It can definitely come in handy, though, suggest Dhaya Lakshminarayanan and Jon Dick.
Lakshminarayanan is a standup comic with two degrees from M.I.T., as well as years at Booz Allen Hamilton, Parnassus Investments, and Omidyar Network under her belt. Dick spent five years doing improv in Chicago before heading off to Harvard Business School and more recently to Klout, the San Francisco-based startup that rates social media influence.
Because both have found interesting ways to use their comedic skills to further their careers, I called them this week to learn how. Our conversations have been edited down for length.
Dhaya, you just won a comedy contest for a funny bit on business travel. How did you get into stand-up?
DL: I’m 5 feet tall, and throughout my career at M.I.T. and consulting and asset management and venture capital, I was often the smallest woman, if not the only woman. I can’t talk about football or drink beer, so the way for me to have a seat at the table was to be really funny. That’s how it started for me. A lot of stuff that happens in finance or in these industries is being part of the club and laughing and making jokes and there’s a real kind of one-upmanship about using a sense of humor. So if one of the guys would make fun of me, I’d dish it back.
You walked away from work that could have proved lucrative. Do you ever have regrets?
DL: The reason I left Omidyar is so that I wouldn’t have regrets, ironically. A lot of people do what they think they should do. My feeling was that I always wanted to be a comedian and if I did the safe thing and didn’t do what carries a bit of risk, my training in taking calculated risks would have been a waste.
Where do you perform? Do you do many shows for Silicon Valley audiences?
DL: I’m performing all the time [around the country]. I also do a lot of corporate events, including for tech companies in other parts of the country, and I’ve done philanthropic events where most of the [donors] are from venture capital or they’re entrepreneurs or they’re part of the PE community.
Do they have a sense of humor?
DL: I started a show with venture capitalists in the room and said, ‘I get to perform for the one percent!’ and they thought it was funny that I’d make fun of them. I performed at another event at the Palace Hotel [in San Francisco] for an organization where Vinod Khosla is a big contributor and I got him on stage and got to roast him and there were a lot of VCs there and everyone looked to see if he was laughing (he was) and then looked at me and started laughing.
JD: I fell in love with improv in college [at the University of Massachusetts]; it was one of the most fun things I’d ever done. So after college, I moved to Chicago with 20 peers from UMass and decided I wanted to get more involved [in improv]. You sign up with these training centers, put together teams and start performing and hope you’re able to do it full-time.
Of course, it’s hard to do financially. Everyone has to have another job, especially when they’re starting out. A lot of people go the Starbucks route, so they can get up and go on tour, but I wanted to advance myself professionally, so I worked for a time as a consultant, then for Blue Cross Blue Shield, which not only gave me more time and more stability but gave me a lot of material, as you might imagine. It was a little awkward when coworkers would show up [at a performance]. I worked with a lot of interesting characters.
You eventually dove into improv full time?
JD: Right about the time that I started working at Blue Cross Blue Shield, I started Dirty Water [improv group], which was like an improvised “Cheers,” where we played a bunch of guys from a South Boston bar. It had a lot of success and we performed together for five years, took it on the road, did regular Chicago shows. Unfortunately, after all that toiling, I think we each walked away with a hundred dollars.
Afterwards, I kind of felt like I was done with the Chicago improv scene and was ready to move on to new challenges – also known as trying to earn a regular income. So I went to business school, took a lot of classes focused on social media and networks and the online economy, and because I focused on that a lot, Klout really stood out for me.
Do you still use what you learned from your Chicago experience?
JD: Well, knowing my last name, you probably appreciate why I got into comedy at a young age; I had to learn to laugh at myself. But it’s also about just having fun in any situation you’re in. The thing that’s amazing about improv is that you get on stage with a bunch of people and you have no idea what’s going to happen. To do [your job well] takes a lot of hard work. You’re working with a team of people for hours and hours, you’re being conscious of other’s body language and the subtle cues they might be giving off. [All that training around] teamwork is very useful.
There are obviously benefits of having just stage presence, too. Especially if you’re in a relationship- based business like biz dev, to have presence in meetings and quickly on the fly drop something funny in is always of great benefit.
Any tips for industry peers who don’t have the benefit of improv training?
The best advice I got was from an improv teacher, though it’s applicable across a range of industries, and that was that if you want to be a great improviser, stop seeing improv and seek out other sources of inspiration. Go see a musical. Watch TV. Read a comic book.