Summer Anne Burton, Executive Creative Director at Buzzfeed, loves mixtapes, sloths, baseball, and her roots in alternative education. She left school at age 8 and now oversees a team of more than 50 writers and designers who create branded content for BuzzFeed. She is also credited with the discovery of famous Internet cat Lil’ Bub and is the creator of the popular Buzzfeed post What Being Homeschooled is Actually Like. Read her story below:
“I left school at age 8 and never looked back. We took a completely unschooled approach and I pursued things I was interested in: loving animals, drawing and animation, my friendships across the growing homeschool group in Austin, devouring all kinds of books, writing, and making things on our personal computer / exploring the earliest versions of the internet like dialup BBSes and Prodigy Online. By the time I was 15 I had my own personal website with a makeshift blog (before anyone was calling them that), and fansites dedicated to Lady & The Tramp and Ophelia from Shakespeare. 1997 was also the first year I attended Not Back To School Camp, the second year of its existence. At camp I made friends all over the country who I sent letters and mixtapes and care packages to for years.
I took the SAT and did fine but decided to “put off” going to college for what turned out to be forever. I haven’t regretted that decision yet. When I was 20, I took a job as a bookseller at Austin’s large independent bookstore BookPeople, and I ended up working there for the next seven years. I made my best friends there and was eventually promoted to Advertising Director, teaching myself and learning about Excel and freelance rates and merchandising and corporate sales and running a decent event along the way.
Starting in 2011, I started an art project called Every Hall of Famer in which I set out to draw pictures of every member of the National Baseball Hall of Fame. I did it on a lark: I loved baseball, and I wanted to force myself to draw more. The project ended up getting picked up by ESPN, Huffington Post, Deadspin, and a bunch of other online publications, and I ended up with freelance work because of it. A regular gig writing about baseball for Fangraphs.com and a Sunday comic for a sports website called The Classical weren’t paying my bills, but they helped me realize that there was a whole world where people had careers doing the stuff online that I had always done for fun.
I applied for a job as the Weekend Editor at BuzzFeed in 2012, while still living in Austin. I did a phone interview and a trial run, and then they hired me. The company was around 65 people at the time, and in my role as Weekend Editor I truly did a little bit of everything: from writing posts about cute cats (I discovered famous internet cat Lil Bub, among others!) to moderating comments to copy-editing politics dispatches from our reporters on the road. I worked remotely at first, but a few months in the company asked me to move to New York and I agreed. I live in Brooklyn now and I’ve been through many jobs at BuzzFeed in the last four years: from Animals Editor to Managing Editorial Director, and then running my own small team of artists making original content for social media called BFF.
Most recently, I’ve been promoted to Executive Creative Director where I oversee a team of more than 50 writers and designers who create branded content for BuzzFeed. Working on the business side is another new challenge, but I’ve realized that I love having work that allows me to learn as I go — and that all those years focusing on relationships taught me to be a very empathetic and sensitive manager who people love to work for. Experiencing traditional career success isn’t something I ever really expected for myself, but it’s been incredibly rewarding thanks to working for a great company and being given amazing opportunities.
Not Back to School Camp was how I learned who I am and learned to love certain things about myself. I had an active social life back home but it was so tied to my family relationships that I don’t think I would have really let go and become myself without camp. Through camp I started dancing, wearing crazy outfits, spilling all my secrets, feeling comfortable being physically affectionate with all my friends… At camp I could be loud and “too much” and full of the constant energy that an extrovert surrounded by friends is bound to feel, and it felt ok to just let myself be those things. I felt loved. And after camp, I carried those friendships on throughout my year — my early solo travel experiences were all to meet campers, and campers came to Austin to stay with me on a very frequent rotation.
When people remark now that I am particularly good at communication and understanding of people, I think of camp. I learned how to deal with such a wide variety of people there and had many of the best and most enriching— and a few challenging and difficult — experiences with my peers that I would ever have in a lifetime. I feel that I also learned how important those relationships were to me through camp — I saw that what I most wanted in my adult life was a strong community, a group of people with whom I could always be myself and who I could learn from and with.
BuzzFeed’s Editor-In-Chief Ben Smith met my mom recently and told her that he thought I was the “best educated person” he’s ever met. It’s humbling to hear that, but really is a compliment to her and her willingness to let me self-educate. My entire career path would never be possible if I wasn’t always willing to learn as I go, and excited to do something new. I think I got that from unschooling for sure — a passion for setting myself up with ambitious goals and then reaching them has been the thing that has really defined my career at BuzzFeed and it’s exactly how my education worked. I am so grateful for that.”
Summer will be joining us as a special alumni guest at Not Back to School Camp this year. To celebrate the 20th anniversary of the first ever Not Back to School Camp, we are hosting a handful of alumni as special guests who will connect with campers, contribute their perspectives, and share their passions. Additional special guests will be announced in the coming weeks.