Change Careers to Pursue Your Passion: A Conversation with Johanna Maska, Obama’s Former Director of Press Advance, on Doing What You Love
Last month, we hosted a SoFi member event in Los Angeles with special guest Johanna Maska, who shared details of her impressive career, including serving as Director of Press Advance for the Obama administration and Vice President of Marketing for the Los Angeles Times.
As someone who knows more than just a few things about transitioning big, Ms. Maska was the perfect guest speaker for our members, whose career paths are anything but traditional. Familiar with good and bad twists and turns, and some really wild rides, our members were wholly tuned in as she told her stories.
After the member event, she talked more with us, one-on-one, about her diverse career and lessons learned, and shared advice on transitioning careers.
You joined the Obama campaign at the very beginning, almost 10 years ago, in Iowa. What motivated you to do so, and how did you get the position?
I’d worked in politics before. Campaigns are incredibly challenging, and I only wanted to work on the campaigns of politicians I truly admired.
I had watched then state Sen. Barack Obama address the Democratic National Convention in 2004. He talked about my hometown, Galesburg, Ill., which had lost a Maytag plant. He talked about Kansas values—my entire family is from Kansas. I knew I wanted to work for him.
I met Paul Tewes, the Director of President Obama’s 2008 Iowa Caucus campaign, as he was moving to that state. I told him I was determined to work for Barack Obama. At first, he had no job to offer me, but I didn’t relent. He moved near me and I made it a point to tell him daily that I wanted to join the campaign. He laughs now when telling stories of how he tried to avoid me then. Eventually, though my experience was in communications, he suggested I work in Press Advance. “Absolutely,” I said. “I’ll do whatever I can do.”
You went on to work in the White House, ending your time there as Director of Press Advance. What is Press Advance, exactly?
As it turns out, Paul gave me a tremendous gift. Working in Press Advance allowed me to set the stage—literally—for history. As a student of journalism and history, this was awesome. I worked with our hosts and with the media to negotiate our event logistics, the look and feel, the press coverage, and how the public would ultimately see what happened.
What was your most challenging event?
I handled the logistics of getting President Obama on-air, live from Afghanistan, exactly one year after the death of Osama Bin Laden—and seven weeks after I had given birth to my son.
I worked with the networks to ensure off-the-record logistics were in place. Ultimately, for security reasons, I left my husband, a reporter, home with our new baby without telling him where I was going. We had to fly to Afghanistan in secret because President Obama and Afghan President Hamid Karzai were to sign a strategic partnership agreement. Once there, President Obama met with Mr. Karzai, addressed the press and the troops, and lastly addressed the U.S. public on safety and security issues.
You left the White House to work at the Los Angeles Times. Why?
In the six years I worked at the White House, I learned a great deal about politics on the national level. But began thinking more about politics on the local level, as I believe that’s where more of us should be focusing our energy. Frankly, I think we should be just as concerned about our city councils as we are with Congress.
Austin Beutner, who was then the publisher and CEO the Los Angeles Times, believed the same. He wanted the organization to be more conscious on a civic level, and was working toward a business model that would embrace that. I supported him and wanted to see if it could work in Los Angeles.
Ultimately, Tribune Media, the parent company of the Los Angeles Times fired Austin about four months after I arrived. So I left.
You ended up in financial technology. Why?
While exploring options post-White House, I met Pete Hartigan, a friend of a friend. He asked me why I was going to the Los Angeles Times, and I told him it was because I believed in Austin’s vision. He supported me, but somehow knew I wouldn’t last long there.
Pete suggested I look at financial technology. He was involved with starting SoFi, and believed that financial technology was poised to open up economic opportunities that give people more tools for their financial well-being.
Ultimately, he encouraged me to join Karmic Labs, and I did. I’m truly enjoying it; I love that the company is providing people with better payment solutions.
What skills helped you transition into a new career?
Persistence, for one. I’ve learned that no one is more concerned about my profession than I am. So I’ve had to be my biggest advocate when looking for something new. As a Midwesterner and a woman, I’m often too humble. So I’ve also had to learn to promote myself, even when it’s kind of uncomfortable.
What advice would you give others who want to change careers and try something new?
I had a mentor review my resume. She acknowledged that I’d done some phenomenal things, but suggested that I rewrite parts to match the language used by the companies I wanted to join. So, my advice is for others to do the same. Each industry uses different phrasing, so figure out how your experience best translates, and write it accordingly.
Use statistics, numbers, percentages, and show your willingness to try new things. If someone expresses a desire to recruit you, take the meeting. You never know what the right fit will be. You may have your heart set on the wrong thing and not even know it.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned throughout your career?
Don’t give up. At times, I’ve gotten frustrated, but I always believed in what I was doing, so I pushed through. I was so often exhausted during the Obama campaign that I didn’t think I could keep going. But I did. And for 8 years I used my journalism and history degrees to tell America’s stories to the world. I’ll forever be proud that I had that role in history. And I wouldn’t have gotten there if I had given up because I thought it tough on myself and my family.
Feeling inspired? Share this with a friend looking for a career change.