Emily and I have known each other since sophomore year of college, when we lived across the hall from each other and bonded over Friends, late nights of bad alcohol, and French class. The very first time I met her, something told me, “This is a person to befriend.” One of the many attributes that is an attractor about Emily is her creativity. If you're lucky enough to be her friend, she will paint you a beautiful mural of your life's biggest moments and deliver it with a 5 page rhyming poem, depicting how these precious moments unfolded (100% true story).
So it seemed natural when, during senior year, she informed our circle of friends that she’d be pursuing her Masters in Creative Writing. After she completed it, she returned to her hometown in Fairfield County, Connecticut to be a drama teacher at the prestigious Ridgefield Academy. She had always basked in the lights of Broadway, loved show tunes, and had already written many plays of her own. Drama (the good kind) and creativity live in this person.
You'll see below how she eventually transitioned from the life of drama teacher to the Prospector Theater, a start-up non-profit. There's a lot of magic and sparkle that happens at this place, but 2 things in particular are really striking to me:
- While many non-profits work so hard to eradicate symptoms of whatever problem they're addressing, the Prospector gets right to the heart of its cause: it creates jobs and transferable skills for people with disabilities, who others don't think are capable of working. It sees the passion and potential in everyone, develops them, and pushes them to be active contributors to the community in which they live.
- Shortly after starting in this new job, Emily said something I’ll never forget: “I thought I loved my work before. But now, everyday feels like a weekend.” Wow...
So, tell us about the Prospector Theater. What is it?
The Prospector is a 5013C non-profit organization that hires, educates, and trains adults with disabilities, under the guise of a first-rate movie theatre. The point is to give our team job skills that they can transition into the community. We have 105 employees or “Prospects,” and 70% of them self-identify with a disability. It’s a fully-integrated workplace where we "sparkle-mine." This is finding our Prospects' passions and creating work out of them.
Tell us how and why you made the move to the Prospector (while it was still just an idea).
I started work on June 16, 2014. I remember the date because it was the first time I’d ever had to work in the summer (boo!), but I was able to walk to work for the first time ever. During that first "commute" to work, I remember thinking that this would be big step in building myself; I was taking on the challenge of doing what I was supposed to be doing.
When I was a teacher at Ridgefield Academy (RA), I was very involved with SPHERE, which is an organization that enriches the lives of adults with disabilities through the arts. My Aunt Gracie has Down’s Syndrome and had performed in this group for years. Through RA, I also became close with the founder Val Jensen, who started the group because her sister has Down’s Syndrome. Through the work with this organization, we realized that there are many recreational options for adults with disabilities but not work options. When Val described her vision for the Prospector as an employment-based non-profit that would build transferable skills in people, it seemed like an incredible opportunity to combine my love of drama, film, and teaching.
When she officially asked me to jump on-board, in my heart I said yes right away, but my head took longer to catch up. It felt like there were so many risks, like:
- Leaving my comfort zone of teaching, which I knew I was good at. I felt like I would essentially be starting over my career and learning on the fly.
- Changing my lifestyle from working 10 months to working year-round (a big difference for teachers!).
- This would, in fact, be a start-up business and had the possibility of failing.
- Even though I'm a creative person, I like order and direction. Val is a brilliant creative and visionary, but she works differently than me. I knew that the days would feel like chaos, and my job would reveal itself as I was doing it. I would be stepping into something un-structured. Our only consistency would be executing her vision on a whim.
- Lastly, I’d have to learn a lot of business quickly, which was something I was never interested in. In fact, I spent most of my college years making fun of my friends majoring in business [cough, Julie].
How did you talk yourself into accepting these risks and finally saying yes?
The book Mindset was a game changer for me. I read it in early 2014 and immediately starting working on shifting my brain to a “growth” mindset. It helped me understand that I could do something that seemed absolutely impossible, simply by shifting my perspective – like gaining business skills. I transitioned my thinking from “I don’t know anything about business” to “I don't know anything about business… but I can learn.” It’s all about expansive and creative thinking; the human mind is so flexible.
One month after I read the book, I said yes to Val and the future-Prospector.
What’s your job?
I’m the Director of Marketing, Internal & Community Outreach, & Social Media. In summary, my job is to bring awareness to all the other jobs and work that we do – both to external and internal audiences. Every activity and job that we do in the theater is intentional and connected with the others, so I publicize how each activity is interconnected. For example…
Last Halloween, our Prospect Artists painted dozens of foam pumpkins pink (nearly everything at the theater is pink and black). During a time when we could round up a majority of the "non-artist" Prospects, we had them decorate cone-cup hats. Then, our Prospect Graphic Artists made QR codes with the upcoming movie schedule, which we embedded in the pumpkins. When we finished these little works of art, I headed out on the town with a fellow Prospect (I was wearing my Prospector gear, and he was wearing a popcorn suit, obviously). We drove around town in our black and pink van, delivering the pumpkins to our sponsors. The sponsors all displayed the pumpkins in their stores, and their patrons could check out our movie times throughout town, via the QR codes. It was such a success that we documented the full process, supplies, and value chain in our Standard Operations Procedure (SOP) so that we can repeat it next year.
What does your “office” feel like?
Happy. A family. Open, honest, and critical feedback. We want every day to be better than the day before. We really do act as a family, which means disagreements and very direct statements (including occasional expletives – ha!). But every piece of this is important. We operate this way because we truly just want to make everyone better. There’s no gossip, there’s a lot of fun, and we make tons of progress because we trust each other.
Even though there are qualities of your work that feel unstructured, you recently commented on another post that you rigorously use the business practice of kaizen. How does this work at the Prospector?
We adopted the kaizen practice in July 2014. It started simply with: every day, identify one thing that went well today and one thing that needs improvement. One of the most important values it conveys is accountability: what are the issues, and how can we solve them?
For example, today we showed a 9:30am screening of Selma, and no one came. This is a $500 loss, so it’s imperative to identify what went wrong and "How will we make sure this never happens again?" This is where team trust and honesty is so important. If I respond to a “Why?” question with “I don’t know,” it’s someone’s responsibility to enter the problem and help me find the answer. When we reach the solution, we record it and communicate it to everyone. In this example, we concluded that the Prospect who books the screenings will come to me at least 2 months in advance of a booking so that I have adequate time to market it and ensure we have viewers. This is now in his SOP, so no one forgets the lesson we learned.
What’s been your best moment in the job?
No question. In August, the Yankees came to the Prospector Theater for HOPE week. I was able to surprise nearly all of our Prospects, including Val. I scheduled a Professional Development workshop for everyone that day and was giving a lecture on teamwork, then transitioned into, “…and I’ve brought my favorite team in to share with everyone…” and the New York Yankees walked in. Everyone went crazy. Besides the fun and astonishment, it was so meaningful that they recognized our organization, which wasn’t even 1 year old at that point; little did we know that they’d been sending secret scouts into the theater for months to check us out.
What’s been your toughest moment in the job?
At the end of September 2015, I was the Director of Employment. I was struggling with scheduling and logistical tasks that I did not enjoy, so I was not having fun anymore and felt like a failure. I'd lost my creative thinking and felt anxiety creeping back into my life (after previous struggles with it). At the beginning of my time at the Prospector, I was my most creative self and alive, but by September 2015 my role had become too business-y. I was spiraling downwards in and out of work. I knew that things weren’t right, and my work was suffering. So I had honest conversations with people and decided that I needed a break. I took a month off, solicited professional help with my anxiety, and figured out how I’d get back into a role that would give me “my jazz hands back.” Now, I’m back into my creative groove.
What’s your personal brand?
I’m someone who spreads happiness and gets people laughing. And I will not compromise that.
What do you want people to see in the Prospector Theater?
I continue to be amazed at the product we offer. I want our patrons to be wowed and see a theater run by worthy people.
What advice would you give to someone who feels like (s)he’s stuck in a job that (s)he doesn’t like?
This sounds obnoxious to say, but I have actually never had a job that I didn’t love, so I cannot even imagine getting up every day and being in a duldrum routine of going somewhere where you're not happy. People say all the time, "Life's too short!" So if that's true, why would you waste your efforts and your time doing something you don't love? My advice is: Buck up and leave.
What advice would you give a college student, debating between a “creative” future and a more financially stable opportunity?
Don’t confuse yourself by taking business classes in college! Then, watch all the movies and listen to all the songs about following your dreams. :)
Look. Money's money. It helps you buy nice things. But it cannot make you happy. It certainly can buy nice things that make you temporarily happy. But if you have all the necessities in life and you're comfortable, you should do what you want to do. Take the risk of being happy.
Lastly, 4 fun questions to help us get to know you better:
What's your preferred method of communication?
[Julie: “Oh yeah, I forgot how much you love texting. I hate that about you."
“Yeah, you’re lucky that I FaceTime with you.”]
Texting is conducive to my life. It’s convenient, and I rarely get privacy, so it works for me.
What's the first thing that pops into your head when you wake up in the morning?
“Oh Wrangler, you’re so snuggly.”
What's your best professional moment so far?
During the 2008 financial crisis, I was a teacher in Fairfield County, where a lot of the students’ parents are in the NYC finance industry. Therefore, our school was very impacted. We’d been told that no one would be getting bonuses, and everything would be restricted. I was 23 at the time, and the principal called me into her office. I was only an assistant teacher at the time, so I was sure that she was going to lay me off. Instead, she surprised me by calling my drama program “outstanding” and promoting me. It was confirmation that I was on the right path.