Don’t be afraid to go against the grain

On this episode of Women of Washington, Gigi Schumm spoke with Tara Koslov, acting director at the Office of Policy Planning within the Federal Trade Commission. Prior to joining the FTC, Koslov worked in the private sector. She began her career in the federal workforce as a staff attorney within the FTC Bureau of Competition in 1997.

Koslov said she had already made up her mind in high school what she wanted to do. It was because of personal reasons, such as a lawsuit her father went through as an agency whistleblower in New York, that the law field stuck out to her at such a young age.

“At that age — I was 13 or 14 around this time — it became very clear to me that attorneys were the ones who had voices in trying to solve some of these challenging problems. … Because as intelligent and articulate as my dad was, he needed a lawyer to battle some of these issues,” she said. “So that was sort of my first inkling that law is a skill where you get to use words and persuade and that seemed like a good fit for me.”

Koslov also participated in a Mock Trial when she was in high school. Many of her teachers and friends during this period encouraged her to pursue something she was passionate about and then go into law afterward. She followed that advice and studied classics in college. She said mythology was one of her “geeky” pleasures.

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After graduating with her law degree, she worked for several larger law firms.

“I was borrowing a ton of money to go to law school, so I figured, let’s try this private sector thing.” Koslov said. “My family were all in public service and nobody made any money. So my parents were so excited that I might actually be one of these fancy lawyers who goes to a law firm.”

She said she was actually one of the first members of her family to work in the private sector. She interned while in law school for firms in both New York and here in D.C. The firm in Washington ended up offering her a job and she made the move to Washington.

Antitrust law was her specialty and she enjoyed working at the firm. But as the firm’s hierarchy of roles became more clear, Koslov felt she wasn’t advancing as quickly as she should and she was faced with a decision: Keep trying to prove herself at the firm or move into a different role that was less focused on making money and more on helping to resolve a case.

Finding a position within the government could be the answer. She said her experience with the firm was positive, but she didn’t want her student loan debt to keep her chained to one job forever. The decision came at the best time, as the federal government was losing employees to those larger private law firms.

But at that time, only two agencies dealt in antitrust law: FTC and the Justice Department. She was offered a position at both.

“It was a very unique moment in time where it was actually easier to get a job in government than it was to get a job in the private sector,” she said. “Because I was going into reverse. I was swimming upstream.”

She ultimately chose the FTC. That decision came from past work experience with the agency and a conversation she had with one of her mentors at the firm. He told her how much he loved working as a staff attorney for the FTC commissioners.

The position she took ended up being exactly what she wanted out of a law career and reminded her of why she chose the field to begin with. Then as she progressed within the FTC, she moved into different roles, including with the Office of Policy Planning.

Koslov has been with the FTC for 21 years and said she couldn’t imagine working anywhere else.

“So one of the great things about the FTC is that if you’re entrepreneurial and you have broad interests, you really can do a lot of career development and progression without leaving the agency,” she said. “As long as I still [feel] like I [am] growing and developing and seeking out new opportunities, I love the agency, I love the people there. I love the mission.”

Koslov focuses mainly on antitrust law and competition policy in her current role. She has been acting director of the office for two years, starting in the Obama administration.

Will she ever return to the private sector? She doesn’t know.

“Every day I pretty much ask myself, where am I doing the most good right now? I am a huge fan of my agency. I’m a huge fan of the work that we do,” she said. “And I really believe that the work that I’m doing there in terms of institutional continuity, in terms of the mission and promoting the mission, supporting my staff and making sure that they can continue to do the really excellent work that they do. … I’ve decided that that’s the right place for me right now.”

Koslov said it’s important in the early stages of your career to be willing to go against the grain. To be willing to start gaining tools and experience now for future opportunities.

“I think the advice I would give to people is if you’re thinking that you want a career where you will have some management responsibility, don’t wait until you have that job to start training for that job,” Koslov said.

She also warned against being afraid to take a job because of the money, lack of expertise or because of the lack of connections.

“Don’t assume that you can’t do this just because of the money. Because I think that with careful planning, anybody can make it work,” she said.