Career Advice, Executive Feature

5 Inspiring Stories of Executives Who Started at the Bottom

Trusting in your career path can be challenging, whether you’re in your very first job or stuck at one you haven’t loved for months. That’s when you turn to the inspiration of others. Every one of these executives have started at the bottom, and now hold their title, and the work that comes with it, as a true badge of honor. Use these stories to find the inspiration you need to take the next step in your career, leave a job you hate, or pivot into a position you never thought possible.

The Tech Transformer

20 years later, Brandon Ridenour is CEO of ANGI Homeservices (parent company of HomeAdvisor, Angie’s List and Handy). This pre-law, political science major, achieving just average performance, was immediately jolted into a new world when he saw a video about the future of technology from Andersen Consulting, which would be his future employer.

He changed his major and worked for five hard years—including summers—to learn what he needed to move head first into the world of tech. He soon started his career as a Technology Consultant at Andersen Consulting where he was already transforming tech; as he says, “I was working on internet type ideas before the internet.”

Though only his first professional position, he was already taking a giant step toward his future—even if he didn’t know it yet. Ridenour says, “This job offered me the opportunity to work with Fortune 50 companies on projects of over $1B in size. As my first professional experience, this was such an important learning experience.”

Now, he no longer works as a “technical expert” but believes his experience in the burgeoning tech world helped him reach the level of CEO. “I started my career as a deep technology expert and then branched out to product and strategy, but the technical experience gave me a heads-up over other product peers. It gave me a much deeper understanding of the technology and product side and how it impacts the business side of the house. I wouldn’t be in the position I am today without this experience,” he explains.

What drove him so successfully from one position to the next? The same trait we see in all of these successful executives: passion. He says, “I am only successful when I’m engaged in things that I’m passionate about.”

The Entrepreneurial Salesman

Sales is merely a shadow of what it used to be, and Sam Meenasian, Owner and Vice President of Sales and Marketing Operations, USA Business Insurance, start at the very bottom 12 years ago. “I began in a small cubical in another insurance agency where every hour my manager did a drill meeting where we would practice on how to speak to customers to sell products.” Meenasian spent years going door-to-door, putting flyers on cars, all in hopes of getting one call out of hundreds.

In all that time, though, he always knew there was something bigger for him. He says, “I knew from day one that I wanted to own my own business and it didn’t take me much time or thinking to realize once I understood how important insurance is.” This desire to do something bigger fueled him through the months when he walked away with $500 after paying for expenses, like rent and food.

He made his first big move at a time when others may have given up. He was forced to leave his office, due to relocation of the company, and instead of walking away he took that first giant leap: he found a small space for himself that cost no more than $500 each month—willing to give up the little he had left each month to build this business.

With his own space, he still pushed through rough patches, with major personal lines losses that rocked his business. Again, this encouraged him to take another big step: shifting from personal insurance into business, “to balance out my loss ratios.” From there, he continued growing his business to be a successful and honest business insurance agency.

To this day, Meenasian appreciates where he is and the work he does, “There is not a single day I take for granted or work any less harder. I work full hours plus overtime and know all my customer base on an individual level and never try to change my morals and values to grow my business any faster or make more money.”  

The Career Changer

Dawn Anderson, founder and CEO of OHi Food Co, found her calling in Maui, Hawaii, late in September 2013. Her story starts far from where she is now, as a Doctor of Chiropractic, running a practice with her husband. Yet, her passion took her somewhere she didn’t even know she could do:

“Realizing how much I love the CPG (consumer packaged goods) world, the opportunity to provide healthy food to our communities, I would have liked to have started earlier in my career and life, but I had no idea this was ever a career option!” Anderson says.  

Luckily, that didn’t hold her back. “I started this little food company out of a passion I had for healthy food and having a positive impact on consumers and my community, making bars by hand out of my own Maui kitchen, selling them at local farmers markets”

With so much support and love from the community, she and her husband quickly branched out to selling on the mainland, and before they knew it, they were selling in California. She went from making one hundred bars a day to tens of thousands.

Though she found her career late in life, she looks back on every step with no regrets: “Hey, everything I have done in the past has led me to this amazing opportunity in front of me now. So I wouldn’t change a thing!”

The Farm Boy Turned Executive

The Chief Consumer Security Evangelist for McAfee, Gary Davis, is focused on strategic alignment of products for one of the most well-known antivirus software companies in the world. But he wasn’t always driving change and success at this high level.

“The skill set and experience to do this has taken a lifetime to acquire,” Davis says, who started as a “farm boy,” with a high school graduating class of 37 students. His T.V. had three stations and his home phone was shared between seven households. If this is a journey you can’t possibly imagine, Davis agrees: “If I took myself back to that point, I could never in a million years paint the path to where I am now.”

In fact, those around him couldn’t imagine his path either. Instead, he was encouraged to become a dairy farmer or corrections officer—but neither felt right. He took his own path and joined the U.S. Navy, where he went to night school to pursue this Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees.

Between then and now, Gary has been learning, from growing into our connected world to developing his skills to assimilate a mass amount of data about the security space into a tool to inform their product strategy. What’s more, he and his team have to “distill the otherwise complex topics into material that educates and informs the consumers and businesses via a variety of channels such as blogs, social media.”

And no, he didn’t get here with just the degrees he earned: “It’s not something taught in any school, but rather a lifetime of experiences that shaped my mindset to do this.”

The Glass Ceiling Shatterer

This female CEO started at the bottom both professionally and personally. Not only has her 24-year career taken her “from the sales floor to the board room,” but Alessandra Lezama, CEO at AbacusNext, was also a minority immigrant in a new country and a single mom striving for a better future for her family. All while making her way through a career in a male-dominated industry. Lezama looks back and sees that her journey “was an odyssey of obstacles and shattered glass ceilings.”

Despite the challenges, she worked herself up the ranks of many of the largest telecom companies in the world, including Comsat International, acquired by Lockheed Martin during her time with the company. Her first executive roles included EVP and COO, after which she proceeded to hold three CEO positions before her current CEO role with AbacusNext.

She owes much of her success to her drive, instilled in her by her father a bullfighter and her ultimate hero. She’s also used a simple mindset shift to take her career on this remarkable journey:

“Over the years I have learned that as essential as fast-paced, dynamic decision making is to running a successful business, it’s equally important to slow down and take time to reflect and realign. Using these reflective moments to seek out and listen to the advice of my peers and mentors has proved invaluable to my career,” Lezama says.

Now, as CEO, she’s taken all of her experience and learnings to make a huge impact, growing her current company from 30 employees to more than 500, with international offices in San Diego, Toronto and Edinburgh.

After all this time, she’s also made another important shift: instead of worrying about proving herself more capable than her peers, she’s focused on helping others succeed. She says, “As the years have gone on and I have achieved the personal goals I set out for myself, my focus has shifted to supporting the people around me and empowering them to grow both personally and professionally.”

Find Inspiration to Build Your Career

We all start somewhere, whether you’re a farm boy or a door-to-door salesman. The journeys of these executives teach you to not only trust your career path, but pursue each step with passion and drive. Move toward what you want and take every step necessary to get there. The end of that journey may just have you sitting in a boardroom, making decisions for everyone else who’s just starting their career.

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