Why economic downturns are the ideal moments to take a risk

I have uncanny timing in switching industries right before a crisis. Over the past 20 years, I’ve learned that careers are like roller coasters: There will be highs and lows, and none of them are permanent. What shapes how we feel during this crazy ride is our vantage point. That optimism—and a deeply rooted sense of resilience and personal agency—is the fuel needed to survive extreme economic downturns, including the one we are about to experience.  

DotCom Bust of 2000 

When I graduated college, I was excited to start working at a digital consulting firm and be in the center of the “internet era.” Little did I know that I was entering the “DotCom Bust.” Less than a year later, I found myself unemployed, wondering what had just happened.  

After the initial shock, I mustered up the courage to take the GMAT not once, not twice, but five times (I wanted a better score), and applied to business school. Armed with an MBA, I was ready to reenter the job market. With painful preparation and 50 interviews later, I landed a role in Equity Research, evaluating retailers like American Eagle for investors. I knew I would be hitting the learning curve hard and was ready for the challenge. What I didn’t know was that I was heading into yet another economic crisis–this time crippling the finance industry. Lehman Brothers collapsed just a month into my new job. 

It was then I realized that, although deeply uncomfortable and oftentimes scary, economic crises are inevitable. Despite being riddled with uncertainty and risk, however, they are ripe for innovation and opportunity, especially for those who are brave enough to get scrappy and enter unknown territory. This is one of the biggest lessons I’ve learned and a pro tip to others: When in doubt, always say “yes” and jump onto the roller coaster.

Joining Retail in a Recession

The recession hit in 2008, and my company went under. I found myself in a new position at Saks, my former client, in 2009. The economy was in distress, but I didn’t perceive jumping into retail as a risk. Instead, I saw the move as an opportunity to become immersed within the fast-growing e-commerce industry when others were flocking away from it. 

I went on to launch new businesses and transform how the physical store (and its e-commerce division) operated. I also learned the value of building strong business fundamentals—a lesson that has helped me launch my own business. As we navigate a period of economic decline, my advice for anyone switching careers is to question the status quo, interrogate market opportunities below the surface (after all, not everything is as it seems!), and look for ways to run toward opportunities as others step away. Startups like Venmo and Airbnb came from needs discovered during the recession, for example, and are now some of today’s most respected companies. 

“Get a Real Job”

For anyone who has ever been told to “get a real job,” there are many valuable lessons at play. I distinctly remember being told this by a senior leader at Saks and being baffled by this comment. What this person meant, however, was that instead of focusing solely on climbing the vertical career ladder, I should strive to get real experiences at the heart of the business. While at Saks, I wasn’t in the day-to-day shuffle of buying products and negotiating with vendors, which is at the core of retail companies. I was missing out on the core experience.

While this lesson stung at the time, I am grateful for their honesty and find it so important to pass along this piece of advice: Be humble and accept all feedback—the good, bad, and honest. Find a mentor who is willing to have hard conversations with you to help advance your career, and step outside the boundaries of your job description when and where possible.

“The Great Reevaluation”

Nine months into my role at Lyft, COVID-19 hit. Running this type of business during the pandemic was one of the greatest growth opportunities of my career. I learned that being able to pivot from a well-constructed plan is a critical tool for resiliency. This didn’t just help Lyft remain successful—it helped me forge a new path. 

I’ve always wanted to build a business from the ground up, starting when I was a child helping my dad sell computers. So, I left my position at Lyft and cofounded Mixo—once again amidst economic turmoil, a devastating war, and at a time when the 13-year bull run in venture capital investment halted. But I took the risk because I saw an opportunity to radically improve the social media world more positively and bring more connection, joy, and cultural exchange to consumers through the sharing of food.   

Changing careers is scary, but if there is something I’ve learned in making radical jumps at the worst possible times, it’s that economic downturns are the ideal moments to rewrite history and take a risk if you have a goal in mind. Say “yes” (especially when others say “no”), look for hidden opportunities that may not seem outwardly obvious, take on projects outside of your job description, welcome as much feedback as possible, and most of all, follow your heart. Rewards will come to those who welcome them.

Shirley Romig is cofounder and CEO of Mixo, a social media app dedicated to global food enthusiasts.

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