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.
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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.