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Pivot Pointe
March 21, 2021

Career Transition With Caroline Bird

Digital Communication Manager, Beiersdorf

A native of New York, Caroline has always been driven by challenges and fast-paced learning. After moving to Germany to pursue a professional career with the Staatsballett Berlin at 26 she transitioned from a creative but highly disciplined ballet world to the digital communications world. Her primary expertise is creative digital channel and communication strategy. Currently, she is responsible for the 53 corporate websites, diverse social media channels, and the digitalization communication strategy for the world’s leading skincare corporation Beiersdorf.

We asked Caroline to reflect upon her career transition.

Photo by Joachim Manuel Riede

At what age did you realize you wanted to pursue ballet as a profession?

Caroline Bird: I never commit to doing something unless my whole heart is in it. I began dancing when I was 5 after starting with figure skating at 2 years old and then moving on to gymnastics. My first ballet teacher discovered me at a Gymboree birthday party and told my mom that I had to get into ballet. I immediately fell in love. That year I began performing, I was 5 at the time, and as per anything I put my mind to, I gave ballet my everything because when I dance, it feels like flying and shining at the same time. But this has always been my mentality—all or nothing and there always has to be passion and drive behind anything I do. I have always been a dreamer who has seen so clearly what I wanted and fought to make it happen no matter the obstacles. And quite frankly, you have to be for this cut-through, intense, and all-consuming profession.

It wasn’t a particular day or moment that I decided I wanted to be serious about it—as soon as I put the dream in my head, it wasn’t a question. And the lengths my parents went to support me (the youngest and only girl with 3 older brothers), it was clear I wanted to go the distance. If I had to pick a poignant step in my journey, it would be deciding to move together with my mom to New York City in order for me to attend Professional Children's School so that I could continue my private school education and schedule it around my training schedule. And this was no small sacrifice—my mom found a new job in the city and my youngest brother and father stayed at our home in New Jersey, all so I could train with my teacher at the time and maintain a high education all whilst prioritizing my ballet training.

After 5 months and some major life-defining moments, I noticed that I began to question my passion for ballet, and I grew tired of always having to leave Hamburg and my life there behind.

After two European audition tours from America, you landed a contract with the Staatsballett Berlin, where you then danced for six years. In becoming a professional ballet dancer, was it all that you imagined?

Caroline: The more I look back at it, the more facets I see. On the one hand, the euphoric of being on stage knowing you are transporting thousands of people every night to another world, another time, another place is pure magic. A huge reason why I always dreamed of working in Europe is the mentality and appreciation for the arts. People—not just big city citizens are raised cultured and have an ornate appreciation for arts and artists. No matter who I spoke to, I was always treated as 'of another world,' something truly special; being a ballet dancer wasn’t just my profession, but it was who I was and everything I did. The best memories I have are traveling on tour with the company to Taiwan, having beautiful costumes built on my body, and the prestigious collaborations (with Vogue, adidas, and Berghain). But what I didn’t imagine is the impact of change in leadership, being put in a box and that being patient and working hard doesn’t always pay off. Looking back now, it baffles me the lack of organization of such a historic institution and the countless lost opportunities and talent due to poor leadership and systemic issues.

When the company welcomed new leadership, things changed dramatically for you in your would-be seventh year with Staatsballett Berlin. What were the challenges you faced?

Caroline: My ballet career was anything but the fairytale it may sound like at first glance. I am grateful that to some extent, I fulfilled my dream of becoming a professional ballerina (check) with a world-renown ballet company (check) in Europe (check). However, much of the time was spent hoping I would be seen differently than the box the company put me in - which was for the majority of the time - a seasoned understudy, who if someone dropped out last minute, I would get my moment. Of course, I had my moments to shine (in my own way), and for those moments, it was all worth it. But so much of my chances hung on the slim fate if someone else went out.

I was hired by Vladimir Malakhov, who had a particular eye for artistry and appreciation for Americans, and as I was never a technician, this was to my advantage. When Vladimir retired, and Nacho Duato became the new artistic director, there was a shift in the company. There were the classical dancers, his own coven of dancers that he liked for his works, and then the dancers that fit in both. After a year of his leadership the following October, I was handed a letter of termination. This was a defining moment, which I decided to channel my anger and disappointment into empowerment for the rest of the season. I spent my breaks between rehearsals (of the same repertoire I had been doing for 6 years) working on variations for video auditions and preparing for yet another audition tour. After one month of auditions in America and multiple company classes around Europe, I didn’t land a contract.

With time running out on my working visa, I had to ask for an extension of my visa as I continued to search for work. To this plea, I was met with a, 'No job, then apply at Starbucks, or leave the country.' Luckily after begging for an extension, I was granted 3 more months. At that time, I moved to Hamburg to live with my boyfriend at the time where I could occasionally train with Hamburg Ballet. I then had the opportunity to start guesting with Magdeburg Ballet and also did some commercial work to broaden my network. The upside of freelancing was that I was my own boss and didn’t have to deal with company politics, and each contract was limited per production, so nothing ever became routine.

Photo by Paulio Sóvári

You can be anything you want to be. Don’t limit yourself, and never let anyone put you in a box.

Amid the freelancing, you were also actively working on applications to send to companies outside of the dance industry. Did you have any resources throughout this process and what were the obstacles you faced as you transitioned out from dance?

Caroline: After 5 months and some major life-defining moments, I noticed that I began to question my passion for ballet, and I grew tired of always having to leave Hamburg and my life there behind. I think somewhere along the way, my spirit was crushed and the input no longer outweighed the sacrifice required for this all-consuming profession. I felt this epic love story fading and decided to start looking for ways to find employment in Hamburg whilst freelancing because, without a work visa, I couldn’t stay. I tried to find things that I was interested in where I could channel my strength while still guesting with Magdeburg Ballet. But I felt lost faced with the terrifying reality that if I truly gave up ballet ( something I had never fathomed until I was 40), I would be losing who I am, what defines me, and all that I have ever known. Gratefully, my dearest childhood friend who always empowered me and constantly reminded me of my worth was working at Google at the time referred me to one of her colleagues that transitioned from the performing arts world. This was so empowering to hear that someone else has been in my shoes, and they made it to one of the biggest global corporations.

Everything changed when a position at Foodguide opened up. In just a few days at warp speed, you interviewed, got the job, did your final bow on stage, and started the new position. Did you have any fears diving into this new role?

Caroline: I never thought I would find a job on Instagram doing exactly what I did in my free time. I was always passionate about food, and since moving to Germany, whenever I had time to plan little adventures on my free days, I would always look for the latest trending restaurants to explore. I moved to Berlin in 2010 when the street food trend just began, so it became my task to keep tabs on new openings and add them to my list. And whenever we went on tour, I would always research beforehand and organize a map of must-sees. So when a blog I followed for food spots in Hamburg posted they were looking for an International Partnerships Manager, I thought, 'why not.' I sent a resume (naively) filled with my ballet experience and a letter of motivation listing my transferable skills (e.g., native-English, hard-working, a quick learner, and passionate about food). To my utter surprise, the next morning, I received a reply asking for an in-person interview 5 days later. I had to do the interview on my way to Magdeburg for a performance of Sleeping Beauty. I remember being so nervous and overwhelmed with imposter syndrome. Diving into the complete unknown and deeply fearing they would judge me for my lack of university education and previous work experience.

That Wednesday in May, I met with the Manager of DACH (Germany, Austria, and Switzerland) and the CEO and to my surprise, after walking them through my answers to the company questionnaire, what they were most taken by was my work ethic, my open-mindedness, my passion, and discipline—all molded from ballet. After that meeting, they asked me to come the next day for a trial workday to see if it was a good fit. As I was on my way to the performance of Sleeping Beauty, I realized this is it—this is my last bow. So far from how I ever imagined it (26 and healthy), but my soul was tired and broken and ready for a new guiding light. At that moment, I accepted that I was ready to trade what most likely would be an endless cycle of being a swan or waiting in the wings for a second career.

So my retirement was silent and undramatic, and at that point, no one knew this was it. Looking back, it was one of the best decisions I have ever made and exactly the right point in my timeline. The question that everyone begs to ask is if I miss it, and the answer is,  of course, I am still deeply moved by the art form. I cry when I watch the Willis in Giselle, and in my dreams, I am dancing and still sparkling on stage. But when I look back, I had to leave the world to begin my journey of reaching my full potential—to truly fly, and for the world to see me outside of the box I was kept in for many many years.

Photo by Alice Williamson

While it was challenging to secure your first job outside of ballet, it proved to be even more challenging to move on from Foodguide. After searching for the next step in your new career, including experiencing your first elaborate interview process you sought mentors to help coach and direct you in a much more narrow job search. In hindsight, how valuable was this experience?

Caroline: I am forever grateful for my friends and family as they always kept me grounded and empowered by reminding me religiously that I can be anything I want to be, anything I put my mind to. And this mantra kept me strong as I soul searched and had my identity crisis as I confronted the idea of transitioning whilst freelancing. The same goes for when I realized I wasn’t being challenged enough in my role at Foodguide. I felt as if I was floating- treading water- which in my gut felt so wrong. I shared these feelings with my dear non-ballerina friends, who acted as my mentors whilst navigating the ‘normal’ professional world. They again nudged me to explore the next step and to believe that I deserve to be challenged every day. My key mentor, whom I have been in awe of, her ambitions, talent, creativity, and how she navigated her own success, told me, ‘you should never be the smartest person in the room.’ With every doubt, fear, and insecurity, she kept me inspired and striving to keep reaching and reassuring me that I deserved more. Somehow she could see my potential in my essence and strongly believed this mattered far more than practical experience.

A year ago, you landed a dream role at the German skincare giant, Beiersdorf. Can you indulge us in the interviewing and hiring process?

Caroline: After searching for months for interesting job opportunities, one day in August, I found 2 jobs were posted on the same day that spoke to me. And for the first time, a University degree wasn’t a must. I have seen such jobs before, but with my credentials of 2 years of working experience and no degree or German language skills, I was always missing a credential. Convinced that I found 2 dream jobs for major global corporations together with the support of my mentor, she supported me throughout the process to groom me and provide guidance with small tips and tricks to prepare me for optimal performance. This empowerment comes from a successful professional that I had always admired and aspired to be like was exactly what I needed to channel my experience and strengths and polish them into being an attractive candidate.

I heard from the first job a few weeks later, went through to a second-round after a phone call with HR, which were video-recorded questions where AI technology accessed your performance based on eye contact and facial expression. After this second round, I was notified that as the role was for the DACH market and native German skills were required, which was a huge common denominator for me.

After 2 months, I hadn’t heard anything from the second job, as one ditch the last attempt I wrote to the recruiter on LinkedIn. The next morning she wrote to me right away, and I had an interview with HR. The next round was a personality test that evaluated my core values and strengths. The third round was an in-person interview with the recruiter from HR, and what would be my boss and a team member. They started the interview with a curveball, asking to start the interview in German. At this point, I had never worked in German in a professional capacity but had been speaking it exclusively with my boyfriend (self-taught). I then asked in German to switch to English as I wanted them to get to know my true self. The interview lasted 2 hours, and to my delight, they asked me mostly questions about myself and my journey whilst sharing personal nuggets about each of them. At the end of the interview, they told me the next step would be a second interview and a business case. I left the interview glowing but so unsure if this was the end or not.

Two weeks later, I had my second interview, which began with a business case that I had to present to the would-be department head and senior manager. In the end, the Vice President of the department came in, a woman who I grew to learn is known as the mother of NIVEA; she built the brand we know today. To my surprise, she began the interview sharing her journey and about how she was a career woman and her husband stayed home raising her sons; she also told me she was a ballet dancer until she was 18. And just like that, it was like I struck gold, an absolute idol who could not only understand where I came from, but she went on to have an absolutely epic career. Two and a half weeks later, I got a call that I got the job!

Photo by Alice Williamson

As the Digital Communication Manager, what do your duties and responsibilities entail? Is there any correlation between your now corporate role and your former role as a professional dancer?

Caroline: I started my role as primarily responsible for the corporate social media channels and consulting digital communication strategy. In corporate communications, we shape how stories and news are told to the world based on the strategy, core values, and company purpose. This all came very naturally to me as I have been telling stories my whole life, except now, instead of telling them with my body and movement, I channel them into words that can resonate globally with Beiersdorf’s reputation. The biggest surprise about my role is that it is constantly developing and reshaping; I have a liquid role that is growing with me. I thought working in a global corporation of over 20,000 employees I would be put right back in a box, but the beauty is that every day is different, my role and responsibilities are constantly morphing, and I constantly have an endless number of balls in the air. I constantly wonder how my boss throws me into projects that I have zero experience or expertise, and her answer is that she sees my potential to succeed.

What advice do you have for dancers thinking about career transition or about to go on the journey?

Caroline: You can be anything you want to be. Don’t limit yourself, and never let anyone put you in a box. And those skills you have: that resilience, passion, and discipline are more valuable and transferable than you can imagine.

Top image by Silvano Ballone

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