On Episode 31, Priscilla Suggs digs into her journey to pass the CPA Exam as a Black woman in accounting! We talk about the power of mindset in achieving your biggest goals.
Do you have a big goal that feels “unattainable” for you? On this episode, Priscilla Suggs tells us what it was like to finally reach a goal that she almost gave up on: passing the CPA (Certified Public Accountant) exam. We talk about what it was like to be one of the few Black women in her accounting major at UT Austin, how she shifted her mindset to achieve this monumental goal, and the many pathways that the CPA opens up for her as a budding entrepreneur.
What you’ll learn from this episode:
What it’s like to become an accountant, the types of jobs available and what you can expect to earn in this role
The process of becoming a certified CPA
How Priscilla overcame being one of the few Black women in her accounting program at UT Austin
The mindset shift that Priscilla made that got her to take MASSIVE ACTION towards her goal
How getting a CPA has opened new doors of possibilities for Priscilla’s entrepreneurial dreams
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Full Episode Transcript:
Guest Teaser: I feel like, sometimes, chasing this carrot of chasing titles, or chasing a leadership role just for the sake of the title versus “is doing this going to mean satisfaction? Am I interested in the work that I am doing? Do I have a passion about this like”? It is hard to have passion, or it is hard to be incredibly passionate about jobs that are not yours.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves podcast. This show that highlights remarkable BIPOC young professionals killing it on their career journeys. I am your host, Priscilla Esquivel Bulcha – Latin X career coach, corporate consultant, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday, as we either dive into a special guest story or I’ll share my own career gems. If you’re a BIPOC professional 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 back to season 2 of the Early Career Moves podcast. I am so excited to be back and I am just really excited to share all of the new guests coming up over the next few months. All of the content is batched, baby boo, so that means all of my episodes are edited and done for the rest of the year. Why did I do that? Because I want to enjoy the rest of 2021, and I want to start career coaching. So that is a new exciting development. I am now taking on one-on-one private career coaching clients so if you, or if someone you know is interested in doing career coaching, go to my website ECMpodcast.com. I have a free coaching call that you can sign up for. You can discover if working with me is a fit for you.
But anyway, other than that, welcome back! I am so excited for you to be here. It was great to take off 3 months to just live my life (laughs). I did so many things and I am filled with so much gratitude over just all of the wonderful experiences. Whether that was my wedding, my honeymoon in Hawaii, my bachelorette, my birthday in August, there were just too many wonderful things happening and even though things were stressful, it’s not like life is perfect, right? Like things got stressful with the Delta variant and with COVID. I still was able to find time to really enjoy those big life moments that, that happen for me in the last 3 months. So, thank you for allowing me to walk away, rest, recharge and come back feeling much more refreshed.
Great. So let me give you a little preview into today’s episode. So, on today’s episode, you’ll hear from Priscilla Suggs. That’s right, Priscilla – we share the same name, and it is even spelled the same. But I met a few years ago through mutual friends and when I met her, she was on her journey trying to become officially certified as a CPA. And this was a multi-year journey for her that was very challenging, and there were many moments that she didn’t think it would happen.
And I wonder if you have something in your life that you felt like you could never achieve something that you really wanted. That’s what this episode is about. Priscilla will talk about what it took for her to finally shift her mindset and what clicked for her so that she finally was able to achieve this big, big goal that she had in her career. I cannot wait to hear what you think. Enjoy.
Hey before we head into today’s episode, I want to encourage you to follow us on Instagram at ECM podcast. Also head over to ECMpodcast.com where you can get freebies, read the latest ECM blog post and sign up for our monthly newsletter. And if you or someone you know is looking for a one-on-one career coaching, you can sign up to work with me on my website. Lastly, if you’re a big fan and supporter of the show, please make sure to leave us a review on Apple podcast. It’s how we can reach other people.
Okay let’s head into the show.
Priscilla Bulcha: Great. So, really excited to have Priscilla Suggs on the podcast today. Welcome Priscilla.
Priscilla Suggs: Thank you, Priscilla (laughs). It’s always like, interesting when I meet another Priscilla and hearing my name, yeah.
Priscilla Bulcha: It’s funny because it, it is such an uncommon name.
Priscilla Suggs: Right.
Priscilla Bulcha: So, when you do see someone who has that our name, it is like very strange, right?
Priscilla Suggs: Right (laughs). I have only met one other person growing, her name was Priscilla, so it’s, it’s kinda nice.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah, I love our name, so.
Priscilla Suggs: Me too, me too.
Priscilla Bulcha: Cool. Well, so I’m super excited to have you on the show because I want you to share your story about becoming a CPA, about what it means to be in accounting, and I just have so many questions for you but before we get into that, can you tell us a little bit about yourself like, where did you grow up? What was your upbringing like? Yeah, just tell us about how you identify and everything.
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah, absolutely. So, I identify as, gee, I identify as a black woman. I grew up in a two-parent household. My dad was in the Army and he retired, and my mom cleaned homes. So, I grew up in a very humble household. I learned at a young age the value of hard work, and just to having a strong work ethic. I grew up in Fort Hood Killeen, which is about an hour north outside of Austin, and my mom is from Germany. My dad was from North Carolina. And so, growing up in a blended household, I got the southern hospitality from my dad, and I got the regimen from my mom. Germans are very organized and disciplined and hard-working, and I knew growing up, seeing how hard my parents worked, that, and, education was always stressed in the household.
So, I’m the youngest of three siblings, but I was the first to pursue college and so I didn’t know what I was doing. But I knew it was something that I was always, always going to go to, but I wasn’t sure of the path and how that looked. What, I just went from step to step. So, I actually applied to UT and Texas State. Those are only universities, and that process was interesting enough of, in and of itself just because as the first kid in the household to pursue this route, and so my mom wasn’t quite sure what to. So, we just stumbled through it together.
I remember her dropping me off at UT. And I remember the process of choosing which college. When I was looking at the application I was like, I applied to the business school because I thought, well, I wanted to give myself opportunities, I want to make sure that I have a lot of open doors, and so that is literally how I approached the application process. I looked at the type of degrees offered in the business school and I figured, it was between Finance and Accounting because the other degree options, Management, Marketing, I felt like what couldn’t I teach myself on my own. If I have the opportunity to go to college maybe picking up a skill that wasn’t an easily teachable outside of the University setting, and so I was like well it’s either accounting or Finance (laughs). And I said accounting. And so that is what started my career path in this direction. I just remember wanting stability, and wanting security and wanting to be able to have options as far as jobs, and that kind of steered me down this path towards accounting.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah, I love that you use those words stability and security, because I feel like when you are like the child of immigrants, or you are the first in your family to go to college like that’s what we are seeking a lot of the time. It’s just like, I just want to be okay. Like, I just don’t want to struggle anymore and so
Priscilla Suggs: Absolutely.
Priscilla Bulcha: I think that really informed your career decision right?
Priscilla Suggs: Absolutely. I watched like, my brother, he took the, uhm, route of going into the military, and my sister, she had different jobs. And I was kind of like, I was the guinea pig watching their lives play out, and then I just took that as lessons of what do I want for myself – how can I move forward in life. I didn’t have a lot of examples of people that did go to college and I remember after I graduated from UT my mom sat me down. And I, I just got my first job, it was with a state agency and it was an audit role.
And I was making pretty good money, for at, at that time, it was I think like $45,000. And my mom was like you need to understand how blessed you are (laughs). There are four-membered family households that don’t make this much money, and you are a single person coming out of college and you’ve got your head on your shoulders, and you need to understand what a blessing this and try to do right by, try to make good decisions. And so that kind of started my career path in accounting.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah, and I just want to say like, congrats on getting into McCombs Business School as an undergrad because it’s so competitive. Like it’s so hard to get into the BBA program. It tells me a lot about you like you really… I’m assuming you were very studious or like maybe you were strong and just good at school.
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah, yeah, so academics was my thing growing up, I was an athlete, and academics. And fortunately, this high school that I went to, it had those College Prep programs, so the Ivy program that really prepped me for college. And I was always a straight A student, I was the third in my class. And then when I got to UT, it was regrouping really, and trying to find people that looked like me. That kind of started the reality of, it’s a privilege to be able to go to university, and have access to the quality of education, and to be a person of color, because there’s not a lot of people that went to McCombs and graduated through their accounting program. And it really opened my eyes to, I have a great opportunity here and I need to take advantage of it.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah, that is huge. That is such a huge opportunity and I’m assuming there were not a lot of black students or like Latino students in your accounting classes and your track.
Priscilla Suggs: Yes. Like so, I remember some of my core accounting classes, there would be maybe like, two or three other people of color that were not Asian. So, I was like always spotting out the other individuals of color in the classroom, be like, all right, we are going to be group buddies (laughs), so we are going to help each other with the homework. And so it was that part of the experience at UT. It was, it was different, cause I was used to having friends from all walks of life, and just having a really diverse circles of, of friends growing up. And then going to UT and being in my core courses where literally I was the one splash of color, that, that was challenging. And so, for me like I know that helped frame my mindset when I chose to continue down the career path and becoming an accountant. I think I read recently the Journal of accountancy, they were publishing stats on the percent of black CPAs, and it is less than 2% – and that was the stat of April 2021 I believe.
Priscilla Bulcha: Wow.
Priscilla Suggs: Right. And so (laughs), being in this space, that taking all of this into consideration, and that not a lot of people of color have access to accountants and if you don’t know how to manage your money or if you don’t have a lot of access to professionals that can help guide you that is one thing that kind of helped me decide that this is a career path that I want and this is space that I want to work in and I wanted to start my own side company so that I can get people access because there’s a few of us. And a lot of times when you don’t have somebody to go to that is relatable you don’t seek out that advising, or those services.
Priscilla Bulcha: So, when you were going through your college courses and you decided okay, accounting is what I want to major in, were you naturally pretty good at accounting, did you struggle through the classes, because I struggled through the classes (laughs).
Priscilla Suggs: Absolutely (laughs). So, I, there were moments where I was like, oh I need to just change my major this is not… I think managerial accounting was so annoying for me.
Priscilla Bulcha: Oh my God
Priscilla Suggs: But intermediate, like getting consolidated statements, all of that just bring some awful memories (laughs). So my journey in accounting was not an easy one. Accounting did not come easy to me (laughs). I had to put in a lot more work I think, than the average person. Sometimes, different subjects come easy to two different people, and I generally chose the harder path (laughs). But more because I just recognized like the benefit of having this type of expertise, it fascinates me.
So early on in my career, when I had started out an audit, I got lucky and I found, I identified this fraud, and, that was happening in a local non-profit here in Austin. And that kind of really sparked my interest and it was the moment where I recognized I have to get my CPA if I want to make this a career. I just, year after year, I’m working, I realized my potential’s limited if I don’t get the CPA. And there are a lot of fields where it’s like you either need a license or certification to qualify to move up or to be in leadership roles and ultimately like I realized I got to buckle down and just tackle the CPA. And so, I had to go back to school and I got my MBA, did additional accounting course work.
Priscilla Suggs: And then started down the course of studying for the exams (laughs), which that in of itself was a journey. It’s four parts and I took all four parts, one year and then there is one part – the financial. I could not pass it. For the life of me like, like I said accounting is complicated and it can be you know, more complicated if you don’t break it down into like the bare basics that make up financial accounting.
And so, I was in this position where I had taken all four parts. There was one part that I could not pass and so I took a break. I took a year off from studying and I did other audit certifications just so my career wouldn’t stop and then I sat back. One day I was like okay what is the biggest regret that you are going to have in 10 years and it always circled back to this stupid CPA (laughs). I felt like that was the one thing where like, if I had my CPA, well I could choose to start my own business. I could move up in my career path. This was the one thing that was stalling me, and I got into a situation where the other passes were slowly expiring.
And so, I basically had to start over. And so, I legitimately in January 2019, I was like okay I need to make the decision. Am I going to do this again? And so I just literally within two days, I signed up, paid for the exams, scheduled it for February, had like exactly maybe a month and like 20 days of the study materials still active. And I just, I powered through it. I got on a regimen. I woke up at 3:30 and 4 AM in the mornings, and I was working full-time and I was like I just have to make this work (laughs).
And then after that test day I get my score and I passed that stupid section finally. I did not know whether I should cry or like jump for joy because I was like, now I got to retake the other three sections (laughs). Yeah, so it was like literally one of those, one of those moments in life where I’m so happy that I just I sucked it up and I just powered through it because now it’s hindsight, when I started to, or when I scheduled to retake that section that just kept being the reason that I couldn’t pass and move forward in my life, I think I had reached a point where I was like screw it. I just, I’m doing this and I’m going to put myself on a regimen and we’re just going to see where this goes and I just had a different confidence about it that I didn’t have I think when I was going through it the first time.
Priscilla Bulcha: So, I am curious about that piece because obviously something changed in your mindset, right? Like…
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah
Priscilla Bulcha: Like what you were telling yourself changed.
Priscilla Suggs: Absolutely.
Priscilla Bulcha: And that changed your energy, it changed how you showed up for yourself during that test, and I feel like we all have a story like that where, for a long time, we’re just like, oh I want to do this but maybe we weren’t 100% committed. What did you start to think? What was it that really changed everything and you started to show up differently?
Priscilla Suggs: I think for me uhm, switching gears and getting to getting a different certification, it was an audit certification that helped boost my confidence. And then I did a lot of traveling in between that time. Until I start exploring the world, going to Europe, I think I went to Bali at some point. I was trying to like just learn myself, and get comfortable in my skin. And if there’s one thing that I’ve just learned navigating the workforce as a black woman, you’re always facing stereotypes, right?
Some of my old co-workers, they would say you, “Oh you’re so fearless, like you just say whatever you want” (laughs). And then at some point I got into this stage of where I was trying to mold myself to be what I thought people expected of me. And then I think going through the test, and trying to pursue the CPA and that not working out exactly how I had hoped, it brought me back to having that attitude of just owning my truth. Owning who I am, not trying to live up to other people’s expectations, or to move the way other people may have counseled me to move, or encouraged me to move; got back to being me (laughs).
I think like throughout your profession, like there’s something to be said about being young and bold like you just, cause don’t know what you don’t know, and then I think while you’re in workforce, you’re conditioned to being told that certain behaviors are expected for certain types of roles, or to advance your career, you can’t be too aggressive, but you can’t be too complacent because if you want to move to the next step or move, or advance to another position and you can get lost in that.
I feel like, uhm, sometimes chasing this carrot of chasing titles or chasing a leadership role just for the sake of the title, versus, is this, is doing this going to mean satisfaction do I, am I interested in the work that I’m doing? Do I have a passion about this like, it’s hard to have passion, or it’s hard to be incredibly passionate about jobs that are not yours.
Like when you are working for somebody else like you’re working for their vision. Their goal, there’s always somebody telling you this is what our shared goal is going to be; this is what we are working towards.But like does that align with you and the person that you want to be? And how you want to live your life? And for a while I was working in one office where one of the executives, she would sit me down, and say you can’t really just communicate openly like that. She was trying to mold me into what her vision of what I should have, should act, and how I should move, versus just letting me be.
And I think that’s, that was a really good experience for me because it reminded me that there are going to be people that may be threatened by like, your perseverance and how you want to move forward and advance your career. And then there are going to be other people that pick you up or pull you up with them and recognizing like what space you’re in.
And for me, that was a very critical moment of my career where I just realized, I took a step back and I thought about like what do I want? And it all went back to getting the CPA and opening more doors for myself. And for some people, it’s not going to be a certification I’m learning now, uhm, navigating this entrepreneur space – it’s just a whole new world (laughs).
And it is almost like I am absolutely loving it because I’m meeting people that they don’t have the wild credentials, or they’re not coming from Ivy League schools, or top-tier schools. They are sharpening their craft, and they communicate, and they relate, and they’re building a platform that people can buy into, whatever their choices. Like for example you and starting your own podcast. You had an interest and a passion for this and you’re doing it (laughs). And I have so much respect for that like, when I feel like meeting other entrepreneurs that are chasing their dreams like they have an interest, they have a skill, and they are just pushing forward like that. And I just… it’s fascinating to me, like…
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. Tell us about, so getting the CPA becoming officially licensed like what did that mean for you in terms of being able to build a business? And then what are you building your business around? What are you trying to build now?
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah, so I think for me getting the CPA, it meant having credibility, right? Like, so, which this just happens to be for the space that I’m working in – something that adds greater value to being able to advise and coach people on running their small businesses and managing their finances, and preparing for their taxes. Right now, I’m figuring it out. This is the first year and I’m running my own small company and so I’m actually, you know how I mentioned that you can plan all you want but things just don’t always shake out exactly like how you envisioned?
I feel like this is my opportunity to really do work that interests me. So, I had a career in audit and eventually, I transitioned and now, I’m a forensics accountant, and that’s what I do in my nine to five, and I really enjoy it. Like, I’m dealing with fraud (laughs), and it’s really interesting tracing money. And I support, in my nine to five role, I support 5 prosecutors, and 16 investigators for insurance fraud. And you, I had no idea like just there were all that insurance fraud (laughs) how big of an industry it is, like you wouldn’t think that there were that many criminals out there that are just out to commit fraud, whether it’s like insurance, auto fraud, facilities, medical, all types of insurance fraud out there but, in that space, I’m subject to the rules and regulations for supporting those types of investigations.
And with my own company I can do whatever I want. And though it, there’s a certain liberty that I feel being able to choose who I work with and what I do and right now a lot of the work that I do I advise for individuals and small business taxes, and then small business consulting.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. So, I actually have some pretty basic questions I’m hoping you could answer for me and for any listener who doesn’t know a lot about the accounting career path. So, like rapid-fire, what is accounting? How do you describe that? Can accountants expect to make a lot of money? Cause I think sometimes people assume, that I’m curious if that is you know, he case? And then what do the career paths look like for accounting? Like what are the options that you have?
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah. Okay so, I would start, I would say accounting is, it’s a broad field. You can either be a bean counter which you do journal entries for companies, and it is literally you’re logging in your transactions. Or you can go a different route of being on like the other side going into audit or financial roles, where you are reviewing the work and the reports that are produced by accountants. So, you can either be doing the leg work or being, be on the other side of actually reviewing and understanding the legwork. And accounting is just classifying transactions. It’s really at its core that is what it is. But as far as career opportunities I would say it is pretty broad. You can work in government, you can work in industry, you can work in nonprofits. Most companies, they need accountants.
That’s the person that’s doing accounts receivable; they’re doing accounts payable, and a lot of times I find that for those types of roles, most people working those roles don’t even have an accounting degree.
And the state agencies I work for here in Texas, a lot of times people just find themselves in, they can be learned roles but having the degrees a game-changer. Like most accountants starting out nowadays they are starting at 50k and up. And if you’re a licensed CPA then you know, your salary can go into the low one hundreds, I would say.
Priscilla Bulcha: That’s a pretty big jump.
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah, yeah, it is a lucrative uhm, career. Again, every company has an accounting function, so it’s something that the job opportunities are going to be very available, and as compared to other types of roles.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah, that’s good to know. And then another quick question about around that is what are the kinds of like personality types or a like strengths that people have that makes them really like really successful in this profession? And then what are the kinds of people who you have seen like they struggle? Like
Priscilla Suggs: Oh yeah. I would say that for this profession, very analytical detail-oriented individuals tend to perform well. This is not for the dreamer, the spacer-outer, the person, the creative. This is not for the creative, yeah. Like I would say that because creatives frustrate accounts (laughs). Creatives are the ones that, they want, they have all these visions, all these ideas, and all the accountants are like look, we have X dollars. This is how this needs to work. I’m telling you; you can work whatever magic you want, but within this budget or these are the actual numbers.I definitely so this career path, the pandemic changed the whole work from home and I feel like a lot of companies it’s going to be really hard to not provide some hybrid option. One thing it’s, I always remember like some people don’t like being behind the desk, and don’t like staring at spreadsheets all day cause reality is, that’s this profession. Like it is very sedentary. It’s very, you are powering through spreadsheets quite often so that is something that you have to consider. Like, is that what you want for your life? Or do you like to be up and moving?
And it’s very collaborative because you are working with other areas within the company or the agency, helping steer them in the right direction. But we’re having conversations and going over reports and performance, so in one, aspect you need to, having the skill set of being able to communicate well, articulate things to simply state facts, and recognize actual.
Those are strengths for accountants and I would say for people that are very creative, and want a lot or flexibility, this may not be a career path that would fulfill them.
Priscilla Bulcha: Great! Well, Priscilla, this was such an amazing conversation. I’m excited for people to hear your story, and also to just understand what is accounting a little bit better, so that people can find their way with this career if it’s a good, fit you know?
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah. And if I have a last or a final comment it’s people of color like if accounting, if numbers interest you, and you want to be able to paint the story of what is, and we’re tracing money and, or helping people with personal wealth or just helping a company run and understand how to manage its operations, this is a really, it’s a rewarding career in that gives you that stable income and it’s always a function that is going to be needed and there are less than 2% of black accountants out there, and black CPAs specifically so. This is a career path that help advance a profession like, if you’re a person of color, seek this out if this is something that interests you because the rest of the world needs you.
Priscilla Bulcha: Yeah. Amazing! Well, thanks so much for your time, Priscilla.
Priscilla Suggs: Yeah, thank you so much for having me, Priscilla. I really appreciated the opportunity to share my story.
Hey, are you thinking about changing careers? Then you need to head over to my website, ECMpodcast.com and sign up to get your free 20-page guide that I wrote, with you in mind. I wrote this guide to help you change careers and get really clear on what it is that you want to do next. Career clarity is key to a career transition journey. All right. Can’t wait to hear what you think about it. Have a great 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.
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In the journalism and media field, you see so many people saying, “Take that unpaid internship, work on the stipend, work, extra jobs,” which I did also, I did daycare, but I think the way I saw it then was like, well, why would I do that? Because I don’t have a financial safety net to fall back on. I felt like this kind of advice appealed to more people with generational wealth or people with connections, quite frankly. So after that, I was like, okay, I’m going to seek opportunities where I get paid.
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, 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. Today, I’m excited to introduce to you Lyanne Alfaro. Lyanne is a Mexican American from the Chicago area who works at producer host and social media strategist at NASDAQ. Lyanne graduated in 2015 from the university of Illinois with a degree in news editorial journalism. After graduating, Lyanne cold emailed her way into a social media role at CNBC where she got to pick it’s stories about the intersection of the Latino community, business, and entrepreneurship. Her pieces have been featured in CNBC, Business Insider, and NBC Latino. She’s also the creator of Moneda Moves, a bi-weekly newsletter and podcast where she dives deeper into the LatinX influence in the world of business. If you’re interested in journalism, a career in social media, or if you’ve ever been told that you should take an unpaid internship, this is a great episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Lyanne, welcome to the show.
Lyanne Alfaro: Thank you so much for having me, Priscilla.
Priscilla: Of course. So, Lyanne, I’m really excited to dive into your really exciting career that you’ve had in journalism and learn about what you do with Moneda Moves, but before we go in that direction, will you tell us a little bit about yourself?
Lyanne: Yeah, of course. I’m first-generation Mexicana, my parents are from Guadalajara, Mexico and I grew up in Chicago, Illinois on the Northwest side in this neighborhood called Humboldt Park, and from the very start, my parents were educators in Mexico, so coming here to the US as immigrants, they may not have gone to college here, but they certainly had that grounding where they believe that education was so important. I grew up speaking Spanish. I didn’t speak a lick of English and neither did my parents, but they realized that kind of the first goal was just like, okay, we need to make sure she learns the main language in this country, and so I did see, I think early on, my parents really extend themselves, even though I recognized we were lower income, they extended themselves to make sure I had the best possible education on a low budget. So, that meant I spent a lot of my summers in libraries, I spent a lot of time reading. Eventually, I ended up in the school where I learned English and I fell in love with writing, and to be honest, for as long as I remember, I wanted to be a journalist. I wanted to tell stories, and funny enough, my dad did name me after a local well-known journalist called Lyanne Melendez, she was a Puerto Rican on ABC7 and she would cover stories about our community but just general assignment as well, and so I started tracking her career and I was like, okay, I see another Latina in the field. This was in the nineties, but my parents gave me the kind of like backing the education or the ability to get access to these institutions and just seeing them extend themselves and how hard they worked, I knew I’d be doing all of us a disservice if I didn’t pursue what I was truly curious and passionate about which was journalism, and it wasn’t always about in particular Latinos and people of color communities, I covered a little bit of entertainment. I started writing when I was 15 and I did a little bit of even fashion writing, but what I really fell into post-grad was business news, and in business news, I saw not a lot of people looked like me, not a lot of people of color and certainly not a lot of first-generation, and I thought to myself, I have so many friends in my life that are going through this, navigating the system for the first time, but also people that I’ve seen be very successful in starting their small businesses, why aren’t we seeing that represented in these national newsrooms? So, that that’s what has been my driver to do what I do to navigate my full-time jobs the way that I do, and so today I’m a producer at NASDAQ stock exchange, where I tell stories about technology companies or listed companies, market technology. But of course, at any chance that I get, stories about people of color.
Priscilla: Yeah. I’m so excited to hear like how you got to where you are today. So, when you were in college, what did you do during that time to figure out what kind of journalism you wanted to do?
Lyanne: Yes, that’s a very good question. I think one of my biggest learnings was that there is no linear path, especially when you’re first-generation, you don’t, or at least I didn’t have access to the connections to get the references, to have people push me through the system, and I feel that’s the case for a lot of people that are Latino and first gen and/or lower income, we don’t have this network. So, I became aware early on that I needed to get out there and meet people, and yes, I loved to meet Latinos, but I need to get out there and meet all journalists, so I didn’t limit myself to journalism when I did internships, but I did start writing for my school paper in high school and there was a city paper, the Chicago Tribune which had a program for teenagers called Mash, so via that you would be able to do journalism at the scale of the Chicago Tribune. They picked a handful of people, everyone had to apply, and this was such a critical step for me for many reasons, I started writing at the age of 16 at a city-wide level. I was getting the skills from editors, professional editors and commentary on my work, and I got access to these connections, right? But the other thing that I realized and started getting a hang of was how the system worked and I think it was so valuable that at 17 or so, they started paying me for my work, so I may not have had a ton of experience writing at that level but the fact they they paid me for work set me up with this mindset where I was just like, okay, like, I value experience this much and I’m going to seek free opportunities, but I don’t believe any more that I will be doing free internships. So, I think that kind of set my mindset a little bit differently because in the journalism and media field, you see so many people saying, “Take that unpaid internship worth on the stipend, work extra jobs,” which I did also, I did daycare, but I think the way I saw it then was like, Well, why would I do that? Because I don’t have a financial safety net to fall back on. I felt like this kind of advice appealed to more people with generational wealth or people with connections, quite frankly. So, after that, I feel like that was very formative because after that I was like, okay, I’m going to seek opportunities where I get paid. So, that meant that I wasn’t always working in straight journalism. Sure, I always made sure I was freelancing at some point for a journalistic company, but I would pick up jobs in PR, in comms, in strategy, and these are the kinds of internships that I did. I worked for a channel called Weather Nation which is, like, Weather Channel’s competitor and learned about acquisition of companies. So, I learned a little bit about the business side and I found that to be very instrumental.
Priscilla: Yeah, I think that’s really important, just the mindset shift and the realization that yes, that advice around getting an unpaid internship might apply to someone who literally can do that or someone’s going to help them, or they have the connections to get in the door, but for us, when we’re, like, literally the first in our family to do this and we don’t have anyone we can talk to to get us in the door, it’s, like, such an important realization to say, yes, I need to take care of myself, but I also need to proactively look for opportunities where I will get paid for my time and my work. So, so cool that you were able to have that shift pretty early.
Lyanne: Yeah, no, it was absolutely instrumental because I was in college and I’d hear people who would advocate for taking free opportunities, and don’t get me wrong, I did do things at some point unpaid, but they weren’t internships, they weren’t long-term commitments. I did short term commitments to get experience where I was just like, okay, there’s a skill share swap here, but at the end of the day, I am of the field of thought that interns should be getting paid, and I would say that most of this burden doesn’t actually fall on the interns or students themselves but on the corporate companies, like to me, the older I got, the more a little bit frustrated I became with the fact that we okayed these unpaid internships and said, “This is fine,” knowing very well that not everyone in society has an equal shot at these kinds of things, or even being able to do it even if they did have the talent and skill.
Priscilla: So, tell us about your first job as producer at CNBC. What was it like to get that opportunity?
Lyanne: So, this is an interesting one and a pivotal move because it’s my first full-time job in New York city, so I got this after doing six months of an internship at Business Insider also in New York and this came as a result of a cold email. I sent a cold email to the head of social media at CNBC at the time, her name is Anna Gonzalez. She had about 15-plus years of journalism experience. I did extensive research on her and it really appealed to me that she was head of this at what seemed to me at a very young age but also was Latina just like me, and so I was like, okay, we have something in common, and I knew that wasn’t gonna secure it, but I said, maybe I can reach out to her. We can talk about what value I can provide and what things she needs in her team. So, I cold emailed her, I reached out to her via Facebook. It worked because she was hiring for social media and I will say social media was my way in for journalism and I find that for a lot of times, young journalist today is you can move across, but it is a way in because people tend to look increasingly towards younger people for social media, it’s just the way it is, but so the cold email set up a call with her and that was probably one of the quickest processes ever because once we got on the phone, it became very clear what she needed and actually, the original position I reached out to her for, I was underqualified for it. It was my first job, and so she’s just, “This isn’t quite the fit, maybe in a couple of years, but I do have another position that’s opening up that I think would be great for you,” and so I started as associate producer, started doing social media, realized CNBC has free range for you to pitch stories. So, I started doing that. I worked across networks. I went to NBC Latino, met the editor in chief, Sandra Lilly. She was fantastic, pitched my stories, worked on them after hours. So, that’s what CNBC was like. I got a little bit of experience in a bureaucratic environment because it was, it’s a bigger company, but also being able to have that leeway to do things beyond what’s written down in your role.
Priscilla: What were the biggest challenges for you in that role, especially as someone who was, it was your first job, you were fresh out of college, what did you have to ramp up on pretty quickly?
Lyanne: Yeah, I must say graduating from college, I thought I knew more than I actually did, and so I learned to be a student. I think that was the first thing that just because I had graduated from college didn’t mean I was done being a student. I needed to continue being a student. Media is very different from the world that I am now when you talk about work-life balance and what it means to be a good employee. I feel like in media and in journalism, you need to do a lot more managing up. You’re often working on a very lean and mean team. You don’t always get guidance that you need, you get very aggressive KPIs that you need to meet in working for a social media department, and it’s just not easy. It’s not easy, period, but what helps is setting these managing upskills for you in place so that you can set the expectations for your boss because they won’t always do it for you. So, that was one of the big learnings, which is more corporate, actually, than you might think. The other thing, I guess, is just like in terms of reporting, it was just that you’re going to be your biggest advocate, like, my boss was a really big advocate, but at the end of the day, I was the person who needed to reach out for the additional opportunities, I needed to speak up, I needed to work those extra hours, and I needed to really explore it and then finesse what it is that I wanted to do.
Priscilla: And so, tell us about the passion for the Latino population and money, how did that start for you and at what point did you start to think about pitching stories or creating content around this?
Lyanne: Yeah, honestly, it’s when I started to have my own journey where I was coming back in touch with my own roots and culture, and that probably started towards the end of college. I think I was coming more to term with my roots and I spent a very long time not talking about my identity and not really exploring it. Maybe when I was younger, there’s a little bit of not really wanting to embrace it fully, and then in college, I was just like, our culture is so rich. I became fascinated with a little bit of history, with a little bit of culture, music. Actually, one of my earliest stories for NBC Latino was about a woman mariachi band in New York City. It was nothing to do with business, but the fact that I was in the business space and I saw a need, it wasn’t completely, solely passion. I was like, okay, I’m passionate about this and I see a need, those two things can intersect and fulfill me and drive me, and so that’s where I was just like, okay, the market needs this because it’s not there. I think that’s one of the fallacies, I think, of national media that we get placed into one bucket and we increasingly need to have these hard conversations about how we’re a lot of people, Latinos, we’re a very diverse bucket.
Priscilla: Absolutely agree, and I think we saw that with the election, right? Like this past 2020, we’re not a homogenous group. There’s a lot of intersectionality and race, and class, and so many other things play into our understandings of ourselves and, like, how we show up, and yeah, so I love that, I totally agree. What really resonated with me was that I’m Mexican Peruvian American and I grew up going to predominantly white schools, my whole life, and so for me, I was in a space in school constantly where I just wanted to survive. Like, I was just trying to survive, just trying to do well in school, just trying to get to college and make my parents proud, and then there was also a lot of racism I grew up in Texas. There were definitely always comments being made about Mexicans that were derogatory. So, for me, when I went to college, it was also a time of re-embracing that identity.
Lyanne: As diverse we are, like, that’s one thing that we can resonate on. You’re saying you embraced it in college. I feel like I met other people in college who had a similar narrative and said growing up, it was just so hard for me to see the things, the way that I see them now, and I appreciate things so much more, and just having that community and being able to relate to that meant so much.
Priscilla: And so, on the topic of money and career, what comes to mind for you in terms of one of the biggest lessons that you had to learn in terms of navigating money and career, whether that’s, like, negotiating for a salary or honestly, just anything?
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Lyanne: Yeah, I would encourage you to keep tabs on your wins. Literally keep them in a folder, keep them in a Google Doc, keep those emails that you get from clients or from editors, readers, praising you, use that as leverage when you’re asking for a negotiation and if your company doesn’t do this, set metrics for success a year out or even six months out, but six months to a year out with your manager. Again, managing up, so that that way, you can revisit those and use that as leverage when you’re asking for a raise.
Priscilla: Yeah. Okay, so now, I want to transition to your decision to leave CNBC, so what prompted your decision to leave and then what made you move over to NASDAQ?
Lyanne: Yeah, I got to say, I didn’t think I’d leave a full-time journalism job in the near future, but the opportunity came up. My former boss actually moved over and she wanted to bring me with her, and so to that end, she became a big thread in my early career because she was what I realized we call a sponsor. She was more than a mentor. She wanted to take me with her under her wing to advocate for me, put numbers to that too, like, money and, and say, “We can offer you the opportunity that you’re looking for,” and so what really drew me to NASDAQ was the opportunity. It was an opportunity for growth in skillset. At CNBC, I was doing social media and I was writing articles in my after hours, and while I really appreciated that flexibility, it was a little bit harder to get some of these other hands-on experiences at such a big outlet that I wanted to get. And NASDAQ was in a time of growth, and so they had a studio, they were working on video production which is really fascinating to me. After I joined the CMO, even became interested in a podcast, which I launched for the company alongside our comms team, so the opportunity for growth is really what appealed to me. Once the opportunity presented itself, I really pursued it for the skills and the growth proposition that was there.
Priscilla: That’s huge, and so has it fulfilled a lot of what you expected in terms of your growth and, like, all of that?
Lyanne: Honestly, it’s more than I could have imagined. I went there not with the title of, like, supervising producer that I have now. I went there as a booker. That’s what I was, I used to book people for our live interviews, and the thing about NASDAQ, it has a very flat structure, at least on the marketing end, which I sit under, which means that you have insane access to the C-level executives and I was just like, what is this place, this amazing place? Because that certainly was not CNBC which is very structured, and you had to really climb up and do time and all of that. Here at NASDAQ, it was the second day and I was sitting in the studio in an interview. So, the opportunities and the speed at which they were coming I think brought about by such an innovative company, because NASDAQ is relatively new for stock exchanges founded in 1971, second biggest stock exchange, but it’s not that old, so I think it was that, that kind of just, they move really fast. You have access to all the C-level executives, and so the opportunities have been endless, like, I’ve been sent on projects around the world to do video, to speak with different companies, I’ve learned so much about different fields, from the health industry field to biomedicine, just things that I would’ve never thought that I would cover, and I just, no, not all of them is related to Latinos and money, but tactically, I’m just like, okay, I love being in these different environments and I love learning things that I can apply then to my coverage which I continued to do around Latinos and money. So, I found it a great place to grow and get experience of everything, a smattering, so to speak, across the board.
Priscilla: Yeah, and what’s really cool to me is that you didn’t really have a business background, right? It’s not like you worked in corporate or finance or had a BBA or something, but you were willing to be a beginner and be like, I’ll learn as I go, and I think that’s a big deal, that you were willing to do that.
Lyanne: It’s a big deal, but I think I practiced that muscle early on. I will say, I think it’s difficult for a lot of people in the Latino community to admit to things we don’t know and be vulnerable in that way, and I would venture to say that in my family, it’s because they went through such hardships early on immigrating here, everything they had to go through that it’s just, okay, I’ve lived, like, what else do I have to do? Especially for my parents, it’s a lot, but for me being a first generation who didn’t have to go through that immigrant experience in all of that, I’m just like, okay, well, this is the least I can do, admit that I don’t know things and then say, okay, I’m going to go out and learn it, and that’s been my approach to life. That’s my approach now, too, as I’m even getting my personal finances in order, because I’m still on that journey and I don’t mind saying that because I like being transparent. I like for people to know where I’m coming from and that we may be coming from the same place.
Priscilla: That’s the thing is I think so many people, we’re actually all in the same boat, like we’re all figuring things out as we go, and we all have to be beginners at different things at different times, but we have such a hard time admitting that to each other and we build so much, so much community when we can actually just be vulnerable and be authentic about where we are and what we’re doing to get to where we want to go.
Lyanne: Yeah, I am absolutely about that, and I’ve embraced that a lot in the last year, I think, with more online communities where people can be vulnerable like that.
Priscilla: Yeah, and so I noticed that you’ve interviewed Ryan Leslie, which I was really impressed because he was, like, one of my favorite RNB singers and he kind of stopped singing, but what has it been like to interview these really cool people and what has been your highlight from that time?
Lyanne: Oh, my gosh. Oh, boy. Yeah, no, Ryan, he was great. He was so down to earth and we interviewed him because he started an app on his phone to kind of help facilitate communication. He’s a really smart guy. I would say I just enjoyed the diversity of it. I interviewed the first company to go public on an American exchange from Costa Rica, which is so specific. It’s so specific, but I was just like, this is really cool, and at the time, we did the interview in Spanish, too, where I was just like, wow, this is powerful, like it’s just the Costa Rican media outlets picked it up too, and honestly, that was an interview, I know he’s not a celebrity, but that really stuck with me because my heart swelled with pride where I was just like, okay, the whole theme of opening doors and paving roads, and being the first, that, I feel like the most impressive part about that is not that you were the first. It’s that now you’ve opened up a road where you won’t be the last. That’s what is most impressive about that, and so I think I really enjoyed interviewing people, not just Latinos, but people of color, people in general, who were the first to do things, but if I could think of one person, oh, my gosh, there’s just so many. I interviewed at some point the actress from Nikita, and I love her, I interviewed Maggie Q because she has her own fitness line and I think she was with some health company that came to ring the bell, but I absolutely adore this woman as an actress. I watched her shows like all throughout college and I was just, I don’t get starstruck very often, but I was just like, I literally, I watched all of your acting career and I literally felt so empowered watching you, and so the fact that she’s also a business woman is obviously really appealing. So, yeah, she was definitely a memorable person for me.
Priscilla: So awesome. It sounds like your job gives you a lot of energy and like you’re really excited and super engaged a lot of the time.
Lyanne: Yes, it’s super engaging and that’s kind of exactly what I look for. I like being able to move from one thing quickly to another, adapt and just continue to tell those stories.
Priscilla: So, I’m really curious about Moneda Moves. Tell us how it started, what it is and your mission with your podcast.
Lyanne: Yes, of course. So, Moneda Moves is a platform, newsletter podcast all about Latinos, our relationship with money and role in the American economy. Basically, what a CNBC would be but to Latinos. It’s largely aggregated at this point because it’s just me, but I have a weekly newsletter where I give you the kind of top line stories that you should know. Lately, we’ve been covering the Latinos on the Biden cabinet, and actually, they would have a big hand in managing money in this economy. So, it’s really important to track those and see where they are. It usually takes a hundred days for cabinet members to get approved, so that certainly will be really impactful, and then we have a podcast that is bi-weekly. The goal with that is to have different conversations around money with people who are successful in the field, that money can mean a lot of things. So, I’ve been talking to people in financial technology, people building personal finance platforms for Latinos by Latinos, but the goal is also to provide contextual story. So, we’ve done a story about the PPP loans from last year, 2020, and how Latinos were having a really hard time getting these loans for their businesses. So, I think just giving a little bit more context is really important. I love the profiles, but I also think we need to be aware of the bigger picture and our role in it.
Priscilla: So, my last question for you, what would you tell your younger self if you could tell her anything today?
Lyanne: I would tell her to trust yourself a little bit more. I think sometimes, I held myself back because I wanted things to be perfect or I just didn’t think I was good enough. I think that leads to overthinking and analysis paralysis, which is understandable, but taking risks once in a while and trusting yourself, and trusting your gut and your intuition, I would tell my younger self to trust yourself and take the risk because action is how you get started. If you have an idea, go for it, shoot for the moon, and then see where you land.
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 loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
Have you ever felt frustrated that your career didn’t take a “linear” path? On this episode, Damon Reynolds walks us through his early career years that took him down some winding roads: from leaving college after sophomore year, to joining the Marine Corps for four formative years, to finishing his college degree in 2014, and finally breaking into management consulting at one of the most elite firms in the world, through his MBA. Check out Damon’s story to remind yourself that it’s OK if your journey takes a little bit longer or if your destination is not always clear.
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I had a recruiter tell me one time and I think this is where it clicked for me. She said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants, it’s one thing to be smart. We can find smart people all day, but I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip, but if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.”
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Hey, everyone. Today we’re hearing from Damon Reynolds, who was my MBA classmate, friend, and is a fellow Houstonian. Damon is currently a consultant at BCG, one of the top management consulting firms in the world. But it wasn’t always clear that Damon would one day land there. He went to U of H for two years before deciding he wasn’t quite ready for the college experience and ended up leaving school to join the Marine Corps, which his parents were not too thrilled about. After his military service of four years, Damon finished his degree and went on to explore different career paths before discovering the world of management consulting. His story is a great reminder to never settle for less, to always pursue your dreams even if you get off track or if the journey takes a little bit longer. One thing that has always stood out to me about Damon is how fiercely he believes in himself. And that is something that I wish for all of you.
Priscilla: Hey, Damon, welcome to the show.
Damon: Thank you. Thank you for having me. I’m excited to be here.
Priscilla: Awesome. So Damon, why don’t we start by having you share a little bit about where you’re from, you know, a little bit about your background?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. I’m a male so I identify as he/him/his. I grew up a little outside of Houston into a suburb called Missouri City, Texas. And I went to majority, minority high schools, as well as middle schools, those interactions and those environments definitely influenced who I am today. Initially, I did undergrad at the University of Houston. That’s a good…would say a non-traditional path to complete my bachelor’s degree.
Priscilla: Yeah. So let’s talk about that non-traditional path to get your bachelor’s. What made it non-traditional?
Damon: Yeah. So, I ended up at U of H straight out of high school. I got involved in the social life as we do when we go to a big school, you move out of your parents’ house for the first time. And so I got involved in social life and wasn’t necessarily focused on my studies. I didn’t have a major at the time. I was what you would call a general studies major, which just means you’re taking your general classes, haven’t declared a major yet. So I was just experiencing the college
life and not really focused on the academic part per se. And so when I say non-traditional, I actually decided to leave college about halfway through my sophomore year. I decided to leave and join the military.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what was motivating that decision to leave college for you?
Damon: So my freshman year of college, I realized that I may not be at the level of maturity that I need to be at to do this right now. I think that was a self-realization. It wasn’t like anyone told me or anything like that. It just, you know, sitting around and just maybe I need to do something else for a little while I figure this out and mature a little bit. And so it came up then, and at that point I brought it up to my father. “Hey, I’m thinking about joining the military,” and he quickly
shut it down. And it was like, no go basically. So I came back to school for my sophomore year. And then after my sophomore year or I would say the second semester of my sophomore year was when I made the decision personally for myself. But I think I made the decision based on the fact that I knew the Marine Corps was probably, you know, one of the more difficult services, as it relates to just the level of discipline that you have to have and the expectations that they have for you as a Marine and some of the responsibilities that you’re going to have. You’re almost forced to mature faster than most 18 to 19 year olds when you’re deployed to a country and people’s lives are online. And it was a forcing mechanism for me. I knew that joining the Marine Corps would be a forcing mechanism. It would force me to grow up. It would force me to mature. And that’s ultimately why I made the decision.
Priscilla: That’s really cool that you had that level of self-introspection at that point, where you’re able to reflect and say, “I’m not really ready for this experience yet, and I’m going to do something that’s different even though other people had thoughts and feelings about it.” But, yeah, so tell us about the transition to the military. I’m sure it was shocking, but were you really excited about this next chapter?
Damon: When I joined the Marine Corps, I felt great about the decision. Obviously, it’s a transition, right? You’re transitioning from being a young 18, 19 year old to being a Marine, a United States Marine, and all the expectations that come with that. But I don’t think I could have been more excited about the opportunity to just serve our country, as well as just grow as a person.
I think one of the things that the Marine Corps does a great job of, and it’s by the nature of what they do and who they are, they push you beyond whatever physical, mental, spiritual, emotional limits you think you have. They are going to push you beyond those. It’s just, when you go through bootcamp, when you go through combat training, when you’re deployed overseas for 8, 9, 10 months at a time, and you haven’t seen your family and you haven’t talked to anyone for 2 months, and the only thing is dirt and loud noises in the background, obviously, you are pushed beyond whatever limits you think you had. And I think there’s goodness in that because if you decide to separate from the military, the Marine Corps or whatever service and you decide to come back to civilian life or whatever you decide to pursue in your life, the fact that you went through some of those things, it allows you a level of confidence when you’re faced with some of the hardships and the obstacles that come in normal life. You say to yourself, “Hey, if I figured out a way to get through that, or if I figured out a way to get through this and I came out on the other side and I’m fine,” you’re able to go into whatever life may throw at you with a level of confidence that I think sometimes you just can’t get unless you’ve really been through some things.
Priscilla: Do you think that this experience really helped build your self-confidence?
Damon: Certainly some of that comes from being in the Marine Corps. One of the unique things about the Marine Corps is that you’re going to be asked to lead Marines at a very young age. There are 20-year-olds leading teams of Marines in combat situations. If you think about life outside the military life, outside the Marine Corps, at what organization can you walk into and there’s a 20-year-old that’s leading a team, right? Are you going to walk into Google or Facebook or Microsoft or Deloitte or BCG and see a 20-year-old leading a team of consultants or data scientists or project managers or program managers? Probably not. But in the Marine Corps, they ask you to do those things at a very young age. And so I think you just develop, you’re in front of guys. You’re motivating them, you’re coaching them, you’re mentoring them. And you’re doing that all at the age of 20, 21.
Priscilla: I remember you telling me that when you joined the military, this was the first time that you left the country. So how did being in the military impact your worldview? How did it change?
Damon: It made me feel small because I think we have our problems here and we have the things that we face on a daily basis here. And then when you go, for instance, being in Iraq and we did interact with people native to Iraq, and so it just reinforces how fortunate we are here and it truly makes you — it truly humbles you. And it just makes you feel small when you see some of the things that they’re facing on a daily basis, especially given that was my first time out of the country and in that environment, it just was like, wow. So this is what it’s like in other parts of the world or in some parts of the world, many parts of the world, quite for quite frankly. And so it just was a reminder of how fortunate we are here and to honestly never take that for granted. And I don’t — after experiencing that and traveling after that, just my worldview is that do not discount how fortunate you are and understand that there are people around the world that are facing many more obstacles.
Priscilla: So I know that after four years of being in the military, you decided to go back to school and finish your degree. How did you think through that decision and how did you decide what was next for you?
Damon: Yeah. Initially, I made the decision because I felt like after the four years of active duty service that I did, I felt like I was no longer being challenged. I personally gained everything that I needed from the Marine Corps. I grew as a man, as a person, as a human being. I matured. All the things that I was looking for to gain from my experience in the Marine Corps, I had gained. And so at that point, I just asked myself the question, “Okay. You’ve gotten everything from this.
You’re no longer feeling challenged. What’s next?” And so for me, the next thing was to go back to school, to go back and finish my degree, which was something that I didn’t complete previously. That was important to me, and at that time was the next challenge. “Hey, you didn’t get this right the first time. Let’s go back and do this the right way.” So I went back and I finished in about a year and a half after separating from the Marine Corps. I just put my head down to night classes, summer classes year round, basically, and finished in about a year and a half.
And, you know, I chose Poli Sci, my intention at that point in my life was to go to law school. It was around the time where, you know, Trayvon Martin and that situation happened and the George Zimmerman case. It seemed like on the news every day. And these issues are still, I’m still passionate about these types of things, right? And so I found myself really passionate about social justice and how can I impact people of color. And for me at that point in my life, I thought
getting a degree in political science and going to law school and working within the political arena to create institutions and structures that benefit people of color. I thought that was the way to go. And so I made the decision to study political science with hopes of going to law school at that time.
Priscilla: Yeah. So what made you decide to not go down the law school route?
Damon: I actually took a class in undergrad constitutional law and the professor was an amazing professor, but he made no secret of the fact that he structured the class exactly like law school and constantly reminded us of that. And just let us know, “Hey, I’m going to structure this just like law school. I want you all to get a taste of it. If you all are thinking about doing it, I want you to know what you’re getting yourself into.” And for me, I quite frankly just didn’t enjoy — the content was great. I love constitutional law. Learning about our constitution, I think everyone should do it. And everyone should have some knowledge of what’s in our constitution and what it means. The constant reading, the cases weren’t all that exciting. And so I was just like, “Ah, I’m not sure the law school is what’s going to stimulate me and truly challenging me in the ways that I want to be challenged.” And so at that point, I just made a decision not to pursue law school, but I immediately shifted to this idea of, “Okay, if I’m not going to do law school, how can I still impact the populations that I care about? How can I still work to create a better future for those people?” And so it wasn’t like a gave up on my dream. It was more of I just have to figure out a different way to impact the people that I care about.
Priscilla: Great. And better that you figured that out earlier rather than later. So how did you think through what was next for you after you finally had that bachelor’s degree in hand?
Damon: Yeah, so I actually went into financial services for some time. I spent my first year and a half after undergrad at AIG. I was working in their life and retirement division. So they provide financial services to a host of different organizations, basically 401(k) services to host of different organizations. And so basically I was a financial advisor within their Life and Retirement Division, working with the employees at the organizations that we provide our retirement services. So just giving people retirement advice, helping them save, think through what investments they should be, how their portfolio should be allocated, things like that. And it was really cool work.
I think I initially got into that because I fell in love with the capital markets. I started reading books my last semester of undergrad about the capital markets and just found myself fascinated by capital markets and was like, “How can I teach other people about this?” And I had a friend who was a financial advisor, who actually helped me to get on-boarded with AIG. And so that was really cool. We did that for a year and a half, and then I transitioned to JP Morgan, where
I was working in their private bank with their high net worth clients. At that point, doing similar work, helping them plan for the future, as far as it related to their investments and banking and mortgages, essentially everything, managing their entire relationship with JP Morgan. And so that was fun as well.
So that’s what I did for a while. And I think those were to figure out what’s next year. Still care about helping people of color. That hasn’t changed. It’s still a passion of mine. I’m not necessarily — I don’t feel like I’m doing that right now, but how can I get to that place? So I spent those years trying to figure that out.
Priscilla: Yeah. And that’s actually a really good point that sometimes there are months, periods, times in our life when we’re doing things in our career that don’t necessarily align with what we’ll be doing long-term but that’s okay, right. Because sometimes we’re uncertain about what to do next and we need to regroup and think about what is our next step. So I love that that was a part of your story. How did you find out about consulting?
Damon: Yeah, absolutely. So it was really cool, actually. I had no clue what consulting was when I was working at JP Morgan. I never heard of the industry, had never heard of the function, never heard of the role, quite frankly. And I had a client who at the time was working for McKinsey & Company, thinking he was an associate partner or so at McKinsey & Company. And so he was doing well and he would come in for his appointments and we would talk and I will see — I had access to these people’s entire financial life and so I could see what was going on. And I just thought to myself, “Okay, what is McKinsey?” I see this coming in every couple of weeks and then I see a — what is this? And so I Googled McKinsey & Company. And their website came up and so I did a little research, and then I went even further and started looking at websites like vault.com, which ranks the consulting firms and all these different areas and just really learning what this was.
And I found myself fascinated by it because one thing that has been consistent about me is I do enjoy being challenged. I think I tend to thrive in those types of environments. And so in the research that I was doing, I found that consulting is almost a constant challenge, right? You’re changing projects every three, four, five months. It’s oftentimes going to be new work that you’re doing, whereas you may have done a marketing case for a client, now you’re doing a risk
case for a client where you’re assessing the enterprise risk throughout the organization. And so to me, that was just, “Wow. Wait, you’re telling me I can get something new every three to six months, and it’s going to be a new challenge, and I don’t have to actually switch jobs to do that?” To me, that was really cool. And so that kind of started my pursuit of consulting, but then it turned into this, “Wow, this is an industry that quite frankly has not and I think they will admit it, their diversity numbers are not where they would like them to be. And so I also saw this as an opportunity to say that, “Okay, if I can do this, I can then go back to the communities that I care about and teach them how to do the same.”
Priscilla: Okay. So you identified that management consulting was where you wanted to go next, and this industry or this career can be a little heavily guarded. It’s not very easy to break into unless you know someone or you’re going through a school channel. So, yeah, did you have that feeling like almost like it was a secret career that you hadn’t heard of?
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Damon: Yeah, I felt the same way. It’s almost like a secret society because if you’re not in consulting or you don’t know someone who’s in consulting, you likely don’t know that consulting exists. And so to your point, I felt the same way that if you aren’t in an undergraduate program that they recruit from or you’re not in a graduate level program that they recruit from, the ways to get into this industry are very limited. And we’re doing this to help out younger individuals who are thinking about these things. And that’s something that you need to think about is if this is in fact something that you decide you want to do, just be aware of the difficulty of getting in and understand how you can so that you know what levers you have to pull to make it happen.
Priscilla: Totally. So let’s fast forward to you finally being in business school, getting ready for on-campus recruiting, which is the way that you can get your consulting job that you want. How did you think through telling your story about where you had been, as someone who really hadn’t worked in business and as someone who was a veteran, and just being able to package that into something that BCG would be looking for in a consultant?
Damon: Yeah, I think for me, I tried to lean on — because I came from a non-traditional background, political science degree, I’ve never really worked in business in any capacity. The roles that I had prior to business school were more relationship, sales-based roles. So I certainly wasn’t doing analysis in Excel. I think the only thing I used Excel for at that point was lists. And I knew that I didn’t have these technical skills that they would be looking for or anything like that.
So I relied more so on my personality a little bit, my ability to speak, articulate my thoughts pretty well, the confidence that comes from serving in the Marine Corps, and some of the things that I’ve been through in my life. I really relied on that during recruiting, where I was able to demonstrate that, hey, from a intellectual standpoint — we talk about intellectual horsepower sometimes in recruiting — from an intellectual standpoint, I was able to demonstrate that I can do this job in the case interviews.
But I think prior to that, I truly relied on my personality speaking well, confidence, and those types of things. And then also just talking to as many people as I could and building those relationships. I had a recruiter tell me one time, and I think this is where it clicked for me. And when she said this to me, it resonated and I was like, “Okay, I’m going to run with that.” She said to me, it was actually Opie, she was a recruiter for Accenture and she said to me, “When I’m looking for consultants,” she was like, “it’s one thing to be smart.” She was like, “We can find smart people all day.” She was like, “But I need the best communicators. Because you can be as smart as a whip. But if you can’t communicate, no one cares how smart you are.” And for me, that just really resonated.
Priscilla: That’s such a good point because soft skills really are just so critical in consulting or in any role where you’re on a team or you’re influencing, leading. And so I think that obviously you have those soft skills from your military experience. And a lot of the work that you did in recruiting was being able to convey that you were a leader and you had all of these skills that were very transferable.
So now you’re on the other side, you’re a successful consultant at BCG. You’ve made it. And my last question for you is, what would you tell your summer 2018 version of yourself when you were starting business school, starting to go through this recruiting process? What would you tell your younger self?
Damon: I would say the advice I would give to myself honestly, is don’t be too hard on yourself. We have these ideas of where we want to be in life and what we want to do and what we want to accomplish. And sometimes we hold ourselves to standards that even other people aren’t holding us to. I think sometimes we can be our own worst critic. You may have heard that before. And so for me at that point in time, I think I put a lot of pressure on myself, a lot of unnecessary stress. And if I could go back, I would just say to myself, “Hey, relax. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t put too much pressure on yourself to be this perfect person because you feel like you have to be at…this point in your life.”
Priscilla: And that’s a great place to end. Don’t stress yourself out. Don’t take yourself too seriously. Don’t take life too seriously. It’s too short. If we learned anything in 2020 is that life is too short. So thanks, Damon, for being here. I appreciate you.
Damon: Absolutely. Thank you for having me. This was fun.
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.
Diana Becnel worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant for 8 years before deciding to switch functional areas and move into sales. Today, she is a successful Account Executive and strong advocate for helping minorities break into STEM and tech careers. On this episode, Diana breaks down the importance of finding sponsors at work and not falling for the myth that hard work will equal a promotion or raise. People need to know and hear about your success, and sponsors can help do that for you. Diana inspires us to get over our mental crap and sell ourselves at work.
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Just because you’re doing a good job doesn’t mean you’re gonna get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and women. We struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel Weninger, proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey everyone. Today you get to hear from Diana Becnel. Now, Diana is an LA native and she went to Boston university where she got her BBA and stuff and since then has worked at Microsoft as a technology consultant and most recently moving into the sales world as an account executive. Diana is super inspiring because she’s a black woman in tech who really has learned what it takes to move up in that industry, and we talk about finding sponsors and advocating for yourself, and making sure that people can really see the hard work that you’re doing and how working hard is often just not enough to cut it, like, people need to see your hard work, people need to be able to understand the value that you bring, and as women, especially, sometimes, that can feel very uncomfortable or weird, but we just have to get over that.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey Diana, welcome to the show.
Diana Becnel: Thank you so much. I’m really excited to be here virtually with you today.
Priscilla: Me too. I’m super excited to have you here talk about your career in tech especially as a black woman, especially as a woman in STEM, someone who has fought really hard to have the opportunities that you have today. So yeah, let’s dive into your story. Tell us a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.
Diana: Sure, so I grew up in sunny, beautiful Los Angeles, California. I’m the oldest of about three kids. We grew up in LA in the city and I am back in LA now, which is awesome because I spent seven or eight years away because of different jobs in school, but back in LA and happy to be here. So, I’m excited to be here and talk about how I grew up and my experience going to college and ending up at Microsoft.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I’m really curious if you grew up with a really specific idea in terms of what you wanted to do when you grew up or were you pretty much in exploring mode?
Diana: It’s so interesting because growing up, I always had this desire to be an independent and financially secure woman, that was a huge thing that my mom and family instilled in me, but I actually never knew exactly what I wanted to do. In fact, I envy people who knew at an early age that they wanted to be a doctor or a lawyer, or an engineer. I wasn’t like that, but I definitely was really exposed to a lot of tech at an early age and business people, which I think greatly influenced my decisions in life. I knew that in order to end up having a good job, becoming financially secure so that I could help take care of myself and my family, that I needed to stay the course and get good grades, go to college, and then end up getting a job. The back of my mind was exposed to technology and business, but I never knew exactly what I wanted to be, and so I think the influences I had as a kid ultimately drove me to technology and business later on.
Priscilla: Yeah, so you mentioned financial security being important to you when you were looking for jobs, where did that really come from for you?
Diana: I think a lot of that came from my parents having some pretty honest conversations about money throughout my whole life and just how money really can make a difference in your life, how financial security is important, and some of the mistakes they made and things they wanted for us, and so I think that helped a lot with that, and look, I believe it’s really important to enjoy what you do, but I also think it’s important to be able to help my mom or pay bills, or buy a house, right, and create generational wealth, and so that was really important to me, and so I was definitely one of those people that was like, yeah, I want to make sure I like my job, but if I can make the money, especially early in my career to give myself freedom later on to really help others and do other things, that’s the way I look at it.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s really cool that you had that super long-term view at that age because that’s something that I definitely didn’t have and I wish I had had now in my early thirties, but yeah, so that’s amazing. I know you went to BU, you went to Boston university and you ended up studying Business. How did that end up happening for you? How did you decide to go that route?
Diana: Looking back, I chose Business because I thought it gave me a little, the flexibility to still figure out what I wanted to do but know that I could make some impact and hopefully make some money after school, and so I chose Business, and originally when I was going into Business, I thought I was going to be a marketing queen. I loved the idea of marketing, I loved the excitement of it, and so I was leaning towards the marketing path and at BU, we have to concentrate in a particular, a minor, but it’s really a concentration, and so you can go everywhere from law to marketing, to finance, accounting, or information systems, which is really like computer science, and to this day, I remember the moment that I shifted my concentration and my major focus. So, for the first couple of years, I was going down the marketing path and we were in this career session and it was, I think, it was either my junior or senior year and one of the professors pulls up a slide and shows the average salaries when you graduate based on the concentration, and marketing was further down on the list and information systems, so the tech side and finance were almost double the salaries, and I remember calling my mom, like, “Mom, I am going into tech. I don’t know how hard it’s going to be but the salary and the opportunity is there,” and I remember my professor also saying to me one-on-one, there’s barely any women. There’s barely any minorities in this field, and that just triggered me. I wanted to change those statistics. That’s always been something about me, I like to prove those statistics wrong, and so I think the combination of hearing that stat and then also seeing the financial difference and the number of jobs and opportunities influenced me to make that switch in the middle of my college journey.
Priscilla: Yeah, so I know that you’re going on nine years of working at Microsoft and that was your first job after college. What ended up making you choose Microsoft and what do you love about what you do?
Diana: I joined Microsoft as a part of a college hire program. So, it’s really interesting because I had a couple of other offers that I was almost pretty much taking, and then the Microsoft offer came in and I still remember, I almost didn’t do the interview because I was like, there’s no way they’re going to hire me, and secondly, I was so tired that senior year I’d been interviewing a lot, I was working, trying to keep up with my grades and they wanted to fly us to DC, and I remember, after my interviews, I felt pretty good about it but still wasn’t sure, and they had some of their college hires talk to us and they talked to us about how not only is Microsoft one of the greatest technology companies in the world, and yes, you’re going to make good money, but it was also all the extras that Microsoft did. They talked a lot about how they care about their people, they’re big on empathy, growth mindset, you got this great gym fitness bonus, they invest in you personally, and so I remember being just blown away by all the additional things Microsoft provided, and so that’s why I ended up taking that job there when I got the offer. My first job, I was hired as what we call a consultant in the consulting organization, and really, what we were doing was going out and helping customers actually implement our software, and so I focused on a particular software that is around business applications, so we would go to big companies like Ashley Furniture, Brightstar, HP, and transform their business process when it came to financial accounting, supply chain and using some of our Microsoft software, and I was traveling to customers a lot, I was on the road a lot and really helping customers transform, which was really exciting.
Priscilla: And during your time at Microsoft, have there been any mentors or sponsors that have really helped you in your career?
Diana: I love mentors. I think you should have all types of mentors, whether they’re just peer mentors who are in the same position as you as well as executives, but I think the number one thing that is so critical especially early on in your career is finding a sponsor, and when I say sponsor, someone who is going to actually advocate for you in those rooms where they make decisions about your promotions, programs that you can be a part of, bonus leadership, all of those things, right? You really have to have a sponsor who can speak up and advocate and has the influence in those rooms for you. So, I think that is one of the most important things I would tell people in corporate America to find. I know we talk a lot about mentors which that is a hundred percent really important, but if you can find a mentor who’s also your sponsor, that is going to change your career, and that’s what happened for me. So, I had two sponsors that really knew my work and they would advocate for me, get my promotions, get my bonuses, and that translated into really good career progression, and then when I was ready to switch out of the consultant role, I had this network of sponsors and mentors, and people that I had worked with and talk to that helped me transition into the new roles that I wanted, and definitely, at these big companies, it’s not always easy to do that. It’s not always easy to jump from consultant to sales or really a product technical person, and so you got to have a sponsor and a mentor who can help you do that.
Priscilla: I totally agree, and I think also what’s interesting about the sponsor thing is that it speaks to how it’s not enough to just be really great at what you do. People have to know about the work that you’re doing, and sometimes that can feel, especially for women, a little uncomfortable to talk about what we’ve done and the impact that we’ve had. So, how did you showcase the strengths that you had and how did you make yourself more visible?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a great question and a great point. All your life, even from when you’re a little kid, if you do a good job, you’re going to get a good grade, so if you do well on the test, you’re going to get a good grade and you’re compensated for doing well, but then when you go to the career and your professional life, to your point, just because you’re doing a good job, doesn’t mean you’re going to get the promotion. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get a great review and bonus. It’s who knows about what you’re doing and advocating for yourself and, to your point, women, we struggle with that. We feel like it’s too braggy, too show off-y, and so I struggled with that probably in my first year of my career and one of my sponsors and then another one of my mentors, they’ve helped me put decks and emails together highlighting the things that I was doing, and so my cadence now with even my current manager is on our one-on-ones or if I get an email, I forward it to her, I share that I let her see that direct feedback. If a customer said something really good, I forward it to her and share that. In our one-on-ones, I highlight the things that went well and that I did, and so I think that’s really important to do, and it doesn’t come naturally to me, but I know that I have to advocate for myself in order to get that promotion or that good review. The second thing is really making sure that you build confidence in who you are and always go above and beyond. Most people, especially at a company like Microsoft, they’re there for a reason; they work hard, they’re good at their jobs, so you have to differentiate yourself. And so you have to talk to your manager openly saying, “What do I need to do to get promoted? What are the things that I need to differentiate myself from the other person who’s competing with me for that promotion?” So, have that open and honest conversation so that you clearly understand what is required, and then take the actions and even with what he or she said you need to do, go above that. I try and do above my requirements from my boss to show off, like you said, and advocate for yourself that you deserve to keep moving up.
Priscilla: And so, what happened when you decided to transition out of the consultant role? What was next for you after that?
Diana: I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do next. I honestly believe you have to go after and always think about your next career move.
Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.
Hey, everyone, if you’re thinking of getting a graduate degree, like many of the other Early Career Moves guests, check out our awesome sponsor, The Art of Applying. The Art of Applying has spent the last 10 years helping people who aren’t the cookie cutter applicants for top business, law, policy and other programs get into their dream schools and get money to pay for them. They have a large team of expert consultants who know what it takes to get into the school of your dreams and can give you the roadmap for how to get there, especially if you’re stuck on something like getting the perfect test score or struggling with the right words to put in your essays. They believe each applicant has more to offer than just their test scores or GPA, and that approach has helped thousands of their clients get into their dream schools and earn more than $20 million in merit scholarships and fellowships. Graduate schools care about your entire application and I love that their team helps applicants put their best foot forward. As a sponsor of the Early Career Moves Podcast, they’ve invited listeners to explore working with their team by going to the ArtofAapplying.com/ECM and signing up for a quick call. If you mention the Early Career Moves Podcast, you get a hundred dollars off enrolling in their hourly coaching or application accelerator program. If you’re dreaming of going to a top school without paying top dollar, go to the ArtofApplying.com/ECM.
Diana: One of my sponsors actually told me, he says every time he gets a job, he has a three-year plan and it doesn’t always work out like that. Sometimes it may take him five years, some time, it took him seven years, some time, it took him two years, but he always has a plan for his next move within the next three years, and so I believe that you should always be thinking about what’s your next step because it takes a while to get there, and then secondly, a lot of things do just fall in your lap. Some things do just happen. Opportunities happen to come up and you have to be ready to take advantage of them, and so I think if you listen to a lot of people in their careers, they’ll tell you they thought they were going one way and then an opportunity popped up, and so I think that does happen a lot and that happened with me, but I also was super proactive about thinking about what I wanted to do next, and doing the networking, gaining the skills that would set me up for that next role that I wanted, finding a sponsor and shadowing, practicing, all of that is really important to be proactive about while you’re going in your career journey.
Priscilla: What was a skill set that for you was a little challenging to get but you figured out a way to fill some kind of gap that you think you had?
Diana: Yeah, that’s a good question, and probably the last year, I spent a lot of time thinking about that because I was at that point where I wanted to move on to my next role and figure out my next role, and so one of the missing skill sets for me in my current job was really negotiation. We call it like “challenger” mindset where you’re really pushing a customer, and I am not the type of person that likes asking anyone for anything especially when it comes to money, so I would never be a good cold caller, but I knew I needed to be able to have some more negotiation skills, and so I spent the last year shadowing some different salespeople. I read several books and I listened to podcasts as well as do different trainings and that’s really where I was able to see it in action and also start practicing it more, and so when I went to interview for this new role that I got, I could speak to that and talk about the readings that I had done, talk about the shadowing that I had done and really bring everything in my experience to the table as this kind of package, like, across the board of skill sets that I had.
Priscilla: Okay, so now you’re in a sales role, right, with Microsoft? Why did you decide to make that change? What prompted that?
Diana: One of the main reasons I decided I wanted to change was because I was currently consulting in a particular technical focus and I wanted to broaden my horizon and I also wanted to have more ownership across the board. So, in consulting, you own a single project, and then in this sales role, you own the entire account, the entire customer, and so I wanted to have more of that ownership. The other main thing is I knew that negotiation and sales was not my strong point, and I stalk a lot of people on LinkedIn, someone who’s a VP, I say, what did they do to get there? And 90% of the time, I was finding they had some type of sales role, and that is because at the end of the day, Microsoft is a for-profit company; we have to sell product and licenses in order to make money, and so that is a huge skill set that is valued from leadership, being able to close deals, being able to grow your accounts and really help customers transform using Microsoft technology, especially when you think about the competition Microsoft has across Amazon, Google, Apple, and so I was like, this is a skillset, this is a type of role that I don’t have. I wasn’t able to say, “Oh, I closed $3 million with these different customers,” and I know how to manage a pipeline, like, all those things I couldn’t say I did, and so that’s what made me decide to go into sales because I knew it would make me a little uncomfortable, but I thought I could be good at it with the right practice and experience and I knew it would add this major bucket of skillset to my resume that I was lacking in preparation for whatever I do next.
Priscilla: Totally makes sense how it could be a little scary and daunting to go into that space but at the same time, you’re right, you’re bringing in the revenue and it’s one of the most highly valued positions that you can be in if you’re successful, and so I’m curious, are you one of the few women on your sales team? What does that look like?
Diana: Yup, I am one of the few women. I am probably one of the youngest people and I’m a black woman, so there’s probably like three things going on: you have the age thing, you have the sex thing, and then the race thing, but then on top of that, I’m talking to customers about transforming their business and driving business outcomes by spending a lot of money with us, and I know they look at me and I’m young and a woman and black, and there’s definitely stereotypes that come with that, and I would say that I deal with that in probably three ways. So, the first is, and I struggled with this a little bit in the beginning but I’m getting better and better every day, is that building the confidence and having the expertise and the knowledge. The first thing is, you’re stereotyped with those three things and people think you don’t know because you’re young or you’re a woman, or you’re black it’s, so number one, knowing that I know what I’m talking about and know my stuff, so I always make sure I’m up to date on that part. That’s something I can control. So, really building that confidence, knowing that I know what I talk about, and then the second thing is knowing that I deserve to be at the table and that there’s a reason that I have this job, and there’s a reason that they brought me on and I deserve to be at the table. I’m here to have a fresh perspective, I’m here to drive change and really be there for customers in a way that maybe others can’t be, and so I just always remind myself of that too. And then, the third thing is understanding and knowing the stereotypes that exist but never letting it stop you or agreeing with it, always pushing forward through it and proving people wrong.
Priscilla: What advice do you have for anyone who might be in college or even, like, early career who wants to break into tech? What do you think are some tips that you would offer that person?
Diana: Sure. Number one, do it and don’t feel intimidated by it. I was intimidated by it and I think a lot of people, especially minorities and women are, you don’t have to be the best coder in the world or even be super technical. So, I think my advice is to not be intimidated. Know that we need you and know there’s so much support out there. When I think about the changes when I started to now, there’s so many programs, so many different online boot camps, support groups, mentors there to help you pass those classes to help you learn coding and all these things. Go out there, do it, come to tech, and there’s so much opportunity here. You don’t have to be super technical or you can, you can build things or you can sell technology, you can market it, you can implement it. There’s so many different ways you can go. So, I really encourage you to leverage the resources out there. Come into tech and you really get to change the world, and it’s a great place to be.
Priscilla: Awesome. That’s a great place to end, Diana. Thank you so much for all the insight that you just offered us with overcoming obstacles and having an amazing career at Microsoft.
Diana: Thank you so much. I really appreciate the time, it was great talking to you today.
Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ECMpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community, and if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.
On our first ally guest episode, we hear from Doni Tavel, an Indianapolis native who moved to Los Angeles after college without a job to pursue an exciting career in music. In Los Angeles, Doni learned what it meant to be a personal assistant to a celebrity and eventually networked her way into an international marketing role at Interscope Records. Five years later, Doni was traveling the world with talented artists like Maroon5 and Sting, fulfilling her vision to make it in the music industry – all thanks to her grit, humility and hard work.
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All You Need To Know About the Music Business by Donald Passman
Doni: And so the first trip that I ever took was with Maroon 5. And that was just such an extraordinary experience because their whole team, they’ve been doing it for so long that they have everything down to an art. They have such a talented crew and such awesome management that it was just like a dream. I couldn’t believe that I was at work.
Priscilla: Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Priscilla: Hey, everyone. Before I introduce today’s guest, I want to invite you to follow us on Instagram if you haven’t yet. Come join the conversation and the community that we’re building at ECM Podcast, that’s ECM Podcast, so that you don’t miss any new episodes or updates. Okay. So today’s episode is a Good one. We’re featuring our first ally guest, Doni Tavel. Doni and I crossed paths in Austin while both attending UT Austin for business school. And we took a class together on the science of happiness that required us to write a pretty in-depth biography about our lives that we also all had to read. And when I read her amazing story about moving to Los Angeles from Indiana, without any contacts, and then breaking into the music industry successfully, I just knew I had to ask her to be on the show. Doni tells us what it was like to visualize and then execute on an exciting goal to move up the ranks in international music marketing, and then travel the world with amazing artists. So, if you’ve ever thought about breaking into an industry that’s tough and that requires a lot of networking and knowing people, then this is a great episode for you.
Priscilla: Hey, Doni. Welcome to the show.
Doni: Thank you so much. And aloha from Oahu.
Priscilla: Oh my gosh. I’m so jealous you’re in Hawaii. That sounds amazing. But yeah, so Doni, why don’t you introduce yourself and just give us a little sense of your personal background?
Doni: So I am from Indianapolis, Indiana. That is where I grew up. I decided not to venture too far from home for undergrad. I went to Indiana University Bloomington, which was pretty fun, but I knew in college that I wanted to work in music. I had this epiphany that the things that I was good at were all of my business classes and the place that I spent all of my time and money was in the music world. So I thought if I can combine these two things, I am always going to be happy because the benefits of my job are going to be the things that I would otherwise pay for. And even on the toughest days in my job, it’s going to be stuff I’m excited to be doing. So I followed that kind of intuition out to Los Angeles right after school. And that’s where I kickstarted my journey.
Priscilla: Yeah. And since you realized this was something you wanted to do in college, did you end up doing a lot of internships to help you figure that out?
Doni: Absolutely. And I think that is so key. As soon as like how this epiphany, really, about working in music, the next day, I sat down at my computer and made a list of every single music company that I could find in Bloomington, which surprisingly there’s a fair number of music companies, that was very surprising to me. It’s very similar to, I guess, most college towns. It’s big when the college students are there and not so big when they’re gone. But I emailed the guy. It was a roots and reggae publicity company, and they also did a little bit of booking and I emailed him and just said, “Hey, I’m a college student. I’m super excited about music and I’m detailed-oriented, willing to do the work. And you don’t have to pay me. I will work for free. I just really would like to learn about what you do. Would you be open to having an intern?” And so I met up with him the following day after that, and he brought me just like a box of CDs and said, “Listen to all of these things,” and RIP CDs, remember those?
Priscilla: Oh my God, CDs.
Doni: And so I had literally used to ride around in my car listening to these CDs that this guy gave to me, trying to familiarize myself. And then the next thing he had me do was start working on some press releases for those and figuring out how to talk about those bands. And so it was a much smaller company. And then I used that as a stepping stone the following summer to get an internship in Chicago, which was at a company called Aware Records and A-Squared Management. And that I think was really the beginning of my official music career. It was a little bit risky because obviously I wasn’t in Chicago. So I told my parents, “I might be living in Chicago this summer for an internship.” But yeah, they had worked with a bunch of artists that I love, including John Mayer and Dave Matthews Band and just all of these incredible things. And I thought, “If I could work there.” They’re working in real music. It’s not like these unknown folky bands that I’ve never heard of. And so I went up there and worked with them all summer and I had an incredible mentor named Josh Terry. He was very candid all summer, was very hard as a manager, had very high expectations. And I think you learn some of the tough lessons that way, just about being detail-oriented and not dropping the ball and all of those things.
Priscilla: How did you end up learning about the different jobs that exist in the music industry, and are there a lot of jobs?
Doni: There are a ton of jobs in music. And I think one of the things that I always tell people who come to me asking for a career advice is to just get to know the business. There is an excellent book by Donald Passman. He is an entertainment attorney who wrote this book called Everything You Should Know About the Music Business. And he updates it every couple of years to reflect current technologies and current companies and just the shifts, the major shifts that have happened in music. And that’s a really good place to start because it teaches you all about the label business and now the streaming business. It teaches you about music publishing. It talks about the roles of accountants and lawyers and that sort of thing in the context of music. And that book is really written I think more for an artist to understand who the people are that should be on their team. But I think as any person who’s trying to break into the industry, the best thing you can do is to have an understanding of what types of companies exist.
And then when I was first starting, what I did is I would literally, after I had these big lists of, okay, there’s talent agencies, there’s record labels, there’s technology, I went through and I just looked at every single career site and just started reading job descriptions and saying, “What kind of jobs do they offer in these places?” Just researched the industry generally, know that there are record labels, know that there are agencies, know that there are publishing houses, know that there are, I mean, infinite things. Think about what your skill sets are and what you can bring to the table and what things excite you, and then just start reading some of those job descriptions. If you can think about some of the functions that you like, maybe it’s marketing, maybe you’re a finance person, start reading the job descriptions that will identify the skills and such that you can be cultivating to prepare for those jobs. And don’t start reading them when it’s time for you to start applying, start reading them before you’d be applying to full-time role. So by the time that you do get to those roles, you have all those skills that they’re looking for.
Priscilla: So after your college graduation, I know that you headed out to LA to start your career in music. What was that like moving to LA with no job?
Doni: I went to LA with nothing but a mission to get a job. I did not have friends or family or contacts, and that was super scary for me. I at first thought that I was going to move to Nashville because I thought to myself, “You know what, that mentor that I had in Chicago, he had since moved to Nashville and started a music company of his own.” And so I thought, “Wow, he can help me. He’s plugged in.” But then I thought, “You know what, what good is that going to do me?” I need to really trust that I have built up a skill set that is valuable and I know that I personally am motivated enough to at least try and make this happen. And so I, of course, had to lean on my parents a little bit because it’s pretty expensive to just move out to Los Angeles and the music industry doesn’t have the best track record of high paying jobs, especially at the entry level. So yeah, I went out there and had nobody, so it was a pretty lonely time. And I can remember just the apartment building where I was living in West Hollywood had this lovely rooftop, not I’d say lovely, I don’t know. It was very bare. There’s nothing up there. I just brought a blanket and would sit up there and look at the Hollywood Hills and think to myself, “I cannot wait for the day when I’m sitting in Los Angeles and I’m just at brunch with my friends and I can look around and think, ‘Oh, I made all these friends while I was here. I have a job and it’s going to be so great.'” And just visualize what my life would look like once I had gotten all of my ducks in a row. And it takes a lot of time and it will probably take a couple of positions to really figure out what your place is in the industry. The first role that I took definitely wasn’t my forever role. And I learned that really quickly even though that’s what I thought I wanted to do for the rest of my life. So I would say give it time, believe in yourself, which is like such a cliché thing to say. But if you know that you work hard all the time and you can honestly sit with yourself and say, “I know that I’m motivated enough to go out there and make this happen,” then you can do it.
Priscilla: One of my favorite things that you just talked about and referenced is the power of visualization. And sometimes this sounds really like woo-woo and like hokey to people, but I am huge on visualizing what success looks like. And I just think it’s so powerful to be thinking about and feeling and getting excited about our dreams and our goals, because it does put you in a different kind of mindset. But anyway, how did you manage to get that first job in LA?
Doni: I would say that, as in probably most careers, it’s a lot about being in the right place at the right time. And especially in music, things move so quickly. So that was one of the reasons that I thought to myself, “I’m not going to get a job applying to things from Indiana. I need to be in LA. I need to be introducing myself to all of these people and make sure that the people who have access to these open roles know that I’m looking and that I’m available to start immediately.” So anybody that I met in LA, I basically said, “These are my interests. This is what I bring to the table. And I’m so excited to find — I’m really open to talking about any job opportunity that’s out there.” I think informational interviews, informational chats are so important. And as somebody who’s trying to learn about an industry, that’s one of the most valuable things you can do, because you might learn about a role that you never knew existed.
And so the first job that I had was in the talent management space. And the guy that I worked for actually managed Kid Rock and Uncle Kracker. And that was just like the most Hollywood experience I could ever imagine. I was like, “Oh my gosh. This is an artist that people know. And I’m working out of the office in the Hollywood Hills.” And I think that role came out of a mutual friend who is on a listserv of exclusive Hollywood postings. And it didn’t say the company and it did say the artists. But because I had gone to coffee with him and said, “Hey, I’m really open to anything. I’m interested in talent management. But if anything else comes up, please keep me in mind.” And I made sure everyone had a copy of my resume. And so as soon as he saw this job posting, he sent it over to me and said, “Hey, this is online. I don’t really know much about it, but feel free to reach out to them. Here’s the link.” And so I just started throwing my hat in the ring for things. I think it’s super important to be open to every conversation, especially at the beginning of your career. And don’t think that you’re above any role. Obviously know your worth and know your value, but I think it’s really important even just to have those conversations and go through interview process so that you get that experience and you can get a better understanding of which things you like and don’t like.
Priscilla: Okay. So your first role, I remember the title was executive assistant. What did that really mean? What was your day-to-day like in that first role?
Doni: Oh, man. So every day is a little bit as an assistant. And I think it’s really important to clarify if you are interviewing for an executive assistant role, if the nature of the role is purely professional and business or if it also includes the personal life of the executive you’re looking after. Mine was a little bit of both. We worked out of a home office, so it was an office of four people, a pretty small situation. Part of what I had to do was prepare coffee in the morning and accept all of the Amazon packages and things that came to the house. But then within my first week, one of our artists was recording a music video. And so everybody was offsite and I was alone in the office and they would call me and say, “Hey, you need to figure out how to get this thing to set.” And this was before Postmates and Uber Eats and all these things where you could just have a courier go and deliver stuff. So I’m sitting there like, “How am I going to get this to the set? I’m not allowed to leave the office.” I mean, you just never know, every day is different. But I think the key to being a really good assistant to anyone is to really get to know them on a personal level so that you can anticipate the stuff that’s going to make them happy or upset them. Or you can learn about how do they like to travel so that when you are booking travel for your executive, they only like to sit on the right side of the plane and the aisle seat, or they would like only transatlantic flight of on this style of plane. I mean, little tiny details that most people wouldn’t think about. It’s those little nuanced things that really show that you’re paying attention and that you care. And that’s what gets people to know that you’re going to go that extra mile, that you’re going to pay attention. You’re not just going to do enough to get it done, but you’re going to do it well and you’re going to make sure that everybody involved is taken care of. And not just for personal things like travel but for any part of your job. What is this, like a Peloton quote, how you do anything is how you do everything, I swear. So every task that was assigned to me, I thought I have to do the best possible job on this. Because if I don’t do a really good job on these little small tasks, I will never be entrusted to do the much bigger projects. So that’s how I looked at everything.
Priscilla: Yeah. And that makes total sense. People are always evaluating to see how you treat the little details, the small things to see if you can handle bigger projects. So that’s really cool that you had that intuition. So tell me about how you decided to end up leaving that role and then ending up at Interscope Records.
Doni: So I was starting to see that a lot of the decisions that we were making and a lot of the money that we needed to do certain activities was controlled by the record labels. And to me, that was really curious and I thought, “I would like to know how and why those decisions are made.” And so I just started looking at what roles are open at these major labels. I thought it would be really interesting to go and work for a bigger company that had a little bit more structure, because there’s always the possibility of transferring within a company. So if you come in doing one role and you do it for a year and you’re like, “not exactly my cup of tea,” at a big company, there’s always a possibility of an internal transfer if you apply and if the company, obviously, lets you do that kind of thing. But I just thought it’d be interesting to see bigger structure.
And so I had started to apply for a couple of things through the Universal Music Group career website. So Interscope sits under the umbrella of Universal and I just one afternoon was going to a bar for a birthday party of a mutual friend. And so I sat down at this bar, drinking a margarita and was talking to another girl who is there, telling her about what I do in LA, and that I was really interested in a career switch and a career advancement. And she said, “Oh, that’s really interesting. What kind of jobs are you applying for?” And I said, “I’ve applied to a couple of things on Universal Music Group’s website, including this job and that job.” And she said, “Huh, I posted that job. That’s really interesting.” And I thought, “Oh my God. What do you mean you posted the job? Like you also applied for it or what do you mean?” She said, “I’m a recruiter for Universal.” And in that moment, like all of the Hollywood stars aligned. That thing that I said at the beginning, being in the right place at the right time. That evening, she said, “Send me a resume. I have a different job that I think you’d be a really great fit for. I would love for you to apply.” And she said she’d been having some trouble finding the right candidate for it.
So I sent her my resume that night, like immediately when I got home. Tuesday, I had an interview, and Thursday, I think it was, I had a job offer. So it was super quick and it really just goes back to that whole being in the network, being open to conversations, putting out into the world what it is that you’re looking for and what you want, and just making sure that you’ve done all of the work in advance to set yourself up for if any opportunity becomes available, you’re just ready to jump on it and take advantage of it.
Priscilla: I really love that because it shows how important it is to really get out there and talk to people and let them know about your goals and your dreams, especially when it comes to an industry like the music industry that’s hard to break into. You were not scared of going out and telling people what you were interested in doing. And that was a big factor in your success, so I think that’s great.
Doni: Definitely takes some practice, learning how to ask for what you want and doing it tactfully. You don’t just want to go out here asking the universe, “Hey, give me this, give me that. I’m entitled.” You always want to stay away from that. But demonstrating that you are a valuable asset to a company and that you are excited and passionate to work hard and get to whatever point it is that you’re aspiring to, I think that’s how you land those productive and helpful conversations, where people are ready to turn around and be like, “Oh my gosh, let me help you get there.”
Priscilla: Okay. So tell us about your time at Interscope and what were the lows and the highs of that time.
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Doni: So I came into Interscope as an assistant. So I made a kind of horizontal move from one executive assistant position to another executive position assistant. But I came in on the international team at Interscope and I had such an awesome boss. And so I worked for him just like I did in my other role, I was exceptionally detail-oriented. I paid really close attention to who he was as a person and kind of the things that made him feel like I was really focused and everything was organized and taken care of.
But one of the other things, in his office, I was really the gateway between everybody else, all of the talent teams and all of the internal teams and all of that kind of stuff before they got to my boss. And so I always wanted to try and be a credible source of information to them. I never wanted people to feel like I was just an obstacle in their way of getting what they needed. And so I started working really hard to cultivate relationships with artists’ managers who would call in with the other executives from the company who are looking for my boss, and positioned myself as someone that they could come to with a question, given the understanding I may know. And if I don’t know, I will get them an answer and I will get it quickly. I never want it to just be the person that answered the phone before they got to my boss. And that paid off really well, going that extra mile, staying the extra late hours, making sure that I knew exactly who everybody was right from the beginning. And that is super hard when you’re an assistant is trying to learn really fast, who all of the contacts are that call and who are the high stakes phone calls that always need to get patched through your boss, and who do you put on the roll calls to do for later, getting all of that sorted so that as you transition into being their assistant, it seems like super seamless. That goes a really long way.
But yeah, so our team was pretty small. And then about a year in, one of the people on our team decided to move over to artist management. And so a role opened up and I had only been at the company for a year. So in no stretch of my imagination did I think, “Oh man, I’m going to go for this role.” But literally the same day that I found out, my boss came to me and said, “Hey, this person’s leaving. I want you to step up into the role.” Which to me was just like, “Oh my gosh,” that is the coolest thing that has ever happened to me and the biggest ode to working hard. I can’t believe he wants me to do this. And that’s obviously tough for him because now he’s going to have to find an assistant, so he must really believe in my ability to get this done.
And I think one of the interesting things in music is you usually go from being an assistant to a coordinator, and then you might work with somebody else on projects, and then you become into more of a manager role. And so I was jumping straight from an assistant to a manager role where I would have my own roster of clients. And so that, it was a pretty big jump and I moved up a lot faster than the peer group that I came into the company with. And that was a little bit isolating because you felt like man, I’m still struggling and I still want to like hang out with all these people, but you’re also now dealing with such different work projects that I think it was a really interesting transition from being an assistant to a manager.
Priscilla: Yeah, that’s definitely a big leap. So when you transitioned into this role, how did you fill in the learning gaps that you had and how did you learn to be successful in something that you hadn’t done before?
Doni: Definitely not being afraid to ask for help. I had teammates who were much younger than me and much older than me. And I asked everyone. I mean, there was a lot that I had picked up on from being the assistant in that department. So I had seen the budgets before. I had seen the flights and I had seen kind of examples of the itineraries for the promotion trips and listened in on marketing calls. So there was a lot of stuff that I was broadly aware of. But there’s always stuff, there’s lingo that you don’t know. There’s acronyms and there’s partners that you’re not aware of. And as I mentioned earlier, there’s different strategies for every single artist. And if you haven’t been — like, if the artist has been part of the label for a long time and you were not in on those conversations at the onset, you have to figure out, okay, what is it about this artist that I need to know? So you’re doing a lot of research on your own, which also meant listening to a lot of music, which is always good.
But yeah, I think the fake it till you make it thing is important. I think confidence inspires confidence. If you act you know what you’re doing, people will believe that you know what you’re doing. And if you don’t actually know what you’re doing, you better not be afraid to ask. Because if you do it wrong, everybody’s going to know real quick.
Priscilla: Tell us about the glamorous international travel moments that you had and the artists that you got to work with.
Doni: One of the wonderful things about working on the international team is that you are doing exactly that, working on an international scale. And so as I was starting, I had to take a couple of training trips. So our team, we had promotion managers and marketing directors, which later became one role. And we would actually do all of the planning for those big international trips while we were in Los Angeles. And then we would execute everything in those plans in the markets where all of the plans were taking place. So we would actually be the people that traveled with the artists into market to explain here’s what we’re doing. Here’s why we’re doing it. Here’s the expected result. Here’s how long it’s going to take. Here’s the snacks that are going to be there, literally everything.
And so the first trip that I ever took was with Maroon 5. And that was just such an extraordinary experience because their whole team, they’ve been doing it for so long that they have everything down to an art. They have such a talented crew and such awesome management that it was just like a dream. I couldn’t believe that I was at work. A lot of the time when you have a big travel party and you have well-known people that are in the spotlight all the time, it becomes pretty difficult to do commercial travel. You get stuffed a lot, and it’s not a super pleasant experience for artists that are traveling through commercial airports. And so I ended up getting to fly on my first private plane on that trip, which was such a pinch me moment. And I think that was the first time that I felt, “Wow, all of this work that I have done in terms of leaving home and moving to LA by myself, and having this really little tiny salary at my first job, and then going over-preparing for the Interscope interview and working really hard as an assistant. Now look at all of this stuff. It’s starting to pay off.” I mean, you really had these full circle moments that are like, wow. This is a result of my hard work and I’m just going to take a moment and breathe it in and experience gratitude for it. It’s so cool. And when you’re doing something that you love, it doesn’t feel like work even when you are working and not sleeping.
So that I think was probably the first most like awesome moment. But of course, as time goes on, there are different cycles for each album. So you’ll have the time period leading up to an album release. Then you have the album release and there’s the time period after. And then the artist goes back, they’ll either go touring to support that album. And then after that, they’ll go back into another writing period before they release another album. So you switch from artists. I worked with Lana Del Rey, which was very fun. I had the opportunity to work with Imagine Dragons and Sting, which was like another pinch me moment of, oh my gosh, I can’t believe this is my life. He is absolutely the most exquisite person. He’s so intelligent and so talented. And it’s such a privilege to get to work with people like Sting and his entire team.
So I think there’s a ton of highs that I can think about. And those are the things that stick out to me, way more than the lows. I think the only lows that I can think about are really just that when you’re traveling abroad and traveling as often as we were to get these trips done, you have to give up a lot of your ability to commit to things in your home area. So I wasn’t able to be around all of my friends in LA that I had finally started to cultivate. I couldn’t commit to going to weddings and I couldn’t commit to being at home around the holidays for the entire period of time. Because if I had to go be with an artist for a promotional activity, that was it. I had to get on the plane and go.
So that got tough at times, but I do think it goes back to choosing a career where you really love the subject of what you do. Because even on those hardest nights when you are staying up, you’re sitting in a hotel room that’s like a little bit less optimal than you might’ve selected for yourself, you’re working on something that is a fun challenge. It’s something that you’ve worked for a long time. And so even if it’s really hard, even if it’s really, “Ugh, I’m missing my cousin’s wedding,” it’s a very cool moment because you’re getting to do the thing that you worked so hard to do.
Priscilla: Doni, thank you so much for being with us today. You have a really refreshing take on what it’s like to forge a career that’s exciting but also work really hard to enjoy the fruits of your labor. So thank you for being here. I really appreciate it.
Doni: It has been such a joy to share my story with you and to all the listeners. It’s a tough industry but it is so worth it. So Priscilla, thank you so much for having me.
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