You Know Monica Wang by Her Side Hustle, but You'll Never Guess Her Full-Time Job
As much as we all like to pretend we have our lives together, most of us aren't pros in every area. Thankfully for us, we can gain constant inspiration from women who do kill it in multiple realms of the professional workforce. Enter Monica Wang, who is both a Director of Finance and the owner of her own photography business. Think you have to be either business-savvy or creative? Think again.
We talked to Monica about how she juggles her many passions, how she turned an introverted personality into a winning interview, and where she seeks daily inspiration (hint: her hubby may have something to do with it). Read on if you're in the mood to gain a major new #GirlCrush.
Name: Monica Wang
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Current Title/Company: Director of Finance at Saucey and Owner of Monica Wang Photography
Education: Bachelor of Science in Finance at University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign
What was your first job out of college and how did you land it?
My first job out of college was at Johnson & Johnson in their finance leadership development program. It was like a finance and accounting boot camp with 100 other peers from all over the country. It was an amazing and unforgettable experience. I was able to build so many relationships that I’ve carried through my career. I was also fortunate to learn three different disciplines of finance over a short period of two years.
I landed my full-time job by doing an internship with Johnson & Johnson during college. I am naturally introverted so the interview process was out of my comfort zone. During the process, I had to do team work exercises, impromptu presentations, and go through a series of interviews. I did the best I could and ended up getting an offer.
When did you leave Johnson & Johnson? What was your next step after that?
Even though working for Johnson & Johnson was such a great opportunity, I left because I wanted to know what else was out there. I was in my early 20s and had only worked for one company. Plus, I never felt like I fit into the company culture. It was very conservative when I was there. This is just one small example, but I remember that I was instructed to wear pantyhose with my toeless sandals because we couldn’t show bare skin on our legs. I am not even joking! I felt like I was being forced to fit in a box that I didn’t naturally fit into. Now looking back, I am glad I was able to recognize that back then and move on quickly. I ended up getting a job in retail finance in San Francisco which led me to other opportunities.
Finance is known as being a male-dominated industry. What do you feel you’ve learned from being in that situation? What advice would you give a female embarking on a career in finance?
This is so true in the real working world. There were periods of time when I was the only female in a finance team of males, but I had to learn quickly to stand my ground and voice my opinion when it needed to be heard. There are a lot of bullies out there and if you let them push you around, they will continue to do that so don’t let them do that to you — not even once. I had to quickly learn to always feel comfortable under pressure and in stressful situations. If you were not able to articulate an intelligent answer under those circumstances, it was really difficult to advance your career. I learned to be soft when I could be and hard when it was very clear what steps needed to be taken to meet our financial goals.
Photography has evolved from a hobby into a very successful side hustle. How did that creative journey start?
My husband bought me an SLR camera as a Christmas present a few years ago and I started taking pictures of anything and everything. I never thought I would be a photographer because of the lack of experience. It’s so easy to compare yourself to other people who have been doing photography for much longer and not think you are good enough, but I had to set all the negative noise aside and just go for it.
It’s so easy to compare yourself to other people who have been doing photography for much longer and not think you are good enough.
The more I got into photography the more obsessed I was with getting better at it. Photography is completely open-ended. You can do anything with it and there is a very wide-range of things you can photograph. I found it very challenging which is why I got hooked!
Can you tell us about your internship with Emily Henderson and what your biggest takeaway was from that experience?
I landed an internship with Emily Henderson when I was in between corporate jobs. I was ready for a change and I thought to myself: why not? I already had finance as a career and could always go back if something didn’t work out, so when I found an opportunity to do a creative internship, I went for it! Life is too short and I didn’t want to regret not trying.
My biggest takeaway from that experience was watching Emily work in real life! I learned that there were parts of the creative process that were extremely technical and methodical and my goal for that internship was to figure out what those elements of her master formula were. The great thing about Emily is that she writes it all on her blog! She provides so much good information and during the internship, I would read her blog and watch her work in person and then it all started to click in my brain. The experience was a series of ah-ha moments.
After your internship, how did you start gaining clients and work?
During my internship, I applied to Apartment Therapy to be a contributor. I blindly emailed a bunch of strangers I did not know to photograph their home for my portfolio and one thing led to another. I also quickly realized that I had to pick a photography lane. I wanted to pick a niche so that I could attract the type of work I wanted. It is almost impossible to be good at everything and I knew that I wanted to be very good at one thing and that was interiors.
You also work a full-time job as a finance director for a startup. Tell us about what you do!
I do! I work for a tech startup called Saucey. It is an on-demand alcohol delivery company (basically Uber for alcohol) which is amazing because I love my wine! My job is to manage the company’s finances. It is also to provide financial support and strategic direction on company-wide goals and initiatives.
I quickly realized I had to pick a photography lane. It is almost impossible to be good at everything and I knew that I wanted to be very good at one thing and that was interiors.
My day-to-day is managing our company’s budget/forecast, calculating the financial impacts on various business scenarios and what if’s. I have always found it to be really interesting to find ways to make more money! I love figuring how to improve on an existing business model and ways to scale it more quickly and efficiently. That’s when you know you are close to hitting that jackpot!
You’ve worked at a few startup companies which is a very unique environment — a big change from doing finance at a corporate company like Johnson & Johnson. What do you think it is about startups that keeps you engaged and coming back for more?
I have a hard time keeping my attention on one thing for a long period of time and in a start-up, you end up doing a little bit of everything. Everyone has at least two to four normal corporate jobs mushed into a hybrid role. I also love the flexibility of a start-up environment and ability to do anything. When you work with such a small team, it is very easy to see how your actions affect other departments and I gain a high-level of satisfaction knowing that every day my work matters.
How do you balance the two and what piece of advice would you give to women who are currently wearing multiple career hats?
Girl, it is hard. I won’t lie. A lot of times I feel like my separate careers are pulling me in different directions on different days of the week. However, one piece of advice that has allowed me to manage both for so long is to be completely open and honest with your boss. It’s important for them to understand where you stand and to be super clear about deliverables and deadlines. I also know that I wouldn’t have been able to get away with what I do in a very conservative corporate environment so it is important to find a working environment that fits you and for me, I found that at a tech startup environment. I am very lucky to have a great boss that genuinely cares about my well-being. Thank you Chris!
Do you have plans to be a full-time creative or are numbers just as big of a passion?
I love them both and it is hard to choose one over the other. I am lucky to have amazing people that I work with on a daily basis and to have financial stability. And at the same time, it is also extremely liberating to be a freelancer. You can pick and choose your own hours and who you want to work with. I eventually want to find a way to merge the two sides of my brain together and I see that as the next chapter of my career path.
How important would you say it is for women to have creative outlets?
I would say that it depends on your personality. I think that everyone should have an outlet but it doesn’t need to be creative. It could be volunteering for an organization that you strongly support, serving at your church, or focusing on your family. It’s important to have balance in your life so it isn’t focused on a singular thing. However, if you do have that itch to do something creative, I would say it is very important to not let your self-doubts hold you back. Sometimes you just have to take that leap of faith!
Girl, it is hard. I won’t lie. A lot of times I feel like my separate careers are pulling me in different directions.
How has your background in finance helped you navigate being a freelance photographer and doing business on the side?
It has helped me out tremendously. Not so much on how you would think though! Yes, it is great to know how to do your taxes so you gain the most write-offs but more than money, time is the most valuable commodity that a person has. The hardest lesson that I have hard to learn was how to value my time and to be selective about what projects I choose to work on. When I take on a job, I always ask myself what my financial goal and business objective is. I try to align all those sub-tasks to higher-level goals and objectives. It’s a very thoughtful process.
You said you’re very careful about the projects you accept. What projects are you not willing to do? Did you take these projects at the beginning of your career? At what point did you feel it was necessary to narrow your scope?
In the beginning, I did accept anything. I wanted to gain experience and figure out what I liked and didn’t like doing. I probably did that for 1.5 years before I realized that I was unhappy. I was driving around all throughout LA and taking various photography jobs. I was burnt out, to say the least. Luckily at that point, I was able to use social media to my advantage and as we all know Instagram is very powerful. It allows you to connect with people and brands that otherwise, you wouldn’t have had the opportunity to. I used it as a tool to showcase my work and attract potential clients.
Photographers are often asked to do work in exchange for press. How do you feel about this? Do you see it as a necessary business stepping stone?
I would say that in my case, it was worth doing work in exchange for press in the very beginning, but that type of exposure only takes you so far. Nowadays, I believe a strong Instagram account is more valuable than a hyperlink back to a website for a feature or tag on an IG post. If a bigger account tags you on an IG post and you do not have a strong IG account, you won't see very many follow-backs. It is more important that you have your own unique voice/brand and clearly showcase what skills you have to offer. So with that being said, I do not see it as a necessary business stepping stone to do work in exchange for press anymore because you can use social media to present your portfolio and use that as your platform.
What advice would you give someone who wants to become a photographer?
Watch a lot of YouTube and practice! There are so many tutorials online — it's crazy how easily accessible information is. You can also rent equipment at camera rental shops like Samy’s to test various cameras and which lens fit you best. Additionally, I would highly recommend taking a Photoshop and Lightroom class. That is what I did to learn and when I had specific questions, I would ask a knowledgeable instructor.
We are always seeing your work featured on major websites or publications. So much so that it makes us wonder how (or when) you sleep! Do you ever have trouble overloading your schedule? How do you manage so many different projects?
I do something that is not very commonly done by other photographers. One huge observation I had was that the editing process was a big time sink. It usually takes a photographer twice as long to edit photos compared to the actual shooting time. Most photographers will provide a ton of edited images to a client, however, I limit the number of images I edit for a client to a small amount that will actually be used and I communicate that very clearly to the client when they hire me. I typically ask my client to go through the images with me at the end of a shoot so they pick their selects so instead of editing 100 photos after a session, I end up editing 15 to 20. That alone has dramatically changed my life. I try to find efficiencies and process improvements in everything that I do.
We saw that you recently posted on Instagram that you are looking for an assistant. What made you feel like you were ready to take on help?
Finding an assistant is something that I have been thinking about for a long time and an action I should have taken months ago! As much as I needed someone to assist on photo shoots and be my second set of eyes, I also needed to find someone who had strengths in areas where I was weak and fill in those gaps. I am happy to announce I did find someone and she is working out amazingly well! I have also continued to get great clients that keep me busy and the scope of work has grown where it is physically impossible to do it on my own.
When I take on a job, I always ask myself what my financial goal and business objective is.
You’ve worked with lots of big brands and celebrities. Have you ever been starstruck?
It is always fascinating to see people you constantly watch on TV or see on social media and see them in real life! They may be exactly who you thought they would be or completely not. If I were to name anyone that I have been starstruck with, it is probably Jessica Alba, for obvious reasons, and the "Bachelor" girls! I am a huge "Bachelor" fan (no shame) so it has been a lot of fun shooting with Becca Tilley and Amanda Stanton. Both of them are complete sweethearts.
The only thing I have control over is trying to be the best version of myself. I refuse to spend time comparing myself to other people and focus on what they are doing.
When you’re taking pictures, what are you keenly aware of and trying to capture?
I am keenly aware of composition. It is so incredibly important when you are taking interior shots to visually portray all the elements as evenly and balanced as possible almost as if you were peering into the room in person. It’s so easy to visually distort an object in an image so I am very careful of my camera angles and not to go too high or too low.
What are your favorite pieces of equipment to use?
My favorite piece of equipment right now is this tripod gear. It really helps me to get the exact angle I am looking for on interior and product images and I am obsessed with it. I don’t know how I went this long without it!
You have a lot of friends that are photographers in Los Angeles as well. How do you stay competitive in your industry while still supporting other women?
I try not to even think of my peers as competition. I stay focused on myself and the work I provide to my clients. I also try to build real relationships and a high level of trust with my clients. For me, I make a point to clearly communicate deliverables, answer emails in a timely manner, listen to what my clients want (and put that as a higher priority than what I want), and sometimes the cumulation of those little things is just as important as taking a good photo!
What was the best career advice you’ve ever received?
The best career advice that I have ever received was from my husband and it’s, “You do you boo.” It makes me laugh, but it’s true! The only thing I have control over is trying to be the best version of myself. I refuse to spend time comparing myself to other people and focus on what they are doing. I have to do me.
What’s the most rewarding moment of your career so far?
The most rewarding part of my career is to have ongoing photography work with my clients. I am very fortunate to have a steady flow of inquiries throughout the year. It has felt like a journey to get to this point. I had to work very hard and diligently over the years. I have also gotten to the point where I feel confident in the quality of work that I provide no matter what it is. It is really important to create your own craft and build transferable skills that you can take anywhere regardless of what type of job you have or company you work for.
How important is it for you to disconnect and take breaks from working? Or do you feel that an entrepreneur never really turns it off? How do you unwind?
It is extremely important for me to have my “me time” to unwind for short periods of time. As soon as I get some rest, I am up and ready for more! It is like a switch I cannot turn off. My brain is always working and I am always trying to find ways to do things better and grow. When I am ready to relax or unwind, I go work out with my girlfriends, watch the "Bachelor" with a glass of wine, or take a good nap!
What’s a habit or routine that you swear by?
I pray on a daily basis and I have a strong belief in God. It is something that has grounded me throughout the years and it is at the center of my marriage. I truly lift all my burdens to God and let Him be in control of my life instead of trying to micromanage my life on my own.
How would you describe your aesthetic?
California laidback vibes with bits of boho-modern.
What advice would you give your 23-year-old self?
To trust your intuition more!
Monica Wang is The Everygirl...
Favorite dinner spot in Los Angeles?
Jon and Vinny’s
Last item you splurged on?
This blush pink dress from Reformation
If you had to swap homes with one person, whose would you take?
Jenni Kayne’s Beverly Hills home
Your camera roll is full of….
Pictures of my dog obviously!
If you could have lunch with any woman, who would it be and what would you order?
It would be my grandmother in her early 20's. She is a remarkable woman who escaped North Korea in her early teens as a refugee. I would have loved to know her more at that age because I know we would have been best friends. I would order sam gye tang, which is a comforting Korean chicken soup and one of my favorites!