Madison Utendahl: Head of content & social at Museum of Ice Cream

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Well, that’s one thing Madison Utendahl is. We honestly couldn’t decide what her identifying title should be because she’s involved in so many things. She’s worked everywhere from Last Week Tonight with John Oliver to Refinery29, and has even co-founded a new media company.  She does so much in this space, we considered crowning her Queen of Content, but that wouldn’t encompass everything she has to offer. She has spot-on advice on everything from juggling responsibilities to promoting other women of color. We don’t want to give any more away – read on, readers!

Can you tell me a bit of the story of your career so far?
I’ve moved around to a bunch of different fields, however, they all are very connected, in my opinion. So, when I graduated from Brown I knew I wanted to work in the media space. My first position out of college was being [an] apprentice for the Weinstein company. And after doing that, I thought “This seems like the right pick for me” and I got called to join the team of Last Week Tonight with John Oliver. It was fifteen hour days, twelve days in a row, one day off. But at the same time it really created a sense of resilience and endurance for me personally, that I didn’t know I had.

After being there for a year and really getting the ins and outs of the industry, I saw that there was an opening to assist Piera Gelardi, who is the executive creative director and co-founder of Refinery29. I was with Piera for the past two years and she changed my life! Now I’m working with Maryellis [Bunn] and Manish [Vora] who are the co-founders of the Museum of Ice Cream (MOIC), which is a team that I am also one of the co-founders with. And now I’m doing both!

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Would you say that you still have two jobs then?
For a while I had two positions, I was Creative Associate at Refinery and then I was the Social Media Director at the Museum of Ice Cream. Now my role has shifted where we have started an agency, an umbrella agency, above the Museum of Ice Cream called 1and8, and I am the Head of Content at that the majority of the time. I actually switched over about two weeks ago. However, I’m still a Creative Contributor at Refinery29 because it was a huge part of my life, it’s family to me, and it’s taught me so much about being empowered as a woman and what that truly means.

With all the jobs you have you must be quite skilled at staying on top of it all--any tips?
You know, I would say that it really comes down to organization. I’m someone who is constantly writing notes—I have notepads and notebooks everywhere—and it’s about time management. Those are the two most essential skill sets to apply when you’re [working] two positions. Also, it’s really being patient with yourself. It’s a process, and it’s something that takes time to learn, how to be able to manage two responsibilities at once. If it was that easy then everyone would do it. And it’s about viewing taking a challenge [...] as a positive versus a negative.

Do you think that you have certain traits that help you in these roles?
I guess what I always think about a lot is that I’m not necessarily doing this for me but I really do what I do to pave the way for women of color. I’m following the lead of so many incredible women in front of me and I feel that I’m just walking in their path and paving the road for whoever is behind me.

As far as my personality traits, I think that they evolve. I would say that I’m a very optimistic person and I’m someone who likes to take on a challenge. I like to prove people wrong. And I really have this innate drive as a woman, to sort of stand up and say “Hey, we can do this, I’m doing this, and watch me go,” and that comes from having a very independent mother who has really honed that in for me. Patience for me is something that I struggle with, I have to constantly remind myself “Be patient with yourself, be patient with the process.”

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In your Refinery29 videos, you bring attention to issues that people of color might encounter in all sorts of fields. How has being a woman of color impacted, if at all, your career choice and professional life?
I’m incredibly proud to be a black woman, and I attribute that sense of drive and confidence to my parents. Both my parents are people who are very proud to be black and have ingrained that in my sister and I. Being a woman of color has not impacted my decision to go into this field, but it hands down impacts my, obviously, day-to-day life. It’s intersectionality. I don’t navigate this world as more of a female or more as a person of color, I navigate them together. That is who I am.

To me it’s incredibly important to speak up for people of color as a person of privilege in this position. You can’t have the expectation that non-people of color are going to pave that road for you. It’s on us to speak up and educate and also remind people that our needs and our wants as people of color are as valid and as important as any other race.

However, that doesn’t come without challenges. Because with that there needs to be opportunity. And so I’m hoping that if I continue to speak up for women of color and continue to produce good work that that’s just going to create more opportunities for other women of color to fill these shoes and these positions.

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Do you have any advice for women of color entering this business?
Sure. I would say that self-love, self-perseverance is the only way to succeed. And ultimately you have to believe in yourself. You have to be your greatest champion, you have to be the person advocating for yourself and that means speaking up and always putting your best foot forward. I would also say that it’s staying educated, it’s paying attention to other great work of people of color, it’s creating a network, providing opportunity, reaching out. It’s just staying active, that’s probably the best advice I can give. And never losing hope.

And I know that can be challenging, especially in the day and age we live in right now. But, it’s keeping the mindset that there’s a greater goal, a greater mission, there’s a greater voice that you’re working towards. But I think reaching out is so important. I’m so incredibly grateful to women of color who are older than me who have been just incredible mentors. And I just hope that women of color who are younger than I and interested in the field reach out and that they realize that this community has their doors open to them and that we are supportive.

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What is your most and least favorite part of your job?
I would say the best part of my job is that I work with really amazing women. And I am constantly learning for them, and that goes for both Refinery[29] and the MOIC. The worst part of my job—I don’t think there are any bad parts of my job! Sure there are more tedious things that I have to do sometimes. But ultimately you gotta pay your dues. No one is above responsibility in life. I would say from a personal perspective, my least favorite part of my job is probably waking up early. That’s never changed despite the fact that I’ve been waking up early for five years!

Speaking of passion projects, how did you decide to actually follow through and make the Museum of Ice Cream reality?
Look, I think that anyone that starts a business goes through this cycle of “This is a great idea, I can’t wait to get started” and “Oh my God, what the hell did I get myself into?” It’s a crazy process and it’s really about challenging, overcoming that self doubt. And developing a really [...] thorough, and strong mission statement that you can always go back to and remind yourself of. It’s an overwhelming process but, it’s so worth it. I would say that if you have doubt, that’s natural. But if you’re really, like, “I don’t believe in this, this is stupid,” then perhaps I wouldn’t put your heart in it. But if you deep down know this is a great idea, go for it.

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What’s been one thing you didn’t expect you’d have to do in your roles, but find yourself doing?
We all have these expectations when we look at the job description and apply for. And then it’s usually only 50% of what it actually is. You know, I can’t say there’s anything that’s ever thrown me for a loop in the past at Refinery or the Museum, but when I was working at Last Week Tonight with John Oliver, […] I was carrying lights, and building sets, and I didn’t think it would be so hands on, but what that really taught me is that I can do anything. You’re a part of that team, you need to know how to do everything. I think it’s par for the course and you have to take it with stride.

Have you ever been at a point of major uncertainty in your career?
You know, when I left Last Week Tonight with John Oliver it was the moment that I decided I don’t really want to work in production. I thought I wanted to be a producer and then I realized “Actually, I want to be more on the Creative Director/Art Director lens.” And I think—not even I think—I know that in that moment I was terrified. And it’s in those moments that you really have to challenge that insecurity, remind yourself that you’re capable of anything.

I’d say one of the best pieces of advice my mother gave me, you know, “Write down your goals for the year, put them in a place that you don’t see everyday, and then eventually you’ll remember where it is and you’ll be surprised by how much you’ve accomplished.” And also, I started to take classes in things that I wasn’t sure that I wanted to pursue but that were creatively inspiring. Doing things to keep my mind moving, to keep my creative juices flowing.

 PBS interviewing Madison for MOIC (!)

PBS interviewing Madison for MOIC (!)

And also, accepting that in those moments when you feel you want to give up, letting yourself cry. It makes a difference, don’t hold it in. The best advice that I could give is to not pretend you’re not overwhelmed but to go with it, let yourself feel and then pick yourself up.

If you weren’t doing this, in a parallel universe or in the same universe, what do you think you would be doing?
I’d probably be a doctor. Which is not something people would expect. But I am just incredibly fascinated by medicine. I think that it’s an art form. People don’t even think about it that way—I shouldn’t say people don’t, I don’t know, maybe some do—I would say that the common consensus, I assume, is that people don’t think of medical practice as an artistic form. I just have incredible respect for people who dedicate their lives to saving somebody else.

Okay, but what do you do? Please write your response as if you're explaining to your ten-year-old self. 

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Thanks so much, Madison! Readers, we know you’re probably still reeling from all the amazing advice you just received – so let it soak in for the next week. Come back on Monday for another dose of her wisdom...it’s a big one! We’ll be talking about money and how-to effectively ask for a raise. See you then! (Photos provided from Madison Utendahl)