ND Founders Profile #56: Following Her Life Plan Worked until this Alumna Became a FouNDer and Launched a New Plan

Author: Melanie Lux

Facebook Web Nd Founders Olivia Barnard


Company Founded: Signature Interview Prep Year Graduated: 2017
Title: CEO and Co-founder Degree: B.B.A., Management Consulting and Peace Studies
Location: Atlanta, GA Residence Halls: Howard

As a teenager in Nairobi, Kenya, Olivia Barnard had her life plan on paper: study business at a leading institution in the United States, get a consulting job with McKinsey & Company, earn a Master of Business Administration degree, and become a CEO. Yes, Olivia Barnard was precocious. Because you know what? She followed her plan to a T.

Funny thing is, she started out wanting to be a doctor. But a chance class in leadership and entrepreneurship her freshman year in high school changed that. “My education to this point was all STEM based; I knew nothing of business. The class was about starting a business and was so interesting, I went home and told my sister I wanted to run a company someday.”

In her culture, doctors and engineers are revered; entrepreneurs not so much. Barnard’s parents did little to encourage her, even when she applied to the African Leadership Academy, a high school dedicated to developing the next generation of African leaders and entrepreneurs who will create technology and jobs for Africa.

“At the time, the Academy would receive 3,000-4,000 applicants a year and only select ninety students to attend,” Barnard says. “That didn’t stop me. I had a vision I would go to the school there so I threw my hat in the ring.”

Her time at the African Leadership Academy fueled her passion for business and particularly, running a company as CEO. Barnard shared her dreams and ideas with her classmates and teachers. They listened because in her senior year, Barnard was nominated for The Hesburgh-Yusko Scholars Program, the first merit-based scholarship and leadership development program at the University of Notre Dame. 

The program’s interviews were rigorous. In Barnard’s first interview, she sat across from a panel that included Mark Yusko, the program’s founder. Intimidated but also excited to share her story, Barnard spoke unusually fast. Her interviewers asked her to slow down and at one point, Yusko stopped her mid-sentence. “He had a serious look on his face so I thought that I had messed up. Instead, he said, ‘You remind me of myself when I was your age.’ At that point that I knew I would attend Notre Dame.”

South Bend is a world away from South Africa, but Barnard quickly immersed herself in the Notre Dame community through church, dance and in the business college. The first winter was bitterly cold and made her long for Africa’s weather. That is, until she discovered earmuffs. “With ear warmers, I said, ‘I can do this!’”

Throughout her high school and college career, Barnard completed a number of internships with large companies like IBM and Standard Bank and smaller organizations like Sanergy and the Notre Dame Haiti Program. Unsure what she wanted to do career-wise, she spoke with a mentor who advised her to go into consulting where she would be exposed to many different companies and see for herself where the opportunities were. Ultimately, she agreed it was the right path and now hyper focused on her goal, Barnard succeeded in landing a business analyst role with McKinsey & Company in Atlanta. 

For the next two years, Barnard enjoyed serving as a management consultant, resume screener and interview coach, especially since these roles gave her the opportunity to build relationships with people from all over the world. Her consulting experience was challenging and pushed her to learn new skills and work under pressure. As she approached the two-year mark, something inside Barnard stalled. “I’ve always been one with a ten-year plan and for the first time, I didn’t know where I was going. Most of my peers seemed to have their perfect plans in order. I had no goals and no idea what I wanted to make out of my career. This lack of direction started to affect my motivation. A sharp co-worker and mentor I admired noticed,” she recalls.

In talking with her co-worker, Barnard came to the realization that as much as she thought she wanted to work with a large, prestigious company, in the end it wasn’t the right fit. “I discovered that to be successful, I need room to design my own vision and create things from scratch. A structured, corporate environment didn’t give me the flexibility to do that. I needed to find my why and build a career around that.”

Going by her childhood life plan, Barnard’s next step would have been going back to school, ideally a top-10 MBA program. Instead, she skipped that and became founder and CEO of Signature Interview Prep, which leveraged her business background and her love of relationship building and helping others achieve their goals. 

“Having sat on both sides of the recruiting table – as a candidate who was applying to competitive roles and as a consultant who was involved in the recruiting process – I felt that I had a good understanding of what candidates needed to do to be successful at landing selective roles. I knew that if I did something in the interview coaching space, I would be able to make a real impact.

Out of order, but another box checked.

Leaving a prestigious job for a company of your own making is never easy, but Barnard was once again feeling the adrenaline rush of pursuing her own path. She had enough savings to last a year and gave herself that time and that time alone to make her startup work. Meanwhile, she lived the life an entrepreneur, applying to accelerators, talking with mentors, attending pitch events, networking, and bootstrapping her business. She was encouraged to find there more opportunities for women entrepreneurs of color. Still, it was not a straight path to success.

“Breaking with my life plan was a big deal. My friends and family did not understand my goals and encouraged me to rethink my decision. I also made mistakes and spent money I shouldn’t have,” Barnard reveals. “I originally wanted to build an app for career coaches and candidates and spent a couple of months pitching my idea to accelerators. What I determined in the process was companies weren’t interested in investing in a coaching app. So I pivoted—three or four times.” 

The last pivot has proved to be the winner. Barnard is now focused on one-on-one coaching with job seekers who aspire to land selective opportunities. Services include prepping candidates for behavioral and case interviews, teaching them how to craft a personal brand, write great resumes and more. She also hosts interview workshops and is now working on creating a live online class for MBA students and professionals. Her diverse business background has helped her develop her own brand and clear value proposition. “My four internships in different departments—human resources, marketing, finance, and research— combined with my consulting experience at McKinsey have equipped me to understand my clients’ diverse work experiences. Most recently, a C-level executive of a European bank reached out to me to provide career coaching services.”

The majority of Barnard’s clients come from word-of-mouth, including referrals from all of the people she networked with to shape her own career. “My success to date with Signature Interview Prep goes back to my key strengths, relationship building and being intentional about showing people I care about them. I’ve built my entire business through referrals and partnerships with institutions that have a shared mission. I love helping people accomplish their goals so running an interview coaching company is my perfect job.” Yet another check on the life plan list. 

Here’s where Barnard has deviated from her list: she wrote a book, Find Your Colors: An Entrepreneur Leaves Corporate America to Chase Her Dream, chronicling her adventures. To offset the cost of publishing, she launched a Kickstarter campaign on February 9, 2021 . The book will be released later this year but copies are available now through her pre-sales campaign ending March 4, 2021. 

“I had so many adventures early in my entrepreneurship journey and wanted to capture all the exciting experiences of the people I was meeting, pitch events I attended, and how clueless I was about starting a company. It’s not a self-help book or an autobiography celebrating my long career. It’s a relatable story of a first-time entrepreneur who’s just figuring things out. My intent is a fun read that inspires people to go after their crazy dream, be consistent and learn,” she says. 

One gets the sense that Barnard has a new life plan. She and her husband are moving from Atlanta, Georgia, to Indianapolis. And while much of life is virtual due to COVID, a new cycle of networking and relationship building is in her future.

Barnard offers this advice to young people struggling to find where they fit and think entrepreneurship may be the answer: “Talk to people about different things. Find peers and mentors who are also entrepreneurs. You will learn so much from their experiences and get a better sense of how to turn your passion into a sustainable venture. Eventually, when you start your company, they will open doors for you—perhaps even introduce you to your first set of clients and prospective business partners.”