Have you ever thought about the story that you’re telling others when it comes to your career? On this episode, Aaron Wilson tells us about the career story he’s been crafting ever since he graduated from the University of Virginia with a degree in business. As a Black-Asian child of working class parents, Aaron’s story has included: moving to the West Coast to change functions and industries, navigating the ad agency world, deciding to pursue elite management consulting, and eventually landing at McKinsey, post MBA, as an associate.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Aaron: I remember I had a mentor at Capital One. He was Asian so he looked out for me. He knew I was half Asian. But he told me like some people at the company knew that I used to play football and I’m black. So if I walk around slow, people might think that you’re not super energetic or something like that. To a 21-year-old, coming fresh into a job, you’re just like, “What does that even mean?”
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 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.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone, how’s everyone doing? I am really good, actually. You know, yesterday, the CDC came out saying that you don’t have to wear a mask anymore if you’re vaccinated, which my brain still can’t really compute that. I feel like we’ve been through such a roller coaster ride in the last year in terms of guidelines. It’s been a trippy year where we don’t even know what to do or whatever. So But anyway, I think there is a light at the end of the tunnel and so that brings me a lot of joy because I do feel excited to start to incorporate some socializing and just seeing people in my life again, safely. And so, anyway, that’s just on my mind. But welcome to episode 24 of the first season of the early career moves podcast. Today, you’re going to hear from Aaron Wilson, who went to UVA Darden School of Business, he is an MBA, and he also went to UVA for his undergrad, his bachelor’s in business where he focused on brand management and actually worked at Capital One after he graduated in brand marketing. But later made a series of pivots that took him to work for Sony Pictures and for an ad agency, but the whole time you’re going to hear in his story that he was always sort of thinking about his next move in a very strategic way, even if he didn’t know exactly what that would look like.
So I think Aaron is a really great example of someone who stays ready, like he was doing the work, whether that was building a super marketable skill set that he could use later, or asking himself, you know, did he get what he needed to get out of a sort of experience? Where was he trying to go next? Not everyone is like this and that’s okay. But, you know, Aaron is someone who you can tell his story, is very much thinking long term, playing a game of strategy in his career, and it’s definitely paid off. Aaron is an associate McKinsey, one of the most elite management consulting firms in the world. And I won’t be surprised if one day we see his name as CEO. Okay, I’ll stop here. Enjoy the interview. Let me know what you think. So I’m excited to have you share your story of how you went from brand marketing to analytics to working at an ad agency all the way through Business School, and now working at McKinsey. But before we get into that, will you share a little bit about your own personal background?
Aaron: So, yeah, hello everyone. I’m originally from Washington, DC. My family are from the Northeast area of Washington, DC. But my father, he was originally from Chicago, the West side of Chicago, father’s black. My mother’s Korean, she’s actually from South Korea, so she was an immigrant. So most of my time, I was raised in Northeast DC, but also spend some time in Washington, Maryland, which is PG County, and then Alexandria, Virginia. So like a real full around DMV. So I went to high school in TC, played football, track, basketball as well and then played football at the University of Virginia in the ACC. When I first started, I studied Business Commerce at UVA, which was a pretty prestigious at that time. And then, once I graduated, I actually went to Capitol One for brand marketing.
Priscilla: Okay, so brand marketing was your first job. How did you ended up deciding to go down that path? And what was it like being in that program?
Aaron: So, yeah, I originally did brand marketing for Capital One straight out of undergrad. One of the reasons why I chose to do brand marketing was more of like, my mother was a cashier. Father, he was in the military. So I’d never saw what professional jobs looked like in the past. So for me, it was like, “Oh, marketing, would love it. Would love to do that type of job. It has a lot of outreach, a lot of influence.” And then if I ever got to the position high within the company, then I could be the one making decisions of how we’re utilizing that budget, and making differences in the world beyond just adding additional profits for the company. So that was my original thought trying to go to Capital One doing brand marketing. And on the other side of that Capital One was a heavily invested sponsor for the University of Virginia, so there was a big relationship there. A lot of alumni that came from the University of Virginia so it just made sense at the time. I oved it, great people, gained a lot of skill sets that I never had before, thinking strategically as well as working with advertising agencies. So I worked at Capital One for two years as an Associate Brand Marketing Manager. During that time, I was actually exposed to advertising agencies and seeing how they work. So it was very interesting in that time, because at Capital One, we were doing a lot of the strategy, providing a lot of the insights from data that we have within the company. But the cool things that usually think of as marketing goes is usually what the advertising agencies do, the advertising and the media agencies. They’re the ones who actually create the actual creative based upon the original strategy, and execute to expose it to the consumers. And in a way that makes sense. So there’s a lot of components to that I was intrigued, very interested, I wanted to see what that side of the world was like on the agency side, and additional opportunity popped up to move to Los Angeles. As I mentioned before, I’ve always been from the Washington DC area, went to UVA. So DC, in Virginia, Maryland, that whole scene is something that I knew majority of my life. So I thought, “Hey, why not? Let’s try something new and get exposure to a whole another area.” Who wouldn’t want to go to West Coast to do a little LA action, surfing and all?
Priscilla: Yeah. So before we get into you moving to LA and changing jobs, I would love to hear just your first job at Capital One. What were some of the stumbling blocks that you faced entering corporate America for the first time? What was challenging about it? How did you manage that?
Aaron: Sure. So one thing I want to start with is capital was an amazing place, very smart people, high caliber. But with that, I don’t think there will be one company that’s perfect. There’s always a lot of good things with it, but and then sometimes some setbacks. So one thing for Capital One, everyone was super high performing. But with that, it’s hard to get promoted, right? It’s hard to move up within the company if everyone’s high performing. The company treats everyone well. No one really wants to leave. You don’t really find that many opportunities that fast. And then beyond that, it’s like, how do you separate candidates who are all doing their job well? So the thing that I would say was, like separating people is more of like, how much do you like this person, right? Do they seem like they’re fully energetic? Do you feel like they’re super nice and willing to help each other? A lot of those things that aren’t pretty subjective. And honestly, like me, coming out of college, black Korean guy, there was maybe two other black people in the whole brand department of Capital One at the time. Right now, this is Sunday, so I’m feeling energetic. But when I was at Capital One coming out of college, like, I wouldn’t jump out everyone like, “Hey, how’s your day going?” And those are the things that can cost you at moving up in the company, or standing out as someone who’s 14 players, fully smart, etc. So those are some of the things that I struggle with, some of those things that it’s not on paper that you learn you should do to move up in the company or in the world, so I struggle with that. And this is probably even more personal level. I remember, I had a mentor at Capital One. He was Asian so he looked out for me. He knew I was half Asian. But he told me like some people at the company knew that I used to play football, and I’m black. So if I walk around slow, people might think that like, you’re not super energetic or something like that. A 21-year-old, coming fresh into a job, you’re just like, “What does that even mean?” So those are some things that I dealt with just trying to like navigate through like, the political system I will probably say within corporate world. I didn’t really fully understand that at the time. But I think that was just also just being young in my career.
Priscilla: Totally. I really liked that story because I remember when I was young, getting similar feedback like that I seemed disinterested, or that I didn’t seem enthusiastic. And later on, you realize that’s really highly valued. So totally understand that. But yeah, so let’s jump back into your story and what was the job that you moved for in California? Like what happened next?
Aaron: So I went over there for this media advertising agency called OMD. So that’s an agency under the umbrella, Omnicom. So similarly, like consulting firms and similar to some law firms, just like a big four of agencies. And Omnicom is one of those big agencies that’s worldwide, very prevalent in New York City and Los Angeles and Chicago. So I switched to that side and I was very purposeful with what position I picked. The position was for Marketing Analytics. So this is what like, end of 2014 beginning of 2015. I definitely wanted to get exposure to analytics because I knew that big data was going to be a big piece for all types of marketers out there, whether you wanted to be on the brand strategy side, or whether you wanted to be on the execution side, or whether you had aspirations to become an executive, big data was always going to be important. So I switched over to work for OMD in Los Angeles. There I worked on two accounts, I worked on the activation Call of Duty account, so think like Call of Duty Black Ops 3. I work on that campaign. So I did everything from what is the strategy like, what type of partner should we use in media? And what that means is like, yes beyond just like the Google search and featuring advertisements there and working with YouTube, via Google for YouTube videos. There’s a component outside of social media, which also includes like programmatic channels, where it’s a little site that people go to whether it’s blog sites, whether it’s a website site for video gamers, they may know like IGN, you’re featuring advertisements where people go to, and that’s kind of like what the media agency job is.
Priscilla: Okay, cool. Yeah, that’s sounds like such a huge change, right? Like, not only did you move from the East coast to the West coast, where you didn’t have any routes, but you also changed industries a little bit and also function. So what was that like making those switches and what was maybe hard about that?
Aaron: Yeah, I remember telling some friends that, “Hey, I’m going to move to Los Angeles in a month.” Some people thought I was joking. It was just something that I had to move with before I second guessed myself, because I knew I just wanted to change for myself, just because I’ve been in the DMV area for so long. So that’s what just prompted me and pushed me over the edge in order to do so no matter what the challenge is. As far as how I dealt with, like the switch, functionally in and from an industry standpoint, I think it was just pure curiosity. One thing that I think stands out to me no matter who I worked with and in any industry, any company is, if a person is intelligent, and they have the will to learn and work, I think you’ll be fine anywhere. When I started working at the media advertising agency, very different world than a financial bank, especially like a fortune 100 company. So the media advertising agency, I mean, was totally different from a culture standpoint, like we had a basketball Court, inside our building, you can have your dogs at work, we were working with entertainment companies left and right, Disney was another client of ours for the advertising agency, etc. So it was a shift, but hey, I’m not going to complain about those things like, I loved it. I think the biggest thing was more the fact that just showing that I was passionate and which was authentic like, I was excited to work at this advertising agency and try something new. I think that’s something that people have heard over time, who are very successful, when they make transitions, it’s usually because they felt like the position, they were previously in felt stale, or they weren’t learning anymore. I think whenever you’re in a position where you’re not learning anymore, like it will come across to other people that you really aren’t learning more, and then your passion and curiosity might falter. So I really leaned on that when I was starting a new function in a new company. I showed that I was curious, I was attentive, I learned and picked up fast. And then, I just let that kind of carry my weight all the way through. Put in the beginning, it’s obviously going to be more time and effort, but over time, started gaining more expertise, and then just kept trying to push the boundaries of what we could do at some of these media advertising agencies, and even leveraging my past experiences working at Capital One, knowing that I was on the client side of advertising agencies in the past. That kind of gave me like, a leg up of oh, this is probably what they may want to see or what they’re looking for what type of insights will be most helpful? So, again, I think two parts, really leaning on that curiosity point, learning fast. And the second point of utilizing past experience, whenever it fits, I think that’s always shows like a unique perspective, and showing how you’re a unique asset.
Priscilla: What are some things that you think people should know about the advertising agency world if they’re considering entering and breaking into this work? Sure.
Aaron: So I would probably say there’s probably like three different things. One, I would say location does matter, especially, if you’re thinking entry level. The cities with the most agency activity and opportunity would definitely always be Los Angeles and New York City. So I’m just going to be very straightforward on that front. That’s not to say that there aren’t advertising agencies and other big cities in the US like, Atlanta, San Francisco, Chicago, there are, but nine out of 10 there’s way more opportunities and job openings in New York City and Los Angeles. So that’s just a very direct piece of advice, at least from my perspective. The second piece, I would say is, there’s different types of positions they’re looking for in agencies. One, they’re looking for creative, so that’s what you think about as graphic designers, people with artist in skill sets, and craftsmanship, photographic or video recording skills, that creative sector. They’re also looking for analytics. That’s actually a growing space in advertising agencies. Utilizing data and measuring especially for digital media just, because everything is gravitating towards that. Budgets increasing, advertising spend in the digital space, so if you have any type of analytic skills, that’s working with Excel, working with SQL, working with Tableau, it’s huge. So we definitely highly recommend leveraging some of those skills and those platforms in order to get a leg up in the advertising world. And then, three, which some agencies are known for are more of the strategist. So those are the people who don’t have as much heavy analytic skills. But I would say and pre-warn like, that’s more based upon pure experience. Strategist can move up and become VPs, executives, etc. But the road from the beginning is going to be a little difficult because in the beginning, I don’t think that pays huge for strategist coming in to agencies. But as far as like, how to get in, it’s literally more of just like, making sure your resume matches up finding the right opportunity and the right timing, if you want to come in as a strategist.
Priscilla: Okay, so you were saying that you were at the ad agency, what ended up happening next, how did you end up moving up and getting to the point of going to business school.
Aaron: So then, I got promoted, worked as a manager within the media agency where I shifted. And there, just working on different accounts really shine light on how you have to change your strategy and the tools that you utilize to reach out to the consumer. A video game, for instance, like they release once a year, annually. So what you’re doing is you’re trying to build hype and engagement throughout the year slowly but surely until the person like, unconscious things like, I have to get this game, versus Levi’s and Dockers, where you’re dealing with retail, people are usually thinking about buying clothes two times the year, at least, which is usually spring and fall. Preparation for the wintertime and spring when you’re preparing for summer, as well as getting close for that spring and fall season. So that’s how like campaign shifted, the type of sites and partners you will utilize, the way we were analyzing engagement was totally different, and that was one of my responsibilities was at the agency OMD. Before, I actually shifted again to work for another agency, a media agency called Universal McCann. And that’s where I was contracted out to Sony Pictures. So that’s where I spent my last year and a half two years before going back to my MBA program. I am working for Sony Pictures, doing audience targeting for all the different Sony Picture movies like, Spiderman Homecoming, Jumanji, Welcome to the Jungle. So this was back in 2017. That’s what I was doing before the NBA.
Priscilla: So when you were making all these career decisions in your 20s before you went to business school, what were the things that you were looking for in your next opportunities? Like how did you think through that?
Aaron: Yeah, for sure. I was thinking about if probably from a 3.1. I was like, “Where did I want to live?” As far as city position, what type of lifestyle that I want as far as what job I was going to choose? People I think automatically guys like compensation, what account, is this any work. So that’s like the short term. So that was like the bare top superficial things I was looking at for jobs and switching jobs. The second piece I’ll probably say is, I was thinking about what story like my resume was telling and how I wanted to grow. And it wasn’t just literally like jumping back and forth from like a zigzag standpoint, but more of like, it didn’t have to incrementally stack up on top of each other as far as how my experience was building. But how was I growing? How was I evolving as if I want to be as an executive. I think I have a very heavy marketing background, but also marketing and strategy. And I knew that something that I wanted to be a part of my core of what I would be known for whether it’s five years from now, 10 years from now, 20 years from now. So from that standpoint, I always wanted to make sure I had a little bit of piece of what I did when I first started working way back when I worked for Capital One doing brand marketing. And I did Sony Pictures was a little bit different, because every movie is going be totally different, right? The way you’re marketing a movie for Spiderman is going to be very different than you do for Peter Rabbit kids movie. So that changed a little bit. But that job, for instance, was still connected to my previous job doing marketing analytics. I was building upon what our to learn about data. And then, I was targeting audiences, so I was building further from my previous job working with Sony Pictures connected to OMD working at that agency. So that’s that second point, I was talking about is how was my resume building over time, incrementally, from position to position. And then, the third piece, I wanted to mention was like more long term, the thing I was thinking about is, how could it put me in a position. For instance, I knew I wanted to eventually switch to management consulting will put me in that position. I was thinking about that probably since 2015. And I graduated from the University of Virginia Darden School of Business in 2020. So there were some thought into that, will put me in the best position, what would tell that story of why did I want to get there. So that was the third piece that I think played a role in how I was choosing positions and companies.
Priscilla: That’s really cool. It seems like you were really intentional about your strategy throughout the years, which is I would say pretty rare and unique, but obviously it really served you well once you were in business school and you knew you wanting to do consulting. At what point did management consulting get on your radar? How did you know that that was something you wanted to pursue?
Aaron: From the undergrad business school from UVA, there’s actually quite a few people who go into consulting. I wasn’t exposed to it just during that time. I didn’t even know what to look for. So my mind was always brand marketing. But soon after, when I was at a Capital One, and I started talking to some more friends, meeting more people and find out, “Oh, that’s pretty cool.” Like consulting, you get exposure to multiple different companies, you get to travel, something that piqued my interest, not something that I was sure that I wanted to do, but it was something that was like, potentially in the future. And on top of that, before I move on to the second time, I want to say like, at all times, when I was building my career, I didn’t know exactly where I wanted to be. But it was more of thinking about, I wanted to leave room where it made sense if I went that way. So like if, say, if I wanted to go into music with Spotify, I will want to have works that could connect me to be able to go that direction. So I never exactly knew like, hey, I always wanted to be at Sony Pictures when I was at Capital One but it was more of a thing like, I was always incrementally building upon my past experience, so that I could be able to go that direction. So just wanted to make that clear. So after the first point of when I was exposed to consulting the second point, I was actually exposed to one of the MBB firms when I was working with Sony Pictures. And that’s when, you know, I was fascinated. The team was very smart, very intelligent, structured, high performing, move fast, and I learn more about them. The fact that the type of work they were touching, even at a young age, I just knew like beyond just the opportunities that were open for management consultants at high prestigious firms was the soft skills that they developed. How exact and professional they spoke with their client. Every meeting wasn’t just a meeting just to have or cover track, it was always with intention in mind to move the problem solving and trying to find the solution faster and forward. People know. Sometimes I imagined who’s listening to this podcast. Sometimes you have meetings where it’s just kind of cyclical. And then, there’s just another thing you have that meeting but then no one steps back and as like why like how are we pushing, you know, the solution in these 20 minutes to make sure that we are further along than we were 20 minutes ago. This is what this firm did. And that really spoke to me. So I would say that was time I was like, hey, like whether something I will want to do for the rest of my life afterward. I know that I will want a career in consulting because I want to develop those skills almost at an unconscious level. So that’s probably the second time I got exposed and I was like, Oh, I could see myself in the consulting industry.
Priscilla: Okay, so now let’s talk about your MBA journey. You decided to go to UVA Darden, you had other options, you got a McKinsey internship offer, you accepted a full-time offer to join McKinsey. And that’s where you are now, McKinsey is one of the top three management consulting firms, one of the most elite, right? A lot of people would say, it’s the best one. MBB, for those who don’t know, stands for McKinsey, BCG and Bain. And so, yeah, like what did it feel like for you to get that internship and to now be in this full-time like, that must have been like such a huge accomplishment.
Aaron: I was ecstatic. It was a hard road. I’m not going to lie. The networking and the case prep, I was extremely excited. One, just the amount of work I put in but two when I was working at Sony Pictures and even applying for the MBA programs, my thought process as far as like applying. What I will want to do post MBA was always like consulting firm like McKinsey, right? Like, I wasn’t sure if I would ever get the opportunity to work for McKinsey so it was always a consulting firm like McKinsey. So at the back of my mind, like it wasn’t only the hard work that I’ve done, but it was also the fact that I felt like it was a dream come true. The people I met at McKinsey were amazing folks that well, they weren’t just smart, they knew how to engage how to influence and I was very happy about that Atlanta office, in particular, there are already three women black partners, so they mean to just say they were about diversity, they actually had them in leadership. So a show like this company actually stood behind what they said. So I was Yeah, I was very happy about getting that offer.
Priscilla: That’s amazing. So switching gears here a little bit, I want to talk about imposter syndrome. We talk about it a lot on the podcast and I just want to hear like, did you experience imposter syndrome throughout your 20s? How did you manage that?
Aaron: Sure. So yeah, I’ve had it a few times across my career. I think the first time ever was when I first started working for Capital One doing brand marketing. At the time, I was working on the Quicksilver credit card so I was pulling it then. I was working with all this senior leadership that’s had excellent past experiences and expertise in the field and I’m the one trying to add my piece to make this national campaign happen. I started second questioning myself. Oh, is this work? Absolutely. 100% unequivocally correct. I don’t want to be that black guy who got something wrong, but over time, it was just trusting myself. I had mentors and sponsors who spoke up for me And when you keep Hearing it again and again, you start thinking like, hey, you’re right, I did do good work. And I did it again. And then again, like maybe I am fit for this. So that was probably the first time. The second time was probably when I first got promoted to manager at OMB, the advertising agency, and I was actually managing someone who’s about the same age as me maybe even like a year older. So one, there’s different dynamics going on there from how comfortable they feel talking with someone who’s their age, and then trying to walk that line between should I be doing this? I am the manager. How do I do this? Am I even cut out for this? Maybe I got promoted too soon. These are the things that were running through my mind. and managing is not easy. Like I think that should be highlighted a lot more in a lot. A lot of corporations like management is not just about being able to do your job. Well. It’s also about being able to build relationships and adapting to the working styles of the people that you’re managing. So it was definitely a learning curve. And I would like to say that I got it correct. The first time I don’t think I necessarily did. But I think maybe like the second year, when I started managing a new person, I started learning how people’s personalities were different and how it could adapt. That’s when I started thinking like, okay, at least I think I’m somewhat competent at it and something that I can definitely do in the future. And then the third time was definitely here at McKinsey. There’s like Olympians walking around everyone’s valedictorians, etc, definitely felt some of that. But I was very happy because even at McKinsey, we have affinity group called the McKinsey black network. And I cannot state how many times people have reached out to me to for support, or even on a higher level for the entire new NBN class of like we do good work like we’re very special people before we got to the firm. So not to ever lose sight of that because the firm did make a special, we were like that before we even got there, getting those reassurances were definitely helpful. And then again, sometimes just given a time, like, I definitely feel in a much better place than I did when I first started working again full time, even after the entire internship. So I think that feeling is always there. But it’s more of just like having patience, giving it time. And then building that support network around you to get that gain reassurance.
Priscilla: I totally agree with everything that you just said. It’s almost like learning how to live with it and creating systems of support to slowly build our confidence over time. But yeah, so my last question for you, Aaron, what kind of advice would you give to someone who was in your shoes maybe a few years back and is trying to move forward in a similar path to yours?
Aaron: Yeah, I think my one piece of advice would be what do you want to stand for? And what I mean by like, what do you want to stand for? This could be at a personal and professional level? Like, do you want to stand for hard work, then come to consulting? Because you’re going to be seeing a lot of hard work? Do you want to be known for impact? Like what type of impact do you know. I’m saying like what really resonates and matters most to you, because I think whatever you choose to do, as far as what you want to stand for, your curiosity is going to run wild. So you’re going to do good work, you’re going to learn you’re going to progress, you’re going to get better, you’re going to evolve. And then, if you’re finding out like what you stand for, I think that’s going to be good for you. When you’re even building your resume. You’re trying to pitch in interview with the different companies because if you know what you want to stand for, you can build, you know your brand of like what you’ve done in the past and what you will do in the future, it will start becoming a lot more clear when you start from there, like knowing like what you want to stand for, that will help you dictate what jobs what industries you want to work in, that will help you even focus on like what you’ve done in the past. Because no matter what, there is a path behind you and ahead of you that is connected. So I think knowing what you want to stand for is that connector to making sure that whole thing tells a story.
Priscilla: Yes, and storytelling and branding, like truly your own career path is so key to a lot of this is like, how do you sell yourself? How do you tell your story? So I love that you ended on that note. Aaron, thank you so much for being with us today. You’re such a great example of what’s possible when you work hard and have a plan. And so yeah, thanks for being with us.
Aaron: Absolutely. Thank you for having me much appreciate.
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 love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
On this episode, you’ll hear from Timka Lockheart, a Georgia native and proud graduate from Alabama A&M University who ended up on Wall Street for her first job out of college and eventually with an MBA from Wharton. As the only Black woman on her team as a first-year analyst, Timka had to quickly learn the ropes and come to grips with her insecurities to perform at a high level. Today, Timka works as a Career Coach helping young professionals make “courageous leaps” and she spills the tea on how she made some of her own leaps.
Links Mentioned in the Episode:
Management Leadership for Tomorrow – Career Prep
Management Leadership for Tomorrow – MBA Prep
Management Leadership for Tomorrow – Professional Development
SEO – Seizing Every Opportunity
SEO Career Program – SEO Career recruits and trains high achieving Black, LatinX, and Native American college students for challenging summer internships that lead to coveted full-time jobs
Thurgood Marshall College Fund
Courageous Leaps LLC
Timka: It just took me getting comfortable with the job and saying you don’t have to be perfect. You will not get fired for small mistakes. You have to take the risk to learn. I think that we forget that learning is risky. You’re learning to do something you haven’t done before. And so, that requires a commitment to not being perfect.
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 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, welcome to episode 23 of the Early Career Moves Podcast. Today, I’m so excited to be sharing Timka Lockhart’s story with you. But before I get there, I want to just give a quick reminder that we are going to be wrapping up season one of the podcasts at episode 30, which will air early July. And at that point, I’m going to be taking about 10 weeks off to have my own little summer break. My birthday is coming up in August. I’m also getting married at the end of summer. So really excited to unplug a little bit. But don’t worry, I’ll definitely be back in September. And I have lots of fun exciting episodes in the works and just looking forward to continuing to improve upon and make this podcast the best young professional BIPOC resource out there. So today’s episode features Timka Lockheart, she is an amazing woman who is also in the career space, she is the founder of Courageous Leaps, and she’s also a Wharton MBA grad.
She is a career coach on the side and helps people transition into new roles. But her full-time gig is at American Express where she’s in a leadership development program. On this episode, Timka shares what it’s been like to be an HBCU grad who’s originally from Georgia and was able to crack into one of the most elite industries for her first job in investment banking. I will make sure to link in the show notes the different programs that she mentioned that she was a part of that helped her get there. She talks about what it was like to be the only woman, the only black woman in the room. How she had to kind of get over her own fears, insecurities, self-doubt to be able to perform at a high level. And she also will talk about how her Wharton MBA pushed her to become a stronger version of herself. So really excited to share her story with you. Thanks for listening, y’all.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. I’m really excited to have Timka Lockheart on today’s episode. Welcome, Timka.
Timka: Thank you. Thank you so much for having me. I’m excited to join you today.
Priscilla: Yeah. So before we jump into introductions, I want the audience to know how you and I connected. So Timka and I actually crossed paths this summer before we both started our MBA programs through MLT, Management Leadership for Tomorrow, where they were helping us kind of prepare for the recruiting process that would take over in business school. I’m sure we’ll go into that a little bit later. But it was just really cool to cross paths and we both have a passion for helping people navigate their career paths, especially as people of color. So really excited to dive into this conversation. But yeah, Timka, why don’t you just share with the audience a little bit about yourself, just anything to kind of give the audience a sense of your background?
Timka: Sure. So I’m Timka, everyone. I’m originally from Atlanta, Georgia, just where I’m currently recording this podcast. I’m a black woman. I think that’s actually pretty integral to my story and the story we’ll walk through today. I got my undergrad degree in Finance from a really small HBCU, Alabama A&M and HBCU being a historically black university. And then, went on in my career to work in Finance and a couple other things we’ll talk about later today. And yeah, I would say, major theme in my life so far has been resiliency in showing up for yourself, because I believe if you show up for yourself, you literally can do anything in the world, but the half of the battle is showing up. So that’s about me.
Priscilla: Yeah. So let’s kind of rewind a little bit to those HBCU days. Tell us where you went. And also, how did that experience impact you being in a historically black college university?
Timka: First, let me say I grew up in Atlanta and the neighborhood I grew up in Atlanta was actually pretty rare compared to the average American, and that my neighborhood was all black. So we had black police officers, black teachers, black government officials, like everyone was black in this little town. And so, I think that first that shaped my worldview, and that it was an understanding that you literally can be anything you want to be. And so, I think that’s something that a lot of minority black and brown kids don’t see. And I was fortunate enough to grow in this kind of environment, so that’s one.
And then, going to HBCU, I feel like it was just a continuation of seeing people that looked like me and having a level of support that I’m not sure that everyone gets at a predominantly white institution. So my teachers would call my cell phone, if I miss class, right? And say, “What happened today?” Or would talk to an administrator that I was close to and say, “Hey, Timka didn’t come to XYZ.” Right. And so, you knew that you had people looking out for you, and what pushed you to be your best in an environment that was really small and tight knit, which I think is we can’t measure the impact of that.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I went to an all-women’s college and it’s a similar concept of being in this environment that is not really representative of the real world. But what’s really cool is that it kind of flips everything on its head, right? Everyone who’s a leader on campus was a woman. And so, for you, it was like a black person. And so, it’s just so it was freeing for me to be in that environment. And it made me fearless when I did go into the workplace after college, because I was like, “Women speak up, like women are just as capable as anyone else.” Did you feel like you also reap that benefit?
Timka: I did. And I do think that on the flip side, I also was very naive in terms of going into internships and being like, “Oh, this is what the real world is.” And realizing that you, in fact, will probably be the only black face in the room. And dealing with that reality, I think was something else I had to kind of tackle. And I joke and say that while I was in college, I worked at a local mall, and I worked at the Ann Taylor store. And working at that Ann Taylor store gave me a much bigger viewpoint of the world and allowed me to experiment in a different way. So I think that, yes, HBCU life, absolutely, 1,000% would do it again, do not regret. And I’m grateful to also have some of those other experiences that helped prepare me for the world too.
Priscilla: Yeah. Okay. So tell us about your first job out of college. How did you find it? How did you end up going in that direction?
Timka: So my first role, full time role out of school, I actually went into investment banking. So I worked at Barclays full-time where I worked in debt capital markets and I covered tech media and telecom companies. And so, my journey to investment banking was one of– was very interesting. We mentioned MLT earlier in this conversation and I want to plug MLT again because I did management leadership for tomorrow’s undergrad program just called Career Prep. And that program, you apply the summer during your sophomore year, and you start before your junior year, and they kind of carry you through graduation. But that program, on top of a couple of others that also mentioned really opened up the world to me, so I did MLT. I also did another program called Thurgood Marshall College Scholars, and that program focuses on public HBCU students and opening up internship opportunities for them. So I did that program.
And then finally, I also did SEOs, career prep program, which is SEO standing for sponsors for educational opportunity. So I guess a real quick thing there is I found places and resources to help me and I didn’t know where I was going. I didn’t know that investment banking was working on and where I was going to end up. However, I was like, I know I need to get out of Alabama, and I need to find places to help me do it. So I went through those three programs. And I think that game changer for me was having intense mentorship and in some ways sponsorship across those three programs to support my career and thinking about what I wanted to do after school. And so, investment banking came up as something that my MLT coach, Valerie Griffin was like, “You should actually, I want to challenge you to apply to do this.” The way she did that was applying to SEO, I got into SEO. And at the time, SEO, if you got into SEO, you were guaranteed an investment banking internship. And so, they don’t do that anymore but back then that was how it worked.
And so, I got into SEO, I got the internship and SEO gave me a network of mentors who literally held my hand throughout the summer experience. And I was also fortunate enough to get placed on a desk with another black woman which was very rare. And so, all of these forces came together. I got the full time offer. After graduating, I moved to New York City and joined the investment bank full-time. And that was an entirely different experience. I think being an intern versus working full-time is two very different things. But that was my journey into getting on Wall Street.
Priscilla: That is such an incredible journey because those spaces are so elite and closely guarded. Like, I remember when I was in college only, like the top of the top, like GPAs could even be considered for ibanking. And I’m sure you encountered that when you finally started full-time, it’s just like, your peers were coming from these probably very elite institutions, maybe there wasn’t a lot of diversity. And so, I just remember in college being like, “Wow, that’s intense to try to get into ibanking.”
Timka: No, I think that’s exactly right. So I will say SEO did an excellent job preparing the interns like we had to move to New York two weeks early before our internship, and they put us through like a boot camp. And it was like, “This is what you have. This is what you’re going to expect.” And so, I feel, like even that preparation gave us a leg up, right? Like, we knew how to use Excel. We knew the basics of accounting, like they were ensuring that all of these black and brown kids knew exactly what was going to happen. And, of course, I was prepared for the fact that I probably would have been one of the few black women in the room at that young of an age. And so, I think that preparation did carry forward into full-time. But I underestimated how different it would be, right? So an investment banking, the culture really depends on the group you’re placed in. It’s not necessarily the bank, it’s really about the team that you’re on. And so, one team could be very different from another team and I think it was something that like, bopped me upside the head, when I started working full-time.
Priscilla: So there are a lot of things that are very challenging about working in investment banking and working in finance, and so some things that come to mind are the hours. I’m sure you worked weekends, there’s just an incredible amount of time you’re putting in. And then, secondly, the fact that it’s not only a white space, but it’s also a heavily male dominated space. So I’m curious if that played into at all your experience. And then, of course, just like all of the skills that you had to probably develop really quickly to be successful. So what was the biggest challenge for you?
Timka: I would say, so when I joined full-time, I was joined a team that was majority white in all male. I was the only one on the team. I was reportedly the first five woman that had been on that team in five years. And quite, frankly, it really was a boys club, really. And so, this was back in 2013. So this was right before some of these regulations that they have around investment banking were coming into place. And I said regulations like, no Friday staffing, right? You can’t get put on a new project on a Friday or you have to sign out X amount of times a week or something like that. And when I joined, those regulations weren’t necessarily in place. And so, the team was really small, and we worked really hard.
We had a lot of volume coming through this desk. And it often felt like, I was– and they’ll describe it to you this way, joining an investment banking or starting this career is almost like drinking from a firehose. There’s so much coming at you. And on top of that, I was the only woman of color on my team, I was the only woman on my team. And so, I often felt isolated in a lot of ways. And some of that being, my own self-isolation, right, not feeling confident in my abilities. And I think on top of that, some of that was just understanding that I wasn’t necessarily as prepared as I could have been or should have been to take on such a large role. And, especially being a woman, I often felt like I’m not good enough, I’m not smart enough, they probably think I’m dumb, I can’t laugh at their jokes, I don’t know anything about football, like all of these little things that compounded upon themselves, and I think really affected my first year in terms of performance.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what ended up helping you overcome some of that? Was it like a specific coach or a sponsor? Or like, what helped you get out of your head a little bit?
Timka: It definitely took me– let’s say, it wasn’t a six-month learning curve for me. It was like an eight- or nine-month learning curve, I’ll be completely honest. It just took me getting comfortable with the job and saying, “You don’t have to be perfect. Right? You will not get fired for small mistakes. You have to take the risk to learn.” I think that we forget that learning is risky. You’re learning to do something you haven’t done before. And so, that requires a commitment to not being perfect. I felt like in my career, I was trying to be perfect so much that it was holding me back from actually learning what I needed to learn, because I was so worried about doing the things that I actually knew how to do. And it was almost like, analysis paralysis. So for me, it was time that helped me get up to speed. It was time and it was having other women, even the women at Barclays and some of the folks that I knew pour into me and say, you can do this, right, just relax and listening to that advice.
Priscilla: Yeah, I like that term analysis paralysis, because, yes, I think that when the mindset is not there, our minds can go into panic mode. And then, when you’re panicked, you actually start making more mistakes than you would normally have, right?
Timka: Yeah, that’s exactly it is. We allow panic to literally override our common sense and we have to be able to calm ourselves down and I think the other piece too, was like, am I able to ask for help, right? I should be able to admit that I don’t know something, I think that was a huge thing for me, was that when I was learning new things, I was so focused on being perfect, that I would then forget what I learned three or four months later, and it was like, we’ve gone through this, right? And you learned it the first time, but you were so nervous, so afraid that you didn’t really marinate on what you were taught. And so, I think that also hindered me a lot in those early months was, the fear held me back from even growing into where I wanted to go.
And I’ll add this, I think that the game changer for me was when I started in the group, I had a co-analyst, and we were on the same level, and a year into the so this was technically a two-year program, in the analyst program, and he left a year early. And so, when he left, it was literally like a sink or swim situation, where it was like, well, Timka, you are it? You either have to give up the program or not. And at the time, of course, I was really upset that he was leaving, because I felt like I was just getting my sea legs, I’m just now getting it. And at that point, it was like, this is the point where you have to turn it up, he there is no option here unless you want to quit too. I think that was it was really what caught and put the battery in my back in terms of you can do this. And I proved to myself, I was able to do it. And so, I left the bank feeling great about my performance, and I’m not sure that would have happened if he had stayed, because I would have been able to rely on him.
Priscilla: Okay, so tell us about your decision to leave ibanking. I know that a lot of the times people try to go into private equity and like hedge fund work or whatever. I’m sure there were lots of options you could have considered. What did you decide to do maybe at the end of those two years?
Timka: Sure. So I realized that I’d spent two years learning a lot about capital markets, a lot about debt and bonds and any kind of Treasury work. And I wanted to learn more about overall company’s like, what is the company’s strategy, right? And so, I realized that I started to look for jobs and like strategy development, ultimately, because I did not see myself continuing to work, as hard as I was working in investment banking, I just couldn’t, I wasn’t in love with it. And I also did not want to get what they call the golden handcuffs. So when you start to get a certain amount of money, it’s harder to walk away, right? It’s the feeling of, well, I can’t leave, right, because this is the amount of money I’m making, and especially being that young. I started to look for strategy roles. And I’ll tell the story of how I got into my next job. Basically, I was like, I’m willing to take a pay cut and just to learn. And actually, one of the jobs I applied for was with MLT, I applied for strategy partnership role.
And so, when I interviewed with for the job. And I interviewed with this person, this amazing mentor of mine named Marcus Shaw, and he’s a mentor now, but at the time, I didn’t know him. And I interviewed with him and I explained my story and what I was looking to do, looking to learn, and he basically told me during the interview, he was like, “Listen, I don’t think this is the right role for you.
However, I know the right role for you. I know somewhere where you can go.” So he connected me to some folks over at a firm called the Brunswick group. And the Brunswick group is a small crisis management and corporate public relations firm. And at that firm, I was able to really grow and learn about corporate strategy, overall. Corporate PR, how do we respond to these broad issues companies are facing. And in that connection, I was able to immediately get a first round interview and really apply some of the skills I learned in banking and a completely different skill set. And it wasn’t something I ever thought I was going to do. didn’t know that I was interested in it, but it was this is an opportunity to learn something new and to grow your skill set, don’t turn it down.
Priscilla: Wow. And it’s great that you were open to something different, right? Like, I think sometimes people get really caught up in like having this very linear path about, oh, well, this is what I should do next. But it sounds like you were pretty open to exploring and that’s what took you to that next opportunity.
Priscilla: Okay, so was this like a Olivia Pope type situation like, what kind of century are you working on?
Timka: So I think that everyone external thought of it as Olivia Pope, but in reality, maybe the partners at the firm were Olivia Pope think, you know everything. But at my level, it was more of writing documents, drafting talking points, doing a lot of research, supporting, especially C suite executives from across industries. In terms of– I need to get my CEO on CNBC, for example. What does he say, in response to Bill Ackman trying to take over his company? What exactly does he say? Or my CEO, their company is releasing earnings next week. What does she say to CNBC host about their earnings performance? What a reporter saying? What is the general news that these companies need to be aware of? So in a lot of ways, I’ll be honest, I worked just as hard as I did in investment banking. But it was just a different kind of work. I think it was the kind of work that required a different brain in terms of critical thinking, and especially around being able to write and write well. I don’t think that I really learned that ability in banking. But, of course, in corporate PR, you’re talking points need to be perfect. The press release needs to be on point., you have to be really on top of the details, and it taught me a different skill that I did not get in banking.
Priscilla: Okay, so now let’s transition over to the MBA journey chapter, which I’m sure was like a whole thing for you, as it was for me, were you always sold on the idea of going to business school and getting your MBA?
Timka: I did not realize business school was an actual thing until I started working in investment banking. And my director, at the time, Luke was at Harvard grad, he was ex-military. He left the military, went to Harvard, and then worked in investment banking. And I think he was one of the first people that I ever met, or was really like, oh, whoa, this is actually an option. So for me, it was always curious to me that he was always so close to his Rugby Club, he was like, “I’m going out to drinks with the rugby friends.” From his Harvard Business school days. And I think that was something that really made an impression on me was like, Oh, he’s still really close to these folks from grad school. That’s interesting. And then, I felt as I met clients from both investment banking, and even in the PR world, a lot of them had these really impressive grad schools. And then, finally, when it came time to kind of really get serious. I had done investment banking, right, I had worked in PR. I was like, I need to continue the through line, right? If I want to do something different, how do I get there? And so, for me, it was going back to school.
Priscilla: Yeah. So I’m assuming you did MLT’s MBA prep program. Is that right?
Timka: Yes, I did MLT MBA prep, correct.
Priscilla: Yeah. Like that’s like a two-year program. Is that right? Or is it a year and a half, almost, or–?
Timka: Similar to the undergrad program? It really– I think, I would say is two years, I guess all in and I kind of joke and say that was actually one of the hardest points in my career, was being great at the PR job. Because I’ll be honest, I think, again, just like investment banking, it took me a while to get up the learning curve, and to be really good at the PR stuff. So doing PR, responding to clients, working on a client schedule, right? So it’s not like a regular nine to five, you got to be up at six, you’re going to be up at six, right? And studying for the G mat while working was just incredibly difficult for me. So I’ll share this. I took the GMAT five times to get to school.
Priscilla: I believe you, yeah.
Timka: My goal was not just to get into school, my goal was to get in with a scholarship. And, yeah, maybe the third time I could have gotten into somebody’s school, but was that good enough to get some money? No. So it was just really, I think, it really came down to time management and being extra disciplined about how I did everything. So I think when I got really serious about the G mat, those last couple of times, I stopped going out. I stopped drinking. I would show up to work early, to do my work early, to be finished with work by five so then I could sit at my desk for three extra hours and study like, it was no joke because I knew if I did not leave the firm, I probably would have been kind of pigeonholed into PR forever. And that’s not what I necessarily want.
Priscilla: Yeah, it’s I had a similar experience. So I did not take it five times but I took it twice. But there was like a pretty significant difference between those two scores. And you’re right, it’s the balance is so hard. I remember getting up early, doing two or three hours before work, doing work. And then, in the evening, you’re doing that, again, the weekends, it’s a lot.
Timka: Yeah. And so, there’s actually– I’m reading this book called Win the Day by Mark Patterson. And he said something in the book that I wanted to call out, but I don’t know if you’re religious, or anyone out here is religious, but I’ll say this in the book, it’s a book about the top seven habits we need to develop, so on, so forth. And one of the habits he has, it’s called eat the frog. So doing the hardest things of your day, first, ensuring that you’re really intentional about these hard things. And the tagline for Eat the Frog is if you want God to do the super, you’ve got to show up in the natural, you want the university, the super, or whatever you believe in, right? If you want these super amazing, awesome things to happen, you still have to do the work to get there. And I feel that kind of beam is underlining during that that period in my life where it was like, I have to be really intentional about where I want to be. And I don’t want anything that I’ve done to hold me back, right? I want to control all my controllable. So I can control how well I do on the test. Right? Like I can control my effort. I can control how well I write my essays. I can control the people are after recommendations, I can set them up for success to write really positive things about me. And so I had to take the mindset of I don’t want to count myself out the game by not giving my best.
Priscilla: Yeah, absolutely. So you made it to Wharton and congrats. I’m sure that was such an amazing milestone to hit for you. What was it like when you like were making your decision? I remember you were feeling a little split between Wharton and another school. I don’t remember which one it was.
Timka: Yeah, so I applied to seven schools. I got into six, in all six that I got into I got money to go, whether it be a full ride or half ride or some kind of scholarship amount. And so, I think for me, it really came down to the deciding factor was where will I be challenged and pushed the most to grow? Because I knew, for example, I came to a school in Atlanta. Well, I’m from Atlanta, I could just go home every weekend, right? Like, I needed to be sure that I was going to be pushed. And I felt like Wharton was really the place that would push me, and it did. I’m not going to lie to you. It really did. And I absolutely do not regret my decision. I think it was the best decision I made for myself.
Priscilla: Yeah. While you were at Wharton, did you ever feel like imposter syndrome come up for you maybe as you were like recruiting or in the academic field. Did that come up?
Timka: Definitely came up. I would say in the summer before Wharton. So, summer before Wharton, I really was like, I’m going to be a human capital consultant. I wrote my essays about it to get into business schools. I was like, that’s what I’m going to do. And then I realized, Oh, actually, since you don’t have the skill set that you need to be good at that job, right? And this was pre-Wharton. And so, I think that was my first run in with Oh, maybe I’m not as smart as I thought. And then, even at Wharton, there are some classes like microeconomics, where I was felt completely underwater. And I have a finance undergrad. And I was like, “I have a Finance degree. Why is this so hard?” But the reality is, it’s just hard, right? And I had to get comfortable with the fact that you might have been a big fish in a small pond, but the pond will get bigger, right? And so, you will not necessarily always be the big fish and you need to get comfortable with not being the expert all the time. And so, I felt like imposter syndrome just came up a lot in the classroom. Not to say I didn’t get pretty okay grades but that also goes to show that I just had to work really hard to get those grades and there’s nothing wrong with that either.
Priscilla: So tell us a little bit about Courageous Leaps. Tell us how it started and what you do now with clients?
Timka: Sure, so Courageous Leaps is my side baby. It’s my little side project where I run a small boutique career coaching business supporting clients across the country, and helping them think about transitioning their careers, positioning themselves and really focusing on the near-term detail in our resumes or cover letters, and even on LinkedIn and how we present ourselves in the digital age.
And I started this business because as we mentioned earlier, I’m the product of like SEO, MLT, Thurgood Marshall fund, like all of these different programs, which have helped me really pushed me along the way. But those programs aren’t necessarily open to a lot of people, right? You have to apply, you have to be selected, and you have to know about it. I feel like there is a lack of knowledge around our careers, around the stories we tell, and how we tell them to other people. And so, I feel like that is one of my purposes is to help people tell their stories, right? And help people figure out what is the next step. So that’s Courageous Leaps. That’s why I started it and I’ve been able to help 50 something people so far in terms of resumes, cover letters, narrative development, digging into what is it that you want to do and why do you want to do it?
Priscilla: And it’s that work is so needed, especially for people of color that are navigating this space, or when they’re like the first in their families to be doing career stuff, right? I think that’s great that you’re doing this. Where can people find you online?
Timka: Sure. So I am on Instagram @courageousleaps. You can also find me on my website, www.timkalockheart.com and then I’m also on Twitter at timka_lockhart and, yeah, those are the major places.
Priscilla: Thank you so much, Timka, for being with us today, really appreciate you.
Timka: Of course, thank you so much for having me.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning in to 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 love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
When Joseph Frilot graduated as his high school’s valedictorian in southeast Houston and started college at the University of Houston Honors College, he always thought he would become an attorney one day. In his mind, attorneys were considered prestigious and made a lot of money. After his LSAT instructor pushed him to question his ideas about a law career and he had an opportunity to speak to his sister’s graduating high school class, his entire career vision changed before his eyes. On this episode, Joseph tells us what it’s been like to follow his calling to become a social studies educator working with predominantly Black and Brown kids in Austin, Texas.
I know I’m doing, like, 50 different things right now, but these are things that I actually enjoy doing and I found a way to juggle all of them, and it all aligns with everything that I wanted to do in life as far as being a teacher, being an advocate of others, fighting against the school to prison pipeline, fighting for social justice. I’m doing all of those things right now in the classroom.
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, y’all, welcome to episode 22 of the first season, we are going to soon be wrapping up our first season of The Early Career Moves podcast. We’ll be wrapping up after episode 30, so just keep that in mind as you’re listening that we are going to be wrapping up the first season at episode 30, but so excited to keep this going.
So today, we have Joseph Frilot on the show. Joseph is a teacher leader out of Austin, Texas and I actually crossed paths with him about five years ago when I was a talent recruiter working for Idea Public Schools which is a national charter school district.
Joseph is a social justice leader. He has personal lived experiences that a lot of our students at Idea shared with him, and so it just makes his conviction and his why for the reason he’s doing the work that he’s doing so much stronger, and as you listen to this episode, there are a few themes that are really strong, but one of them is that your career doesn’t always have to look like vertical progression. It can sometimes be horizontal progression, and towards the end of the episode, Joseph really goes into what that looks like for him and why he’s so happy remaining in the classroom as a teacher. So, I thought that was a wonderful perspective that he brought to the table, and Joseph also talks about being a religious person and being spiritual, and how that has also helped him release like a need for control over his career, and instead, he spends a lot of his time listening to God and what he believes God is telling him to do and that is what has led him to pursue his calling in teaching.
So I hope that that resonates with some of my listeners. Our careers can be very personal and because of that, I think if we are people who are religious or spiritual, that plays a big part too. So, if you identify with that, I hope that you find that part of this episode very validating and reassuring.
So with that, I’m happy to introduce Joseph Frilot. He is a University of Houston 2014 grad, he’s from Houston, he also has his Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from UT Austin. It’s a program called UTeach Urban Teachers and he has a secondary social studies certification. Joseph has been teaching sixth and seventh grade pre AP humanities at Idea Public Schools in Montopolis and he’s been doing this for five years. He’s also a humanities course leader. He’s a teacher policy leader, and he also works with Austin Community College as an upward bound academic success coach. So, Joseph has a lot of plates spinning in the air, but he is very passionate about being an anti-racist educator and just advocating and pushing for Black and Brown kids. So, I hope you really enjoy his story.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Welcome, so Joseph, will you quickly introduce yourself to the audience? Tell us a little bit about where you live, what do you do today? Tell us where you’re from.
Joseph Frilot: Alright, my name is Joseph Frilot and I am in Austin, Texas. I am a sixth and seventh grade social studies teacher at Idea Montopolis College Prep. I am also a great team leader, course leader, teacher policy leader, and also I work as a academic success coach for Austin Community College Upward Bound Program. I think that’s everything, that’s everything.
Priscilla: Yeah, you have a lot on your plate for sure, really cool to hear that. So, for the audience, Joseph and I actually crossed paths maybe five years ago, I want to say, when I was a talent recruiter at Idea Public Schools, and I just remember looking at Joseph’s resume and being like, oh, my God, we have to have him at the school teach humanities because you had such a strong emphasis on social justice issues, and so it’s been so cool, I’ve left Ideas since then, but it’s been so cool to see your journey growing into a full-fledged teacher leader and so excited to hear about that journey, but yeah, so tell us where’d you grow up? Where are you from? Tell us a little bit about that story.
Joseph: Alright. So growing up, I went to schools in Southeast Houston where it’s predominantly Black students, In elementary, I used to get in trouble a lot, and then in fifth grade, I joined band and I joined this math club with this teacher who actually made math seem way more fun than what I thought it was, and so from fifth grade, I just continued to be more of a student that really cared about academics and wanting to do better.
I ended up graduating at the top of my class in high school, so I was the valedictorian of my high school class. This was another predominantly African-American Latino field school, and at that moment, I actually decided to go to U of H and mostly because of the fact that I didn’t want to move outside of Houston because my mom was sick at the time, so I decided to stay in Houston because I wanted to be close to my mom. While in college, I always planned on being an attorney, but then during my senior year, my sister was at the same school that I graduated from, and so I was asked to come back and speak to her high school graduating class and that made me realize that I wanted to go into education, being able to speak to her class. So, after taking the LSAT and trying to convince myself that I wanted to go to law school, I shifted gears and decided to go to grad school instead because I found this amazing grad program at the University of Texas, where it really focused on providing more critical social justice-aligned education to communities that I grew up in like lower income minority communities I grew up in. So, moved to Austin in 2014 and graduated in 2016, and at that point, that’s where, I think, Priscilla, you found me or I found them, and I’ve been working with Idea ever since.
Priscilla: And what was your experience at U of H like? I know you did really well academically and everything, but what was that experience like? What was hard about it or was it pretty straightforward kind of thing?
Joseph: Definitely wasn’t straightforward, and so that kind of influenced what I wanted to do as well, like when I graduated from high school and going into U of H, I wasn’t aware of the. Um, oppression that existed in, we didn’t learn about oppression in high school, and so when I went to college, first off, even if I graduated at the top of my class, I did not feel like I was prepared for college at all. At U of H, I was a part of the honors college and I was probably one of the few African-Americans that was a part of the honors college, and those that were a part of the honors college, there weren’t African-American or that were White, they went to a more affluent schools like Lamar High School in Houston and other schools that I was aware of that was way better than my high school, and so here I am in college, my freshmen year feeling like I don’t belong. So, I felt like I didn’t belong there, I was having a fight through imposter syndrome.
In college, I was a political science major, and so I took social policy classes that informed my thinking on the issues that my school and my classmates went through as far as not receiving the best education and I started to learn that like, this is systemic, these issues that I went through, that I’ve witnessed my classmates going through were systemic, this whole emphasis on tax tests, and students not being motivated and encouraged to think beyond post-secondary education, as far as like, a lot of my classmates were just encouraged to pass the tax tests, and they weren’t encouraged to go to college, especially those that weren’t in AP classes. I learned that this wasn’t just my school, that this was happening, again, in a lot of these schools across our country, and so that kind of motivated me even more to become a teacher and actually want to make a difference. Our education [00:08:40] students because ultimately, I feel like education is one of the great equalizers of upper mobility in our country.
Priscilla: Yeah, so there’s so much that you just said that honestly resonates with me, so I was also a poli sci major in college and it sounds like for you, college was a time where you were able to take a step back and realize how broken the system is, especially in terms of education, opportunities. At the time when you were a Poli Sci major, were you still thinking attorney? Was that kind of where your head was at or when did the teacher thing happen?
Joseph: Yes, I was so focused on being a lawyer. I did a lot of internships with the government, working with congressmen and representatives, and council members. One of the main reasons that made me want to be a lawyer was, like I said, a lot of it was about the money and the glamour that I thought went behind it. During my senior year, I took the LSAT class, I took the LSATs and everything, and I was still thinking about going to law school and it was still looming over my head, like okay, we have to start applying for law school, Joseph, at some point, and when I took the LSAT class, the LSAT teacher made me move away from being a lawyer, too. He was like, “You don’t want to do this. Don’t do it. It’s not as glamorous as you think it will be, It’s long hours, a lot of long hours, you may think the pay is going to be amazing, but it’s really not,” and so that made me question, do I actually want to be a lawyer? Is this actually something I’m actually passionate about? Do I really want to go to law school and pay all of these student loans for something I’m not really passionate about? And when I spoke at my sister’s school, it just really made me change gears completely and made me realize that, oh, I feel like I can definitely thrive in education. Speaking to those students really made me feel a level of inspiration and it gave me the tingly feelings that I didn’t really feel before. I really felt very proud of myself. I was like, dang, I feel so proud of myself. I came to and I just motivated these students to go to college and spoke about college to them. I can actually see myself doing this long-term and I truly felt like education was that path for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, I think that when you were saying that tingly feeling, I totally know what you mean because, so I taught high school in Miami, Florida before becoming a recruiter and I just remember, even though it was really hard when I was a teacher at the beginning, there was just this really intense feeling of fulfillment and connection to students, and so it sounds like you got a little taste of that when you gave that speech or you talked to them, and you were like, okay, how do I get more of this, right?
Joseph: Yes, I didn’t feel like law school was for me. Like I said, I feel like it was something that I was willing to do because I felt like it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t like I was making a decision based on what I wanted to do in life. It was because I felt like it was something that was put on me in, even at a young age, and I also told myself like, do I want to work long hours? Like, do I want to live my life like working long hours unhappy? I didn’t want to do something just for money and to not have a level of comfort and happiness that I feel like I should have. So yeah, when I found the grad program at UT, it really just like, I don’t know, it was like so many things were set in motion because really, that grad program really made me believe that education was the right path for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, and what’s funny is that now that you’ve been a teacher and you have all of these other things going on, you probably realized, you’re still putting in a lot of hours, right?
Joseph: I am, yes.
Priscilla: Like, you can put in so many hours but it’s different when there’s a purpose and a mission behind it, your why is so strong, like, you’re like, I know why I’m doing this versus being in a law profession where you are working those hours but you’re not motivated at all behind the why, right? Like, trying to support a company from getting sued or something, you probably wouldn’t get very excited about that.
Joseph: Exactly. I’m putting in work towards a greater goal of helping others and not just trying to help myself, and that really, that brings the most happiness to me and sense of pride to me, is knowing that I’m making a difference for someone else. I’m not totally doing everything for myself. I’m helping my communities that I really value and want to see grow.
Priscilla: And so when that moment came, when you were like, you know what, I think I’m going to apply to this graduate program, I want to be a teacher, how did your parents or your family members, or your partner, how did people around you respond when you told them, “I think I want to be a teacher”?
Joseph: They were supportive for the most part. At that time, my mom actually passed away, and so it made the transition to Austin easier because I don’t believe I would have ever move. If my mom didn’t pass away, I don’t think I would’ve ever moved out of Houston because she passed away in 2013. I was a senior when she passed, I was starting my senior year, it’s October, 2013 when she passed away, and so it made the transition to going to graduate school to Austin, move to Austin a little bit easier and for the most part, like I said, my family was supportive of that decision, but I did get questions like, “Oh, what happened to law school? I thought you were going to law school? You should go to law school,” and I was like, “I can’t live my life trying to do what people think would make me look good in their eyes,” because I think a part of my wanting to be a lawyer was I know that people look at this in a more upstanding way if I go this route versus this route, but I had to really follow my life’s purpose and follow what I believe the path that God set for me. I can’t live my life according to society’s standards and rules, and I’m so glad I didn’t because when I think back over everything is I followed the path that God has led me to, not the path that I wanted to leave myself too, so that kind of brings me the most pride then and the most sense of value than anything else.
Priscilla: So, your spirituality played a big role in you also making that decision in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing, right?
Joseph: Right. It’s just a lot of things that happened that didn’t seem like it was a coincidence. It was just so many things that happened, but senior year, that, I can just be like, oh, this happened by accident, like for example, speaking to my sister’s graduating class. It was just so many things that, so many opportunities that presented itself to me that led me to follow these paths. I wasn’t doing my own thing at that time. It was like, alright, God, I’m gonna do everything, whatever path you set me up for, I’m just gonna follow it, and that’s what I’ve always done for the most part, like I’ve never just like chased after something; things have always come to me for the most part. So yeah, I definitely believe that God led me to where I’m at right now, as far as my life.
Priscilla: Yeah, yeah, that’s really beautiful. It’s like being open to life and where it takes you and listening, like the ego can be very much like, I should have this, I should do this, or really concerned with what other people think, and it sounds like you’ve successfully silence that voice and followed what you believe God is telling you to do.
Joseph: Yeah, and funny story, actually, my senior year too, I was actually given the opportunity to do an internship. It was a paid internship too, in Washington, DC. It would have required me to pretty much give up me going to graduate school and doing a career, doing a two-year internship in Washington DC, and this was at time of like when Barack Obama was president, and so I was like, oh my gosh, like here I am being presented with another opportunity. In the midst of me going to grad school, here I am being presented with this opportunity to do a paid internship in DC, which I had the chance of actually visiting DC before that and loved the area and everything. It was another fork in the road decision to have to make and I ultimately chose grad school. I was like, okay, no, I am going to grad school, I’m following, I do want to be a teacher, this is something I actually seriously want to do.
Priscilla: So that happened your senior year of college also? That is wild to me. So, it’s like, that year really was pretty pivotal for you career-wise because of what happened in your personal life and then this huge opportunity in DC, and then you speaking to your sister’s graduating class, thinking about teaching, finding the UT program, it’s almost like that was just such a huge moment for you to really be really clear with yourself about what you wanted to do.
Joseph: Yes, it definitely was. It was a huge year.
Priscilla: Yeah. Okay, so those two years in Austin, you did a Master’s in Education. It’s called the UTeach Urban Teachers Program. What did you do during those two years and what was it like?
Joseph: Oh, during those two years, we took a lot of classes, a lot of training when it comes to writing curriculum that focused on how do we teach students in a more critical and engaging way within the teaks? So, pretty much gaining a lot of training in that area and also allowing us to learn about researchers and philosophers that pretty much were more geared towards learning about the oppression that exists in our country and globally, and the ways in which we can resist, and I’m learning how to deconstruct the dominant narrative that’s typically taught in history. We’re taught a dominant White narrative in history. How do we make this more diverse? How do we make the stories in history that we tell more inclusive of other voices that are also left out of our history? And we learned how to teach too. Our first year, we had to intern at actual schools in Austin ISD. I was a student intern at various schools where I had the opportunity to gain a lot of teaching experience before I actually stepped into the classroom.
Priscilla: Okay, so one thing I’m really curious about is for your graduate level program, you were in the classroom, I’m sure, in some way doing like student teaching. What was it like going from what you imagined it would be like to teach versus the reality of your first year teaching at Idea/? Was that a rough transition for you?
Joseph: Oh, my God, it was really a huge transition. I thought that my grad program prepared me for everything. I really thought that I was like, okay, I’m ready, I’m prepared, and my first year of teaching at Idea, it was not the best. It was good, it was better than what I heard other people went through, but it was definitely what people described the first year to be, like, it was definitely a first year of teaching for me. After my second year, I was like okay, I have great classroom management and great culture of achievement in my classroom, but one of my struggles was that I wasn’t building relationships with my students. They looked at me now as like the authoritative figure, which I was happy with, I was okay with that, but like I said, each year, I always reflect on what I can do better. That second year, I reflected on how I can actually build better relationships with my students. I wanted students to not just see me as the authoritative figure, I want them to see me as someone that they can trust ad also someone that’s fun because I wasn’t the fun teacher. So, between these years now and then, it’s been my challenge to find a sweet spot between being this classroom management guru that has high culture of achievement and also being a fun teacher that students can trust on. I want to be the best teacher that I can be, and part of that is reflecting and growing on everything that you experienced as a teacher, and that’s something I just try to do continuously.
Priscilla: Yeah, and so are you someone who’s thinking about staying in the classroom for a long time? I ask because I feel like teachers, when you get to a solid place, there’s a lot of pressure to consider school leadership and just a lot of other roles. How have you thought through that decision about like, do I stay in the classroom or do I leave kind of thing?
Joseph: That’s a great question. To be honest, I have been asked to go into leadership roles. I’ve had people on LinkedIn even reach out to me, and for me, I went into education to be a teacher, I didn’t go into it to do anything else, and that for me, I really enjoy being in the classroom. I’ll tell myself, like I’m going to teach until I can’t no more, pretty much, until I physically can’t anymore, and to be honest, I never imagined that my job would be as lucrative financially as it is because of all the roles that I play and having another job, like I’m not feeling pressured as far as financially-wise to leave out the classroom. Pretty much, if I was to leave out the classroom, it would be a pay cut that I would have to take a pay cut and more people I’m responsible for, and so that’s just something that don’t really excite me, is like, do I really want to take on a responsibility that requires me to be responsible for more adults and more people, if it’s not paying significantly more than what I’m getting paid? I make around the same amount of money as a principal, so it really just doesn’t make sense as far as my mental wellbeing and as far as for finances, like my happiness comes first and I just don’t want to be the person that’s working late nights or thinking about too many different things that I don’t necessarily have to. I know I’m doing, like, different things right now but these are things that I actually enjoy doing, and I found a way to juggle all of them, so as long as I’m able to like juggle all the things that I’m doing right now, and it all aligns with everything that I wanted to do in life as far as being a teacher, being an advocate of others, fighting against the school to prison pipeline and fighting for social justice. I’m doing all those things right now in the classroom and I’m also able to do things outside of the classroom, too. It’s just like I’m in a very blessed and fortunate position that I don’t really have to think about wanting to progress vertically career-wise.
Priscilla: Yeah, I really appreciate that answer because I can tell that you have thought about this a lot and you have weighed the different factors that contribute to career fulfillment, and one part of that is finances. Another part of that is what gives you energy? What excites you? And then, another part is that mental wellbeing piece, and yeah, if you move into a school leadership role, it is really cool, I’m sure there’s a lot of growth there, but you do give up other pieces, and like, my mom was a school teacher for 30-something years, never wanted to become a school leader, and so she didn’t, and she was just like, I don’t want to work with adults, I love working with kids, that’s what gives me energy in life, and I just think that’s so cool because society will tell you, “Why don’t you just move up? Like, move up to the next level?” And sometimes, success doesn’t look that way.
Joseph: And I’m a huge proponent of horizontal growth. You don’t have to progress vertically to maintain, to make money or to grow in your career, especially one thing at Idea, that’s one thing I don’t have to necessarily worry about, it only makes sense to me if I’m looking for a higher title pretty much, and like I said, I don’t really care for titles that much anymore, I still do, but not really to the point where I’m willing to give up my mental well-being and comfort for something that doesn’t pay significantly more. So, I feel like I’m good where I’m at for right now.
Priscilla: Yeah, awesome. Thank you so much for being with us today, Joseph. It’s been really cool learning about your story, how you got to where you are today, so yeah, thanks for being with us.
Joseph: No problem, Priscilla, thank you for having me.
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.
You’ve probably heard of POTUS, SCOTUS and FLOTUS…but have you heard of ROTUS, or “Receptionist of the United States”? On this episode, you’ll meet ex-ROTUS, Katie Herbek, who worked at The White House in her early 20’s, overseeing the guest book and greeting top world leaders and celebrities in The West Wing. On this episode, Katie takes us through working in the campaign world during the 2008 Obama campaign, teaching in Italy for 8 months, working at the White House, and making the jump into education policy at the U.S. Department of Education. Katie encourages us to choose a word that represents our “north star” to guide us through the tough decisions in our careers – and her word is “equity.”
A theme throughout all of my career is be nice, work hard, and don’t talk shit about people, and I think when you can really make sure that you’re checking those boxes, you have people that want to help you out or keep you around, and if I had been a crappy intern, I don’t know if Debbie would’ve said, “Yeah, we’ll figure out a way to have money for you so you can have a job.”
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.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Hey, everyone, welcome to our second ally guest episode of the season. I’m so excited to introduce Katie Herbek to you. Katie was my classmate during business school and she was just one of the warmest and most intelligent people that I crossed paths with. On this episode, you’ll hear about how she worked in politics on the Obama campaign back in ’08, she taught in Italy for a bit, she worked at the White House as ROTUS, and now she works at Ford leading mobility, technology and infrastructure. Katie talks about how her career mantra “Work hard, be kind, and don’t talk shit about people” has actually helped her get pretty far. I think one of the biggest lessons Katie offers us is that as long as you build genuine relationships with people and work hard, it does pay off in the end.
Priscilla: Hi, Katie. Welcome to the show.
Katie Herbek: Thanks so much for having me
Priscilla: Definitely, really excited to have you on the show and have you talk about your early career years in politics, working at the White House, working in federal government and how it’s led you to a career that intersects business and public service. So, yeah, let’s get started, so tell us a little bit about where you’re from and, yeah, what was it like growing up where you were from?
Katie: Yeah, so I am a native Texan. I grew up in a small town called Friendswood. I think that some people don’t necessarily consider it a small town anymore. It really is a suburb of Houston, but it felt like a small town to me growing up there. My parents are actually from New Jersey, so my dad and my mom met up there. They’re divorced now, but my dad got a job with NASA, and so they moved to be near Clearlake and they chose Friendswood. I’ve always been quite progressive. When I was four at daycare and they did a funny poll, who would you vote for? I stood up and said Michael Dukakis, like, so, like, I’ve always been a Democrat, right? And that’s not necessarily Friendswood. Friendswood is a very white town. I think according to the census, at least the last time I checked it, it continues to get whiter actually and it’s a lot of affluent people. I don’t necessarily consider myself affluent and my parents got divorced and that actually put some real economic strain on our family, and my mom would work, like, two, if not three jobs. So, yeah, so I felt it as even though I’m a white lady, heterosexual, cis-gendered all of those things, I felt very different in Friendswood because I didn’t think like everyone else and my parents were divorced and we didn’t necessarily have a ton of money, and so in that environment, I was like, I’m ready to get out of small town America.
Priscilla: Totally, yeah, I’m also from Houston and I just remember also having that feeling of, I need to get out, I need to experience something different, so feel you there. So, I know you landed at UT Austin and you majored in PoliSci Government and Political Communications. How did you figure out your next steps for getting a job after graduation?
Katie: That is a very good question because I didn’t do a great job of that. So, I have a fun story which is that my first semester my senior year, I went to an academic advisor and I was very clear, okay, I’m getting two degrees, so I want to make sure I’m fully covered and I have all of the things checked, and we went over the degree credits that I had and how many more I would need over the next two semesters, and we were good to go, so I signed up for classes in the fall and had an idea of what I would do in the spring, and at the beginning of the spring semester, that academic advisor told me that she had done the math wrong and I was 20 credits short of graduating.
Katie: Yes, and again, I was like, staying for an extra semester is not an option for me, like, I have to go start my life in the real world. I think at the end of the day, if I had gone to my parents and been like, “Hey, this happened, I’m probably going to have to stay a semester, they wouldn’t have minded.” I was a full financial aid student, so they would support me in small ways, help me out with the groceries and stuff. I was just on my own at that point, I was an adult, so it could have done that, but in my head, I was just like, I can’t. So, my last semester I took 18 hours in the classroom and then I took an online algebra class or something to get the last two hours. So, I was so focused on getting through the semester and getting the courses done so I could actually graduate, and I didn’t tell my parents this. I just was like, I just have to do this, this is the world that they’re operating in. So, because of that, like, April came and my friends had started to apply to jobs and May comes and I’m like, man, I don’t know what I’m going to do, and that job that’s really important, I don’t have. Two things were really helpful, one, I had a family that I had nannied for and I reached out to them and said, “Do you need a part-time summer nanny?” and they said, “Yes, we would love for you to still nanny for us,” and then the Annette Strauss Institute where I’d had an unpaid internship, they found money for me to be a part-time employee. So, for June, July, and August, it was like, okay, you’re covered for three months and it allows you to stay in Austin, and I also bring that up because a theme throughout all of my career is be nice, work hard, and don’t talk shit about people, and I think when you can really make sure that you’re checking those boxes, you have people that want to help you out or keep you around, and if I had been a crappy intern, I don’t know if Debbie would have said, “Yeah, we’ll figure out a way to have money for you so you can have a job,” and also they created in the environment in which I could go to them and say, “Hey, I’m in a pickle. I don’t have a job yet. What do you think?” And I wasn’t even saying, can you give me a job necessarily, it was more just, do you have any thoughts or advice? And they were willing to help me out with that. So, that took me through the summer, and then my dad lived in DC at that point and I had never given DC a shot as a government and political communication majors, which sounds strange, this was 2006, and he was like, “By the end of the year, you have to have found a job, be on your way to finding a job, I’m not going to kick you out on December 31st, but we need to see a plan, but you can have a little bit of runway,” which is really, I’m so thankful for because interning in DC is this very strange thing because a ton of internships, you’re interning for free, as I talked about before, depending on the industry and it’s just free, and they just assume that you will figure out a way to live and eat, and function and not be paid, and if you have an entry level job, you’re paid like $25,000 or $30,000 in DC which is not as expensive as New York, but it’s getting there, right? Even back in 2006. So, yeah, so little so I’m really lucky because being able to intern and take a free internship because I had a free place to live just made a huge difference in my life, and so that’s what I did right after – well, not right after school, I stayed in Austin, but then the first step was moving to DC, lived with my dad and I started interning and Senator Barbara Boxer’s office on the Hill, which was just, I met some really wonderful people, another woman named Caroline Sacone. Another theme you might pick up on is that I’ve been really lucky and my bosses have been tremendous and they’ve made such a big difference and really continue to be supportive throughout my life, and so Caroline was my boss, my de facto boss, and she was in the comms office, she thought I was competent, so I ended up being in the comms shop a lot and got to be responsible for clips in the morning and the afternoon, and Caroline took me under her wing and introduced me to people and helped me think about what I could do next.
Priscilla: That is amazing. I also interned on the Hill in DC during college, and I just remember thinking that it was so hierarchical, right? Like, you had to start as a staff assistant and then move up to a legislative correspondent, like there was a very clear path and the pay was not so great. Did you sort of consider taking that path?
Katie: I did and I didn’t, so I thought it might be hard to get a start in an office that I wasn’t a native of the state. I mean, it’s not completely unheard of, but I was a Texan that was getting to work for a California senator, and I’d like to think that if I’d continue to work hard and there was an opening, I could have done it, but yeah, if you can end up with the right senator, right, any one that got to intern and work in Senator Barack Obama’s office, I’m sure, feels this way, but like as Senator that is on a committee that has an issue you really care about, I think that is really wonderful and great, and can result in a really fulfilling career. But as you mentioned, there’s this strange hierarchy, and so some ways, it’s like you just land where you land and you get a job wherever you can and that might end up with being a legislative assistant in an office that, yes, it’s a job, but maybe it’s a senator or a member that you don’t have a ton of connection to and they work on issues you don’t have a real connection to, and I think that can be hard.
Priscilla: Yeah, that totally makes sense. There’s always that geographic tie that’s really important in those offices. So, what did you end up doing next?
Katie: So, I took another bit of a detour. I had studied abroad when I was in school and I loved it. I was in Italy, in a small town and I had the chance to go back and help at the school and essentially help in the kitchen and helping the office in exchange for room and board, and so I did that for about eight to nine months.
Priscilla: Oh, my God, that’s amazing.
Katie: In 2007. Yeah, it was really wonderful, and again, I acknowledge like the place of privilege that comes from to have parents that say, “Sure, go for it.” I mean, they both were like, “We’re not paying for this, like, we’re not paying for your airplane ticket there. We’re not giving you walking around money,” but they were supportive of my desire to have that experience, which I think in some ways is maybe the best scenario because I did have to work for things and I had to learn that work ethic really hard and know that things were not going to come free, but I was coming from a supportive place and they were never against anything I did, I was loving it, but then I was okay, what’s next? Like, you could do this forever, but that would likely result in becoming an English teacher or a nanny, a full-time nanny, and that could have allowed me to stay longer, but I didn’t really know if I wanted to do those things, but the presidential election had already kicked off and was really pumping, and around August or September, I guess around that time, I was like, man, I really, I want to go back and I want to figure out if I can work on a presidential campaign, and so came back to US and Caroline Sacone who I had mentioned before in Senator Boxer’s office was still involved, and so met up with her and was like, “Okay, I want to join a presidential campaign. I have never done that before, so I don’t really know how this works, but if you could help me out,” and she was awesome and she was like, “Yeah, put your resume together and we can send it to folks,” and she sent it to her roommate, either it was her roommate at the time or a previous roommate, Britt’s boyfriend, Peter, and Peter was in Iowa for Barack Obama doing advance and Peter got my resume and hopped on the phone and it was really like, “I deeply believe in Barack Obama. I want him to be the next president. I will work hard. Tell me how to do that,” and then I got connected to the campaign and I did my first advanced trip.
Priscilla: So, just really quickly for those who don’t know, the white house has a team called the advanced team and they do advance trips. So, Katie, tell us what is advance.
Katie: So, advance is you literally go and advance as a candidate and you set up events and that can be anything from a town hall to really big rally. So, I went out to Iowa around this time 13 years ago and I did a trial trip, a test trip for advance, and I did press advance with, and I learned from Peter and that’s where you’re like, where are the press going to stand? Where can they cover the event? Do they have power? Do they have internet? Which again was just starting to become, like, we need to have internet at all times. Before 2007, people aren’t really thinking about like wireless or that you could just have internet wherever, and I did well and I loved it and I didn’t really go home again. So, I started on the campaign in October of 2007.
Priscilla: That’s incredible that you were there when Obama was elected and that you were part of that in ’08, but eventually, the campaign is over and you have to find a job, right? So, what did that look like for you? What was your next step? Did a bunch of jobs open up? What was that like for you?
Katie: Yeah, so doing advance is one of the ways that you, you can end up becoming invaluable, and there’s not a ton of advance people. So, immediately, there’s something called the Presidential Inaugural Committee or the PIC in DC parlance and because of myself and all of my colleagues knowing how to do with just and events, we very quickly all got at least temporary jobs on the inaugural committee. Some people get jobs at the transition and the hope is that either working on the transition or working at the inaugural committee also means that there will be a job after that. So I worked on the parade route, the logistics for the parade route on inauguration day and was at the inaugural committee, and so that’s another, working on a campaign is awesome and I think really important, and then if your candidate wins, it sets up this opportunity to keep working just depending on what your skillset is and what you’ve done, and so yeah, like I said, being able to do logistics, it’s okay, we need those humans for the inaugural events, for the balls, for the speech, for the parade, for everything, and so that was my job for, I guess, about two months.
Priscilla: Got it. So, I know that next, you went to the Department of Veteran Affairs for your first job. Were you doing similar work that was logistical in nature or was it something totally different?
Katie: It was similar. I didn’t want to travel as much. I had lived on the road for 13 months and I wanted to travel a little, but not a ton, and so the Department of Veterans Affairs is a really nice place. I worked for Secretary Shinseki and he definitely traveled and visited veterans and hospitals, but he wasn’t traveling every single day, and I had this really wonderful boss named Dan Logan and Dan leaned into what I had learned from the campaign about traveling and travel logistics but also how you can create a meaningful event or interaction, and I was doing a little bit of just like the scheduling of a trip and working with travel agents to book a flight, but then I was also working with Dan on, okay, if he’s going to this city, what are the things that he could or should do? Who should he talk to at a hospital? How can we make sure that the secretary’s engaging with veterans in a really meaningful way and learning from them? And so, I got to start to pivot and do a little bit more of the strategy behind events and just using someone’s time really wisely, which is if you’re not just thinking about the logistics of it, that’s what scheduling in advance can really do, is there’s a finite amount of time, so how do you use that time smartly and wisely for everybody?
Priscilla: And so you were probably like 23, 24. How old were you when you joined the VA?
Katie: I was 23 and yeah, I turned to 24 while I was at, is that right? No, I was 24. I turned 25 when I was at the VA.
Priscilla: Yeah, and was that on the younger end or was that pretty average?
Katie: I was like a child, essentially, and some people treated me that way. They were just like, “Who is this 24-year-old, 25-year-old who has never worked in government?
Priscilla: Yeah, because I mean, it just seems like such a high level or very professional environment and you were so young.
Katie: Yeah, I’m really lucky because Dan never treated me that way, my boss who hired me and then Secretary Shinseki never cheated me that way, and Deputy Secretary Scott Gould, they never treated me that way. They had confidence in me and they felt, well, if you worked on a campaign for 13 months and if Barack Obama can trust you and if you’re hired out of the campaign, then we’re going to trust you. So, that was really helpful in my confidence, but there were a lot of people that, so another dynamic in government is political appointees versus career appointees, and I even hate to say that word ‘versus,’ but career staff, they’re there day in, day out, year end no matter who the president is, and they are working really hard, and then either every four or eight years, they have this wave of new political staff that come in and I can understand why they would be like, “Okay, it’s another young political appointee,” but honestly, the career staff were wonderful to me. They were like, “Great, you’re ready to dive in. You want to be,” and I did want to be at the Department of Veterans Affairs; you want to be at an agency that maybe isn’t the most glamorous but I think does some of the most important work, and so overall it was great, but there definitely were some times where I think people were like, “This girl is 24.” Cool, and you just have to push through it and just be like, “Yup, I don’t know what to tell you, but I promise you I can work really hard and I have had a ton of responsibility before, and that can happen again here too, and I’ll just let my work speak for itself.”
Priscilla: I love that attitude. It’s just like, yeah, let my work speak for itself. That’s such a great attitude to have and I really think that that’s how you build trust with people, is just showing up, doing the best that you can. But yeah, so I know that after the VA, you jumped to the White House, which is amazing, how did that happen?
Katie: That was another case of be nice work hard, don’t talk shit about people. So, I was recommended for the job. The woman who had been receptionist of the United States or ROTUS had done it for about a year. She had the opportunity to move to a different position. They needed to replace her. My understanding is that they weren’t having a ton of luck, and so someone said, “Hey, we really still got to find someone to be ROTUS. They need to be organized and firm but friendly,” and someone said, “Oh, I think Katie Herbek would be good at that and she’s over at the Department of Veterans Affairs but we should ask if she’s open to moving over,” and I interviewed with Jim Messina who was one of the deputy chiefs of staff, and he hired me, and then I moved over to the White House and, yeah, it really was like, if you can work hard and be kind, I think that goes a really long way when people need to fill jobs.
Priscilla: Totally agree. So, I find it so epic that your title was ROTUS. That’s pretty cool.
Katie: It’s pretty fun. There is POTUS, FLOTUS, VPOTUS, SCOTUS, and then ROTUS. I do always clarify people, so I was not the personal secretary, the person that sits outside the oval office, those were other humans who are, they were all awesome, so I sat in the West Wing lobby. If you walked in the West Wing, you see the person who is ROTUS, you see their face first.
Priscilla: So, I know that then you moved over to the Department of Education and you were a specialist assistant in the office of Innovation and Improvement. That seems like such a huge jump and very different. How were you able to make that transition?
Katie: So, I had been doing more logistical, operational type of roles, and I really liked them and it exposed me to a lot of things, but I wasn’t getting to dive into policy, and I wanted to make that change, so I really tried to just sit with what’s interesting to me, what do I like? I think you might hear that as a theme, and I tried to be reflective about that, and I found that I was really drawn to education issues and specifically, K-12 education and wanting to create an equitable experience in schools for as many kids, for every kid, because I loved school not just because I’m like a nerd, but Friendswood did have good schools, and even if things were like a little nutty at home through my parents’ divorce, I had good teachers, I had a good school, I liked being there. It was calm and it was a respite, and I really thought, like, every kid should have that. If they want to love school, they should get to love school. It’s fine if you don’t love school but if you want to, it should be a great place for you, and so I did a little bit of research and reached out to, also in administrations, there’s something called a White House liaison, and there’s one or two people that fill that role at every department and they are also political appointee and they’re engaging with the White House and they also help and fill out and staff the political appointee roles at agencies. So, I reached out to the White House liaison who was at the Department of Education and said, “I’m really interested in trying to dive into a policy role. I don’t have any experience in K-12, but I would really like to work on it. Are there any openings?” and it just so happened that in OII, they had what’s called a schedule C that they hadn’t filled, and I went over and spoke with Jim Shelton who was the assistant deputy secretary of OII and then he became the deputy secretary of the department and he is probably the smartest human I’ve met maybe second to Barack Obama. I mean, they’re just brilliant, but Jim was so smart and so experienced, and I talked to him and was like, “I don’t know anything about K-12 education, but I’d really like to learn, but I do know how to get things done, so if you need that in the office, I can come do that,” and Jim took a chance and had faith that I could figure out the policy piece, but that I could help him get things done, and so that’s how I moved over to OHI.
Priscilla: Okay, so let’s fast forward a little bit. I know you had five amazing years in the Ed policy space in DC, but eventually you decided that you wanted to pivot into something different and I know that you did found your startup which is Civic I/O and it’s still around, but you also decided to apply to business school, which is where you and I crossed paths. It seems like such an unexpected step to go to business school after being in government and policy for so long, you could have gone to Harvard Kennedy School and gone down this different route, but you decided to go to business school, so what was driving you in that direction?
Katie: So, it was probably two different things, one, unfortunately, certain roles at a nonprofit, it’s really hard to bust through that to get a different type of role, and quite frankly, to be paid more, and another thing that I think that women are not taught to talk about is salary and really wanting to get paid their value, and somehow that’s not okay, and if you’ve been in public service, worked in nonprofits, you’re supposed to just be like, “I will get paid less than everyone else ever, and that’s okay,” and I think to an extent, if you’re not running a for-profit and you’re not rolling in cash, but I just sorta took a step back and was like, I think I’m really smart and I think that I work hard, and I should get a salary that reflects that, and it seemed like that wasn’t going to happen without some letters behind my name, to be very honest, and it was not going to happen at the job that I was at. It just felt like I’m in a bit of a rut, and so I could try to pivot on my own; I could try to go to the private sector or I could go back to school and learn some new skills and really get clear and tight on what I want to do next, even though that’s going to be the potentially more expensive route. And then, the startup really came from, my good friend works for a mayor and he had seen this gap in how people were not engaging with mayors on really innovative and entrepreneurial, interesting things, and then another friend who has also worked in government space, event space, fundraising, and the three of us said, I wonder if we could create a platform for specifically mayors, like local level staff and leaders to engage with in this technology, the forward-looking newness of it all, and we can partner with on it and get their approval, and so that’s how that started, and that coincided with me moving back to Texas and being like I can do the job at the non-profit remotely. I would like to go back to Texas and in my spare time, we’re going to work on this startup.
Priscilla: Okay, last question. What do you think is the biggest lesson you’ve learned from your early career years given that you’ve worked in so many different industries, have moved around a lot, and have had really cool experiences?
Katie: I think I’ve come to a place where what I would say right now as a 36-year-old in the middle of a pandemic, but who has an undergrad degree and a graduate degree and has worked for well over a decade, it is to find your true North for what motivates you and for what you want your job to be about, and then that is something that you can compare opportunities to and also how you’re going to approach that opportunity. Mine is equity. I am highly motivated by trying to create a more equitable world. I am not perfect at it because I’m a human being and I’m flawed, but when I think about my jobs, when I was, even on the campaign, I was deeply motivated by, we want everyone to have as much information as they can have and access to voting so that they can make a decision about who to vote for, and everyone has that. When I was at the Department of Veterans Affairs, I was learning a ton from Secretary Shinseki and I was also thinking about how do we create an equitable post to DOD world for veterans and for veterans’ families? How do we make sure that their educational services and their healthcare services are equitable? And then, when I was at the Department of Education, I leaned into that even more. But the through line for me is equity, and what that allows me to do is in my personal life but also my professional life, really think about, like, how am I spending my time? How am I going to approach this job? We didn’t even get to touch on my fellowship at True Wealth here in Austin when I was at school with Sarah and Carrie, but they are a VC, women-led VC, they invest in women-led companies in the healthcare and sustainability space, and even that work was really thinking about how can there be products that create more equitable health outcomes and positive health outcomes for people? How can those be available? And those are the kinds of things that Sarah and Carrie are investing in, and I don’t think you have to figure that thing out immediately, you don’t have to know when you’re 18, but when you can understand what’s important to you, it becomes really easy to say, “Should I take that job? Should I interview for that job? Will I be happy and motivated each day?” Because if the answer is yes, then you can really put your energy in going after those things, and if it’s no, then you can step away and make sure that the person that is for, they get to access that thing and you can keep working towards the things that are for you.
Priscilla: I love that. Thank you so much for sharing and for being with us today, Katie.
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 love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.