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Jill Burgeson: Non-Conformity & Being The Change Agent

Special To Topanga Journal

She’s not that tall but bright, bright-eyed, witty and strong-willed. She entered Topanga Table with a wide smile and a huge presence. Seriously, her personality took up the whole space. Yet she was soft-natured and humble. It was readily apparent how she rose to become VP of Marketing at Fender Guitars. Her career hasn’t been above the fray of discrimination in the workplace though. Her story is at once beautiful and shocking. 

Jill Burgeson said she is the breadwinner of her household. Her husband stays at home with their daughter. She said, “This dynamic is surprisingly rare. I’m a couple of years older than him. We were both in advertising. Before we got pregnant, we talked about how we wanted one of us to raise her. We saw a lot of people have to do nannies. We waited to have kids until I was in my thirties. We thought let’s just be deliberate and make some choices here and make some sacrifices.”

Kriss Perras headshot by Alan Weissman

By Kriss Perras

The Burgesons planned ahead. They saved her husband’s entire salary for a year. They lived in smaller places. They didn’t take as many vacations, so that one of them could stay at home.  They decided that would be him. She said he was less passionate about his career than she was. That’s the way it always was, recounted Burgeson.

“It has always been hard. Some days I can get really resentful. Some days I feel like why can’t I go to the beach today and hang out with everybody? Why can’t I make the school play? That can be really hard, especially as a Mom. I walked into a party one time here in Topanga.This Mom looked at me. She said, ‘Oh your daughter does have a Mommy.’ I respect both sides. If both people have to work. If the Mom stays home. If the Dad stays home. But come on, have some thought about it.”

“And because I was a girl, I always felt like I had to keep proving myself over and over again.” Jill Burgeson

But let’s roll back the clock to the beginning. Let’s see how this powerful woman began. She got started in a small town about two hours south of Buffalo, New York called Allegany. She thought then the only options for a career for women were teachers, nurses or to be a mom. Initially going to college to be a teacher, she decided she didn’t have the patience for that field.  

“It didn’t feel progressive. It didn’t feel interesting to me at all,” said Burgeson. “I ended up going into business. I knew that was always exciting. My Dad has his own business too. When I got into that I fell into marketing. I was fascinated with how it all works. How advertising works. How you can take something that is seemingly simple, or even boring, and spin up an interesting story about it and get people to want it. There’s something cool about the psychology of all that.” 

Her first job was as a marketing assistant. Two years later she landed a position at an advertising agency in New York. It was the kind of job where everyone worked late hours, but her co-workers became the best friends of her life.

When asked had she encountered discrimination or the glass ceiling in her work experience, she had an intriguing answer. Burgeson said she was recently on a panel with similar topics on feminism. One such topic was how do biases we don’t notice influence our work lives? 

“I was always pretty young looking,” said Burgeson. “And because I was a girl, I always felt like I had to keep proving myself over and over again. Every time I’d walk in a room, it was like ‘Oh that’s cute. How can we help you?’ And I had to say ‘No, I’m in charge here.’ Whereas I would see other people it would be assumed, guys especially, they were in charge. On the East Coast when I worked there, guys would be treated differently, because they would be taken golfing or out drinking with the boss.” 

Work related golf and drink outings are not a cliché. This is where most of the deal making is done in business. Recent studies show golf in the business world is less about ability and more about being on the course where decisions are made. According to one recent survey by Statistic Brain, 90 percent of Fortune 500 CEOs play golf. CEOs who regularly play golf are paid 17 percent more on average than those who do not. Dysfunctionally, only 22 percent of US golfers are female.

“I remember going out for drinks for the first time with the bosses on the East Coast, I was like oh I’m in. I’m one of the gang now. But it was just me and all the guys, because you have to push your way into all that. You weren’t automatically invited to those things above and beyond work.” 

Burgeson recalled how that’s where a lot of things happened in the work world for her. She could bond with her workmates and become friends with them. Having to push her way into that, also having to go outside of her comfort zone of vulnerability of being feminine to being tough. During that time period she was coming up through things was the mid to late 90s to early 2000s. This would be what some would remember as the grunge period of music, when Nirvana, Pearl Jam and Soundgarden were big, not when they first emerged, but when they hitting it big. We had guitar distortion, angst and anguished vocals and lyrics. Along with that came stocking hats and combat boots for fashion fads.

“I don’t think my vulnerability and femininity was welcome in the workforce at that time,” said Burgeson. “I think that has certainly shaped how I have approached things. I’m still like, no crying at work. I’ve still been shaped by that mentality. I felt like it was a sign of weakness. But now I think it is a sign of passion. It’s OK. Men can and should cry. It’s OK.”

Women are so often told to shut down the waterworks in a business setting. Crying for people in general is empowering, according to psychologists at the American Psychological Association (APA). Most people feel relieved after crying that was due to stress from interpersonal relationships and anxious or sad thoughts, according to the APA.

But the glass ceiling is very humiliating, degrading and sucks the power from you. Burgeson recounts just such a moment.

“I’ve been told to sit in a room and help ‘dress’ the room,” Burgeson said. “They told me ‘oh hey we need another girl in here. You fit the part. You’re in here.’”

Burgeson recounted how she has always tried to warn other people, the people that are coming up through and have straight talk with them. 

“I did some things like that. Looking back I should’ve said no. I didn’t really know any better. I don’t like to conform to rules. I’ve been told even by women I need to play the game, play the part,” said Burgeson.

According to a study, based on the results of a survey of more than 70,000 employees from eighty-two of this study’s participating companies, three trends that disadvantage women were clear: Women experience a workplace skewed in favor of men; Women of color, particularly Black women, face even greater challenges; Women and men see the state of women—and the success of gender diversity efforts—differently; men have a more positive assessment that often clashes with reality. 

Burgeson said she has noticed things are changing for both sexes somewhat. She has noticed a movement for boys that it is OK for them to cry. Before there was a thing about women being too loud. Now it is OK for women to be dynamic, she said.

“Before it was if you were a women you were being assertive or bitchy. Now there is a little bit of an over correction stage where people are saying everybody can say whatever they want,” Burgeson said. “It will probably balance out at a certain point.” 

Over the last five or six years Burgeson has been brought into places where she’s a change agent. She said it is awesome, fun and exciting but also a challenge. She was working at PMG as key strategist hire. PMG is a recognized leader in the digital advertising industry based out of Austin, Texas. 

“It’s a Texas based agency run by all guys,” said Burgeson. “I helped bolster the women leadership. So I think the women were like oh my gosh, yeah. There is somebody else doing this, and we can talk to her.”

The next phase of Burgeson’s career was her dream job. She was offered a position as VP of Marketing at Fender Guitars. 

“I’m stoked. I’ve always wanted to work in music,” said Burgeson. “This is such an exciting time to be in music. Everything is changing. One of the challenges I’ll be facing there is how do we tell the story of this iconic brand in a modern way within the digital world?”

“Fender knows close to 50 percent of those buying guitars are women today,” said Burgeson. “So they know they need to change. They know they need to study their audience better. They’re really excited and interested in doing that. I can’t wait to help them do it.” 

In ten years Burgeson hopes that she can remain within the music industry. She thinks now honing in on marketing and music she feels that is where the next chapter of her career.  She hopes to lead something major, something interesting. 

“What I always like to do,” she said. “I always try to take on roles I know I can bring them something but also I’m going to be learning a lot as well. I would say as long as it keeps my brain on fire, and that I can actively make a change and make a difference, I will feel fulfilled. Music to me is a personal passion.”

No one else will set boundaries for you, this passionate leader warned the next and previous generation. You have do it yourself. Every single day there may be one more phone call you can take, or one more email or meeting, but at five or six o’clock just stop doing it, she said.

“If you need to get home, whether you have children or not, the only person that’s going to let you do that is you,” said Burgeson. “That’s one thing I’ve realized over the years and have made room for. Being a woman in the work place and with a child, I really have to check myself when I walk through the door. Being tough, on, direct, and driving things all day, I love that. If you carry that exact same energy home with you, It can be really hard on relationships. You need to let someone else decide what’s for dinner. Just stop being the one in charge for a second, or balance it out a bit. Be an equal partner when you get home.”

Burgeson’s story is a mind-blowing Salvador Dali painting. She has swept the advertising world by storm and unlocked the creativity and imaginations of a whole new generation of musicians. Influential yet vulnerable and even shocking that such strength and beauty can be taken advantage of so callously. Yet wonderfully inspiring that she can channel her vulnerabilities and sensibilities into a powerful career trajectory where very few women have traveled. 


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