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The Surprising First Jobs of 14 Successful Executives

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Everyone remembers their first job. Usually, it’s filled with grunt work and coffee runs. Nothing particularly glamorous, but the lessons learned tend to stay with you throughout your career.

Glassdoor interviewed 13 top execs—and one presidential nominee—to find out their surprising first jobs.

First job: Retail

“My first job I was a temp at Nordstrom’s at Brass Plum. I worked during that holiday period time. I remember they had this wall of pictures and they were kind of the employee standouts and they even honored some of the temp workers as well. I remembered how it would be good to get to on that wall one day but I think after three months and working through the holidays I quickly figured out retail was not for me. I was in college and then I think after that I got an internship at Hitachi Data systems and did administrative work, but tried to learn from every second. I look back now [and] I could have just soaked it all in a little bit more and asked more questions.” Cindy Robbins, EVP of Global Employee Success at Salesforce

First job: Gutting salmon

“After I graduated college, some friends and I decided to spend a summer in Alaska. We worked our way around the state washing dishes until I landed a job at a cannery in Valdez. I was tasked with sliming Alaskan salmon. When I showed up on my first day, I was given boots, an apron, and a spoon to clean out the insides of the fish. If I didn’t slime fast enough, the supervisors would yell at me to speed up. It was not glamorous work, by any stretch of the imagination! I soon noticed that some of the fish we were packing didn’t look right – they were purple and black, and sort of gooey. When I pointed this out to my manager, he fired me and told me to come back the next afternoon to pick up my last check. But when I showed up, the entire operation was gone. I learned to trust my gut – and that sometimes, doing what’s right means standing up to people in powerful positions.” Hillary Clinton, Former U.S. Secretary of State, 2016 Presidential candidate

[Related: Search open jobs hiring in your area!]

First job: Author

“Believe it or not my first job was a commission to write a book at 23. I was terrified. I had no idea if I could write a book. It turned out to be a book about the change of role in women. It did extremely well. It was followed by a book that I wanted to write that I did write on the crisis in political leadership which nobody wanted to publish and which was rejected by 36 publishers before finally, somebody published it which is a bit of a lesson in perseverance.” –Arianna Huffington, Founder of Huffington Post & Thrive Global

First job: Retail

“My first job was at Sears Roebuck and I was in sales. I was a cashier and I’ve always loved marketing and sales even way back to the point when I was a Girl Scout. I say that because within I’d say maybe six weeks from being hired at Sears I won sales awards. It had to do with my ability to really engage the customers and to really sort of talk up a particular product. At that point, I think it was in the men’s department because that’s where I started but it just really I would say solidified my interest in. I really do like marketing and sales. That was even before I went to college. It was right out of high school. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I majored in marketing and I have been doing marketing ever since.” –Lisa Smith-Strother, Senior Director of Global Employer Brand, Recruitment Marketing, and Diversity TA Head at Ericsson

[Related: How to Negotiate Your Salary at Your First Job]

First job: Art store assistant

“My first job was actually breaking down boxes at an arts supply store. It was awful. Probably the job that mattered the most to me early in my career was I was a grunt worker at a PR firm so pretty much just doing media clippings back in the day and counting mentions and all that stuff. What it thought me was to be humble and that I know that I’m smarter than this but it takes time where you want to go and put in the work and shut up sometimes. That thought me volumes throughout my career. I’m really grateful for having a really crappy job early on.” –Andrew Levy, Global Careers Brand Lead at Uber

First job: Grocery bagger

“My first job was as a grocery bagger. I learned that it doesn’t matter how good of a bagger you are — you still have to be liked by the boss to get the good shifts. I learned that if you smile and go the extra mile, a lot of customers will tip you. And I learned not to put the eggs on the bottom!” –David Osborn, principal franchisee of Keller Williams & entrepreneur/author

[Related: 17 Celebrities Reveal Their First Jobs]

First job: Barista

“My first real job with a W-2 and everything was working as a barista at Starbucks. I was 16 years old. I learned to study the methods behind why the company chose to do procedures the way it had set them out for trainees. Clearly, there had to be a thought and efficiency study behind every move we made. Something else I learned was that Howard Schultz felt that it was very important for customers and baristas to be called by their names to create a more personal and memorable experience, serving our customers one cup at a time to take a moment and acknowledge the transaction. Later, I realized the school of thought came from Dale Carnegie: “How to Win Friends and Influence People.” –Michael Manning, chief relationship officer at Rocksauce Studios

First job: Receptionist

“The first job I had in the States was a company that was subsequently acquired so they don’t exist today. I joined as the receptionist and I think that was because they liked my accent. About five weeks later I was moved off of reception and was moved to marketing. I had my first marketing job and it was actually a small startup, 20 employees when I joined. It grew to 80 in the period of about a year and a half. I learned a lot there about how to lead people and how not to lead people actually by observing the management team so the COO in particular was kind of a little bit crazy so it was definitely an interesting experience, very great, sort of formative learning experience for me. Leadership is so hard to sort of pin down especially when you’re early in your career I think you’ll learn a lot from the folks around you and again just observing a leader who was perhaps not great at listening and not great at building culture and all the things that have become so important at this digital age left quite a big impression on me.” –Leela Srinivasan, Chief Marketing Officer at Lever

[Related: How to Handle Political Conversations in the Workplace]

First job: Waiter

“I was a waiter at a retirement home. I learned two great lessons from working there:
How to figure it out. I was 16 and working at a retirement home. People really, really cared about their food. I didn’t know anything, and my Irish lineage wasn’t exactly helpful. For people who lived there, a Caesar salad was an important part of their day — something they had been looking forward to — and I didn’t know even what a Caesar salad was. I thought it was just a normal salad with Caesar dressing on the side. Similar things would pop up every single day, and it was really important to know when to ask questions and know when to figure it out. When to stay your hand. In a service environment, you can never be too polite or patient. When somebody’s stressed out, or somebody is not having the best day and takes it out on you, it’s important to take it seriously but not take it personally. I remember reading that an associate of Abraham Lincoln once told him he was being too easy on his enemies — that he should be more aggressive and try to destroy them. Lincoln replied, “Do I not destroy my enemies when I make them my friends?” Put another way, you can be right, or you can do right. In the long run, it’s more important to do right.” –Derek Nelson, partner and creative director at Clique Studios

First job: Assistant

“My first job out of college was working in Washington DC on Capitol Hill for an organization whose name you would recognize if I said it. It was a job in the bowels of the organization. I remember my dad saying to me the most important thing that you can do at any point in your career is know the names of the people who clean the building, the person who lets you in the front door because those are the people who will show you the ropes and what the culture of the organization was. I rose very quickly there. I was managing 40 people older than myself, had no business having that happen but in an organization where you could get as much responsibility as you could take. No money but lots of responsibility and in that environment I had to trust my common sense and my connection to people because I had very little experience. 40 years ago I was a pretty rare bird in my environment so I had to focus on connecting and, hopefully, I have stayed true to that.” –Lucia Quinn, Chief People Officer at Forrester Research

[Related: 7 Types of Companies You Should Never Work For]

First job: Bookstore sales associate

“When I was a senior in high school, I worked at the University of Missouri campus bookstore as a seasonal textbooks sales associate and eventually went into retail sales in the clothing department part time. That same year, I was also involved in several activities for my school. From this, I first learned the ability to juggle several responsibilities at once and the necessity of prioritizing tasks. I think the most memorable part of working there was anytime someone wanted to connect with me about the shared pain of the price of textbooks and pull the “You just bought books so you understand” line, to which I had to reply, “Actually, I’m a high school senior.” I found out the pain those students were going through pretty quickly the following year, when I bought my first semester’s textbooks.” –Diamond Scott, recruitment coordinator at Influence & Co.

First job: Pizza deliveryman

“I went to work when I was 14. I lied and told the business is a Pizza Hut in the colony Texas. I told them I was 15 to get the job. I learned how to drive when I was 12. I drove to work. It’s a small town. The fun part of that job is they sold beer. Most of the people and the kitchen staff would go get started from cups and fill up their cups with beer. We would drink on the job which made for a lot of fun, late night. I remember my brothers, my brothers were 5 to 6 years older than I was and they would call into the Pizza Hut at about 9:50 and order pizzas for pick up knowing full well that they wouldn’t pick them up. If the pizzas were there and they were already made you could take them. Every night I would be taking home pizzas for my brothers. I loved that job. I worked every night for the entire summer. Loved it.” –William Tincup, President at

[Related: 11 Jobs That Pay $100k or More]

First job: Junior reporter

“My first job when I was really young was actually as a kid reporter for a new show in Vancouver. I’ve been a storyteller my whole life. I’ve always had kind of a big imagination and a big personality and so my so my third-grade teacher actually tapped on the shoulder and said, they were doing auditions in Vancouver for folks to cover news that would be interesting to kids. In classic form facing gender issues early they called my dad back early on and said, actually for the girls we’re going to have them be sideline reporters and for the guys we’re going to have them be in house like the desks. They’ll be the anchors. I was kind of like okay that is interesting. My dad was like, I think you should auditioning for the job that you want so I prepared the anchor interview and kind of just went for it and went it there. They ended up changing it up. They let the girls and guys do whatever they wanted and it was cool. I covered very important events like Little League World Series and dance festivals, really cutting edge hard news, just the facts but from my perspective, it made me intensely curious about people’s experiences and what drove them. I still think that is something that bears in some way on my career today.” –Katie Burke, VP of Culture & Experience at HubSpot

First job: Carwash

“My parents were actually entrepreneurs. My very first job was in a carwash so a little bit of a non-traditional experience I think but it gave me a lot of perspective. Working for an entrepreneurial very small, mom and pop type of an operation, there is no truer form of accountability that can be experienced other than working for an independently owned family business. You are on the hook for your company brand, for the decisions that you make, for the way that you interact with your clients and your customers. There is no better way of experiencing true self-accountability and transparency that having to really answer for every single decision that is made within the organization. It’s just you and a few other individuals that are there to purvey the culture.” –Kimberlea Kozachenko, Senior Leader of Enterprise Talent Attraction & Acquisition at ATB Financial



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