Ever looked at a working woman in a high-profile job and wondered, “How did she get there?” Same. In our series “How I Got Here,” we speak with women who’ve navigated the ups, downs and sideways maneuvers that make up today’s modern work version of “climbing the ladder.”
Below, a woman who found creative ways to merge her interest in public health, policy, and business to forge new work opportunities. From working with First Lady Michelle Obama at The White House, to supporting Under Armour’s marketing team, to landing a one-of-a-kind role at Sweetgreen, here’s how Kirby Bumpus navigated her career path.
Meet our career woman
Name: Kirby Bumpus
My job: Head of social impact and inclusion at Sweetgreen
My school: B.A. in Psychology, Human Biology, Stanford University, MPH in Sociomedical Sciences, Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health
What my work consists of…
I head social impact and inclusion at Sweetgreen. I think Sweetgreen is a brand that is working to transform the food system and I don’t think that our consumer quite recognizes how incredible and how much work goes into things behind the scenes with our supply chain team and the rest of the company.
I just started this new role this summer and I’m excited to continue the work and really blow it out of the water. We have a team here that’s excited and eager to move our mission forward to bring real food to communities.
On my education and early career days
To be honest, I always had the intention of going to medical school…
I did my undergrad at Stanford where I majored in human biology and psychology. I always had the intention of going to med school. In the summer between my sophomore and junior year, I took a internship in Harlem at a cancer center where I was shadowing doctors at Memorial Sloan Kettering, Harlem Hospital, as well as the cancer center itself.
But my perspective changed with my first internship…
I was most excited to follow doctors on their rounds and observe surgeries but there was a community health component … We went to different programs for people who had been in prison to teach them about colonoscopies and prostate screenings, and breast health. I honestly was not as interested in the community health aspects of the internship, but once I started talking to people, I realized the power of public health and education.
As I immersed myself and worked in getting people to think differently about their behaviors, I made the shift from being on the medicine track to the public health track. From then on, I took every opportunity I could to get closer to the public health sector.
I changed my career path when I realized…
After that internship at the cancer center, I learned what public health is. I realized that the potential to work more on a community level, as opposed to working as an individual in the clinical space, was something that spoke more to me. I realized I really like working with people and trying to affect behavior change more at the population level. That was eye opening.
But if you must know, my first, first, job, was…
It was actually working in a jewelry store when I was in high school. You should take every opportunity that you can. You learn a little bit about yourself. Working in retail, I didn’t know anything about the space. But I learned a lot about interacting with people and interacting with customers and just being helpful and being very patient.
My college years
While in school, I worked in the college dorms…
I worked as a peer health educator in my college dorm. It was like being an RA or an IT person, except at Stanford we had these peer health educators who residents could come to if they needed basic medication for a cold. Or, if they had questions about sexual health, needed to go the emergency room or just wanted someone to talk to about things they were experiencing. That was the start of me going deeper and deeper into the public health space and I haven’t looked back.
My part-time job in school helped me refine my focus…
It really inspired me to move closer to counseling. It was incredible to see how vulnerable and open people became when they saw you as a health educator who could help them. The experience shifted me into working a fair amount in sexual health later, when I was in grad school at Columbia. I worked as a sexual health educator in a clinic and we we would go to different schools and alternative programs for high schoolers in New York City.
My post-grad life
I then got my master’s and worked in the public sector…
After Stanford I went to grad school and got my masters in public health at Columbia with a focus on health education and health policy. I then went to the Robin Hood Foundation where I was a program officer, working in the education portfolio. I focused on after school programs and mental health school-based clinics and got to focus on program evaluation. It was all done with through a lens of kids’ health and education.
My career path changed with the Affordable Care Act…
“I really learned on the front lines of the nation’s public health system.”
I then went on to work at the Department of Health and Human Services where I was a special assistant. It was very much a entry level role in government but lucky for me, it was 2011 and the Affordable Care Act had just passed. I was working with the assistant secretary for health where we were traveling around the country talking to local elected officials and health organizations about the Affordable Care Act. I really learned kind of on the front lines of the nation’s public health system at the federal level.
That opened the door to me working with First Lady Michelle Obama…
I had been at the department for about two and half years when I interviewed for a detailed position at the White House in the Office of the First Lady working on the “Let’s Move” initiative (the initiative was focused on nutrition and physical activity for children and their families).
That was a career highlight. It was pretty incredible to get work with—not only within the White House but within the East Wing for the First Lady. She truly walked the walk and talked the talk.
She was incredibly passionate about these issues and really worked to shift the culture of how we talk about health and healthy eating, particularly school lunch programs. I think that in a lot of ways, this role at Sweetgreen brings me kind of closer to some of that work.
I found a role in the corporate sector by…
I later went to Under Armor where I worked on the digital marketing team, focused on brand integration of apps like My Fitness Pal. Under Armour is a brand that is more known as an athletic apparel company, but they made the move towards health and fitness tracking.
I say all that to say, I never would’ve seen myself at an athletic apparel brand. But, when you realize some of the shift in priority and opportunity to work with a community of 200 million users it was a very exciting opportunity to speak to people every day about health.
On my biggest lessons to date
The most memorable piece of advice I ever got…
Don’t be afraid to take on something that might intimidate you at first. I say this all the time with my friends and I’ve been victim of it, too. You see a job and you think, “I don’t know if I have the three years of work experience, I don’t know if I have the five years of work experience.” That’s when you hesitate.
Even though it really speaks to you, you know you can do it, and you know that you bring the intelligence and the skill set to be able to do it. Don’t be afraid to lean in when you know that you could have an impact somewhere.
“Don’t be afraid to lean in when you know that you could have an impact somewhere.”
If you’re still figuring out your career path, keep this in mind…
Try to take advantage of as many opportunities as you possibly can. When I was first introduced to public health I thought that I would be creating health education programs and I could’ve never predicted it would have led me into government or into my role at Under Armor, or even Sweetgreen. I think it’s really easy to think and get caught up in what other people have done. At the end of the day, you need to do something that you care about.
My second bit of advice would be: Don’t get too caught up in the familiar and what the most familiar path is in the industry you’re trying to go into. Follow the opportunities that speak most to you, that you enjoy, and that you can grow and learn from.
On the best advice her mom, journalist Gayle King, ever gave her…
I admire her work ethic, her love of people, and just her general joy for life. She’s always told both my brother and I to work as hard as possible and know that people are paying attention to you. She’s someone who’s had lots of assistants, interns, and young people that she’s worked with.
The people that stand out are those who go above and beyond. They not only show up but try to anticipate what the next thing is that their boss is looking for. So, I’ve always tried to anticipate and be a step ahead whenever possible.
“They not only show up but try to anticipate what the next thing is that their boss is looking for.”
On her best advice for advocating for yourself…
Try to develop a relationship with your boss. You don’t need to be buddy-buddy, but I think it’s important to keep that line of communication open and make it clear what your career goals are and that your growth and professional development are important to you.
When you see opportunities, don’t be afraid to ask your boss if you can go to that conference. If you see a role that you want to be promoted into, talk to them about what is going to be required of you in order for you to get you there. Ask what kinds of things they want to see you doing, what kinds of projects you need to be taking on. I think it’s really important to manage up.
Why I think I’ve been successful…
“Take into account what’s going on in the world around you.”
I guess my north star is not to get too caught up in what other people think you should be doing. I think that that’s how a lot of people end up getting stuck or going to far down a career path where they’re kind of like, “How did I get here?”
Take advantage all opportunities and explore new avenues if something speaks to you. Do your research, though! Don’t just jump around. I did not grow up thinking I was going to become a federal or government employee.
But, when I saw the Obama administration put resources into public health and prevention and then we saw the passage of the Affordable Care Act in 2010, I realized: “If I’m ever going to do policy, now is the time to do it.” Take into account what’s going on in the world around you.
Listen to that, hear what your intuition is telling you, and follow it to fuel your career.