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How Nicole Hess’s Passion for Community Led her to a Career at EPAM

Meet Nicole Hess, Lead Content Strategist at EPAM, a board member of The Awesome Foundation and co-organizer of Content Strategy PHL Meetup. Nicole has taken her passion for her work and supporting the community and turned it into a career of inspiring others and helping those in need. We sat down with Nicole to talk about her career journey, the importance of networking and how impactful it can be to get involved in your community. Here’s what she had to say… 

Let’s talk about your role at EPAM as a lead content strategist – what exactly does that mean and what experiences led you down this career path?

Content strategy itself is a broad practice area with a lot of different interpretations. Simply put, from EPAM’s perspective, we’re helping clients improve the production, delivery, organization and optimization of their digital content. The content can be on a website, in an app, in a digital asset management system or even the prompts given in forms and through chatbots. In my role as a lead content strategist, I’m often driving meetings and workshops with our clients’ teams who are already part of their own companies’ content processes, guiding them to discover underlying challenges and opportunities and involve them in identifying solutions.

How I got into content strategy is more of a winding path. I would say that my master’s degree in linguistics or even perhaps my bachelor’s in international relations was the beginning, and both degrees have proven invaluable for working with global clients with international websites.

I worked for a demographic research and consulting firm conducting a variety of research to create strategies for non-profits and political candidates. While I thought I was signing up for a research role, our agency quickly transitioned into actually creating the marketing campaigns (including radio and TV commercials), getting our clients published in major newspapers and presenting to global institutions, like the World Bank, on their behalf.

It was a good run, but after the 2008 election, I wanted to pursue more of a digital-based career. So, I started teaching myself HTML, building websites, and eventually became an account manager at a boutique digital marketing agency in Miami. After several years there, SEO piqued my interest, and I came up to Philadelphia to work for SEER Interactive. That’s when I realized my passion for content strategy. The SEO experience pretty much rounded out my skills, and that’s when I transitioned into more team leadership roles, helping those I worked with to identify their client needs and develop strategies that would bring the results their clients were after. Fast forward a few years and that brought me to EPAM, where I can use the variety of experiences I’ve had to make a difference for our clients.

Tell me about your involvement with the Content Strategy Philly Meetup.

I’m currently the lead organizer for the Content Strategy Philly Meetup. We provide monthly presentations, panels or workshops around content strategy or other related topics, such as UX or client relationships.

For me, it’s rewarding to help foster a community for content strategists since it’s still an up-and-coming field. Many content strategists say they feel or experience imposter syndrome, and I think that’s due to the fact that the practice itself has yet to be codified. Since there’s not a lot published online about content strategy, just seeing the work of other content strategists through their presentations can be a big confidence booster.

It’s also rewarding to be a part of something bigger than my day-to-day work that’s still related to my profession. It’s enabled me to meet so many people that I share interests with and even led me to working at EPAM! While I was getting started as a volunteer, I was in charge of organizing a meetup that included Elizabeth Rich (now my manager) and Jen Dionisio (now my colleague). We stayed in touch over the years and when the chance to work together unfolded, we were all really excited.

Tell me about The Awesome Foundation – what is their mission and how are you involved?

The Awesome Foundation (Philly Chapter) is another organization that I enjoy working with. I serve on a board with nine other individuals, and once a month we review applications for a grant. The community project must impact the city of Philadelphia in order to be considered, and the grant should cover most of the project costs. Since every month we invite the previous month’s grant winners to present at the beginning of our meeting, I’ve learned so much about Philadelphia and the hard-working people trying to make a difference here.

You mentioned that, through The Awesome Foundation, you were able to help provide grants to community projects. What’s an example of a project that was most memorable to you?

There are so many great community projects that come through The Awesome Foundation, but one of the most memorable for me was a project spearheaded by a teacher who wanted to create a quality recording studio for students to record their own music from start to finish. With the grant, the teacher replaced some of the older recording equipment he had purchased himself. He came back to let us listen to samples of the student-recorded music and it was truly inspiring, beautiful and something that has stuck with me over time.

Why is giving back to your local community important?

I believe that a company has a responsibility to give back to their community. Since Philadelphia and some of its surrounding regions have one of the highest poverty rates in the US and EPAM is one of the Fastest Growing Companies in 2019, I’m glad EPAM provides such strong support for the Scratch program and Hopeworks in Camden.

What advice would you give to someone who wants to start volunteering or become involved in a community organization?

My advice for someone who wants to start volunteering or becoming involved in a community organization is simple; start going to the organization and observe. Then tell them what you can do and ask if it aligns with something they need. As an organizer, it’s sometimes harder to figure out what to delegate when someone says, “I can help if you need it,” rather than someone who has attended a few events and can identify where, specifically, help is needed.

What does being an EPAMer mean to you?

To me, being an EPAMer means being trusted to offer our customers the best digital strategies and solutions that align with their business goals and needs. To do this, it means being confident in my experience, ability to identify the solutions and working with my colleagues to deliver these end-to-end solutions.