When my friend Laurie Rice-Salemi took over a paper route in 1979, she wasn’t so much interested in making history as she was in making money. But at the ripe age of 15, she made headlines in the Gary Post Tribune anyway – as its first “female carrier.”
“Some of my customers called me a ‘women’s libber’ when I started out,” Rice recalls. “I didn’t even know what that meant!”
I entered the workforce as a newspaper carrier too, only for the News & Sentinel in Fort Wayne, Ind. I partnered up with my sister, Marina, and we spent countless afternoons and evenings lugging pounds of paper through neighborhood streets, delivering the latest news to our community’s doorstep.
Today, Laurie runs a successful business as founder and co-owner of Colored Threads, a full-service embroidery and promotional product distributor in Indianapolis. We recently got together and swapped colorful stories about our paper route experiences. And while we shared similar mishaps and lots of laughter, we also agreed that the lessons learned from blazing our own paper trail laid a solid foundation for successful business ownership.
To be sure, the skills we developed and honed at such a young age allowed us to become who we are today. We discovered the importance of taking responsibility, earning money, and saving up for the things we wanted. In addition, we learned about:
Strong work ethic. So maybe I didn’t have to walk to school barefoot, uphill both ways (like so many of our parents joke about), but I did have to go to work in extreme conditions. There really is nothing that teaches discipline quite like trekking from house to house in ice, snow, driving rain or pelting sleet. We had to work hard in spite of physical and emotional discomfort. Think about how many tasks on your to-do list are things you really don’t want to do, but you have to do them anyway. Not delivering our papers was never an option – it had to get done.
Commitment to customers. One evening my sister and I delivered our papers two hours late. Our customers were not happy, to say the least, and our tips were low that month. End of story.
Finance management. When you’re in charge of your own route, you receive a monthly bill for the number of newspapers you delivered. If our customers didn’t pay for their paper, then sometimes we didn’t have enough money in the bank to pay our bill. Which means we experienced the frustration of bad debt, and customers who never paid their bills on time.
Bill Collection. It didn’t take long to learn which clients consistently dodged our bill collection like a bad rash. My sister and I learned to employ creative tactics … like stalking. Every couple of weeks or so you could find us riding our bikes in the neighborhood after dinner, just waiting to see a light flicker on at a client’s house. The moment we saw signs of life, we’d be on that front porch knocking on the door (it’s pretty amusing to witness a grown man hide behind his couch).
Accountability. It was quite simple, really: clients with paid subscriptions expected the prompt delivery of a newspaper. We understood that responsibility, and we rarely let them down. In other words, we did what we said we were going to do.
Discipline. The consistency of delivering our product Monday through Saturday taught us the power of disciplined action. Think about how discipline pays off for you both personally and professionally. It’s a great behavior to master.
Independence, confidence and self-esteem. As young women, we were able to foster these traits by seeing and experiencing success, accomplishing goals and noticing the rewards and satisfaction from clients who appreciated our service.
Nature appreciation. Managing a paper route forced us to go outdoors and be active every single day, even if we didn’t want to. Today, Laurie and I share a mutual affinity for nature, and we thrive on outdoor activities.
When we first signed up for our paper routes so many years ago, none of us knew what we were getting ourselves into. Laurie certainly didn’t know she was forging a new trail for other young women in her community, and nobody could have predicted the various challenges we’d face. The valuable life lessons we learned could not have been taught in a classroom, yet they directly contributed to our successful careers.
So tell me: if you had a job as a teenager, what was it, and how did it shape who you are today?