Interview: Julia Collins

Interview: Julia Collins

Julia Collins is the founder of Girls Like You & Me, an organization dedicated to helping women discover the breadth of opportunities available to them by interviewing women about their diverse careers. She is second place on the all-time Jeopardy winners list and resides in Chicago, Illinois.  

Tell us a bit about yourself: how would you describe yourself and your life in a quick snapshot?

I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago, and I now live two miles from the house I grew up in. I went away for the second half of high school, and for college and grad school, but then I came right back to Chicago.

I’m close to my family. I loved being away; I went to boarding school and it was the most important decision I’ve ever made. Which sounds crazy, because I was 16, but it was such a formative experience that it has shaped who I have become since then. It’s why we are having this conversation now.

I was a person who loved reading and history, but I ended up working in a field that totally didn’t use those things: I worked in supply chain management with a big retailer in Chicago. It was a great corporate culture and was the standard against which I measured subsequent jobs. Then I was a buyer at a manufacturer and decided I didn’t know enough about what made everything tick, so I went to grad school for supply chain management to learn everything that went into the mix. After grad school, I was in management consulting, which was interesting but not a great fit for me. It’s very much an extrovert job: you travel with your colleagues and spend a lot of time with them. And that was not for me – I’m a person that needs a lot of quiet a lone time. I really enjoyed working with clients and seeing what companies looked like on the inside and what made them tick.

But I got really tired of all of the travel, it wasn’t a great fit, and around that time I ended up going on Jeopardy in the midst of looking like a new job. In the most unexpected way – it feels like it should have been a movie – I ended up winning all of this money and being successful on the show and having the chance to rethink myself and what I wanted to do. I love women and girls, and I never had a really clear vision of my professional life. So I thought, “Why don’t I lean into that and figure out how other people have found what they really enjoy?”

Because that’s the dream right – to have a fulfilling role? And so I thought: “Why not find out what makes other people tick and provide some ideas for other people who are trying to figure out what they want to do.”

If you had to describe yourself in using three adjectives, what would they be?

Thoughtful, introverted, and friendly.

 I always want to say tall, but that’s not very informative!  

When you were a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?

I feel like it changed a lot. I’ve been told that when I was very little I wanted to be an actress, which is shocking because I totally freaked out at a ballet recital once because the audience was so big. I did want to be a book editor because I would get to read a lot. And a judge, because I thought that sounded fun. But by the time I got to junior high, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do. I loved history, but I thought you could only teach and I didn’t think that was what I wanted to do. So I really didn’t know what the path was for me.

What was your very first job?

I was an assistant counselor at the day camp at my elementary school. I was twelve, and I was the counselor of a group of five year olds. And now those kids are adults, so that’s a thing that I have to deal with.

What are the hardest decisions you’ve had to make? 

Deciding that I wasn’t going to try to find a regular job and go back to an office job after Jeopardy; that I was going to start my own thing instead of going back to a more predictable office life. And knew I could always go back to that, but it’s scary to know that I’m not going to have an employer matching my 401K and that I’m not going to get a paycheck every two weeks. The money part is the scariest part: losing that economic foundation, and, while I was able to do so because I had this very unexpected windfall so I’m not starting off with nothing, it was a scary decision knowing that I’m doing something that’s not going to generate a lot of income and certainly not very quickly.

Tell us about any mentors or figures that are crucial to how you see the world or what you’ve chosen to do.

 I’ve never had one person I consider to be a mentor, rather those who have been the most influential to me are women I know who have followed their own paths and are doing things that I never even considered when growing up. I have a friend who has a street art business. That wasn’t a respected art form when I was growing up, and it certainly wasn’t as developed or something that you could make a ‘job’ out of. Being able to talk to female peers about what they’ve done has been really inspirational and made me feel that I could do something off the beaten path.

I’m part of several different communities of women through my high school network and the Wellesley College network. So I have access to a lot of cool women. I have friends who are in their sixties, and I really enjoy hearing about their life experiences. Having access to women who are bright and interesting has been really formative to me.

What has been your greatest failure and what did you learn from it?

That’s tricky – I feel like I’ve failed at a lot of things! I have very high expectations for myself and I seldom meet them. For so long I wasn’t able to think critically about what I wanted to be doing. I entered this career path, and it is interesting, but I never was excited about it. And I took for granted that I should just be doing something that I wasn’t that interested in.

It was a real failure to consider what I would want to be doing. Because, in my mind, there was no possibility that there would be any intersection between what I liked and what I enjoyed doing. So I just shut that off. I spent a lot of time doing something I was never that invested in. I wasn’t really thrilled by success professionally.

Where do you see yourself in ten years? 

I took a personality test once in grad school and I’m very weighted toward the present: I’ve never had a five-year plan. Which seems kind of weird. I’m very much in the moment, which is funny because it’s a quality I associate with people who are really spontaneous and fun. I’m really a take-things-as-they-come person.

I don’t know how Girls Like You & Me will evolve, but I hope I’m still working on that or doing something that is focused on women and girls with an educational component. I really care very deeply about people being aware of the opportunities that exist and finding ways to help women take advantage of those opportunities.

What is the top item on your bucket list – something you’d love to do but haven’t yet?

It’s so hard to think of specific things! I definitely don’t want to jump out of a plane.

Travel is always a thing that I would love to do more of. There are a million places that I would love to go. Southeast Asia, Australia, South America – there’s always travel!

I’m really not a person with things that I want to check off a list. But there are always places I want to travel and things I want to do. There’s art I want to see; I really want to see the Ghent Altarpiece in Belgium. I really want to see the two Fridas. Art and travel – everything else is very fluid.

Describe your personal style: how does it reflect your day to day and your values?

Well, I spend a lot of time at home, so I’m super casual most of the time! I’m wearing exercise clothes right now. I like to put them on when I get up to help prod me to actually go to the gym. I end up wearing them most of the day.

My style is pretty classic and kind of preppy – those prep school roots have lived on for me! When I think about getting dressed up, I think I tend to get kind of preppy. Simple, but I like a lot of color. I think that if I can be wearing a hot pink cardigan with my t-shirt, then that is absolutely what I want to do. When I was on Jeopardy I had all of these sweaters, and when I go to pack my suitcase in five minutes, I end up with this rainbow of sweaters. I’m not one to wear all black.

If you ran into your 18-year old self, what advice would you give her?

I think it would be to think more critically about what I want to do. Be more proactive about what that could mean. In high school I was really focused on getting into the best college I could, and that was the end of my concrete goal. And when I started college, I thought things would work themselves out, which turned out not to be true. Things didn’t really fall into place. I would tell myself to be more proactive about what I wanted to do with my life and how that might be possible.  

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