Wendy Davis, Ellen Pao, and Kathryn Hahn Talk Summer Jobs That Changed Their Lives

Lenny editors and contributors reflect on their early work experiences and the lessons that they learned. 

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My most memorable summer job was a volunteer gig with the Student Conservation Association. When I was 18, I spent a month building trail and camping in the remote north unit of the Teddy Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota. At the time, I was a semi-prissy suburban girl, and the assignment taught me the value of hard, physical work and why conserving the breathtaking environmental resources that are our national parks is so important. 

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The White House knows the value of a summer job and how it can change your life. That's why it's launching the Summer Opportunity Project, which is bringing together business and community leaders to get young people their first jobs. These gigs scooping ice cream and working at the mall are much more important than they may seem at first glance. As President Obama put it in an essay for LinkedIn:

Access to a job in the summer and beyond can make all the difference to a young person — especially those who don't have access to many resources and opportunities. Employment can also help bridge the "opportunity gap" we see in the summer months, when young people tend to fall behind in educational achievement.

So we asked our favorite contributors to talk about their most memorable first jobs to call attention to the Summer Opportunity Project. These early work experiences taught them to overcome shyness and to have confidence in their talents — serving to underline the importance of these jobs.

—Jessica Grose

Kathryn Hahn: When I was a sophomore in high school, I volunteered to teach summer-school acting and theater to special-needs kids in Cleveland. 

I was incredibly intimidated: how do I talk to them? What do I know? Why would they put a 16-year-old in charge? (The last one was a valid concern.)

The levels of disability were intense and humbling. As a teacher, I was inspired by the first chapter of Ray Bradbury's amazing book Dandelion Wine, because I remembered so fondly how he discussed new-tennis-shoe day as the birth of summer. How he remembered the beginning of summer as the feeling of fresh, clean, virgin tennis shoes on his feet. So I had each of the kids bring in their favorite pair of shoes and riff on why and how they loved them. 

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I'm telling you, to this day I never cried or laughed or was moved so much by "performance." 

It solidified my undying devotion to the gift of storytelling and the imagination. How lucky are we humans to be unified by that.

Ellen Pao: My first serious unpaid job was working for my weekly high-school paper (the Columbian). And the hardest part of the job was selling the paper for $0.25 a copy to cover printing costs. Each week, I forced myself to break out of my introverted shell and sell, sell, sell. I sold to my parents, to my friends, and to strangers; I went from table to table during lunch, holding up the papers and making the pitch. The worst/best table was the football-player table. They were rowdy and rambunctious (once they threw a Devil Dog at my sister when she was peddling papers), but they would always buy a few copies for the sports coverage. That experience taught me about rejection and persistence and gave me a thick skin. Eventually, when I was no longer nervous asking, they stopped giving me a hard time. (And it also gave me material for my college essays, and now for Lenny Letter!)

Wendy Davis: When I was 17, after working a few fast-food jobs, I started waiting tables in my dad's small dinner theater. The theater was housed in a small space next door to a deli that my dad had opened, appropriately named The Stage Door Deli because you had to walk through the deli to get to your theater seats. Because everyone arrived almost simultaneously, and because they had to be served and their food had to be cleared before the play began, I developed a true appreciation for functioning in a high-stress, adrenaline-filled environment. I've never forgotten how hard that work is, which I try to demonstrate when I tip food servers to this day. But more important, the job provided me a path back to my dad, from whom I'd grown distant after my parents divorced. I worked for tips only, and some nights there weren't more than a few dollars to take home, but because it laid the groundwork for what became a beautiful friendship with my father, it will forever be my most cherished job.

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Meena Harris: I spent every summer during college working as a "lead artist" for the Mural Music & Arts Project, an educational program that helps high-school students design large public-art murals while tackling complex community issues like environmental and social justice. At the time the project operated only in East Palo Alto, a city that neighbors Stanford but is separated from Palo Alto's affluence by Highway 101. Unfortunately, East Palo Alto was best known among Stanford students for being, according to '90s media, the "Murder Capital of the World." Through mentoring and teaching the neighborhood's wildly talented yet underserved youth, I not only was able to play some small part in changing that perception by helping to give our teens a voice, but I also continued my interest in art, which had always been important to me. More than that, the project reminded me to remember my own privilege and, in turn, my duty to enrich the lives of others who aren't as fortunate as I am. The public-art legacy we created together still exists today.

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Emily V. Gordon: My first job was volunteering at a science museum in Winston Salem, North Carolina, when I was 16 years old. I helped teach classes about habitat and conservation: we made homemade Play-Doh and played games about deer trying to find enough food to eat (depressing!). After a bit I got moved to the inside of the museum, where I got to hold snakes and walk them around for groups of children to pet, and eventually I was posted up in the animatronic dinosaur room, where I listened to dinosaurs roar for six-hour stretches. This job gave me a massive respect for museums and fostered the importance of volunteering in me. Also, it was my first taste of working hard in the face of chaos and snakes and dinosaurs.

Doreen St. Félix: I worked in the Brooklyn Heights Housing Works thrift shop the summer after I turned 16. Housing Works is a nonprofit founded by ACT UP (AIDS Coalition to Unleash Power) members in 1990. Worried that my shyness would eventually be a liability for me, my mom and sister basically forced me to find a job that required talking to people. For the first week, it was total agony. I volunteered to do all the inventory and pricing, and even to color-coordinate the clothes, just so I didn't have to interact with people. One day, no one but me was able to come in, so I had no choice but to work the register. And that day, I found out I actually do have a knack for socializing! I ended up volunteering to be at the register for the rest of my time there, and I haven't shut up since.

Mattie Kahn: Find me an ambitious woman, and I bet I can draw out the tale of that summer she once worked for sexist assholes. I hate to boast, but it's a very special talent. Anyway! I know it's true. And I had my very own. It was formative and horrible, and it made me doubt every last talent I had to offer the world — deeply. 

I won't go into it here, but after that setback, I wrote a little here and there and scored a summer gig at ABC News. I was 22. I took the job, dreading it. I had been hired to crank out stories about celebrities and fashion, which I was sure I would hate. And I worried that  the business of it would prove I wasn't cut out to be a writer at all. I remember wondering whether I should just try to be a consultant. Maybe I would be good! But I had missed all the deadlines. So I lumbered off to write about Justin Bieber and culottes instead. Because of the people and the newsroom and a culture that told me I had real worth, I realized work could be good. I know now just how much of my present happiness I owe to the precious months I spent there.

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