Growing up, my mother always encouraged me to try new things and pursue new goals, even if it meant pushing outside my comfort zone. She would tell me that each experience was a chapter in the book of my life, and that no matter what happened, trying new things and putting myself out there would make for a more interesting book. That message gave me a sense of confidence to step outside my comfort zone, and I think to notice opportunity even in seemingly insignificant moments.
In college, I was a molecular biology major with plans to attend medical school and become an ER doctor after I graduated. One night late in my junior year, while working as a volunteer in the University of Michigan hospital emergency room, I witnessed a very traumatic tragedy. It occurred to me as I walked home that night that my desire to work with and inspire people and my love of science, math, and language could be fulfilled in other ways. While I have tremendous respect for ER physicians, that night I decided I would follow a different path. Having grown up in a family of entrepreneurs, I was drawn to business, so I took a leap and, as I entered my senior year, I pursued a second major in economics, which would serve as a foundation for a career in business.
My first job out of college was as a consultant to Fortune 100 companies. There I was at the age of 23, face-to-face with senior executives who were listening to what I had to say about their business. Three years later, while on a consulting project for a joint venture between two large pharmaceutical companies, an executive commented that I should consider applying to Harvard Business School. Though the thought had never occurred to me before, the seed was planted. I took a leap, applied to HBS, and was accepted, setting my path off onto yet another new trajectory.
After business school, I worked on Wall Street, advising large retail and consumer products companies (Donna Karan, Tiffany & Co, Jones of New York) in mergers and acquisitions and IPOs. While there, I was contacted by a headhunter about an opportunity in corporate development at Microsoft. At that point, I knew very little about technology. To me, a server was a member of the wait staff at a restaurant, not a network computing device. But I was intrigued by the story of Bill Gates’ entrepreneurship, and I had recently happened to attend a friend’s wedding in the Seattle area (where Microsoft is located), so I took a leap and accepted an interview. The new opportunity felt like a good fit, so I shocked my friends in NYC and relocated cross-country to Seattle to embrace this new adventure.
One day, not long after I started at Microsoft, I ended up sitting on a plane next to a senior executive who was also about to join the company to lead a new group dedicated to serving small- and mid-sized businesses. We kept in touch as the months went by, and soon I had an offer to lead marketing for the group. At that point, I made the leap from finance to marketing, and felt that by being part of a business that serves the needs of entrepreneurs and small businesses, I was going back to my roots.
When I look back on my career, I see a series of little occurrences, through which glimmers of opportunity shined through in the moment. In some cases, I recognized the opportunity, but I’m sure in others I did not. While I’m very happy with where I am today, and with all the amazing experiences I’ve been fortunate to have in my career, I’d encourage my younger self to open her eyes even wider to what opportunities present themselves in everyday situations and encounters.
There’s a notion that serendipity is just happenstance, but I’ve come to believe it’s about noticing things, listening to those you encounter, being curious about what’s around the corner, and then being willing to embrace the opportunities you discover.
It can be scary to take a leap, especially if a new venture is a dramatic departure from your current path. But when I need encouragement, I think of my favorite quote, from Goethe: “Whatever you can do or dream you can do, begin it! Boldness has genius and power and magic in it!”
And when you need the courage to be bold, simply ask yourself, “What’s the worst that could possibly happen?” When you have the answer, ask, “Can I live with that?” And if the answer is yes, then take a leap!
Read more words of wisdom from inspiring women in our "Lessons to My Younger Self" series.
Cynthia Bates is the Vice President of Microsoft’s U.S. Small- and Mid-Sized Business Organization, where she is responsible for the company’s end-to-end SMB sales and marketing efforts. Armed with a wealth of management experience leading high performing teams and expertise in sales, marketing, strategy and corporate development, Bates is an 11 year Microsoft veteran. Before joining Microsoft, Bates was Senior Vice President in Merrill Lynch & Co’s. Investment Banking, Retail and E-Commerce Industry Group. Bates also previously worked as a management consultant for Strategic Planning Associates. Bates has bachelor’s degrees from the University of Michigan and an MBA from Harvard University.More from this Author