Thrillable Hours: Katie Rock, Founder of Activyst

Welcome back to Thrillable Hours! What started as an attempt to show people that lawyers can actually have fun has turned into a great way to showcase some very talented and creative people, both inside the practice of law and outside of its borders. Thank you to the many readers who have sent me candidates via email, and to the lawyers (both current and former) who have offered up their time here to explain their choices in life.

My next Thrillable Hours interviewee is Katie Rock, who worked in BigLaw for a few years and left to pursue a passion in gender-based advocacy and sports in developing countries. Her new endeavour, Activyst, is explained below – along with her trajectory and lessons learned. Also, I love that her Q&A has footnotes. Yay footnotes! Always thrilled to see the science and studies behind new endeavours, as well as the inspiration.

Hope you enjoy,

-Jodi

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What made you decide to leave the practice of law and focus on advocacy, sports and health? Was there a particular moment that catalyzed the decision for you?

I’ve always been interested in international development and Latin America; I majored in international relations and Spanish in college, focused on human rights in law school, and did my best to find work related to Latin America at the firm.  There were a few years during which I knew where my general interests lay, but was sort of circling around the target, not sure what exactly to do with those interests.

Then I had two experiences that stuck with me and made me want to focus on empowering women in developing countries.  The first one was during a trip to Nicaragua right after taking the bar exam.  I was spending lots of time running on the beach, hiking, and learning to surf.  After coming in from the water one afternoon, three local girls approached me and asked (very inquisitively) what I was doing.  They told me that they’d never played sports (or even learned to swim!), that sports were for boys, and that there were no opportunities for girls to do those sorts of activities.  My childhood was an awesome whirlwind of sports, activity and being outdoors, so this blew me away.

I began noticing in other travels how rarely I saw girls being active in developing countries.  From my studies, I also knew how poor conditions are for girls in Nicaragua and other developing countries.  This experience put a bug in my ear – “what if sports could change all that?”  I later found studies demonstrating that sports have huge benefits for girls, and benefits which are critical to international development.  For example, a girl who plays sports is: less likely to get pregnant[1]; less likely to develop certain cancers[2] and other chronic disease[3]; better educated[4]; and happier[5].  Thinking about the ripple effect these benefits could have for communities got me really excited.

Soccer without borders

Soccer without Borders pink team

The next experience was doing pro bono representation through my firm of a Guatemalan girl in her immigration proceedings.  In representing her, I had to investigate her life in Guatemala before she came to the U.S.  Hearing her experience took me back to the girls in Nicaragua, and drove home just how different my childhood was from that of most girls in the world.  I saw sports as a simple yet powerful vehicle to help girls have healthier and happier childhoods.

What do you find most fulfilling about your current job as founder of Activyst, your current project?

I love the variety in what I do every day.  Today, my to do list is to reach out to a new non-profit partner in Kenya, check out our latest bag prototype, give feedback on our Indiegogo crowdfunding video (ed: they have reached their 25k goal for Nicaragua and the next 25k goes toward a sports team in Uganda), draft a contract with our bagmakers, write a guest post for a blog (thanks!), and brainstorm a PR plan for our crowdfunding campaign.  With a small team, there’s no choice but to be completely action-oriented and find creative ways to get things done.  I regularly tackle projects that I previously thought I had no business doing.  It’s pretty awesome figuring out how to do things way outside your comfort zone, and even better when you realize you pulled it off.

Activyst bag

Activyst bag

I also, of course, love creating tangible results through our work.  We visited Soccer Without Borders (our first non-profit partner) in Nicaragua last fall, and the girls were so fun and their needs so real.  Through our crowdfunding campaign, we’ll also be funding a soccer field and supporting a community center for them.  I’m really excited to see the results and know we helped make it happen.

Do you have any advice for professionals who are interested in branching out from traditional private practice but concerned about what is out there?

Ah, so much. Where to begin? I think the biggest issue people face after practicing law is that they can’t remember what else they like to do.  A lot of friends say, “I don’t want to do this forever.  But what else would I do?  At least this pays well…”  Legal practice is so demanding of your time and energy that years can pass without thinking about other paths.  You also forget that you have or can develop other skills.

I’d say there are two ways to help shake the “but this is the only option” sort of thinking.

First, get serious about discovering what interests you.  Think: where does my mind go when it has the time to wander?  What jobs do I hear about and think “that’s the dream job?”  We often take for granted that other people would answer those questions similarly to us, or that our interests aren’t “real interests.”  My mind wandered towards travel, using Spanish, empowering girls.  I saw women like Maria Eitel (CEO of the Nike Foundation) and founders of socially-conscious businesses and thought “that’s the dream.”  I could have told myself those interests were just immature or said “Yeah, well, I bet everyone would love to move to Nicaragua or start a socially-conscious company, but this is real life.”  Turns out that’s not the case.  These interests were real, unique to me, and I’m very happy now that I’m pursuing them.  When I dig in with my friends who say they have no interests, I find they do have that unique place their mind wanders – one thinks interior design would be the most blissful existence, another thinks teaching, etc.  Few of us actually lack interests; the trouble is that we convince ourselves we could never actually do those things.

Which gets to my second piece of advice for breaking through the fear to explore other possibilities.  Understand that you have many skills that are valuable outside of the law, the greatest of which is the ability to learn new things.  Contrary to what many (even lawyers themselves) believe, legal practice actually leads to many valuable skills – writing, logical thinking, organization, attention to detail, ability to work under pressure, etc.  But the most valuable thing we do as lawyers is that we are learners.  We may not know a single thing about a new case or deal we’ve taken on, but we are incredibly efficient at learning everything we need to know about it, processing it, and applying that knowledge.  That ability transfers.  Being a quick study can go a long way.

Discovering your interests and realizing you can learn most anything you need to know to pursue them is incredibly freeing.  And the concern about the pay, well that’s a different post altogether, but my general thoughts are – you can get by with far less than you’ve become accustomed to.

Do you still identify as a lawyer or use the skills you developed in your legal training?

I do and I don’t.  I spent a decent part of my life in law school and practicing law, and I think there’s an element of “once a lawyer, always a lawyer”.  The way I think and work is influenced by those years of training.  And when I work with other lawyers or former lawyers now, I feel I know them in a way. We usually share the Type A “let’s get things done” attitude, and I appreciate it.  On the other hand though, starting a company with few resources is a very new (and incredibly challenging) world.  So I have slowly started to identify with being an entrepreneur as well.  I think overall, being a lawyer is an important piece of my professional identity, but not the whole picture.

I do use skills I developed in legal training every day.  The most important is the (perhaps obsessive) focus on researching, learning, and covering all my bases.  The writing obviously comes in handy for web content, press releases, etc.  I draft basic contracts from time to time, and can write an effective letter if someone is in breach (which also happens from time to time).  And the organization and attention to detail help keep things in order, which is tough to do as a start-up.

Soccers without Borders

Soccers without Borders team

What do you have to say to those who tell me lawyers can’t have fun?

Lies!  Ha, actually, I do think there are lawyers who forget how to have fun because they begin to define themselves by their work.  And legal work is often not fun.  But I’ve never liked the bad rap that lawyers get in general.  I’ve traveled South and Central America, hiked Machu Picchu, had many a crazy night out, and laughed very, very hard with some of the best attorneys out there.

Katie Rock at volcano

Katie Rock, volcano climber and former lawyer.

A well-balanced attorney can strike just the right balance of smart, witty and fun, and is one of my favorite types to be around.  The challenge, though, is finding a way to maintain that balance and the law doesn’t always make that easy to do.

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Katie Rock, Activyst Katie worked for a big firm in D.C. for a few years before leaving to work with the World Health Organization in Nicaragua promoting girls’ sports as a tool to improve the health and well-being of girls.  During her research, she found that a primary barrier to girls’ sports in developing countries is the lack of funding and awareness about the importance of girls’ sports.  As a result she has launched Activyst, a socially-conscious company that makes athletic bags for women and supports girls’ sports programs worldwide.  You can contribute and connect via Activyst’s Facebook page or their IndieGoGo campaign.