What did these Mills alums do with unique life experiences? They shared their expertise with others, creating small businesses based on their own personalities.
By Jessica Lipsky; Illustrations by Ariel Gore ’94
Ariel Gore ’94 says she was a bit of a misfit during her undergrad years. A journalism student and teen mom who often brought her toddler to class, Gore was interested in writing about parenting but received little positive feedback from the feminist magazines she pitched.
Discouraged but not downtrodden, Gore remembers thinking: “Everybody in this climate kind of thinks I’m a loser. So how do I sort of turn that around and make that my power?”
With the encouragement of journalism professor Sarah Pollock, Gore began publishing Hip Mama (hipmamazine.com). The zine and literary journal was designed as a forum for single, queer, urban, and feminist mothers and included reader submissions. What started as her senior project in 1993 ran for more than 20 years.
“The thinking was: ‘OK, this is a magazine for people like me.’ But by the second issue, the readers were not those things, necessarily,” Gore says. “If you tell the truth about your life, it… just attracts other people who want to tell the truth about their own lives.”
Hip Mama became Gore’s brand, and it also launched a writing career based on her identities and interests. She has since written 10 books of fiction and nonfiction, including Hexing the Patriarchy and F*ck Happiness, as well as coloring books and tarot. Gore’s unique perspective and experiences also led her to teaching writing workshops and acting as a writing coach. She has built a career off of embracing her identity, and encouraging others to do the same.
Gore continues: “I wouldn’t say I ever had a large, overflowing of confidence, but [my professors] really encouraged me: This is who you are. This is how you write. You’re not going to fool anyone if you try to be more like the mainstream. Just go full weird.”
Gore is one of a handful of Mills graduates who have created careers by centering their own experience. Some have used their personalities to build businesses helping like minds; others honed in on long-standing interests to find their niches. While their careers are certainly not linear, these graduates share common experiences and challenges that come with being an independent business owner. Below, they offer advice and insight for anyone looking to build a brand in the lifestyle space.
Selling Your “Weakness”
While American society may celebrate individuality, small business owners and independent thinkers often face myriad challenges in carving out career paths. Gore recalls how Professor Pollock encouraged her to trade on her youth and perceived weaknesses—Gore’s experiences as a young, queer mother were more valuable than she would have thought. “[She told me that] the things that make you unlike the other people in this group are actually cool,” Gore remembers. “If you’re a writer, you’re not supposed to be an insider. You’re not supposed to be like everybody else; you’re supposed to write from your unique perspectives.”
“It’s really challenging because I hate brands, and I have a brand. I think [my brand is] take back your story, liberate yourself from capitalism, and publish like a superstar.”Ariel Gore
The unique perspective of Thea Orozco ’03 also influenced her business. An author and coach, her work centers on helping introverts—a personality type she identifies with—in the workplace and in their personal lives. “I can’t say I intentionally set out to be an expert in introversion,” Orozco says. “Part of my personality is that I just want to help people.”
In the aughts, Orozco was doing social media work for her family’s yarn store when she began participating in conversations online about introversion. She developed a Facebook page for fellow introverts, which eventually grew to 10,000 likes. “Ten years ago, there were really only a handful of us talking about introversion, so it felt like radical work at that time,” she recalls. “I thought, ‘OK, well how can I help my followers even more? What can I do to turn this into a business?’”
Orozco turned it into a brand and coaching business. Part of her work assists introverts in overcoming blocks and boundaries, and Orozco has added workplace coaching to her offerings. Her book, The Introvert’s Guide to the Workplace, was published in April 2020.
“Our personality differences and our social differences also come up in the workplace,” she notes, adding that she once offered a course on selling for introverts. “Everyone’s different and has unique strengths and nobody is better than someone else. We should honor extroverts and we should honor introverts as well.”
Making “Branding” Work
Orozco began her business with two parallel brands and social media pages: Introverts Everywhere and Introvertology. Orozco’s brands were inclusive, uplifting, and affirming of introverts’ strengths. While she is currently restructuring her brand (which is now focused on Introvertology), Orozco explained the importance of developing an identity.
“When you’re building your brand, when you’re building your following, people need to know who you are and what you represent. Brand is very important, particularly for people who are selling lifestyle ambassadorship,” she notes. “Sometimes people buy something just based on someone’s personality and they want to support them. But it really depends on what you’re trying to sell and who your audience is.”
Gore’s experience follows suit. “It’s really challenging because I hate brands, and I have a brand. I think [my brand is] take back your story, liberate yourself from capitalism, and publish like a superstar,” she says. “I’ve kind of gotten to the point now where a lot of people know me, so it’s a little easier to get referrals.”
Image consultant and coach Joui Turandot ’04 also built her brand, JTM Consulting, on breaking rules. “I’m not a good office job person. So I figured out pretty quickly I kind of need to do my own thing,” she said. Turandot initially used her degree in visual communications to develop her own art-as-fashion line, but after finding frustration in the typical 9-to-5 routine, she pivoted to using her experience to help others build their visual brands via clothing, public persona development, leadership coaching, and more.
Turandot is in the process of writing a book about her JTM method, but she says that what truly differentiates her brand is the holistic experience she creates with her clients. “I’m very interested in it being a healing process. For most people, there’s actually some kind of trauma that’s associated with their image,” she says. “I’m an artist. I’m like, ‘You are a canvas. So what are you painting on your canvas?’”
Turandot considers herself a rebel and a pioneer—someone who has influence in their community—but she takes issue with the broad label of “influencer.” By creating a business of helping others develop their visual and brand identity, Turandot has grown her impact while also affecting real change in people’s lives.
“A lot of my introverted clients felt like they had to be extroverted on social media. They had to be someone they weren’t and that never worked out. If you’re the same as everybody else on social media, then you’ll blend in and it’ll be harder to get an audience.”Thea Orozco
The Pull of Authenticity
One of Gore’s greatest successes came from a stubborn commitment to vision: “I was just angry at something else being rejected. The person who rejected it was, like, ‘You need to do something more mainstream.’ And I was, like, ‘I’m going to do the least workable, least mainstream thing you’ve ever seen!’”
Her memoiristic, magic-infused novel We Were Witches was released in 2017 when “people were really interested in calling out the patriarchy,” Gore recalls. “That book ended up doing extremely well, to my great surprise.”
Gore’s vision continues to draw like minds. “I want to work with people who want to work with me,” she says. “It’s not that I need them to read my work; I want people coming to me with questions that I am uniquely qualified to answer.”
Orozco encourages authenticity on social media as well, adding that there is space for everybody and every presentation if they’re sincere.
“A lot of my introverted clients felt like they had to be extroverted on social media. They had to be someone they weren’t and that never worked out,” she said. “If you’re the same as everybody else on social media, then you’ll blend in and it’ll be harder to get an audience. When I’m buying something from an independent seller or coach, I gravitate to the people who are being their authentic self.”
Gore says Millennial and Gen Z writers are owning this embrace of self and the importance of their own narrative: “My personal experience is not just an anecdote to lead you into the article. It’s kind of the thing that makes reading more accessible: It’s personal.” Embracing your authentic self is crucial to the sales process—whether it’s selling your expertise or a product. Orozco says she was challenged by “the ability to sell myself and the acceptance that I have a decent amount of knowledge. As women, we often don’t see ourselves as leaders.”
Orozco once offered a course on “kind sales” techniques for introverts, who she noticed didn’t want to sell themselves because it felt pushy or socially draining. Her course approached the sales conversation in a collaborative way.
“There was a need around introverted business owners who were struggling a bit with sales. Not only were they not getting enough sales to turn their business into a full-time job, but also I felt like they were depriving people of their expertise,” she said.
Those who want to develop a distinct visual brand don’t need to follow rules, Turandot notes: “People who have amazing style are breaking all the rules—almost always because they know themselves so well.”
Embracing the Hustle
The biggest challenges a lifestyle expert faces are those of any freelancer or small business owner: constantly generating income.
Building a brand and a business is “not for everyone,” Turandot says. “A lot of people wouldn’t be able to handle the pressure of being the one to bring home all of the bacon.”
Independent writers—and not just those whose work is based on personal experience—face those same stressors. “Don’t think that any writer on the planet is waking up in anything but mild panic,” Gore says with a laugh of acceptance.
“This kind of low-level yet survivable anxiety causes you to be able to observe in the way that you need to observe to be a writer. And that causes you to put yourself out therein these perhaps wacky fits and starts,” she adds.
There is no way around the hustle, these experts concur. Notes Turandot: “There is no silver bullet. It’s literally blood, sweat, and tears; lots of trial and error. I think things started to come into place for me after a couple of years, because you just go and do the time.”
Turandot noted that having a support system to cheer you on is extremely important when building your brand.
“Surround yourself with people who really feel invested in you and hold you to that. It can be a pretty lonely road,” she says. Generally, the longer you work at your business the easier it will become. Gore, who is now in her 50s, says she sells herself a lot less these days. She is established and can count on enough people signing up for her workshops to allow for a lifestyle that suits her needs.
“As you get older, different things get easier. Some people think you’re old, so you’re not relevant. But that’s not the main feeling. The main feeling is you’re old, so you know things! You’re established,” she says.
Different Definitions of Success
All of the women interviewed for this piece consider themselves successful, though each has a different metric for what that means. Gore considers herself successful because she manifested an early college dream of earning “$36,000 a year, writing only and only working half-time.
“It’s almost like a giant dream to make a living as a writer, but in some ways, it’s also like a small dream,” she adds. “I don’t need to be on Oprah; I just need to write my little weird books.”
Turandot’s success is defined in part by not having to find clients all the time thanks to a steady stream of recommendations. The other part of her success is what her consulting business has allowed her to envision personally.
“My dream is not only to help people with their image; I have my own private dreams,” she said, noting that her work has “empowered me to do other stuff that’s really, deeply meaningful.”
Orozco’s consulting business is not profitable at the moment, but she takes great satisfaction from her work and the ways she helps her clients. “When I have a really great coaching session, and there are just so many breakthroughs, I wouldn’t want to trade it for anything.”