sophomore year, I took a poetry class, just randomly. I don’t know what made me do it. I end up in the class and I’m like, this is amazing, this is where I’m going to learn everything. I thought to myself: I’m going to learn how to problem solve, I’m going to learn how to communicate, and I’m going to learn how to write.
I was brought to the US when I was nine years old in the 1980s by my mom, a single mom. She worked very hard to put food on the table. We grew up, especially when we first got here, very, very poor. There were many times when my mom was thinking about things like what the landlord could or could not do to us if we didn’t have rent on time, what the police could or could not do to us if they pulled my mom over because we didn’t have money to fix a broken tail light. Things like that really motivated me and catalyzed my interest in becoming a lawyer.
I think I stuck around in my previous finance career a little bit too long. I thought that’s where I was supposed to be and I was more concerned about what other people thought versus what I actually wanted to do. That said, I’m thrilled with where my career has taken me thus far.
Especially if you’re trying to take an entrepreneurial path, everyone has this dream or this vision… like, I’m going to start a company and it’s just going to be wonderful, sort of like all sunshine and rainbows. When you actually run a business there are things that happen at all hours of the night and the day that put you back in that moment where you’re cramming for that test that you’re worried you’ll fail.
I didn’t know what a professor was when I was 17. Cornel West was the first professor I ever knew of. I was like, oh okay, you can do this for a living, there is such a thing as African American studies? What is that? You can study Black literature, Black culture, you can make a living from that, you can make a life from that, something I had never really fathomed before.
I was an urban studies major, and I love figuring out what makes each city tick. What’s different about each city, and the different things that people are looking for in each place. You really have to study the cities and talk to people.
We were working in a corrections institution, which is a very difficult, dark, and sad place. But we were working fundamentally to improve the lives of both the inmates and the corrections officers, and we had done a lot of conceptual thinking about, well, what would it take to make the operation both more humane and more safe and more rehabilitative.
When you do a story that really connects with a lot of people, that always feels good. Now, in the age of social media, when people connect with a story, you can see it immediately, and that’s a good feeling – especially if your subject feels like you told their story in a meaningful way.
The thing that I like about working in the field of criminal justice and juvenile justice is it touches on everything … it touches on education and workforce development and housing and behavioral health services.
I laugh but I actually always tell people that waitressing was the best thing that I ever could have done for my career, because it taught me how to juggle. I think, especially for women, if you’re going to be a working mom you have to learn how to prioritize, learn how to shuffle, learn how to deal with last-minute emergencies. A lot of that is relatable to waitressing.
I think one of the hardest things I’ve learned is that you can work as hard as possible, and you can kind of check all of the boxes, so to speak, and that doesn’t necessarily equate to success. Also, that success doesn’t necessarily equate to happiness, which I think is a big thing that people learn in their careers. That so much of success is opportunity, and timing, and luck, and good fortune, and surrounding yourself with really good people who love you, and who support you — because it’s not a solo mission, I think, at the end of the day.
I think coming to the States is a bit of a culture shock, right? For a lot of people it’s a big change coming from high school, living with parents and people they know, to a new world. But for me on top that, it was like going to a completely new country with a very different culture.
I was born in New York and grew up in Paris. My father worked at the United Nations. It was in the human rights commission. I always thought I was going to follow in his footsteps. Ultimately my passion was about movies, TV, music, music videos and all that stuff.
I discovered my passion for architecture during my sophomore year after completing my first studio in Addams Hall. I was intrigued by the complexity and intricacies of each step in the design process. Working in the architecture industry after Penn was a no brainer. I loved the opportunity to apply the principles of the classroom to the design of creative office space, where our clients spend a majority of their waking hours.
I would have never predicted I would end up starting a company that made tracking devices for pets. I think I was always somewhat risk averse but always had that itch. My parents immigrated from the Soviet Union and my dad was a small business entrepreneur. That’s how he survived and they did everything in their power to try to convince me not to start a company.
Over the course of my career I have often found myself thinking “I have no idea what I want to do next. I have no long-term plan.” Whether it was during my senior year in college or four years later at Microsoft, I kept wondering, “Where is this leading?” I’m a decade out of school, and I think this is the first time that I can see a vision of what 10 years out looks like. I’m in a role that feels like a true fit. It’s a really neat feeling, but it took me a long time to get here.
When my daughter was born, my dad asked me what I was planning on doing to stay connected to my heritage. I knew I did not want to go back to venture capital or technology investing. It was not my passion. He at the time had three restaurants in Venezuela. He said, “Why don’t we consider opening a restaurant here? A Venezuelan restaurant?” I thought that was pretty interesting and… ignorance is bliss.