Sometimes passion can lead us in exciting and unexpected directions. For Grace Olson-Davidson, a love for musical theatre and performance drove her to build connections with people both on and off the stage. She always knew she wanted a life in the arts, but she never expected to find a parallel path in sales and account management – a happy discovery that reshaped her career in inspiring new ways.
As Grace became more familiar with the corporate world, she began to notice a pattern of inequality. This rang true in the theatre as well – there wasn’t equal opportunity for everyone involved. Most decisions were made by rich investors, and she wanted to change that – to make it less monopolised by such a small group of people. What she discovered, through her social justice work, was a new mission to craft a better system that made work and art accessible to all.
“Performance has always been what I knew I was going to do. The form of that has changed and moved and adapted to not just what I need, but also what the world needs. I love my art, I love acting, I love theatre – that’s never going to go away. But right now, what I think the world needs is help in new business or help in the anti racist work that I’ve been doing.”
Always performing, always connecting
Like most performers who move to a big city, Grace relied on the steady income offered by the hospitality sector to fund her creative pursuits. As a child growing up in Oregon, she always knew that performing was a fundamental aspect of who she was – it was part of her anatomy. So she moved to New York and followed that dream.
Working in restaurants and bars was an important part of that experience. Not only did it provide the flexibility she needed to attend auditions and land acting gigs, but it allowed her to continue performing and connecting with people off-stage.
“It was a very natural thing for me to be performing. It’s very personal; it’s very intimate. We underestimate that experience for people. It’s a very vulnerable place to be as well. As an actor, my entire focus and education is honing in on that vulnerability – on seeing that and catering to it. I understand that power.”
But the restaurant lifestyle wasn’t a sustainable one long-term. The hours were long and the work was demanding. As Grace moved her way up and took on more management responsibility, she realised that it was taking a physical toll. So she made a decision to shift gears and find work in sales and account management – a field that offered the same kind of money and provided new opportunities to tap into her performance skills. Her experience on the stage gave her the confidence she needed to land clients, and the vulnerability and emotional intelligence she used as an actor allowed her to engage with customers on a more intimate level.
“I love people. It’s why I love business – because I believe in people. I believe in work and I’ve never stopped. I think it was just such a natural connection coming from performance and really trying to engage an audience. That’s the same language we’re using in account management, in sales ops – it’s all the same stuff.”
Fighting for social justice and accessibility
Finding the right balance between the cash earners and the passion pursuits was important, and Grace quickly discovered that sales was another industry she felt passionate about. She thrived off the intimate and emotional connections she was building, and as she advanced through the creative and corporate worlds, she became more aware of the systematic and institutionalised biases that prevented marginalised groups from accessing the same opportunities.
“I was seeing the mechanisms of racism, of elitism, of sexism – it’s all there. It is rampant in theatre and it’s what has kept it in the hands of the rich and of the elite for so long. That is not going to bring back our country. That’s not going to bring back the artist community either. We can’t keep having it monopolised by a small group.”
Inequality was a common theme across both the business world and the artistic communities she was a part of. So as the pandemic hit and the arts suffered, she started to formulate a way to make theatre more accessible and put it back in the hands of the artists and local communities.
“Art is what got us through COVID. It’s what’s getting us through quarantine and every single lockdown. It’s entertainment. To think there’s not an investment there is insane. If your actors are starving and they cannot find work and they don’t know how to sell themselves, then it’s not working. We have to figure out another way.”
Understanding her why
Armed with a unique set of skills and a recommendation from her mentor, Grace joined our Catapult course in January 2021. She started her journey with no preconceived notions of what things would look like – just an idea she wanted to flesh out. What she found through our community was a bit more eye-opening.
“I knew it was a group of people trying to do something new. I also knew it was a culture that wasn’t just mine, and that was the most attractive thing. We all came in equal. You’ve got heads of companies and people like myself who are artists and performers and writers. We had a very different feel to what work is and how to work. I think that conversation was so important.”
As she advanced through the modules, she was thrilled to be given so many opportunities to delve into her why, something that she realised isn’t emphasised as much in American business culture.
“Intention is everything, and that was the beautiful surprise about this. It was intention-based and genuine.”
Creating a more equal and empathetic society
Using everything she learned from Catapult and her experiences as a performer, Grace is now building a business that makes art more accessible and puts the power back in the hands of the people. Through her new portfolio venture, she plans on going into smaller cities and using community theatres and local resources to create a safe bubble for artistic expression. These theatres will dedicate two-months to a production, encouraging community support, crowdfunding, and local advertising and catering to help put income back into small towns. Not only will this incite an immense amount of local pride, but it will help community businesses thrive. Going one step further, she plans to film and share these performances virtually to ensure that art and theatre are available for all.
“The biggest crux of theatre and performance is the access. We should be allowing everyone to see it. That gatekeeping is not helping anybody.”
Alongside this project, she is also taking on consulting work with companies to help spread her message of accessibility and equality. As part of this, she helps companies get organised and evaluates businesses to help squash discriminatory practices. This allows her to inspire others to recognise the systematic failures and change the behaviours that have been holding them back.
“We have to make moves and strides towards building more for those we’ve taken from. That’s people of colour, that’s women of colour, that’s women in general as well. We have a lot of work to do to give back to all the shortcuts we took to get here. None of that can happen without an empathetic spirit.”
Now that Grace has recognised and embraced the values that drive her, she ensures that everything she does champions empathy, equity, and education. It’s the first step towards creating that better world, and she’s determined to change it one person (or production or company) at a time.
Inspired to do more?
We’re all driven by a unique set of passions. It’s what you decide to do with those passions that really matters. If you want to make your mark on the world and start inspiring real change, consider taking on some volunteer work as part of your portfolio career.
Grace highlights her story in the video below, watch to learn more:
Think this sounds like the right path for you? Come along to our monthly Get started event for new members to find out what a portfolio career could look like and how The Portfolio Collective can help you take those first steps towards professional success – and don’t forget to connect with our community!