Dana Linda: Training the Imagination for Unforeseen Diversity

Mid-way through her graduate program in comparative literature, Dana Linda realized she was not likely to find an academic career. “I went to grad school planning to become a tenured professor,” she says. “Half way through my degree, I realized that my career prospects and priorities had dramatically shifted.”

UC Santa Cruz graduate Linda (B.A., Literature and Feminist Studies, 2007), sums up a realization common to many grad students: what if I don’t become a professor?

Today Dana is employed at Menlo Ventures, a prestigious venture capital firm in Silicon Valley — not a typical path followed by humanities Ph.D.’s outside of academia. She worked hard to find her new role, and her path there was significantly aided by staff and programs that the UC system provided to help students with the transition process. The experiences she’s had and the lessons she’s learned can be valuable to anyone in the humanities who might consider a career outside of academia.

Dana Linda, UC Santa Cruz, B.A., Literature and Feminist Studies.

To discuss her career path and its various twists and turns, I met with Dana at a cafe near her workplace in Menlo Park, CA. Over coffee and tea, with the soft thumping sounds of reggae tunes in the background, Dana walked me through the process she followed to find a career where she could use the skills and insights she had developed in both her undergraduate and graduate studies.

This profile is the fifth in our series Beyond the Forest, which examines the lives and careers of UC Santa Cruz grads who have found their own paths using the humanities as their foundation.

We began our conversation discussing a pivotal event Dana attended in the midst of her graduate work at UCLA (where she received her Ph.D. in comparative literature with a doctoral dissertation on Hispanic and Anglophone Caribbean literatures). A UC-wide conference, called Humanities and Changing Conceptions of Work, brought graduate students together with industry, government, and talent professionals, as well as career advisors, in sessions on transferrable skills, and how to translate the work of the Ph.D. to a non-academic career track. At this conference, Dana met Kelly Brown, Associate Director of the UC Humanities Research Institute (UCHRI) and UC Santa Cruz graduate alumna, an advocate for finding new ways to prepare students for the world outside of academia.

“Kelly is amazing,” Linda says. “She really empowered me and my colleagues to think about our degrees differently, and to prioritize different aspects of life in ways graduate students are not always permitted to do publicly within academia.”

A year later, Dana returned to the conference — then rebranded Humanists@Work — and got involved in the planning process, and in mentoring other attendees. It was a program created not only for grad students, but by grad students.

A panel at the Humanists@Work Terminal Workshop. Dana seated on the right.

“It was very important that the initiative involved a graduate advisory committee,” Dana says, “and I served on that inaugural committee as well.” They helped run workshops throughout the UC system; and the one-time event became a statewide program for assisting current Ph.D. students and alumni to find careers in the changing world outside academia. Dana continued to work with the program, saying, “In four years, we developed and grew our internal and external networks, including working with industry partners, career counselors, and faculty and staff throughout the UC system.”

In the process, Dana discovered, “the more I networked with counsellors, faculty and staff, I saw that graduate students weren’t always plugged in to where the resources were.” One of those invaluable resources was executive résumé and career transition coach Jared Redick, who worked with members to improve how they communicated their skills and capabilities. Dana explains, “Jared was a thought partner from the very start and dedicated himself fully to helping us define and translate the various kinds of labor and competencies that are unique to the humanities Ph.D. experience.”

Humanities Career Inspirations & Aspirations

These professional resources were helpful, but the key to Dana’s ability to transition to the fast-paced world of venture capital was her rigorous and deep training, first as an undergraduate at UC Santa Cruz, followed by her graduate work at UCLA. While at UC Santa Cruz, Dana had the good fortune of taking foundation courses with Jody Greene, Professor of Literature, Feminist Studies, and History of Consciousness, and now Director of the Center for Innovations in Teaching and Learning (CITL).

“Jody gained this massive cult following on campus, to the point where — once Facebook took off — several students created a fan club in her name,” she laughs. Greene has a mandate to challenge the UC Santa Cruz campus to rethink teaching, and has a lot of institutional support to teach faculty and graduate students to be “different” and better teachers.

What makes Greene such an effective teacher, Dana says, is that “she has such a way of captivating you in the classroom. She’s quick-witted, funny, and charismatic, and she actively engages students in everything from literature to the current political climate to pop culture. I’ll never forget how she got us thinking about poetic form through Eminem’s rhyme schemes.”

A dynamic and engaging professor can transform a class and encourage learning; but the students still need to do the work to learn and grow as scholars: “She expects a really high caliber of work from her students. Her assignments and exams were among the most challenging I encountered as an undergraduate, but also provided ample opportunities for me to grow as a writer and thinker.”

Dana’s experience in Greene’s classes highlights an important part of the teaching environment in the humanities at UC Santa Cruz: bringing out students’ best work by getting to know them personally.

“I think some of my earliest classroom experiences at UC Santa Cruz helped me pinpoint the teaching practices that inspired me as both a student and a future educator,” Dana says. “I was lucky to learn from Jody, as well as other literature and feminist studies faculty members such as Bettina Aptheker, Vilashini Cooppan, and Gina Dent.

UC Santa Cruz Feminist Studies 1A: Teaching Assistants with Professor Bettina Aptheker, Fall 2006.

“But I also benefited from a dedicated group of graduate students who were invested in my intellectual and personal growth,” she explains. Teaching assistants and recent Ph.D.s, including Rashad Shabazz, Sora Han, Emily Scheese, and Laura Martin, became important academic guides and influencers. “By the time I entered my Ph.D. program at UCLA, I realized it was those meaningful connections in and outside the classroom that really steered the kind of educator I wanted to be.”

Dana continues, “UC Santa Cruz provides a unique learning experience because it offers the combined benefits of being a large research campus and a teaching-focused institution. Undergraduates have the opportunity to develop strong working relationships with faculty and graduate student instructors. It was important for me to make sure my students at UCLA received comparable support and mentorship.”

Building a Strategic Network Beyond Academia

Another aspect of Dana’s successful job search: her good fortune finding recruiters who took the time to get to know her and her work, and then refine the job search appropriately. After a series of — what seemed like countless — final-round interviews, Dana realized that it was necessary to work with an established recruiting firm that could advocate for her candidacy and help prospective employers understand the value of a humanities Ph.D. in a corporate setting.

She explains, “I ended up working with a recruiter — in what felt like a moment of desperation.” Dana had spent six months interviewing for a broad range of academic administrative and ed-tech positions, but says it became obvious that she lacked the appropriate network to get her foot in the door.

“Although I had received an offer to work as a visiting professor at another university in Los Angeles, I was ultimately unwilling to subject either myself or my family to the constant state of stress and precarity that accompanies contingent labor,” she says. “Instead, I prioritized where I wanted to live (and work), which meant giving up my higher-ed network in Southern California.”

Dana considers herself fortunate to have found a team of recruiters with a vested interest in helping her make a successful career transition. One of her recruiters, in fact, was the parent of a doctoral student and more readily understood the specific barriers to entry Ph.D.’s face across academia and industry.

In the end, Dana says, “I didn’t intentionally go looking for a recruiting firm that specialized in venture. At that point, I was fatigued and open to taking a less conventional route post-degree.” She acknowledges that having someone who could act as the liaison between her and prospective employers made all the difference to her search process.

It should be pointed out that not all recruiters will do that — although this kind of personal involvement seems to be on the rise as recruiters compete in job placements for highly qualified applications.

Bringing Humanities Strengths to the World of Venture Capital

Today Dana works in executive operations and content strategy at Menlo Ventures, a successful and growing venture capital firm in the heart of Silicon Valley. The firm invests primarily in consumer, life sciences, and enterprise technology companies, including Uber, Roku and tumblr. Dana’s advanced humanities background has been key in how she contributes to the company’s objectives.

“When I joined the team,” she explains, “the investment partners wanted to rethink the firm’s overall marketing and communications approach. One of the reasons they brought me on staff was to provide writing support services in-house.”

In the process of elevating brand content and tackling other writing projects, Dana began to learn the ins and outs of the investment industry, and also identify opportunities where her outsider perspective could benefit broader team communications. She says, “It took a while for us to develop that shared language: not only me learning the language of fundraising and finance, but also investors learning the language of a humanist — to speak and think with expanded cultural empathy and historical awareness.”

Dana adds that she holds a position as a commissioner for the San Mateo County Commission on the Status of Women, where she serves as co-chair for the bi-annual women’s leadership conference and advises the board of supervisors on issues impacting women across the county. As a public servant and corporate professional, she is a strong advocate for diversity and inclusion, both in word and action.

Dana, left, at a UC Santa Cruz LGBTQ Event.

It’s not just in communications that Dana brings insights and skills she developed studying world literatures and cultures. “Much of my day-to-day is administrative in nature — I don’t want to diminish that work simply because there doesn’t appear to be a direct one-to-one correspondence with my degree,” she asserts. From drafting course syllabi to planning conferences, Dana believes her past teaching and academic service continue to influence how she stays on top of multiple, competing projects.

There are usually routine tasks that must be done in any job and having a generalist with both the knowledge and a willingness to take on less glamorous duties is critical. “It’s part of the challenge and excitement of working in a smaller firm,” she says, “that gives you the chance to have a lot of variety in your job responsibilities.”

The ability to adapt quickly to a new realm serves Dana well in her role at Menlo Ventures. Yet, it’s also about having the willingness to admit what you don’t know, and this can run counter to the rigors of academic training: “It takes a lot of intellectual humility to publicly acknowledge the limits of your knowledge base,” she asserts. “In academia, there’s this competitive culture of jockeying, where we’re trained to wear such a good poker face and never let our vulnerabilities show. That’s certainly not healthy nor sustainable for anyone moving into a new industry.”

“Training the Imagination for the Unforeseen Diversity of the World”

Dana concludes our conversation with reference to two postcolonial writers and thinkers who have most significantly influenced her work and vision: Gayatri Spivak and Édouard Glissant. To borrow from her words (and theirs), she believes the value of studying and teaching literature in broad interdisciplinary contexts lies in its “training of the imagination for the unforeseen diversity of the world.”

Dana at the 2014 National Women’s Studies Association Annual Conference San Juan, Puerto Rico.

For anyone majoring in the humanities, or considering such an academic journey, it’s worth knowing that a scholar like Dana has found a path that rewards her achievements while offering a diversity — often unforeseen — of opportunities in the future.

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davidovich

Silicon Valley local. Content creator in computer software: SaaS, Internet, media and mobile.