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Elizabeth Tsung: Gaining Career Perspective at Startup Institute

“My professor—my mentor—he said, ‘you have no future in violin, but you know what I think you’re good at? Photography,’ and even then, I was only taking pictures on my phone and one of those point and shoot cameras. He said, ‘I think you have a really good eye for things. I think you should invest in a camera and start taking pictures,’ and it was the best advice he ever gave me.”

A serious car accident altered the course of Elizabeth Tsung’s long laid out career path as a classical violinist. The real problem however? It was far from her true passion.

“I never enjoyed it,” she said, explaining how she practiced for five hours everyday since the age of 5. “It was something I happened to be good at because I was forced to do it. I really didn’t have a childhood. I could never go on playdates, and I didn’t have any friends because I was practicing my violin all the time.”

The accident left Tsung with two broken discs in her neck, and one shoulder significantly higher than the other. To this day, she still has residual pain.

Knowing her future as a violinist was dashed, Tsung listened to her mentor’s advice and started taking pictures. It was one of the best decisions she ever made, but her journey wasn’t as simple as that.

Tsung’s original niche was fashion photography where her work has been featured in Vogue Italia, but when she went into her Art Residency at the School of Visual Arts a few years ago, her goals were criticized. Tsung said she always wanted to shoot weddings, but was strongly discouraged.

“They said, ‘you’ll never be taken seriously as an artist,’ and it’s true—I haven’t exhibited in a gallery since 2013,” Tsung said, who launched Elizabeth Tsung Photo in January. “But I don’t care because to me, photographing weddings—people in love and families—makes me so happy. I feel like I have a purpose for what I’m doing.”

Though Tsung hasn’t exhibited in a gallery recently, she was excited to learn that her work will be featured in The Knot Magazine’s upcoming summer issue.

How the 26-year-old arrived to this point is a story within itself. Prior to attending Startup Institute last summer, Tsung was a freelance writer who also held down service jobs, which included bartending and waitressing.

“I loved writing poems, but no one ever makes a living being a poet, so I had to supplement my income by writing freelance articles,” she explained. “I started writing about career topics, I started writing about feminism, I started writing about social justice. I wanted to make an impact other than my poetry because that’s also a very niche market—only a few people read poems.

“It wasn’t very fulfilling, especially since I didn’t know what I wanted to do in my writing career. I came to Startup Institute simply to network and to meet the right people who could help me with my writing career.”

Because of her writing background, Tsung said it made sense to focus on the Digital Marketing track. She discovered while at Startup Institute that there are many different types of marketing she could pivot into.

“I was sort of interested in content marketing and I also knew that marketing was a stable career,” she said. “And at that point in my life, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to remain a freelance writer or just explore other options.”

It wasn’t until a few months after completing Startup Institute that Tsung recognized something was still amiss.

“I was doing pay-per-click marketing for this very small company,” she said. “It was very stable, it was exactly what I was looking for—I wanted stability, I wanted health insurance, I wanted a 401k, I wanted all the things that were afforded to me by a typical, corporate job. But then I realized, ‘that’s not who I am. I will never be that type of person, I will never be satisfied with that.’”

In reality, being her own boss, made the most sense, but most importantly, Tsung’s desire for photography never went away. She often found herself seeking inspiration during breaks from her marketing job and during the final week of Startup Institute.

“When I was writing my pitch for the Talent Expo, I was listing all the things that I was proud of in my life, and photography—having my work exhibited a few years ago—that was something that really stuck with me,” Tsung said. “I kept thinking about it and thinking about it, and that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing today.”

Starting her own business has been a process as Tsung is continuing to learn the ins and outs of the legal side, but she’s thankful that she chose marketing to help promote her business.

“I don’t regret choosing my track,” she said.

Tsung’s biggest takeaway from Startup Institute was discovering more about herself and what she really wanted in a career.

“For me, doing photography now—having my own business—is so different than being a freelancer. I can’t even begin to explain how. The passion for it is just so much stronger that I feel so much more connected to my work. I feel like I’m actively making a difference in my customer’s lives.”