Be yourself. Be genuine. At first, I tried to downplay my age by wearing “younger” clothing, I attempted to brush up on the latest lingo and I covered my gray roots. I mimicked the young salesmen who are always in a rush, impatient even. The successful ones who value quantity of sales over quality. Now I see that people respond well to me as a woman who has life experience and a professional who is willing to take however much time is necessary to make my clients comfortable with the entire, sometimes complicated process of buying a car.
The COVID19 pandemic has disrupted all of our lives. But sometimes disruptions can be times of opportunity. Many people’s livelihoods have been hurt by the pandemic. But some saw this as an opportune time to take their lives in a new direction.
As a part of this series called “How I Was Able To Pivot To A New Exciting Opportunity Because Of The Pandemic”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Erika Stone-Miller.
Erika Stone-Miller is a Purchase Consultant at Toyota of Lincoln Park, in Chicago. Formally a Director of Catering and food truck owner, she graduated from Wellesley College with a degree in Architecture and remodels old buildings in her spare time. She likes to try new things and finally decided to get married for the first and only time at age 49 and started Pole Dancing for fitness at age 53.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we start, our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your childhood backstory?
Pretty normal childhood growing up in Southern California. My Mom was my world. She was a Medical Technologist and the breadwinner in our house. She was a lovely combo of strength, compassion and humor with a bit of sassiness thrown in for good measure. When I was about 11, I decided that it wasn’t fair that Mother’s names disappeared and kids only got their father’s name, so I began to hyphen my last name and became “Erika Stone-Miller”. I think that’s when I officially became a feminist.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
“I am a Woman
― Maya Angelou
This quote is like a best friend- there for the good times and the bad. When thing are going well, it is an affirmation. When things are going poorly, I will repeat it over and over-even when the tears are rolling. It’s my mantra. Oddly comforting.
Is there a particular book, podcast, or film that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
Not really. I did not grow up watching much TV and went 30 years without a TV before I got married. But I do remember loving Mae West in “She Done Him Wrong”. I was amazed at her blatant sexuality and power over men.
Let’s now shift to the main part of our discussion. Can you tell our readers about your career experience before the Pandemic began?
I have been in food service sales my entire career-I’ve always loved the combination of great food and special occasions. At the end of January 2020, I went to NYC for orientation as my company was acquired and I got a promotion. Things were great. So promising. The new company had all kind of plans for aggressive growth and I was in on the ground floor-there was so much opportunity-I was stoked.
What did you do to pivot as a result of the Pandemic?
After 8 months of being furloughed and on unemployment for the first time in my life, on October 3rd, I got laid off. To say I was freaked out, is putting it mildly. With Hospitality dead and no firm date to return to normalcy, I knew I needed to look into exploring something new. Changing careers at my age is daunting and it was frightening to see the industry I had dedicated my life to, collapse within a matter of months. Halfheartedly, I applied to several random sales jobs but none we really exciting to me and apparently no one was excited about me because I got no responses. Within my professional circles, there we horror stories of sending out hundreds of resumes with no response. Do I go back to school? Do I intern some place to get industry specific experience? Do I take a minimum wage job? “God”, I thought. “I’m too old for this.”
Can you tell us about the specific “Aha moment” that gave you the idea to start this new path?
Then, my late model car broke down. I knew I needed a new car but with the stress of no job, the Pandemic, the country’s division over the upcoming elections, Black Lives Matters violence and all of the uncertainty, the last thing I wanted to do is deal with a car salesman. My last car buying experience was a nightmare. The fellow who “helped” me was a caricature of the typical smarmy car salesman: sexist, condescending, dismissive, pushy and thoroughly unpleasant. When I returned to buy the car, he lied about the agreed upon price and tried to strong-arm me into purchasing. I was so upset and angry that I got up and left the dealership.
I wondered if I could find a someone to sell me a car who was a sales professional like me– specifically, a woman who was friendly, helpful, sensitive to her customer’s needs — someone with integrity. That was my “lightbulb” moment.
I researched traits of successful cars salesmen and found that my skillset aligned. I sent out a non-traditional resume listing only my strengths. No job history or industry details. Within 3 days, I was officially in Car Sales (5 days short of my 54th birthday).
How are things going with this new initiative?
Better than my wildest expectations! I am THRILLED with my new career. I am the oldest salesperson and one of two women in a team of 13 — I am old enough to be the mother of most of my colleagues. The best part of my job is that I still get to do what I love which is to meet new people every day and help them. I’m not offering a delicious meal or a memorable event experience but I am assisting them in making a very important financial decision and I’m doing it my way which is with laughter, generosity of spirit, respect and my homemade English Toffee.
Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Not a particular person but groups of people. Complete strangers. I went online to seek guidance on moving into the automotive field. Between Reddit, Instagram and Facebook, there are entire communities of car professionals who offered advice and answered my questions. It is not lost on me the irony that the people I initially I maligned, are the same people who generously gave me support. A classic lesson on why stereotypes are poison.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started in this new direction?
My first day out of training, a woman approached me and asked if I was a salesman. I responded that I was, but admitted that I was brand new and had limited knowledge of the car she was interested in. She laughed and told me not to worry; that she knew all about the car and would simply prefer to work with a woman. It was exactly what I needed: proof that I was in the right place at the right time.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me before I started leading my organization” and why. Please share a story or example for each.
Turn disadvantages into advantages
I thought my age and sex would be disadvantages. Now I know that they are part of the reason I have been successful so fast. I started to brand myself as ‘Not.yourtypicalcarsalesman’as people tell me they have never met a car salesman like me and I take it as a compliment.
Be yourself. Be genuine
At first, I tried to downplay my age by wearing “younger” clothing, I attempted to brush up on the latest lingo and I covered my gray roots. I mimicked the young salesmen who are always in a rush, impatient even. The successful ones who value quantity of sales over quality. Now I see that people respond well to me as a woman who has life experience and a professional who is willing to take however much time is necessary to make my clients comfortable with the entire, sometimes complicated process of buying a car.
Do things differently
You can spot my desk from a mile away. It is not the cold, impersonal desks of the other salesmen and I think it reassures my clients. There are pictures of my dog & family, a trend board and lots of funny car sales comics. My follow up process is also a bit different as I believe in old school snail mail notes- I have had delighted clients tell me that they were surprised to receive something real (not computer generated) in the mail. And my homemade English Toffee… no other car salesmen’s toffee can beat mine!!!
Admit when you don’t know something.
At this early point in my career, I don’t know everything about cars, but I can get the answers to any question. People appreciate my candor. That said, even after 10 hour shifts, I go home every night and study.
Clients vs. Customers
I have always been in the business of creating relationships. Customers are for fast food restaurants, the people I help are my Clients. They are my responsibility and learning their stories helps me serve them better.
So many of us have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. Can you share the strategies that you have used to optimize your mental wellness during this stressful period?
I feel like as Americans, this is one of the most stressful times of our collective lives. To cope, I have tried to become a more compassionate and empathic human being and to learn to find joy in non-perfect situations. That and Pole Dancing.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be?
Bringing together women over 50 who want to reinvent themselves in non- traditional ways. Create a network of inspirational women helping women where we could share triumphs, failures and offer advice and encouragement.
Is there a person in the world whom you would love to have lunch with, and why? Maybe we can tag them and see what happens!
There are so many famous and notable people I would be delighted to lunch with. However, I would love to just have lunch with my mother-in-law, Lilian. She lives in Ireland and because of the pandemic, we have not been able to travel this year and I don’t know when it will be safe enough for a visit. I miss her.
How can our readers follow you online?
Thank you so much for sharing these important insights. We wish you continued success and good health!