You may have bumped into one of Evelyn’s hilarious videos on the Internet, ranging on varying topics like beauty, travel, social justice, and Beyonce. Born to immigrant parents from Kenya, Evelyn always wanted to be a storyteller – and today she’s exactly that – a humor writer, digital storyteller and successful YouTube star with over 240K subscribers. On this episode, Evelyn tell us how the vision for her career evolved, how she followed her creative passions and eventually made the scariest move of all – to go freelance and work for herself.
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Evelyn of the Internets
YouTube invited me to interview Margaret Atwood. And so to sit down next to the person who wrote Handmaid’s Tale and talk about storytelling and talk about writing about the dystopian future, that was super cool.
Welcome to the Early Career Moves Podcast, the show that highlights remarkable young professionals of color killing it on their career journeys. I’m your host, Priscilla Esquivel Weninger – proud Texas Latina, daughter of immigrants, and lover of breakfast tacos. Meet me for a coffee chat each Friday, as we dive into a special guest’s story, and hear all about their challenges, milestones, and lessons learned. If you’re a young professional of color and you’re feeling lost in your career, or just need a dose of inspiration, you’re in the right place! Let’s get started.
Hey everyone, today you get to hear from Evelyn from the Internets, also known as Evelyn Ngugi or Evie. Evelyn is a humor writer. She’s a digital storyteller based out of Austin, Texas.
And in her own words, this means that she posts funny words and videos on the internet, but I would add that she’s wildly successful at doing so. Evie’s YouTube channel has blown up since it started back in 2008, as it’s had nearly 18 million views and has over 240,000 subscribers. On this episode, Evie guides us through her early career years, as she figured out what she wanted to do with her journalism degree, as digital content and social media blew up. She also tells us what it was like to go out on her own, leaving her corporate job behind, and freelancing as a self-employed boss.
Priscilla: Hey, Evie, welcome to the show.
Evelyn: Hey, y’all, thanks for having me on, Priscilla.
Priscilla: Yes, I am so excited to have you here today and to get to dive into your career story because, you know, a lot of my guests tend to come from more traditional career paths, but I love that your story is a little more non-traditional and I’m just excited to share your story with everyone. So Evie, why don’t we start with having you just tell us a little bit about yourself, where you’re from, how you grew up, anything that we should know about you.
Evelyn: Yeah. So I grew up in Lafayette, Louisiana, and the Fort Worth Texas area. I moved to Texas when I was in seventh grade and that’s where my parents still live today. My parents are Kenyan, so I am first generation American. And, you know, I moved to Austin to go to journalism school. So that’s me.
Priscilla: When you were growing up, what did you think that you wanted to become when you would get older? And how did that lead you to UT and studying journalism?
Evelyn: So when I was younger, like elementary school, I thought movie director, because that’s the only thing I knew existed besides the actress. So I was like, “Yeah, movie director,” didn’t really know what that meant. And then in junior high, I was on the yearbook committee, I was on the newspaper staff, so it turned kind of into, “okay, journalism,” and that’s when I knew I wanted to go to college for journalism. And so I did, I chose magazine, not because I particularly know many things about magazines, but because I wanted to learn how to research a story for a long period of time. And I thought I would grow up and follow some rappers for Rolling Stone and then just write these big stories about what happened. I always thought I would become a reporter and just be dispatched to all these places. I really saw myself as a culture writer, so not like, “There was a fire down the street,” but writing feature stories and really getting to know different cultures, different types of people, and traveling the world and doing that. I didn’t know how that would happen, but that’s what I thought.
Priscilla: That’s so cool because even though you didn’t land exactly where you thought you were going to land, you are doing those things now. And in many ways you sort of are a movie director, right, with your video work and your YouTube channel. So, yeah, very interesting. So tell us how you first got involved with starting a YouTube channel in college.
Evelyn: Going into college, I knew that I would have to diversify my skillset just because I entered undergrad around the time where the recession was kind of ending. And so I was like, “Oh, there’s not going to be many journalism jobs because newspapers and publications rely a lot on advertising.” And when we’re in economic downturn, advertising is the first thing to get chopped. So I was like, “Okay, let me continue this hobby that I have for making videos and using an actual camera and hopefully that will make my resume and my skill set a little more diverse. So I am the journalist and reporter who’s not just writing but can also make a video about it in case that is what’s required. So I didn’t make that definite decision when I was in college, to keep doing YouTube on the side. I started using YouTube maybe in 2008 when I started school. And it was just a hobby on the side whenever I had time, since I’ve always been like a media type girl even from the times of like cassette tapes and burning things onto DVDs, YouTube was like that next evolution and the technology of creating your own media.
Priscilla: Yeah. You were definitely ahead of the curve with the whole YouTube thing back in ’08. How did it start out? What kind of videos were creating? What did that look like?
Evelyn: Yeah. So it was just my thoughts. It was more like a diary in a way. Over time, I realized that people would post videos talking about themselves, because at the time everyone thought YouTube was funny cat videos, bloopers. It wasn’t really like a place you go to watch things as much as it is now. I started following these Black people who are around the world and doing interesting things, and for me, I had only ever traveled to Kenya. So I wanted to travel a lot more in my adult life now that I was in college. And so I started watching all these people and it really inspired me to keep making videos of my own and talking about my own life.
Priscilla: Yeah. And so, as you were working on YouTube and being creative and expressing yourself, I know eventually you graduated from college and you had to find a job. So how did you approach your first job? What was that like figuring out what to do next after you graduated?
Evelyn: It was so difficult. I graduated a semester early and so I wasn’t prepared at all. I kind of just showed up to my advisor and she was like, “Okay, go ahead and order your cap and gown.” And I’m like, “For what?” She was like, “Well, I mean, you have no more credits.” And I was like, “Oh, all right.” So, it kind of threw me off to to be done with school on December, so I ended up moving back home to Fort Worth and I was doing some freelance copywriting online. I was trying to get freelancing writing gigs and I was playing around in Photoshop and just doing things for myself, trying to keep myself busy because I wasn’t full-time employed. And then I applied for a fellowship and I got it. I went to Arizona, the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism, and they paired us with the local publication, and so we worked there while taking classes at the school. And so that’s what I did right before I moved back to Austin, because the whole point of that fellowship was that you would get placed at your hometown’s version of that publication. So for me, that would have been the Dallas Observer. So I was excited to be moving to downtown Dallas and live that whole life, but that didn’t end up working out. So then I got an opportunity to be a social media manager at a place I interned at in college, and that is what led me to Austin.
Priscilla: So social media manager is a pretty common title nowadays in 2021, but back in 2012, that wasn’t as common. So what did you do in the role at the time?
Evelyn: It really was all about getting people to engage, whether that means an Instagram strategy for increasing comments or writing tweets. We used to have giveaways because I worked with the hair and beauty space. It was also kind of customer service because we had an online shop. If people want to complain, they usually do it on social media, so managing all of that. So it was a lot of creativity but also a lot of strategy and looking at numbers and being able to make presentations to the CEO about that. It was a lot of copywriting, a lot of working with a designer to make any visuals that you want to make. And it was a lot of presentations because you have to convince the higher ups that it’s worth it at the time. But now I don’t think anybody needs convincing that social media is important.
Priscilla: Yeah, definitely not. So, Evie, how did you evolve from a social media manager at this company to doing more video production and then ultimately becoming a freelancer slash having your own business? Or how do you define what you do? How do you describe it?
Evelyn: I just had my own YouTube channel there on the side that I had since college. That was really the only thing I did until we started making videos at my full-time job, just a couple of us with who had some free time at work. And so slowly but surely we created this new job position, a new section, new department of the company to produce videos. And one by one, we got promoted to that. So I was there from 2012 to 2017, so five years full-time. And then the time I realized it was time to move on was when I’ve been doing so many things for my YouTube channel on the side, I might have to take some paid time off or I would always be having to leave my job to go do this YouTube thing on the side. And so I was like, “What if I just freed up my whole time to do this thing?” And it felt like a good time to do that. I think I was 27 at the time and I was like, “Yeah, I can ride out my twenties doing something new, I guess.” So that’s when I decided to just resign and take a little break. So then I started freelancing even more and I still struggle with calling it one unified business. I feel better saying like self-employed or like a freelancer versus an entrepreneur. So right now I’d say that I’m just self-employed, working for myself, and I’m a video producer. So back then is when I realized that it was time to take this step.
Priscilla: Yeah, which we’ll get to in a little bit what that was like for you to become a freelancer. But before that, I’m curious, when you were balancing your full-time job, just starting to do more video production but also doing your own thing on the side, were these purely creative projects that you were developing that you were not getting paid for, or were you actually starting to be able to charge for some of that work that you were doing?
Evelyn: It was both. So in order to get the projects where people pay you to do it, you have to do a lot for free or not even for free. You have to have a body of work already. Yeah, just uploading videos because it was a fun thing to do and it was my hobby, but also because I was starting to become involved in different projects or maybe work with sponsors, so I would have ads in my video. So it was a mixture of both.
Priscilla: Yeah, that must’ve been so exciting to see that starting to grow, right?
Evelyn: Yeah. It’s weird because it happened so gradually. I really don’t think I appreciated it at the time because people always ask me like, “How did it feel getting your first hundred subscribers?” And I’m like, “That would have been like over 10 years ago.” I don’t remember when, so I didn’t really appreciate things as they were happening because it was happening over such a long period of time.
Priscilla: That’s also a really good piece to pull out of your story, Evie, is that you are not like an overnight a YouTube star, right? Like, you have put in work over a long period of time. I think that’s really important and how much consistency is required to be able to really build a brand and a platform and to be well known for it. So I’m curious on a personal note, did you feel shy when you started to create YouTube videos and put them out there into the world?
Evelyn: I did not feel shy and I have this video about the difference between being quiet and being shy. It’s really about where your energy comes from and where your energy goes. And so for me, I’m quiet because I am people-watching or I’m just observing things, but we’re Leos, Priscilla, okay, we’re Leos, so there is that part of us that’s like, “get me onstage, hand me the mic,” we’re just ready. So there’s a little bit of that going on but also when you’re making these YouTube videos, I’m still in my room by myself. So it’s not as an extroverted of an activity, it’s probably the most introverted activity because you’re just by yourself recording videos.
Priscilla: That is such a good point. I think that’s so true. I’m currently in a room by myself, essentially talking into the air with you, but I totally agree and we definitely have that in common, although I’m definitely a baby podcaster at the moment. But yeah, so Evie, you’ve probably had so many cool experiences like connecting with people all over the world now that your YouTube channel has gotten to the level that it’s at. What has that been like for you, to connect with strangers all over the world?
Evelyn: It’s been such an amazing experience and experiment, just because you never know who is watching. You never know what things mean to people. I have gotten emails from women who were like, “Girl, I am old enough to be your grandmother, but I love your videos.” I’ve talked to dads who are like, “Hey, my daughter watched,” and so it’s just been really interesting to see and meet the different types of people. So it’s always so funny to see who’s watching.
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Priscilla: Totally. And at the same time, you’ve also created content that can really impact people’s lives and the way that they feel in the world. And what comes to mind when I say that is the video that you made in 2015, Calling in Black, where you basically talk about the ongoing trauma that Black folks deal with as they hear about more and more Black death that goes unchecked. So that video, you have nearly 170,000 views on that video. Was that something intentional that you thought through like, “How do I make videos that are speaking to some of these other more serious topics”?
Evelyn: It was never a decision that I made. It was more just the nature of the videos I was making. So if I’m making videos about my life or telling stories about my life, there are certain stories that I can’t separate from the news or current events or whatever is going on at the time. So I don’t talk about every single thing just because that’s exhausting. But whenever I do feel especially passionate about something, I will make a video about it.
Priscilla: Yeah, very cool. So let’s move into talking about what it was like for you to become a freelancer and so what it was like to leave your full-time job, the security of that, and joined this world of freelancing, what was that like for you?
Evelyn: Yeah, so the suckiest thing was that first year I didn’t have health insurance just because it is so expensive. Even this year, I have health insurance this year and every time I see that money leave my account, I’m just so pissed. So that was a con to the whole experience. It was just making sure I’m not spending more than I’m making, but I also had saved money from all those years of side hustling while I had a full-time job. So I’ve had a lot of savings that allowed me to extend the time that I took off. And I did move out of my apartment just because I had to make sure I had the money so I was like, “We need downsize,” and I rented out a room at my friend’s house. So, yeah, just trying to minimize my bills while I’m making this transition, and I did have a lot of savings though.
Priscilla: Yeah, that can be super scary. So how did you deal in those moments when you were just freaked out?
Evelyn: Definitely crying, definitely happened. Just letting yourself freak out is the best thing you can do, because if you try to hold it together, you’re not going to hold it together very well for very long. So just allow yourself to feel the feelings. And I think those freak outs are what led me to never really take a true break. I was always working on something for that fear of not being able to do this long-term, yeah. I guess the long and short of it to that question is that I’m still, every month I’m like, “Oh, okay. We did it, we did it.”
Priscilla: Yeah, and how do you figure out balancing your personal time and then your work time, especially since you’re your own boss, basically you direct your own time and how you spend it. Has that been a challenge for you?
Evelyn: Yeah, I still haven’t found my balance. I do work weekends so for me, it’s that the days themselves don’t mean anything. I can have my weekend in the middle of the week if I want, but Saturday doesn’t automatically mean it’s my weekend. I also work random hours. I try to work regular nine to five hours, 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM, just because that’s the way the rest of the world works so that I can be up when everyone else is up and sleep when everyone else is asleep, but that doesn’t always end up working. And sometimes I’m up till 4:00 AM, but that’s because I didn’t get started until maybe 3:00 PM. So it’s flexible in that I can make up for my mistakes whenever or however I want.
Priscilla: Yeah, and when you started freelancing, you went from working on a team, seeing co-workers, having people around you, to suddenly being a lone wolf. Was that a hard transition for you to go from a big team to basically being a little bit isolated? Was that a challenge for you?
Evelyn: No, it was very difficult. I joined a co-working space just to get out of the house, just because I was like, “Dang, if I don’t go grocery shopping or something, I’m in the house all week.” So I got a little spot at a co-working space, but that was just to get out of the house. It wasn’t much like socializing that took place. And so even at the beginning of the year, I was actually looking for part-time jobs so that I could have co-workers, but then the pandemic hit or we realized the pandemic hit, and then I was like, “Dang, back to having no co-workers.” So it’s something that I’m currently trying to understand how to acquire, how to be on a team. And that might mean like changing up some of the work that I do so that I get to be on teams.
Priscilla: Okay. Tell me about some of the coolest moments that you’ve had so far in your career as a YouTuber.
Evelyn: So there have been many that all of them feel ridiculous. YouTube invited me to interview Margaret Atwood. And so to sit down next to somebody, the person who wrote Handmaid’s Tale and talk about storytelling and talk about writing about the dystopian future, that was super cool. And then on another occasion, YouTube asked me to speak at one of their events and they just threw in casually the day of that I would be speaking after Malala. And so the purpose was for me to give more laughter to the crowd after listening to her talk about super heavy stuff, and I was like, “No pressure.” So I got to talk after Malala, and then having my video shown on Beyoncé’s world tour definitely takes the cake. It’s what everyone talks about, so.
Priscilla: Yeah, so for the audience who’s listening and may not know this, Evie actually created a video reviewing Beyoncé’s Lemonade album, and in 2016 during Beyoncé’s world tour, Evie’s video made it to the video collage into the concert. And so her video popped up on the big screen and I’m sure millions of people saw it. So, anyway, Evie, what was it like finding out? How did you even find out that you were being featured in Beyoncé’s concert?
Evelyn: So my college friend, actually, he texted me in the middle of the night and I was like, “What are you–” because he was just texting random stuff and I’m like, “What’s wrong with you?” And so then he texts me a video and he’s screaming and I’m like, “Are you at a concert? Where are you?” And it was my face on the jumbotron.
Priscilla: That is truly wild and amazing, Evie. And of course, indicative of just how talented you are. So anyway, what would your advice be to someone who is looking to make a similar early career move, like, leave your corporate job to become a freelancer?
Evelyn: Oh, yeah. I would say work at finding the balance between being prepared, but also accepting that sometimes to begin, you can’t wait until you know everything. I don’t even know if that makes sense, but it’s this feeling of sometimes we get scared because we’re like, “I’m not knowledgeable enough.” But if you wait to become quote-unquote “knowledgeable enough” you’ll never start. So it’s being responsible enough to prepare and do your due diligence when learning about taxes or things like that. But at some point you’re just going to have to press start and go, and then you learn on the way
Priscilla: That is great advice, right, because we learn as we go, we get better as we go. And if we stay paralyzed, then nothing happens, so great advice. Okay. Very last question – tell us what you’re up to. What are some upcoming projects? What are you working on? What’s next for, Evie?
Evelyn: Yeah. So right now I’m producing videos for my own YouTube channel, but also working with other organizations and other channels to either host shows on their channel or contribute in the way of writing a script. It’s fun to collaborate with people. And then moving into 2021, I’m hoping to start season 2 of Say it Loud, which is a PBS digital studio show on YouTube. And then I would love to be more diligent about screenwriting and learning how to write TV shows. So that’s what my next plan is.
Priscilla: I love that and I can’t wait to check out all of those projects. Evie, thank you so much for being with us today.
Evelyn: Thanks for having me on.
Priscilla: Thanks for tuning into The Early Career Moves Podcast. Be sure to visit ecmpodcast.com to join the conversation, access the show notes, and become a part of our newsletter community. And if you love this episode, head over to iTunes to subscribe, rate, and leave a review. Talk to you next week.