When Joseph Frilot graduated as his high school’s valedictorian in southeast Houston and started college at the University of Houston Honors College, he always thought he would become an attorney one day. In his mind, attorneys were considered prestigious and made a lot of money. After his LSAT instructor pushed him to question his ideas about a law career and he had an opportunity to speak to his sister’s graduating high school class, his entire career vision changed before his eyes. On this episode, Joseph tells us what it’s been like to follow his calling to become a social studies educator working with predominantly Black and Brown kids in Austin, Texas.
I know I’m doing, like, 50 different things right now, but these are things that I actually enjoy doing and I found a way to juggle all of them, and it all aligns with everything that I wanted to do in life as far as being a teacher, being an advocate of others, fighting against the school to prison pipeline, fighting for social justice. I’m doing all of those things right now in the classroom.
Welcome to The Early Career Moves podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I am your host Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger, proud, Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat every Friday as we dive into a special guest story and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place. Let’s get started.
Hey, y’all, welcome to episode 22 of the first season, we are going to soon be wrapping up our first season of The Early Career Moves podcast. We’ll be wrapping up after episode 30, so just keep that in mind as you’re listening that we are going to be wrapping up the first season at episode 30, but so excited to keep this going.
So today, we have Joseph Frilot on the show. Joseph is a teacher leader out of Austin, Texas and I actually crossed paths with him about five years ago when I was a talent recruiter working for Idea Public Schools which is a national charter school district.
Joseph is a social justice leader. He has personal lived experiences that a lot of our students at Idea shared with him, and so it just makes his conviction and his why for the reason he’s doing the work that he’s doing so much stronger, and as you listen to this episode, there are a few themes that are really strong, but one of them is that your career doesn’t always have to look like vertical progression. It can sometimes be horizontal progression, and towards the end of the episode, Joseph really goes into what that looks like for him and why he’s so happy remaining in the classroom as a teacher. So, I thought that was a wonderful perspective that he brought to the table, and Joseph also talks about being a religious person and being spiritual, and how that has also helped him release like a need for control over his career, and instead, he spends a lot of his time listening to God and what he believes God is telling him to do and that is what has led him to pursue his calling in teaching.
So I hope that that resonates with some of my listeners. Our careers can be very personal and because of that, I think if we are people who are religious or spiritual, that plays a big part too. So, if you identify with that, I hope that you find that part of this episode very validating and reassuring.
So with that, I’m happy to introduce Joseph Frilot. He is a University of Houston 2014 grad, he’s from Houston, he also has his Master’s of Education in Curriculum and Instruction from UT Austin. It’s a program called UTeach Urban Teachers and he has a secondary social studies certification. Joseph has been teaching sixth and seventh grade pre AP humanities at Idea Public Schools in Montopolis and he’s been doing this for five years. He’s also a humanities course leader. He’s a teacher policy leader, and he also works with Austin Community College as an upward bound academic success coach. So, Joseph has a lot of plates spinning in the air, but he is very passionate about being an anti-racist educator and just advocating and pushing for Black and Brown kids. So, I hope you really enjoy his story.
Priscilla Esquivel-Weninger: Welcome, so Joseph, will you quickly introduce yourself to the audience? Tell us a little bit about where you live, what do you do today? Tell us where you’re from.
Joseph Frilot: Alright, my name is Joseph Frilot and I am in Austin, Texas. I am a sixth and seventh grade social studies teacher at Idea Montopolis College Prep. I am also a great team leader, course leader, teacher policy leader, and also I work as a academic success coach for Austin Community College Upward Bound Program. I think that’s everything, that’s everything.
Priscilla: Yeah, you have a lot on your plate for sure, really cool to hear that. So, for the audience, Joseph and I actually crossed paths maybe five years ago, I want to say, when I was a talent recruiter at Idea Public Schools, and I just remember looking at Joseph’s resume and being like, oh, my God, we have to have him at the school teach humanities because you had such a strong emphasis on social justice issues, and so it’s been so cool, I’ve left Ideas since then, but it’s been so cool to see your journey growing into a full-fledged teacher leader and so excited to hear about that journey, but yeah, so tell us where’d you grow up? Where are you from? Tell us a little bit about that story.
Joseph: Alright. So growing up, I went to schools in Southeast Houston where it’s predominantly Black students, In elementary, I used to get in trouble a lot, and then in fifth grade, I joined band and I joined this math club with this teacher who actually made math seem way more fun than what I thought it was, and so from fifth grade, I just continued to be more of a student that really cared about academics and wanting to do better.
I ended up graduating at the top of my class in high school, so I was the valedictorian of my high school class. This was another predominantly African-American Latino field school, and at that moment, I actually decided to go to U of H and mostly because of the fact that I didn’t want to move outside of Houston because my mom was sick at the time, so I decided to stay in Houston because I wanted to be close to my mom. While in college, I always planned on being an attorney, but then during my senior year, my sister was at the same school that I graduated from, and so I was asked to come back and speak to her high school graduating class and that made me realize that I wanted to go into education, being able to speak to her class. So, after taking the LSAT and trying to convince myself that I wanted to go to law school, I shifted gears and decided to go to grad school instead because I found this amazing grad program at the University of Texas, where it really focused on providing more critical social justice-aligned education to communities that I grew up in like lower income minority communities I grew up in. So, moved to Austin in 2014 and graduated in 2016, and at that point, that’s where, I think, Priscilla, you found me or I found them, and I’ve been working with Idea ever since.
Priscilla: And what was your experience at U of H like? I know you did really well academically and everything, but what was that experience like? What was hard about it or was it pretty straightforward kind of thing?
Joseph: Definitely wasn’t straightforward, and so that kind of influenced what I wanted to do as well, like when I graduated from high school and going into U of H, I wasn’t aware of the. Um, oppression that existed in, we didn’t learn about oppression in high school, and so when I went to college, first off, even if I graduated at the top of my class, I did not feel like I was prepared for college at all. At U of H, I was a part of the honors college and I was probably one of the few African-Americans that was a part of the honors college, and those that were a part of the honors college, there weren’t African-American or that were White, they went to a more affluent schools like Lamar High School in Houston and other schools that I was aware of that was way better than my high school, and so here I am in college, my freshmen year feeling like I don’t belong. So, I felt like I didn’t belong there, I was having a fight through imposter syndrome.
In college, I was a political science major, and so I took social policy classes that informed my thinking on the issues that my school and my classmates went through as far as not receiving the best education and I started to learn that like, this is systemic, these issues that I went through, that I’ve witnessed my classmates going through were systemic, this whole emphasis on tax tests, and students not being motivated and encouraged to think beyond post-secondary education, as far as like, a lot of my classmates were just encouraged to pass the tax tests, and they weren’t encouraged to go to college, especially those that weren’t in AP classes. I learned that this wasn’t just my school, that this was happening, again, in a lot of these schools across our country, and so that kind of motivated me even more to become a teacher and actually want to make a difference. Our education [00:08:40] students because ultimately, I feel like education is one of the great equalizers of upper mobility in our country.
Priscilla: Yeah, so there’s so much that you just said that honestly resonates with me, so I was also a poli sci major in college and it sounds like for you, college was a time where you were able to take a step back and realize how broken the system is, especially in terms of education, opportunities. At the time when you were a Poli Sci major, were you still thinking attorney? Was that kind of where your head was at or when did the teacher thing happen?
Joseph: Yes, I was so focused on being a lawyer. I did a lot of internships with the government, working with congressmen and representatives, and council members. One of the main reasons that made me want to be a lawyer was, like I said, a lot of it was about the money and the glamour that I thought went behind it. During my senior year, I took the LSAT class, I took the LSATs and everything, and I was still thinking about going to law school and it was still looming over my head, like okay, we have to start applying for law school, Joseph, at some point, and when I took the LSAT class, the LSAT teacher made me move away from being a lawyer, too. He was like, “You don’t want to do this. Don’t do it. It’s not as glamorous as you think it will be, It’s long hours, a lot of long hours, you may think the pay is going to be amazing, but it’s really not,” and so that made me question, do I actually want to be a lawyer? Is this actually something I’m actually passionate about? Do I really want to go to law school and pay all of these student loans for something I’m not really passionate about? And when I spoke at my sister’s school, it just really made me change gears completely and made me realize that, oh, I feel like I can definitely thrive in education. Speaking to those students really made me feel a level of inspiration and it gave me the tingly feelings that I didn’t really feel before. I really felt very proud of myself. I was like, dang, I feel so proud of myself. I came to and I just motivated these students to go to college and spoke about college to them. I can actually see myself doing this long-term and I truly felt like education was that path for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, I think that when you were saying that tingly feeling, I totally know what you mean because, so I taught high school in Miami, Florida before becoming a recruiter and I just remember, even though it was really hard when I was a teacher at the beginning, there was just this really intense feeling of fulfillment and connection to students, and so it sounds like you got a little taste of that when you gave that speech or you talked to them, and you were like, okay, how do I get more of this, right?
Joseph: Yes, I didn’t feel like law school was for me. Like I said, I feel like it was something that I was willing to do because I felt like it was the right thing to do. It wasn’t like I was making a decision based on what I wanted to do in life. It was because I felt like it was something that was put on me in, even at a young age, and I also told myself like, do I want to work long hours? Like, do I want to live my life like working long hours unhappy? I didn’t want to do something just for money and to not have a level of comfort and happiness that I feel like I should have. So yeah, when I found the grad program at UT, it really just like, I don’t know, it was like so many things were set in motion because really, that grad program really made me believe that education was the right path for me.
Priscilla: Yeah, and what’s funny is that now that you’ve been a teacher and you have all of these other things going on, you probably realized, you’re still putting in a lot of hours, right?
Joseph: I am, yes.
Priscilla: Like, you can put in so many hours but it’s different when there’s a purpose and a mission behind it, your why is so strong, like, you’re like, I know why I’m doing this versus being in a law profession where you are working those hours but you’re not motivated at all behind the why, right? Like, trying to support a company from getting sued or something, you probably wouldn’t get very excited about that.
Joseph: Exactly. I’m putting in work towards a greater goal of helping others and not just trying to help myself, and that really, that brings the most happiness to me and sense of pride to me, is knowing that I’m making a difference for someone else. I’m not totally doing everything for myself. I’m helping my communities that I really value and want to see grow.
Priscilla: And so when that moment came, when you were like, you know what, I think I’m going to apply to this graduate program, I want to be a teacher, how did your parents or your family members, or your partner, how did people around you respond when you told them, “I think I want to be a teacher”?
Joseph: They were supportive for the most part. At that time, my mom actually passed away, and so it made the transition to Austin easier because I don’t believe I would have ever move. If my mom didn’t pass away, I don’t think I would’ve ever moved out of Houston because she passed away in 2013. I was a senior when she passed, I was starting my senior year, it’s October, 2013 when she passed away, and so it made the transition to going to graduate school to Austin, move to Austin a little bit easier and for the most part, like I said, my family was supportive of that decision, but I did get questions like, “Oh, what happened to law school? I thought you were going to law school? You should go to law school,” and I was like, “I can’t live my life trying to do what people think would make me look good in their eyes,” because I think a part of my wanting to be a lawyer was I know that people look at this in a more upstanding way if I go this route versus this route, but I had to really follow my life’s purpose and follow what I believe the path that God set for me. I can’t live my life according to society’s standards and rules, and I’m so glad I didn’t because when I think back over everything is I followed the path that God has led me to, not the path that I wanted to leave myself too, so that kind of brings me the most pride then and the most sense of value than anything else.
Priscilla: So, your spirituality played a big role in you also making that decision in terms of what you’re supposed to be doing, right?
Joseph: Right. It’s just a lot of things that happened that didn’t seem like it was a coincidence. It was just so many things that happened, but senior year, that, I can just be like, oh, this happened by accident, like for example, speaking to my sister’s graduating class. It was just so many things that, so many opportunities that presented itself to me that led me to follow these paths. I wasn’t doing my own thing at that time. It was like, alright, God, I’m gonna do everything, whatever path you set me up for, I’m just gonna follow it, and that’s what I’ve always done for the most part, like I’ve never just like chased after something; things have always come to me for the most part. So yeah, I definitely believe that God led me to where I’m at right now, as far as my life.
Priscilla: Yeah, yeah, that’s really beautiful. It’s like being open to life and where it takes you and listening, like the ego can be very much like, I should have this, I should do this, or really concerned with what other people think, and it sounds like you’ve successfully silence that voice and followed what you believe God is telling you to do.
Joseph: Yeah, and funny story, actually, my senior year too, I was actually given the opportunity to do an internship. It was a paid internship too, in Washington, DC. It would have required me to pretty much give up me going to graduate school and doing a career, doing a two-year internship in Washington DC, and this was at time of like when Barack Obama was president, and so I was like, oh my gosh, like here I am being presented with another opportunity. In the midst of me going to grad school, here I am being presented with this opportunity to do a paid internship in DC, which I had the chance of actually visiting DC before that and loved the area and everything. It was another fork in the road decision to have to make and I ultimately chose grad school. I was like, okay, no, I am going to grad school, I’m following, I do want to be a teacher, this is something I actually seriously want to do.
Priscilla: So that happened your senior year of college also? That is wild to me. So, it’s like, that year really was pretty pivotal for you career-wise because of what happened in your personal life and then this huge opportunity in DC, and then you speaking to your sister’s graduating class, thinking about teaching, finding the UT program, it’s almost like that was just such a huge moment for you to really be really clear with yourself about what you wanted to do.
Joseph: Yes, it definitely was. It was a huge year.
Priscilla: Yeah. Okay, so those two years in Austin, you did a Master’s in Education. It’s called the UTeach Urban Teachers Program. What did you do during those two years and what was it like?
Joseph: Oh, during those two years, we took a lot of classes, a lot of training when it comes to writing curriculum that focused on how do we teach students in a more critical and engaging way within the teaks? So, pretty much gaining a lot of training in that area and also allowing us to learn about researchers and philosophers that pretty much were more geared towards learning about the oppression that exists in our country and globally, and the ways in which we can resist, and I’m learning how to deconstruct the dominant narrative that’s typically taught in history. We’re taught a dominant White narrative in history. How do we make this more diverse? How do we make the stories in history that we tell more inclusive of other voices that are also left out of our history? And we learned how to teach too. Our first year, we had to intern at actual schools in Austin ISD. I was a student intern at various schools where I had the opportunity to gain a lot of teaching experience before I actually stepped into the classroom.
Priscilla: Okay, so one thing I’m really curious about is for your graduate level program, you were in the classroom, I’m sure, in some way doing like student teaching. What was it like going from what you imagined it would be like to teach versus the reality of your first year teaching at Idea/? Was that a rough transition for you?
Joseph: Oh, my God, it was really a huge transition. I thought that my grad program prepared me for everything. I really thought that I was like, okay, I’m ready, I’m prepared, and my first year of teaching at Idea, it was not the best. It was good, it was better than what I heard other people went through, but it was definitely what people described the first year to be, like, it was definitely a first year of teaching for me. After my second year, I was like okay, I have great classroom management and great culture of achievement in my classroom, but one of my struggles was that I wasn’t building relationships with my students. They looked at me now as like the authoritative figure, which I was happy with, I was okay with that, but like I said, each year, I always reflect on what I can do better. That second year, I reflected on how I can actually build better relationships with my students. I wanted students to not just see me as the authoritative figure, I want them to see me as someone that they can trust ad also someone that’s fun because I wasn’t the fun teacher. So, between these years now and then, it’s been my challenge to find a sweet spot between being this classroom management guru that has high culture of achievement and also being a fun teacher that students can trust on. I want to be the best teacher that I can be, and part of that is reflecting and growing on everything that you experienced as a teacher, and that’s something I just try to do continuously.
Priscilla: Yeah, and so are you someone who’s thinking about staying in the classroom for a long time? I ask because I feel like teachers, when you get to a solid place, there’s a lot of pressure to consider school leadership and just a lot of other roles. How have you thought through that decision about like, do I stay in the classroom or do I leave kind of thing?
Joseph: That’s a great question. To be honest, I have been asked to go into leadership roles. I’ve had people on LinkedIn even reach out to me, and for me, I went into education to be a teacher, I didn’t go into it to do anything else, and that for me, I really enjoy being in the classroom. I’ll tell myself, like I’m going to teach until I can’t no more, pretty much, until I physically can’t anymore, and to be honest, I never imagined that my job would be as lucrative financially as it is because of all the roles that I play and having another job, like I’m not feeling pressured as far as financially-wise to leave out the classroom. Pretty much, if I was to leave out the classroom, it would be a pay cut that I would have to take a pay cut and more people I’m responsible for, and so that’s just something that don’t really excite me, is like, do I really want to take on a responsibility that requires me to be responsible for more adults and more people, if it’s not paying significantly more than what I’m getting paid? I make around the same amount of money as a principal, so it really just doesn’t make sense as far as my mental wellbeing and as far as for finances, like my happiness comes first and I just don’t want to be the person that’s working late nights or thinking about too many different things that I don’t necessarily have to. I know I’m doing, like, different things right now but these are things that I actually enjoy doing, and I found a way to juggle all of them, so as long as I’m able to like juggle all the things that I’m doing right now, and it all aligns with everything that I wanted to do in life as far as being a teacher, being an advocate of others, fighting against the school to prison pipeline and fighting for social justice. I’m doing all those things right now in the classroom and I’m also able to do things outside of the classroom, too. It’s just like I’m in a very blessed and fortunate position that I don’t really have to think about wanting to progress vertically career-wise.
Priscilla: Yeah, I really appreciate that answer because I can tell that you have thought about this a lot and you have weighed the different factors that contribute to career fulfillment, and one part of that is finances. Another part of that is what gives you energy? What excites you? And then, another part is that mental wellbeing piece, and yeah, if you move into a school leadership role, it is really cool, I’m sure there’s a lot of growth there, but you do give up other pieces, and like, my mom was a school teacher for 30-something years, never wanted to become a school leader, and so she didn’t, and she was just like, I don’t want to work with adults, I love working with kids, that’s what gives me energy in life, and I just think that’s so cool because society will tell you, “Why don’t you just move up? Like, move up to the next level?” And sometimes, success doesn’t look that way.
Joseph: And I’m a huge proponent of horizontal growth. You don’t have to progress vertically to maintain, to make money or to grow in your career, especially one thing at Idea, that’s one thing I don’t have to necessarily worry about, it only makes sense to me if I’m looking for a higher title pretty much, and like I said, I don’t really care for titles that much anymore, I still do, but not really to the point where I’m willing to give up my mental well-being and comfort for something that doesn’t pay significantly more. So, I feel like I’m good where I’m at for right now.
Priscilla: Yeah, awesome. Thank you so much for being with us today, Joseph. It’s been really cool learning about your story, how you got to where you are today, so yeah, thanks for being with us.
Joseph: No problem, Priscilla, thank you for having me.
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Leiva’s story is all about turning tragedy and misfortune into opportunity and hope.
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And at the end of that whole experience, I actually had a conversation with Congresswoman Nydia Velasquez and she was like, “How long have you been teaching?” and I told her, “Oh, this is the beginning of my eighth year.” She goes, “Mama, that’s too long. We need you out here and we need you now.” It was one of those moments of, oh, crap.
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 there, before we get started with today’s episode, I want to encourage you to subscribe to our show, leave us a review if you’ve been enjoying our episodes so far and also follow us on Instagram at ECMpodcast.
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Okay, so today’s episode is really exciting for me. I’m interviewing Katherine Leiva who goes by Leiva, and Leiva and I crossed paths in 2012 when we were both brand new high school teachers doing Teach for America in Miami, Florida. Leiva taught ESL, English as a second language to English language learners for nearly eight years before deciding to transition out of the classroom and figure out a new career in social impact and advocacy.
Today, Leiva is a senior manager of Leadership Innovation at Radical Partners, and on this episode, she’ll talk about what it was like to make the decision to leave the classroom, a decision that is often very difficult for teachers to make and how she made that choice, what she ended up exploring, and what she gained in the process as she was willing to re-imagine her career.
Priscilla Esquivel Weninger: Hey, Leiva, thanks for being on the show today.
Katherine Leiva: Thanks for inviting me, I’m so excited, this is so cool.
Priscilla: Yes, it’s so wonderful to have you here. So, Leiva, why don’t you start us off by sharing a little bit about your personal background, your personal experiences? I know that they informed your career decisions, so yeah, tell us what it was like to grow up in Miami for you.
Leiva: Oh, my goodness, this is such a loaded question. So, I’m going to try to keep it short and sweet, but real. So, a little bit about me. I’m a first generation Nicaraguan American here, born and raised in Miami. Both of my parents were political refugees that were coming from Nicaragua during a state of civil unrest that was happening in the country and is still currently happening today. They came to the US in the 80s, I believe ’86, ’88, don’t quote me, my family might come from me later, but they came in the eighties and I was the first one born here in 1990. I’m the daughter, I’m number six out of seven kids. So, my family is, like, various generations are included. Like, my eldest brother, I think, is about to be 50, so there’s, like, vast generational gaps within us. All of them were born in Nicaragua except for me and my little sister, and we are a mixed status family. So, I’m a citizen, I have people in my family who are naturalized citizens, I have people in my family who hold a green card and are residents, and then I have people in my family who are undocumented until this day. So, because of all of that, I’ve grown up with a very interesting sense of what it means to be an American and what it means to be poor in the US. I grew up in, like, extreme, low poverty here. Both of my parents died when I was very young. My father died when I was nine years old due to hepatitis C. He had an issue with his liver due to being an alcoholic when he was young, and then my mother shortly passed away a couple of years later when I was 14 and she died of diabetes. She actually had a heart attack in her sleep and died at home, so I was very young when I was thrust into adulthood, I moved in with my big sister and her three children, my nieces and nephews that I see them as my siblings, and to this day, my big sister is the only person in my family that I recognize as anyone who’s taken care of me and helped me along on my journey. So, yeah, that’s been my life. I’ve seen Miami through the lenses of growing up, as a daughter of immigrants growing up in a household that was undocumented in poverty. I mean, I’ve seen Miami and some of the darkest possible spaces that I can be in. I tell people all the time, I’m a Miami mutt. I didn’t grow up stable at all. My senior year in high school, actually, I moved 13 different times and each time, because we were evicted, so it’s been rough. It was a really rough upbringing, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot and I’ve been thinking a lot about it because of this podcast and truly humbled to share this space with you, Priscilla, and have you elevate the voice of people like me, because I feel like there’s not a lot of that. So, that’s me in a nutshell, and I think, I don’t know, it’s all those struggles and hardships that have made me the person that I am and truly ground me into the leader that I’ve become and will continue to be.
Priscilla: Yeah, I mean, Leiva, at this point, you could write a book, there could be a movie, like, there’s just so much that you have overcome and yet somehow, you’re always laughing, you’re just always bubbly and positive, so I always have appreciated that about you, but yeah. So, let’s go a little bit towards high school, like, where did you go to high school? What was that educational experience like? How did that lead you to making it to FSU?
Leiva: So, one of the biggest gifts that my mother ever gave me was making sure that I attended a magnet high school before she passed away, so my mother died my freshman year in high school, which was rough. I ended up in MAST Academy, I got accepted, and that school completely transformed and changed my life, Priscilla, and I’m saying that because you’ve heard about my senior year, right? I moved 13 times that year. We were homeless, we were transient, we were, like, living on the floors of peoples that we knew and it’s couch surfing, it’s like staying at a friend’s house for a week while my sister tried to figure something out. That was my high school living situation and MAST Academy made sure not only that I graduated, but that I went to college and I thrived there, like, that school literally made it happen because they were invested in me, they knew everything that was going on. My mom died my freshman year and it was like, my mom died on a Saturday, Priscilla, and I went to school on Monday and everything was normal, and then the counselors found out and it was like, oh, hell no, like, they pulled me out of class. They were, like, trying to unravel the years of trauma that I had and I’m just sitting there like smiling, I’m fine. Let me go back to my science class, that’s where I want to be, and because that happened, there was just such an investment in me in what I represented, in what I brought to the school, it was transformative on so many levels, and in my senior year, while everyone’s applying to college, I wasn’t going to go, I don’t have the typical Latina story of you’re going to college and you’re going to be a doctor or a lawyer, like, I didn’t have that. I had, hey, you have three jobs, you are income for the household, great. When you graduate high school, let’s get you a full-time. That was my expected life. So, college was never on the table. It was never something we discussed at home. It was never an expectation. It’s just not, college is not something that my family does, and to this day, I’m the only one who’s gone, still. So, really, like, my high school played such a vital role. If it were not for MAST Academy, I don’t think we would be having this conversation right now. My college advisor at school, Ms. Whitby, she literally put her hand on my shoulder. She looked at me in the eyes and she was like, “Leiva, if you stay in Miami, you’re not going to grow the way that you need to grow,” and she was like, “I see so much potential in you. This school sees so much potential in you that you’re not seeing in yourself, and the only way you’re going to see it is if you get away from the life that you live here, and if you get away from your family and just breathe,” and that’s the first time anyone had ever told me that, and I was 17, I was 17 and I had two jobs, like, it was the first time that someone told me to think about myself, and Ms. Whitby, like, she changed my life and I tell her every single chance that I get, we’re friends on Facebook and I shower her with her flowers every single chance, every single opportunity. She said, “I want you to look at UF, which is the University of Florida which is in Gainesville, Florida, which is about six hours away from Miami,” and then she said, “I want you to look at Florida State University, FSU,” which was about eight hours away and she gave me pamphlets for all of them, and she pointed out that Florida State University had the CARE program and the CARE program stands for the Center for Advancement and Retention Enrollment, and it’s pretty much a first-generation low-income program for kids who have never heard, no one in their families has gone to college or do not have the money to go to college and probably don’t have the scores to do extremely well in college if I’m being 100% percent honest, and not only giving them the opportunity to go to an institution like Florida State, but finish with the support needed. So, they actually had a summer bridge program which allows me to go to Florida State the summer right after I graduated, so my graduation was in June, I was in my dorm in July. You only have a month off. You’re there, you get dorm, you get boarding, and you get food, they give you a meal plan, they pay for all of your courses, you get a counselor, you’re there with everyone else who is in the program, which is about 100 other kids from all over the state who share your background and share the struggle, and it’s welcome to college bootcamp 101. So, you’re starting to go to classes and then they give you, like, tutors, and after looking at all of that, I was like, that’s what I want, and I turned in my application in November, I turned in my regular application of Florida State, and then I turned in my application to the CARE program, did all of my essays, got my letters of recommendation, and within a month in December, I was accepted and I knew where I was going at that point, I was going to Florida State, which was such a relief as a senior and going in December, it was amazing.
Priscilla: Okay, so you graduated from FSU, you joined Teach for America in your hometown of Miami, and you were assigned to teach ESL, which is teaching English as a second language to English language learners, so mostly immigrants, high school students learning English from a variety of different countries. You ended up teaching ESL in Miami for seven years, seven or eight years. What was that like? What was hard about it? What did you love?
Leiva: Oh, my God, honestly, the whole time, this whole experience of teaching ESL is a gift. It is honestly a gift. It is, oh, my God. I am forever indebted to Teach for America due to that because I was so riled up, the mission of one day, one day, all children will have the opportunity to obtain an excellent education. It’s so perfectly crafted, right, to say, “Hey, you’re going to have a chance at this. We’re going to make sure you have at least a chance,” and I was so ready to make that happen and when I got placed in ESL, I remember just having this fear of wait, we are not trained in ESL, right? First of all, we’re not trained in anything, but let alone ESL, right? And the second thing was, I thought I was going to have a community of English teachers, but it’s no, you have a community of ESL teachers and there’s only four of them, right? And you are one of those four. So, it was very much like you are on a ship all on your own, buddy, you got this though, TFA out. That’s what it felt like. So, it was very scary. I remember lesson plans, it was lesson planning and the structure of you need an objective. What are your students going to do today? You need to have activities. How are you going to make sure they learn the thing that they need to learn? Like, that whole structure was new to me. Backwards planning, which is you plan with the end in mind was brand new to me. Girl, come on, I went to college with trash bags. I was not planning with the end in mind. My life has never been planning with the end in mind, so this was a whole new gamut that I was just so, I cannot mess this up, these are ESL children, I can not mess this up, I cannot mess this up, and I remember I am myself up with that fear of I’m going to mess this up in the first day of school. As I was teaching, I was doing my thing, literally, by, I’m not even exaggerating, by my third class that day, I knew that this was the perfect placement for me in the perfect school with the perfect kids and that I was going to knock this out of the park simply because every single child, every single one of them in my class was an immigrant, every single one of them had such a desire to be in that classroom. Every single one of them that spoke Spanish sounded like my mom or my dad, it was eerie. It was just one of those, I don’t know why I’m here, but there’s a reason why I’m here and I will never take that back. I knew by the end of my week, by the end of the first week of school that I was going to stay beyond my second year, I knew it, I knew it. I loved it. Those kids fueled me. They literally lit a fire inside of me. They transformed me as well. They’ve been just a part of my leadership journey as I’ve been a part of theirs. It was hard, but it was so worth it and I would never ever take it back, and I mean, you saw it. I was in the classroom for seven years and all seven, I was an ESL teacher. That is my craft. That is my home, and to be honest, like, teaching the kids was the easy part, like, teaching them what they needed to know, going outside of the norm, right? Because I was always the teacher who went above and beyond for the kids in the sense of the curriculum, right? I wasn’t just going to teach them what the school was asking me to teach, I was also going to teach them about social justice and the ways that immigrants have impacted the world and how we can all make a difference. That was literally my curriculum and what I was structuring, like, yes, I’m going to teach you the main idea as we learn about mass incarceration in my ESL class, which is like, people don’t even expect ESL children to be able to perform, let alone talk about social injustices or anti-Blackness that we have in our communities, and that’s why, like, I had the highest scores every single year, like, back to back because I’m teaching the kids English and things that they want to know and things that they need to know and in something that they’re truly invested in. So, honestly, that was the easiest part.
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Leiva: The hardest part was learning that ESL kids get the short end of the stick in our educational society. It was learning that educational inequity was even harder for my kids and learning that if I didn’t spoke up for my kids, nobody would. So, it was being a teacher by day and an ESL advocate at night is what made it hard when I was constantly getting in trouble constantly, whether it was with my superiors at my school or people at the district, I just never shut up. I really didn’t, to this day, I still don’t, and that was the hardest part.
Priscilla: Because you’re such a fearless advocate for your kids.
Priscilla: When you were going through this journey of every year deciding, okay, I’m going to stay another year, okay, I think I’m going to stay another year, were you thinking, I think I’m going to become a lifelong educator or were you just kind of taking it year by year?
Leiva: So, I knew that I was going to stay at least for my third year because in Florida, when you have a teaching certificate and when you don’t have a degree in education, you get a temporary certificate and that’s good for up to three years. After your third year, you have to have some sort of education credential behind your name, or if not, you’re not allowed to teach anymore, so I knew that I wanted to stay at least those three years, but my second year was when I made the decision that actually, I really like this and I’m not good at it yet. Even though people were like, “You’re amazing,” yada, yada, yada, whatever. It’s like, I know that I’m not as good as I possibly could be, so I decided to enter the Johns Hopkins graduate school program which was a partnership with Teach for America to get my masters in Education to allow me to continue teaching beyond my third year, which is what I did, and once I had that masters under my belt, it was my fourth year, that masters really helped me reflect over my four years of teaching. The fast growth that I had as an educator, not just as an advocate, right, but also in the curriculum, the design for the kids, and I honestly was able to reflect and see that what I loved about teaching and what I miss about teaching to this day is that genuine relationship that you build with children and with that relationship, you use it to teach, and when the light bulbs go off in a child’s brain, it brings me so much joy. To see a kid grapple a concept, that at the beginning of the year, maybe they didn’t even know how to say “door” or “thank you,” and then at the end of the year, they’re talking about social injustices brings me such a joy in my heart, and so every year, I became better and every year that I became better, the more I wanted to do it longer, I knew for a fact that I didn’t want to become an administrator, I just didn’t. I felt like the further away you get from kids, the less impact that you have, and I actually dabbled a bit in coaching. So, I was actually a full-time teacher in the day and then I was a coaching teacher in the evenings for ESL teachers who taught adults at night, and I actually did that for about a year and as I was doing that, it brought me joy and I loved it and it stretched me, but I don’t think I would have enjoyed it as much if I wasn’t teaching during the day. So, that really helped me see that my gift and my passion, and my love was in the classroom and that’s why I actually stayed so long.
Priscilla: Totally. So, I think with the amount of experience that you’ve built up as an educator, as an advocate and someone who has personally lived through a lot of the experiences that our students have gone through, you’re so perfectly well-positioned to do so many different things. You could be a school leader, you could open a school, you could run for office, there’s just so many options for you, and so my question to you is, how did you decide to join Radical Partners as a program manager and how did you decide it was the right time to leave the classroom?
Leiva: I did a lot of reflecting, I did a lot of journaling, a lot of running, a lot of just trying to figure out what all of it meant, and I realized just what you said, Priscilla, there are so many pathways that I can take and I knew that for me, maybe the classroom wasn’t it anymore. Maybe the impact that I was making on 180 kids a year was just not enough, so I got involved with Leaders for Educational Equity. I took a couple of courses that they had and they had a fellowship for emerging political advocates and they were doing it for different sectors, and I was chosen for the LatinX sector, right? So I was an emerging political advocate for LatinX folks around the US and that granted me access to go ahead and be a part of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute that happened in September and it truly showed me all the ways that Latinos are kicking ass around the nation. I got to rub elbows with people in Congress. Julian Castro, Joaquin Castro, Velasquez is over in New York, and I also got to meet people who were the heads of Univision but also Humana and seeing how all these sectors came to play to move the “Hispanic agenda” forward in the US and I realized, like, the classroom, isn’t the only avenue, and at the end of that whole experience, I actually had a conversation with Congresswoman Vasquez and she was like, “How long have you been teaching?” and I told her, “Oh, this is the beginning of my eighth year.” She goes, “Mama, that’s too long. We need you out here and we need you now,” and was one of those moments of, oh, crap, that trip, I really thought about it, and I saw they had another fellowship available for teachers who were working full time to be able to give a political insight and voice to nonprofits and for-profits trying to make social impact in the region. So, I applied to that fellowship and I was accepted, and when I was accepted, it was a policy and advocacy fellow, so I became a national policy and advocacy fellow right after that and my placement was at Radical Partners. So, Radical Partners is a social impact accelerator here in Miami that invest in leaders that are growing the city through social impact, that engages locals in decisions that are made by the government and by the community every single day, and that works with collective partnerships in order for us to move closer to a stronger and better community, and in that fellowship, I started to help out with different programs that they have. 100 Great Ideas is this awesome program where for one week, there’s a Facebook group that’s open to anyone in Miami to go ahead and contribute their ideas and their solutions to a problem that we have in the region, and this year that I was a fellow, the problem with climate change, and you have people from all walks of life just giving solutions on how to fix the problems that we’re seeing in our communities – the massive flooding, the heat index is just rising every single day, right? Like, the fact that low-income communities are on higher ground and therefore are now being gentrified is a climate change issue, so you saw all aspects of Miami contributing to this, and then after that week, it’s closed, it’s consolidated, it’s written up in a report and it’s handed over to our political powers here in Miami and saying, “Hey, Leiva from zip code 33138 believes that this is a solution that can be implemented in order to elevate the voices of the community,” and as I was working on that project, a month in, I was offered a full-time job. They were just like, “Listen, you are doing phenomenal work here. Everything is great. We can’t see us functioning without you moving forward. Do you want to be a program manager?” and that was in October and I told them the soonest I could join them would be January in order to prepare my students for their exams in January. I wanted to teach until December to prepare them and see them off, and that’s how I landed at Radical Partners.
Priscilla: Wow, that’s so cool. I had no idea that Lee was actually an instrumental part of that for you.
Leiva: Absolutely, yeah.
Priscilla: Yeah. Tell me some of the cool projects that you’ve worked on or are working on and how have you transferred your skillset as a teacher over to do those things?
Leiva: I was hired to be the program manager for the strategic planning summit which is pretty much 50% of nonprofits right now don’t have a strategic plan, and if they do have one, they paid about anywhere from $30,000 to $100,000 for that plan and they don’t implement it because they didn’t make it themselves. So, literally, our former executive director, Rebecca Fishman Lipsey came up to me and she’s like, “This is a problem that we have. I want you to solve it in any way that you want over the next year.” So, I literally created a curriculum to help people understand the strategic planning process. I had to teach the strategic planning process to myself first which almost every teacher knows that’s a skill that we have, you teach yourself before you teach the kids, so I had to teach it to myself and then I broke it up into bite size pieces. I created a whole forum. This program started with just me, Priscilla, like, me in a room with a whiteboard going crazy. That was literally it to what it is now, and just to see that my teaching skills were able to be meshed together with helping a community and seeing that the organizations that are receiving this help are the same organizations that are helping my kids in the classroom today is, like, such a different level of fulfillment that I’ve never had before. So now, I’m working on projects that involve philanthropists who want to make the educational leadership arena in Miami better. I’m now currently developing a professional development for principals in my city, in the same school district that I taught at, in the same district, so to see it all work full circle has just been, for lack of a better word, delicious, to see that, like, I can, like, truly be an advocate in this different arena and continue to hone and make everything about the kids first, has been just outstanding that I can continue to do that outside of the classroom. To me, it’s just been a realization journey that holy crap, I’m still having an impact in this very different way.
Priscilla: I love that. I love seeing you thrive and still be aligned with your mission and do it in a different way, right? Like, teaching was one way to do that but there are so many different ways to have an impact and make a difference in people’s lives. So, thank you, Leiva, thank you for sharing your incredible story with us.
Leiva: Oh, thank you. Thank you for giving me the space. Thank you for allowing me to reflect and truly enjoy this time, and I can’t wait, I can’t wait to see what comes out of all of this.
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.
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.
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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.
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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.