From Fashion to Tech: Decoded CEO Elizabeth Lukas on Mastering the Career Pivot
February 15, 2017 | Filed in: Woman of the Week
Feeling stuck in a career path? Meet Elizabeth Lukas: She started out in fashion, and then leapt to advertising, media, and high-level recruiting. Now she’s the CEO of an international tech firm, Decoded, which provides tailored education programs to help demystify technology through experiential learning and hands-on work. “My career certainly hasn’t been linear, but I love making up new paths when there are no roadmaps,” she says. “We’re all constantly evolving, and learning is never a one-and-done process.” We recently caught up with her to talk digital proficiency, how motherhood changed her work outlook, and the importance of brain dumps.
STARTING IN MIDDLE SCHOOL, I was very clear that I wanted to work in fashion. Specifically, I wanted to be a buyer and travel the world and live in different cultures. I had a family friend with a similar job, and she told me about it, and I was like, “That’s it, done, I’m 12 years old and I know exactly what I want to do.” And since that clear statement, I’ve probably changed jobs eight or ten times.
I WENT TO COLLEGE AT FIT (the Fashion Institute of Technology) in New York City, and spent the first two years majoring in fashion design and merchandising. Then AIDS hit hard, and I saw the fashion industry go through a tough time. You’d come back one semester and a beloved professor was gone—the epidemic was at our front door. I remember talking to my RA, who had a marketing communications background, and he said, “Listen, you can always have fashion, but why don’t you think about broadening your major to include marketing and communications?” In retrospect, moments like that have been a cornerstone of my life: being very sure about something, then getting exposed to a broader context, and being able to pivot. I did what he suggested, and spent the following two years at FIT studying marketing and communications, and I did as many internships as I could.
I WAS PLANNING to take a job at Ralph Lauren when I graduated, but they wanted me to start before my final exams. I said, “No, I can’t do that. I have to finish school!” They couldn’t wait, so instead, I went to work at an advertising agency. I wanted to hit the ground, get an apartment, and start my own life, so I took the first thing I was offered. I began as a receptionist, answering phones, and I grew from there very quickly. I loved how every day was a new day in marketing. You had a bevy of clients, and there was always a fresh set of challenges and problems to solve. As time went by, I wound up working mostly on technology accounts.
SOMEONE ONCE ASKED ME, “You have a background in fashion; why are you interested in technology?” This was years ago, when mobile devices were starting to take off, and I said, “Technology can be a status symbol, a branding tool. Buying a cool device is a statement about who you are in the same way as when you buy a Prada bag.” I also believe that the consumer feedback loop in technology is almost identical to fashion. If something doesn’t sell, it’s off the shelf in a nanosecond. The speed at which the fashion industry moves, if you’re not taking the customer into consideration during the design process, they’re not going to use the product.
AS THE RECESSION WAS LOOMING in 2008, I started to think about what I wanted to do next. I spoke with a recruiting firm, and they said, “Why don’t you come work for us? You’ve been in the industry for a while and you know the challenges that media and advertising companies are facing.” So I became a recruiter, which involved an aspect of my previous jobs that I really liked—the human element. Meeting people, finding out what they’re good at, and putting them in positions to succeed was incredibly satisfying for me. I did that for about five years, and had my two children at that time. The job gave me a lot of flexibility.
HAVING KIDS MADE ME RE-EVALUATE the motivations that drove me when I was younger—experiences and opportunities and growth and salary. Now, my agenda has more to do with purpose, and feeling like I’m making a difference in the world.
I MET THE FOUNDERS OF DECODED a couple of years ago. We had a lot in common in terms of background and worldview. We saw that there was a talent base in advertising and communications that wasn’t equipped to deal with the current speed of technological transformation. As a result, the industry was suffering, and a lot of good people were either leaving their jobs or just going straight to Google or Amazon from college. What do you do when top talent isn’t even considering your industry anymore? I was turning 40 at the time, and the idea of throwing talent away struck a nerve for me. A lot of companies were looking towards the younger generation for digital talent, but just because someone is digitally native doesn’t mean they’re digitally proficient. Digital proficiency can be taught, and digital proficiency on top of years of experience—well, that’s a powerful combination.
DECODED WORKS TO BUILD bridges for people who might otherwise meet technology with fear and apprehension. People often hear, “Our company is now moving away from consumer packaged goods and towards a more digitally-oriented product,” and feel terrified about their jobs. The prospect of giving them the tools and insight they need—not only to survive, but to succeed and thrive in this new world order— was thrilling.
IF THE TECH-SAVVY SPECTRUM ranges from “nerd” to “I don’t know how to program my DVR,” I’m probably in the middle, leaning more towards nerd. When I started, I said, “Listen, I can’t go out there and tell people they need to learn code if I haven’t learned code.” Now I know basic HTML and other fairly simple markup languages. I make a point to understand all the subjects we cover. I challenge my team by saying, “If I don’t get it, our clients aren’t going to get it,” so I’m sort of the litmus test. I want to be sure that what we’re selling speaks to the spectrum of people seeking to fundamentally understand technology so they can apply it to their businesses.
CYBERSECURITY IS SOMETHING I’m very into. Most people know about it but haven’t explored it—it’s like how I used to view coding as guys in hoodies who are super hard to talk to. Like, “Who is that person, and what is he doing? I couldn’t even begin to understand.” But cybersecurity is critical now. To me, it’s like a seatbelt: If you’re going to get in a car, you need put one on, and if you’re going to pick up a new device, you need to understand cybersecurity.
MANAGING YOUR LIFE in an increasingly complex world is an evolving art form. I’m constantly reading articles about it and checking new apps. I’ve found that the principle of brain dumping—getting everything out of my head and onto a list—helps me sleep at night. I usually do it on the train. I work in New York and live in Westchester, and my commute is a great time to take anything I’m thinking about and put it down on paper. Then I look at that list and think, “What is bringing value?” And prioritize accordingly.
I HAVE FIVE-YEAR-OLD TWINS, a boy and a girl, and I’m very cognizant of the influence that we have as adults, parents, and role models in guiding our kids to think about the world differently from how I thought about it growing up. My father is an engineer, and both of my brothers are engineers—why didn’t I become an engineer? I think a lot about how I can support my daughter and ignite her imagination in terms of exploring technology. And my son, as well.
I’VE RECENTLY BEEN ATTRACTED TO a minimalist philosophy when it comes to clothes and self-presentation. I used to carve out time before each season to go shopping to make sure I had the right accessories and everything, and now it’s much more about having quality staples that will endure throughout the year. I love the idea of a uniform—not having to think about what to wear, but still looking good. Finding something that’s great quality and doesn’t take much thought, so you can just get on with your day. It isn’t easy, but it’s nirvana when you do.
Photographs by Lindsay Brown.