What "Reverse Ambition" Means to Three Multi-Hyphenates

"I tried to tell myself that if I just work a little harder, if I do a little more therapy, if I get up 30 minutes earlier and do the meditation, I can do it all. No, I can't. Nobody can."

Sophia bush, nia batts, and jane smith speaking on the reverse ambition panel at Marie Claire's 2024 Power Play Summit.
(Image credit: Ralphy Ramos)

When we've outgrown one version of professional or personal success, pivoting to the next can feel daunting—especially when it's outside of our comfort zone. How can we align our ambition with our interests as we continue to evolve, both in our professional lives and as members of our communities?

During the second day of Marie Claire's Power Play summit in Los Angeles, Sophia Bush, Nia Batts, and Merrell VP Jane Smith came together to discuss just that—the idea of "reverse ambition"—in a panel moderated by WWW co-founder and Future SVP Hillary Kerr.

"Just because you start doing one thing doesn't mean you cannot pivot or flip the script," explained Kerr in her introductory remarks. "It doesn't mean that you are stuck in one thing. And our amazing panelists are going to talk through some of the very myriad ways in which they have enhanced their careers over time and ways that they've expanded their careers. And how, having lots of different things to draw from, ultimately, ends up helping in the long run.

Hillary Kerr, Sophia Bush, Nia Batts, Nikki Ogunnaike, and Jane Smith at the 2024 Marie Claire Power Play Conference

Bush, Batts, and Smith pose with moderator Hillary Kerr and Marie Claire Editor-in-Chief Nikki Ogunnaike.

(Image credit: Ralphy Ramos)

You probably know panelist Sophia Bush from one of the over 40 acting credits under her belt. In addition to her work acting, producing, and directing, Bush is also the host of two podcasts ("Work in Progress" and "Drama Queens"); an activist; an angel investor; and the co-founder of voting rights organization I Am a Voter and sustainable luxury fashion retailer Fashionkind.

Nia Batts, too, has a wealth of experience in entrepreneurship and activism. Batts started her career at Viacom, working her way up to become one of its youngest executives. Alongside Bush, her longtime friend, she co-founded both Detroit Blows, an inclusive finishing salon, and Detroit Grows, a philanthropic endeavor providing support to local women-owned businesses. Batts then pivoted to become the Chief Operating Officer and Managing Director of Union Heritage, a financial services company based in Detroit. She and Bush are also senior advisors to First Women’s Bank, the only women-founded, women-owned, and women-led bank in the country.

For the Power Play event's Reverse Ambition panel, moderated by Kerr, Batts, and Bush were joined by Jane Smith, the VP of Digital Marketing at Merrell. At Merrell, Smith oversees a team of managers in digital marketing, influencer marketing, and social media; she's also a mentor at the Women’s Resource Center in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and a regular volunteer at women's homeless shelters.

In a wide-ranging conversation about "reverse ambition," the panelists discussed ambition, career pivots, being underestimated, the fear of failing, and more. Ahead, some of the most impactful quotes.

Sophia Bush

On building a community:  "Sometimes, I think you need the people who see you to hold you and say, 'I really love you, but you're playing small.' 'I really love you, but you're not living up to your potential.' 'I really love you, but you are in the wrong relationship with someone who's not nice to you.' There's a million versions of how that happens, and that is where I think community is important. I've learned that being a circus performer, I pick up, I move everywhere for a job, and it's like summer camp. I will invest my everything, and then, I have to go to the next thing.

"But I think when you have people, the one or two people where you might've given your love, your life, your local passion, the one or two people who stick with you off of every job or every city, that's your long community. And so, what I've learned about community is that you have seasons—lean into them and enjoy them—and you have lifetimes, and those are the ones you collect really slowly. And none of them are wrong, they all deserve to be cherished. But the lifetimes, the lifers, like we're in it forever. And it might be us alone on the porch at like 80 with a mimosa, but if it's me and her, I am down. Like we nailed it."

On being honest with yourself: “I think something that's really important too, is figuring out how to just be really frank about your skillset. I am an artist, for better or worse, which means, I have a lot of really good ideas and I also have the attention span of like a small insect. And that can be great when I'm sitting in a brainstorm and I can come up with things, and then, I go to the next one, and that's where I am. And I think it can be really great in terms of that like bloom where you're planted, and it requires a little bit of honesty for me to say, ‘Okay, I need somebody to help me track the ideas.’

"Because for 10 years, I tried to tell myself that if I just work a little harder, if I do a little more therapy, if I get up 30 minutes earlier and do the meditation, I can do it all. No, I can't. Nobody can. This is preposterous. We evolved in villages, we're not supposed to do it alone. Community really is everything. And if you admit what your strong suits are, but also, what they’re not, it doesn't mean you're a flawed person, it means you're an adult.”

Hillary Kerr, Sophia Bush, Nia Batts at the 2024 Marie Claire Power Play Conference

Hillary Kerr, co-founder of WhoWhatWear and SVP of women and luxury at Future, moderated the panel.

(Image credit: Ralphy Ramos)

Nia Batts

On branching out: "I think that spending 11 years in New York, working in corporate media and entertainment has created a scenario where, now, I'm able to tell stories differently and I'm always looking at things from a different perspective. I'm always endeavoring to change my lens and that's how I see everything, how I see work, how I see relationships, where I see stories, where I see investments that other people overlook.

"I almost think that not doing the thing that I wanted to do initially has allowed me to come back to that work with a more seasoned perspective, but the journey and everything that I did along the way, I fully know is what has brought me to this moment where I feel embodied and powerful and excited and grateful."

On what ambition means to her: "I would say ambition to me looks like making Michigan and Detroit especially continuing to be the fastest growing startup ecosystem in the world, and making sure that the founders there can really feel it. We talk a lot about what the big impact is, but the older I get I become really interested in the hyper-local, what it means to really be where you are, to dig in, and to understand what it means to actually support the people on the ground, and listen to what they're saying and try and figure out how you can build and reflect back solutions and resources. So, to me, that feels like, in my gut, one of the most gratifying things that I can do. And also, where I think my talents are also aligned.

"That being said, I just think it's incredibly important to really dig in. And so, my ambition is to just go deep where I am and in doing that, I think what we're finding is there are opportunities beyond our beliefs that are now manifesting and coming to life. And so, I think the stillness is really, actually, empowering the ambition in a way that was unexpected, at least, for me."

Jane Smith

On the moment she embraced the pivot: “Becoming a mom was a real shift for me. So, I was really on this kind of rocket ship in my career and the trajectory was up really fast. It was very exciting, and I decided I wanted to be a mom and looked at a lot of the women around me that were working moms and thought, ‘I don't know if I can do that.’ They were so intense, and it was so hard and there was no balance. And I thought, ‘Okay, I've got to shift and start my own agency and business.’ And that was very scary, but really, it allowed me to find that balance and be able to be the mom I wanted to be and still be in business.

"And then, when I shifted and went back to work for another company, having the ability I have to start over, going at the bottom and work my way back up, it was tough. But I think just trusting myself and figuring out I can be both these things, I can be all these things, I just have to work to find the balance."

On the fear of failing after reaching success: “When I was younger, the fear didn't exist. I think there's that saying about the pain is in the resistance to change but not the change itself. And I think I learned that really early, that if there was change or if there was something I wanted to go after, I would just give into it.

"I think, often, we put ourselves in these containers and we stop ourselves from moving forward. And I think, as I get older and I see women getting older, it seems to be harder, actually. The more you become defined by something, the more you feel like, ‘Oh, I can't, I'm almost 50. I can't imagine starting over, or pivoting again.’ It seems so hard. I've done this for so long. And I find that really sad, because all of the women that are older have all this experience to offer and all of this ability to blaze the trail for the people behind them and to provide all this knowledge, but yet, I feel like they're more and more stuck. Like we are missing that sort of passion and agility that we had when we were younger."

Brooke Knappenberger
Associate Commerce Editor

Brooke Knappenberger is the Associate Commerce Editor at Marie Claire, where she writes across the board from fashion and beauty to books and celebrities. As a pop culture junkie, Brooke obsessively consumes and writes about the latest movie releases, streaming TV shows, and celebrity scandals. She has over three years of experience writing on fashion, beauty, and entertainment and her work has appeared on Looper, NickiSwift, The Sun US, and Vox Magazine of Columbia, Missouri. Brooke obtained her Bachelor's Degree in Journalism from the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism with an emphasis on Magazine Editing and has a minor in Textile and Apparel Management.