Armstrong Teasdale partner encourages students to seek, create career opportunities during Distinguished Speaker Series

Tessa Trelz and Pattye Taylor-Phillips

Armstrong Teasdale Partner Tessa Trelz (at left) answers a question from Pattye Taylor-Phillips, an executive fellow for the UMSL Executive Leadership Consortium, during the Distinguished Speaker Series event Thursday in the J.C. Penney Building and Conference Center. (Photo by August Jennewein)

The facts of Tessa Trelz’s career seem pretty orderly.

She graduated from the University of Virginia with an honors degree in political and social thought and then promptly moved to Washington, D.C., where she spent four years on Capitol Hill working for a congresswoman who represented her home district. Next, she graduated from Saint Louis University Law School and then took a job at Armstrong Teasdale, where she’s spent the last 30 years.

When summarized, one could reasonably assume Trelz had mapped out this life plan long ago. But the partner at Armstrong Teasdale says hardly any of her major life choices have been part of a greater strategy.

She simply follows opportunities and capitalizes on them.

“I’m an opportunist. I’m not really a strategist,” Trelz said in her Distinguished Speaker Series address to University of Missouri–St. Louis students, faculty and staff members Thursday. “People find that hard to believe about me because of where my life has led, but I really don’t strategize my life path. I really am more of an opportunist. I think that has become basically a strategy as my life has unfolded.”

This strategy of not having a life strategy was a common theme of Trelz’s talk titled “Looking for Opportunities and Making the Most of Them” at the J.C. Penney Building and Conference Center on North Campus.

Hosted for the 27th year by UMSL’s Executive Leadership Consortium and the College of Business Administration, the event typically brings regional leaders of notable achievement to campus to speak on a timely topic. Maliaka Horne, director of the ELC, says the annual event provides beneficial opportunities for students as well as St. Louis business leaders.

“As you probably well know, most of our graduates remain in the area,” Horne said during her introduction. “They work in the area, and they seek opportunities in the area. This is not only valuable to our university but also valuable to the region. This is a cross section of career professionals conveying practical, real-life knowledge.”

Given the event’s timing during Women’s History Month, Trelz, who serves on UMSL’s Chancellor’s Council and received an honorary degree from the university in 2017, wanted to specifically focus her talk on a common frustration she has with young female professionals.

She says throughout her career she has not seen enough women reach for or actively create opportunities.

“That’s one of the things about opportunities, you can create them,” Trelz said. “You can control the opportunities that come into your life to a certain extent. I don’t see women doing that aggressively enough and powerfully enough. It’s one of my frustrations. I feel like that is part of our next evolution. It has to be.”

Trelz recognized the need for this evolution early in her career and has been building momentum during the past few decades. In 1998, she founded the first professional advancement program for female attorneys in a private law firm in the St. Louis region. Many firms in the area have since followed suit.

During Thursday’s lecture, Trelz incorporated many of the career lessons she continues to share with female colleagues through the Armstrong Teasdale program. This advice wove excerpts of her own experience with stories of other inspiring professionals. She told the setbacks-turned-success stories of Sandra Day O’Connor, Madam C.J. Walker and Michael Jordan, among others.

While all these individuals were persistent and eventually fulfilled their personal ambitions, they share a flawed commonality, Trelz said.

“One thing I can promise you that all of these people have in common with all of us – every one of us in this room – is self-doubt,” she said. “I can promise you no matter how successful they became, they still labored under self-doubt. I know I do. It doesn’t matter that I have been doing what I have been doing for 30 years. I still doubt myself.”

Trelz said she manages those anxieties by blocking out any thoughts of doubt and reflecting back on previous successes. She encouraged everyone in the room – men and women alike – not to push away opportunities simply because they are new.

“Probably the best advice I can give is to listen to your instinct,” she said. “In my life, I think some of the opportunities I pursued were not textbook opportunities. I find the most powerful experiences have been the ones where I listened to my instinct. I suspect that you are unlikely to go wrong if you listen to your inner voice.”

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