DON'T INTERRUPT: SARA HYMAN
Becky Brinkerhoff is the social media manager for 3% and a copywriter at Arnold Worldwide in Boston. She’s a diversity and inclusivity activist in all things and hasn’t been “chill” a single day in her life.
If there is a consistent theme throughout Sara Hyman’s life, it’s this: she has never been afraid to speak her mind. And, while that trait got her sent to the front of her high school classroom, it’s something we find inspiring today.
Sara is CEO, North America and founder of Jones Knowles Ritchie NYC. We spoke to her about her cross-continental career path, JKR’s work with the DREAM organization, and the dangers of wearing too many bangles to work.
WHAT WERE YOU LIKE IN HIGH SCHOOL?
My Mom would say I was lippy. That meant I was always in trouble for talking too much or talking back; I was always being moved to the front of the class.
Part of me looks back and wonders if I had enough fun. I was into everything. If there was something going on, I wanted to have a go at it. I got good grades, and I was the sports captain, and I was the school Head of House. I was definitely one of those kids who loved school. I went to a boarding school as a day girl, but all I wanted was to be a boarder. I wanted to there all the time, constantly at school. When my mom picked me up at 9PM, I’d be sad to leave the action.
The greatest irony is that I spent 18 years being good at a lot of stuff, and then I got expelled three months before the end of my big exams. But that’s life. Not everything is what it is on the surface. Just because you're good in your classes or good at sports doesn’t mean there’s not danger around the corner.
WHAT KEEPS YOU UP AT NIGHT?
When I was in my early 20s, I would have a lot of sleepless nights thinking about everything from relationship drama to work. I'd play situations over and over in my head.
Now, my husband has a large photo album on his phone of me sleeping in the most ridiculous of places. He has photos of me asleep at the dinner table, at Wimbledon, at a Seinfeld concert. It doesn’t matter how tranquil, romantic, spectacular, or loud the environment; I’m going to fall asleep. I don’t know what that says. Maybe I have less drama to keep me awake.
But, there still are the nights that keep us all tossing and turning. Not too long ago, I was awake all night in an internet deep-dive about recycling. I stressed myself out so much about separating my plastics that I stayed up all night not even thinking global warming, just my personal trash recycling.
HOW DID YOU GET WHERE YOU ARE?
My career path is atypical for folks today because the company I’m now the CEO of is the only job I’ve ever had.
I was a business school kid and I knew I would go into something to do with marketing. I didn’t know much more than that. I stumbled across this ad for JKR that caught my eye. It was just these silly animated gifs that reminded me of computer games I used to play. So, I did all the usual shizzle you have to do to get a job and joined as an account exec. When I got to the account director level, I had been working in London for six years. We brought in a new managing director from Ogilvy around that time. He’d been there for about a week and I was like, “Hey dude, nice to meet you, I’m moving to New York.” I didn’t have a job lined up, but I needed a change.
He, in his infinite wisdom, said: "Maybe we can figure something out."
So, I ended up taking a risk where I got a visa and they got me a desk in New York. Within a few months, we were asked to pitch Budweiser and we won it. Everything started gathering steam from there. We won a client, then we won another client. It was just me in New York, and everything else was happening in London. After a year or so of that, I told the guys I didn’t want to go home and that I thought we could build something here. I said, "Let’s get an office and hire some employees." We did that six years ago. And now we are where we are.
That’s how I got here. Just hustling and taking each day as it comes.
HAS THERE EVER BEEN A SITUATION WHERE YOU FEARED SPEAKING UP WOULD HARM YOUR CAREER?
I’ve never been scared to say what I think. At the beginning of my career, people who worked with me may have said to me going into a meeting: “Hey you’re here to listen.” Which was absolutely right because I was young. But, they would come out being like “Okay, we couldn’t stop your talking.”
I’ve never felt like it was going to put me in danger or like it would deposition me. I’ve just sort of spoken and trusted myself to make sure nothing stupid would come out of my mouth that would put me in a situation that would jeopardize my role or my standing.
Very early on in my career, I was put on the business that makes Durex condoms. They also make things like foot fungus creams. I remember being in meetings at 23 years old and they’re talking about the new innovation that was the vibrating cock ring. I’m thinking, “how did I get here.” Those were the situations I was least likely to speak up.
GO BACK TO THE BEGINNING OF YOUR CAREER. WHAT WOULD YOU TELL YOURSELF?
I definitely went through some of the classic things people go through: being in a hurry, wanting promotions, getting quite angsty about it when I felt like I was owed my dues. As I get older and look over the arc of my career, I’d tell myself to have faith. Great talent will always be recognized and if it’s not recognized, you need to work somewhere else. There’s just no point being angry about what you think you deserve. Your responsibility is to put yourself in a situation where you feel like you’re surrounded by people who will see your talent and will nurture your talent because, if you’ve got it, success will come. You don’t need to put that much pressure on yourself.
That being said, I do feel like I’ve made my career happen. If I hadn’t chosen to move to New York, then there's no way I’d be here. There’s no way I’d be able to say I’m the CEO of North America. You do have to make your own choices.
WHAT'S THE MOST EMBARRASSING PROFESSIONAL FAUX PAS YOU'D BE WILLING TO ADMIT?
I had a few fashion bloopers early on in my career. I was this small town kid who was so excited about moving to London and working in a creative agency. I was going to dress for the occasion. I was going to get creative with my wardrobe. Well, I found out a year after it happened that the London office leadership team discussed if they should talk to me about my dress sense.
There I was thinking I was bringing the heat, but the management team was having conversations about whether I should tone down my bangles and belts and glittery eyeshadow.
I find it hilarious now, but when I found out I was absolutely mortified. I am so not cool.
WHAT IS DREAM AND HOW ARE YOU INVOLVED?
Most people know it as a charter school. But, it's really an amazing youth development organization that stems back to a bunch of volunteers who happened across an abandoned lot in Harlem in the early 1990s and transformed it into a baseball diamond. The Field of Dreams became a place to foster community and teach kids baseball. Soon it became a summer program, then an after-school program rooted in baseball. They realized through baseball they were teaching some fundamental lessons about life and decided to do a school next. Since then, they’ve been figuring out how to expand.
As for how we got involved, we’re in the same building as Anomaly and we’re close to those guys. One of the founders, who is now on DREAM’s board, called me and said, “Sara, I think we need your help. This organization I work with is trying to figure out who they are. They have this charter school and this baseball team, but they need to be one brand. They need to unify and share their mission. I need people who do great branding and identity to help them find themselves.”
So, we met the team and the rest happened from there.
WHAT DO YOU SEE IN THE FUTURE FOR YOUR WORK WITH DREAM?
We did part one, which was to unify these brands. But I want to have an ongoing partnership with them. They’re helping kids dream about what their futures could look like. When you speak to the kids about their future, they say a lot of the same things like “I want to be a lawyer” or “I want to be a pop star.” The other day we did a session at our office where we talked to the kids about creativity and design.
I’d like to figure out how we continue partnering with them to show these kids that creativity is just as credible a career to aspire to as anything else. Their future could be a creative one.
We did one day of that. But should we try and raise money to invest in scholarships? Could we have their graduates come here for apprenticeships? What might that look like? We’ll see. It’s still very early days.
YOU HAVE TWO MINUTES TO SPEAK UNINTERRUPTED.
If anything, I want to mention that what you’re doing is great and very pertinent to some of the things I’ve experienced. I’ve said “Don’t interrupt” so many times over the years after seeing it happen to me and other people. And, yes, I’ve been interrupted and it infuriates the hell out of me. But, beyond me, really any form of interruption pisses me off like crazy because everyone has a right to be heard.
Sara Hyman is CEO, North America and founder of Jones Knowles Ritchie NY.She is responsible for building the agency reputation, attracting the best talent, evolving JKR’s capabilities and setting the strategic vision in North America. She has led the team to build strong and lasting client relationships across the business with key clients such as AB-Inbev, Unilever, Kraft Heinz, Dunkin Brands and Diageo.
Don't Interrupt is an interview series from The 3% Movement that showcases inspirational industry women.
Cover Illustration by Raphaela Putz.