Finding Your Path: Making it on Your Own

We spend the first 20 years of our lives being asked what we want to be when we grow up. Then we spend the next 20 finding out for ourselves.

And though that can be exciting, it’s not easy. The first part of our lives is, with few exceptions, a step-by-step, guided path: Elementary school. High school. College. But after that, the roadmap stops. While you might have dreams and ideas of what you want to achieve in your career, the path getting there isn’t easily paved. And it’s different for everyone.

That’s why we’re bringing you this series: Over the next few months,40:20 Vision will feature successful 40-something women sharing their stories on how they found their career path, and the lessons they’ve learned along the way. While everyone’s career path is ultimately different, we also know there’s a lot we can learn from the journeys of those who’ve been there.

Michelle Madhok, CEO and Founder, SheFinds Media

What did you want to be when you were a kid? Barbie. She had all the cool stuff.

Education: University of California at Berkeley, BS Communications; Northwestern University, MS, Marketing

First job: Promotion Marketing Manager for CBS Broadcasting

Secret hiring tip: If they aren’t smiling in their Facebook photo, don’t hire them.

Three closet staples every 20-something should have: I believe in designer shoes, statement jewelry , and at least one designer handbag.

Background: Michelle Madhok’s first job was in many ways her dream job­—no boss, lots of freedom, meeting tons of interesting people. But as she climbed the corporate ladder—leading New Media at CBS and running Women’s Content at AOL, she increasingly felt stifled by the large company environment. She longed to be able to call the shots without the red tape or hierarchy.

She had to wait 10 years to get her dream back—but she did. When she was laid off at AOL, her severance package (combined with her desire to never again have a boss) provided the window of opportunity she needed to startSheFinds in 2004. The first site to give women everywhere instant access to the latest trends and fashionable deals, SheFinds has been explosively successful, now incorporating two new brands (MomFinds and BrideFinds) and grossing in the seven figures.

With a fun nature, refreshing honesty, and street smarts (whether that street is Park Avenue or Main Street), Madhok is an inspiration to anyone who’s ever thought about starting her own company . Read on to find out how she re-captured her dream.

Shortly after getting your Master’s degree, you ended up at the forefront of new media. How did that happen?

I interviewed at CBS and they asked me, “do you do internet?” I replied, “I have an AOL account,” and with that, they put me in charge of cbs.com. It was 1995. No one liked “new media.” It wasn’t sexy. It was all about big media.

Then the internet took off and I grew the department to 70 people and worked with everyone from the soap operas to Letterman.

So you should never underestimate the power of the unsexy job! What made you leave?

I was restless . So I applied and was accepted to a top program for a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of Iowa. I think we all have that vision of writing the great American novel. Then I freaked out. AOL was trying to recruit me to run women’s content and I thought, “I can’t miss out on business history by locking myself in a room and writing a novel.”

What did you learn in the corporate world that helps you today?

The connections and knowing how things work gave me a head start. At AOL, I had 12 bosses in four years. So when one of the companies I deal with now goes through organizational change, I know how to finesse the relationship so we can continue to do business. You have to get back in there.