When it comes to self-made success, a young woman we have to admire is Jennifer Chong. She left her position at an event marketing company last year to pursue her passion of photography, and in the span of just a few months, has worked with companies like American Express and Target. She also has the distinction of being the second-most followed person on Pinterest in the past year, with a shocking 2.2 million followers. (The most followed person last year was another Asian American, Jane Wang, mother of one of Pinterest’s cofounders).
Chong graduated from Savannah College of Art and Design (SCAD) with a major in graphic design, despite her stronger interest in photography. Though she felt she had a great opportunity to explore photography, “I didn’t really know what other types of photography were out there besides wedding and fashion, and I really didn’t want to do weddings,” she says of her course of study. With photography out of the equation, Chong felt that graphic design would be a more practical (and less competitive) choice in terms of career planning—plus, she could still shoot and incorporate those photos into her design work.
After graduating, Chong landed a job with said event marketing company, where she was responsible for designing signage, conference material, and invitations. “I grew a lot and learned a lot and met a lot of really great people,” Chong says of her job. But when she began feeling burnt out with design, she decided to take that as a sign to finally pursue a career as a freelance photographer.
The most important thing she did during that first job? Make genuine connections with her co-workers and other professionals with similar interests. In fact, Chong believes that especially for freelancers, doing so is much more meaningful (and productive!) than casting a wide net. Not only can these connections help with finding or providing professional opportunities—her old company still enlists her to contribute design and photography work—the people you truly admire and relate are the ones who “really inspire me to work hard or pursue the things that I want to be doing,” she says. “Pinterest has helped me grow my own brand and connect with other brands that I love and admire—not to mention a lot of pinners who I now call my good friends.” Since the content can be overwhelming and addicting, Chong admits that while she pins every day, she doesn’t always spend that much time browsing other people’s boards.
These days, Chong’s been working hard to do more photography than design and to trade in a structured workweek for a more flexible schedule. “It really fluctuates,” she says of her day-to-day. “What I’m learning is that it’s never really going to be consistent, especially when I start shooting more.” Traveling all over the country and the world can make it difficult to plan ahead, but Chong uses different digital tools to stay organized. “Google Calendar is my best friend!” she raves, speaking to how color-coding helps her keep tabs on everything. “And then I use time tracking software [Fresh Books] to help me manage my time, to make sure I’m not spending too much time or too little time on a project.”
This second tool speaks to one of the trickiest problems to being your own boss and doing what you love, which of course might sound easier than it really is. Chong reveals that she needs to stop overworking herself so much—because she’s truly passionate about her work, it’s easy to get lost in it. But, she points out, “in order to provide good work, you sometimes need to take a break.”
Chong’s efforts have certainly been paying off. In addition to her independent shooting, Chong has been busy with many exciting opportunities. Last year, she worked with American Express to shoot some of her favorite small shops in support of Small Shop Saturday (the day after Black Friday). “That was really exciting for me to be able to shoot for American Express and also to highlight some of the shops that I liked,” Chong remembers. She’s also become a Target Insider, meaning she’s part of a small group of influencers who visit the Target headquarters to preview upcoming products.
To other aspiring self-starters out there, Chong suggests focusing on your own work and trying not to compare yourself too much to others, a piece of advice that she still has to give herself sometimes. “The Internet is full of inspiration, but if you look at it too much, instead of getting inspired, you get doubtful about your work,” she explains. “Just take small steps to where success is.”