The Fruit Juice Lady
Design Your Professional Identity
Welcome to Business Design School, a twice-monthly newsletter for the creative-business-curious. I call it a school because we’ll learn to master the art of business design together. We’ll explore creative entrepreneurship and leadership, how to design things like culture and operations, and consider ways to accelerate business success and impact by design.
In this issue: Designing your professional identity.
But first: My book on creative entrepreneurship is available for pre-order!
Adventures in Disruption is the real story of how my team and I built and grew a new kind of business, Design Museum Everywhere. I share the journey (warts and all) so you and other business designers can learn from a decade of our wins and mistakes — plus actionable advice on how to move your business from idea to reality.
I’m taking an entrepreneurial approach to this book and self-publishing. Later this year, I’ll launch a Kickstarter campaign to fund the first edition — you can help now by pledging to support the campaign. It’s as easy as choosing your pre-order perk and signing up; I’ll email you on the first day of the Kickstarter campaign to complete your pledge. Big thanks to all of you who have already pledged — it means a lot!
The Fruit Juice Lady
Design Your Professional Identity
Do you have a professional identity? How do people know you in your working life? How do you know yourself? My professional identity shifted recently. For 13 years, I was the founder of Design Museum Everywhere — I was “the Design Museum Guy.” I (wrongly) thought I’d be the Design Museum Guy for the rest of my career, heck, probably for the rest of my life, which is strange because I had already made a giant shift in my career from industrial design to the nonprofit world.
When I realized it was time to move on from the museum and leave it in the team’s capable hands, I tried to intentionally craft my next identity as the core concept of where I wanted to go in my career: from The Design Museum Guy to the Business Designer Who Writes.
What is your professional identity?
A professional identity is how you see yourself and define your place and purpose in the working world. Think of it as the core of your personal brand. It’s your self-concept, including the perception, beliefs, and values you bring to your work.
It can be as simple as your occupation. Maybe you identify as an engineer, teacher, artist, or financial advisor. Perhaps it’s a reflection of your knowledge, skills, and abilities that make you an expert in your field: a nuclear engineer, a biology teacher, a ceramic artist, or a certified financial planner. It can also reflect your values and beliefs — bringing the most important things to you directly in line with your work. You could be the nuclear engineer focused on safety: “The Safety Expert.” Or the biology teacher obsessed with environmental sustainability: “The Eco-Teacher.”
One of my favorites is The Hip-Hop Architect. Michael Ford fuses his passion for hip-hop culture with architecture. He co-founded the Urban Arts Collective, where he launched the Hip-Hop Architecture Camp to open architecture up to more kids, diversify the architectural curriculum, and increase diversity in design.
Like all things, you can design your professional identity — but why? I think of it as the north star for your purpose and the meaning behind the impact you make or want to make. A solid professional identity can help clarify many decisions you’ll make in your career. In that way, it’s a signal and commitment to yourself: who you are, who you want to be, and where you want to go — something you use to align your goals to your activities. It’s a signal you send outwardly as well, defining how others perceive, recognize, and support you on your professional journey.
When I think about professional identity, I think about The Fruit Juice Lady.
The Fruit Juice Lady Redesigns Her Identity
In the 1990s, Elizabeth Thornton was a rising star in the corporate marketing world — a sales executive at American Express in New York who went on to start her own marketing consultancy. But Elizabeth wanted more — even as a child, she wanted to help people and make a difference in the world.
Her chance came with the fall of apartheid in South Africa. Here’s your important-world-history-refresher on apartheid courtesy of Wikipedia: Apartheid was a system of institutionalized racial segregation in South Africa that ensured that the country was dominated politically, socially, and economically by the nation’s minority white population. Public facilities were segregated by race, as was access to housing and employment opportunities.
Elizabeth watched along with the rest of the world as Nelson Mandela was released from prison, and the slow process of undoing apartheid progressed during the mid-90s. (It’s important to note the effects of this terrible system persist to this day.) Her older brother was part of a wave of U.S. business people who traveled to South Africa as U.N. sanctions were lifted — there was so much opportunity in connecting the two countries. On the ground in South Africa, her brother happened to order and drink some fruit juice that absolutely blew his mind. He’d never had anything like it before. Ever the entrepreneur, he tracked down the manufacturer, the South Africa Fruit Juice Company (SAFJC). The company made a variety of fruit juices it sold in the country but had no international distribution.
Elizabeth got the call from her brother that put her on a new path and professional identity, “I’m sending you 240 pounds of fruit juice from South Africa.” He convinced SAFJC to have his marketing consultant sister see what she could do with the juice in the United States. Elizabeth’s response: “Will 240 pounds of fruit juice fit in my car?”
After renting a van, she got the juice home and tasted it — delicious! Sitting at her kitchen table, she had the spark of her entrepreneurial idea, “I am going to secure the distribution rights for the entire U.S. market and give 10 percent of my pretax profits back to South Africa to help Mandela transform the country.”
She became: “The Fruit Juice Lady.” A professional identity she was proud of, and that made her excited to get out of bed in the morning. Over the months ahead, she built and grew the business — importing the juice, working with labs to earn FDA approval, selling into over 1,200 grocery stores across the U.S., and building relationships with government officials in both countries. She even started laying the groundwork for an education and empowerment center in South Africa. Everyone in her network: her former colleagues at American Express who were cheering on her new entrepreneurial journey, her investors backing the business and advising her approach, government officials across two countries, wholesale grocery customers across the U.S., her friends, and her family knew her as The Fruit Juice Lady. And then, with practically a snap of a finger, it was over.
The SAFJC abruptly cut Elizabeth’s company out of the business — reneging on their contract establishing her as the U.S. juice distributor. As Elizabeth shares in her book, The Objective Leader: How to Leverage the Power of Seeing Things As They Are, she had proven the viability of the business beyond SAFJC’s wildest imaginations, but the white businessmen didn’t want to do business with a Black woman and people in the new Black government didn’t think she was Black enough to do business in the new South Africa.
Cut out of the deal, Elizabeth spent months unwinding and closing her business, doing everything she could to care for her staff and make her investors whole. But the most challenging part was letting go of her professional identity as The Fruit Juice Lady.
She did it by reflecting and objectively reconnecting with herself. I love Elizabeth’s book about starting her juice company because she doesn’t hold back. She tells the real story, including her mistakes — something I’ve tried to do in my book about starting the Design Museum. She highlights the red flags in the journey, hoping that other entrepreneurs will look more objectively at situations and relationships as they build their businesses and grow as leaders.
Through this deeply personal work, Elizabeth found her new identity as an author and professor of entrepreneurship at Babson College — sharing her experience and wisdom with the next generation of business leaders, including me. That’s where I met her, as an MBA student and a designer trying to figure out how I could mash together business and design to make my unique impact.
Design Your Professional Identity
Like Elizabeth Thornton, my previous identity shift sort of happened to me — I had an idea to start a Design Museum — over time, I went from the Industrial Design guy that most folks knew around Boston to The Design Museum Guy. But more recently, I needed to be intentional with my professional identity to create a clear vision for where I wanted to go in my career. Here’s my advice:
What is your professional identity? What have your professional identity shifts looked like across your career? Were they accidental or intentional?
I’d love to hear from you — you can reply directly to this email.
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Have a great week! Talk soon!
Sam Aquillano is a business designer and writer. In 2009 he founded Design Museum Everywhere, an online, nomadic museum with the mission to bring the transformative power of design everywhere. His upcoming book, Adventures in Disruption: How to Start, Survive, and Succeed as a Creative Entrepreneur, chronicles his team’s startup journey and is available for pre-order, launching in October 2023. He's now a Design Director leading business design at Edward Jones. Sam has earned numerous awards for his work, including the Red Dot Design Award, Graphic Design USA’s Responsible Designers to Watch, and Fatherly named him one of the Coolest Dads in America.