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Designing Your Career: Wedge's Nancy Chen on Why Your Career Is Not a Straight Line

by Chloe Gordon on 08/29/2023 | 5 Minute Read

It's common for creatives to have a career path that's more zig-zag than straight lines. But it's also extremely rare to meet a designer with a degree in neuroscience. 

Wedge director of brand strategy Nancy Chen's professional journey illustrates the power of embracing the unexpected turns that life can take. Originally aspiring to become a doctor, she cleverly used summer internships as her opportunity to explore her creative passions, spanning contemporary art, marketing, and music across Asia and Europe. Through her internships, Chen realized her passion for creativity was more than just a hobby; it was also her calling. So, she left behind her neuroscience degree and dove into music promotion, co-founding her first company at 22. 

Not only do we talk to Nancy about how she transitioned into brand strategy, but we also discuss the very real need to separate one's identity from the job to prevent burnout. What's more, personal growth, she emphasizes, stems from embracing career shifts and setbacks and bravely exploring alternative paths.

You received your Bachelors in Neuroscience. Can you explain what you thought you'd do after university and how you ended up where you are now? 

As a student, I think it's important to be malleable, aware, and open to new experiences. It's a mindset—moreso than ambition—that I feel is a precursor to getting those serendipitous opportunities you see in people with storied, interesting careers. 

My story is that I went into Neuroscience to become a doctor, but while studying, I used my summer internships to explore my passions and expand my life experiences. I worked in Asia and Europe. In contemporary art, marketing, and in music. Anything but science. 

By the time I graduated, I felt I knew exactly what my life would be like if I went to medical school, so I took the leap and ended up working in music. I co-founded my first company at the age of 22 in music promotion, where I worked with brands that sponsored my events, and brand work led me to experiential marketing at Mosaic. The specialization in Brand Experience led me towards starting restaurants where it's important to think holistically about brands as a full live experience.

I switched to brand strategy around eight years ago and joined Sid Lee because I enjoy solving problems creatively and feeding my curiosity about different categories. It ended up being the perfect intersection of my creative experience and my business experience. I fell in love working with founders and companies, helping them navigate through transformational change in their business, whether it's launching, growing, or pivoting, where our solution and output are brand narrative, design, and creativity. 

After freelancing across many agencies and companies, I found that Wedge most aligned with my values and perspective on this space. It was a very natural fit from the start. There is a deep respect for strategy—we see it as an essential piece of strong, distinctive design.

You're the Brand Strategy Director at Wedge. Can you explain what your duties are in this role? 

Most of the time, I assist founders and companies either get new brands off the ground or help them evolve to modernize and become relevant again. A big part of that is gaining a deep understanding and intimacy with the partner's category, consumer, and, most importantly, the clients themselves. I try to avoid "surprising" them with some super clever strategy coming out of left field. 

My approach is to unlock and clarify who they are. I want it to feel so right and so "them" that it becomes not just compelling for their audience but something inspiring internally. Our approach at Wedge is different in that it doesn't sound like a typical strategy you'd find at an ad agency—it's very narrative-driven and written in their voice, a blend of strategy and creative. 

That said, I'm also a classically trained strategist with experience in primary research, communications, connections, content, digital/social strategy, and more. For campaigns and platforms, I will lean on that skill set more to help our partners be more effective. 

Ultimately, at Wedge, we try to blend the rigor you get at a big agency with the thoughtful, creative edge you'd get at a boutique studio.

What's the best advice we've received while in your career that you wish you'd known sooner? 

That your real life outside of work is the most important. Tying your identity to your job and your output happens a lot when you're younger, but it leads to burnout and unattainable expectations. You have to love yourself outside of your work and be patient with yourself. Sometimes life moves really fast, and you feel like your career is on fire, but it can also slow, stop, and even reverse course. 

I've had a lot of zig-zags, career breaks, starting over moments, and pivots, but I now appreciate all the experience and insight that has given me even though they were very difficult times. You have to accept it all and dissociate yourself from your work. You are not what you do. It's still something I'm learning today.

Do you have any advice for students who might be majoring in one thing in school but know in their hearts that they want to be doing something else? 

Try it out. Contrary to what people say, life is quite long, and most people have many career changes throughout their lifetime. Be less precious. It's not the end of the world to give yourself a couple of years to try a new path. If it doesn't work, move on, but integrate those learnings into your next role. Your biggest value is your unique intersection of experiences. It's your specific knowledge that is going to be so marketable.

Do you have any tips for students leaping into the world of interviewing for their first full-time position? What are they? 

We always say that you can't teach motivation. No one expects you to know everything, but an eagerness to learn will get you far. 

Also, don't be afraid to have a voice and an opinion. Lots of companies want to have younger perspectives to ensure they're doing work that's relevant to increasingly younger consumers. You have a unique value—don't mold yourself into what you think they want, and you'll start to get the type of opportunities you dream of.

How would you feel to be a student in today's climate? What are the main differences between now and when you were a student? 

When I graduated in 2010, the world was a very different place. I think there's activism now that is way more prevalent. There's a stronger awareness of what is happening in the world and the people in it. 

I think it would feel inspiring to be part of this latest generation, a boldness to change the status quo, which is very exciting for someone like me to see. I felt like my generation tried to "fix" the system, but this coming generation wants to blow it up and build a better one.