“Quitting your first job; now that is a moment.”
Quitting is not a term you often hear in the context of business, never mind a successful one. But quitting was the first step (or should we say chasse?) for Lisa Mara, the CEO and founder of DanceWorks Boston and DanceWorks New York City.
In 2008, after graduating from Syracuse University, Mara had landed her “dream job” in New York. She was working in public relations, walking the red carpet with celebrity clients and getting paid (albeit very little) to care about Kim Kardashian’s whereabouts.
At the bottom of the totem pole and working at an agency that was severely understaffed given the state of the economy, the luster of Mara’s dream job quickly wore off. She was working 16-hour days, most of which she spent chained to her desk.
“I had always been such an active person and I just realized being stuck behind a desk all day wasn’t for me,” said Mara.
Mara recalls very clearly the day she decided to quit. “My boss called me in and asked me to go to Burger King and get her a burger and fries,” she said. “I remember thinking how hard I had worked to do well in school and here I was waiting in line at Burger King.”
“I realized that the last time I was truly happy was when I was dancing.”
[Full disclosure this interview was not the first time Mara and I met. Mara was a year ahead of me at Syracuse and had made a name for herself as the director of a popular dance company on campus called DanceWorks. I had attended many of her sold out shows and can attest that her love for dance is matched by her talent.]
Mara looked for ways to incorporate her love for dance back into her life and decided to try out for the Washington Wizards dance team. If she made the team she would move to Washington D.C. and start a life there.
Luckily, the tryouts for the Boston Celtics dancers occurred two weeks later. So she picked herself up from the Wizards rejection and went to Boston to try out. She made the finals. Unfortunately, the finals were a grueling 3-day event that took place during work hours. Mara was forced to make the choice right there, with no backup plan: quit her job and try to make the team, or stay in New York and opt for the security of a steady paycheck. She decided to choose happiness despite the risks and continue to the finals in an attempt to make the team.
There were 47 women on stage at the finals. Each waiting to hear if they had earned one of the 16 spots available.
“What occurred to me in that moment was that there were 47 women on stage and only 16 of those women were going to dance,” said Mara. While Mara didn’t experience a lightbulb moment for DanceWorks right there on that stage, she did realize that thirty-one other women were feeling exactly the same way she was in that moment – disappointment that they wouldn’t get the opportunity to dance.
It was the rejection she experienced and the loss of dance in her life that fueled her idea for DanceWorks. Like her company at Syracuse, she envisioned a place for competitive dancers to dance while maintaining their careers. Those thirty-one women represented a white space to Mara and she set out to fill it.
DanceWorks Boston was officially founded in 2010 with a core group of about 15 dancers. From there word spread throughout social media and by year two their performance included 35 dancers.
Twelve seasons and six years later Mara runs DanceWorks like a digital retailer. Rather than renting expensive brick-and-mortar space like a traditional school or company, the rehearsals instead are mobile and held in locations throughout the city that are more convenient for her working dancers. Today DanceWorks Boston is home to 190 dancers and Mara has expanded the company to New York City which is home to 185 dancers.
We asked Mara what advice she would give to the many other entrepreneurs who face rejection every day:
"Life is short," she said. "Don't lose yourself chasing money because at the end of the day it just buys you more stuff. Not more happiness. Money will come if you work hard, and work with a purpose brings happiness. Chase the freedom from a desk, not the paycheck. That's my key to happiness".
And while she emphasized the importance of a support system like family and friends, she also had some thought leaders who helped her through more challenging times.
Here are her recommendations: