The Road Not Taken: How I Went from Sewer Worker to College President

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Career planning is an oxymoron. The two words strain to go together. Careers rarely go down a path. They’re more likely to roam around through the bushes and the brambles.

My career is no different — it has been a journey filled with fits and starts and detours and roadblocks. Where one’s career journey starts may not seem to matter. After all, we all know that careers are long and we will change many times. But that first career step can set the direction and the trajectory for a lifetime. For me, the career journey started in the Municipal Sewer Department in Rahway, New Jersey.

Although it was a summer job for me, the “regular” crew was hard-working and enjoyed the job. Some of the old timers thought I had a talent for service in the sewers and wondered why I wanted to waste my time in college. Working for the city was a guarantee of employment with great benefits and a lucrative pension. It was a stable job. Lots of my friends went for those stable jobs and took that path full of guarantees and no risk. Good for them.

The road I didn’t take was that safe one.

I took the path to college, and it was a risk for me but it paid off. I was the first one in my family to graduate from college. There was a risk in the unknown, in not being academically prepared and in flunking out. But in the end, it was college that infused me with a keen sense of intellectual curiosity, recognition of the importance of relationships and a sense of adventure. It was the first of many risks that took me through graduate school and careers in venture capital, consulting and more.

It’s easy to take the job that’s safe. It’s easy to settle for the job that won’t push you or challenge you. It’s easy to avoid risks. The road I took was the one full of risks — and the risks keep coming.

Now I am the President of Menlo College in the heart of the Silicon Valley. Excited students and talented entrepreneurs now surround me at every turn. Career choices are not about doctor, lawyer or executive. In my case, the choice was not sewer department or college president. Like everyone else, the choice is between safety or stretching yourself in new and exciting ways. I know how I will always vote.

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