“Who says I need to be working all the time in order to be a functioning member of society?” is just one of the many questions that Isabel Calkins-Mata had to ask herself when leaving her highly-coveted corporate job at L’Oreal to enter the world of self-employment. Having worked for well-known companies such as Cosmopolitan and CNN, this leap of faith was not easy.
At New York University (NYU), Isabel majored in global liberal studies with a concentration in contemporary culture and creative production. During this time, she felt pressured by her peers — who were already interning at top companies — to subscribe to “hustle culture,” defined by Afrina Arfa of Taylor’s University as “the state of overworking to the point where it becomes a lifestyle.” Therefore, she pushed for her role as a digital editorial intern at Cosmopolitan Magazine.
Isabel loved that the writers at Cosmopolitan were never afraid to talk about “taboo” topics such as sex and relationships, so she attended an event hosted by one of their editors, an NYU alum, and networked. This paid off in an amazing internship and the eye-opening realization that she had a passion for creating editorial content.
While at Cosmopolitan, Isabel met Danielle Tullo, who was an editor of Her Campus at the time. Tullo introduced her to the new platform, where she thrived. In fact, during her first year at Her Campus, Isabel wrote over 200 stories.
Interning at these companies led Isabel to break into the beauty industry, where she would spend the next three years of her life. Starting as a Maybelline global marketing intern, Isabel was thriving career-wise in the L’Oreal universe — or so she thought.
It was at L’Oreal that she came to important realizations about herself. There were many harmful messages that she had carried throughout her academic and professional career that she needed to unlearn. Long before working for L’Oreal, Isabel interned at CNN and Bully Pulpit Interactive and often became “addicted to the high corporate life.” She says that she derived validation from “successful career moments that not a lot of other people had.”
While at L’Oreal, Isabel firmly believed that she was on track to living a glamorous life, complete with a “doorman building, fancy purses and shoes.” She wanted “the money that came with working really hard at corporate America,” as well as the gratification of telling others her title and workplace.
“I continued on this path of having all of my goals be within the structure of corporate America,” Isabel says.
Enviable perks such as attending photoshoots with Gigi Hadid, working with the president of Maybelline and creating her own products at the ripe age of 21 only further reinforced these work-centered life goals.
Like many others, Isabel’s life did a complete 180-degree turn as a result of the pandemic. She was transferred from Maybelline’s office in Hudson Yards, New York all the way to Urban Decay’s headquarters on the opposite side of the country. Isabel credits her ability to adopt a new, slower way of life to her move to Newport Beach, California.
Not only was she able to be more mindful in her daily life, but working from home also opened her eyes to some harsh truths about her work environment as she was “starting to see some of the politics of working for a big corporate company.” More specifically, Isabel began to witness tense conflict between L’Oreal and Urban Decay employees, due to L’Oreal taking over more creative control of Urban Decay after the acquisition.
Certain “red flags” started to appear. She often was unable to present projects she worked hard on or to attend the meetings in which they would be presented. Working from home allowed Isabel to see what was happening without all of the “glitz and glamor” of working in the office.
Later on during the pandemic, Isabel was laid off. She describes this moment as a “blessing in disguise” because it granted her freedom.
Isabel then moved to Seattle with her husband, Richard, and decided to begin freelancing. Her venture was incredibly successful, but she still had not yet found peace.
“I realized that I was still holding myself to the same kind of standards as if I was working in corporate,” Isabel says.
Isabel continued to work 50-hour weeks and follow other common professional expectations. If she did not fulfill these expectations, she felt as though she would never be successful.
The second phase of her journey, which she is currently in, is all about “figuring out the life I want to live.” She hired a freelance writing coach who taught her how to define her brand and clarify to herself how she wants to spend her time, who she wants to work for and what her values are. From this introspection came her podcast, Being Yourself Loudly, and her creative agency, Rumination Storytellers.
Being Yourself Loudly focuses on self-improvement with an emphasis on mental health. From learning new mindfulness techniques from meditation experts to discovering how to be more intentional in your professional life, Isabel uses her podcast to remind her audience that their mental health issues do not define them.
Rumination Storytellers was born out of Isabel’s knack for strategy and creative problem-solving, which she was unable to do previously. She noticed that the majority of marketing is impersonal and clings to trends too often. Isabel wanted to be a part of the shift towards consumer-centered marketing with an emphasis on storytelling.
“It kind of unlocked this feeling that I didn’t know I had, which was producing,” Isabel says.
Through the creative agency, she was able to take on roles in project management, creative direction and other skills she had but was never given the chance to express.
Despite experiencing success through self-employment, Isabel continues to struggle with internalizing harmful societal expectations surrounding productivity. She feels as though she “isn’t doing enough” if she does not work all day or decides to do tasks unrelated to work.
However, she works toward overcoming these obstacles through therapy, medications and working on herself. One of her favorite forms of internal work is educating herself through podcasts. Some of her favorites are The Goal Digger Podcast and The Writer’s Co-Op.
As for women who also want to be their own bosses, Isabel advises that they figure out if self-employment is truly right for them by looking at how they work and where they thrive. She recommends reflecting on previous work experiences and figuring out what they liked and disliked.
For women who have decided that self-employment is the direction they want to go, Isabel encourages asking the question, “How do I want to spend my time?” She believes in centering yourself in your own life, while having aspects like your job as orbiters of your identity.
“To me, ‘she can be both’ means I’m not limited to just one role as a woman in society,” Isabel says. “As an individual with many needs and desires, I have the freedom to show up exactly as I am, even if that goes against the status quo.”