When reflecting on their careers, these well-known local women profiled below have come to realize that their early days in the working world were far from trivial. Read on to learn how their first jobs pushed them ahead.
Ruth Lawrence M.D.
While attending Ohio-based Antioch College—for more than a century, the only American liberal arts college with a required work component—Ruth Lawrence landed a job at Chrysler during World War II. As the Nazis tightened their grip across Europe, Lawrence was busy in the car company’s lubricants lab, testing oil and grease for military airplanes that Chrysler manufactured in Detroit at the time.
“It was a very interesting experience because I left that job thinking, ‘If this is what people do in this kind of scientific work, it’s not what I want to do,” says Lawrence, professor of pediatrics and obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and a widely respected expert on neonatology and clinical toxicology.
As she toyed with going into science journalism, Lawrence took another job during college at a New Jersey-based pharmaceutical firm. Her primary responsibility was answering letters of inquiry about the product line for the firm’s Swiss-born president, who was not fluent in English.
“And when I left to go back to college after my three months, his question to me was, ‘Where are you going to medical school?’” Lawrence says. “And, of course, this was the ’40s. Women did not go to medical school. Women were not welcome in medical school.”
Lawrence went on to graduate from UR’s School of Medicine and Dentistry with only nine other women in her class. She eventually became director of UR’s poison center, the first in the country to answer phone calls from the public.
“And I ran that program for 50 years,” says Lawrence, a mother of nine who lugged around a first-generation portable phone that was bigger than her purse to do her job.
Young people need to be prepared to start at the bottom when searching for their first break, says Lawrence, winner of the Athena Award in 2008.
“You should dress appropriately, behave appropriately, speak appropriately, and learn the language of the industry that you’re going into,” she says.
As a high school senior, Jenny Servo took her first job as a singer for Carl Dengler, Rochester’s foremost big band leader.
“The repertoire that pretty much we would do would be George Gershwin songs, like ‘Embraceable You,’ or Cole Porter songs,” says Servo, founder and president of Rochester-based Dawnbreaker Inc. “So they were very lyrical songs that were popular from a previous age.”
Servo, who was born in England, enrolled at the Eastman School of Music to major in voice. After graduating, she sang at supper clubs for decade before putting that aside to have children.
“What you’re passionate about can change,” says Servo, whose firm helps businesses bring their technology to market, firms funded through the federal government’s Small Business Innovation Research and Small Business Technology Transfer programs.
She adds: “I told (my two sons)—and this is probably a very bad analogy but—picking a career is like trying on shoes. You try on something and see if it fits. And if it doesn’t, then you move to something else.”
Even though Servo’s work has shifted away from music, certain life lessons gained from singing with Dengler’s band still resonate with her.
“Don’t be afraid to try things that scare you, like singing in front of an audience,” she says.
Daisy Rivera Algarin
Working as an evening receptionist during high school at Rochester-based Anthony L. Jordan Health Center helped shape career decisions Daisy Rivera Algarin made down the road.
“That was the genesis of my customer-service skills,” says Algarin, senior marketing specialist for the city of Rochester and an Athena Award finalist in 2014. “It exposed me to a variety of different people. I had to utilize my Spanish-speaking skills; I had to utilize and draw, at that young age, on patience.”
After graduating from Nazareth College, Algarin owned a flower shop. When entrepreneurship began to lose its luster, the Bronx native moved on to work for the city. Five years ago, she served on the Jordan Health Center’s foundation board.
“To see how much Jordan has grown and to see what new services they were providing—it was very rewarding,” Algarin says. “But also, as an adult, it gave me an opportunity to give back and be more involved.”
Shortly after graduating from the University of Rochester, Heidi Zimmer-Meyer walked into the city of Buffalo’s planning department and asked for a job. When she found out there were not any vacancies, Zimmer-Meyer offered to work for free, which she did for two months while waitressing near Buffalo’s city hall.
With very little in her pocket, Zimmer-Meyer then took a part-time job working for a tyrannical boss at Buffalo’s landmark and preservation board.
“She treated me like a servant, and I ended up making it through one year,” says Zimmer-Meyer, president of Rochester Downtown Development Corp.
The difficulty of that experience propelled Zimmer-Meyer to the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she earned a graduate degree in urban planning.
“That changed everything that happened to me from that point on,” she says.
The challenges Zimmer-Meyer faced before going to graduate school also “made me different about the way I supervise people,” she says. “Instead of treating people in a way that makes them feel less about themselves or incapable, I’m very much about trying to help people develop their skills.”
Sheila Livadas is a Rochester-area freelance writer.
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