There are a lot of experts out there who will say that to climb the corporate ladder you must build your “personal brand.” I’m going to let you in on a little secret —personal branding doesn’t have to be just for the 9-to-5 types.

It’s about you. Embracing, not hiding from, the qualities that make you unique so that you stand out and add value—whether that’s in an office, at school or, in my case, on social media.

I’m one of those people who turned her personal brand into a social media business—a digital content creator, if you will. Awesome, right? Absolutely. Easy? Not at all.

My education/career path has been traditional in every sense of the word, but I work harder now than I ever have. And that’s saying a lot. By the time I was 21 years old, I had my MBA and moved to New York, certain that I was about to get my “big break,” only to find that no one would hire me. I forged ahead, interviewing and making connections, and eventually started my blog—Color Me Courtney—to help find a job in corporate fashion. When the position I did get left me feeling unfulfilled, Color Me Courtney became the outlet I needed to stay creative and inspired. Then two years ago, I found myself smack dab in the middle of my dream job—making handbags at Coach.

Except the funny thing about dream jobs is that they make you realize dreams are indeed achievable…so you dare to dream even bigger.

As luck (plus hustle) would have it, while I was rising through the ranks at Coach, I was essentially holding down another full-time job growing my Color Me Courtney blog and social media channels, working 40+ additional hours a week to grow my presence online and create content. Every day, I saw my hard work paying off as my fledgling online brand gained new followers, likes and shares—and soon I realized that I simply couldn’t give my full attention to both Coach and Color Me Courtney. Something would have to go.

I was at a major crossroads in my career. There was the safe and predictable path that I had gone to school for, working for established brand names like I’d done with Tommy Hilfiger, Jonathan Adler, and Kate Spade. OR I could put myself out there—and take everything I had learned to make Color Me Courtney – a.k.a. me! – a brand that inspires people and spreads positivity each and every day.

Spoiler alert: I chose me!

With the encouragement of my parents, both entrepreneurs, I took the leap to pursue Color Me Courtney full-time, essentially devoting all my waking hours to promoting and maintaining my website and social media channels in a way that was authentic to my personality and appealing to my followers. I knew that when I wore a hot pink coat in a New York City snowstorm, I could make people smile…but how did that translate online? So, my filter was—and still is—how I’d talk to a younger, more vulnerable version of myself. The end result is a personal and professional brand that is all about embracing my curls and curves, celebrating color in a city where everyone wears black, looking on the bright side, and being unapologetically myself.

However, as great as it would be, simply declaring your good intentions to the world won’t pay your bills. Brands—just like the ones I used to work for—pay me to promote their products or campaigns on my social media channels. People probably think it’s the best part of my job, but it’s really one of the hardest. For one, it flat-out hurts when a brand you think you admire tells you “you’re not an accurate representation of their brand.” Ouch. I soon realized that the message said lot more about them than it did about me. But still…not cool.

Then there are the times when a check is waved in front of me and, for whatever reason, it just doesn’t feel right. My personal brand is my “north star” that guides all my decisions—and no amount of money is worth getting off course. I’ve even created a checklist of guidelines and if a partnership or piece of content doesn’t meet three of the five items on the list, then I won’t post it. Plus, if there’s one piece of advice you take from this essay, heed this: the internet never forgets.

That’s why I make sure I carefully partner with brands that share my vision and believe in my voice.

Like recently I was lucky enough to be chosen by Peace Tea for their #ChoosePeace campaign, which raised $75,000 for and simply required me to complete what they called Randomer Random Acts of Kindness for other people. Right up my alley! I love working with brands like Peace Tea that are about more than pushing product, but also want to spread happiness and kindness—just like me. This summer, I spent a week committing to five random acts of kindness a day, which more than anything made me realize that I spend way too much time in front of my screens. Ironically, it took a social media campaign to remind me that my “influence” happens offline, too.

And really that’s what it’s all about. You don’t have to be what the industry considers an “influencer” to make an impact on someone’s life. Just put your own unique twist on it—in the real world with kind acts, or online with beautiful images or words, or however, you see fit. Maybe with a little luck and a lot of hard work, you’ll even get paid for it.

Just remember, your personal brand is yours and yours alone. Your dreams, your ideas, your story. Share it with the world…and then see what happens next.