Passion with a Purpose

A UVA grad’s journey to success in the Big Apple.

“Living, working, music-ing.” I.E. What Joanna “Jo” Spotswood had to say when I asked her what she had been up to over the past year. Just 365-ish days earlier, she graduated from the University of Virginia with a Bachelor’s Degree in Music and proceeded to move up to New York to work at a recruitment firm. This also means it had been just as long since I had seen her last. I walked into Grit (*cough* Para *cough*), a coffee shop on The Corner, one Tuesday afternoon feeling more than a little apprehensive. To understand why, let me go back a little bit and explain how I know Jo.

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I first met Jo back in 2015; I was an underclassmen at The University. Jo, a fourth-year, was recruiting interns for her unresume project.

PAUSE: What’s an unresume project you ask? It’s a project you would do simply for the sake of doing it rather than for the sake of putting it on your resume. Everyone has one, regardless of if they say what it is, and it can say a lot about a person.

Jo’s unresume project was Corner Indie Fest (CIF), a start-up music festival (free and open to the public) that she co-founded with Olivia Bona (UVA ’15). During my second-year, Jo and her team were recruiting interns to help with the Spring 2016 festival. When I arrived at the interview (I was convinced to apply by my sorority sister Katie Kuzin, CIF’s 2016-2017 President), I was immediately intimidated by Jo.

She radiated confidence. She knew what she wanted and wasn’t afraid to push me until she got an answer she was satisfied with.

Now, a lot of you may associate intimidation with visible features: a “resting bitch face,” a particular type of posture, mannerisms, etc. But, Jo was not intimidating for any of these reasons. Rather, it was because she radiated confidence. Every question she asked me in the interview led me to surface answers which only led her to asking more questions in order to receive a deeper answer. She knew what she wanted and she wasn’t afraid to push me until she got an answer she was satisfied with.

This is the image of Jo that stuck with me over the next year and a half; a woman who was confident among not just her peers, but also potential clients and sponsors of CIF, pushing them to do more than what they, or she, had originally proposed. It’s something I continue to admire about her and aspired to attain as I began to take on leadership roles at HackCville. But, you can imagine how nerve-wracking it was to go into this interview with Jo sitting in front of you.

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When I found Jo at Grit, she was sitting at a table next to the window. Thankfully, she suggested we sit outside as she had chosen the least desirable seat in the house, a table located just above an air vent that only ever seems to blow freezing cold air. As we moved outside, I got a better look at her outfit. Jo had always been chic, but living in New York had given her a new edge that only a young resident could possibly attain. We sat down in typical outdoor seats with grates that give your thighs a near permanent pattern. I sat in the chair facing away from the sun, giving Jo an excuse to wear objectively the coolest pair of shades I had ever seen.

“I feel nicer since I’ve moved to [New York].” Going back and listening to my recording of this interview, I take a second to pause and process what Jo had just said, similar to how I reacted while conducting the interview. “That’s interesting. Most people say New York City is dehumanizing, not the other way around.” (I had numerous friends work in NYC the previous summer, all of whom refuse to go back due to this exact same dehumanizing aspect.)

“It can be, but you know what? I talk to people everyday. And that’s my thing. I just love being able to talk to so many different people on a daily basis. I feel like when I talk to some of my old friends now, they say I’m too nice.” I laugh; she actually is one of the nicest people from New York who I had met to date.

Photography Credits: Tucker Mitchell

Jo was in town for this year’s CIF, which was to be held at Crozet Pizza across the street later that night. A year ago, Jo had been faced with an unanticipated family emergency and had to leave the festival early, unable to witness the fruits of her labor. “I’ve been dealing with a lot this year. Last year, on Corner Indie Fest night, it turned out my dad had terminal cancer. I found out he was sick, but didn’t know what he had, on the night of Corner Indie. My grandmother died three days later. That same day, my dad was diagnosed.”

Jo continued to talk about how she nearly missed her final exams that semester and how she was unable to do any sort of wrap-up with the Corner Indie Fest team. I sat baffled, shocked at how anyone my age could handle tragedy of that magnitude during a time when there should have been celebrating; her graduation was just around the corner.

“Thankfully, my roommate kicked my ass to New York. If it weren’t for her, I might still be [in Charlottesville]. I would have gotten to New York eventually, I’m sure, but it would have taken a lot longer than it actually did.”

In preparation for her final exams, Jo studied in the hospital at her father’s bedside and graduated with the rest of her class later that month. Like many other graduates in the process of transitioning into “real people,” Jo was planning on figuring out her career path after graduation. However, the whirlwind she experienced in the weeks and months to follow the second annual Corner Indie Fest put a damper on that plan.

“I moved [to New York] in stages. I actually ended up selling my car for rent money. I was depressed for about a month until I finally said ‘fuck this’ and started applying to jobs. I interviewed the second week of July at six different places dealing with recruiting.”

Jo claims it’s CIF that helped her get the number of job interviews she did. “Head talent recruiter. Co-founder. President. They could see that I was entrepreneurial and must have said, ‘okay this girl is entrepreneurial and can get shit done with recruitment. She clearly interviewed all her team members and could get companies and bands on board by selling the festival.'” Eventually, she chose the firm she works at now as an Associate Director. “[The Quest Organization] has a policy of quality over quantity which is something I have always embraced and really appreciate. It’s the way I’ve always approached everything.”

I took a sip of my iced coffee (there may or may not have been more cream than coffee) as Jo delved into the details of what her firm does through a comparison of Mila Kunis and Justin Timberlake in Friends with Benefits. Admittedly, I have never seen the movie, but I appreciated the fact she was making a pop culture reference regardless. “I was in this crazy time in my life and needed a job. So, I made a list on my phone about what I was passionate about. One of those things was people. That’s what led me to decide to give recruiting a shot. Turns out a round peg in a round hole can open up a lot of doors.”

What led me to want to interview Jo in the first place had to do with her “round peg in a round hole.” Just two weeks before our interview, I had seen the following picture on my Instagram feed:

This week I became the first woman and youngest director to bring on a new client for the firm throughout our 31 years! 🍾💃🏽💪#smashthepatriarchy

After dealing with a hectic semester and receiving a summer job in a male dominated field, I was inspired and reassured to see another woman achieving so much in a mainly male environment so soon after graduation.

“My boss always said that anyone can bring on clients, but I’m the only female director at my firm. I’m the only new grad at my firm. And, I’m the only one without a background in accounting and finance at my firm.” This in itself makes the accomplishment of bringing on a new client impressive. But, what Jo said next truly blew me away.

“We have business development training sessions where our boss brings all the recruiters into his office. [My boss] puts all of the potential client leads we had sent him over the past month together ahead of time. Then, he plays Russian roulette with who’s going to make the next call…in front of everyone. It was in that situation that I brought on my client.”

In a room full of men with more “experience,” Jo was able to do what none of them could. She had proven herself as an asset to the firm, her hard work coming to fruition. However, I continued to wonder how she managed to prove to herself and how she could accomplish all that she did. Did she ever face thoughts of Imposter Syndrome?

PAUSE: In short, Imposter Syndrome is a syndrome that affects people, commonly women, who are in jobs or positions that they feel they are unworthy of having. They believe they have managed to fool their superiors into giving them the position and will eventually be found to be an imposter, incompetent at managing their job.

“Being the only female in the office can be difficult and extremely intimidating. You obviously overcame that challenge and managed to succeed. So, what would you say to other women who want to do the same?” Jo picked up her coffee and took a sip.

“That’s complicated…let me think for a second.” She moved one chair to her right into the shade and away from the now blinding light of the setting sun. “What I eventually learned was not pleasing. You can’t force your colleagues to take you seriously. Even if you have an impressive resume, you can’t force anything. I thought that acting like them would be beneficial, but they were actually threatened by that.”

Photography Credits: Sean McGlynn

“What I learned is that it sucks, but you need to keep your head down and work. Don’t demand that people take you seriously. Prove to them that you deserve their respect. I had to prove myself to them. I was ready to do that. However, my male colleagues who joined the company after me didn’t have to do the same and that sucks. I’m the only one staying late every night. I work rather than chit chat during free time, and that’s hard.

“Something that was difficult that I didn’t expect, especially after coming from UVA, which is all about female empowerment, was the transition into something totally different.”

As she continued speaking, I realized how lucky I was to be attending the University. All of my extracurricular activities and any job I have had during my time as a student has encouraged women to take leadership roles; HackCville, my sorority, and a slew of other clubs all praised women who wanted to take a leading role in the respective community. Experiencing anything but was never on my spectrum. However, the sexual injustices of many work environments became abundantly clear as Jo spoke of her own personal experience.

Jo and I continued to talk for the next half an hour, well after both of us had finished our coffee and the sun had set below the buildings on Elliewood Ave. We ran through what an average day looked like in the Big Apple, a schedule consisting of working, hanging out with friends, or volunteering at Sofar Sounds concerts. Through our hour long conversation, I realized that Jo was not just the confident women I first met in October 2015, but was also a source of inspiration and a role model to me and how I wanted to approach my career in media. It may be intimidating to be in a field that is so male dominated, but, similar to Jo, I’m determined to prove those bastards wrong.

I look forward to seeing what the next 365 days in New York City bring Jo and her career and wish her all the best.

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