Have you ever felt frustrated that your career didn’t take a “linear” path? On this episode, Damon Reynolds walks us through his early career years that took him down some winding roads: from leaving college after sophomore year, to joining the Marine Corps for four formative years, to finishing his college degree in 2014, and finally breaking into management consulting at one of the most elite firms in the world, through his MBA. Check out Damon’s story to remind yourself that it’s OK if your journey takes a little bit longer or if your destination is not always clear.
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I had a recruiter tell me one time and I think this is where it clicked for me. She said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants, it’s one thing to be smart. We can find smart people all day, but I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip, but if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.”
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone. Today we’re hearing from Damon Reynolds, who was my MBA classmate, friend, and is a fellow Houstonian. Damon is currently a consultant at BCG, one of the top management consulting firms in the world. But it wasn’t always clear that Damon would one day land there. He went to U of H for two years before deciding he wasn’t quite ready for the college experience and ended up leaving school to join the Marine Corps, which his parents were not too thrilled about. After his military service of four years, Damon finished his degree and went on to explore different career paths before discovering the world of management consulting. His story is a great reminder to never settle for less, to always pursue your dreams even if you get off track or if the journey takes a little bit longer. One thing that has always stood out to me about Damon is how fiercely he believes in himself. And that is something that I wish for all of you.
Priscilla: Hey, Damon, welcome to the show.
Damon: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Priscilla: Awesome. So Damon, why don’t we start by having you share a little bit about where you’re from, you know, a little bit about your background?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a male so I identify as he/him/his. I grew up a little outside of Houston into a suburb called Missouri City, Texas. And I went to majority, minority high schools, as well as middle schools, those interactions and those environments definitely influenced who I am today. Initially, I did undergrad at the University of Houston. That’s a good…would say a non-traditional path to complete my bachelor’s degree.
Priscilla: Yeah. So let’s talk about that non-traditional path to get your bachelor’s. What made it non-traditional?
Damon: Yeah. So, I ended up at U of H straight out of high school. I got involved in the social life as we do when we go to a big school, you move out of your parents’ house for the first time. And so I got involved in social life and wasn’t necessarily focused on my studies. I didn’t have a major at the time. I was what you would call a general studies major, which just means you’re taking your general classes, haven’t declared a major yet. So I was just experiencing the college
life and not really focused on the academic part per se. And so when I say non-traditional, I actually decided to leave college about halfway through my sophomore year. I decided to leave and join the military.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what was motivating that decision to leave college for you?
Damon: So my freshman year of college, I realized that I may not be at the level of maturity that I need to be at to do this right now. I think that was a self-realization. It wasn’t like anyone told me or anything like that. It just, you know, sitting around and just maybe I need to do something else for a little while I figure this out and mature a little bit. And so it came up then, and at that point I brought it up to my father. “Hey, I’m thinking about joining the military,” and he quickly
shut it down. And it was like, no go basically. So I came back to school for my sophomore year. And then after my sophomore year or I would say the second semester of my sophomore year was when I made the decision personally for myself. But I think I made the decision based on the fact that I knew the Marine Corps was probably, you know, one of the more difficult services, as it relates to just the level of discipline that you have to have and the expectations that they have for you as a Marine and some of the responsibilities that you’re going to have. You’re almost forced to mature faster than most 18 to 19 year olds when you’re deployed to a country and people’s lives are online. And it was a forcing mechanism for me. I knew that joining the Marine Corps would be a forcing mechanism. It would force me to grow up. It would force me to mature. And that’s ultimately why I made the decision.
Priscilla: That’s really cool that you had that level of self-introspection at that point, where you’re able to reflect and say, “I’m not really ready for this experience yet, and I’m going to do something that’s different even though other people had thoughts and feelings about it.” But, yeah, so tell us about the transition to the military. I’m sure it was shocking, but were you really excited about this next chapter?
Damon: When I joined the Marine Corps, I felt great about the decision. Obviously, it’s a transition, right? You’re transitioning from being a young 18, 19 year old to being a Marine, a United States Marine, and all the expectations that come with that. But I don’t think I could have been more excited about the opportunity to just serve our country, as well as just grow as a person.
I think one of the things that the Marine Corps does a great job of, and it’s by the nature of what they do and who they are, they push you beyond whatever physical, mental, spiritual, emotional limits you think you have. They are going to push you beyond those. It’s just, when you go through bootcamp, when you go through combat training, when you’re deployed overseas for 8, 9, 10 months at a time, and you haven’t seen your family and you haven’t talked to anyone for 2 months, and the only thing is dirt and loud noises in the background, obviously, you are pushed beyond whatever limits you think you had. And I think there’s goodness in that because if you decide to separate from the military, the Marine Corps or whatever service and you decide to come back to civilian life or whatever you decide to pursue in your life, the fact that you went through some of those things, it allows you a level of confidence when you’re faced with some of the hardships and the obstacles that come in normal life. You say to yourself, “Hey, if I figured out a way to get through that, or if I figured out a way to get through this and I came out on the other side and I’m fine,” you’re able to go into whatever life may throw at you with a level of confidence that I think sometimes you just can’t get unless you’ve really been through some things.
Priscilla: Do you think that this experience really helped build your self-confidence?
Damon: Certainly some of that comes from being in the Marine Corps. One of the unique things about the Marine Corps is that you’re going to be asked to lead Marines at a very young age. There are 20-year-olds leading teams of Marines in combat situations. If you think about life outside the military life, outside the Marine Corps, at what organization can you walk into and there’s a 20-year-old that’s leading a team, right? Are you going to walk into Google or Facebook or Microsoft or Deloitte or BCG and see a 20-year-old leading a team of consultants or data scientists or project managers or program managers? Probably not. But in the Marine Corps, they ask you to do those things at a very young age. And so I think you just develop, you’re in front of guys. You’re motivating them, you’re coaching them, you’re mentoring them. And you’re doing that all at the age of 20, 21.
Priscilla: I remember you telling me that when you joined the military, this was the first time that you left the country. So how did being in the military impact your worldview? How did it change?
Damon: It made me feel small because I think we have our problems here and we have the things that we face on a daily basis here. And then when you go, for instance, being in Iraq and we did interact with people native to Iraq, and so it just reinforces how fortunate we are here and it truly makes you — it truly humbles you. And it just makes you feel small when you see some of the things that they’re facing on a daily basis, especially given that was my first time out of the country and in that environment, it just was like, wow. So this is what it’s like in other parts of the world or in some parts of the world, many parts of the world, quite for quite frankly. And so it just was a reminder of how fortunate we are here and to honestly never take that for granted. And I don’t — after experiencing that and traveling after that, just my worldview is that do not discount how fortunate you are and understand that there are people around the world that are facing many more obstacles.
Priscilla: So I know that after four years of being in the military, you decided to go back to school and finish your degree. How did you think through that decision and how did you decide what was next for you?
Damon: Yeah. Initially, I made the decision because I felt like after the four years of active duty service that I did, I felt like I was no longer being challenged. I personally gained everything that I needed from the Marine Corps. I grew as a man, as a person, as a human being. I matured. All the things that I was looking for to gain from my experience in the Marine Corps, I had gained. And so at that point, I just asked myself the question, “Okay. You’ve gotten everything from this.
You’re no longer feeling challenged. What’s next?” And so for me, the next thing was to go back to school, to go back and finish my degree, which was something that I didn’t complete previously. That was important to me, and at that time was the next challenge. “Hey, you didn’t get this right the first time. Let’s go back and do this the right way.” So I went back and I finished in about a year and a half after separating from the Marine Corps. I just put my head down to night classes, summer classes year round, basically, and finished in about a year and a half.
And, you know, I chose Poli Sci, my intention at that point in my life was to go to law school. It was around the time where, you know, Trayvon Martin and that situation happened and the George Zimmerman case. It seemed like on the news every day. And these issues are still, I’m still passionate about these types of things, right? And so I found myself really passionate about social justice and how can I impact people of color. And for me at that point in my life, I thought
getting a degree in political science and going to law school and working within the political arena to create institutions and structures that benefit people of color. I thought that was the way to go. And so I made the decision to study political science with hopes of going to law school at that time.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what made you decide to not go down the law school route?
Damon: I actually took a class in undergrad constitutional law and the professor was an amazing professor, but he made no secret of the fact that he structured the class exactly like law school and constantly reminded us of that. And just let us know, “Hey, I’m going to structure this just like law school. I want you all to get a taste of it. If you all are thinking about doing it, I want you to know what you’re getting yourself into.” And for me, I quite frankly just didn’t enjoy — the content was great. I love constitutional law. Learning about our constitution, I think everyone should do it. And everyone should have some knowledge of what’s in our constitution and what it means. The constant reading, the cases weren’t all that exciting. And so I was just like, “Ah, I’m not sure the law school is what’s going to stimulate me and truly challenging me in the ways that I want to be challenged.” And so at that point, I just made a decision not to pursue law school, but I immediately shifted to this idea of, “Okay, if I’m not going to do law school, how can I still impact the populations that I care about? How can I still work to create a better future for those people?” And so it wasn’t like a gave up on my dream. It was more of I just have to figure out a different way to impact the people that I care about.
Priscilla: Great. And better that you figured that out earlier rather than later. So how did you think through what was next for you after you finally had that bachelor’s degree in hand?
Damon: Yeah, so I actually went into financial services for some time. I spent my first year and a half after undergrad at AIG. I was working in their life and retirement division. So they provide financial services to a host of different organizations, basically 401(k) services to host of different organizations. And so basically I was a financial advisor within their Life and Retirement Division, working with the employees at the organizations that we provide our retirement services. So just giving people retirement advice, helping them save, think through what investments they should be, how their portfolio should be allocated, things like that. And it was really cool work.
I think I initially got into that because I fell in love with the capital markets. I started reading books my last semester of undergrad about the capital markets and just found myself fascinated by capital markets and was like, “How can I teach other people about this?” And I had a friend who was a financial advisor, who actually helped me to get on-boarded with AIG. And so that was really cool. We did that for a year and a half, and then I transitioned to JP Morgan, where
I was working in their private bank with their high net worth clients. At that point, doing similar work, helping them plan for the future, as far as it related to their investments and banking and mortgages, essentially everything, managing their entire relationship with JP Morgan. And so that was fun as well.
So that’s what I did for a while. And I think those were to figure out what’s next year. Still care about helping people of color. That hasn’t changed. It’s still a passion of mine. I’m not necessarily — I don’t feel like I’m doing that right now, but how can I get to that place? So I spent those years trying to figure that out.
Priscilla: Yeah. And that’s actually a really good point that sometimes there are months, periods, times in our life when we’re doing things in our career that don’t necessarily align with what we’ll be doing long-term but that’s okay, right. Because sometimes we’re uncertain about what to do next and we need to regroup and think about what is our next step. So I love that that was a part of your story. How did you find out about consulting?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. So it was really cool, actually. I had no clue what consulting was when I was working at JP Morgan. I never heard of the industry, had never heard of the function, never heard of the role, quite frankly. And I had a client who at the time was working for McKinsey & Company, thinking he was an associate partner or so at McKinsey & Company. And so he was doing well and he would come in for his appointments and we would talk and I will see — I had access to these people’s entire financial life and so I could see what was going on. And I just thought to myself, “Okay, what is McKinsey?” I see this coming in every couple of weeks and then I see a — what is this? And so I Googled McKinsey & Company. And their website came up and so I did a little research, and then I went even further and started looking at websites like vault.com, which ranks the consulting firms and all these different areas and just really learning what this was.
And I found myself fascinated by it because one thing that has been consistent about me is I do enjoy being challenged. I think I tend to thrive in those types of environments. And so in the research that I was doing, I found that consulting is almost a constant challenge, right? You’re changing projects every three, four, five months. It’s oftentimes going to be new work that you’re doing, whereas you may have done a marketing case for a client, now you’re doing a risk
case for a client where you’re assessing the enterprise risk throughout the organization. And so to me, that was just, “Wow. Wait, you’re telling me I can get something new every three to six months, and it’s going to be a new challenge, and I don’t have to actually switch jobs to do that?” To me, that was really cool. And so that kind of started my pursuit of consulting, but then it turned into this, “Wow, this is an industry that quite frankly has not and I think they will admit it, their diversity numbers are not where they would like them to be. And so I also saw this as an opportunity to say that, “Okay, if I can do this, I can then go back to the communities that I care about and teach them how to do the same.”
Priscilla: Okay. So you identified that management consulting was where you wanted to go next, and this industry or this career can be a little heavily guarded. It’s not very easy to break into unless you know someone or you’re going through a school channel. So, yeah, did you have that feeling like almost like it was a secret career that you hadn’t heard of?
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Damon: Yeah, I felt the same way. It’s almost like a secret society because if you’re not in consulting or you don’t know someone who’s in consulting, you likely don’t know that consulting exists. And so to your point, I felt the same way that if you aren’t in an undergraduate program that they recruit from or you’re not in a graduate level program that they recruit from, the ways to get into this industry are very limited. And we’re doing this to help out younger individuals who are thinking about these things. And that’s something that you need to think about is if this is in fact something that you decide you want to do, just be aware of the difficulty of getting in and understand how you can so that you know what levers you have to pull to make it happen.
Priscilla: Totally. So let’s fast forward to you finally being in business school, getting ready for on-campus recruiting, which is the way that you can get your consulting job that you want. How did you think through telling your story about where you had been, as someone who really hadn’t worked in business and as someone who was a veteran, and just being able to package that into something that BCG would be looking for in a consultant?
Damon: Yeah, I think for me, I tried to lean on — because I came from a non-traditional background, political science degree, I’ve never really worked in business in any capacity. The roles that I had prior to business school were more relationship, sales-based roles. So I certainly wasn’t doing analysis in Excel. I think the only thing I used Excel for at that point was lists. And I knew that I didn’t have these technical skills that they would be looking for or anything like that.
So I relied more so on my personality a little bit, my ability to speak, articulate my thoughts pretty well, the confidence that comes from serving in the Marine Corps, and some of the things that I’ve been through in my life. I really relied on that during recruiting, where I was able to demonstrate that, hey, from a intellectual standpoint — we talk about intellectual horsepower sometimes in recruiting — from an intellectual standpoint, I was able to demonstrate that I can do this job in the case interviews.
But I think prior to that, I truly relied on my personality speaking well, confidence, and those types of things. And then also just talking to as many people as I could and building those relationships. I had a recruiter tell me one time, and I think this is where it clicked for me. And when she said this to me, it resonated and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to run with that.” She said to me, it was actually Opie, she was a recruiter for Accenture and she said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants,” she was like, “it’s one thing to be smart.” She was like, “We can find smart people all day.” She was like, “But I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip. But if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.” And for me, that just really resonated.
Priscilla: That’s such a good point because soft skills really are just so critical in consulting or in any role where you’re on a team or you’re influencing, leading. And so I think that obviously you have those soft skills from your military experience. And a lot of the work that you did in recruiting was being able to convey that you were a leader and you had all of these skills that were very transferable.
So now you’re on the other side, you’re a successful consultant at BCG. You’ve made it. And my last question for you is, what would you tell your summer 2018 version of yourself when you were starting business school, starting to go through this recruiting process? What would you tell your younger self?
Damon: I would say the advice I would give to myself honestly, is don’t be too hard on yourself. We have these ideas of where we want to be in life and what we want to do and what we want to accomplish. And sometimes we hold ourselves to standards that even other people aren’t holding us to. I think sometimes we can be our own worst critic. You may have heard that before. And so for me at that point in time, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, a lot of unnecessary stress. And if I could go back, I would just say to myself, “Hey, relax. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be this perfect person because you feel like you have to be at…this point in your life.”
Priscilla: And that’s a great place to end. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take life too seriously. It’s too short. If we learned anything in 2020 is that life is too short. So thanks, Damon, for being here. I appreciate you.
Damon: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. This was fun.
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Have you ever wondered how you could merge different passions, or “take-and-leave” different aspects from different careers to build one that works for you? Well, that’s exactly what Frankie Arvelo did during his early career years. A child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic, Frankie defied society’s expectations by attending a top 10 law school and working at Goldman Sachs by his early 20’s. When his first career stop didn’t quite cut it for him, Frankie decided he needed something more: an MBA. The MBA journey exposed him to a new career vision that could blend the law with the exciting startup ecosystem and allow him to call the shots in his own career.
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You’re always selling. Every interaction, every single person, you’re always selling something. Be ready. You never know what can come of it in an interaction with someone. Someone may have an opportunity for you five years down the road. They remember you from that good interaction with you or they may remember a better interaction with you because you weren’t prepared.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel- Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone, today, you get to hear from Frankie Arvelo. Frankie is a startup counsel based out of Austin, Texas. He is a child of immigrants from Ecuador and the Dominican Republic. He has his JD from UPenn, his MBA from UT Austin. He currently specializes with working with early stage startup founders and helps them with issues like seed fund raising and investor management. His story was really inspiring to me because he’s someone who’s really intentionally crafted his career to make it into something that really works for him and is in alignment with his own passions and values. He loves working with underrepresented founders and he is also a big DEI champion. So, if you’re someone who’s really interested in the intersection of business, tech, law, this is the episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Frankie, welcome to the show.
Frankie: Thank you, nice being here.
Priscilla: Yeah, I’m really excited to dive into your early career story and hear about how you eventually became a startup counsel, but first, tell us a little bit about yourself, how you grew up, where you’re from, and also talk to us about going to Penn Law. I know that you went to Penn Law right after undergrad and graduated during the great recession. So, talk to us about how you got there and how you thought through financing that chapter of your life.
Frankie: Absolutely. So, right now, I’m based in Austin, Texas. I have two toddlers and a wife that I love dearly. But let’s go way back. Originally, I was born to immigrant parents. My father’s Dominican, my mother’s Ecuadorian. They split up on when I was a child in New York City, so that’s why I always think as this whole, I live in Hell’s Kitchen on the West side and it was, this was eighties, early nineties, it was rough back then. It’s gentrified a lot now. It’s changed so much the last time I visited, but back then, there’s a lot of drugs, prostitution, people out of work, it was hard getting through it, but as I tell people now that it was an important part of my journey because getting through that really helps you understand that nothing I face now is that hard, right? And nothing can be that bad. So, we moved to Boston when I was in middle school, I have a little bit of an Northeastern accent and that’s where my family is now. I went to a testing school out there, but even then, we lived in section eight housing. We lived in neighborhoods that weren’t super nice but were okay. So, I went to UMass Amherst, I studied Sports Management, and I knew I was getting a law degree, went directly to Penn out in Philadelphia. During law school, actually, was looking for alternative careers outside of law. I decided to join Goldman in New York as a compliance officer, so I worked in the commodity trading floor and it was a great experience, a lot of brilliant people, didn’t want to do that the rest of my life, so I decided to get my MBA. Fast forward a little bit, decided to get back into law, I professionalized my practice and worked with startups. So, I’ve been on my own as a solo attorney for about little over a year now. I was the first person in my family to go to grad school, the second to go to college. My brother beat me cause he’s six years older, but yeah, so we really, I didn’t have much guidance. I had some guidance at UMass, but at a big school like that, it’s hard to find the right people. I had people telling me to go to schools that weren’t really that good and I think that they made assumptions about me because of the way I spoke, and I can dive into it a little bit more, cause I did grow up in the hood. Anyway, so I decided to be really focused. I think I bought some books that are like Ivy League admissions, how to get in, and I couldn’t find people that are alums or anything like that, but I just did as much research as I could about the school.
So, the second piece is paying for it. So, I graduated in, what was it, it’s technically December of 2007 or something, yeah, 2006, I’m getting my years confused. I’m getting older. December 2006, so I had a, basically, half a year or nine months or eight months or something like that before school started at Penn, and I made it my job to look for scholarships. There are so many scholarships that go unused because people don’t, not enough people apply to them. I applied to things like the MCCA scholarship, that’s the Minority Corporate Counsel Association scholarship, I got something called the Edward scholarship in Boston. So, I was able to cobble together in addition to some of the money that Penn got me, an additional $30,000, $35,000 just from applying, even though it was $1,000 a year, $500 there, just, I made it a job just to apply. I was like, hey, I need, cause again, I grew up poor. It’s not like I had a ton of money sitting around, right? I had some need-based grants, but still loans are loans, you got to pay them back.
Priscilla: Yeah, and especially when you’re first gen, you have to think through how you’re going to pay that off and how long it’s going to take because you’re the only one responsible for making that happen. So, I’m curious, what was the biggest pain point for you when you did transition to law school at Penn? What was it like being in that super elite space?
Frankie: It was culture shock, if you will. I, again, I grew up in inner cities with a lot of Black and Brown folks, even at UMass, I would say, I was mostly around Black and Brown people, and then at Penn, the classroom changed in terms of racial diversity and also in terms of, just as important to me, economic diversity, there were people with a lot more money than people I met at UMass, right? They’re daughters of, like, senators and governors and people who would go on to become congressmen and whatnot. So, that was a big shock, I did not expect that. I mean, I was always different in a room, but I was really different in the room. Even the Black and Brown folks were different than me. They were rich. So, there’s something called the Socratic Method, right? Which basically means that the professor calls on the student, cold call, and then they’ll ask them a ton of questions, and the student has to be, like, on the spot, they have to oftentimes stand up in front of a class of 80 people where everyone’s, like, trying to judge who’s the smartest, who’s the alpha, who doesn’t know what they’re talking about? So, just that intense pressure you feel from being cold called. So, I remember I was cold called once. I think it was a civil procedure class and I made some comment, whatever, I don’t even remember what it was and I sat down. After the class, one of my colleagues said, “You made a really good point, but you sound a little urban saying it.”
Frankie: I was like, “What does that mean?” He said, “It sounded a little different,” and I remember I took that back, I was like, he’s calling me ghetto, oh, okay, oh, wow, and then I found myself actively changing the way I spoke after that, and it’s still to this day, I still do it to the point where when I go back, even now, the people I grew up with who maybe not necessarily, didn’t go to college or have any fancy degrees, they tell me I speak white, right? Let’s just use it and say what it is, like, “Oh, you speak White now,” and then I can’t speak the way I used to because I’m just, now, this is the way I speak, right? But then, you get into the whole entire complex of, like, what is my real identity? And then, I tried to let it go and say, I can’t, I have too much to do, but it’s something that I think all of us need to keep in mind, right? But that was a shock, how people were so different and feeling like I needed to change how I spoke so I could seem “smart.”
Priscilla: Yeah, it’s such a shame that that happened to you, but sadly, it’s not an uncommon experience and many of us have to negotiate that identity and how we present ourselves in BIPOC spaces and how we present ourselves in mostly White spaces, so yeah, I know that you graduated around the great recession. How did you think through your career options? What did you end up doing after law school?
Frankie: So, part of it was just the force of what was going on in the market, so I would say summer of 2009 is when I would’ve gotten my two L internship, right? There were very few good ones. I would say firms weren’t hiring as well. I was a middling student, I’ll be honest, right? I was, like, the B+ student, if you will. So, there were fewer spots at great firms, I knew I wanted to public insurance because frankly, I was tired of being poor. Yeah, tired, right? I can’t do it, and I want to provide for my family eventually, my mom and whatnot, her retirement plan is her kids, right? So, I have to help out there, and I understood that back then. So, I knew that I wanted to do that, I knew…public insurance, there weren’t any great firms, so I started looking outside of law and I was like, what do I want to do? And I remember back then, I enjoyed my business classes better. So, I was like, I think I might want to get into business, and then I saw the Goldman opportunity as a way back in to the business because when I talked to a recruiter back then they said that people make transitions from compliance to business side. So, maybe sales or some other role, non-operational role, so I thought that could be an angle for me to make that move and also want to live in New York again. I just, all my friends were moving there, I love the energy of the city, I wanted it to be there, right? So, that’s why I was looking at going that way, but I was pretty sure I wanted to work in business, sure I want to work in New York. Goldman is a great firm although everyone hated it back then, and still hate it now. So, yeah, I just said that that was the path I want to go down.
Priscilla: Yeah, obviously, Goldman Sachs is an amazing company to have as a first job after law school, but what was that first real career job experience like for you? What were some of the challenges that you faced and what did you end up doing after?
Frankie: I know I need seasoning back then. It was a culture shock in terms of the level of professionalism that is expected and demanded of you. I had a manager who was, she was in the Israeli defense force, so don’t mess with her, and she was the first person to teach me this, right? She was the first person that said, “If you come to me for a problem, you better have a solution in mind,” and I remember our first meeting, I said, “These are all the things I see that are wrong,” and I had no solutions and she told me that, and I was like, oh, okay. I can’t complain about things being wrong. I need to fix them, right? She also just demanded perfection in terms of email communications, in terms of presentation skills, et cetera. She ended up going to maternity leave and I had another manager named David who really took me under his wing, really counseled me, really said he wants me to be the best I could be there, and then I had another African-American man named Keith, another attorney who also did the same with me and he’s actually one of my mentors to this day, and then just the atmosphere and the energy, right? Like, you’re on a trading floor, you’re going into that giant building with a billion other people that has, like, its own gym and own doctor’s office because you never leave, right? So, that energy was, like, a lot. I initially didn’t like it, but then I had learned to lean into it. I remember maybe my first year of struggling a little bit of just, like, a wild stallion, did not want to be controlled, but then I learned that, hey, this is my career, I need to show up, and this is big boy time. So, put on my big boy pants and don’t complain and get the work done, and I also learned to not be so worried about what people thought of me, if that makes sense. And then my second year, because of that, my performance jumped tremendously and I also just knew the rules a bit better, so I didn’t feel like I was faking it when I was giving people advice. I just do what I was talking about, so I ended up, like, giving presentations that were international and had more seniority, and then I ended up giving presentations to managing partners and people that ran billion-dollar businesses where I was lead, and yeah, it was good, it was good, and I’ll need to side-sleeve for a couple of reasons. One is, I didn’t like being the person that no one ever wants to talk to. When you send someone an email and it has a little compliance, cause that’s your title, like, on it, people tend to not want to talk to you and no one wants to hang out with you, and I was like, this is a weird energy, and I also just didn’t want to be back office the rest of my life. I want to be more of a revenue generator. It’s harder to replace you when you’re a revenue generator than when you’re in your back office if things go down, and also, I think that was the year where Warren Buffet did a giant buyback of equity, so the cash bonus pool dropped tremendously. So, I did better, but I got paid less than my bonus, I was like, that makes no sense. So, for those reasons, I was like, I need to leave, but it was a good place to be though.
Priscilla: Cool. So, I know you went to get your MBA at UT Austin McCombs School of Business. How did you end up using your MBA years in Austin to get familiar with the startup world and start to envision a future as a startup counsel?
Frankie: So, my first year, I was really just focused on school work and not doing anything outside of Austin and just doing some clubs and whatnot. My second year is when I got plugged into the startup scene and that’s when I became more involved in places like Capital Factory, that’s when I started freelancing and working with my friends as an attorney. I was like, hey, one of the great things about MBA is this, is that whilst you learn about risk and everything’s going to break, and start seeing opportunity, and you start saying, hey, whoa, there’s a way to make money here. So, that’s when I had my aha moment. I was like, wait, I have a lot of grit. I’m licensed to practice law. People are asking me for help. I should just put up a shingle and make some money.
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Frankie: So, during my fall semester, I worked for Longhorn Startup Lab and it’s run by Josh Bear and Bob Metcalf who are two of the pillars of the Austin tech community, and just got connected to a lot of folks in the scene, so I worked for a firm called Egan Nelson, good firm, really good people, they’re a quality boutique here in Austin, learned a lot, I think, for anyone that’s thinking of eventually hanging up the shingle and being their own solo lawyer, I do recommend that you go to a firm or somewhere first where you learn from people who’ve done it before and who really know their stuff because there are so many mistakes you can make and if you’re just learning on the job and it all falls on you, you’re gonna make those mistakes and that’s not going to be good for your clients. Some people make it out okay doing it that way, but it’s really risky.
So, went there, they focused on startups. We helped companies from formation all the way through exit, left there because a law firm model is this: law firm model is you either are a rainmaker bee or working bee, and I felt that if I stayed there, I was always going to be a working bee, and that’s just not my personality. Going back to a comment I made about working at Goldman being back office, I didn’t want to be quasi back office at a law firm, I wanted to be the rainmaker, and I want to bring in new relationships, and I didn’t see that happening there. So, that’s why I joined another firm. I ended up joining another firm as a partner, left because I thought I could do it better on my own market.
Priscilla: Tell us what it means to be a startup counsel, and what do you do and why do you do it?
Frankie: I help clients with everything. Alright, a couple of weeks ago, there was a client that was dealing with an issue where two of their employees and the contractor decided to start talking poorly of the management and how they didn’t know what they were doing, and all this other stuff, and I helped them in a situation of how to terminate those folks while also protecting themselves as a company, messaging around that to other employees and customers because they were central employees, and how do you get that done thinking through that strategically? There’s also items like I helped a client close on some fundraising, which during the time of COVID is hard to do. So, initially, they went to traditional venture capital type money and they weren’t getting any bites there because they were hitting the traditional metrics of monthly recurring revenue and whatnot, and then we were able to raise a round which is going to help the company fill some orders and make some more revenue in, and all that, right? And then, and I’ve done things, like, like what sort of entity should I be when I’m thinking of forming a company? Should it be an LLC? Should it be a corporation? And there’s many considerations around that, right? Generally, if you’re looking to get venture money and grow really fast and sell, it should be a corporation, generally, right? And so the reason I call myself counsel is I have a partnership with my clients and a real relationship. To me, it’s hey, most of my clients get it, they’re like, alright, I’m going to spend a little time with Frankie now, we’re going to think strategically about this issue or something that’s coming up, and then that’s going to save me a ton of money or a ton of dilution in the future, and then me, Frankie, I know not to burn time on things that don’t matter. I know to be thoughtful about, hey, I know their cast situation is tight now, maybe I can give them a payment plan, or sometimes, if a plan is really good, I think, I loved their idea on their team, I might take some equity and then I’ll cut my rate. Those are things that I can do when I work for my own firm that I couldn’t do when I worked for another firm, like, they take an equity thing. A lot of lawyers don’t like doing that because inside baseball, the malpractice insurance won’t cover it if you take equity in a client, so if a client has a claim against you, your malpractice is not going to cover it. So, that’s scary for a lot of attorneys, I get why they don’t do that. My risk profile is a little higher, I’m fine doing it, right, for certain clients. Those are things, like, these are things and levers I can pull and things I do with clients where I really see, like, it is a true relationship and I really wanna help them out.
Quick aside, quick story, I tore my Achilles, it’s terrible, don’t play football if you’re over 35, about nine days ago, I posted something on social media about it, and then one of my clients sent me some “Tiff’s Treats” and said, “Please get better. Hope you and the family are doing well,” like, I wouldn’t get that at a big firm, right? The big firms sees you as a number. You meaning the founder as, like, a number. With me, these are people, this is, like, friends, these are friends, if you will, and I want to help them grow their business. So, I’m counsel, not an attorney for that reason.
Priscilla: Yeah, I love that. I love that you get to cultivate those relationships and make them meaningful ones at the same time. So, as you look back, Frankie, at your 12, 14-year career, your early career years, what is the one thing that you would go back in time and tell younger Frankie about career in terms of advice?
Frankie: Great question. Go back in time and shake me. I would have told my younger self to be more patient, to be easier on myself in terms of I have a tendency to beat myself up when I make mistakes, and also just to really be grateful, this is a non-career piece, but I think it flows into your life which flows into your career, t all works together, to be more grateful for what you have in your life and not focus so much on what you don’t have, and that was taught to me by my wife who’s a yoga teacher and author. She really showed me that and it’s actually made me a much happier person.
So, those are the things I would have told myself. If there’s any specific career advice I would give of myself besides the be more patient if you work is that, you’re always selling, every interaction of every single person, you’re always selling something. Be ready, you never know what can come of any interaction with someone. Someone may have an opportunity for you five years down the road. They remember you from that good interaction of you or they maybe remember a bad interaction of you because you weren’t prepared, and they made, no, we’re not going to consider this person for that. Always remember that you’re selling, be patient and be grateful for what you have.
Priscilla: That is such great advice. I think it’s so true that whether you like it or not, you are always selling yourself, right? And people are deciding if you’re someone that they’d want to work with or they’d want to call up for something, so yeah, thanks for sharing that, I appreciate you being here, Frankie, it’s just so inspiring to hear your story and how you went from child of immigrants growing up with not a lot, humble beginnings, but making it all the way to Penn Law, and I know now you teach part-time at Penn Law and you do so many other amazing things, so thanks so much for being with us today.
Frankie: Awesome, take care
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Diana Becnel worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant for 8 years before deciding to switch functional areas and move into sales. Today, she is a successful Account Executive and strong advocate for helping minorities break into STEM and tech careers. On this episode, Diana breaks down the importance of finding sponsors at work and not falling for the myth that hard work will equal a promotion or raise. People need to know and hear about your success, and sponsors can help do that for you. Diana inspires us to get over our mental crap and sell ourselves at work.
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Just because you’re doing a good job doesn’t mean you’re gonna get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and women. We struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey everyone. Today you get to hear from Diana Becnel. Now, Diana is an LA native and she went to Boston university where she got her BBA and stuff and since then has worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant and most recently moving into the sales world as an account executive. Diana is super inspiring because she’s a black woman in tech who really has learned what it takes to move up in that industry, and we talk about finding sponsors and advocating for yourself, and making sure that people can really see the hard work that you’re doing and how working hard is often just not enough to cut it, like, people need to see your hard work, people need to be able to understand the value that you bring, and as women, especially, sometimes, that can feel very uncomfortable or weird, but we just have to get over that.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey Diana, welcome to the show.
Diana Becnel: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here virtually with you today.
Priscilla: Me too. I’m super excited to have you here talk about your career in tech especially as a black woman, especially as a woman in STEM, someone who has fought really hard to have the opportunities that you have today. So yeah, let’s dive into your story. Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.
Diana: Sure, so I grew up in sunny, beautiful Los Angeles, California. I’m the oldest of about three kids. We grew up in LA in the city and I am back in LA now, which is awesome because I spent seven or eight years away because of different jobs in school, but back in LA and happy to be here. So, I’m excited to be here and talk about how I grew up and my experience going to college and ending up at Microsoft.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I’m really curious if you grew up with a really specific idea in terms of what you wanted to do when you grew up or were you pretty much in exploring mode?
Diana: It’s so interesting because growing up, I always had this desire to be an independent and financially secure woman, that was a huge thing that my mom and family instilled in me, but I actually never knew exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I envy people who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer. I wasn’t like that, but I definitely was really exposed to a lot of tech at an early age and business people, which I think greatly influenced my decisions in life. I knew that in order to end up having a good job, becoming financially secure so that I could help take care of myself and my family, that I needed to stay the course and get good grades, go to college, and then end up getting a job. The back of my mind was exposed to technology and business, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to be, and so I think the influences I had as a kid ultimately drove me to technology and business later on.
Priscilla: Yeah, so you mentioned financial security being important to you when you were looking for jobs, where did that really come from for you?
Diana: I think a lot of that came from my parents having some pretty honest conversations about money throughout my whole life and just how money really can make a difference in your life, how financial security is important, and some of the mistakes they made and things they wanted for us, and so I think that helped a lot with that, and look, I believe it’s really important to enjoy what you do, but I also think it’s important to be able to help my mom or pay bills, or buy a house, right, and create generational wealth, and so that was really important to me, and so I was definitely one of those people that was like, yeah, I want to make sure I like my job, but if I can make the money, especially early in my career to give myself freedom later on to really help others and do other things, that’s the way I look at it.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool that you had that super long-term view at that age because that’s something that I definitely didn’t have and I wish I had had now in my early thirties, but yeah, so that’s amazing. I know you went to BU, you went to Boston university and you ended up studying Business. How did that end up happening for you? How did you decide to go that route?
Diana: Looking back, I chose Business because I thought it gave me a little, the flexibility to still figure out what I wanted to do but know that I could make some impact and hopefully make some money after school, and so I chose Business, and originally when I was going into Business, I thought I was going to be a marketing queen. I loved the idea of marketing, I loved the excitement of it, and so I was leaning towards the marketing path and at BU, we have to concentrate in a particular, a minor, but it’s really a concentration, and so you can go everywhere from law to marketing, to finance, accounting, or information systems, which is really like computer science, and to this day, I remember the moment that I shifted my concentration and my major focus. So, for the first couple of years, I was going down the marketing path and we were in this career session and it was, I think, it was either my junior or senior year and one of the professors pulls up a slide and shows the average salaries when you graduate based on the concentration, and marketing was further down on the list and information systems, so the tech side and finance were almost double the salaries, and I remember calling my mom, like, “Mom, I am going into tech. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be but the salary and the opportunity is there,” and I remember my professor also saying to me one-on-one, there’s barely any women. There’s barely any minorities in this field, and that just triggered me. I wanted to change those statistics. That’s always been something about me, I like to prove those statistics wrong, and so I think the combination of hearing that stat and then also seeing the financial difference and the number of jobs and opportunities influenced me to make that switch in the middle of my college journey.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I know that you’re going on nine years of working at Microsoft and that was your first job after college. What ended up making you choose Microsoft and what do you love about what you do?
Diana: I joined Microsoft as a part of a college hire program. So, it’s really interesting because I had a couple of other offers that I was almost pretty much taking, and then the Microsoft offer came in and I still remember, I almost didn’t do the interview because I was like, there’s no way they’re going to hire me, and secondly, I was so tired that senior year I’d been interviewing a lot, I was working, trying to keep up with my grades and they wanted to fly us to DC, and I remember, after my interviews, I felt pretty good about it but still wasn’t sure, and they had some of their college hires talk to us and they talked to us about how not only is Microsoft one of the greatest technology companies in the world, and yes, you’re going to make good money, but it was also all the extras that Microsoft did. They talked a lot about how they care about their people, they’re big on empathy, growth mindset, you got this great gym fitness bonus, they invest in you personally, and so I remember being just blown away by all the additional things Microsoft provided, and so that’s why I ended up taking that job there when I got the offer. My first job, I was hired as what we call a consultant in the consulting organization, and really, what we were doing was going out and helping customers actually implement our software, and so I focused on a particular software that is around business applications, so we would go to big companies like Ashley Furniture, Brightstar, HP, and transform their business process when it came to financial accounting, supply chain and using some of our Microsoft software, and I was traveling to customers a lot, I was on the road a lot and really helping customers transform, which was really exciting.
Priscilla: And during your time at Microsoft, have there been any mentors or sponsors that have really helped you in your career?
Diana: I love mentors. I think you should have all types of mentors, whether they’re just peer mentors who are in the same position as you as well as executives, but I think the number one thing that is so critical especially early on in your career is finding a sponsor, and when I say sponsor, someone who is going to actually advocate for you in those rooms where they make decisions about your promotions, programs that you can be a part of, bonus leadership, all of those things, right? You really have to have a sponsor who can speak up and advocate and has the influence in those rooms for you. So, I think that is one of the most important things I would tell people in corporate America to find. I know we talk a lot about mentors which that is a hundred percent really important, but if you can find a mentor who’s also your sponsor, that is going to change your career, and that’s what happened for me. So, I had two sponsors that really knew my work and they would advocate for me, get my promotions, get my bonuses, and that translated into really good career progression, and then when I was ready to switch out of the consultant role, I had this network of sponsors and mentors, and people that I had worked with and talk to that helped me transition into the new roles that I wanted, and definitely, at these big companies, it’s not always easy to do that. It’s not always easy to jump from consultant to sales or really a product technical person, and so you got to have a sponsor and a mentor who can help you do that.
Priscilla: I totally agree, and I think also what’s interesting about the sponsor thing is that it speaks to how it’s not enough to just be really great at what you do. People have to know about the work that you’re doing, and sometimes that can feel, especially for women, a little uncomfortable to talk about what we’ve done and the impact that we’ve had. So, how did you showcase the strengths that you had and how did you make yourself more visible?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a great question and a great point. All your life, even from when you’re a little kid, if you do a good job, you’re going to get a good grade, so if you do well on the test, you’re going to get a good grade and you’re compensated for doing well, but then when you go to the career and your professional life, to your point, just because you’re doing a good job, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and, to your point, women, we struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that probably in my first year of my career and one of my sponsors and then another one of my mentors, they’ve helped me put decks and emails together highlighting the things that I was doing, and so my cadence now with even my current manager is on our one-on-ones or if I get an email, I forward it to her, I share that I let her see that direct feedback. If a customer said something really good, I forward it to her and share that. In our one-on-ones, I highlight the things that went well and that I did, and so I think that’s really important to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, but I know that I have to advocate for myself in order to get that promotion or that good review. The second thing is really making sure that you build confidence in who you are and always go above and beyond. Most people, especially at a company like Microsoft, they’re there for a reason; they work hard, they’re good at their jobs, so you have to differentiate yourself. And so you have to talk to your manager openly saying, “What do I need to do to get promoted? What are the things that I need to differentiate myself from the other person who’s competing with me for that promotion?” So, have that open and honest conversation so that you clearly understand what is required, and then take the actions and even with what he or she said you need to do, go above that. I try and do above my requirements from my boss to show off, like you said, and advocate for yourself that you deserve to keep moving up.
Priscilla: And so, what happened when you decided to transition out of the consultant role? What was next for you after that?
Diana: I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I honestly believe you have to go after and always think about your next career move.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
Hey, everyone, if you’re thinking of getting a graduate degree, like many of the other Early Career Moves guests, check out our awesome sponsor, The Art of Applying. The Art of Applying has spent the last 10 years helping people who aren’t the cookie cutter applicants for top business, law, policy and other programs get into their dream schools and get money to pay for them. They have a large team of expert consultants who know what it takes to get into the school of your dreams and can give you the roadmap for how to get there, especially if you’re stuck on something like getting the perfect test score or struggling with the right words to put in your essays. They believe each applicant has more to offer than just their test scores or GPA, and that approach has helped thousands of their clients get into their dream schools and earn more than $20 million in merit scholarships and fellowships. Graduate schools care about your entire application and I love that their team helps applicants put their best foot forward. As a sponsor of the Early Career Moves Podcast, they’ve invited listeners to explore working with their team by going to the ArtofAapplying.com/ECM and signing up for a quick call. If you mention the Early Career Moves Podcast, you get a hundred dollars off enrolling in their hourly coaching or application accelerator program. If you’re dreaming of going to a top school without paying top dollar, go to the ArtofApplying.com/ECM.
Diana: One of my sponsors actually told me, he says every time he gets a job, he has a three-year plan and it doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes it may take him five years, some time, it took him seven years, some time, it took him two years, but he always has a plan for his next move within the next three years, and so I believe that you should always be thinking about what’s your next step because it takes a while to get there, and then secondly, a lot of things do just fall in your lap. Some things do just happen. Opportunities happen to come up and you have to be ready to take advantage of them, and so I think if you listen to a lot of people in their careers, they’ll tell you they thought they were going one way and then an opportunity popped up, and so I think that does happen a lot and that happened with me, but I also was super proactive about thinking about what I wanted to do next, and doing the networking, gaining the skills that would set me up for that next role that I wanted, finding a sponsor and shadowing, practicing, all of that is really important to be proactive about while you’re going in your career journey.
Priscilla: What was a skill set that for you was a little challenging to get but you figured out a way to fill some kind of gap that you think you had?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a good question, and probably the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about that because I was at that point where I wanted to move on to my next role and figure out my next role, and so one of the missing skill sets for me in my current job was really negotiation. We call it like “challenger” mindset where you’re really pushing a customer, and I am not the type of person that likes asking anyone for anything especially when it comes to money, so I would never be a good cold caller, but I knew I needed to be able to have some more negotiation skills, and so I spent the last year shadowing some different salespeople. I read several books and I listened to podcasts as well as do different trainings and that’s really where I was able to see it in action and also start practicing it more, and so when I went to interview for this new role that I got, I could speak to that and talk about the readings that I had done, talk about the shadowing that I had done and really bring everything in my experience to the table as this kind of package, like, across the board of skill sets that I had.
Priscilla: Okay, so now you’re in a sales role, right, with Microsoft? Why did you decide to make that change? What prompted that?
Diana: One of the main reasons I decided I wanted to change was because I was currently consulting in a particular technical focus and I wanted to broaden my horizon and I also wanted to have more ownership across the board. So, in consulting, you own a single project, and then in this sales role, you own the entire account, the entire customer, and so I wanted to have more of that ownership. The other main thing is I knew that negotiation and sales was not my strong point, and I stalk a lot of people on LinkedIn, someone who’s a VP, I say, what did they do to get there? And 90% of the time, I was finding they had some type of sales role, and that is because at the end of the day, Microsoft is a for-profit company; we have to sell product and licenses in order to make money, and so that is a huge skill set that is valued from leadership, being able to close deals, being able to grow your accounts and really help customers transform using Microsoft technology, especially when you think about the competition Microsoft has across Amazon, Google, Apple, and so I was like, this is a skillset, this is a type of role that I don’t have. I wasn’t able to say, “Oh, I closed $3 million with these different customers,” and I know how to manage a pipeline, like, all those things I couldn’t say I did, and so that’s what made me decide to go into sales because I knew it would make me a little uncomfortable, but I thought I could be good at it with the right practice and experience and I knew it would add this major bucket of skillset to my resume that I was lacking in preparation for whatever I do next.
Priscilla: Totally makes sense how it could be a little scary and daunting to go into that space but at the same time, you’re right, you’re bringing in the revenue and it’s one of the most highly valued positions that you can be in if you’re successful, and so I’m curious, are you one of the few women on your sales team? What does that look like?
Diana: Yup, I am one of the few women. I am probably one of the youngest people and I’m a black woman, so there’s probably like three things going on: you have the age thing, you have the sex thing, and then the race thing, but then on top of that, I’m talking to customers about transforming their business and driving business outcomes by spending a lot of money with us, and I know they look at me and I’m young and a woman and black, and there’s definitely stereotypes that come with that, and I would say that I deal with that in probably three ways. So, the first is, and I struggled with this a little bit in the beginning but I’m getting better and better every day, is that building the confidence and having the expertise and the knowledge. The first thing is, you’re stereotyped with those three things and people think you don’t know because you’re young or you’re a woman, or you’re black it’s, so number one, knowing that I know what I’m talking about and know my stuff, so I always make sure I’m up to date on that part. That’s something I can control. So, really building that confidence, knowing that I know what I talk about, and then the second thing is knowing that I deserve to be at the table and that there’s a reason that I have this job, and there’s a reason that they brought me on and I deserve to be at the table. I’m here to have a fresh perspective, I’m here to drive change and really be there for customers in a way that maybe others can’t be, and so I just always remind myself of that too. And then, the third thing is understanding and knowing the stereotypes that exist but never letting it stop you or agreeing with it, always pushing forward through it and proving people wrong.
Priscilla: What advice do you have for anyone who might be in college or even, like, early career who wants to break into tech? What do you think are some tips that you would offer that person?
Diana: Sure. Number one, do it and don’t feel intimidated by it. I was intimidated by it and I think a lot of people, especially minorities and women are, you don’t have to be the best coder in the world or even be super technical. So, I think my advice is to not be intimidated. Know that we need you and know there’s so much support out there. When I think about the changes when I started to now, there’s so many programs, so many different online boot camps, support groups, mentors there to help you pass those classes to help you learn coding and all these things. Go out there, do it, come to tech, and there’s so much opportunity here. You don’t have to be super technical or you can, you can build things or you can sell technology, you can market it, you can implement it. There’s so many different ways you can go. So, I really encourage you to leverage the resources out there. Come into tech and you really get to change the world, and it’s a great place to be.
Priscilla: Awesome. That’s a great place to end, Diana. Thank you so much for all the insight that you just offered us with overcoming obstacles and having an amazing career at Microsoft.
Diana: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time, it was great talking to you today.
Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
On our first ally guest episode, we hear from Doni Tavel, an Indianapolis native who moved to Los Angeles after college without a job to pursue an exciting career in music. In Los Angeles, Doni learned what it meant to be a personal assistant to a celebrity and eventually networked her way into an international marketing role at Interscope Records. Five years later, Doni was traveling the world with talented artists like Maroon5 and Sting, fulfilling her vision to make it in the music industry – all thanks to her grit, humility and hard work.
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All You Need To Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman
Doni: And so the first trip that I ever took was with Maroon 5. And that was just such an extraordinary experience because their whole team, they’ve been doing it for so long that they have everything down to an art. They have such a talented crew and such awesome management that it was just like a dream. I couldn’t believe that I was at work.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. Before I introduce today’s guest, I want to invite you to follow us on Instagram if you haven’t yet. Come join the conversation and the community that we’re building at ECM Podcast, that’s ECM Podcast, so that you don’t miss any new episodes or updates. Okay. So today’s episode is a Good one. We’re featuring our first ally guest, Doni Tavel. Doni and I crossed paths in Austin while both attending UT Austin for business school. And we took a class together on the science of happiness that required us to write a pretty in-depth biography about our lives that we also all had to read. And when I read her amazing story about moving to Los Angeles from Indiana, without any contacts, and then breaking into the music industry successfully, I just knew I had to ask her to be on the show. Doni tells us what it was like to visualize and then execute on an exciting goal to move up the ranks in international music marketing, and then travel the world with amazing artists. So, if you’ve ever thought about breaking into an industry that’s tough and that requires a lot of networking and knowing people, then this is a great episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Doni. Welcome to the show.
Doni: Thank you so much. And aloha from Oahu.
Priscilla: Oh my gosh. I’m so jealous you’re in Hawaii. That sounds amazing. But yeah, so Doni, why don’t you introduce yourself and just give us a little sense of your personal background?
Doni: So I am from Indianapolis, Indiana. That is where I grew up. I decided not to venture too far from home for undergrad. I went to Indiana University Bloomington, which was pretty fun, but I knew in college that I wanted to work in music. I had this epiphany that the things that I was good at were all of my business classes and the place that I spent all of my time and money was in the music world. So I thought if I can combine these two things, I am always going to be happy because the benefits of my job are going to be the things that I would otherwise pay for. And even on the toughest days in my job, it’s going to be stuff I’m excited to be doing. So I followed that kind of intuition out to Los Angeles right after school. And that’s where I kickstarted my journey.
Priscilla: Yeah. And since you realized this was something you wanted to do in college, did you end up doing a lot of internships to help you figure that out?
Doni: Absolutely. And I think that is so key. As soon as like how this epiphany, really, about working in music, the next day, I sat down at my computer and made a list of every single music company that I could find in Bloomington, which surprisingly there’s a fair number of music companies, that was very surprising to me. It’s very similar to, I guess, most college towns. It’s big when the college students are there and not so big when they’re gone. But I emailed the guy. It was a roots and reggae publicity company, and they also did a little bit of booking and I emailed him and just said, “Hey, I’m a college student. I’m super excited about music and I’m detailed-oriented, willing to do the work. And you don’t have to pay me. I will work for free. I just really would like to learn about what you do. Would you be open to having an intern?” And so I met up with him the following day after that, and he brought me just like a box of CDs and said, “Listen to all of these things,” and RIP CDs, remember those?
Priscilla: Oh my God, CDs.
Doni: And so I had literally used to ride around in my car listening to these CDs that this guy gave to me, trying to familiarize myself. And then the next thing he had me do was start working on some press releases for those and figuring out how to talk about those bands. And so it was a much smaller company. And then I used that as a stepping stone the following summer to get an internship in Chicago, which was at a company called Aware Records and A-Squared Management. And that I think was really the beginning of my official music career. It was a little bit risky because obviously I wasn’t in Chicago. So I told my parents, “I might be living in Chicago this summer for an internship.” But yeah, they had worked with a bunch of artists that I love, including John Mayer and Dave Matthews Band and just all of these incredible things. And I thought, “If I could work there.” They’re working in real music. It’s not like these unknown folky bands that I’ve never heard of. And so I went up there and worked with them all summer and I had an incredible mentor named Josh Terry. He was very candid all summer, was very hard as a manager, had very high expectations. And I think you learn some of the tough lessons that way, just about being detail-oriented and not dropping the ball and all of those things.
Priscilla: How did you end up learning about the different jobs that exist in the music industry, and are there a lot of jobs?
Doni: There are a ton of jobs in music. And I think one of the things that I always tell people who come to me asking for a career advice is to just get to know the business. There is an excellent book by Donald Passman. He is an entertainment attorney who wrote this book called Everything You Should Know About the Music Business. And he updates it every couple of years to reflect current technologies and current companies and just the shifts, the major shifts that have happened in music. And that’s a really good place to start because it teaches you all about the label business and now the streaming business. It teaches you about music publishing. It talks about the roles of accountants and lawyers and that sort of thing in the context of music. And that book is really written I think more for an artist to understand who the people are that should be on their team. But I think as any person who’s trying to break into the industry, the best thing you can do is to have an understanding of what types of companies exist.
And then when I was first starting, what I did is I would literally, after I had these big lists of, okay, there’s talent agencies, there’s record labels, there’s technology, I went through and I just looked at every single career site and just started reading job descriptions and saying, “What kind of jobs do they offer in these places?” Just researched the industry generally, know that there are record labels, know that there are agencies, know that there are publishing houses, know that there are, I mean, infinite things. Think about what your skill sets are and what you can bring to the table and what things excite you, and then just start reading some of those job descriptions. If you can think about some of the functions that you like, maybe it’s marketing, maybe you’re a finance person, start reading the job descriptions that will identify the skills and such that you can be cultivating to prepare for those jobs. And don’t start reading them when it’s time for you to start applying, start reading them before you’d be applying to full-time role. So by the time that you do get to those roles, you have all those skills that they’re looking for.
Priscilla: So after your college graduation, I know that you headed out to LA to start your career in music. What was that like moving to LA with no job?
Doni: I went to LA with nothing but a mission to get a job. I did not have friends or family or contacts, and that was super scary for me. I at first thought that I was going to move to Nashville because I thought to myself, “You know what, that mentor that I had in Chicago, he had since moved to Nashville and started a music company of his own.” And so I thought, “Wow, he can help me. He’s plugged in.” But then I thought, “You know what, what good is that going to do me?” I need to really trust that I have built up a skill set that is valuable and I know that I personally am motivated enough to at least try and make this happen. And so I, of course, had to lean on my parents a little bit because it’s pretty expensive to just move out to Los Angeles and the music industry doesn’t have the best track record of high paying jobs, especially at the entry level. So yeah, I went out there and had nobody, so it was a pretty lonely time. And I can remember just the apartment building where I was living in West Hollywood had this lovely rooftop, not I’d say lovely, I don’t know. It was very bare. There’s nothing up there. I just brought a blanket and would sit up there and look at the Hollywood Hills and think to myself, “I cannot wait for the day when I’m sitting in Los Angeles and I’m just at brunch with my friends and I can look around and think, ‘Oh, I made all these friends while I was here. I have a job and it’s going to be so great.'” And just visualize what my life would look like once I had gotten all of my ducks in a row. And it takes a lot of time and it will probably take a couple of positions to really figure out what your place is in the industry. The first role that I took definitely wasn’t my forever role. And I learned that really quickly even though that’s what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I would say give it time, believe in yourself, which is like such a cliché thing to say. But if you know that you work hard all the time and you can honestly sit with yourself and say, “I know that I’m motivated enough to go out there and make this happen,” then you can do it.
Priscilla: One of my favorite things that you just talked about and referenced is the power of visualization. And sometimes this sounds really like woo-woo and like hokey to people, but I am huge on visualizing what success looks like. And I just think it’s so powerful to be thinking about and feeling and getting excited about our dreams and our goals, because it does put you in a different kind of mindset. But anyway, how did you manage to get that first job in LA?
Doni: I would say that, as in probably most careers, it’s a lot about being in the right place at the right time. And especially in music, things move so quickly. So that was one of the reasons that I thought to myself, “I’m not going to get a job applying to things from Indiana. I need to be in LA. I need to be introducing myself to all of these people and make sure that the people who have access to these open roles know that I’m looking and that I’m available to start immediately.” So anybody that I met in LA, I basically said, “These are my interests. This is what I bring to the table. And I’m so excited to find — I’m really open to talking about any job opportunity that’s out there.” I think informational interviews, informational chats are so important. And as somebody who’s trying to learn about an industry, that’s one of the most valuable things you can do, because you might learn about a role that you never knew existed.
And so the first job that I had was in the talent management space. And the guy that I worked for actually managed Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker. And that was just like the most Hollywood experience I could ever imagine. I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is an artist that people know. And I’m working out of the office in the Hollywood Hills.” And I think that role came out of a mutual friend who is on a listserv of exclusive Hollywood postings. And it didn’t say the company and it did say the artists. But because I had gone to coffee with him and said, “Hey, I’m really open to anything. I’m interested in talent management. But if anything else comes up, please keep me in mind.” And I made sure everyone had a copy of my resume. And so as soon as he saw this job posting, he sent it over to me and said, “Hey, this is online. I don’t really know much about it, but feel free to reach out to them. Here’s the link.” And so I just started throwing my hat in the ring for things. I think it’s super important to be open to every conversation, especially at the beginning of your career. And don’t think that you’re above any role. Obviously know your worth and know your value, but I think it’s really important even just to have those conversations and go through interview process so that you get that experience and you can get a better understanding of which things you like and don’t like.
Priscilla: Okay. So your first role, I remember the title was executive assistant. What did that really mean? What was your day-to-day like in that first role?
Doni: Oh, man. So every day is a little bit as an assistant. And I think it’s really important to clarify if you are interviewing for an executive assistant role, if the nature of the role is purely professional and business or if it also includes the personal life of the executive you’re looking after. Mine was a little bit of both. We worked out of a home office, so it was an office of four people, a pretty small situation. Part of what I had to do was prepare coffee in the morning and accept all of the Amazon packages and things that came to the house. But then within my first week, one of our artists was recording a music video. And so everybody was offsite and I was alone in the office and they would call me and say, “Hey, you need to figure out how to get this thing to set.” And this was before Postmates and Uber Eats and all these things where you could just have a courier go and deliver stuff. So I’m sitting there like, “How am I going to get this to the set? I’m not allowed to leave the office.” I mean, you just never know, every day is different. But I think the key to being a really good assistant to anyone is to really get to know them on a personal level so that you can anticipate the stuff that’s going to make them happy or upset them. Or you can learn about how do they like to travel so that when you are booking travel for your executive, they only like to sit on the right side of the plane and the aisle seat, or they would like only transatlantic flight of on this style of plane. I mean, little tiny details that most people wouldn’t think about. It’s those little nuanced things that really show that you’re paying attention and that you care. And that’s what gets people to know that you’re going to go that extra mile, that you’re going to pay attention. You’re not just going to do enough to get it done, but you’re going to do it well and you’re going to make sure that everybody involved is taken care of. And not just for personal things like travel but for any part of your job. What is this, like a Peloton quote, how you do anything is how you do everything, I swear. So every task that was assigned to me, I thought I have to do the best possible job on this. Because if I don’t do a really good job on these little small tasks, I will never be entrusted to do the much bigger projects. So that’s how I looked at everything.
Priscilla: Yeah. And that makes total sense. People are always evaluating to see how you treat the little details, the small things to see if you can handle bigger projects. So that’s really cool that you had that intuition. So tell me about how you decided to end up leaving that role and then ending up at Interscope Records.
Doni: So I was starting to see that a lot of the decisions that we were making and a lot of the money that we needed to do certain activities was controlled by the record labels. And to me, that was really curious and I thought, “I would like to know how and why those decisions are made.” And so I just started looking at what roles are open at these major labels. I thought it would be really interesting to go and work for a bigger company that had a little bit more structure, because there’s always the possibility of transferring within a company. So if you come in doing one role and you do it for a year and you’re like, “not exactly my cup of tea,” at a big company, there’s always a possibility of an internal transfer if you apply and if the company, obviously, lets you do that kind of thing. But I just thought it’d be interesting to see bigger structure.
And so I had started to apply for a couple of things through the Universal Music Group career website. So Interscope sits under the umbrella of Universal and I just one afternoon was going to a bar for a birthday party of a mutual friend. And so I sat down at this bar, drinking a margarita and was talking to another girl who is there, telling her about what I do in LA, and that I was really interested in a career switch and a career advancement. And she said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. What kind of jobs are you applying for?” And I said, “I’ve applied to a couple of things on Universal Music Group’s website, including this job and that job.” And she said, “Huh, I posted that job. That’s really interesting.” And I thought, “Oh my God. What do you mean you posted the job? Like you also applied for it or what do you mean?” She said, “I’m a recruiter for Universal.” And in that moment, like all of the Hollywood stars aligned. That thing that I said at the beginning, being in the right place at the right time. That evening, she said, “Send me a resume. I have a different job that I think you’d be a really great fit for. I would love for you to apply.” And she said she’d been having some trouble finding the right candidate for it.
So I sent her my resume that night, like immediately when I got home. Tuesday, I had an interview, and Thursday, I think it was, I had a job offer. So it was super quick and it really just goes back to that whole being in the network, being open to conversations, putting out into the world what it is that you’re looking for and what you want, and just making sure that you’ve done all of the work in advance to set yourself up for if any opportunity becomes available, you’re just ready to jump on it and take advantage of it.
Priscilla: I really love that because it shows how important it is to really get out there and talk to people and let them know about your goals and your dreams, especially when it comes to an industry like the music industry that’s hard to break into. You were not scared of going out and telling people what you were interested in doing. And that was a big factor in your success, so I think that’s great.
Doni: Definitely takes some practice, learning how to ask for what you want and doing it tactfully. You don’t just want to go out here asking the universe, “Hey, give me this, give me that. I’m entitled.” You always want to stay away from that. But demonstrating that you are a valuable asset to a company and that you are excited and passionate to work hard and get to whatever point it is that you’re aspiring to, I think that’s how you land those productive and helpful conversations, where people are ready to turn around and be like, “Oh my gosh, let me help you get there.”
Priscilla: Okay. So tell us about your time at Interscope and what were the lows and the highs of that time.
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Doni: So I came into Interscope as an assistant. So I made a kind of horizontal move from one executive assistant position to another executive position assistant. But I came in on the international team at Interscope and I had such an awesome boss. And so I worked for him just like I did in my other role, I was exceptionally detail-oriented. I paid really close attention to who he was as a person and kind of the things that made him feel like I was really focused and everything was organized and taken care of.
But one of the other things, in his office, I was really the gateway between everybody else, all of the talent teams and all of the internal teams and all of that kind of stuff before they got to my boss. And so I always wanted to try and be a credible source of information to them. I never wanted people to feel like I was just an obstacle in their way of getting what they needed. And so I started working really hard to cultivate relationships with artists’ managers who would call in with the other executives from the company who are looking for my boss, and positioned myself as someone that they could come to with a question, given the understanding I may know. And if I don’t know, I will get them an answer and I will get it quickly. I never want it to just be the person that answered the phone before they got to my boss. And that paid off really well, going that extra mile, staying the extra late hours, making sure that I knew exactly who everybody was right from the beginning. And that is super hard when you’re an assistant is trying to learn really fast, who all of the contacts are that call and who are the high stakes phone calls that always need to get patched through your boss, and who do you put on the roll calls to do for later, getting all of that sorted so that as you transition into being their assistant, it seems like super seamless. That goes a really long way.
But yeah, so our team was pretty small. And then about a year in, one of the people on our team decided to move over to artist management. And so a role opened up and I had only been at the company for a year. So in no stretch of my imagination did I think, “Oh man, I’m going to go for this role.” But literally the same day that I found out, my boss came to me and said, “Hey, this person’s leaving. I want you to step up into the role.” Which to me was just like, “Oh my gosh,” that is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me and the biggest ode to working hard. I can’t believe he wants me to do this. And that’s obviously tough for him because now he’s going to have to find an assistant, so he must really believe in my ability to get this done.
And I think one of the interesting things in music is you usually go from being an assistant to a coordinator, and then you might work with somebody else on projects, and then you become into more of a manager role. And so I was jumping straight from an assistant to a manager role where I would have my own roster of clients. And so that, it was a pretty big jump and I moved up a lot faster than the peer group that I came into the company with. And that was a little bit isolating because you felt like man, I’m still struggling and I still want to like hang out with all these people, but you’re also now dealing with such different work projects that I think it was a really interesting transition from being an assistant to a manager.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s definitely a big leap. So when you transitioned into this role, how did you fill in the learning gaps that you had and how did you learn to be successful in something that you hadn’t done before?
Doni: Definitely not being afraid to ask for help. I had teammates who were much younger than me and much older than me. And I asked everyone. I mean, there was a lot that I had picked up on from being the assistant in that department. So I had seen the budgets before. I had seen the flights and I had seen kind of examples of the itineraries for the promotion trips and listened in on marketing calls. So there was a lot of stuff that I was broadly aware of. But there’s always stuff, there’s lingo that you don’t know. There’s acronyms and there’s partners that you’re not aware of. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s different strategies for every single artist. And if you haven’t been — like, if the artist has been part of the label for a long time and you were not in on those conversations at the onset, you have to figure out, okay, what is it about this artist that I need to know? So you’re doing a lot of research on your own, which also meant listening to a lot of music, which is always good.
But yeah, I think the fake it till you make it thing is important. I think confidence inspires confidence. If you act you know what you’re doing, people will believe that you know what you’re doing. And if you don’t actually know what you’re doing, you better not be afraid to ask. Because if you do it wrong, everybody’s going to know real quick.
Priscilla: Tell us about the glamorous international travel moments that you had and the artists that you got to work with.
Doni: One of the wonderful things about working on the international team is that you are doing exactly that, working on an international scale. And so as I was starting, I had to take a couple of training trips. So our team, we had promotion managers and marketing directors, which later became one role. And we would actually do all of the planning for those big international trips while we were in Los Angeles. And then we would execute everything in those plans in the markets where all of the plans were taking place. So we would actually be the people that traveled with the artists into market to explain here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s the expected result. Here’s how long it’s going to take. Here’s the snacks that are going to be there, literally everything.
And so the first trip that I ever took was with Maroon 5. And that was just such an extraordinary experience because their whole team, they’ve been doing it for so long that they have everything down to an art. They have such a talented crew and such awesome management that it was just like a dream. I couldn’t believe that I was at work. A lot of the time when you have a big travel party and you have well-known people that are in the spotlight all the time, it becomes pretty difficult to do commercial travel. You get stuffed a lot, and it’s not a super pleasant experience for artists that are traveling through commercial airports. And so I ended up getting to fly on my first private plane on that trip, which was such a pinch me moment. And I think that was the first time that I felt, “Wow, all of this work that I have done in terms of leaving home and moving to LA by myself, and having this really little tiny salary at my first job, and then going over-preparing for the Interscope interview and working really hard as an assistant. Now look at all of this stuff. It’s starting to pay off.” I mean, you really had these full circle moments that are like, wow. This is a result of my hard work and I’m just going to take a moment and breathe it in and experience gratitude for it. It’s so cool. And when you’re doing something that you love, it doesn’t feel like work even when you are working and not sleeping.
So that I think was probably the first most like awesome moment. But of course, as time goes on, there are different cycles for each album. So you’ll have the time period leading up to an album release. Then you have the album release and there’s the time period after. And then the artist goes back, they’ll either go touring to support that album. And then after that, they’ll go back into another writing period before they release another album. So you switch from artists. I worked with Lana Del Rey, which was very fun. I had the opportunity to work with Imagine Dragons and Sting, which was like another pinch me moment of, oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is my life. He is absolutely the most exquisite person. He’s so intelligent and so talented. And it’s such a privilege to get to work with people like Sting and his entire team.
So I think there’s a ton of highs that I can think about. And those are the things that stick out to me, way more than the lows. I think the only lows that I can think about are really just that when you’re traveling abroad and traveling as often as we were to get these trips done, you have to give up a lot of your ability to commit to things in your home area. So I wasn’t able to be around all of my friends in LA that I had finally started to cultivate. I couldn’t commit to going to weddings and I couldn’t commit to being at home around the holidays for the entire period of time. Because if I had to go be with an artist for a promotional activity, that was it. I had to get on the plane and go.
So that got tough at times, but I do think it goes back to choosing a career where you really love the subject of what you do. Because even on those hardest nights when you are staying up, you’re sitting in a hotel room that’s like a little bit less optimal than you might’ve selected for yourself, you’re working on something that is a fun challenge. It’s something that you’ve worked for a long time. And so even if it’s really hard, even if it’s really, “Ugh, I’m missing my cousin’s wedding,” it’s a very cool moment because you’re getting to do the thing that you worked so hard to do.
Priscilla: Doni, thank you so much for being with us today. You have a really refreshing take on what it’s like to forge a career that’s exciting but also work really hard to enjoy the fruits of your labor. So thank you for being here. I really appreciate it.
Doni: It has been such a joy to share my story with you and to all the listeners. It’s a tough industry but it is so worth it. So Priscilla, thank you so much for having me.
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