What does it take to get ahead around here?
What does it take to get ahead around here?
The answer for four young female professionals is closer than you might think 

A killer interview. A great connection. An outstanding resume. For many aiming to thrive in the current job market, this would appear to be the combination needed to swing the hinges off the doors to professional success. But for four young women living and working in Baton Rouge—recently named the “Worst Paying City in America for Women” by Daily Finance—there is much more.

Krystal Bennett, Allie Leung, Rachel Kazibutowski and Amy Strother remind us of an often-overlooked relationship that is vital to effective career-building: the relationship with one's self.

Krystal Bennett loves her job as a graphic design coordinator with the LSU Athletics Department, but her voracious creativity needed an additional outlet, so she created a design blog and online business called A Pinch of Lovely. Clients as far away as Nevada and California seek her charming, custom-designed invitations and stationery.

“With all the season's parties and showers,” says Bennett, “I'm kind of overwhelmed.”

But a double life as a university employee and passion-project entrepreneur can stretch her humility. When engaging existing clients and potential ones via social media outlets, Bennett struggles with marketing herself.

“One of the hardest parts of this business for me is learning how to brag,” she says. “Playing up your product and what great things you're doing is a big part of social media, but I'm not good at it. I need to step it up a notch.”

For Lamar Advertising's newest manager of marketing communications, Allie Leung, it wasn't social media, but south Louisiana itself that challenged her. The Denver native and NYU grad spent six years at beauty- and lifestyle-based PR agencies in New York City. A 14-hour workday was typical, and bosses with wildly unrealistic expectations, commonplace. From conjuring personalized Christmas gifts for beauty VIPs in a 24-hour time period to finding cashmere gloves for a client at midnight, Leung delivered admirably.

“When it comes to completely irrational deadlines, you just have to meet them, even if it means pulling an all-nighter,” Leung says. “You do whatever it takes.”

Leung's always-on-call, poised-for-action work ethic factored largely in her hiring and current success.

Lamar's chief marketing officer Tommy Teepell concurs.

“My dad once told me that you don't have to look far to find somebody smarter than you, but don't ever let anyone outwork you,” Teepell says. “No one can outwork Allie, and quite frankly, it's hard to find someone smarter. She possesses a servant heart and an ability to give attention to the smallest detail.”

Adapting that speed of productivity to the more laid-back Southern environment was a challenge for Leung.

“People down here think leaving the office at six is late,” Leung says. “It's awesome. The slower pace outside the office gave me the opportunity to branch out, meet new people, learn about the company and advertising industry, and then process everything. [With that time] I was able to take my previous experience in PR, apply it to my new job here and, I believe, add value to Lamar.”

Also adding value to her company is Rachel Kazibutowski. She completed the internal audit program at LSU, interned with Halliburton and earned a degree in international trade and finance from the E.J. Ourso College of Business. Essentially, she's done everything right. Now, as the corporate small business liaison officer for Shaw's environmental and infrastructure group, Kazibutowski's pristine work isn't the only thing that makes her stand out.

She's a 25-year-old in an office where the average employee is 41.

“It's interesting to see people's reaction to my age,” says Kazibutowski. “It's a fun challenge, because you have more to prove, and you can shock people by showing them that you're capable even if you are new to the workforce.”

Part of that challenge means taking extra strides to keep work and personal life separate, online and off.

“I'm a pretty positive, upbeat person, and outside of the office, I tend to act more casual; but, I try to tone that down when I'm working,” she says.“I don't want to be perceived as 'too bubbly' and then not be taken seriously, especially being as young as I am in this industry.”

Amy Strother, who owns Noelie Harmon and Denicola's, may not be in a male-dominated field. But her leap from healthcare to the small retail and furniture business four years ago has made her perhaps even more of a minority.

“I was putting a green store in the most non-green place in America,” Strother recalls. “It was scary!”

Mind the Gender Gap

Baton Rouge women earn 63% of what men do in comparable jobs. A recent report in Daily Finance reveals the Red Stick to be the worst-paying city for women in the United States. Although Amy Strother is now self-employed, years spent as one of the few female CEOs in South Louisiana's healthcare system inform her strong opinion on this glaring statistic.
"One can theorize about why this dynamic exists, and most would come to the same conclusion: We are still very traditional and conservative in the South, particularly in Louisiana," Strother says. "Unfortunately, that mindset has bothersome results, like pay differences. Women are not used to asking for more in the South; therefore, they tend to receive less. Ironically, women have proven to be more profitable business leaders because of their high degree of emotional intelligence. It's my opinion that the South hasn't embraced these truths, leading to an inevitable outcome of women being undervalued and misunderstood in the workplace.

With her house as collateral for the small business loan and her life savings at risk, Strother had a lot to lose. And she almost did.

“We were heavy eco-apparel in the beginning—bamboo, organic cotton and socially responsible clothing. It was probably 50% of our floor, and it completely flopped,” she says.

When a choice needed to be made, Strother flexed according to the customer. Is this just a pet project for me, she thought, or is this boutique for the community?

“Rather than think about my tastes and what I like and being vain in a way, I had to think about the person crossing the threshold of the store.”

Strother began stocking products from companies like TOMS, which sends a pair of shoes to needy children around the world for every pair purchased. The shoes are now one of Noelie Harmon's bestsellers.

“It can be really disconcerting when you know as few as 10% of the people buying them are motivated by TOMS' mission, but I have to remember that they're still putting shoes on people's feet, regardless of their motives,” she says.

Strother's deference to local buying trends isn't so different from Bennett's determination to embrace social media tenets that stretch her personality, Leung adjusting her internal speedometer to flourish in a new work culture or Kazibutowski's urge to prove that youth and professionalism can co-exist.

These women ultimately have something quite remarkable in common: resolve.

While outside forces may have prompted their individual adaptations, this underlying trait is key to their career-building success. It's what has allowed Bennett to turn the custom design blog she's so passionate about into a profitable business. It's gotten Leung from stuffing gift bags to managing the social media presence for Lamar's 200-plus locations.

It's how Kazibutowski secured a position that was previously held by a much older man. And it has made Noelie Harmon so popular that Strother is opening a second location in New Orleans.

Resolve is often the result of inward reflection—taking the time to assess personal strengths and weaknesses honestly.

These four women and others are doing that in order to find success in Baton Rouge. And while they aren't compromising their fundamental natures to build strong careers, they are reevaluating ineffective biases and ways of doing things.

These four women have discovered that cultivating a strong, working relationship with one's self can lead to profound personal and professional growth that may have otherwise remained untapped.

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