What’s a unicorn career, and how to create one

How to create a unicorn career with Alaina Levine

2020 was supposed to be a fabulous year for Alaina Levine. 

Instead, echoing countless other experiences, it started off as a disaster. 

Her invitation to speak at the University of Tokyo? The event was canceled. The pandemic meant frozen budgets, pulled speaking engagements, and for Levine who is the President of Quantum Success Solutions, a professional speaker, career coach and author – it meant a stagnant work schedule. Within a few weeks she lost the majority of her annual income. Her first reaction? She became hysterical. She also remembers finding (temporary) comfort in cupcakes. 

“I went for a run one day and I began to think, well, maybe instead of ODing on cupcakes, there’s a better tactic I can take,” recalls Levine. 

“I said to myself, all right, I’ve been through very challenging circumstances before. I’ve been fired. I’ve been laid off. I lost my mother. I managed to survive that, maybe there is a way that I can survive this.” 

Instead of viewing the uncontrollable circumstance as an attack on her business or career, she looked at it as a challenge to overcome. 

Alaina Levine, President of Quantum Success Solutions and professional speaker, career coach and author

Levine got to work marketing herself. She reached out to her clients, both current and former, to people in her network that she never had a formal business relationship with. The message she sent was not a request for work to fill her recently cleared calendar. Instead, she acknowledged the shared experience everyone was having and offered her expertise in virtual networking, and career planning in a crisis. Positioned as a resource, she built her business back and tripled her income that year. She tripled it again in 2021, and maintained that momentum in 2022. Now, she’s on a mission to empower others to reimagine their paths. 

Her first book, Networking For Nerds was a call for STEM professionals to access hidden networking opportunities. Her eye-opening COVID experience prompted the development of her second book, Create Your Unicorn Career which is currently underway.

“It was a transformative year for me in terms of my profession, in terms of my business, but one of the major lessons I learned was that everybody is always in need of somebody to help alleviate their pain,” she says. “If you can understand how you can communicate your solution to alleviate their pain and it’s a pain that they’re willing to pay to have alleviated, that is how you can build your unicorn career.” 

So, what is a unicorn career anyway? 

According to Levine, a unicorn career is a customized career that is individually designed and implemented. 

“It is one hundred percent aligned with our authenticity so it allows us to bring our full and best self to every project activity and task,” she says. “It allows us to solve the problems that bring us meaning and it allows us to use the skills that bring us joy.” 

Levine firmly believes that everyone has the capacity to create a unicorn career for themselves, but most won’t ever venture to explore the unknown because of societal conditioning to do what’s expected. It’s a hard cycle to break, but it’s possible to find fulfillment on the other side (check out MBAchic’s guide to finding your ikigai).

“Unfortunately, society has taught us that careers are linear – careers are absolutely related to what you studied, they’re related to your past,” explains Levine. “In actuality, careers are very non-linear and they do not necessarily have to be dictated by what you studied or what you did in the past. Building a unicorn career takes courage.”

In a recent conversation with other professional speakers, Levine recalls someone sharing the quote, “when you take the first step into the life of your dreams, the first thing you meet there will be fear. Keep walking.” She agreed with that sentiment, and expanded on it. 

“I would also add that when you take the first step in your career towards your dreams, there’s a void, there’s darkness. There’s nothingness because you are exploring and navigating the unknown with your light and your brilliance. “That is very, very scary to do, but it is absolutely a possibility.”

Gather data.

The first step anyone can take towards creating an authentic career is to take an inventory of what they enjoy doing. 

“What are you really drawn to? What do you want to think about in your downtime? What skills do you enjoy using, what tasks do you enjoy doing? Follow the joy because the joy is actually what is going to fuel the unicorn career,” says Levine.

“Then pair that with extrinsic data about ecosystems, opportunities, communities, people. If you start with what you are loving to do, then look for people who are doing similar things, you can bridge that with marketing yourself.” 

As a student at the University of Arizona, Levine recalls giving up her coveted spring break so she could paint signs for the society of physics group she was president of. She did this not out of obligation, but out of enjoyment. In another instance as a postgrad giving a marketing presentation to a board of directors, her improv background kicked in and a spontaneous joke landed a big laugh in the room. These memories stand out as significant to Levine not because they were earth shattering moments in her career, but because they represent a culmination of skill and contentment. These are examples of weaving elements of oneself (for Levine STEM, marketing, communication, and performing arts) into a career worth pursuing. 

If abandoning a specific interest feels like “snuffing out a piece of your soul,” as Levine puts it, it’s a clear sign to instead explore how you can incorporate it into your daily work. 

Engage networks.

“The spirit of generosity is the foundation of networking,” says Levine. 

Levine encourages anyone thinking about reimagining a career to view networking not as a chore, but as a genuine relationship building opportunity. 

“You’re not trying to get something from somebody. Networking is the opposite,” explains Levine. “You’re trying to help somebody. You’re trying to build something with them, where you can provide value to each other. When you look at networking as an investment in a long term relationship where you’re in it for the long haul, it actually can turn into something really amazing, not just for you, but for your partner as well. We’re trying to invest in the community. When we build our unicorn careers and when we enable ourselves to be our best and to use the skills that bring us joy and solve problems, we are contributing to the advancement of our community, something we all need now more than ever.”

Follow a problem, not a passion.

Levine wants to be clear about one aspect of her recipe for success: passion does not pay the bills. Money does. 

“When we create a unicorn career, we are following the problem and the money. That’s what we’re doing. If we’re going to build a unicorn career, not a unicorn hobby, what we have to understand is what problem has not been solved, what pain point exists that I am uniquely qualified and positioned and excited to help fill the gap, to help knock down a wall,” she says.

“So if you are interested in building a new career for yourself, what you have to do is the extrinsic data collection, the research to better understand where the pain is, who has the pain, why hasn’t this pain been alleviated before, and what is it about your background, your skills, your experience, and your gusto that will help to alleviate that pain for a customer, an employer, a client who will pay you. It’s not about following the passion. We don’t follow the passion. We follow the money by alleviating the pain. That’s the key.”

What’s a unicorn career, and how to create one

Photo from Claudio Schwarz

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