SJSU Convocation Speech: 6 Tips for Getting a Communications Job in Silicon Valley

by Rene Siegel on May 28th, 2013

On May 23, 2013, I had the honor of delivering the Convocation Keynote at my alma mater, San Jose State University’s Department of Journalism & Mass Communications. In the final weeks of their senior year, many of the PR, advertising and journalism students told me they were scared. Some still did not have jobs. I’m sure they were hoping to get hired by the new San Francisco 49ers organization in Santa Clara instead of some mysterious technology company.

So I wrote this speech with those students in mind. Nothing philosophical or esoteric. Just real, practical, job-landing advice — which elicited spontaneous applause from the graduates. Parents thanked me for telling the students what parents hoped they’d hear from someone else.

Here’s the video and transcript of my Convocation speech, “Six Tips for Getting a Job in Communications in Silicon Valley.”

Good evening, fellow Spartans, family, friends, and faculty.

I am so honored to be here today with your family and friends—all your loved ones—to witness this extraordinary moment in your life. This is indeed a tremendous milestone, and you should be extremely proud.

Twenty-six years ago, I sat where you are now sitting—a proud Spartan with a Public Relations degree. Equally excited and terrified about my future.

And now I’m the owner of a multi-million-dollar consulting company. Over the years, I’ve found 4,271 projects and jobs for journalism, PR, advertising, and marketing professionals. I counted. I found my calling: helping people do their best work while still having the time and flexibility to pursue their personal passions.

But all of this almost didn’t happen.

You see, I applied to San Jose State as a Chemical Engineering major. I didn’t know anyone in that field—and had no idea what a Chemical Engineer did. But of course my Asian parents approved.

To be honest, I was an insecure geek. Who did what others expected me to do. I was headed for a lifetime developing, designing, coding and whatever the hell else the good people with engineering degrees do.

I was also away from home from the first time and did what any Asian-American engineering major with low self-esteem does: I let my dorm friends talk me into entering a beauty pageant. Okay, the politically correct term is now “scholarship program.” It was after a few beers, and I thought, why the hell not?

A few months later—and now stone cold sober—I was in the San Francisco Cherry Blossom Queen Pageant, onstage, dancing in a kimono. Thank goodness, no swimsuit competition. And, to the surprise of everyone including my grandma who reminded me I had “no talent” — I won.

Suddenly, I went from all-nighters in the grungy computer lab to being an ambassador a twinset and tiara, representing the Bay Area Japanese-American community. I rode cable cars and floats and waved to crowds. I met politicians and business executives, entrepreneurs and celebrities. And I thought, this is a heck of a lot more exciting that organic chemistry. And along the way I also worked with a lot of marketing and publicity people.

So when I returned to San Jose State for my second year, I shocked my family again and changed my major to PR. And yes, I was a starving student again. I waitressed and sprayed perfume on people just to pay for college. I was just as scared as you are today.

But after I graduated, I held six jobs in eight years. And with each job I learned a heck of a lot and met people who led me to the next opportunity. These same people later begged me to start my own company.

And so tonight instead of telling you something abstract and lofty, like “follow your dreams,” I want to share my practical tips for landing a job–and having a great career. Something you can use. I’ve coached professional communicators for two decades, I’ve seen these strategies work again, and again, literally thousands times. My hope is one of these tips may change your life.

Just do it

Here’s my first one—just do it.

In my senior seminar class we had to write a cover letter and resume for a job, in any communications field, just find a job description. We had to make sure we knew how to do it. I’m sure they still make you do that now, right? I found a marketing coordinator job description for a small company with a weird name. The description said they wanted three to five years of experience. I only had done a summer internship so far – but turning in my class assignment, I got my 15 points, then, I sent the cover letter and resume to the company. Believe it or not, they hired me part-time while I was still in school my senior year — and I started full-time as soon as I graduated.

Here’s my tip. Just do it. Apply for everything. It costs nothing, and yet I was the only one of my peers who did that.

As former President Jimmy Carter says: “Go out on a limb. That’s where the fruit is.”

Remember: Job descriptions are wish lists. And companies love people who are willing to put themselves out there. Sometimes all it takes is just a tiny extra step. Just do it.

Seize opportunities

Tip number two, seize opportunities.

Two years ago I was asked to speak here at the San Jose State Leadership Conference. I made a special offer to everyone who was there that day. If the students gave me their name, email and major, I would match them with a mentor from my personal network, for free.

One hundred students gave me their info and over the next several weeks, my team helped me match students with working professionals who had similar career interests or majors. Nurses, pilots, engineers, writers, scientists, government officials.

One hundred students received an email with contact information for a professional who generously offered to help propel their career forward. We told the students, they were responsible for initiating the contact. So how many do you think out of 100, actually followed up with the mentors?

Zero.

Zero out of 100.

Everyone wanted the golden ticket, but nobody bothered to unwrap the Wonka bar. How many golden tickets do you think you’ll get in your lifetime?

I know. Professionals can be intimidating. You may not know what to say. You’re busy with classes and work. But you never know when one person may know another person whose neighbor’s daughter needs someone just like you. If you want success, you need to seize every opportunity.

When opportunity knocks, answer the frickin’ door!

Be creative

Tip number three, be creative.

My son Adam was born with more courage and creativity than anyone I know. He’s attending college in Los Angeles and wants to get into the entertainment industry of course — along with thousands of other people.

Freshman year he had to listen to a guest speaker for a class and this woman was a producer in Hollywood. After class, he walked and talked with her and found out they had both worked at Baskin-Robbins – and, more importantly, they shared the same favorite flavor: Peanut Butter & Chocolate.

The producer promised to connect him with her friend who owned a talent agency for dancers and choreographers in Hollywood, but when Adam didn’t hear anything, he emailed and called, twice. Finally, she made the email introduction and he got the unpaid internship at the dance agency.

Now, get this.

After his first week at the internship, Adam bought a Styrofoam ice chest, took a taxi cab, because he didn’t have a car, went to Baskin-Robbins, loaded the ice chest with pints of Peanut Butter & Chocolate, and he delivered it to the producer’s office with a hand-written thank you note.

Would that make an impression on you? How much did it cost? $50.

By the way, Adam’s unpaid internship is now paid and the agency sent him to work in their Broadway New York office for the summer. He’s just finished his junior year; they’ve already offered him a full-time job as talent agent when he graduates a year from now.

All it takes is a tiny bit of extra creativity to stand out. Perhaps it’s not something they teach over in the Engineering building, but you guys are Communications majors. Be creative. Be unique. Exceed expectations. That’s how you build a professional brand.

Network harder

Tip number four, network harder.

In my experience it’s not just the hard work you do, it’s the net-work that counts. Building a professional network takes work.

Your formal education may have ended, but your career depends less on what you know than who you know. Don’t just connect with people you already know on Social Media. Get your butt to IABC and PRSA and all the other professional organizations where people like me are looking for outgoing, polished young talent.

And if you don’t already have a LinkedIn profile, whip one up this weekend.

In the business world, this is the first place I go to creep on you. Facebook is second. Clean ‘em up guys, you are in the professional world now. You don’t exist if you are not on LinkedIn. A resume goes to one person at a time, but your LinkedIn profile is accessible to millions of potential employers.

Movie mogul Samuel Goldwyn of MGM was asked how he got so successful. And he said, “The harder I work, the luckier I get.”

Sweat the small stuff

Tip number five, sweat the small stuff.

You are professional communicators. There is no excuse for sloppy grammar or typos. You should be fanatical about accuracy and integrity in everything you write, shoot or post.

I still see Public Relations job titles with typos. Try spelling “public” without the “L.” Not so nice.

And guess what, girls and boys, spellcheck is not going to help you with that one.

So if you want to be regarded as professional, reliable and educated, take the time to read and re-read everything.

There’s no place like home

My sixth and final tip is a bonus tip. There’s no place like home.

Toto, we are not in Kansas, and that’s a good thing.

We are here in San Jose, California – the heart of Silicon Valley. It’s one of the most prosperous and exciting regions of the world. Hundreds of incredible companies are within a 10-mile radius of this campus. You could be graduating from Lower Mediocre College or Nowhere State. You are lucky. There’s no place like this on earth. People are dying to come here and get jobs. So think to yourself:

Do you want to travel for free and do creative, challenging things? Would you like to make the world a better place? Do you want a stable career that pays well? Parents, do YOU want your child to have a stable career that pays well?

Then don’t be intimidated by Silicon Valley and technology.

You are communicators. You’ve been trained to write and speak and think so that great ideas are heard and shared. The most innovative new product or technology invented by engineers here in the Valley won’t change the world if nobody knows about them. You are the amplifiers. Your job is to make sure the world hears about things that are important and valuable.

There are hundreds of companies that need great communicators. Right here. Right now. There are sexy companies like Google, Twitter, Apple and Zynga. But there are hundreds, thousands of other companies. Those have less competition for jobs and you’ll have more to do.

I’ll also promise you that you’ll never have to learn advanced math or pick up a programming language to be a successful communicator in Silicon Valley! Don’t be intimidated.

So there you have it, my six tips. Give them a try. I think you’ll be amazed at what comes your way.

Remember, there’s no carefully crafted career plan for any of us. It’s yours to create.

You have the same foundation I had 26 years ago. You have a great world-class education, practical experience from internships and a wealth of Spartan connections. You’re also entering the market at a time when Forbes lists San Jose and San Francisco as two of the best big cities for jobs in 2013. And employers plan to hire 13% more grads this year than last, including public relations, communications and marketing majors.

Yes, competition will always be fierce and employers will always be picky.

It’s okay to be scared. I’m still scared every day. That’s how I know I’m still learning and growing. Deep down, I’m still the insecure girl who never dreamed of being a beauty queen. Or president of my own company. Or a convocation speaker at San Jose State.

I’ve found my passion for connecting and empowering people in their work and life. I get to do it with people I love and laugh with, every single day. And I had to create that from nothing. There was no template. If I can do it, you can do it too.

Just be a tiny bit braver tomorrow than you are today. In work, and in life.

Congratulations everyone. Go get ‘em!

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