Maura Fitzgerald is partner and co-founder of Version 2.0 Communications, a public relations and digital communications agency with offices in Boston, New York, San Francisco and London.
My first job was as a "hot walker" at the Saratoga race track. I was a student at Skidmore, which is in Saratoga, and when I was growing up I had horses. I loved to ride, and I was used to being around them. And when I got to college I was looking around, like a lot of college students are, for a part-time job.
There were jobs in the library or in the dining room, but I used to ride my bike over to the track—it was near my dorm—and I would hang around the track and watch the thoroughbreds train. I got to know some people at the track and got offered a job as a hot walker. A hot walker is the person who leads the horse around after the horse comes off the track for a practice run and they're hot and sweaty. The hot walker has to lead them around and make sure that they cool down, make sure that they have plenty to drink, and keep them calm during the process, because these horses are really valuable. So it was really a fun job. I'd ride my bike over there in the morning and walk a few horses and then go to my classes.
If you want to meet a lot of really interesting people, working at a racetrack is a good place to do it. Here were my parents sending me to this expensive women's college and thinking that I was spending all my time when I wasn't in class in the library reading and studying, and what I was doing was hanging around the track with a lot of people who seemed like they came out of a Damon Runyon novel.
I did it in the fall or in the spring, pretty much the whole time I was at Skidmore. It paid minimum wage but it gave me a chance to be outside, and I really loved being around the horses and the other animals who were in the barn. It teaches you to be really, really responsible—you have to show up on time, you have to be really diligent, you have to kind of be tuned in so you can tell what the horse is feeling. So it teaches you a lot of soft skills that you can use later on in almost any job that you have.
In a lot of ways it's like managing people. You have to read things into what you see and extrapolate from that and adapt your behavior accordingly, which I think is part of what a good manager needs to do if you're bringing out the best in people. Another aspect of my job at the track was hanging around there and talking to the groomers and the owners and the exercise riders. There's people from all different walks of life—wealthy owners who had multiple homes, and then the grooms are people who often didn't even go to college and just grew up working in barns. So you learn how to talk to everybody and anybody. So when I left school and became a journalist it was those conversational skills that really helped me get ahead and I think became a pretty good journalist.