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Advice / Career Paths / Exploring Careers

How 4 Leaders Got to the Top—and What You Can Learn From Them

If you’re vying to be a leader at your company or in your field, it can be hard to figure out how to get there. How can you climb the ladder to the top and inspire people along the way?

Well, the best way is to learn from folks who have done it before.

Read on for the stories of five people in leadership positions at our partner companies—along with the lessons you can learn from their paths to success.

1. Maya Perez

Board Member and Co-editor, Austin Film Festival

Her Story: Even though she studied political science in college, Maya Perez taught herself about agenting and publishing through research. She started her career at William Morris Endeavor, beginning in the mail room and working her way up. When it came for a career move, Perez knew she wanted to keep working with writers—but without having to focus so much on the bottom line.

With the company’s focus on screenwriters, AFF felt like the right move, and she spent 10 years as its conference director before pulling back to lead in a more part-time capacity as a board member. She focuses on forming strategic partnerships, guiding long-term business decisions, and helping produce “On Story”—a TV series on PBS presented by AFF.

Her Leadership Lesson: If you want to get to the top, be detail-oriented, be a strong planner, and make deadlines—but prepare to make it work when it all falls apart.

Hear From Maya | Work for Austin Film Festival

2. John Ballay

Co-founder and President, Knot Standard

His Story: John Ballay grew up in a family of entrepreneurs, so despite his successful post-college career in investment banking, he couldn’t stop thinking about starting his own venture. And thus, he began Knot Standard, a custom clothing platform for men.

These days, he has his hands in a little bit of everything, from running business strategy and development initiatives to meeting with his team members to make sure everything’s running smoothly.

His Leadership Lesson: Sometimes you have to put in a little (or a lot of) extra work on the side of your full-time gig to get to the place you ultimately want to be as a leader.

Hear From John | Work for Knot Standard

3. Eileen Lee

Chief Operating Officer, Venture for America

Her Story: Eileen Lee had a lot of ups and downs before finding her place at Venture for America. She studied economics and attempted to go into investment banking after college, but didn’t get any job offers because hiring managers could see her heart really wasn’t in it. Instead, she became a consultant at Accenture, where she stayed for six years before burning out and quitting.

After four months of unemployment, she met the founder and CEO of VFA and was sold. For the past three years, Lee has been working tirelessly to make sure everyone at VFA—from partners to employees to fellows—is happy and supported.

Her Leadership Lesson: Don’t let the downs get you down. One failure doesn’t mean you’ll never be an awesome leader.

Hear From Eileen | Work for Venture for America

4. Tanya Bakalov

Co-founder and Senior VP, Operations, SevOne

Her Story: Tanya Bakalov thought she was going to be an accountant her whole life—and was even on the partner track at Deloitte and Touche—until Vess Bakalov came to her with the awesome idea for SevOne and convinced her to leave her current career and start it with him.

Now, she is a leader in the global organization, making sure SevOne’s product shipment is smooth and efficient.

Her Leadership Lesson: “There’s a lot unknowns and uncertainties that get thrown at you in life, and if you work hard enough and you put in the effort and you’re willing to try to do something new and be creative with it and also have a lot of fun with it, you can take your career to the next level. And it’s really up to you to do that.”

Hear From Tanya | Work for SevOne

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