Episode 12: How to Move to LA and Make It In The Music Industry, with Doni Tavel

Episode 12: How to Move to LA and Make It In The Music Industry, with Doni Tavel

Show Notes:

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.

Links Mentioned In Episode:

Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast

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.


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.

Episode 09: How to Leave the Private Sector as a Child of Immigrants, with Lily Trieu

Episode 09: How to Leave the Private Sector as a Child of Immigrants, with Lily Trieu

Show Notes:

On this episode, Lily Trieu, a Houston native and daughter of immigrants from Southeast Asia, tells us how she made a bold career switch from the private sector to the nonprofit education world. After 9 years in the consumer & packaged goods space, Lily enjoyed a healthy six-figure salary, bonus, company car and her parents’ pride – but she just wasn’t happy or excited about moving up in her company. After realizing she wanted out, Lily went on a journey that involved getting an MBA and asking for help to make a big jump into a much more fulfilling career. Lily shares the challenges she encountered- emotionally, psychologically, career-wise, and financially – but also what made her move completely worth it.

Links Mentioned In Episode:

Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast



Lily: Half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is, you know, my parents also brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives.


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, have you ever thought about leaving your private sector high-paying stable career to pursue a more fulfilling and meaningful path in the nonprofit or public sector? Well, that’s exactly what we dive into this week when we hear Lily Trieu’s story, Lily left a nine-year private sector career in the consumer and product goods space to pivot into education and public affairs through the MBA. Today, she’s the Texas Director of Public Affairs at Teach for America, and has finally found what she’s looking for in her career path. On this episode, she talks candidly about how she made the switch as the child of immigrants from Vietnam, how she used the MBA to make this jump, and what she gave up, but also gained in the process.


Priscilla: Hey, everyone, I am so excited to have Lily Trieu on today’s episode. Welcome, Lily.

Lily: Hi, Priscilla. Thanks for having me.

Priscilla: Of course. So today we’re going to dive into Lily’s story of how she pivoted from a career in the private sector into the nonprofit world, and what it was like doing this as a child of immigrants. So why don’t we start with Lily, share a little bit about where you’re from and how you grew up.

 Lily: Sure, yeah. I’d be remiss to not start off by saying I’m a Houstonian. I grew up in Houston, in Southwest Houston, super diverse community. And I think that community is a large part of what formed my values and my belief systems. I’m a first-generation Asian-American. My parents are actually refugees from Vietnam. So my parents came to the US in the early ’80s. They were that last batch of boat people who came over from Vietnam. So they literally arrived by boat. It took my mom 13 months to get to the US. And so they settled in Chicago and I was actually born in Chicago, but like they always say, they moved to Texas as quickly as they could. And so I spent basically all of my childhood education in Houston, and really grew up in that environment. I then went to UT Austin for my undergrad, and was a double major by accident. I ended up graduating with a marketing degree and a degree in Asian Studies. Loved Austin but after graduating, moved on and started a career in the private sector that allowed for me to move several times across the country. So that’s the gist of my background and the places that I’ve been. But at the end of the day, I really think that my parents’ experience and my identity as the child of immigrants really informs the way I approach life.

Priscilla: Yeah. And what do you think made you gravitate towards applying to the business school and heading in that direction?

Lily: Oh, my gosh. That’s such a great question. Because my parents were refugees, when they came to the US, they did not speak very much English, really none at all. So they were not very well-educated because they grew up in Vietnam during the war. They both had less than a middle school education. So when they came to the US, they didn’t really have a lot of career opportunities, and they decided to go into the convenience store business because they knew people who did that work. So they thought, “Okay, we’ll go. We’ll learn the trade. We’ll save up our money and hopefully become small business owners.” Which they were able to luckily do. So I grew up in a convenience store business. As a kid growing up, I was like, “Oh, I hate business. I hate doing this,” because I had to work there, right, on the weekends and summers and every break. And as a kid, I was like, “I hate this. I don’t want to do it.” So ironically in high school, when I was trying to pick a major and I knew I was going to go to UT, I kept gravitating towards the business school, and I kept gravitating towards the marketing degree even though my entire childhood, I said I didn’t want to do it. So it really just, I think, was really based on the environment I knew, right. I think as a first-generation Asian-American, as the first person in my family to go to college, you gravitate towards what you know. And what I knew was the convenience store business. I knew brands. I knew products. I knew the basic interactions in that business. And so I decided to go into business. So it wasn’t like a deep passion or anything. It was just something that felt natural in the moment. I chose to be a marketing major really by chance. So I didn’t have a clear direction.

I actually remember, my first semester of freshman year, going to an info session that Procter & Gamble hosted for undergrads. And I remember sitting in the room not knowing who this company was, what was going on. And they put up on the projector, this slide with all of their brands and logos. And I remember being 18 and thinking, “Holy crap, they own all of these brands?” And then their next slide, it was like a map of the world, and it showed where all of their global offices were across the country. And I just remember being 18 and thinking that’s amazing, that one company owns all these brands, and that this one company is in all these places in the world. It felt like world domination to my simple 18-year-old mind. And so freshman year, first semester, that’s when I decided I’m going to go into the consumer goods industry. This is super cool. So that’s what I went after.

Priscilla: Yeah. It’s really funny how sometimes these life-altering career decisions are made at such a young age and often off of a whim. And it sounds like that’s sort of what happened to you, but yeah. So what was your first job out of college, and what was it like adjusting to that?

Lily: Oh, gosh, it was horrible for so many reasons. So I joined Kimberly-Clark. I graduated in 2008, which means I joined Kimberly-Clark right at the start of the economic recession. So on the one hand, I was really grateful to have a job and it was a great job. But it forced me to have to move to Wisconsin. And like I said, I was born in Chicago. I grew up in Houston. My parents are from Southeast Asia. I had never been in an environment like Wisconsin before. So like the culture shock, that was real. I grew up in this super diverse part of Houston, super diverse campus. And then I get to Kimberly-Clark in Wisconsin, and I was one of three people of color in my department, and that was hard. It was cold. The job was in supply chain. And as you recalled, I said my major was marketing. And so I knew nothing about this first job in supply chain. And it was just a tough time. The first year, they did layoffs and luckily I wasn’t affected, but it was tough. But I will say it was a fantastic experience in the sense that it really pushed me out of my comfort zone. And as a young person, you learn how to move away from everyone in life. I learned a whole new trade basically. I had to learn all about supply chain really quickly. You just become really resilient through that experience. And not to mention, honestly, everyone at the company is so kind and I’m still such good friends with so many of those coworkers.

Priscilla: Yeah. So at what point did you start to consider switching over to the nonprofit industry? At what point did that happen for you?

Lily: Yeah, it came out of nowhere. The last couple of years I was at Kimberly-Clark, by then I’d been there six, seven years. I knew everyone and I was really comfortable. My boss actually asked me, “Hey, it’s time for us to start thinking about your next role. What do you want to do next?” They’re great that way. They always push you to grow and to move into new challenges. But I remember sitting there and thinking, “Okay, if I could have any job in this company, what would it be?” Any company, any position, CEO all the way down to mail room, what would I want to do? And I literally could not think of a single thing I wanted to do. So I took that as that’s a bad sign. At the time I was still in my 20s, I think, maybe almost 30. And I was like, “This is not good. If I’m already not motivated and I don’t have anything to aspire to in this company, it’s probably time to make a change.” And so what I really did is I really just started volunteering a lot in my community. I was back in Houston by then. And I was like, you know what, I’m going to go out and I’m just going to try a lot of things. And I just started volunteering with all kinds of nonprofits to figure out what are the things that I genuinely enjoy. And I think by default of volunteering with nonprofits, I started to think, “Hey, stuff over here is pretty cool,” and I actually do have a deep passion for a social impact and mission-driven organizations. And so that just started to make sense for me.

Priscilla: Yeah, I can imagine just how scary that must have felt to be deep into your corporate career, having all that stability, your parents are proud of you, suddenly looking at completely changing courses.

Lily: Oh, it was terrifying. It was terrifying because (a) I didn’t know anything about the nonprofit sector. My assumption was that everyone in the nonprofit sector was broke. Nobody made any money. The second thing was, I was like, oh my gosh, if this is really what I want to do, where do I even begin? I’d had this career slinging consumer products to major retailers. How do you even transfer that experience into something in the nonprofit sector? And in the beginning, it really felt like a far-fetched goal to make that kind of a switch. And I really didn’t know what that would look like.

Priscilla: Totally. And I’m assuming a lot of your friends were in the private sector, right?

Lily: — friends from private sector. And I think that’s one of the things about my network and my group of friends and my tribe is the vast majority of us are children of immigrants, and we’re mostly first, second generation. And so we all live this pressure of there’s a very unique definition of success, that you need to be a doctor or a lawyer or an accountant or an engineer. Nonprofit doesn’t make that list. So because of that, my circle of friends, very few of them did this kind of work. And so, again, I had to just go and knock on doors of people I would meet when I was volunteering. It’d be like, “Hey, what do you think of this? What do you know? Can you help me?” So it’s just a lot of asking for help.

Priscilla: And did you get a lot of pushback from your parents when you told them that you wanted to make this switch?

Lily: I don’t think I even told them initially. I think initially, I was just like, I don’t like what I do. I want to make a change. And I think the first thing I actually told them was, “I think I’m going back to grad school.” I did not lead the conversation with I want to quit my job to go and do nonprofit work. Because by then I was making, honestly, a really comfortable six-figure salary. I was getting a nice bonus every year. I had a company car. My parents thought I was living the dream. I was living their dream. So the idea of letting all that go and giving up this life I’d built, this life that they had dreamt for me when they came to the United States, I just knew I couldn’t go to them with that until I had a firm idea of what that would look like, because I think that would have been terrifying for them. I think half of me was like, I want to make them proud and I want to live up to their vision of success. But the other half of me is my parents also came here and brought up this family in the United States because they wanted us to also live fulfilled and happy lives. And so that’s just a delicate balance. And so for me, it was like, okay, I’m 29, 30 years old. I can do this for another 30, 40 years but I’ll probably be miserable. So how do I make a change that won’t feel so traumatic for them, but that will really bring me a more fulfilling and just a more rewarding career?

Priscilla: This life decision brought you to business school, which is where you and I crossed paths. Tell us about how that MBA helped you make the transition.

Lily: Yeah, business school was pivotal. I think being a full-time MBA, you really get to spend two years just focusing on yourself, right. And you get to determine how to use every second of your time. Because before, I was volunteering, but I still had a nine to five. I had to work 40, 50, 60 hours a week still. So this whole finding myself process, you really couldn’t do except for the weekends and evenings. Business school allows you to really dig deep. I think the other thing about business school is it’s also just the exposure to the people that you’re around. And so I got to meet obviously folks like you, who bring a lot of experience and a lot of experience that I don’t have. And that gives me perspective that I wouldn’t have gotten otherwise. It also gives you an excuse to, again, I guess you’ll hear this theme a lot, to knock on people’s door and be like, “Help me. I’m a student. Answer my questions.” So I think all of those were things that really just made business school a good opportunity to just figure out what did I want to do.

Priscilla: Yeah. And in the end you decided to transition into education specifically. So how did you use your time and your degree to transition into education?

Lily:  Honestly, that was the hardest part. So when you’re a student, people are willing to bring you on to do projects for them because it’s short-term, and you’re probably not getting paid very much. And in this industry, if you’re getting paid at all. And so in the two years of business school, a lot of people said yes to me because I was a graduate student from a top tier school. And so everyone was like, “Yeah, come do this project, do this work.” But when it was time to graduate and to find a full-time job, it was difficult because (a) I’m still new. I have two years of experience, but two years of part-time experience. So I’m still not really a professional in the space. I’m still pretty new and green. The second thing is I knew a lot more than when I did when I started, but when I graduated, there was still so much I didn’t know. So people would ask me about what is it exactly you want to do in education? And it’s sometimes hard to be able to verbalize this is exactly what I want to do, because you don’t know what you don’t know. And so I would give really general answers, “Oh, I just want to do something at the intersection of policy and strategy.” And people were like, “That doesn’t mean anything. What do you actually want to do?” So it was hard. And then the last thing is you’re competing against a lot of people in the space that have other degrees. I was literally interviewing with candidates who have PhDs in education policy. And here I’m like, yeah, I worked at KIPP DC for three months. Yeah, she has a whole dissertation on that topic, but I have three months experience. So that was hard. It was really a struggle. And there were definitely moments where I was like, oh my gosh, I might not be able to find a job in education after all of this work.


Priscilla: And now a quick message from our sponsor.

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Priscilla: Yeah, which is really scary after such a significant investment. So you and I are very much the opposite. I went into business school from education nonprofit, transitioned into private sector. You were doing the opposite of that. When you were interviewing for jobs, do you feel like your corporate background really helped you in your interviews? I personally always felt like private sector folks were very much highly valued within education.

Lily: It definitely helped. It helped in that in every interview, I was probably always the most prepared candidate. I was always the most data-driven candidate. I was always the one that thought about things in frameworks and in terms of strategic mindset. So I think employers always really loved that. The thing was though, at the end of the day, I was always lacking that in-depth experience. Having all of those great business skills is still hard to compensate when you’re interviewing against someone who’s been a teacher or a teacher coach for 10 years. They’re just going to more intimately understand the problems and the struggles that we have in the system better than I will. And so for me, it was like, you literally have to find someone who not only values your private sector skills. Because I totally agree with you, people really do value those private sector skills and those skills will really take you a long way, but you also need someone who’s willing to take a chance on you. And my experience has been in order to get that, you have to show folks that you are so willing to learn and you’re so willing to work your way up. Because while folks really value private sector skills, they also worry, are you going to be someone who’s willing to learn the system from the bottom up? Are you just going to come over and expect this well-paid cushy job because that’s where you came from, because sweetheart, that’s not how we do it in the nonprofit sector. We all work really hard. We all work really long hours. We all have to earn our keep. And so that was always the challenge, trying to find someone who would take a chance on me, knowing that I don’t bring 5, 10 years of education experience.

Priscilla: So where did you land after your MBA?

Lily: Yeah. So I graduated in May of 2019, and I was looking for jobs for the first couple of months. And actually one of my coworkers from my internship at KIPP DC connected me with one of his close contacts at Teach for America. And so they brought me on board in August of 2019. So I’ve been there a little over a year now. I am the director of public affairs for the state of Texas at Teach for America. So primarily what that means is I steward all forms of public funding. So any dollars that we get that comes from the state or local government. So it’s a little bit of lobbying. It’s a little bit of a relationship management. That’s where I still use some of my sales expertise. And then I also do some work involving AmeriCorps and state programs that bring in dollars into our program.

Priscilla: That’s super cool and very impactful, very much at the intersection of all of those different things that you were looking for, so congrats. So I want to switch gears a little bit and talk finances, talk money. I think one of the biggest concerns that people have, when they’re switching from private sector to nonprofit, is this huge concern around getting paid significantly less. So can you walk us through how you thought around compensation as you were going through this transition?

Lily: Yeah, that’s a great question. And I think this is the thing that makes most folks really nervous when they’re making that switch from private sector to the nonprofit public sector. I won’t sugarcoat it. You’re not going to make as much in this sector as you might in the private sector, or at least it’s not as easy to make as much in the nonprofit and the public sector. But it does vary, if you work for a really large national or global nonprofit, then there’s more funding.

So for me, working at Teach for America, my compensation is really competitive because Teach for America is a national nonprofit. And so to recruit and retain talent, they do have to be somewhat competitive. Now that being said, I graduated making a lot less than most of my peers in the MBA. So I can share that my thought process throughout the whole experience was, like I shared, I was making a comfortable six-figure salary. When I decided to quit my job to get my MBA and make this career switch, I had to ask myself, “Am I in a place to do this? What are my salary expectations? What’s my minimum? What is the floor of what I am willing to accept that will allow for me to have the quality of life and the financial stability that I still wanted?” And that’s a really personal decision.

I was really lucky coming in because I was a Pell Grant recipient. I didn’t have any undergraduate debt. And then I was able to just save a ton of money. And because of my private sector career and because of a lot of the planning I did going in, I graduated the MBA with very little to no debt. So that was something that allowed for me to say, “I’m going to take a decently large pay cut because I knew I could sustain my lifestyle after the MBA.” But that’s not the case for everyone. And so that’s not the case, then there are alternatives. So if you can’t quit your job and make a big career switch and lose half of your salary or whatever it is, then maybe you make a gradual shift. Maybe you start off working at a big national nonprofit or maybe you start off working in corporate social responsibility, or maybe you work in a public sector or a social impact consulting company. There are other options that you can explore that maybe will provide you more salary flexibility. But I won’t sugar coat it, if you work in the nonprofit public sector space, starting salaries will be low. And I think what really motivated me was knowing that I would be able to work my way back up. No salary is permanent, but I took probably a 20-25% pay cut when I decided to make that switch.

Priscilla: Yeah. And I appreciate you being so candid because I do think people need to go into this transition with eyes wide open and having a very strategic plan in place, understanding the tradeoffs. And in your case, recognizing that personally fulfilling work and mission-aligned work for you was worth making that temporary sacrifice. So do you feel like now in your new job, you feel a lot more excited and more aligned and have found what you’re looking for?

Lily: Oh, my gosh, absolutely. The first and foremost, the work I do just has so much meaning. I wake up every day and I know exactly why I do the work I do. Secondly, I’m building another skill. I love the work I do now and I love education, but there’s nothing that’s stopping me from saying, “Okay, maybe I’ll work for the Chamber of Commerce doing education work” or “I’ll make another switch back into private sector doing lobbying work.” These are all things that I could do down the road. So I don’t feel limited at all. I just feel like my career just continues to grow and grow.

And then I think the last thing I’ll really say about all of this is your time just feels so much fuller. Before, I would try to rush through my nine to five, so that at the end of my workday, I could go and do the things I actually like to do. Now it feels like that’s a part of my life. And so when I’m done with work, I feel like I’ve just had a really productive day and I don’t feel like, okay, now I have to go and do the things I actually wanted to do today. And that is something that I think is just so fulfilling. And it just opens you up to so many more opportunities. And so because of that, I’m so much more engaged in the city and in my community in such a different way now, because this new lifestyle has allowed for me to have that time and capacity to do it.

Priscilla: Well, Lily, thank you so much for being with us today. I feel like this conversation is super inspiring for anyone who’s looking to try to make this leap. I love the faith in yourself that you have shown through this whole process. And thank you for being an example of that.

Lily: This has been so fun. Thank you for what you’re doing and keep it up.


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.

Episode 06: Why I Left the Lawyer Identity Behind and Chose Happiness, with Gbenoba Idah

Episode 06: Why I Left the Lawyer Identity Behind and Chose Happiness, with Gbenoba Idah

Show Notes:

Have you ever considered saying goodbye to your “career identity”? Well, that’s exactly what Gbenoba Idah did in 2018, when he said goodbye to his 10-year career as an attorney. On this episode, hear directly from this gregarious Los-Angeles native who watched his parents struggle to keep their small business alive, thus impacting his own post-college career decisions. When being a lawyer became toxic to his mental and physical wellbeing, Gbenoba knew it was time to switch gears. This inspirational story will give you the courage to make your boldest career move yet.

Links Mentioned In Episode:

Sponsor, The Art of Applying – Get $100 off a Quick Call if you mention the ECM Podcast

Pay It Forward MBA Fund – Founded by Gbenoba in 2020



Gbenoba: When I pass away, my gravestone is not going to say, you know,
“Gbenoba, Lawyer,” right? It’s going to have my name. And I realized I need to be happy. And if I’m happy, I can do things for more people. I can mentor more people as opposed to just mentoring people in the firm.


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, have you ever considered drastically changing your career path? I don’t just mean a small industry or function shift. I’m talking about leaving a complete identity behind. Well, that’s exactly what our guest today, Gbenoba Idah, did when he left his 10-year career as a litigator a few years back. On this episode, he tells us how growing up in LA, where he watched his family work hard to keep their small business afloat, impacted his career decisions, how he fought tooth and nail to get to Cornell and get his law degree. And then why he decided to choose happiness over status.


Priscilla: I’m so fortunate to have Gbenoba Idah on today’s episode. Gbenoba is a dear friend of mine. He was also my MBA classmate at UT Austin. And I would love to start in terms of just who is Gbenoba? What’s your personal background and where is home for you?

Gbenoba: Yeah. So I’m born and raised in Los Angeles, California. My dad’s a Nigerian immigrant. He came over to the States in the late ’70s, and went to graduate school in the Bay Area, and started working for telecom companies. And during that time is when he actually met my mom who’s from South Central Los Angeles. She’s African-American. They met in a nightclub and they hit it off. They got married, moved to Los Angeles, and then I was born. I’m very much an immigrant’s kid.

My parents are small business owners. Every day after school, from the time that I was young, we spent working the beauty supply that we had in South Central Los Angeles. And so I would stock the shelves. I would just be talking to the customers. And if you can imagine, you meet a lot of people, so you become a people person. And as a result of being small business owners, my parents struggled a lot from the time I was five till time I graduated from high school. I think we moved about 25 times. And so I’ve lived in all parts of LA, from downtown area to West LA to the beach area. And I think really a lot of the moves were driven by finance but they’re also driven by schools. Yeah, that’s my background. I’m an LA guy in true form.

Priscilla: Yeah. And so you watched your parents kind of grind it out, right. Did you imagine that you would also be a business owner?

Gbenoba: So my dad’s 1 of 10, my mom’s 1 of 5. On my dad’s side of the family, of the 10 siblings, 8 of them have their own business. And then on the mom’s side of the family, African-American side, everybody worked for the government pretty much. That’s all the jobs that you can get in the LA area as a Black person or Hispanic or minorities. And so I had two different sides of me that were always chiming in in terms of what would be appropriate for a career path.

I was really good at sports but I also was doing well in the classroom. So my parents were sort of pushing both. They were saying like, “Look, you can focus on sports, be good in school, and then pick a career.” And then they would also say, “Well, you can also just dump sports, focus on school, and then pick a career.” But in terms of being a business owner, the entrepreneurial route was amazing because you could see the money coming in. We would order the hair care stuff. I would unbox the products. My sister and I would put it on the shelf. We’d see the people come in, watch them pick it out off the shelf, put the money into the register. The money is going towards our food for that weekend or whatever. And so learn the value of the dollar, but then you also see how much people struggle.

I think reason why I never became an entrepreneur like my parents is because the struggle was real. It was rent or food. And then sometimes it was food, and so there are a number of times, for example, where we just were staying in hotels. I got my college admission stuff in a hotel. So it just, for me, I wanted stability. So that’s why I started to think about careers where I could be stable, but also have status, because I saw how hard my mom’s family worked and how they had good jobs but they couldn’t take vacation. And so that’s when I started to really think about, “Okay. What are the teachers talking about? Doctor, lawyer, engineer.” All these little buzzwords that I start to hear. And I would ask people about it as a young person, but I still couldn’t focus as much as the next kid. And it was just because I had learning issues and things like that that came out later in life. It’s a long answer to your short question, but that’s what I heard growing up.

Priscilla: Yeah. So it sounds like you developed this appreciation or desire to have financial stability in your future and not have to be worried what’s going to happen next. And entrepreneurs do take on so much risk. You ultimately went to Cornell for college. How did that happen? How did Cornell get on your radar?

Gbenoba: Sure. So I was a public school kid my entire life, jumped around schools in the LA school district, had a lot of positive influences. And my parents were trying to find the best school for my sister. In eighth grade, we had some soccer games against other middle schools, and I just had a good game. And one of the administrators from this private school came down to the field and asked me what my name was. And told me that he will want me to come to the school and visit and take a look. It’s a small private school. They have great athletics and education. And that sort of sparked and changed the direction of my life. I went from being in a difficult situation where the schools I was at in LA, they were just rough, things were happening on the fringes, where people were getting involved in gangs at the time. That was very much a difficult time to go to high school. And so my parents were trying to figure out ways in which they could get permits for me to go to a high school. And the way it works in LA is you get a permit to go to a school. So there are a lot of times you look at schools and, “Oh, this kid went to this school. How did they do it?” And it’s because they got a permit like you find a fake post office box or you set up a small business in that area, have the business certificate. You take it to the office, and you get registered to go to that better school.

And so my parents took this guy up on his offer for me to visit the school. And it was culture shock. I went from mostly Black and Hispanic classmates to walking around campus and not seeing any other Black faces for about an hour and a half. Chadwick is the name of the school I ended up going to for high school, and it’s a top 25 high school in the United States. It was originally a boarding school that turned into a day school. And so it’s like K through 12. At the time, the tuition for the school was about $14,000 a year, which my parents obviously couldn’t afford. I think now they’re charging around 40 and up per year.

And so I started studying for the test to get into the school. At first, I just bombed it. I had never really taken any standardized tests outside of regular tests they ask you to take. And yeah, that definitely catapulted my learning curve that there were kids out there who were doing better than me. I was the smartest kid in my classes, but coming to this private school or at least testing for it made me realize that I needed to grow and need to get better. And so I ended up making the move to the private school, got a scholarship to be there. I was the only Black male in my class. I would have been in a high school with 1,100 kids to a high school was 74 kids.

I didn’t, at that time, know that I would be able to make it to the Ivy leagues or make it even to UCLA, USC. But my parents really pushed me. I had a lot of people who were in my corner. And I got reinforcements from both sides. My dad would literally yell out the car every day when I would go to school as a freshman. And he would say, “You could beat them. You’re better than them.” And then when I would come home at night, my mom, after we’d be at the beauty supply until eight, nine o’clock at night, she’d be on me to make sure I finished my homework. And it was just that kind of push that I had. And so Cornell for me was like the crown jewel for my parents because it solidified their hard work. And like I said earlier, I got the college admissions when we were at a hotel with 9 other of my relatives, because there used to be 10 people in the house. Yeah. It was just a good moment. And Cornell, in and of itself, was another stepping stone. But high school for me at Chadwick was the most difficult time of my life because it was sink or swim. And yeah, it was surreal. I ended up getting into 22 of the 25 colleges that I applied to. I took Cornell because I got in for just academics, and that’s my journey to Cornell.

Priscilla: Wow. Gbenoba, that’s such a long road to get to Cornell. And unfortunately, I think your story is not uncommon. So many times people of color and parents have to fight so hard to get just the bare minimum when it comes to educational opportunities. So definitely understand, and I had a very similar story. So thanks for sharing that. So I’m really curious, when you did get to Cornell finally, I know that you decided to go the pre-law route and you went to law school after graduation straight through. So yeah, tell us about how did you decide to go down that path?

Gbenoba: I think the thing is there was a little bit of group think, right? They were probably 50 or so minority students that I was close with, where we all were in the minority undergraduate law society. And we just were trying to become lawyers. We didn’t even know what that meant. The only lawyers a lot of us knew were our professors. I had never met a lawyer in my life. And so there is the pressure that you feel because you come out of Cornell and people expect you to be in the C suite of Goldman Sachs, right? So the pressure that you feel is both from the school to do well and succeed, but then also from your family, because you can’t just go to Cornell and come back and be working at the cash register of your parents’ beauty supply.


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Gbenoba: With nobody to tell me, you’ll get these internships, work a summer for somebody else, do an unpaid internship, which to me sounded crazy. Like, all these things I just didn’t do. I was like, “Let me just stay in school longer. See if I can get a scholarship to be in law school. At least the end of result is being a lawyer.” So I went to University of New Mexico School of Law. It’s in Albuquerque, New Mexico. I took a scholarship to go there. And so I actually had a mentor by the name of Alfred Mathewson, who was the only Black male professor at the school at the time. And he let me be his research assistant. He took me under his wing and I, again, was the only Black male law student in my class. There were two Black female law students in my class. The other one is now a Court of Appeals judge in New Mexico. The other Black female is a professor in Belgium. I took the litigation route, where I was interested in corporate defense. I wanted to work for the big firms. I wanted the big money and the big hours, and it took a lot out of me. I graduated 23, passed the bar when I was about 24. I was probably working 7:00 to 7:00 in the office each day. And then I’ll go home and work until about 10:00. That was Monday through Friday. Saturdays, pretty much almost a full day, probably get in at 9:00, leave at 5:00, Sundays, half days. And I did that for about seven-and-a-half years. And I started to think about getting out because I had a couple of cases where I lost my sense of self. I lost my empathy for people. We were working on a case for a large company, people who were hurt as a result of the alleged incidents were in front of me and they would start crying. And I would just be like, “Next question.” It was at that moment that it was time for me to get out of the law.

Priscilla: After seven years! And 7 years plus, because it’s really like 10 years of law school and the whole thing.

Gbenoba: Yeah. It was the hardest decision I had to make, because everybody identified me as a lawyer. I had a stable career. I had 401(k)s. I had car payments. You know what I mean? I had everything all in, and I was tired of it. I felt I was starting to gain weight, starting to have health issues. I hadn’t taken a vacation in four years. I wasn’t able to have any sort of relationships that lasted. I was always stressed out. I just wasn’t myself. And I realized that something had to change and I believed in myself enough to do something different. I just didn’t know whether it would be to become a law school professor, to practice on my own, leave the big firm life, to do something completely different, or go back to school.

Priscilla: And how did you start to figure out that maybe the law wasn’t for you long-term? What were the moments that started to stir up something in you?

Gbenoba: You find yourself in these moments where you talk to other lawyers, and a lot of people don’t love being a lawyer, right? Like, even the older lawyers don’t love it, but it’s their job. And then you find out other people don’t like their jobs. And then you start to think, “Okay, that’s okay,” then it’s just a job. And so when you start to do a lawyer analysis, oh, okay. If other people are unhappy, it’s okay that I’m unhappy. And then you realize, no, everything you do revolves around conflict. You don’t take two-week vacations. The partners do. Even when you become partner, the partner still check their email for the first week of their vacation. These partners have been divorced, and these partners have been married a few times, and these partners have these. Like, you start to look at their personal lives and then you realize, I’m not a therapist. I don’t know what’s in this person’s mind. I can’t judge another attorney. Why am I judging them? And then you start to realize, okay, maybe it’s about me.

So you start to have all these mental health issues as a result of working in the law and working at big firms. And that’s why the attrition rate is so bad, really for people of color, because there aren’t any partners that look like us. And then the attrition rate for people of color in the first few years of law firm is huge because there’s no light at the end of the tunnel. And so when you start to judge other people, the people that you’re working for, and then you start to latch onto the ones that you like, and then it becomes about the person you’re working for more than about the law, then you realize, okay, this has to stop. I need to figure out what’s going to make me happy in life. And I also need to make some money because I have these degrees that people value.

Priscilla: So how did your friends and family react when you told them, “I think I’m going to leave the law”?

Gbenoba: That’s the million dollar question, Priscilla. (Laughs) That was the hardest conversation to have. My parents were cool. They were just like, “You’re going to be fine. You can succeed.” My sister was really supportive. It was the older relatives on both sides of the family, African-American and Nigerian, where there was no lawyers in the family, right? Like, a lawyer was a status for any community no matter what your color was, and that I shouldn’t be discouraged by the roadblocks ahead to becoming partner. At the time, I was a senior associate. I was up for partner in two years. And so they’re like, “Just become partner, just wait it out. Take a vacation. Take some time off or do a different kind of law or find another firm.” The older relatives really had a hard time, and I’m talking to them now, years later, after being in business school, it was them just more worried that I felt like the system had won, that somebody who was doing well, did good work, always got positive reviews, would be top five in billable hours. But yeah, it was hard for them for sure. But I actually felt more comfortable with the decision than I had with anything because I felt like at the very worst, I could come back and be a lawyer. It’s like a profession that you can always get back into. You just have to do some administrative stuff and find a firm that will take you back if you don’t have a book of business and. But your resume at that time speaks for itself. But the identity part of it was hardest, trying to explain to people, your peers that you’re done. And then you find out a lot of people are done, and a lot of people keep doing it just for a paycheck. And I felt like that’s not going to be my life. When I pass away, and my gravestone is not going to say, “Gbenoba, Lawyer,” right? It’s going to have my name. And I realized I need to be happy. And if I’m happy, I can do things for more people. I can mentor more people as opposed to just mentoring people in the firm. I can go out in the community and have time and not just attend some social justice events when I’m not working until 10:00 PM. It took much more of an understanding that the happiness is the goal, not the prestige and the status.

Priscilla: Yeah. And it’s really easy to get caught up in the prestige and status chasing because especially in communities of color and parents who are immigrants, they really value those degrees and they really value pursuing those paths. And that can be challenging for us when that’s not really what would make us most happy. And so did you really feel that pressure from the community?

Gbenoba: I used to think about it a lot, because the pressure that I felt later on wasn’t the pressure that I put on myself. It was societal pressure like, you’re the Black lawyer, don’t give up. Or I talked to my Hispanic colleagues. This is it. You’re the one. Because it’s a pipeline thing, and it’s a representation thing. I don’t know. It is definitely a status thing here in America. I think that people value lawyers as if we are better than other people, and that’s not the case. We just spent an extra three years at school. And there’s a lot of bad things that you find out about lawyers when you start practicing law, that they have the highest rate of alcoholism and things like that. And you find that, okay, this profession can be toxic if you don’t control it. So I think the times are changing whereby people are starting to understand, okay, being a lawyer isn’t like glittering gold, same way people are seeing now being a doctor isn’t all glitter and gold. And I think that as with more information, people can really see behind the curtain and realize, okay, it’s just like any other profession. The differences you have a little more job security because you can just work for yourself in a recession, for example. But yeah, I wish I knew it was a weird concept.

Priscilla: What soul-searching did you do when you decided to leave the law and how did you decide what to do next? And tell us what you’re doing now.

Gbenoba: The soul-searching was a year-long process. I started to think about if things were to go wrong and I hit rock bottom, would I be okay with that? And once I became okay with that, then I just went full steam ahead and started looking at, okay, I could go do a different kind of law. And then I quickly gotten rid of that idea. Then I looked at starting started my own business. I was like, “I can’t do it, too much risk.” And then I looked at going to go start a firm with my classmates, my friends, people that I trusted. And then I was like, “Oh, I’d be right back where I am right now.” And then I was like, “Okay. The, law I’m out. Then let me look at business. Okay.” Every time I apply to companies, they’re going to think I’m a lawyer, right? They’re not going to consider me for these jobs because my skills, they’re all legal skills, right? So I could be like a legal affairs and business development person or business development person, or a contract, somebody that deals with contracts or partnerships, but I’m always going to be a lawyer. And so I was like, “Okay. Business right now is out.” And then I started looking at business school and just doing my research and realized that this is the way I can career switch and figure out what I want to do with my life. And I actually had a few projects with consultants. I was working for a large oil and gas client, and they were working through the implementation side of a transaction, and we were actually going to draft the documents and then help them with some pending litigation that they had. I saw how skilled the consultants were and I found out nobody on their team were lawyers. I was like, “Wow, this is impressive.” So I was like, “Let me look up into this consulting thing.” And so I started looking into consulting, found out a lot of people went to business school. There was some JD/MBA folks that were consultants. And to be frank, I applied twice to business schools. At first, I was doing the same thing I did in college, where I was like, “Okay, I’m going top 5, top 10, or whatever.” And then I got into one top 5 school, but I didn’t get any money. And so I was like, “I’m not going to do it. I can’t take that financial burden.” And so then I was like, “Why am I making the same mistakes that I’ve always done? Why don’t I just look for happiness?” And so I started looking at schools that were in progressive cities and large cities, not like little college towns, and where I would go visit and people would remember my name, and the admissions officers actually would follow up and care. That’s really what brought me to the University of Texas at Austin. And they were just outstanding in terms of the people of color were supportive and realized the risk that I was taking and wanting to help me get in, but then non people of color at McCombs were stellar. They took me for who I was like just this kind of oddball 34 year old at the time, a guy who wants to go back to school. They were like, “Wow, you sure?” Like, it wasn’t even a thing. So I was like, “Okay. I like these folks.” So yeah, that started my path to McCombs, and I ended up recruiting for consulting and I’ll be working at Ernst and Young Parthenon and the Private Equity Due Diligence Group starting in a few days here. And I’m just thankful for the ability to switch careers and start something new. The hours are going to be tough and it’s going to be hard work. But I think the skills that I’ve got from my past plus what I’ve gained in business school, coupled with what I’m about to do, will give me the chance to really do anything in life. But I think that if I were to be frank with you, anybody can do anything in life if you just put your mind to it.

Priscilla: Thank you for being an example of what’s possible in terms of, you know, changing your mind. We’re allowed to change our minds. And so thank you for being an example of that.

Gbenoba: Thank you, Priscilla, for having me. You inspired me more than I could tell you on his podcast. Thank you for the opportunity.


Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into the Early Career Moves Podcast! Be sure to visit ECMPodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you loved this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.