Ivy Ross is the head of Project Aura, Google’s secretive wearables branch, but she took an unusual path to become a tech executive.
Over the past two decades, Ross’ career has included stints in companies ranging from Mattel to Gap Inc., and before that she was an acclaimed jewellery designer with work in the world’s foremost museums.
In her commencement address at the Fashion Institute of Technology (FIT) on Thursday, Ross told the new graduates that she was grateful her unorthodox career path taught her fundamental truths. Business Insider caught up with Ross after her speech to distill her story into her top lessons for people still in the early stages of their careers.
‘Get your ego out of the way so that your heart can be your operating system’
Ross began her career designing jewellery using non-traditional metals and innovative techniques. By the time she was 28, in 1983, she had her work in the permanent collections of 12 museums — including the Smithsonian in Washington DC, the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, and the Montreal Visual Arts Center — and was the recipient of a De Beers Diamonds International Award.
After the twelfth museum, her excitement eventually faded. She had worked hard to achieve positive recognition on a large scale, and once she received it earlier than she had imagined, she couldn’t chase it anymore. “I was like, ‘Wow, there are some people who spend their whole lives trying to get their work into museums!’ And then I was like, ‘Oh my God, if this is what that is, then I’m so glad I understand that now,'” she said.
With her ego’s craving satisfied, she could then focus on contributing her talents to teams and taking joy in creating things with others, she explained, which in turn brought more satisfaction.
Never live according to five-year plans
Ross said she would be incapable of predicting five years ago that she would be heading up a secret Google project, and she prefers it that way.
It was actually her early and unexpected success as a designer in her 20s that allowed her to come to the Zen-like realisation that “there isn’t an end game, it’s about the journey, and once you understand that, then it’s about creating that journey,” she said.
She told the FIT graduates that they should avoid five-year plans now more than ever because of the rapid pace at which industries are changing and new opportunities are arising. Instead, she recommends people early in their careers stay open and curious.
Ross’ résumé may look eclectic, but the thread running through it is that each position allowed her to both create and simultaneously offer value and extract value.
“I always take my jobs by asking, ‘What am I going to learn?’ and, ‘Are they going to use me for what I do best?'” she said.
“I think the ideal career path idea will not get you to the right place,” she explained. “The idea of tapping into who you are, the essence, will.
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