It's a strange feeling, being an overnight success at age 51. Four years ago, I founded my first company, Constellation Agency (No. 65 on the 2020 Inc. 5000 list). Today, we do north of $20 million in annual revenue providing microtargeted digital advertising creative to more than 900 auto dealerships across the country.
Just a few years before, though, I was at the bottom. At 40, I was a divorced single mom, consulting for auto manufacturers and burned-out by a career I wasn't passionate about. I was doing OK, but I felt like a failure inside. I remember standing numb in front of the mirror and realizing I didn't know what my favorite food was, what kind of movies I liked to watch, or even what clothes I liked to wear. Though I didn't realize it at the time, I know now that I needed to own my own company to feel happy and successful. But first, I needed to become the owner of my own life. That started with my name.
I have several.
My birth name is Sora; my family calls me that, or Columba, which is the Catholic name they gave me at birth (my mom wanted to be a nun). When I was 10, an immigration lawyer asked me to choose a different name--Sora, he said, wouldn't cut it in the U.S., and I was an American now. On the spot, I reached for the woman I aspired to be at that moment: Wonder Woman. And so, Diana was born.
But the void I felt for much of my younger life, that lack of a recognizable personality, was because I had spent my whole life stuck between two worlds. It didn't matter whether I was trying to be "Korean" or trying to be "American." Either way, I kept coming up short.
It wasn't any better with my peers. Though my legal name had changed to Diana, at my elementary school I still went by Sora--it was easier than explaining why my name was now different. The kids at my school would call me "Sorta" or "Soda," mocking me because they couldn't pronounce my Korean name. I went off to college as Diana.
I was determined to show everyone just how capable and normal I was. I was selling cars to pay my way through school. I wanted to marry a doctor or a lawyer, a respectable professional, to soothe my family's nerves. I ate only hot dogs, pizza, and hamburgers, to blend in with my American friends.
It wasn't enough. My marriage--to a doctor!--ended in divorce. No matter how many burgers I ate, it didn't change the fact that my name and features stuck out like a sore thumb. Spending my entire adult life people-pleasing, giving up every shred of my energy and identity, had led me to a dead end.
Though painful, the divorce helped me. I spent the next decade focusing on myself. I learned how to give to people without expecting anything in return. I took what I had learned in my career in the auto sales industry and leveraged my experience to work more independently as a consultant.
I got married again (to a lawyer!). My second husband helped me understand my career problem: I approached every job like an owner, rather than an employee. I was always stressed, often about things I couldn't control, decisions that were made above me. The solution: Take the leap and start my own thing.
I realized my years spent becoming a subject-matter expert in car dealerships gave me a special insight that Constellation could solve problems in a way that other firms could not.
In some ways, building this company has been the hardest four years of my life. But because I first worked to take ownership of my life, I was able to take ownership of my business.
Though I still use Diana for my work name, building Constellation my way has given Sora back to me.