With the current ups and downs of the job market due to COVID-19 a lot of alumni and recent graduates may be worried about their professional future. After completing years of coursework in their desired major, it's understandable that many are concerned they won't find work in their field of study, but some experienced alumni recognize that college is often a training ground and stepping stone to other paths outside their major, and that their actual careers might be very different from what they studied as an undergrad. Kelley D'Angelo, President, CEO and Founder of Lark Ellen Farm can attest to this from personal experience.
"If you asked me when I was graduating school what I thought I'd be doing in 2020, I would never have thought it would be this," said D'Angelo. "I wasn't sure where my career was headed as I hadn't yet figured it out."
An agribusiness major who graduated from Cal Poly in 1989, D'Angelo's first job was in telephone sales. She later moved to Pacific Bell/AT&T in sales management and marketing roles. She continued working until she had kids and moved with her family to New York, where she began doing consulting work while raising her children. Years later she returned to California, settling in Ojai and investing in real estate.
Five years ago D'Angelo embarked on a new venture — making low carb granola in her kitchen despite not having any experience in this field. What started out as a small business began to grow, and today Lark Ellen Farm has 10 employees, produces 3,000 pounds of granola per day, distributes its products in over 1,000 stores nationwide (including Sprouts, Whole Foods and Amazon), and does about $2 million in annual sales. To punctuate her success, D'Angelo was featured in Forbes magazine in an article on entrepreneurship.
While her unique career path may seem nontraditional to some, D'Angelo sees a common thread throughout her professional life, and credits Cal Poly with giving her the necessary skills to be adaptable in a variety of settings and industries.
"My best skill is solving problems," she said. "Whether at my career at AT&T / Pacific Bell, or as an entrepreneur, I think this is the quality that has contributed most to my success. I always say that 'there is a solution to every problem, you just have to be creative enough to see it.' Cal Poly teaches this type of critical thinking and gave me so many opportunities to practice problem solving and to develop skills through the Learn By Doing approach to education."
Your path is not set in stone. You can reinvent yourself over and over again. If one path doesn't work, then start a new one.
While she has kept in touch with some college friends over the years, she admits that she hasn't been that active in the alumni community. But she has always kept Cal Poly close to her heart, and has extensive family ties to the school. With her stepson now attending Cal Poly, she has reengaged with campus. Recently, she mentored students from the Net Impact group to evaluate various sustainability issues at her company, and welcomed a group of six Cal Poly marketing majors who worked on their senior project with her.
"I was impressed by their out-of-box thinking, their maturity and the curiosity they demonstrated," she said. "For example, one of the Net Impact groups decided to take a different direction than they originally started on. They questioned what I was asking them for and found a solution that was much better for my company. They looked at the situation and really studied the objective and changed their recommendation to fit the goal. This is a skill that is learned by having exposure to critical thinking skills and learning to not always just look at what is handed to you."
Working with the students on their senior project was rewarding and also a benefit to Lark Ellen Farms, D'Angelo said. The company recently received a Sustainability Award from Pacific Coast Business Times in recognition of their collaboration with Cal Poly students on developing and implementing environmentally sustainable practices and promoting a healthy lifestyle.
D'Angelo understands that current events may be causing some young graduates to worry about their professional future, but wants to remind anyone who is feeling anxious that there are many paths to success.
"Your path is not set in stone," D'Angelo said. "You can reinvent yourself over and over again. If one path doesn't work, then start a new one. The only mistake you can make is not moving forward and instead getting frozen in indecision. Be open to new ideas and careers and constantly ask yourself what type of work fulfills you. I also suggest that students be open to careers they hadn't imagined for themselves. I didn't know a thing about Telecom but I was able to build a decade long career and move from sales to marketing and managing large teams of people. Having an open mind and staying curious will open doors that you never dreamed possible."
D'Angelo believes that today's graduates have a lot of new opportunities due to technology that simply never existed before. Despite the challenges of living through an age of uncertainty, she feels there is still reason for young grads to be optimistic and excited about their future potential job prospects.
"Now, the world is connected and provides so many opportunities to work without having to be physically located with the work. I have hired advertising specialists that I have never met face to face, contracted with content writers in Dubai, and presented to Investors remotely. Being good at what you do is not contingent on where you work or being physically present. If you are skilled, professional and are a good problem solver, the world is your oyster."