#bossgirls i have #workcrushes on: cj lake

At a point in time when I truly believe women cannot build each other up enough, I've found myself trying to be more intentional when it comes to encouraging the women I'm lucky enough to call friends. It's a goal that has brought me so much gratitude, deepened my friendships and ultimately left me better than I was before. Plus, I just have a damn good time doing it. So I'm starting a new series here to showcase some of these bad ass #bossgirls that I admire and, yes, have #WorkCrushes on.

I introduce to you: Miss CJ Lake:

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Edit: Since publishing this piece, CJ has been promoted to senior social media strategist at @uofsc. YAAASSS QUEEN.

CJ Lake is one of those people you remember. You only have to meet her once or see her in action for her big personality and charming southern drawl to ingrain themselves in your mind.

I met CJ in January 2014. I was a sophomore in college, she was a senior, and we were both interns at our beloved university’s communications department. I was a copywriter; her specialty was social media. We worked in the most poorly insulated building on campus and she let me borrow her blanket when I was cold. When I usually tell this story, it’s in the context of “I knew her before…” Before she became THE CJ Lake.

But on this day, when I met up with her, we were colleagues, friends even. I sipped coffee and she drank water. It was early enough for most anyone to need coffee, but not CJ. She remains the most energetic person I know, period. And she does is sans caffeine.

On our table sat two phones. Mine and hers. Face up, hers lit up throughout our conversation, reminding both of us that her job never truly sleeps. Unlike most though, CJ’s phone is not an annoyance or a reminder of things left to do, it’s an extension of herself, like an extra appendage, a second heartbeat, a pulse she lives to keep strong.

That CJ Lake is the social media strategist for the University of South Carolina. She’s the witty mind behind trolling Duke when the Gamecock Men’s Basketball team upset them in the 2017 NCAA tournament. She’s the voice behind the brand that connects students far and wide and invites them to be Gamecocks. In the two years since CJ was hired, @UofSC’s following has skyrocketed. A 2017 report (just one year after CJ took the job) on the social media accounts of institutions of higher education ranked the university No. 1 in Twitter engagement. The same report ranked USC second overall across all social media.

But this gamecock is not cocky, instead attributing her success to a combination of a little skill and a lot of passion. 

“I am fully aware that 98.5% of my job is perfectly google-able. But I bring a passion for this place. And I’m willing to go the extra mile to see it succeed."

"I’m willing to wake up on a Saturday morning, roll over in my bed, grab my phone and engage with people on #uofsc. And that’s not because my boss asked me to, but it’s something I do because I know it’s what we need to do to grow our account.”

She says it’s her innate “give a damn” that has catapulted her into success so early in her career. A career that began on the campus she now works for. She recalls sitting on the front porch of her dorm, Preston Hall, as a sophomore, when she saw an ad for Tiffany and Co. She ended up clicking on it, scrolling through the website and purchasing a charm.

“When I closed out after my purchase, I was back in my Twitter feed and it dawned on me that someone was paid to create that moment. It was someone’s job to create something aesthetically pleasing that would lead me to make a transaction. That’s the dream.”

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That dream was realized after several internships and a job right out of college working for a healthcare company, honing her social strategy skills under her mentor. But when she got the call that her alma mater was looking for a full-time social media manager, it was a no-brainer.

"I’m very aware that it is a dream come true because of what it is, and what the product is.”

“I don’t think I ever thought I’d be back here, certainly not this soon. But when I applied to the job, I knew this was the dream. And now in this position, I’m very aware that it is a dream come true because of what it is, and what the product is.”

Tangled with her undeniable passion for this industry and this brand is another unteachable quality: the hunger to learn more. With a brand as large and well-known as USC, CJ can’t afford to be behind the curve. But it’s a curve she says she’d be ahead of regardless of her job.

“The digital space is always changing. I sent someone a blog about a new Facebook manager change and by the time they got around to reading it, just like three days later, it was completely irrelevant, because it’d changed again. And it’s those moments that can make you feel like you’ll never catch up, so that’s when really having those soft skills—the desire to catch up, to always be learning—becomes an asset.”

The hard skills aren’t lost on her either—continually working to perfect her self-editing and concise writing skills. Ask her about any mistakes and she’ll proudly say that to-date she only has one Twitter typo on her record, and then she’ll promptly knock on wood.

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As I sifted through the recording of our breakfast date at Waffle House, through the Beyoncé greatest hits playing irrationally loud on the jukebox, I was struck again by the humble yet self-assured tone in CJ’s voice. Her answers were confident, given by someone who finds both challenge and security in their position. I was encouraged by the fact that even her dream job is not without struggles, and that she says success is an attribute she had to learn to grow into. As we bid goodbye, I noticed that she was dressed, per usual, in garnet and black, both a tribute to the school that built her and an institution that made her dream a reality.

Follow CJ: @cjlake
Follow the University of South Carolina:

Photos: courtesy of @cjlake