How a Fortune 500 Company Taught Me to Be a CEO at 27

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Savannah Graybill12
Comms Professional | Retired Skeleton Athlete

After graduating from American University in 2010, I had a choice to make: move to a small town and start my broadcast journalism career, or take one last shot at pursuing an Olympic dream. I chose the latter, and for the past eight years, I’ve represented Team USA as an athlete on the US National Skeleton Team. For those that don't know, skeleton is a winter sliding sport in which athletes ride a small sled headfirst down a frozen track, hitting speeds of more than 80 miles per hour.

It’s been an amazing, but difficult journey. Aside from traveling often and missing my family, one of the biggest struggles with pursuing this dream is that I had to put my career aspirations on hold. Little did I know that what I learned when training for the Olympics would inevitably land me an internship that would completely change the trajectory of my career. Though my story involves many twists and turns — many of which are down a skeleton track — here’s how I was able to leverage my experiences to nab a dream internship that allowed me to briefly become the 'CEO' of a Fortune 500 company, and how you can, too. 

1. Let go of your perception of normal.

Back in 2015, I started taking steps toward pursuing my corporate career while I was chasing my athletic aspirations of competing at the 2018 Winter Olympics. This means I was training, taking classes for my MBA and working full-time in a restaurant to fund my season. While I loved my job, I knew I needed to find a job related to my major that would prepare me for my eventual transition from sport. 

During my job search, I came across an internship called “CEO for One Month” at a Fortune 500 company. I was intrigued, but apprehensive. At 27, I wasn’t exactly the age of your average intern. Up until this point, I wasn’t following a “traditional path” — so why should it stop me now? That’s the thing about the perception of what is expected. Expectations at times tell you who you should be, rather than what you want to be. My advice: use your quirks and differences to make yourself stand out and forget about expectations. With that in mind, I decided to apply — and I won. 

2. Show your passion.

It’s critical to show how your passion drives you. When I first started applying for job openings, I knew I’d have to find a way to stand out among my peers who had headed straight for the work-force post graduation. Due to my athletic career and unique skill set, I needed to illustrate to employers the passion I had about my sport and career aspirations, so much so that they would want to hire me based on my drive. I was able to communicate that passion during the “tell me about yourself” question you’ll inevitably face during the interview process, and that eventually led me to gain an associate position with the company at the conclusion of my internship.  

3. Dive in.

My undergrad degree is in broadcast journalism, so I’m used to a hectic, ever-changing workplace. As an elite athlete in a high-speed sport, I’m also used to making snap decisions to propel me forward (literally). In my line of work, inaction is the worst action. In fact, it can get you hurt. While inaction in the workplace doesn’t necessarily come with the same consequences, I’ve learned it’s important to make the best decision you can with the information you have and don’t look back. Make a choice and dive in. At the end of the day, your final product will probably look vastly different than your initial plan anyway, but you’ll never get there if you don’t take the plunge. 

4. When opportunity knocks, go for it.

When an opportunity strikes, say yes. Even when it feels like the timing isn’t right, or your schedule is too hectic—say yes. When I made it to the final round for the internship, I became nervous. What if I actually won? How on earth would I manage my skeleton training, a fundraiser and MBA course load on top of this internship?

Too often we make excuses as to why we can’t achieve a particular goal, and in that moment, I was falling into that trap. I used to think that being an athlete and developing a corporate career were mutually exclusive, and that’s simply not true. The same can be said for raising a family or going back to school. Our life choices can certainly create extra challenges when pursuing a new opportunity, but it should never stop you from pursuing something that fuels your passion or could lead to an even bigger break down the road. Don’t let apprehension or doubt rule your decision-making. Say yes and figure out the details later. 

At the end of the day, there isn’t just one formula for career success. In fact, sometimes off-the-wall choices can lead you to some pretty cool opportunities — some you may have never explored if you hadn’t had the courage to say yes.