Many innovators have those fork-in-the-road moments, when they decide with certainty that they’ll stray from the beaten path and become trailblazers. For Cheryl Contee, cofounder of Attentive.ly, #YesWeCode and Jack and Jill Politics, and CEO at Fission Strategy, that moment came in 2008 when she decided to quit her corporate job.
“I was working for FleishmanHillard, a very big PR company, and I was passed over for a promotion that was in my offer letter. I was working 18 hours per day and was generating a huge amount of business. I said, ‘If you’re not able to recognize the work and give me the job offered and earned; I’ll quit.’ I quit and sent out a tweet,” Contee recalled.
“That’s what I really try to get people to understand is the power of their network and social media. If you’re able to build this great network in a positive community, they’ll be there for you. I got many responses from that tweet [after quitting my job] and I felt very lucky and blessed in that moment,” she continued.
Contee was quick to note that it wasn’t just the power of the Internet and her professional network that aided her in 2008, it was her ability to carve out her own niche in marketplace.
“I’m a ‘Gen Xer’ [Generation X], we had to invent our own jobs. My job didn’t exist when I was in school,” she said of her time at Yale University for her undergraduate degree and at Georgetown University where she earned her master’s. “Being a part of that wave of innovation has been really exciting.”
Such innovation included Fission Strategy’s philosophies on how to effectively use social media’s influence to inform the masses. According to Contee, those at Fission “use social technology to create social change in the U.S. and around the world. We focus on strategic engagement campaigns, successful social media outreach, organizational capacity building, app development, CRM [customer relationship management] integrations and site builds for the world’s leading nonprofits, foundations, CSR [corporate social responsibility] initiatives and mission-driven companies.”
She added, “Behind every tweet, and retweet or like and relike is a living person with a real value and opinion that people are willing to say what they think and feel publically. That will and motivation can change the world.”
The success of the aforementioned campaigns, Contee said, is what prompted her and Rosalyn Lemieux to cofound Attentive.ly in 2012, which “is a next generation big data app that offers the cutting edge of enterprise listening and social marketing automation.”
She added, “With a product company, it’s about the product itself. We work really hard on making the product because we have hundreds of people using it at any given time. We talk to our clients and work with them on testing and experimentation. Some of it is market research and some of it is our own experience.”
According to the company’s website, “Attentive.ly has been used by over 100 brands, companies and organizations to identify 20 million-plus influencers, including the World Wildlife Fund, Susan G. Komen for the Cure, Dallas Morning News and Burson-Marsteller.”
Contee explained that the beauty of working in the tech industry is that it can be done from anywhere as long as one has a computer and Internet access, which is why those employed at Attentive.ly are stationed throughout the U.S. Contee’s current home base is in San Francisco.
“I was a long time [Washington] D.C. resident and only went away for college and teaching in China for a year. Moving to California was a huge risk but I just felt that I had in some ways missed out on the first wave of web innovation and really wanted to meet the new people in this industry,” she recalled, adding that a cutting edge environment is essential in order to achieve innovation.
“The culture out here in the Bay Area is the opposite of conservative. No matter what industry there are many transplants. It’s exotic to meet someone who hasn’t moved out here,” Contee added. “Essentially we’re all in-country immigrants, a foundation of people who are daring and brave and want to make a big change in their life and from there you have a community who is very forward looking, futuristic, or experimental. It’s very different from the communities who continue to do things the same way because it has always been done that way.”
When asked if she believed her education at such prestigious universities as Yale and Georgetown played a key role in her success, Contee was quick to note that although higher learning is important, dedication to one’s craft is paramount.
“Even though I’ve worked with the best [web] developers and designers, I’m actually the worst coder ever. You don’t have to be a rocket scientist to have a job in technology; you have to be passionate and try to inspire people,” she said.
Such ideology is why Contee helped create #YesWeCode to educate 100,000 low-opportunity youth to become computer coders.
“#YesWeCode is to encourage others to see the work of technology as a platform for prosperity,” she explained. “It’s discouraging to see the challenge women and minorities have in the technology industry. Even when you look at the current pipeline, which is already too small, there is an even bigger drop-off for women and minorities. It’s really about the health of our economy and our nation. There are millions of tech jobs that will go unfilled in the future.
“Right now in tech, great talent means you’ll never lack for work. Who knows how long that will last but there’s a good 10 to 20 years in our industry. You have a lot of power as an employee in this market,” Contee continued.
When asked what the secret is to her past and almost guaranteed future success, Contee replied, “Any business person who is in it for the long haul will tell you that positivity and exercise and mindfulness helps you to assume the best in people and have a positive dialogue.
“There is no corner of our lives that the Internet hasn’t impacted or disrupted … These aren’t trends, theses aren’t ads, this is the new wave of the business and it’s not going away,” she added. “I encourage your readers to embrace this share of the marketplace.”