By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
According to Lori Anne Wardi, if your job just isn’t working for you, think about what your strengths and passions are, take a deep breath, and plunge in to something new. She should know – after spending years as an attorney in a large New York City law firm, she plunged into a corporate learning and development career at an investment bank, and then plunged once again to begin her own business.
But when her business went bust – soon she found herself on the hunt for an inspiring career again, until her hobby turned into just that.
“Forge your own path,” she said. “People fall into a trap of believing there’s this career path you’re supposed to be following. Sometimes you have to step off the path – or jump off the path. And it could be three steps forward, two steps back, four or five times. Your career is not always going to be linear.”
“Now I’m a co-founder of a company I absolutely love, .CO Internet, and my career is about helping other companies and businesses get started. And helping to change the fabric of the Internet at the same time.”
She added, “If you have the gnawing sense of anxiety that the corporate world just isn’t for you, and you have a bigger vision for what your life and career can be about – you owe it to yourself to go for it – to create the future you want.”
Making It Work
After graduating from college, Wardi found herself in law school. “I was a great student and it seemed like the obvious thing to do. I didn’t have any particular desire to be a lawyer, but it seemed like a safe, secure, and lucrative career path.”
“I went to a big firm and I felt like I was on this great path that everyone says you should be on. I made a lot of money. I had a secretary and a fancy office – everyone tells you this is what it’s all about.”
But she wasn’t happy.
She was working in ERISA – pension law – trying to make it work. “But it felt like if you’re a righty, and you’re being told to write with your left hand all day long.” After only two years, she tried to resign, but her boss encouraged her to stay until she at least knew what she wanted to do next.
“I’m so grateful that he did that. Had I resigned so early on, I would have felt like I failed,” she continued. Wardi ended up staying with the firm for five years before she finally resigned for real. When she realized she was being groomed for the partnership track, she knew it was time to go. “I knew I had a different vision – not to say I knew what it was,” she said with a laugh.
She realized that one of the parts of her job that she did enjoy was consulting with and advising senior HR clients — helping them to strategize benefits policies and programs. So she thought maybe she would enjoy working in a related field. She enrolled in Cornell’s Industrial Labor Relations program, which offered a 1-year masters degree in HR if you already had a JD.
“Going back to school was a way for me to stop the world for a moment, and get my head back on straight. What do I love? What do I want out of my career? Where can I make the greatest contribution?”
After graduating, Wardi moved onto her new career.
“I got this amazing job at Goldman Sachs managing learning and development for the technology department – helping developers, engineers, and executives to be the best they could be in the workplace,” Wardi explained.
“It was like going from winter to summer, from night to day. I was working hard doing something I loved and it was like electricity happened. I was fueled by my love and passion, as opposed to fear and panic,” she said with a laugh.
Inspired by the dot-com boom at the time, Wardi decided to strike out on her own and start a consulting business around her learning and development practice. “I was doing what I was doing at Goldman Sachs for other companies, and in fact, Goldman was my first client. I was making three or four times as much money, and working half as hard.”
“It was perfect for a while… five or six months. Then 9/11 happened.”
She had just bought an apartment in New York and had a mortgage to pay, and all of a sudden, her business just went bust. “My Wall Street clients had bigger fish to fry than leadership and coaching projects – like dealing with employee trauma and crumbling buildings.”
Even though it was a tough situation, Wardi doesn’t regret striking out on her own. “Quitting is good sometimes – strategic quitting is smart. And that experience opened me up to learning you can love your work. There were times I thought that I shouldn’t have done that, but I think it’s a normal fear people have when they go out on their own.”
She continued, “I started to think ‘what am I going to do now?’ And every time I had a new idea for a new business I could start, I bought a domain name.”
From Hobby to Career
Wardi began to buy up domain names left and right, part hobby and part therapy. “I began to love the ideation process,” she said. “I had a couple hundred names, and it started to become an expensive habit. Then, all of the sudden, someone contacted me to buy one.”
She continued, “I realized there was this whole economy I didn’t know anything about – buying and selling domain names. I started seeking it out, and going to events. They were all men, all geeky.”
She recalled taking her sister to a convention in Las Vegas in the early 2000s. She printed up stack of business cards that said “Domain Name Divas” on the front, and gave them to her sister. “She’s really outgoing and social, and I said, ‘Your job is to meet people and make connections. But if they ask any questions about our business, just be elusive – and say that our methods are proprietary.’”
Through a series of meetings and networking events, Wardi became friends with a lot of industry people in the domain name business, eventually meeting the co-founder of her current company, .CO Internet, the company behind the fast growing .CO domain extension. She did consulting and domain sales. Some years she did well, and some years paying her mortgage was a challenge.
“But I loved being able to think of things I wanted to learn and do – and being self directed,” she said. “I loved the process of learning about the Internet – it’s such a rich ecosystem with the ability to be creative in real time. But at the same time, I was not making any real money from it. I had a weird skill set.”
And, eventually, everything came together.
Each different country has its own domain extension, and .CO is Colombia’s – the same way .us is the country code for the United States or .ly is the country code for Libya. But some countries outsource the management of domain registration to companies.
In 2010, Colombia granted the contract to manage, administer, and commercialize the .CO domain extension to .CO Internet, where Wardi was employee number 4.
“As much as I had the absolute and utter conviction that the .CO launch would be great, I didn’t know this would be the place where every skill I ever had would be used,” she explained. “It was magical. The things that I never thought made sense in my career all culminated in helping to launch .CO.”
“.CO is now one of the fastest growing global domain extensions in the world,” she said. The company aims not just to be a registry, but to be a community of creative start-up innovators. “We wanted to create something unlike anything ever done. We want to create a community, not just a commodity.”
Wardi continued, “Our home page at www.go.co features our users. Everything we do is about supporting the world’s big thinkers, big dreamers – the innovators who are building the future online.”
The company also scored big when Twitter began using t.co as its built-in URL shortener (since tweets must be less than 140 characters, users look for any way they can to trim a letter or two from their messages). “That was life-changing for the company and that was my first big deal,” she said.
“We’re always grateful to the people who had faith in us before they had a reason to. We just keep thinking we need to make them proud.”
She recalled, “There were a lot of high fives that day.”
Today Wardi’s role for the company is getting the word out about .CO and establishing partnerships with people and groups who are the right fit for the community. “What I do now, it’s like oxygen – it’s not like work for me. I wake up every day thinking what can I do to see this business grow.”
“And I get to work with people who are so passionate about their businesses all day long, talking about what they’re excited by.”
She added, “In those years in between, I didn’t know this was waiting for me. You have to have faith and pay attention to what your strengths are. All of the sudden you’ll end up in a place where everything makes sense.”
Women and Technology
Wardi, who did her masters thesis on getting more women into the technology industry, said she would like to see more women getting involved in the field. “You definitely see more women in technology today than before, and like me, you see a lot more women around tech. My role is about my company’s brand. I still think there are far too few women in hardcore tech roles.”
She continued, “I think that’s a shame. I would like to see more women coders and engineers. There is a huge opportunity here.”
“It used to be that MBAs ran the world. Now it’s the tech geeks!”
Life After Corporate
“The internet has democratized opportunity,” Wardi said. She encouraged women to follow their passion, and begin a new career if that’s where they feel pulled. She offered a few tips.
“First of all, find like minded people who are also doing things on their own so you don’t feel alone. You can start it at night if you need to work during the day – it’s like a baby step. When you get traction, then take the risk.”
“The key is don’t stay some place that stifles your fire. The longer you stay, the more it snuffs out your life force. Pay attention to that feeling and take some action to feel that fire.”
“When who you are is what makes you successful as opposed to the tasks that you do, it’s like the holy grail. I’m a lucky person. But you have to plant a lot of seeds in life for that luck to arise.”