Finding Meaning in a Shoe

25 Nov 2006|Lori Hobson

As I slid my key in the door, the ring of the phone inside the house made my head jerk upright and eyes snap forward. Instinctively I knew that I had been found out. I had just cheated fate, and I was sneaking back into the house with the spoils of my win. A momentary pang of anxiety shot through me as if being discovered could somehow jinx the situation.

It was October 2002, and where I live, in Silicon Valley, things were pretty bleak.

The early millennium dot-com bust had been followed by the less-talked-about-but-more-dramatic bust in telecom and networking ventures. As a result, in March I had lost my position doing marketing strategy at a small consulting agency that specialized in tech startups. At first I welcomed the free time. I did what every self-respecting Valley resident seemed to do: I took a class in something irrelevant to my career (in my case, C programming). I spent time with my step-daughter. I worked in the garden. I hung out at the café, pointing out what a great time it was because there were always people available to get coffee. It seemed that every household in my neighborhood had at least one, and in some cases both, of the adults out of work.

By the mid summer though, my class was over, and I was growing weary of domestic life. It was obvious that jobs were not easy to come by, especially for non-engineers. I had joined a networking group that was filled with superstar accountants, executives, analysts, managers, marketers and sales guys, all of whom would have been coveted hires in any normal economy. After a brief and ridiculous period of “coaching” each other on resumes and interviewing skills –these people lacked opportunity not polish; professionally they gleamed! – we quickly got down to what really mattered. Any time someone in the group found themselves a possible opening, we all rallied our contacts to identify people we knew in the hiring company. We didn’t ask our contacts to make referrals; we simply asked them to make sure their hiring manager looked at the resume of our candidate. We heard rumors about places like Intuit receiving 29,000 resumes a month. With that kind of response rate, odds were a resume wouldn’t even be seen if someone didn’t put it at the top of the heap.

I didn’t get my next job through the networking group though. It was simpler than that. I saw a posting on the KIT-List for a small product design agency in San Francisco. Previously, I had worked for IDEO and another product development firm, and I figured it was worth a shot. Within an hour of sending an email, I had heard from the principal of the firm and it felt like a match. I told him that he might want to wait, that there seemed to be thousands of highly qualified people roaming the streets. I remember what he said: “Yeah, we interviewed some of them. They all say, ‘I was EVP of marketing at this,’ and ‘I was a big shot at that,’ and ‘blah, blah, blah.’ Frankly, we just want someone who understands what we do.”

It was a joy meeting him at the studio. The entrance was filled with awesome products the designers had done at past firms. I might have been interested in the job in any case, but it would be a lot easier facing my design friends knowing that I was to work with a new – but legitimate – agency. The firm had just designed the best-selling consumer electronic product that year and was so busy that I had to ask the guy if he realized that the rest of the design world was in the throes of a depression. He knocked on the wood table and offered me a job.

To celebrate, I went into by favorite boutique in Palo Alto. I had continued to stop by and browse during the previous months, but I had avoided buying anything since well before the demise of my tech marketing position. When you can see lay-offs on the horizon, it’s hard to keep company with the likes of Kenzo, Cacharel, and Blumarine. Alena, the boutique manager who faithfully remembers not only her clients’ preferences but their entire wardrobes (to help remind you of what you already own that completes an outfit), looked up from the counter with question in her eyes. I smiled. She said, “You got a job?”

That day, Alena sold me the most expensive footwear I had ever donned. It was a celebration of sorts, imbued with a profound sense of relief that I had made it, survived Silicon Valley’s latest and most daunting downturn. My husband and I wouldn’t have to sell the house and move to Des Moines. We wouldn’t have to live apart while I took a job in Washington, DC, Atlanta or Alabama like some of my friends had done. We wouldn’t have to sell a car (like that would help cover a Silicon Valley mortgage!) or borrow from family (fat chance!). Not only had I gotten a job; it was work that I actually wanted with a talented firm.

I reached the phone before it rolled over to voicemail. The woman on the line said, “Is this Lori Hobson? Mrs. Hobson, I am calling from Wells Fargo Visa. We need to verify recent purchases.”

Kicking back on the porch chair, I propped my feet up and grinned. “You should see them. They are the greatest pair of Helmut Lang boots you can imagine.”

The woman from the call center laughed and said, “Enjoy.” And I have. Through about six re-heels and four re-soles. Every time I put them on or even see the shoe horn they require, I recall the meaning these boots have for me.

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