Leigh Gallagher ’94 has come a long way from her early job as the footwear reporter at a sporting goods trade publication to assistant managing editor at Fortune magazine, but she said many of her career moves happened because of serendipity, not by having a well-defined career plan.
One thing remained at the forefront, Gallagher said, whenever she made a career decision: to focus on her “north star” — the work she loved in journalism, a “wonderful, fantastic profession.”
Gallagher shared career advice and Cornell memories during a March 16 visit to campus as this year’s Munschauer lecturer, invited by the College of Arts & Sciences Career Development Center.
At Fortune, Gallagher, who was an English major at Cornell, writes and edits feature stories, helps steer the brand's editorial direction and serves as a co-chair of the Fortune Most Powerful Women Summit and Fortune Brainstorm Tech conferences. She is also the author of two books: “The End of the Suburbs: Where the American Dream Is Moving,” in 2014, and “The Airbnb Story: How Three Ordinary Guys Disrupted an Industry, Made Billions . . . and Created Plenty of Controversy,” which came out in 2017.
During her time at Cornell, Gallagher wrote news and feature stories for the Cornell Daily Sun, but was involved in myriad other activities, including her sorority and the rowing team. Some of her more memorable classes included those on French literature, psychology, history and a treasure trove of English classes on Chaucer, Milton, Dreiser and Faulkner.
“I remember being swept away reading all of this amazing literature,” she said.
While friends all around her took jobs in consulting or pursued medical or legal careers, she fretted a bit about what would come next for her.
“I knew it wasn’t easy to get a job in magazines, but that’s what I wanted to do,” she said. So she sent letters to a host of magazines, landed an unpaid internship at Philadelphia Magazine and moved back home after graduation.
Knowing she wanted to make a move to New York City, she visited friends there and handed out resumes all around the city. A serendipitous exit off the elevator at the wrong floor found her in a broadcasting studio, where she left a resume by chance. That drop-off ended with a job offer at a video production company.
The next job came as a result of old-fashioned job searching in the New York Times Sunday classifieds, the actual print version, she said. That position, at Sporting Goods Business, introduced her to a whole new vocabulary. “People kept using this acronym – IPO – and I had no idea what they were talking about,” she said with a laugh.
Today, IPO, depreciation and liquidity are part of Gallagher’s lexicon. After the Sporting Goods Business job, Gallagher became a reporter and editor at Forbes and SmartMoney before joining Fortune in 2007, editing, writing and later helping to launch Fortune Live, the publication’s weekly, 30-minute digital video talk show, in 2014. These days, she is also a frequent guest on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, CBS This Morning, CNBC, National Public Radio’s Marketplace and other outlets. She is also a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.
Although her first few tries at television were “really awful,” she said, working on a new show earlier in her career hosted by Forbes and Fox, the weekly experience helped her gain confidence, and since that time, television and radio appearances have become a regular part of her routine.
“I enjoy it and that’s something I couldn’t have planned for,” she said. “It just happened.”
Gallagher said when new opportunities were offered to her, she usually had someone in her corner, urging her to give it a try, whether she had expertise in that area or not.
“You need a mentor to push you to do something that you might not want to do,” she said. “You have to be willing to try new things and take big risks to be able to really find and follow your north star.”