Meet Kathryn Minshew: The Career Matchmaker & CEO of The Muse
July 09, 2016 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Kathryn Minshew, 30, started The Muse in 2011 when she became fed up with her own frustrating job search. Envisioning a platform that could provide job counseling, information about great employers, and specific advice for matching your skills with available positions, she recruited two friends to co-found a website that has since helped over 50 million people with their careers. We sat down with her at The Muse’s New York headquarters to pick her brain about TTS (Things That Suck), her “boss” philosophy, and her zig-zagging path to becoming a career matchmaker.
I GOT THE IDEA for The Muse because I needed it in my own life. In 2009, I was working in consulting, and I didn’t want to do that forever—but I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do next. When I looked at job boards online, I ran into one of two problems: Either the site saw that I was a consultant and said, “Oh, you must want a consulting job,” and fed me exactly what I was trying to escape, or the site returned thousands of undifferentiated crap results. At one point I was searching on Indeed or Monster and I typed in “business strategy director”—which I wasn’t sure I wanted to do, but you have to type in something—and one of the top results was for an assistant store manager position at a 7-Eleven in Secaucus, New Jersey. I was like, “Are you kidding me?” So I started talking with two colleagues who became my co-founders about what we might do differently if we could create the perfect career navigation experience. We wanted a really visual, intuitive way to see inside companies, with testimonies from actual employees and information that people could use to draw conclusions of their own.
WHEN I WAS JOB-HUNTING, every time I found a position that seemed interesting, I’d start this flurry of online research. I’d look up the company’s career site and their social profiles and try to find out everything that I could. It was frustrating that there was so little information online, and that companies seemed to have control of most of it. I was all over the map—I looked at financial institutions, I got a job offer from a hedge fund, I chatted with Google—and I finally decided to move to Kigali, Rwanda, for a six-month position with the Clinton Health Access Initiative. It was an amazing experience, but it very definitively answered the question of whether I was meant to work in global health overseas, and that answer was no. However, it made me much more open to pursuing something new.
I WAS SO SCARED that if I made the “wrong choice” in my career, I’d waste another year or two. When I got back from Rwanda, I got interested in a position at a large, well-known organization that sounded fantastic from the outside. I did several interviews and eventually made it to the final round—they had narrowed it down to me and one other person. They brought me in and I met a bunch of people on the team and saw the offices. And that’s when I got this terrible feeling that I did not want this job. I remember feeling so guilty, and I pulled out that night. That experience was a big impetus for The Muse’s idea that people should be able to see the inside of offices and meet people before they apply. It’s certainly not a perfect solution, but think of how much time and energy and pain I could have saved that company—and they could have saved me—if I’d known earlier that the job just wasn’t right for me.
I MET MY CO-FOUNDERS, Alex Cavoulacos and Melissa McCreery, when we worked together at McKinsey—I was there from 2008 to 2010. We were already friends, and then we volunteered to lead a pro-bono project for Sesame Workshop (Sesame Street in the U.S.). Our normal jobs would keep us up until 10:00 or 11:00pm, and this Sesame project had to be done on top of that; you really get to know who somebody is when shit hits the fan, and we got along really well. Alex is still here at The Muse; Melissa left to get her Ph.D. in cancer biology, but she’s still one of my closest friends. She’s a bridesmaid in my wedding.
OUR COMPANY CULTURE is very deliberate. Even when we were just three people, we were always asking, “What do we want this company to look like when it grows up?” Alex worked in professional development at McKinsey, so she made sure that we had a 360-degree feedback process from day one. And little things matter, too—for example, every Wednesday we have a meeting called TTS, which stands for “things that suck.” The point of the meeting is that anyone at the company can nominate an unpleasant task, and instead of one person spending eight hours on it, we’ll turn it into a group effort. Part of the team will devote 1:00 to 2:00pm on a Wednesday to getting it done, and we’ll play music and bring in snacks. It’s a way of working together on tough tasks to make them more palatable. Another thing we’ve been testing recently is a baby-at-work policy; one of our senior level execs brings her daughter in three days a week, and it’s been awesome. We want to foster a very experimental culture—if something doesn’t work, we’ll just say, “Oh well,” and move on.
AS A BOSS, I try to be hands-off. My ideal structure is like a fleet of ships, each with its own commander—like the USS Sales or the USS Marketing. My job is to make sure that the ships are stocked, that the air cover is appropriate, and that there’s plenty of fuel in the tanks, but ultimately I want the commanders to run their own ships. Those who report to me directly would probably say I’m pretty laid-back, and I generally give them a lot of latitude; but if I start to suspect that something might go off the rails, I get very involved until it’s back on track and I feel that my help isn’t needed.
AS A KID, I was always starting things, although I never thought of it as entrepreneurship. When I was in eighth grade, I started a children’s theater troupe that eventually performed for over 600 kids. I loved acting and directing, but my school only did a couple of productions a year, so I thought, “Who else could we perform for?” Our first show was for senior citizens at a facility near my hometown; we also performed in libraries and at children’s festivals. Our biggest production was Jack and the Beanstalk at the Duke Children’s Hospital, which has a six-story atrium; kids watched from all the balconies.
MY ASPIRATION is for our employees to look back and say, “That was one of the best companies I ever worked for.” And that comes from the way you treat people, the organizations you set up, and the modes of behavior and communication that are acceptable versus unacceptable. I try to lead by example in terms of how I want The Muse to grow as an organization.
Photos by Frances F. Denny.