Erica Gellerman has her MBA, CPA, and experience working for large corporations like PricewaterhouseCooper (PwC) and Procter & Gamble. But after years in a corporate environment, she was beginning to feel stagnant and wanted to translate her experience into something meaningful outside of the corporate world.
After her husband’s job relocated them to London, Erica began writing as an outlet—with her first freelance gig here at The Everygirl, where she now covers all things finance. Twelve months after leaving the business world, she has secured freelance gigs with sites like Forbes and The Huffington Post and launched her own London-based consulting business. As a strategy consultant, her goal is to help small-business owners step into CEO roles and scale their businesses, grow their teams, and increase their bottom line.
Read on to see how Erica took the leap from a steady corporate paycheck to the life of a freelance writer and entrepreneur—and some lessons she learned along the way.
Name: Erica Gellerman
Location: London, United Kingdom
Current title: Small Business Strategy Consultant
Education: BA in Economics from UC Santa Barbara; MBA focused in Market Strategy from Duke University
Let’s start at the beginning: What was your first job out of college? How did you land it?
My first job was with PricewaterhouseCoopers in San Francisco working in their accounting group. I found them through campus recruiting and was really impressed by the people I met during the interview process. I started in their banking group and ended up auditing banks and brokerages during the financial crisis, which gave me a really interesting view into what everyone else was watching on the news.
Though I ended up leaving and pursuing a different path, it was hands down the best place for me to start my career. I learned so much there, not just about accounting, but how to be professional. Everyone was incredibly intelligent, but they were also great leaders and managers.
When I was first changing career paths I was really discouraged thinking that I had wasted four years getting my CPA and learning accounting, but looking back I now realize that I learned how to lead, manage, and work with clients. I’m a big believer now that we learn from every experience we have, even if at the time we don’t see how it relates to our future.
I looked at what was in front of me and I just knew deep down that it wasn’t the work that I wanted to be doing.
With four years of work experience under your belt, you decided to go back to school for your MBA. That must have been a huge decision. What factors played a role in making that decision?
I was doing well at PwC, but I had this nagging feeling that I was climbing the wrong corporate ladder. I looked at what was in front of me and I just knew deep down that it wasn’t the work that I wanted to be doing.
Even though I knew I was on the wrong path, going back to school wasn’t the obvious choice. I really didn’t want to spend the money. Grad school is expensive! I was making a good income at my job and walking away from a paycheck to take on a lot of debt was terrifying.
I did a lot of research before deciding to apply to school. I talked to people in all different fields—from urban planning, to organizational development, to marketing—and asked them about their job, their career path, and what they didn’t like about what they were doing. After about a year of contemplating what I wanted to do, I decided that getting my MBA, focusing on marketing and strategy, and taking out loans for the $100k tuition was my best option.
What was the transition to Duke like—not just the physical move from west to east coast, but the transition from a corporate environment to a school setting?
After spending a year thinking about it, I was so ready to get back to school. When I’m learning, I feel alive. And getting to go to class everyday and learn was amazing. It was completely different from undergrad because the courses were focused on exactly what I wanted to learn. I had considered doing a part-time program so I could continue getting a paycheck while in school, but after really thinking about what I wanted to get from my degree I decided that I wanted to go all in and immerse myself in a program. I was grateful for the opportunity to be in school and fully aware of the debt I was taking on, so I worked really hard to get as much from the classes and extracurricular activities as possible.
While the transition to a school environment was easy, moving across the country was difficult because I knew no one. At the same time that I was moving east, my boyfriend (now husband) was moving west to Hawaii for his job, which made the move that much more intimidating and lonely. Even though it was tough, the move made me much more independent and was great prep for our eventual move abroad.
What was the most valuable insight you gained from your MBA program?
Duke taught me so much and I will always be incredibly grateful for my time there. I think the most valuable thing it taught me was to think differently, to question everything. Just because things have been done a certain way before doesn’t mean it’s the right way to solve a problem. It’s a skill I use every day to come up with solutions for my clients.
Feeling so lost in a new city made me really focus on what I wanted to do. I had the opportunity to strip away the expectations of what I should be doing in a career and focus on what would really make me happy.
Following graduation you moved back to the west coast to pursue a career in brand management with Procter & Gamble. Tell us about this role and your responsibilities. How was it different from your role at PricewaterhouseCoopers?
Brand management is kind of like being a mini-CEO, especially when you’re on a small brand like I was. You have your hand in everything and you work with dozens of people to design packaging, decide on pricing, launch new products, create marketing campaigns, review campaign artwork and copy, track sales, and manage the (multi-million) dollar budget. It’s a lot of work and there are a lot of people involved, but you are the one who gets to steer the ship. It was so cool to go to stores and see products on the shelf that I had helped put there.
Working in brand management was a balance of using my left-brained numbers side to make sure the business was on track and my right-brained creative side to review artwork, copy, and ads. You really have to be good at both to enjoy the job.
When you finally found your corporate footing, your husband’s job transferred him to London and you made the move overseas together. What was it like adjusting to a new normal in a new city?
It was so much harder than I thought it would be. I imagined spending my days in museums and cafes (and hanging out with Kate Middleton, naturally). But after a couple weeks here I started feeling really lost. I didn’t have a job, I didn’t have friends, and I didn’t have a purpose every day. On top of that, I still had those darn student loans!
Feeling so lost in a new city made me really focus on what I wanted to do. I had the opportunity to strip away the expectations of what I should be doing in a career and focus on what would really make me happy. Once I focused on myself and what I wanted for my future, I began to really enjoy the city more. I put myself out there and went to networking groups, finally made some friends, and created a real home here. The only thing I haven’t done yet is to hang out with Kate, but I’m still working on it.
Feeling a bit lost without a steady paycheck, you turned to writing as an outlet. The first site you wrote for was The Everygirl, and now you’re a contributor for Forbes as well! What did writing offer you that your previous careers didn’t?
The Everygirl was my first step into the online writing world and I am so grateful that Danielle and Alaina gave me a shot! It may sound silly, but coming from such a traditional corporate background, the online world felt a little like the Wild West. I didn’t understand it, I didn’t know how I could contribute to it, but I knew I wanted to try.
I love research and loved writing when I was teenager, but after writing so many corporate memos I forgot how much I loved other types of writing. Writing gives me a voice that I didn’t have when I was in a corporate role and the freedom to learn about things that I’m actually interested in. I love researching new topics, interviewing new people, forming an opinion on something new, and then sharing it with an audience.
Eventually, you took an even bigger leap and started your own consulting business. Tell us a bit about its launch. What were some challenges you faced in the process?
By far, the biggest challenge has been believing in my abilities. I think everyone, especially women, fall prey to the imposter syndrome. When I was signing my first clients, I constantly thought, “Who am I to be advising these businesses?” Honestly, the fear almost kept me from starting at all.
The idea that this isn’t a “real” job because I’m not employed by someone else has also been a huge mental hurdle for me. I’m so used to being on a corporate career path that not having a path in front of me can feel scary and like I’m not actually doing anything. I have to constantly remind myself that just because I’m not working for a giant company, I’m still doing something very real and making a difference for the people I work with.
What’s it like being your own boss after working for so many years in large corporate settings?
The best. I love getting to make my own decisions every day. And I love that I can work in my strengths every single day.
To be totally honest though, I work more than I did in a corporate job. A lot more. I haven’t mastered that whole work-from-the-beach thing. But I’m making the choice to work this much and to try to create something that is my own and I wouldn’t trade that for a job with fewer hours.
I have to constantly remind myself that just because I’m not working for a giant company, I’m still doing something very real and making a difference for the people I work with.
What is a typical workday like for you?
Not that exciting! I try to get up and get out for a walk with my dog first thing in the morning. If I don’t go outside before working from home I go a little crazy. When I come home I settle down into work by 8 a.m. Most of my clients are in the U.S., so I have the whole morning to work on writing, content creation, or marketing. At lunch I head to the gym or take my dog back to the park. Taking a break during the day is a non-negotiable for me because I need that downtime to recharge. My afternoons and evenings are full of client meetings and calls. I do have a couple of clients in London so I’ll meet them at a coffee shop or at their office, but my other client work is done over Skype. I usually wrap my calls up by 7 p.m. so I can have dinner with my husband. If there’s anything that I didn’t get to earlier in my day I’ll wrap it up after dinner.
What is one thing you wish you had known before you started your own business?
It’s going to be messy and you’re going to have no idea what you’re doing, but that’s OK. You will feel like you’re failing and you’ll feel like giving up, but that’s just part of the process. Don’t compare your beginning to someone else’s middle, because you’ll just end up feeling like a failure and putting too much pressure on yourself.
Also, work in your strengths. There is no way you’re going to know everything or be able to do everything. I used to look at other business owners out there and think that I needed to become more like them. I needed to have a beautiful design and know all about social media to have a successful business. I may not know or have those things (now), but I’ve focused very intently on creating a business that utilizes my strengths. I may not know how to help a business promote themselves on facebook, but I’m great at helping businesses come up with strategic growth plans, streamline their operations, and create effective, efficient (and happy!) teams. I’m playing to those strengths and not worrying about the rest.
Best moment of your career so far?
The first time I paid myself. Even though I own my business and only have one other employee, it took me a long time to give myself a paycheck because I was trying to reinvest everything I could. It wasn’t much, but the first paycheck I gave myself reinforced that I’m on the right path.
What advice would you give to your 23-year-old self?
Don’t try to plan everything out. When I was 23 I remember putting a lot of pressure on myself to have my career path all figured out by my 25th birthday. I have no idea why I gave myself that deadline, but I’m so glad it didn’t work out that way.
This Steve Jobs quote is something I try to live by: “You can’t connect the dots looking forward; you can only connect them looking backwards. So you have to trust that the dots will somehow connect in your future.” It reminds the crazy planner in me that while I may not know exactly where I’m headed, when I look back, it will all make sense.
Erica Gellerman is The Everygirl…
Ideal way to spend a day off in London?
I love starting my day with a long walk through either Hyde Park or Battersea Park. Green spaces cover about 40 percent of London so even though I live in the center of the city, I’m never far from a beautiful park.
After that, it’s off to brunch somewhere in my neighborhood. If it’s sunny I love to go to Bluebird to make use of their outdoor patio. London has some absolutely fantastic markets (food, antique, furniture, flea…you name it!) so with an afternoon free I’ll go spend some time browsing a new market. And then in the evening my husband and I love to go find something different to do. We’ll grab last-minute tickets to a show in the West End, we’ll go to a museum late night (most museums are free and have one night where they’re open until 10 or 11 p.m.), or we’ll grab a fun dinner in Soho, one of the livelier neighborhoods in the city.
I usually start my day around 5:15 a.m., which sounds crazy but I love getting up before the city wakes up. I just throw on workout clothes, make my bed, have a quick green smoothie, and then I’m out the door with my dog for a long walk through Hyde Park. On my way back from the park I pick up a latte and get back to my flat around 7 a.m. From there I get ready for work, clean up a little around the house, and settle into work by 8 a.m. I used to try to work out in the morning, but I realized that a good walk outside does so much more for me. I feel centered and ready to get focused on my work.
I wish I knew how to…
Speak another language. Living in Europe I’m jealous of all the languages I hear around me.
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
Of course I’d love to have lunch with my mom and my sister, because I really hate that I don’t get to see them very often.
But I’d also absolutely love to have lunch with Bethenny Frankel. I am a huge fan and I love that she’s created an amazingly successful business, but is also very open about her failures and lessons along the way. I’d probably order a salad (anything else would be too hard to eat) and a Skinny Girl Margarita, of course.