Making A Career Pivot From Ballet Dancer To Business Development

Letitia Denham

“Once you begin to feel a sense of success and accomplishment in a new role, you begin to build more confidence, which will only keep you going in the right direction. Life is a journey and there are many layers so just keep going!” – Angessa Lynn Hughmanick Angessa Lynn […]

“Once you begin to feel a sense of success and accomplishment in a new role, you begin to build more confidence, which will only keep you going in the right direction. Life is a journey and there are many layers so just keep going!” – Angessa Lynn Hughmanick

If you have followed my column in the past, you know I love to share real-life examples of people changing careers – like this non-profit professional who become an independent film producer or this management consultant turned journalist. Sometimes the pivot is more entrepreneurial – like how this brand marketer disrupted toilet paper. Today’s career pivot goes from arts to business, as a professional ballet dancer finds a new career in marketing and communications.

Angessa Lynn Hughmanick earned a BFA in Dance from The Boston Conservatory and danced professionally for a total of 17 years. An MBA in Finance & Entrepreneurship from The Whitman School of Management at Syracuse University led to a career pivot to business, and Lynn Hughmanick now works with MJM Creative (a WPP company) as a Strategic Business Development Director. Now, instead of performing at arts events, Lynn Hughmanick advises companies on how to maximize their business events – live, virtual and hybrid sales meetings, town halls, annual offsites, product launches, etc., from 10 to 10,000+ participants.

Here are highlights from my conversation with Angessa Lynn Hughmanick on changing careers:

Caroline Ceniza-Levine: How did you know you wanted to make a career change?

Angessa Lynn Hughmanick: My days began at 5am where I woke up in a 6 x 6 makeshift bedroom (sans windows) to warm up my body and vocals, curl my hair, apply full make up, prepare my headshot and resume, and decide which 16 bars was an appropriate song choice for the day. I’d then jump on the subway to rush around to all of the midtown dance studios to sign up at the top of the list for the various equity and non-equity chorus calls, concert dance performances, showcases, Radio City Rockettes, commercials and fashion show auditions for that day, hoping to be seen for a few moments of high kicks with the 700 other “Broadway ensemble dancers” by 4pm before having to jump on the subway to Chambers Street where I served as a hostess, coat check attendant, and server for a Tribeca celebrity chef. I was required to help close the restaurant which put me back to my Upper East Side shoe box of an apartment by 1:00 am, only to wake up and do it all over again the next morning.

One day I decided to perform a personal exercise to gauge how much longer I was willing to make these sacrifices which seemed like the only path available to become a Broadway star. I decided that if I could take a 2-month break from classes, lessons and auditioning altogether, then that must have meant that I did not need dance to survive in this lifetime anymore – and I would begin to think about a new career. Much to my surprise, I did not miss auditioning so I knew deep down inside that I could be happy and successful in another area of life as far as a career was concerned, so I made the leap.

Ceniza-Levine: What was the career planning process like – what resources did you use, how long did it take? How did you identify business school as your next step?

Lynn Hughmanick: Although I had no idea what type of work that I wanted to pursue outside of the dance world, I knew I wanted to make money….I also wanted to attend a program that would allow me to also work at the same time. I thought about getting my CPA or completing various broker and trading series, but felt I needed a broader education in business, in order to determine the next best step for my career path.

I was elated when I opened my acceptance letter into The Whitman School of Management MBA program at Syracuse University. It happened within a couple weeks of applying, so I immediately quit my full-time ballroom dance teaching job and met with a recruiter to begin the transition. I just kind of dove in head-first to a new career like a new performance, and never looked back.

While starting school, I dabbled in finance as a temporary receptionist at a hedge fund and then moved up to an administrative assistant role for an asset management group to learn about the financial workplace environment. I knew I was starting over fairly late in the game and had to work diligently.

Ceniza-Levine: Did you ever second-guess your decision to leave dance and pivot to business? If so, how did you stay the course – did you lean on specific people, are there resources you recommend (books, blogs, coach, etc), specific mindset tips?

Lynn Hughmanick: Because the MBA world was so new and engaging, and because I genuinely enjoy learning, I never looked back or second-guessed my decision to move forward with my new degree and three-year commitment. There were times, however that I wanted to give up because of lack of business confidence and eventually utter exhaustion. My first class was Strategic Management, and I quickly learned that the majority of my fellow classmates had been managing large teams at fi1nancial firms and health care companies across the country for (in some cases) up to two decades. I learned quickly that I was going to have to put in a significantly greater amount of effort and time in order to pass these classes.

At the time, I was living in Connecticut working for an asset management firm in Battery Park, Manhattan so my daily schedule was even longer than my auditioning and performing days…..I relied on grit, friendships and my parent’s support to push me through the hard times that came with getting a degree in a new field. I read every page of every book I purchased, completed every assignment on time, and attended every extra coaching session or Skype call with professors for additional help. I leaned on my classmates for input and advice on topics I had never studied before. I even went as far as hiring a tutor for the one very number heavy semester. During the summer months I doubled up on my courses to try and finish the program a semester early. I was determined and I succeeded.

I’d like to say I read blogs, books on success or listened to podcasts for additional guidance, but there just wasn’t enough time for that!

Ceniza-Levine:  How do you manage your time and include self-care? Do you currently incorporate dance into your routine?

Lynn Hughmanick: I like to segment blocks of time for my mix of sales activity such as; research, follow ups, meetings, social media, pitches, networking, board meetings, live events and educational sessions. I read every industry publication out there so I can keep up with trending conversations at my next in person meeting.

I could talk for days about self-care. There has been little rhyme or reason to my schedule for the past few years, so digging deep to reconnect with my inner self-disciplinarian can be challenging. Meditation, yoga (all kinds), barre, Pilates, massages, and a good old-fashioned ballet class are my “go to’s” as far as self-care is concerned. Because my schedule is somewhat unconventional, I might run to an exercise class instead of taking a lunch break – especially if I have an event or board meeting that evening. Instead of sleeping in on a Saturday morning, I might go for a long bike ride because I know I’ll be in the air most of the upcoming week.

Living moment to moment is very important when you might not know what the next day will bring. Personally, I find meditation to be the key to my sanity. Whenever I am uncertain of a decision or correct next step, meditation opens the pathway to that answer. Plus, with so many resources like YouTube channels, apps, and countless in person yoga and wellness studios meditation can be done virtually anytime, anywhere.

Ceniza-Levine: Given that your work is events-related, how has it changed since the pandemic? How did you adapt your work style?

Lynn Hughmanick: Since the pandemic began, like most of us who are fortunate to still have our jobs – I have been working remotely. Many of our clients have canceled their in-person meetings for the reminder of 2020 and thus, we have had to shift our focus to a virtual environment on many levels. Luckily, MJM Creative has been designing and producing virtual elements of meetings for several decades so we already had this capability, which has been making the transition for our clients a little less stressful.

My personal work style and priorities have changed for the better. I have found a more focused approach to working and it has ironically increased my performance and financial success. For one, I am less tired from traveling and am more centered. The time I used to spend on the road has been replaced with productive work and life enhancing activities like healthy meal preparation and exercising, finding new hobbies like fishing and revisiting old ones like teaching yoga and barre to industry peers. I have learned how to get creative when it comes to social distancing to minimize feeling stir crazy in new ways like spending the summer evenings boating on the Long Island sound with my fiancé. I’m taking time to find new inspiration from podcasts like The Tim Ferris Show, and listening to audio books while watering the plants. I am able to think clearer while remaining even more accessible to my clients and peers. Day to day conversations have shifted from the surface level to a deeper, more genuine pitch, which has allowed me to really listen, understand and solve complex business challenges for our clients and partners. I am able to accomplish more by doing less. Our creativity is flowing even more, and I believe that is a direct result of this major shift.

Ceniza-Levine: You returned to dancing professionally for a brief period in 2017 [Lynn Hughmanick toured for six weeks with the Albany Berkshire Ballet], while still working full-time. How did you negotiate that?

Lynn Hughmanick: When preparing to negotiate a flexible schedule in order to tour in The Nutrcracker one last time, I decided to write down every possible outcome so I was mentally prepared for any response my CEO (at the time, a different employer than MJM) might have. This was a once in a lifetime opportunity and the most important part of this negotiation was knowing inside, what I was willing to sacrifice to be in a tutu again after all those years.

When I walked into his office, I simply shared that I had been offered a contract to tour in The Nutrcacker for 6 weeks with a professional ballet company during the upcoming holiday season. I then shared that this commitment would only take me out of the office on certain days of the week, which I then clearly laid out. I assured him that I could handle working full-time while backstage and in-between dress rehearsal. Then I just asked.

Much to my surprise, his reaction was positive. He was actually impressed and excited for this opportunity! He did not second guess my ability to juggle both commitments. He made an announcement to the company and even helped advertise the shows within the community. Almost every single co-worker ended up coming to one show or another. It ended up increasing ticket sales and brand awareness for the ballet company.

And to show my appreciation to the ballet company for being onstage again, I now sit on their Board of Directors and even Chaired their 50th Anniversary Gala where we raised nearly $40,000 in a few hours last August.

Ceniza-Levine: What advice would you give to someone looking to make a big career change like you did from dance to business? Is going back to school a must, or can you do it without a degree? How long did it take for you to feel comfortable in business?

Lynn Hughmanick: There is an old saying I refer to often, which is “there are a hundred ways to cut a pie”. My story is unique in the sense that I made the dive into that first cut (a new career) without really knowing how the slices would turn out. But I ran with it, committed fully, and said ‘yes’ to every positive opportunity that came my way. And the best part of it all is that this pie is still being cut.

Not everyone needs to get a Bachelors or an MBA to change careers, but I highly recommend the investment if it makes sense for your situation. Hiring managers have a lot of competition to choose from now, especially coming out of Covid-19 and those three additional letters at the top of the resume can help move you into the interview pile on top of their desk….

Listen to your gut! If you aren’t ready to make the leap, don’t!

It has taken a couple years to feel a certain level of comfort in the business world coming from the dance world but having the advantage of being a past performer has come to aid in moments of uncertainty. And like anything in life, once you begin to feel a sense of success and accomplishment in a new role, you begin to build more confidence, which will only keep you going in the right direction. Life is a journey and there are many layers so just keep going!

“Keep record of your positive achievements and accolades, testimonies, and positive emails to revisit on the bad days. Get comfortable with being uncomfortable and do so quickly. Always be presentable – even on Zoom!” – Angessa Lynn Hughmanick, on advice for aspiring career changers

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