Our founder Jenny shares her dietetics journey and lessons for how to love your career everyday right away. ENJOY!
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I recently gave a talk at a workshop to all the Boston dietetics students, and having attended that same workshop years earlier, I was able to reflect on what has happened in my career since I started as a dietitian in 2009. I pulled together my story and the lessons I learned along the way. As I was creating this, I really took some time to think about my journey. How the heck did I get here? How did I get to the point where every single thing I do in my jobs I love? I love every single day. Why?
So to start, I was born on a hot summer day in August…fast forward 21 years! And I am a senior in college at the University of Illinois. I started at Illinois as a biology major, basically taking pre-med classes knowing that I did not have any interest in being a doctor. Then I happened to take an elective in nutrition and really liked that application of the science. My friend was in dietetics and so she gave me the scoop on nutrition. I liked the idea of research and thought nutrition research would be a great specialty. I switched my major when I was a junior. When I switched majors I knew I had to get a ton of experience in order to be competitive for a dietetic internship. I knew I needed leadership too. So I decided to start a new organization and make myself the President. Seriously. it was called Students Team Up to Fight Hunger, which linked students on campus to the local foodbank. Fun! And then I spent time volunteering in research labs in the nutrition department, because I still thought at this time that I wanted to do research. In one study, I helped feed rats different diets, but then at the end of the study I had to watch them get their heads chopped off! Research was OUT.
I ended up applying and getting matched to Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital because it was really well-rounded, had a great reputation, it had a clinical research rotation (with humans, not rats), and it also had a business plan rotation. I also really wanted to move to Boston! Don’t tell the selection committee that. My experience at MGH was pretty typical, except for the fact that on nights and weekends I was running a business!
Back track to my fall semester of my senior year in college and I had already applied for dietetic internships, waiting to hear where I would get matched. I was on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics student message board reading through posts from students, and I saw this post from a girl named Katie Hamm, a junior at Kansas State University. She wanted to start a resource for dietetics students applying to dietetic internships. Since I had just finished up that process, I thought her idea was pretty genius. I ended up Facebook messaging her and we started talking with each other, mostly sharing advice on going through the application process.
Long story short, we were a match made in heaven. We hadn’t even met, but felt like we could have been best friends. She asked if I would want to start this website with her and I said YES! This was right at the same point that I was accepted into Massachusetts General Hospital dietetic internship.
That summer, Katie was able to get an internship at a public relations firm in Chicago, which worked out perfectly, so we spent the summer writing a business plan, an operating agreement, getting a small loan from my grandma. We decided that the best plan for us was to ask a web developer to be on the team with us, since it cost like $30,000 to build a website, and we had that amount in DEBT, not in CASH!
I wanted to find someone from University of Illinois because we have a really prestigious computer science program. I searched Facebook for computer science majors at the Illinois, and offered a percentage of the company in return for being the website developer. We struck gold with a guy named Joel that was my age and just started a job at a huge company. He was a genius and he accepted our offer for a part in the company, which we named All Access Internships.
In the beginning stages, Katie recommended a book called The Success Principles by Jack Canfield, as a way to start thinking like an entrepreneur. I was reading it on a family vacation in Florida and with every page I was feeling my life CHANGE. My whole thought process and how I was going to approach my career changed with that book. I always knew I wanted to be a leader in some way, and had even been President and founder of a new club at University of Illinois, but I didn’t know too much about starting my own business as a 21 year old! I learned so many things from that book, and would recommend it to everyone, even if you don’t start your own business!
OK back to All Access Internships. That summer I wrote the profiles for 300 dietetic internships, worked with Joel to build the website, and started a Facebook page before the website launched to get people excited about the site. Before the site launched we already had 2,000 students on the Facebook page and were mentioned in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics as a great resource for students…before we even went live!
We used social media hard core at the beginning since that was where all the students were! We learned social media marketing techniques and started a blog. I realized I really loved social media!
I moved to Boston at the end of the summer, and the site was ready to be launched in October, just one month in on my dietetic internship. Launching the website was so exciting. I remember I was sitting in my room on October 12, 2008, a Sunday, and my roommate Michele was with me as it officially went live. I made the announcement on Facebook, and in the first hour, we already had 200 users! I couldn’t even believe it! I truly thought maybe 16 or so people would want to use this.
In the first year of AAI, we also had to face some resistance from dietetics educators that were unsure of what we were all about. We learned very quickly how to accept feedback, deal with criticism, and even learn how to not take anything personally when personal attacks were being made! Crazy, right? But we stayed motivated and on track because we knew that students all across the country were so happy with the website and loved it, so that’s what we stayed focused on.
It started as a pretty static site with profiles and has since evolved to so much more. Katie decided to leave the team as an owner in 2010 when she accepted a full time job in nutrition communications, but she still stays on as a coach.
But it became my nights and weekends job. So AAI has been my child for 5 years now. We have had over 10,000 students use the site and helped hundreds of students through our coaching services.This year I’ll be doing in person workshops called the GET MATCHED BOOTCAMP for students applying to internships, and I’ll have an RD Exam prep product coming out this month for you all sitting for the RD exam. I’ll also have the resources to start an AAI Scholarship fund. YEA!
Now let’s switch gears a bit and talk about my day job as a dietitian! How did I become a sports nutritionist? When I became a dietitian, because All Access was more of a side job, I wanted to get a job in sports nutrition.
Right after I switched my major to nutrition, I knew I needed to find experience. Then I wanted to see if I could work with a dietitian near my parents home in the summer before my senior year. I googled “Chicago dietitian” and Julie Burns popped up. I went to her website, read about SportFuel and my jaw dropped. I remember it so clearly. She had her own private practice, she had a family, worked from home, and most importantly, she had been the nutritionist for the Chicago Blackhawks, Chicago Bulls, Chicago Bears, and Chicago White Sox, as well as other professional athletes all around the country.
I immediately wrote an emotion-filled email, with the email subject being “I want your life!” and shared some information about me and said I would babysit her kids, watch her dog, do whatever she wanted if she would let me be her intern. So she did! She was also a University of Illinois graduate and went to Massachusetts General Hospital for her internship, so the stars were basically aligning.
I interned with her while she was working with the Chicago Blackhawks and loved every minute of it. I didn’t realize how much I wanted to help this population of young athletes, because I was not an athlete myself, but I have five younger brothers that all played sports and being able to help them with their nutrition was very rewarding for me.
I kept in touch with Julie, and was very persistent, given how busy she was. I came back from my dietetic internship, and was actually considering a job in public relations, because I loved writing. I went on the interview and realized it was not the right for me at all, and I went to Julie’s house right after, and asked her for career advice, and she said…”I’ll hire you!” so she did.
In my time with SportFuel, I started training and learning how she ran her private practice. Then I saw individual clients on my own. The Sportfuel approach is very progressive and holistic. We do functional nutrition testing, use food based supplements, and promote a whole, real foods type diet plan for athletes. No pasta! So it’s been great to learn more than what we learned in our education and keep an open mind about holistic nutrition and also constantly question what many conventional dietitians will preach.
Through SportFuel, I worked with the Chicago Blackhawks affiliate team, the Rockford Icehogs, and their prospects. I have been able to speak to all the NBA’s Development League where I traveled around the country talking to each team about nutrition. I spoke to a wide variety of audiences, counseled people at a wellness center and a pilates studio on topics of weight loss, food allergies, digestive disoders, adrenal and thyroid issues. I loved every minute of it!
SportFuel was never really been a full time job, so I was able to do other projects on the side in the past 4 years to get more experience in different areas. I started a blog during my internship, and consulted with RDs on social media before I was even a dietitian myself. I was paid to help them set up their social media platforms and give recommendations on the best ways for their business to capitalize on social media. From this, I was asked to write an ebook chapter on social media targeted at dietitians, which ended up being so popular that it was packaged as its own guidebook by the publisher. Then, I wanted to write a book. It was just a goal of mine, and so I decided to self-publish You Are What You Retweet: 140 Social Media Rules to Eat By, which was released in November 2012.
In May 2013, I moved on from SportFuel to a food company called Kitchfix (www.kitchfix.com) in Chicago. They make prepared meals that are EXACTLY the type of foods that I love and was promoting already! They found me via Twitter (oh, hey social media!) and then I was intrigued by their company so much that I emailed them asking them if I could be their nutritionist. The owner, Chef Josh Katt, said yes! Kitchfix was growing, and FAST. I ran their social media, wrote nutrition content, and ran nutrition challenges, gave talks, and helped with everything a growing start-up needed.
In 2014, I co-authored a book called Green Foods for Men with the former Editor-in-Chief of Men’s Fitness magazine. He connected with me on LinkedIn, and I simply asked, “Are you working on any nutrition books?” The rest is history! The book came out January 2015!
After 2.5 years at Kitchfix I decided to move on because All Access Internships was peaking and I had a ton of personal clients for my All Access Pass. AAI was finally a full-time job (at least during the application season). I figured I would do consulting on my own in the off season. So I left in November 2013, went through the crazy application season through the winter and then something really FUN happened!
My friend, Dawn Jackson Blatner, is the Chicago Cubs nutritionist (among other things, like TV show host, media guru, author, and all-around awesome person!). She reached out because the Cubs were going to expand their nutrition program to their minor league teams and she told them that I would run it. HA! So humbled by her wanting me on her team, so of course I said yes. 2016 was the first season and boy was it magical. Not sure if you remember, but the Cubs won the World Series (and I have a ring to prove it! AH!). I spent two seasons with the Chicago Cubs and then in August 2018, I started with the Chicago Bulls! I also continue to run All Access Internships. My goals are to continue working in sports nutrition and work with new RDs at Jenny Westerkamp Coaching.
THE LESSONS I LEARNED SO FAR
I narrowed it down to these 7 lessons that I felt have made the biggest impact on my career (and life) so far.
1. Feel the fear and do it anyway.
Starting All Access Internships at 21 years old is a great example of this. Just because someone says you shouldn’t do it, don’t listen. Learn as you go in the University of Life. Nothing would have prepared me for starting a business at 21, while also trying to complete my dietetic internship. A great quote can sum this lesson all up:
“Most of life is on-the-job training. Some of the most important things can only be learned in the process of doing them. You do something and you get feedback — about what works and what doesn’t. If you don’t do anything for fear of doing it wrong, poorly, or badly, you never get any feedback, and therefore you never get to improve.”
It definitely takes fearlessness to risk starting a business on your own. Know that there is nothing wrong with not wanting to take risks, it really could not be the right path for you.
However, the University of Life can be pretty rewarding. There are so many valuable lessons that your own actions and experiences can provide you. Yes, you could get an MBA, take business courses, and all that jazz, but sometimes it is the feedback and criticism and things that might go wrong that all help you to do things RIGHT!
Plus, The Success Principles was extremely helpful. When people ask, “Jenny, how did you know how to start a business?” I am just like “Jack told me how! He taught me everything!”
2. How you present yourself matters.
I learned this lesson when I was an intern at Massachusetts General Hospital and they had a really strict dress code. This really helped me understand how to be professional. Imagine being in a locker room with a bunch of young men your age, trying to talk about protein! How could I gain their respect and also be an effective nutritionist? Or at a board meeting with the Nutrition Entrepreneurs Executive Committee, where everyone was double my age. How can I prove my value to the group? It always came back to how well I presented myself.
While professionalism is a MUST, there are other small hints to project more confidence and attract more success. Besides the obvious firm handshake and eye contact, use both your first and last name in emails, on your voicemail, when answering the phone, and when introducing yourself in person. Write professional emails, with little to no smileys or haha’s. It is a “grown-up” thing to do.
Things I learned NOT to do include sitting with my feet under me, tilting my head to the side when speaking, smiling/laughing when nothing was funny, and trying to make statements, but then end them in questions. These are no-no’s. The book that helped me with this initially was Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office.
3. It’s all about who you know.
All Access Internships obviously led to meeting a lot of people in dietetics, not only students and educators, but other RDs. As a student, I was a member of the Nutrition Entrepreneurs dietetics practice group and then on their Executive Committee. Through this group, I was introduced to the publisher for Social Media and the RD. Writing You Are What You Retweet led to meeting the owner of CJK Foods. Social media has been huge in connecting with people all over the country, and locally too!
In addition, I run a list serve for a group called Weston A Price RDs and am the President of Chicago Food and Nutrition Network. I truly value the people I know and work to keep relationships going. Because you never know when you might need that contact!
My advice is to spend 5% of your day (24 minutes in an 8 hour day) building relationships. I can tell you that every single major opportunity I have had has been a result of someone I knew! Plan to meet with a potential or current connection once a week—even email me to kick start your relationship building!!
4. Keep learning.
Julie taught me to keep an open mind, keep learning in nutrition. The more you know, the more you realize what you don’t know! I keep educating myself in nutrition through following Twitter accounts, attending webinars and seminars, and reading books. Then outside of nutrition, I learn about entrepreneurship and business. Some of my favorite reads include: The Success Principles, Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office, The Lean Start Up, and Success Magazine.
5. Attitude determines altitude.
During my dietetic internship, I had a little sticky note on my wall in front of my desk with the letters P-M-A (positive mental attitude, dub!). This is so important. Your mental health is so important! We are constantly bombarded by really negative things in the news and from others. I am not saying to stop watching the news (although I personally don’t watch it), but pay attention to what you expose yourself to each day. And also…no complaining!
Going through All Access Internships, I realized a positive attitude was a must, especially when I was personally attacked on list serves. Rude! Going through the dietetic internship, with everything I had going on, I knew complaining was a huge waste of my energy. Sitting at a lunch table with other dietetic interns that would go around the table taking turns telling how crappy their morning was ended up being something I needed to avoid. My roommate and I would play high-low-high where we would talk about a high point, then a low point (for 1 minute max) and another high point of the day. We would also challenge each other to not complain for the entire day! It made for a much more enjoyable year. That said, working in the hospital was so stressful, and I even developed legit shortness of breath. I tried so hard to get through those rotations as best as possible, but it really was the worst time for me. The last day of clinical rotations was probably the best feeling EVER.
There is some research out there that the last 45 minutes of day are the most influential on your attitude. So here are a few suggestions on how to spend it:
- Read a self-improvement book
- Prayer/Meditation (Headspace is a great meditation app for this)
- Watch or read something positive! (NOT the local news!!)
Now here is a favorite quote of mine from The Success Principles: “You only have control over three things in your life — the thoughts you think, the images you visualize, and the actions you take (your behavior). How you use these three things determines everything you experience. If you don’t like what you are producing and experiencing, you have to change your responses.“ JACK is the BEST!
6. Know what you want.
If you don’t know what you want you won’t get what you want, right? What does it mean to manage your career? Define your career goals and work towards them. Understand what you truly want out of your career, identify the action steps you need to take, and complete these necessary action steps consistently until goals are met. Finally, make a list of 30 things you want to do, 30 things you want to have, and 30 things you want to be in your life! This will get your mind working on figuring out what you really want. I keep a list of goals in my iPhone notes, and refer to it almost daily. It keeps me focused, but also keeps me thinking on what else I can add to that list.
7. Do what you love.
You know, your career is not supposed to be a terrible thing. Yes it should be challenging, but if you don’t enjoy it, you should either change your attitude or get the heck out. You want to work in an environment that you love every day, right away.
Malcolm Forbes said, “The biggest mistake people make in life is not trying to make a living at doing what they enjoy most.” Good food for thought!
I really believe that this field is limitless and will continue to present new opportunities to future dietitians. Food and nutrition are hot topics for both the media and general consumers so it is important for dietitians to be a part of the conversation! Dietitians in business, communications, public relations, corporate wellness settings, policy or even grocery stores are now offering their voice and are able to influence our nation’s eating habits on a broader level.
Because of this need, anyone wishing to do something “outside-the-box” (clinical, food service, community) should most definitely pursue it because if that is your passion, success will surely follow.
My most important advice??? DO WHAT YOU LOVE! YOU’LL BE BETTER AT IT. Passion is an incredible motivator. It fuels focus, resilience, and perseverance. The fact that I have loved everything I have done so far is a big reason for why I have been able to succeed in them and learn lessons along the way. There are really endless possibilities for dietitians to become entrepreneurs and design a career all their own that they will love every single day, right away.
I thank you for reading to my story and I hope you can use my advice in your careers. I wish you the best of luck! Please do follow me on Twitter at @JennyWesterkamp and feel free to email me to get your networking started at email@example.com!
P.S. If you are applying to dietetic internships, I’d love to work with you to help you get a dietetic internship! Only 47% get one. UGH. Check out the GET MATCHED PROGRAM where I help you get a dietetic internship!