When your business is taking the pain out of managing live events, it helps to have people on the team who have lived that pain personally. The Vendini team brings a wealth of artists and arts management expertise to everything we do, from customer service to product design. Whether it’s dancing, producing, singing, or some other form of artistry, more than 50 percent of our employees have their roots in the arts, so it’s not unusual to hear of employees forming a band or performing in a local theater. Needless to say, a Vendini employee talent show would be killer!
We caught up with our Vice President of Customer Success, Jillian Owens, on what it’s like to go from being a professional dancer to heading the customer-driven mission of Vendini.
Tell us about your journey through the arts community.
The arts community has been a huge part of my life since I started dancing when I was three. Art runs in my family; my mother is a musician and editor and my grandmother a concert violinist. As a child, I didn’t start out with my sights set on dancing for a living, but I fell in love with being on stage and got serious about my performing career at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. I got a Bachelor’s of Fine Arts in Drama, specifically musical theater.
Like many professional dancers, my early days mixed dance gigs and hospitality jobs to pay the bills. The highs and lows were frenetic. Bartending until 4am and trying to wake up for auditions in the morning, ready to go with hair and makeup done, got old quickly. Sleep deprivation, coupled with the harsh realities of what a livelihood built around rejection does to your self confidence, drove me to find other passions and skills.
I began looking at options that built on my love of the arts. First, I found an amazing entry-level position as assistant house manager at The Joyce Theater in New York. This new position gave me some of my first insight into life on the other side of the curtain. From there, I had the extraordinary experience to evolve into a front-of-house leadership role at Frederick P. Rose Hall under the artistic direction of Wynton Marsalis. Moving to such a large and high-profile venue was a major learning experience. Finally, I was cast in the national tour of Young Frankenstein. I left behind a job I loved to scratch the performing itch for a while.
When I came back from tour, I was pounding the pavement again, but, as luck would have it, a thrilling opportunity at a brand new venue knocked first. I moved on to lead the front-of-house team for the inaugural season at The Pershing Square Signature Center, where I helped to build front-of-house operations. After that, I moved into a venue booking role to establish procedures to support a thriving rental program in a multi-theater venue. Slowly, I realized my career didn’t have to be “performing or nothing” – that I could be something other than a dancer and stay in the arts world. Those experiences, coupled with my life as a dancer, taught me many valuable lessons that I try to bring into my work with Vendini.
How does your past influence what you now do for Vendini?
I have two major influences that come to mind, one from each of my worlds. Both Wynton Marsalis (when I worked at Jazz at Lincoln Center) and Susan Stroman (who directed and choreographed Young Frankenstein) had the vision and confidence to inspire the people around them. While working for both, you could look around and see every individual contributor, no matter the size of their role, marching to the beat of the same drum. Even the simplest tasks and smallest details, such as the angle of your chin in a final pose or putting labels on chairs had to match the broader goal. That gave us a feeling that we were a part of something very special.
I try to bring that same approach to my work at Vendini. A live event is a sacred thing to me, as it is to our customers. Supporting our customers’ events at every step is our number one objective.
How did you transition from being a dancer to being on the operations side?
Being a dancer taught me to be disciplined and flexible, in more ways than one. When you’re dancing in a line, the line depends on you to do your role perfectly, every single time, or someone’s safety could be at risk. However, if something goes wrong (I once kicked a tap shoe into the eighth row in the audience – don’t worry, no one got hurt) you must immediately make the best decision you can, move forward and keep dancing and smiling so the audience doesn’t notice a thing. I love that kind of discipline. It’s discipline to plan exhaustively for the future, to train, woodshed, hone your technical skill, but also to be in the moment and able to improvise. At Vendini I get the chance to lead others and help them evolve their own skill sets, which is something I didn’t often get to do as a dancer. I truly enjoy getting the opportunity to both shape and support the company’s vision.
What is your role at Vendini?
Prior to working at Vendini, I had always been more the end user of a technology solution than the creator. I learned about Vendini while working at The York Theater in New York, so I was a customer first. When I joined Vendini, my first role was managing our frontline support team – those passionate and tireless folks who pick up the phone and answer emails at all hours in service of our member base. Four and a half years later, I am lucky to lead a team of 35 people who work in different customer-focused specialties. We see ourselves as shepherds of our customers’ lifecycles.
As the landscape of software evolves, so must we. Every day we find new ways to incorporate feedback into our processes and DNA. We are committed to figuring out what world-class customer service means to our members and delivering it to them.
What is your favorite part of your role?
Hands down: listening to the customer voice and figuring out how it plays a role in shaping who we are as a company. Vendini is special because we gain insight from talking to our members through so many different avenues. We are using this knowledge to build better pipelines and processes, and translate what we know into action.
Every day we work with our product and engineering teams to figure out how we can better serve our customers’ evolving needs. This requires continuous engagement with our customers and a dedication to receiving and incorporating their feedback. Sometimes feedback is hard to hear – you have to be vulnerable and admit that you’re not perfect. But then you grow and get better.
Through tracking customer feedback, we are building a data store so we can sharpen our decision-making skills. We understand that clarifying how we make decisions is just as important as the decisions themselves. The data we have enables us to be more strategic as we map Vendini’s platform strategy, plan and execute, and define who we are and what we do.
The customer voice is present everywhere in the company now, and that is a change I’m proud to be part of.
Final thoughts? Do you miss performing?
Yes, of course; however, I wouldn’t change my path for the world. I’m still learning that it’s easy to compartmentalize ourselves; we think of our worlds as black and white but they don’t have to be. I still dance when I can, but what I love about my current role is that I spend time in two worlds that are both fulfilling in very different ways. At Vendini, I am immersed in the fascinating tech world but surrounded by people whose roots are in the performing arts.
I think it’s very important that we never lose sight of our goal – supporting our customers in the business of live events. I do miss feeling the nightly energy of a curtain going up but, I still get that buzz when I speak with Vendini users living that life. I consider myself lucky to be tasked with a singular focus: to keep our users in the spotlight in everything we do.