Look for the ‘Yes’: Alma Derricks on Being Different

 In celebration of International Women’s Day and Women’s History Month throughout March, we’re featuring women who are shattering stereotypes in their personal and professional lives. From artists to engineers, women who have forged their own path inspire us and women everywhere to accomplish whatever we dream of being.

Alma Derricks never dreamed of running away with the circus, but that’s where she’s been most recently. At Cirque du Soleil, Alma recognized the fans’ enthusiasm for the show and brainstormed ways to engage with them beyond the performance. She launched SPARK Sessions to give corporate customers a transformative and educational behind-the-scenes experience, beyond the performance. Now people who work in industries far removed from the circus are turning to Cirque du Soleil to learn about teamwork and trust in a new way.

Alma is used to innovating inside established companies and refers to herself as an “intrapreneur.” Her compass to success is to build natural brand extensions that get others to say “yes” to new ideas and new experiences. In our interview with her, she led us through many “yes’s” she’s found in her career.

Alma, you’ve had an extensive career in the entertainment industry — with HBO, United Media, Paramount, the LA Times, and Cirque du Soleil — and you’ve moved through a lot of uncharted territory. Tell us what you have loved about your career.

Those were all very traditional companies, but all were looking to take some sharp left turns into something very new. I’ve always been that person, kind of that entrepreneur inside organizations, who’s doing the off-roading. It started by happenstance, and then over time I grew to really love it. It requires an interesting combination of leveraging and honoring the legacy business and finding ways to twist and morph.

For example, I started at HBO in the early 90s — just after finishing business school — in a role that was slotted for a new MBA. It was called “Special Assistant to the Chairman” and essentially it was an internal consulting role that changed almost day to day. One day, the chairman of HBO looked out of the window at Bryant Park and said, “We should show movies there.” So I produced the first two years of the Bryant Park Film Festival. It needed to be fleshed out, managed, marketed, and pulled together, and now the Bryant Park Film Festival is a summer staple in New York. Because of out-of-the-box challenges like that, I ended up developing this real comfort zone with the thing that didn’t have a normal place inside a traditional company or on an org chart.

At United Media with Dilbert and Peanuts, we had amazing success in the early days of the commercial internet. At other places, like the LA Times, change wasn’t nearly as successful. They just weren’t ready for it at the time.

Any time a company is going through a shift or a change or wants to do that next, new-new, thing — I love that. I love the part where the paved road runs out and you have to kind of start again. To me, there is something extra special about frontier projects where there’s no one there to tell you no. There’s no one there to say you can’t do it, you just strike out into that space and you start piecing it together.

How do you think your career has shattered traditional stereotypes of women at work?

I’m very used to being a rare woman or the only woman of color in my company or in my role.

I don’t know if there’s a preconceived notion that I broke through. I just regularly jumped into new and uncharted space and, if you had even a shred of experience, you quickly became the expert. At moments like that people aren’t looking at your color, or looking at your gender as much — it becomes secondary to the fact that they believe you know what you’re doing.

I remember one meeting in particular I had with a Silicon Valley company. I was in a room with 12 other consultants and integrators, and we were meeting for the first time. They were all men and they were all wearing khakis and the same color polo. They all had their hair parted on the same side, and — I kid you not — they all started calling each other by the wrong name because they couldn’t tell anyone apart. It was like a comedy sketch! On the other hand, I’m dressed in a shiny three-quarter length coat and high heels. I kind of blew into the room with a cape fluttering and I was sitting there trying not to laugh as they were all calling each other Dave. In desperation, they just turned to me because I was the only one they could all identify. It was the funniest thing.

It was great and I thought, “Okay, let’s go. Now I am in charge of this meeting.” So when you’re doing something weird and different, and you’re also weird and different, it kind of works. You’re going to run into folks who discriminate against you for something — sometimes it’s invisible and a lot of times you don’t know what it is. But have the courage to take risks and not buy into the stereotypes or let them hold you back. Don’t overthink it. It doesn’t make any sense when you start to think, “I can’t do that because I’m a girl.” In my mind, it doesn’t even stick. You need to embrace your uniqueness and run as fast as you can.

What career advice would you give to other women?

You just have to find the “yes.” Keep digging for it. I don’t see myself as an unusually positive person in this regard, but I just sort of shake off the “no” and say, “That’s a ‘no,’ okay.” And then keep moving. There will always be a lot of “no’s,” and a lot of reasons for “no,” but it doesn’t matter. It could be some combination of something diabolical and something practical, so you just remind yourself that it wasn’t a fit, or it wasn’t the right moment or that wasn’t the right person. You just keep moving because it’s all you really can do until you find an opening or a crack or something that you can take advantage of. That’s the “yes.” Use every “yes” to get another “yes” and then start to make a difference.

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