The week I began talking with Hilary Koss about her time at Converse and her role at National Geographic was a hectic one for her. Her email response to my request for an interview was, “Of course! I’m a bit tied up this week…I need to mentally prepare myself to meet Neil deGrasse Tyson, like the nerd I am.”
This self-proclaimed ‘nerd’ had an academic career at Converse that was not for the faint of heart. A double major in Theatre and Politics with a minor in History kept Hilary on her toes – not to mention the challenging demands of Model League.
After Converse, she headed to Queen’s University Belfast in Northern Ireland to earn her Masters in Comparative Ethnic Conflict. So how do you get from Converse to National Geographic? Hilary shares her journey with us.
Building the Foundation at Converse
“I chose Converse for Arab League and fell in love with the Theatre department. I acquired some of the most invaluable life skills I’ll ever learn while in the Hazel B. Abbott Theatre. By and large, though, the most positively influential teacher at Converse for me was Coach Moore.
I acquired some of the most invaluable life skills I’ll ever learn while in the Hazel B. Abbott Theatre.
If you want to dream up an ideal first boss for a kid in a strange new state on work-study, who could be a mentor and a confidant, then it is Margaret Moore all the way. She was always there if I needed someone to help or to teach me how to handle situations I may not have been ready for. She’s a total class act, and hands down the teacher with the greatest positive impact on my life and my time at Converse.”
From Couch-Surfing to Success
“I got started the way most folks in DC get started: one day you decide to crash on someone’s couch or in a group house and start applying for jobs. I cycled through temp jobs for the first two years I lived here, working everywhere from the US Capitol to a cat advocacy group. I already had my eyes open for something more meaningful, and I’d discovered that I really enjoyed creating content for a donor audience. When an opportunity to apply for an entry-level position in the Fundraising office opened up at National Geographic, I jumped at it—me and 136 other people.
To this day, I’m positive I got it because the cover for the National Geographic that month was Pluto and I am obsessed with space. One of my interviewers asked me about it and I went on and on about the exact time data was going to be available that day — how I had the first clear picture of Pluto as the screensaver on my phone — how we were living through actual history. Then, my soon-to-be-boss closed the notebook she’d been taking notes in and said, ‘I think you’ll fit in just fine.’”
Theatre and Politics: An Unlikely Union
“My primary role in Theatre at Converse was as a stage manager. Finding a way to project manage and communicate your needs clearly to your coworkers has become the single most useful tool in my arsenal, especially at National Geographic. Their brand is so well known and powerful that using it requires multiple layers of approval, not at all unlike working across the props, set, lightning, costume, and acting teams in a theatre production.
I was in Model League during all four years at Converse, and basically learned to talk my way out of a paper bag.
At least once a year I took Politics classes in genocide or political violence of some kind. Finding a way to shine light on those issues and dig beyond the horror and into the theory translated well into my Masters degree.
These qualifications also give me an added layer of clout when I advocate on behalf of programs that are within my niche. A good example is PhotoCamp, a program which puts the power of storytelling into the hands of refugees and migrants. With my background, I’m able to say that PhotoCamp is a paramount program for the world.
I was in Model League during all four years at Converse, and basically learned to talk my way out of a paper bag. It’s helped me lobby for myself in a way I never would have thought possible.”
Climbing the Ladder at National Geographic
“My first job here was supposed to be purely administrative, but it got my foot in the door and I was thrilled! I scanned, “data entry-ed”, compiled expense reports for the gift officers, etc.
I was lucky, though, that half of my job was supposed to be as an assistant to a Vice President, but that Vice President was never hired. It gave me time to think through a lot of the processes that had been in place for years and how they could be improved. As a bona fide nerd, I was able to automate a lot of what I was doing and open myself up to ask others if they needed help with anything. That gave me a lot of experience in a very short amount of time.
My supervisors and coworkers were incredibly trusting. They are the reason I felt empowered enough to start taking ownership of things that someone in my position wouldn’t normally be able to take on. When my boss was promoted but they hadn’t hired a replacement, I practically threw myself in her path to take on some of those responsibilities. Since she already trusted me to expand beyond my role in the past, I was able to learn quickly under her incredible guidance.
Within six months of first raising my hand, I had gone through an entire marketing cycle of projects and was as trained as I could ever be. My boss is always my fiercest advocate and helped me lobby for my current position and I got it!”
Coming Full Circle
One of my favorite experiences was the first time I saw the National Geographic icon on something I designed. For someone who had been tripping through temp jobs and living in a basement apartment the size of my cubicle, to place that icon on something I had made was the moment it all became real for me. I had finally made it.”