I took an unconventional path after graduating from Harvard Business School and it made my career

In this series, professionals discuss their experiences accomplishing something for the first time. Read their stories here, then write your own using #IWasTheFirst in the body of the post

My success as an author, analyst, and entrepreneur rests on my ability to be “first” to make a new disruptive trend understandable to people – and to do it again and again over years.

As an analyst, I authored many of the Forrester reports that defined Internet advertising, email marketing, search, and social media. I wrote a bestselling book (along with my co-author Josh Bernoff) called “Groundswell” that defined how social media would transform our world. I then went on to be the Founder and CEO of a disruptive analyst firm, Altimeter Group. Last summer, I sold Altimeter to my current company, Prophet Brand Strategy.

My comfort with being first stems from being different. I grew up as the Chinese American daughter of immigrants in the working class suburbs of Detroit. There were three major ethnic groups at my public school – Irish, Italian, and Polish. And then my family and I showed up and I was a minority of 1. Talk about being different. We had to overcome racial prejudice by forging alliances with new friends and facing them head on together.

There were two critical decisions that I made along my journey to get to where I am. The first was I abandoned my childhood dream of becoming a doctor after my freshman year in college. I didn’t have the passion for it and was discovering that I loved leading organizations. My parents were extremely worried that I would face prejudice in business as an Asian American woman. For context, we had NO Asian American women in business as a role model at the time. I was going to be “first” but this didn’t feel any different from what I had done before.

The other decision I made was when I graduated from Harvard Business School. I took an analytical approach to understanding this new trend called the Internet (there was no World Wide Web then). I researched and interviewed across the entire value chain – hardware, software, communications, and content. I settled on content as the best place for me and interviewed from TV and radio to magazines, newspapers, and even emerging software companies. I decided to start my new career in newspapers and fought for a spot at the San Jose Mercury News in the middle of Silicon Valley.

This is not something you typically saw from HBS graduates. But my bet paid off as it was 1993 and I had a front row seat at the founding of a new era. More importantly, I was working at a company that was in the middle of the information highway and getting run over. Learning how to manage and lead change was a given and my career has been a series of disruptive stepping stones, culminating in the founding of my own firm, Altimeter.

I’m now heading into my 18th year as an analyst and author, continually trying to be first in my field. I don’t write, speak, or think like a typical analyst and it’s always been to my advantage.

During the first ten years of being an analyst, I had briefings from a total four women CEOs, none of them women of color. While women still face tremendous discrimination in tech, I’m seeing progress but it’s not enough. To help change this, when I meet women CEOs of start-ups, I take them aside and ask how I can personally help them. I especially reach out to women of color in any position who are contemplating making a move out of their comfort zone. After all, I know what it’s like to be different, to be first.

My hope is that my ideas and words provide people with a roadmap of how to manage disruption in their organizations and their lives. And I hope that my life and career serves as an inspiration especially for women of color for how to pursue and manage disruption in their lives. I may be among the first to forge this road, but it is so very gratifying to know that I am far from being the last.

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