A Conversation with Jane Park

A Conversation with Jane Park

“What’s the worst thing that could happen?”

This is a question Jane Park has asked herself many times over. It’s the one question that has freed her up, time and again, to step outside comfort zones and forge her own paths.

Her reinvention from corporate consultant to Starbucks exec to founder and CEO of Julep has been a journey filled with many uncertain moments. But the mom of two hasn’t let them get in the way of her true north: helping women find their voice and claim their seat at the table.

We sat down with Jane to chat about the people and experiences that have helped her create her best version of her life.

As it turns out, it also takes a village to raise and nurture a self-made boss.

Is it true that a kind stranger paid for your SATs?

Yeah! I didn’t realize I needed to take the SATs to apply to Princeton because for Canadian schools you don’t have to take them. I went by myself in January, the very last SATs you could take. In Canada, you usually you don’t have to pay for school-related things, so I didn’t realize that you had to have money to take the SATs. I got to the front of the line, and they I asked me where my check was.

The guy behind me was like, “You’re not here with a parent?” He then offered to pay for my SATs fees. I got his address, so we sent him a check later to pay him back. But I wouldn’t have been able to apply and I probably wouldn’t have been able to attend Princeton if he hadn’t offered to pay for me that day.

I think about that day a lot because if you think about it, we were all competing for the same spots. So it was a super nice thing to do. I’ve often thought about trying to track him down to let him know how much I appreciated his kindness.

I have this fantasy that he’ll read one of these interviews and realize what a big difference his empathy really made.

That’s a great story.

I think a lot of success comes from hard work and perseverance, but it also has a lot to do with help from other people along the way. The road to success is paved with many of acts of kindness like that one, which make all the difference.

Was there a specific moment in your early life when you realized that men and women were, in fact, not on equal playing fields?

Growing up in a very Korean household, it was always sort of the case. There was always a lot more women in the kitchen and doing a bulk of the housework. So, yeah, I think it was just a reality. It wasn’t a moment of revelation for me, but just an understanding that the rules were different.

I think I’ve always had an appreciation that the rules were different because I’m from an immigrant family. And it’s actually been a super helpful thing to me overall. I realized that there can be lots of sets of rules! I think people struggle more when they think that there are set rules and they don’t know what they are, but they feel like they have to figure them out to be successful.

The reality is there are no set rules. For example, my parents really felt it was important for the kids to come greet them at the door when they came home. I love that, actually, but at the time it felt like the sky would fall if we didn’t abide by that household rule.

So you and all of your siblings would have to…

Yeah! We’d just drop whatever we’re doing and go say hi when our parents came home. But then you realize that doesn’t happen at your friends’ houses, but they still love each other. There are different rules in different cultures. You can make your own rules and figure out what works for you. I’ve always had an appreciation for that.

Fast forward to when you went into the professional world, was there a moment when you realized that you would have to work harder at proving yourself as an immigrant woman? Or was that more of a slow revelation?

I don’t think it was a revelation. I think I just knew it. There wasn’t a moment when I “figured it out.” It was just the reality of it.

I was always more interested in what systems continue to perpetuate inequality and what we can do to change it. How do we help level the playing field?

In college, my senior thesis was around women in poverty. How do we level the playing field for women who need childcare in order to work and what ways are other countries dealing with this issue?

Speaking of working women, what advice do you have for women who are plagued with feelings of insecurity or even “impostor syndrome” in their careers?

The most important thing is to realize that there is not one set of rules. The impostor syndrome requires that you believe that there is a set of things that you are not living up to.

I’ve worked with Fortune 500 CEOs and realized that, hey, everybody’s just sort of making it up as they go. Once you see that there’s not one set of rules, you start to realize that you can forge your own path.

Nobody has the “official rule book to life.” Knowing that really does free you up to try different things and to not feel as much pressure to do everything perfectly. The truth is there is no perfect.

“Once you see that there’s not one set of rules, you start to realize that you can forge your own path.”

What are some ways you’ve had to assert your self-worth throughout your career? How did you make sure your voice was heard?

Opening up doors for yourself and creating opportunities usually begins by just raising your hand and showing up. That starts with realizing that nobody else has a better claim to that time, or that success, than you do.

When I was in law school, I had a class that was 50-50 men and women. When applications for the Supreme Court clerkships, which is the most prestigious job you can land after law school, came in, it went to 90-10. 90 percent of applicants were men!

It begs the question: Why is it that nine times more men applied for this job than women did? Why is it that women who had the equivalent of straight As didn’t feel confident enough to put up their hand?

It’s funny, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was recently asked when we would know that there were enough women on the Supreme Court. And she answered, “When there are nine.” Which is kind of shocking, but there have been nine men appointed, so why couldn’t we have nine qualified women?

While it’s true that are still a lot of challenges and systems working against women, the reality is this: You can’t get a job that you don’t apply for.

I don’t begrudge all the men who applied. Of course, they should apply if they feel they have value to add. I wouldn’t say that the applications on the male side have to go down. It was that more women had to put up their hand and take that risk of rejection. And listen, if the Supreme Court rejects you, it shouldn’t be that big of a deal. They reject a lot of people! That’s a really, really hard job.

The point is we shouldn’t organize our lives around not being rejected.

Any advice for women on how to overcome fears of rejection?

What we can do better as a group is to tell more diverse stories of rejection so that other women don’t feel alone, to help them realize that being told “no” is not the end of the road.

Do you think men are more likely to play down feelings of rejection than women?

I think younger women particularly take rejection more personally, that they hesitate to apply for things that they feel carry a high risk of rejection.

“Opening up doors for yourself and creating opportunities usually begins by just raising your hand and showing up.”

How did your friends and family react when you were thinking about leaving your corporate job to start your own venture?

They were mostly very supportive. Some of my close friends were like, “Ah, finally!” I hadn’t fully recognized these entrepreneurial urges I had all along. I wouldn’t have described myself as an entrepreneur at that time; it was just me trying to create the best life I could.

What ultimately led you to make that final leap?

I didn’t have a template for how to be 50-50 with my kids or how to have a partnership around raising them. We’re sort of making it up on the fly every day. So that was kind of my overall approach to everything—including my career.

A really good girlfriend of mine, who was one of the people who encouraged me to take that leap, would always ask, “What’s the worst thing that might happen if it doesn’t work out?”

I think that’s a great question for a lot of people to ask themselves. Like, really, what’s the worst thing that can happen? Often times, it’s not as bad as you imagine.

Thinking of that worst-case scenario is actually really freeing because it’s almost always not the case. You just say, “OK, this one didn’t work, but I can always go back to doing what I was doing.”

And once you realize that, it’s very liberating to be able to create the life that you want. It made me realize that I had a lot more entrepreneurial spirit in me…

And your friends and family knew it all along? 

Nobody was really surprised. My first investor was a former mentor of mine. I would just call him up every once in a while and chat about my ideas around Julep.

He would say things like, “Is this like NPR? Will you stop calling me if I give you money to invest?” And that made me realize I didn’t even know the right words to use when asking for money. It’s really hard at first. I just kept talking about this idea and what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know how to take the next step.

Do I say, “Do you want to invest?” That sounded very impersonal to me. It’s hard to ask people that, you know.

Is it easier when it’s an investor that you don’t know well?

It’s just hard to ask anybody for money, actually. I had to find the vocabulary to be able to do it well. I landed on showing them the vision and then saying, “Do you want to participate?” It felt more like a journey that we’re taking together.

What are some hard things you’ve had to compromise in order to reinvent yourself and your career?

I don’t know that it’s any major big compromise. I think every day you’re compromising and juggling. I think none of us have the whole work-life thing perfectly balanced. It’s always too far one way or the other. I think the word compromise assumes that you have a specific thing in mind and you are making trade-offs to get it. And in some ways, when you’re just creating, then it doesn’t really feel like a compromise.

Are you compromising when you’re molding something out of clay? No, you’re just doing.

Do you feel that if you want something bad enough, that the time you put into it, the inevitable time away from your family, doesn’t feel like compromise?

You can look at things from a framework of compromise, or you can look at things as just doing what is necessary and figuring out what your true north is and making that happen.

The power of female friendships has inspired you so much that you started a business based on fostering those relationships. How do you to stay connected with your girlfriends through busy schedules, kids, and different time zones?

It’s never enough. I think one thing that good girlfriends do is to not hold that time apart over each other. No matter how much time goes by, our relationship should never be wracked with guilt, and we should just be appreciative of the time that we can create. We try to do girls’ weekends at least once a year. Maybe it doesn’t happen every year, and that’s okay.

Where is your favorite spot you’ve gone to with your girlfriends?

It’s really just about finding a nice place where you can reconnect. Anywhere you can find a good bottle of wine!

“The key is finding the fun in navigating the challenges.”

It’s such a pivotal moment in our society right now, particularly when it comes to issues directly affecting women. How do you navigate hard conversations around these issues with your teenage daughter? 

I think a really great thing to role-model is how fun it can be to a create little wins for yourself along the way. That’s actually what I really loved about the Throw Anything at Me campaign that we did here at Julep—that it’s not about being downtrodden, but rather an honest acknowledgement of the everyday challenges we face.

Change takes a long time. I think moms wish they could create a less challenging world for their daughters right away. And I’ve tried. But it’s always a step forward, two steps back, two steps forward, a step back.

There’s a constant shifting. Even when you make progress, you can lose it at different moments in time. The key is finding the fun in navigating the challenges and inspiring young women to see the puzzle of life as an exciting challenge, not looking at them as something demoralizing or depressing. Celebrate all the little wins and know that they all add up to make a real difference.

What are some ways you’ve helped create little wins along the way as a business owner?

One of the things that we did at Julep early on was we always asked law firms and accounting firms, or anybody we hired to work with us, how many women they had in their senior leadership team. It was a simple thing to do, but at the very least it allowed us to open up the conversation when we held some economic power as we hired consultants.

How do we use that power as thoughtfully as possible? It’s great to be able to acknowledge your power and to use it in a way that is helpful to other women.

It’s great that you took your daughter with you to the Women’s Marches. What was that experience like?

It’s really about showing her a spirit of community. It’s sending that message to each other that you’re not alone. I think that is actually a real benefit that girls and women should take more advantage of, that spirit of sisterhood and universal support for one another. As a mother of a son as well, I wish there was some sort of equivalent for boys.

I think boys and men today have a super fine line to walk, and they may not have the same sense of purposeful community guiding them as girls do. The Women’s March for me was a moment where it didn’t necessarily have to be about impact—and I’m all usually about impact—but it’s really more about that physical manifestation of togetherness and community.

What emotions were going through you during the marches?

It really was amazing to see that many people making this happen on a grassroots level—a profound historic moment. It was beautiful to see it cross generational lines as well. One of my favorite signs I saw was by this older woman that read, “I can’t believe I still have to protest this shit.” I think it gives you a realistic sense that change does take time. Women like her have been showing up for generations.

You’re very passionate about women having a voice. How have you recently tried to amplify women’s voices?

I recently went to Alabama on my way home from a QVC on-air, right before the Doug Jones vs. Roy Moore election, to help with voter protection. There are so many African American women there who have perfect voting records. I met one woman who was 98 and had never missed an election despite the fact that she, up until that point, had never had her candidate elected in Alabama.

It comes back to the idea of showing up, being a part of your community even when you don’t get your way, to not be demoralized by the battles lost.

Again, change takes time. It hinges upon people showing up and fighting for what they believe in. Sometimes they spend an entire lifetime fighting for change, so we have to do what we can to keep the conversations moving forward. And sometimes you have to put yourself in the room where it happens.

Was that a last-minute decision to go to Alabama?

I’ve never done anything like that before. These days, I’m more open to things where I don’t have to be the leader. I can just be a body helping the cause. I just want to be useful to people. So, yeah, it was a last-minute decision. I went with a girlfriend of mine. We just showed up, Googled the Doug Jones office, downloaded an app to see how many doors we had to go knock on, did Costco runs for the volunteers. We just did what we could to be useful at the time.

I think it’s a powerful thing to ask yourself: How can I be useful?

Absolutely. And it probably takes a certain amount of tenacity, would you say?

It takes a tolerance for ambiguity. A lot of people feel they need a plan to make a real impact, that they need to know to all the information up front. We were open to just showing up. I think being active in the community or for a cause is a great thing for women to do together on girls’ weekends. We ate a lot of barbecue, we had a lot of fun, but we also made ourselves helpful to the cause.

If you believe that through hard work you can be useful in some way, then showing up and seeing where you can plug in is actually fun. But you have to be open to not having the perfect plan laid out in front of you.

 

 

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Would you attribute that same tolerance for ambiguity as something that helped with your success in business?

When I was working at a Boston consulting group, that was one of the dimensions we measured people on. Life is ambiguous, especially if you want to do something different. If you want to create your own path, everything is ambiguous and you have to be open to making a lot of mistakes and just creating the next step for yourself.

What advice would you give your 21-year-old self?

Don’t beat yourself up. Nobody is watching you as closely as you’re watching yourself.

Almost everything you do can be improved upon. There are a lot of opportunities to fix things in life, for do-overs, so don’t be so hard on yourself.

Which woman has made the biggest impact in your life?

Actually, some of the most important mentors to me have been men who believed in me, who have taken me more seriously than I was willing to take myself. And it’s really important to remember in light of today’s Me Too and Time’s Up movements that men who step up and support women can still have a huge positive impact.

Sadly, in light of recent news, I’ve heard some men say that they’re more nervous about meeting alone with women or mentoring them. That’s the wrong approach in these pivotal times. What men have to do is lean in more to leveling the playing field. Certainly, my life wouldn’t have been possible if men didn’t take a chance on me.

That’s actually a unique perspective to come from because it’s so easy to get swept up in these movements and only look for women mentors.

Yeah, you have to have your mind open to the idea that a mentor is not somebody who has your perfect life.

Someone can be a mentor to you when it comes to communication skills and someone else with organizational skills, and you can learn something about leadership from almost anyone.

In essence, mentorship is really someone impacting your trajectory in a positive way. I think looking for that is an entirely different thing than looking for someone who has the kind of life you want.

What book are you currently reading?

“The Opposite of Loneliness” by Marina Keegan.

Where is your happy place?

Lying in bed, reading to my kids.

What would you say is your soft spot?

Definitely families and kids. I’m a little baby-crazy. I think it’s smart business practice, but also coming from my soft spot, to enable people that work for me to have the home life that they envisioned, especially around parenting. I think that’s so important.

What was your first job out of college and what was the biggest lesson you learned from it?

My first job was working as a corporate litigation attorney, and I hated it so much that I would literally say to my husband, “I would rather cut off my toe than go to work.” And he’d say, “Eww, nobody wants your toe!” Then he’d ask, “Why do you feel so stuck?” I had two Ivy League degrees, yet I felt really stuck.

Where was that sense of dread coming from?

It was this sense that I had limited options. I had law school debt to repay and responsibilities. But what I learned from that time is that your options are always a lot wider than you think.

I realized that I was actually super lucky. I wasn’t being grateful enough for the opportunities and the position that I had.

Once you look at life that way, it opens up a lot of things. I think that’s the answer to a lot of frustration in life. Appreciating where you are helps open more doors. It’s not just a simple gratitude practice. It’s really having your eyes wide open to all the opportunities that you do have in front of you and always asking yourself, “What’s the worst thing that could happen if I tried?”

I don’t think I was used to asking that question of myself at the time, and that’s why I was feeling a lot more stuck than I should’ve felt. Gratitude can really help you see that there are a lot of paths in front of you, that you’re never really stuck.