Diversity Career Stories

Diversity in the NSA Workplace: ‘Your Unique Voice and Skillset will be an Asset’

How inclusive is NSA in terms of diversity? Recently, two employees answered that question and more. Let’s go straight to the source.

Michelle E.

Prior to joining the National Security Agency (NSA) as a recruiter, Michelle E., pictured life at the agency like many of us do.

“Whenever thinking about NSA, I always thought of men in black suits working on secret projects,” she says. “Once I arrived, I realized the agency was a very welcoming and exciting place filled with lots of career opportunities for people with diverse backgrounds.”

Growing up in Virginia, Michelle loved sports and student government and was a member of the JROTC. As an adult, she’s had private sector experience as a market research analyst, trainer, and human resources professional.

Eventually, she decided she needed more than what the private sector could offer and decided to apply for a position at NSA.

“I was seeking career advancement and an opportunity to give back to my country,” Michele says. “I was also intrigued by NSA’s mission and drive to better the world at large.”

Now Michelle’s been at the agency for nearly two years. Every six months she receives new responsibilities that allow her to utilize her previous experiences to contribute to NSA’s ongoing mission…

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Diversity Career Stories

How a Supportive & Diverse Culture Helped Land This NSA Employee Her Dream Job

Many people told Lareesha H. that she would never work for the National Security Agency (NSA) due to its perceived lack of diversity.

They were wrong.

Through hard-work, late nights and additional schooling. I made sure I possessed the necessary skills to obtain a position at NSA,” she says. “In 2009, my dream came true – not only working at NSA but also in the exact job I wanted.

Now an 11-year veteran of the agency, she recently reflected on her journey to NSA and the agency’s success in fostering a supportive and diverse work environment.

She said it all started with a motto she tries to live by: “If fear is the only thing that is holding you back, then you have a good chance at meeting your goal, because FEAR you can overcome with trying.”

Lareesha grew up a ‘military brat’ oversees before her family settled in Maryland in 1994. She was a typical kid who loved running track, writing poetry and shopping.

She attended Morgan State University and became a lifelong member of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority, a not-for-profit organization that provides assistance and support through established programs in local communities throughout the world.

[su_quote]Delta Sigma Theta Sorority taught me that the sky is the limit, it is ok to step out of your comfort zone, and the reward you get from helping others is unmeasurable. I strive to be a strong, effective leader who provides emotional support, career guidance, networking opportunities and resource assistance to my coworkers. When I see someone overcome a problem at work or receive a promotion based off my assistance; it brings great joy to my heart and it is why I do what I do.

After graduating, her early professional life included working as a contractor for the Office of Personnel Management. In that role, Lareesha learned about different federal agencies and what they do. One of those agencies was NSA, and she was inspired to join an organization dedicated to protecting national security…

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Diversity Career Stories Management Philanthropy

Executive Director: “Put In The Work”

Rahsaan Harris went to school a biology major, but by the time he became Executive Director of Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy, he’d been to the Peace Corps, taught in New York City public schools, led a community technology center, and worked at a foundation. He says he’s not lucky; just good at being able to come off the bench and make a difference. Now he’s teaching others in the social justice and philanthropy worlds to do the same.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?
I am the Executive Director of a nonprofit called Emerging Practitioners in Philanthropy. It’s a lot of fancy words to say that we bring together people that work in philanthropy and provide leadership development for them so that they can have more impact through the work that they do. The organization was founded on the principle that people who work in grant-making foundations and other organized philanthropy need support, but there’s also space in our network for people who are committed to social change work and making an impact, even if they don’t currently work in a foundation.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?
On the program side, I’m constantly looking for opportunities to highlight what young and emerging leaders can do and how it can transform philanthropy. So what does that look like? It’s encouraging people to become thought leaders by getting them to write blog poss and lead webinars. It’s trying to get people to act locally by organizing convenings and leading meetings of their peers to discuss issues and share best practices. It’s trying to identify common themes that could be part of a curriculum to help our leaders stretch themselves beyond where they would typically go.

On the financial side, to keep this thing going, we have to raise money. So I’m out there every day thinking about how we add value to the field of philanthropy and social change movements. I’m making the case about our value to those who would be our institutional supporters and help fund the work that we do. The reality is that without the funding, none of the other stuff would be able to happen.

I also engage our board in making sure that what we do fits our mission and tell as many people as possible about why that mission is so important.

rahsaan4What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?
In school, I was a bio major, but after I graduated I decide to join the Peace Corps after graduation and do environmental education in Uruguay for my 2 years. When I got back, I became a teacher in the New York City Public Schools, inspired by my Mom’s work as an educator and the work I’d done abroad, and my mentors at the time told me that technology was going to be more and more important to being a good educator, so I looked for after-school programs that would let me use technology and started volunteering for HarlemLive.

HarlemLive at the time had a very inspirational director who was basically the soul of the organization, but he didn’t like a lot of the functional work that has to get done on the administrative side when you’re running an organization. I applied for and got a Fellowship from the Open Society Institute to become Associate Director and help him organize what he was doing – it was one of my first formal leadership positions. When my Fellowship ran out, the community technology center Playing2Win, which is where HarlemLive was located, needed an Executive Director and had seen the work I’d done with HarlemLive, so they hired me. That was the first time I got the Executive Director title.

It sounds easy, but along the way, I’d taken a lot of executive training programs and coaching programs on how to write a strategic plan and how to meet people and how to create a budget and all of that. I did all of that while I was at HarlemLive, because I was trying to educate myself on what it takes to be a leader, from how to excite people about what you’re doing to how to know when you’ve made an impact.

While I was Executive Director at the Playing2Win, I got connected to the foundation Atlantic Philanthropies through my landlord at the center, of all people. He helped me get the interview at Atlantic Philanthropies and I ended up staying there for seven and a half years. That’s when I learned about grantmaking. During that time, I did a lot of work trying to be an ambassador to the Harlem community and people of color to make grantmaking less mysterious and more accessible.

When the Executive Director position at EPIP became available, it took everything I’d done and brought it together – my Executive Director experience, my experience that building networks across the field is the way that you build power and make yourself more important than whatever your title says, and my network of  different foundations and organizations that I built over my career. Now I help to build those networks for other folks.

rahsaan2What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?
I’m a black man who comes from a legacy of community work and activism and politics. My mom is an educator and my dad worked in politics for years on campaigns and as a public administrator. They both emphasized the importance of giving back to the community, especially the black community, because they believe we stand on other people’s shoulders who came before us and we have to honor their struggles. That always stayed with me and has helped to motivate me no matter what I’m doing.

I think that sense of community is now ingrained into who I am. A bunch of buddies and I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro last summer and we did it together and I loved having that shared group accomplishment. I remember at one point, one of my friends wasn’t feeling as well and I had the choice between going ahead with a group that was going faster or hanging behind and going with him, and I made a choice to stay with him, because it wasn’t about how fast I could go, it was about doing it together.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
Absolutely. I love the fact that it’s entrepreneurial. It’s not guaranteed that my paycheck is going to be there every day. It’s scary, but I do like the fact that I get to put together a vision and programming that will attract funding and that it’s up to me to make sure that my paycheck will be there by doing what I need to do.

What kind of challenges do you face?
The fact that funding landscape for this kind of work is always changing means that nothing is guaranteed, even my pay. That’s especially true because we’re an intermediary organization – we’re not directly saving the whales or creating the after school program. We’re supporting the people who fund those efforts and work in those fields. Sometimes people take that for granted and that can make raising funds so much harder. Always making sure that we’re sustainable and relevant keeps me up at night.

What do you need to succeed in this field?rahsaan5
As far as education goes, having an undergrad and some kind of Master’s degree is what I would recommend to be able to advance and not feel like anything’s getting in your way. But once you get past a Master’s, there’s no need to get education for education’s sake. Just getting an education without worrying about what it means or how you’re going to use it isn’t going to cut it.

A lot of the experience that I got, especially with HarlemLive, was through volunteerism. I wasn’t getting paid to do that after school program but it ended up educating me in a number of different skills. I learned how to manage a board of directors, how to write grants, how to apply for a 501c3, how to do research on potential grant-making organizations. I learned by seeking opportunities and finding organizations that gave workshops on topics I needed to know more about. The first step, though, was getting involved in a community. Once I put myself out there, I could see where the opportunities were.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
Put in the work. Volunteer and do it before you’re paid to do it. Try to lead and manage teams in your volunteer time, at your mosque or synagogue or church. If you’ve never mentored, be a Big Brother or Big Sister and try to teach a younger person something. Do things that bring you feedback – go do public speaking or have someone critique your writing. Try to raise money, whether it’s for your alma mater or your church or a Race for Kids or the New York City Marathon. Create space to do the things in your volunteer life that you might not be able to get from your work life. That way, when they come up in your work life, you’ll be ready.

No one is just going to bring you the perfect opportunity at the perfect time just because you deserve it. You have to be ready at any moment to be put into the game. It’s kind of like the backup basketball player who’s sitting on the bench – if the starting point guard twists his ankle and you get put in the game, you’ve got to be ready to go. And that moment can come at any time. So you’ve got to always be ready for it. Ambition alone does not give people opportunity.

rahsaan3I think that some of my colleagues at times feel like they’ve gone to a good school or gotten the right degree or found the right passion and they’re clear on what they want to do, but they’re not clear on how they’re going to continuously improve their skills and be ready for opportunities. You have to go beyond that and think about where you’re week, where you should be shoring up your skills. You’ve got to think beyond yourself. The more that you get out of our own needs and comfort zones and work on being open and available to others and to yourself, the more opportunities you’ll find.

What advice can you give those who may want to put themselves out there but are introverted or shy?
If you like your job and want to do it better, you’re going to want to get out there and see what other people are doing and learn best practices. Plus, there’s no guarantee that your organization is going to want to employ you forever, and the connections that you make may be able to help you find your next opportunity. I think it’s a mistake hiding your head in your one organization and thinking that doing a good job there is the be-all and end-all and is going to get you to the finish line. Because the moment a boss changes or funding changes, that could be all gone. If you don’t have a network to rely on, it’s a harder row to hoe.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I hope to have executed a successful transition out of EPIP. I love my job, but it’s not about being the King of the castle forever. In five years, I hope to have done a great job figuring out who the next leader of EPIP is. My next focus is going to be on helping at-risk communities get the resources they need to be successful. I’m not sure exactly how or what that looks like, but I want to be able to move resources around to make lives better for the most vulnerable folks.

Diversity Career Stories Management

Tech Startup Founder: “You Just Have To Go For It”

These days, there’s an app or a website for everything. Brooke McIntyre is using the web to bring together writers looking to help each other improve their work and unleash their creativity. She may not have a tech background, but she’s using a relatively new medium to update a century’s old process.

brooke2What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?
I am the founder and only employee of the tech startup Inked Voices. It’s a site that helps writers find, form and run writing groups online. The groups on the site work like real-world writing groups – people submit fiction pieces, get critiques from their fellow writers so they can improve their writing, and share general advice about the writing world. I’ve been working on the site full-time since October.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?
There are basically three parts to my job – product development, sales, and customer service. Product development is the actual creation of the site. I’m not a web developer at all, but the site is based on my designs and my ideas. I start by sketching them out on paper and taking a picture with my phone, which I send to a designer who creates the look and feel of the site. I work closely with a backend developer, who creates the actual structure and code that makes the site work. I have to think about the features I want the site to have, both right now and in the future, and let the backend developers know so that they can build a structure that works for what the site does now and where I see it going. We work in iterations—they’re sort of like the drafts that writers use—and I make sure that the finished product matches up with my ideas and the feedback I’m getting from writers.

I was surprised to learn that a large part of my work would be in sales, even during the beta phase, when the site is open to a limited group of users. I need writers who are willing to use the site and give it a try and provide feedback. It’s been a lot harder than I expected it to be – I’ve been reaching out to any writer’s organization or group I can find. And once beta writers are using the site, I’m responsible for customer service. I answer their questions, ask them what’s working and what’s not, and help new writers find groups where they can read and critique the work of people writing in similar genres and aiming for similar goals.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?
I went to business school at University of Michigan a few years back with the intention of forming a nonprofit, but on graduation, I decided to take a job working for a business-to-business company doing marketing and branding. I enjoyed my work, but when I had my second child, my work-life trade-off became more important to me. I decided that I wanted to spend time doing something that I was more passionate about, and for me that was writing. I started by taking some writing classes, focusing on children’s book writing, which is something I’d always dreamed of doing, and ended up forming a critique group with some people in my class. Our group used email and Google Drive to run our online group. While it worked OK, I immediately started seeing opportunities for improvement. Our system lacked structure and had to be constantly managed. I also wanted us to have our own private, shared space for critique and discussion. I saw an opportunity to create a place and a system for small groups like mine.

In creating Inked Voices, it was very important to me to give writers a way to find their own writing groups. I was really fortunate to form a great group through my online class, but not everyone has that opportunity. Tech tools won’t help you if you can’t find anyone to partner up with.

In some ways, it wasn’t just one thing that led me to start Inked Voices, it was everything – my business background, my experience in the critique group, my love for working in teams. I knew I wanted to do something with meaning and do something entrepreneurial, so I decided to put all that together and give it a go.

What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?inkedvoices
Being a woman had more of an impact before becoming an entrepreneur. I used to be 1 of only 3 women on a 10-person management team, and I often felt left out of the club when it came to networking. Today, I’m still sometimes the only woman in the co-working space I share, but it feels different. I think it’s probably because I’m working more independently now and not working for someone.

I think age has been a larger barrier for me to overcome. I’ve always looked young and it used to be hard to get people to take me seriously. In my mind, I thought I couldn’t do something meaningful with my career until I was at least 30, and it was reinforced by what was said by everyone around me. Of course, now, working in the technology space, I’m surrounded by younger people all the time. It’s kind of ironic that I waited to be older to try to make an impact and now I’m old for my field. I let people put up barriers for me, and they were mostly artificial. I definitely could have “leaned in” more and negotiated harder at times for what I wanted.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
Yes, because I think that stories are magical and words are like music. I remember myself as a child, devouring books and getting lost in characters and learning so much by reading. And now I get to work on the other side of things with people who are creating those stories. Not everyone who uses Inked Voices is a creative writer, but a large number are. I get to help people who are telling stories and using their imagination and creating things for all of us. When I see people enjoying their writing and getting good feedback, it makes me happy. Self-expression is so important.

What do you need to succeed in this field?
You need tenacity, along with real desire and commitment to create something that’s actually going to work. For someone like me, who doesn’t have a tech background, you also have to trust people. I’ve had to find people to work with who are comfortable with someone who isn’t as tech-savvy as they are and who I believe will be able to translate my ideas into code. I’m not going to be able to sit down and code with them and we both have to be okay with that.

brooke1What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
Don’t wait. If you want something, start doing it. Nobody’s going to hand it to you. Start volunteering, do a project, take on the kind of work that you want to do. Don’t hope that someone is going to a chance on you or shine a light on your talent. Shine a light on yourself and take the chance. You just have to go for it. I wish someone had said that to me when I was starting out.

What kind of challenges do you face?
This is a new space for me and it’s a steep learning curve. I’m learning about writing as an industry. I’m learning about technology and the software development process. And while some of what I do is similar to my past experience, I’m working on a service that is for consumers, which is different than working directly with businesses. So I am in constant listening and learning mode.

The hardest part is probably the selling component—I have new respect for people with careers in sales. Sometimes people are enormously helpful with their feedback, advice or time and other times the door is slammed in my face. As with any industry, there are gatekeepers. So I’ve had to be very scrappy from the very beginning.

On a personal note, there’s also a financial challenge. It’s one thing to take on the risk of starting a business when you don’t have kids or you have a partner who can pay all of the bills, but that isn’t my situation. Right now, we’re using one income and our savings to fund the site’s design and development costs and our living expenses here in New York City. My husband especially has been so supportive of me taking this leap and I don’t want to waste this opportunity. So I’m working hard and trying to either succeed or fail quickly.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I want to keep developing the site, and eventually I’d like to build a version of it that would work in the education sector, helping teachers form and run writing groups in their classrooms. There is a huge tie between literacy and writing, and I’d like to give educators the tools to help teach writing as a life skill.

Diversity Career Stories Management Teacher

Gym Owner: “The Risk Paid Off”

 Brandy Monge loved working as a lawyer, but she loved fitness even more. She decided to follow her heart and open Crossfit Queens – a risk that paid off in a career that she loves and the ability to make a tangible difference in people’s lives.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?
I own Crossfit Queens, a Crossfit gym in Astoria, Queens, and have for over five years. Crossfit is all about functional training, so it includes a little bit of everything – weightlifting, gymnastics, and cardiovascular work. Most of the classes are group classes, so you get to know everyone and work out with other people cheering you on and motivating you and a coach making sure you’re doing everything safely.

What I love about it is that anyone can do it – we have people at the gym who are grandmothers and people who were college athletes and everything in-between. I think that it’s that variety that makes Crossfit Queens such a strong community – we work out together, eat together, drink together, compete together, and generally have a great time doing it. The community is what makes Crossfit Queens not just another business.

How would you describe what you do?
I’ve done everything and anything at Crossfit Queens. As a small business owner, you have to get your hands dirty, especially in the beginning. My original business partner and I did all of the coaching, all of the billing, all of the marketing, all of the phone calls, all of the work. Now that the gym has grown, though, I have a staff, so I can focus on what I care about. These days, I coach some classes and focus on promoting the gym by creating events, hosting competitions, and building the sense of community.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work?
I was a lawyer before I was a business owner. I was studying broadcast journalism in college when I noticed my roommate’s LSAT book lying on a table and took a look and thought, I can do this, so I became a lawyer. I really enjoyed it. Office work didn’t appeal to me – I knew I didn’t want to push paper around – but the trial work and the depositions were a lot of fun.

When I moved to New York, though, I realized that everything was a lot more expensive than where I was from in Texas. I’ve always been active, and when I moved to NYC, I was spending most of my money on physical activity – I had a tennis club membership and a gym membership and a yoga studio membership and a Pilates studio membership – and I was going broke. My friends saw how much I loved spending time being active and how much money I was spending on it and suggested that I look into becoming a personal trainer as a second job to cut back on expenses.

I started out teaching group exercise classes at New York Sports Club – spin, sports conditioning, boot camps. I really loved it and wanted to keep learning and growing, so I was always looking at fitness videos or reading up on strength and conditioning. One day, I saw a video of a woman named Annie doing a pull-up while pregnant. I was immediately fascinated. I learned that she was part of something called Crossfit, a way of working out that emphasizes functional movements, non-traditional workouts, and an inclusive community. I began working out at a Crossfit gym in Brooklyn and eventually became certified as a Crossfit trainer.

At the time, I would work my legal job during the day and spend most of my free time either training or teaching classes instead of going out to eat or drink like all of my friends, but I knew I couldn’t balance both jobs forever. I was going to have to make a choice between the law and the gym. I started looking into opening my own Crossfit gym in Queens, which had no Crossfit boxes at the time, and met another member of the community who also wanted to open a gym. We became business partners and opened Crossfit Queens in 2009.

Even after the gym opened, though, I kept working as a lawyer. I knew I wanted to be a Crossfit owner full-time, but building a business takes time. I started preparing to be a full-time business owner way before I ever made my move – cutting down my personal expenses, getting roommates, and saving as much money as I could. When my original business partner moved away, I saw that as my motivation to make the switch and I left my legal job behind. Altogether, it took about 2 years for Crossfit Queens to go from an initial idea to a working self-supporting reality.

What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?
I’m a Mexican-American woman. As a woman, I’ve definitely run into some backwards attitudes. People sometimes think Oh, you’re the coach? But you’re a woman. It was the same in the law. Most people are great, but there are always those who would assume that I was the assistant or the intern. People expect a man to run a business or a man to be a senior trial attorney more than they do a woman.

As far as being a minority goes, one thing that I’ve really loved about being active and encouraging other people to be active is impacting minority communities and getting people to make exercise and healthy eating part of their lives. I was raised by my father as a single Dad, and he’d give me McDonald’s for breakfast and then I’d go have tacos for lunch. Over time, I saw the impact of those decisions – my Dad has diabetes now. Part of what I want to do with my life is encourage people to live healthier, especially those from minority communities.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
Absolutely. I love empowering people and seeing the results and the changes that they’ve been able to make in their lives as part of this gym and this community. When I see someone with the confidence they’ve never had before or watch someone doing the thing they never thought they could do, it makes me feel great. Every time someone gets their first pull-up or gets in better shape or feels proud about what they’ve accomplished, it reminds me why I do what I do. I also love the people that I work alongside.  I have an amazing support system at Crossfit Queens. My coaching staff is made up of humble and hardworking team players – having people like that around me makes all the difference.

What do you need to succeed in this field?
I got lucky, because I really didn’t have any business training. I just got caught up in the community and the passion and the ability to do what I love. The two things that I did do really well were to prepare and have a good support system. You can’t just wake up one day and decide to quit your job to do something like this – you may want to, but you have to be able to support yourself financially first. It took me two years to get to that place, but all the planning I did paid off and it worked.

I also had a good support system in place. The reality is that when you’re doing something outside of the norm, some people will try to discourage you or tell you that your path is too risky. I was lucky to have some friends and family who backed me up. They may have thought I was a little crazy, but they were willing to support me when I made a decision that wasn’t exactly the safe choice.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
You can’t do it all. As a business owner, you may start out doing everything, but once your business grows, you can’t. So you have to figure out what you’re really good at and what you like doing. Some aspects of owning a business I never loved, like bookkeeping, and I had to recognize that and surround myself with people who were strong in the areas that I don’t like or don’t excel at. Having a partner who complements your skills and interests is key.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
Sometimes it’s hard to balance the day-to-day work with the long-term growth of the business. Growth in general is harder than people think. As you grow and change, sometimes people aren’t happy with the changes or don’t like the way you’ve chosen to grow. It can be hard to make those decisions, especially as a Crossfit owner, because Crossfit gyms are communities. Every decision I’ve made has affected people that feel like my family. I think it’s that way for many small business owners, because you’re so close to everything that happens and everything is much more personal than it would be at a large company somewhere.

Acrossfitqueensre you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?
New York City is an expensive place, but I make enough money to live comfortably. Of course, I’m always adjusting my priorities, but that’s just part of life. Sometimes I’m focused more on resources for the business, sometimes I’m focused on money for my family, and sometimes I’m focused on myself. I think that’s true of anyone.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
You can’t be afraid to fail. When I decided to be a full-time Crossfit owner, I wasn’t sure it was going to work. A lot of my friends weren’t sure it was going to work. Many of them said I was crazy. But I didn’t want to look back and regret not trying. In my mind, the worst case scenario of failing was to go back to what I’d been doing and start practicing law again. The worst case scenario of not trying was always wondering what if I had. I decided that the risk was worth it and I’m glad I took that risk. Otherwise I would have always been dreaming about it and thinking about it and never knowing if I could have succeeded.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
I will always be involved with the gym and the Crossfit Queens community. I like seeing the change in people that Crossfit makes possible. I may start traveling more or spending more time with my family now that I have a staff that can handle some of the workload, but I will always be part of Crossfit Queens. I can also definitely see myself starting another business in the future – I’ve really enjoyed the whole process.

Diversity Career Stories Management Marketing

Doing Good While Doing Well

Dominic EbanksDominic Ebanks always loved helping others. Now he runs a consulting firm that provides technology solutions for nonprofits and has built his business by helping organizations that are making a difference in the world.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? 
I am the Co-Founder and President of Acuta Digital, a full-service Information Technology firm that works primarily with nonprofit organizations and government agencies to build their brands. A brand is the way that an organization or business tells the world who they are, and we help them build that, usually starting with their website.

One thing that I love about the websites we build is that they’re functional as well as beautiful. So often, an organization will have a team build a gorgeous website that doesn’t really meet their operational needs or create a really great technical solution to a problem that doesn’t engage the audience they’re trying to reach. We make sure that we do both well.

What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?
I’m a first-generation American of Caribbean heritage. My family comes from a rural area of Jamaica. I go back to Jamaica a lot, to do volunteer work or just to visit family, and I think it gives me a much different perspective on the world. Seeing life outside of the US makes you realize how many resources and opportunities we have in America compared to other countries. There are definitely barriers here, but as long as you have two arms and two feet, why not take advantage of what’s here? The road may be difficult, but at least there’s still a road there at all.

I really try not to focus on the challenges that I’ve faced because of my culture or race, because I’d rather tackle those challenges head-on and come out on the other side. I fight back against the stereotypes about who I am or the surprise that I’m the person leading the company by doing good work and letting that speak for me. Every time I face a challenge, I get focused and try to figure out how to get past it and get to my goal.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?Dominic Ebanks - Closeup
My job at the company as the CEO and President is to create our overall strategy and direction and make sure that all of our stakeholders are satisfied at the end of the day. That means not just our clients, but also our partners, nonprofits that we support, and the staff. It starts with building relationships – meeting people and telling them what we do, why it’s important, and how it can help them. Once we have a client, I work to make sure each project stays on track and that everyone is happy with the end result.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?
I went to college as a pre-med student, but my real passion was for business, so I went to work in the corporate world as a business consultant after graduation. I was able to learn a lot of hands-on skills in the corporate world, from business development to negotiation skills to people management, but in the back of my mind, I always knew that I’d eventually want to leave.

I started preparing for my last day from the beginning – I never let myself get comfortable financially and take the exotic vacations or go to the high-end restaurants that my friends did. I invested most of the money I made into stocks and lived as simply as possible. And when I was ready to quit my job, I had enough saved up to go back to school for a master’s in business without having to work during my studies. Once I got there, I was drawn to the idea of starting my own business and I started my entrepreneurial path after I graduated in 2007. I thought it would give me more freedom and give me the opportunity to give back to people while making money.

I always say that I started a business at the best possible time – at the beginning of the recession in 2008. People questioned my timing, but when you start a company during lean times, everyone learns to live very frugally instead of just throwing money at issues. The resources were lean, so I built a slim operation, just the way I had personally when I was saving for graduate school. Now we have a presence in three cities– Pittsburgh, New York City, and Atlanta – and a core staff of nine, but we still remain nimble.Dominic Ebanks - Bench

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?
I love the work that I do, but more importantly, I love being able to decide who I do it for. We do a lot of work with and for small nonprofit organizations. In this new digital age, you don’t have to be a big and well-known organization to make an impact, but not everyone will give smaller nonprofits a chance. We do.

We work with smaller organizations on a sliding scale and give clients the option of picking somewhere for us to donate a percentage of the fees they’ve paid us. The money comes out of our bottom line, but it goes to other nonprofits that need a voice and resources to be able to succeed. One great thing about being the boss is that you can have a vision and build a company that reflects it. Our company culture is a reflection of who I am.

What kind of challenges do you face?
It’s a big virtual world out here. We work with clients around the world, but our competition also comes from around the world, particularly in places that have a much lower cost of living and can offer competitive pricing. On the other hand, we also compete with firms that are a lot bigger than we are. So a lot of my job is relationship building and persuading people that we’re the ones they need to work with. It’s like going on a job interview in your best suit and tie two times a week.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?
Sometimes people are too narrow in their focus and throw away experiences and relationships that don’t directly relate to their goals. But the personal relationships that you develop and the skills that you learn always make you a better person, and that makes you a better business person. The more you develop personally, the more likely it is that your career develops along with you.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?Dominic Ebanks - Volunteer
I love what I do, so I’m going to keep on doing it. I do think the company is going to change to try to touch more people. Right now, we provide services, but there’s a limit to how many people we can really touch doing that, because you run into issues with how much time there is in a day and what resources you have available. If we start offering products, our reach can be so much wider. I also want to get other small businesses to do the type of charitable work that we do – so many times, business owners think that all philanthropic work is powered by big foundations and corporations, but everyone can make a difference.

Diversity Career Stories Management Teacher

From Executive Director to Executive Coach

Caroline Kim Oh

Caroline Kim Oh was a teenager when she arrived in this country with no knowledge of the language and worked her way up to a job as head of a national nonprofit organization. Now she’s using the lessons she’s learned over the years and helping others as an Executive Coach.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?

I am an Executive Coach who works with clients who are (or want to be) leaders in the nonprofit sector. As a coach, it’s my job to provide time, space, and structure to help my clients set and achieve their goals. I’ve been doing this work full-time for about six months, but I’ve been an informal coach and advisor for most of my career.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?

Coaching has a lot of aspects – I ask questions, I really listen, I act as a brainstorming partner, and I help my clients come up with their own answers. When requested and appropriate, I also share my experiences as a nonprofit leader and a working Mom, and I give feedback on resumes and strategic plans, but it’s important to remind my clients that I’m giving my opinions, not the answers. I help my clients sort through the clutter of their everyday lives and figure out the path that makes the most sense for them.

Are there any misconceptions about your job?

I’ve heard Executive Coaching described as a cross between therapy and consulting, but that’s not quite it. I’m not there to help my clients heal or resolve their past issues, or give advice. I’m there to be a partner and make it easier for my clients to use the resources that they already have. It’s not my job to come up with the answers – they do that on their own – but I help to make it possible.

Caroline Kim Oh - FamilyWhat is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?

I’m an Asian woman and an immigrant. When I was younger, that made me very self-conscious – I wasn’t confident about my writing or my ability to speak like a native English speaker. I was definitely jealous of people who grew up here or moved to the States earlier and didn’t have the difficulties I had. As I’ve gotten older, though, I’ve realized that nobody cares if I have an accent. I no longer feel like I have to prove anything to anyone.

Being a woman has its own challenges. In the work world, I felt people often didn’t take me as seriously as I wanted because I’m a woman and I’m small and I don’t look like I’m going to be the person that has command of the room. Also, while I believe that I was born to be a Mom, I somewhat resented having to “clip my wings” to have kids. I love being a Mom more than anything else in the world, but I also love my career, and it’s impossible to balance both and feel completely satisfied in both aspects of your life, all the time. Luckily, all those experiences inform and enrich my coaching.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?

I came to this country from South Korea when I was in middle school, not speaking English at all. It was hard – my parents were very supportive, but they worked long hours and didn’t know how things worked in the United States, so I had to figure a lot out on my own. I was very lucky to have older cousins help me with my college applications or even take me into the city to see a movie.

While I was in college, my brother was injured, and it really made me think about the importance of having a job that makes a difference. I just couldn’t figure out how. I thought about medical school, but I hadn’t ever taken a science class, and I thought about being a public interest lawyer, but I hadn’t really prepared to go to law school, so I took a job at a nonprofit for a year. I immediately fell in love with the work and the people who do it, went back to graduate school for a degree in nonprofit management, and then landed at iMentor, where I worked for 12 years.

Caroline Kim Oh - iMentor

iMentor was perfect for me – the organization pairs working adults with young people from low-income communities to help them the way that my cousins and friends helped me when I was younger. I’d also noticed in college that a lot of other kids had opportunities I didn’t – I’d spend the summer working at my parent’s store, while they were visiting Europe or Asia or doing nice internships. iMentor helps kids like me access caring adult mentors connect them to more opportunities, skills and knowledge. I loved that.

At iMentor, I went from Program Director to Executive Director to President in a rapidly expanding organization, got married, had kids, and somehow found myself as an accidental advisor to nonprofits and nonprofit leaders. I had people calling me all the time, asking about staff development or fundraising or board development or work-life balance. Becoming an executive coach felt like a great way to focus on that part of my work and make a living doing it.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?

I absolutely love what I do. I love the sessions – meeting with my clients and really listening to them and working with them. I love the process of developing the coaching relationship and getting to know my clients deeply. My clients have made life-altering decisions in their sessions with me and even I’m amazed at times by what we’ve been able to accomplish together.

What is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

I often find that my clients underestimate their own strengths. They gloss over all the things that they’re good at and focus in on their weaknesses, because that’s where they want to improve. That’s important, but it’s as important to acknowledge and celebrate the areas where you are strong.

Caroline Kim Oh - sideWhat kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

I consider myself a 40-year-old intern right now, because I’m learning by doing, and my rate reflects that. The money that I make as a coach is nowhere near the salary that I made – or could make – as an executive director. In exchange, I am able to control my work schedule, and work only 2-3 days a week, which allows me to focus on other aspects of my life, including caring for my young kids.  I’m lucky to have a dual-income household so that my income can be a supplement instead of the primary income, but the pay differential is a major consideration for someone entering this field. My income will steadily increase over the next couple of years, but it would be hard to support your family on just this.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold?

Coaches’ pay varies. I’ve heard of coaches who only charge $50 a session and others who charge as much as $500 a session. It sounds like a lot, but that pay covers not only the work I do during the sessions, but any research that I do or time that I’m available over the phone and email between sessions. Coaches also spend a lot of unpaid time on business development: networking, speaking, writing, and meeting with potential clients. Many people end up supplementing this money with consulting work or freelance work.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

Right now, I’m finding that I really love the work and I’m getting better and better at it – I’d love to become one of the best in the field , but I don’t feel a need to become a big corporation and have other coaches working for me. I’d rather use talks and articles to reach those people who I can’t coach and share the lessons I’ve learned. In all honesty, though, I have no idea where I’ll be in five years. It’s enough for me that I’m enjoying the work that I do now and that I’d like to keep doing it.

Learn more about Caroline Kim Oh on her blog, LinkedIn page, or Twitter account.

Diversity Career Stories Management

Property Manager Creates His Own Path

SeanHill-CloseupSean Hill had it made – a top-tier liberal arts education, a legal job with all the perks, and a law school education around the corner. It just didn’t feel right. So he went his own way, leaving corporate America behind to start a property management business and finally get the freedom he’d always been looking for in an unconventional career.

What is your job title and what industry do you work in? How long have you been doing this job?

I’m Sean Hill and I’m an entrepreneur. I currently own a property management business, which I founded about a year ago, but I’ve been entrepreneurial all my life and I’ve started other businesses in the past, doing everything from connecting black singles to cleaning crabs.

What is your ethnicity and gender? How has it hurt or helped you?

I’m a black man and I didn’t grow up well off, so I saw a lot of black men like me not given the opportunity to reach their dreams. Those who did have the opportunity to succeed most often went to college and then got a job in the corporate world or became a doctor or a lawyer.

While that’s a valid choice, I think a lot of the time we demonize those people who want to go another way and start their own businesses by calling them hustlers instead of looking at them as entrepreneurs. I think that we would be better off as a people if we focused a lot more on teaching people how to make a product or offer a service and then get others to pay for that product or service.

Not everyone fits into the corporate world – I know I didn’t – and without another option black men may think of ourselves as failures instead of looking for success that’s legal and upstanding but falls outside of the traditional business world. I really struggled with that and I don’t want other people to have those same struggles.

How would you describe what you do? What does your work entail?

In my area, most of the rental properties are owned by businesses, not individuals. Simply put, my job as a property manager is to make sure that when a tenant pulls up to one of those properties, it looks good and functions well. I help make sure that the parking lot is shoveled, that the trash is picked up properly, that the grass is trimmed and the outside of the property looks good.

On top of that, my job as a business owner is to make sales calls to potential new clients, which can involve everything from giving an estimate to touring an apartment complex, and to manage my staff and resources so that I can properly service all the existing properties that I work with.

What was your journey to doing this kind of work? How did you get here?

I went to a great liberal arts college, and when I graduated, I thought I was going to become a lawyer. I got a job at the Department of Justice, got into top law schools, and was on my way. But I have always been someone who questions rules and regulations and that started causing problems. Every time someone said do a, b, c, and d, I would think why not do d, a, b, and then jump to k.

In the world of corporate law, that’s a problem. People don’t want to hear about k when you’re supposed to be on b. I also wasn’t able to dedicate enough of my time to business ideas that I had on the side, because I had to dedicate all my time to this job. Eventually I checked out and ended up on the wrong side of the “up and out” policy – either they promote you or they get rid of you, and for me it was the latter.

So suddenly I’m unemployed and trying to figure out how to support myself after coming from a pretty good high-end lifestyle – I had the luxury studio, the new car, the platinum cards, the works. And it felt pretty bad to lose that, so I made myself feel better the only way I knew how, by working. I put myself out there and I started getting calls to help out with properties – I’ll pay you to fix my leaky basement or trim my overgrown grass or deal with a yard full of beer bottles. I started with just the most rudimentary tools and just myself and I’ve built up the business now to the point that I have staff and better infrastructure and real resources. It’s just grown exponentially.

Do you love what you do? Do you think you’ve found the right path?

What I love about being a business owner is the freedom to make my own decisions and the ability to be constantly learning and growing. Recently, for example, I thought about putting more money into marketing my business, until I realized that every dollar that I invest in staff and infrastructure is coming back to me tenfold. So I switched my plan. But I didn’t have to get sign-off from the boss or get approvals from a ton of people – I made the decision and then I acted on it. That freedom is priceless.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

I don’t think you need any specific education, but you do need to have a certain mindset. Some people are planners – they decide where they want to be in x years and then they work backwards from there and figure out their steps. But I think it takes more flexible thinking to be an entrepreneur. You don’t know what’s going to happen next so you have think while you’re running downhill – you have to be able to go with what the moment brings you and take advantage of any and all opportunities in front of you.

TakingFlightWhat is the single most important thing you have learned outside of school about the working world?

It’s not so much about how you get the job done as it is that you get the job done, no matter what’s going on around you. And if you’re consistently having trouble getting the job done, it may just be that you’re not in the right kind of job.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

Business ownership is tough – it isn’t just fun and free-wheeling all the time. And I’ve definitely chosen a different and possibly more difficult path than many people, but I think that I’m doing the right thing for who I am and how I function. As circumstances change, being a business owner allows me to change with them, so even if things are falling apart around me or something happens that I can’t predict, I know that I will be able to make a decision quickly, adapt to the circumstances, and move forward.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

What’s great about my business is that it’s growing. When I started out, people were paying me $40 or $50 to do a small job here and there. Now the business is bringing in $800 or $900 a day. To be honest, I didn’t even know that you could make that kind of money, especially outside of corporate America. I can’t wait to see how much I can grow the business in the future.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

One of the other great things about being a business owner is that you control your own vacation. If I want to drive down to the beach for the day because I want to get away, I don’t need to clear it with anyone but myself. So I get the time off that I need. Plus I’m more energized with my work now so I don’t need as many breaks.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?WorkingHard

As far as entrepreneurship goes, I would say do it. Figure out what it is that you can manufacture or offer and then figure out who is willing to give you money to buy that product or get that service. It doesn’t have to be the world’s biggest idea – not everyone is Mark Zuckerberg, but we don’t all have to be. Some of us can own a plumbing business or a property management business and make good money and enjoy our lives.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

In many ways, I feel I have written my own ticket. And I’m still writing it. So I have no idea where I’ll be in five years exactly, but I know who I’ll be – I’ll be someone who is authentically living their life and owning their choices and doing what they love. And that’s more important to me than a title and a corner office will ever be.

Diversity Career Stories Management Translation

President and CEO


 For 20 years, Martha Galindo’s translation company, Galindo Publicidad, Inc., has offered specialized multilingual foreign language expertise to clients who want to grow their markets. If you’ve ever thought about starting your own company or what it might be like to run the show,  this will be a good read for you.

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?
President and CEO, 20 years.

Martha-portrait-225How would you describe yourself using three adjectives only?
Able, willing and ready. Sounds funny but I guess it is true. That probably translates into entrepreneurial, resourceful and independent.

What is your ethnicity?
I’m Mexican.

mylogoHow did you get started in this line of work?
It will be 20 years this June…  the business need was there. It was a niche not being served in Pennsylvania. I was already working and driving the marketing for two years of a language services company. My focus there was dealing with ad agencies, marketing departments, market research firms, training organizations and some administration work. I had worked in a management position in a very large insurance organization in the area and I had learned about the corporate culture in the US.

I wanted and needed the independence and the freedom since the family responsibilities were growing as well. So I set up a different entity with a focus on advertising accounts. The business was profitable from the start and put the bread on the table. It was never a hobby. It slowly grew.

Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’?
We are a US based small global company utilizing the services of translators and editors around the world. Their gender and race are absolutely irrelevant to the functions and services required. All translators are treated the same way. We communicate through the Internet. A few are local and attend events where we learn and mingle. Depending on where they are located and their country regulations they may be paid through different methods. But all receive assignments based on the match of their skills and the needs of the clients.

walking-on-the-beach-450On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?
I created my job and I switch gears when I want to or need to. More sales with more happy clients would make me happier.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?
Well, we can educate and educate the market and make them aware of how many differences are out there in our industry. If you need to market to the US Hispanic market, you don’t need to reinvent the wheel. I think I have the ability to connect the dots and we are always learning something new.

Why do you get up and go to work each day?
Truly believing that clients rely on my expertise and the skills of my teams to get the job done is a very important reason. To keep their trust and loyalty is an honor and a privilege. I feel grateful because hopefully, it is also a positive example for my children.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?
Credit policies changed. We must have a deposit or full payment before we assign a project since the professional translation service cannot be sold to someone else once it is complete.

WRONG-300How stressful is your job?
Unreasonable deadlines are stressful. But we can control that. We know when to say NO to a client even if that means losing the sale. We know what it takes to deliver certain volumes at the right quality. No compromises with such matter. We cannot deliver half a document. That pretty much takes care of the stressful issue. Family health matters are more challenging sometimes. The treadmill helps to clean my mind and stay relatively fit.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold?
I don’t have a salary. Depending on the gross sales and the expenses to be covered I then use money that I need or access the credit that I require. It has fluctuated very much depending on the economy. You learn to live with more or less.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?
The changes in corporate policies of clients affect their accounts payable cycles. I need to keep a healthy balance of accounts where lack of predictability is a factor.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?
No less than a college degree. Graduate degree preferred. International living exposure. Sensitivity and passion for language, places, and other cultures, besides other technical skills.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?
Find a niche. This is pretty crowded and does not give away your knowledge.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?
Very little. No, it is not. I try to combine work and new places when I can.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?
Restoring colonial properties in LATAM like Mexican Haciendas and putting them back in the communities with a different attractive and sustainable land use. Kind of a dream. I need partners. I can see a ton of possible uses for those restored beauties. Want to help?

Diversity Career Stories Journalism

Native American quits soul-killing work; takes heart writing on Indian issues

What is your job title? How many years of experience do you have in that field?

I am currently a freelance writer and educator. I’ve been writing as a freelancer for about 9 years and volunteering in the local school district for about a year and a half.

How would you describe yourself using three adjectives only?

Multi – faceted; complex; free-spirited

What is your ethnicity and gender? What kinds of discrimination have you experienced?

I am a woman who considers herself multiethnic. My mother was Native American from the Colville Indian Reservation in Washington State and my father was first-generation Sicilian American.

Being a mixed blood native person comes with a kind of discrimination that most people don’t recognize. It has to do with having my authenticity as Native American person questioned on all fronts. Americans (and others) are conditioned to think that there is a model “Indian” person; someone who looks a certain way, or dresses a certain way or lives on a reservation. The fact is, the process of settler colonialism (what the United States is based on) was designed to eliminate Indians.

It’s done this in a multitude of ways, and one of those ways is to racialize native identity by measuring it in terms of blood quantum. This means that someone who is less than a “full blood Indian” is less than authentic as an Indian person. It’s a constant process of minimalization.

It’s the opposite of the one drop rule for black people-where one drop of black blood (historically) made you black by law. When you’re a mixed blood Indian there is a sense that you don’t fit fully in the Indian world or the white world. There’ve also been plenty times I’ve been called Pocahontas, too, in a pejorative sense.

Where you work, how well does your company do ‘equal opportunity’? Is management white and male? How are minorities perceived and treated?

I am self-employed, so that does not apply to me for the most part. However, I will say that I’ve been trying to get hired on in the school district in a paying job. The community where I live is predominately upper-middle-class white. I’ve applied numerous times for jobs that I’m very well qualified for and so far I’m not seeing a real commitment to diversity.

If you’ve experienced discrimination, in what ways have you responded and what response worked best?

In terms of the kind of discrimination I have described above, I have tried for decades to figure out a way to respond to it and I still haven’t figured out a good response! Most recently, I’ve written a blog post about it and referred people to that.
People don’t like to see themselves as discriminatory or in any way racist.

Discrimination can show up in so many subtle ways that people can’t even see in themselves. It’s sort of been a personal project for me to be able to figure out how to gently educate people in these issues. But it took me a long time just to come to terms with the fact that it was a type of discrimination that I was experiencing.

Going back to school and getting a degree in Native American studies was a huge help for me in this regard. There, because I went to school with many other native people, I was able to learn about this in an intellectual way but also understand the kinds of experiences other Indian people have had.

Would you describe what you do on a typical day? Are there any common myths you want to correct about what you do?

On an average day, I get up and get a cup of coffee and go to my computer and start looking for a job. I look for freelance writing jobs and I look for full-time permanent jobs. I’ve been doing this for over a year. I spend a huge portion of my day on the computer, not just looking for jobs but also fulfilling the jobs that I do have.

My main gig right now is writing for a website called, which is owned by the New York Times. They have a new category (which is under the Education category) called Native American history and I was hired to be the topic writer there. I was pretty fortunate to be hired; it was a pretty intense vetting process and I had to compete against an unknown number of people.

But it is a great way for me to put my education to use and get paid for it (if minimally). I have to write eight articles a month and several blog posts to promote the articles as well. So I spend a good amount of time doing that. When I’m not doing that I’m surfing or dancing (I’m studying hula).

As far as myths, I don’t know what kind of myths there are about freelance writers but maybe one of them is that there is good money to be made. That hasn’t been my experience… The opposite is more likely true. Like all other industries, writing jobs are outsourced to developing nations where they can work at much cheaper rates. It seems to me the days of writing for a dollar a word are long gone.

On a scale of 1 to 10 how would you rate your job satisfaction? What would it take to increase that rating?

There are advantages to freelancing, the obvious ones being the ability to work from home and have total control of your own time. So I would have to rate it as a five. What would increase it is if I had a steady stream of better paying jobs. Or if I could get a job more closely aligned to my education. But that’s pretty tough given where I live, not to mention the current state of the economy. I live in California where it’s been very hard hit and education jobs for people with ethnic studies backgrounds are pretty hard to come by, if not nonexistent.

Is there anything unique about your situation that readers should know when considering your experiences or accomplishments?

Yes, and this is sort of the back story that I will tell.

I had a long career in the dental field as a dental assistant and office manager. It was a career I chose as a very young person while still in high school. I knew I didn’t want to go to college because I hated school but I also knew I needed some kind of job training and back in those days there was a program in the public schools that trained kids for certain kinds of somewhat menial professions. I chose the dental assistant program as the default career option. It worked for me for quite a while because I could always get a job, but it was pretty miserable work; very stressful and thankless. I did it for well over 15 years.

One of the reasons it was such a bad job is because dentists are notoriously bad to work for, at least they were back then. A little over 20 years ago I was working for one of those guys and I was so stressed out after three years of working for him that it was making me sick, physically. I was waking up in the morning with migraine headaches, making it really hard to function. I quit my job and I was fortunate enough to be able to collect disability for about a year. This bought me time, time to figure out a new path.  

In that time I learned how to do Native American beadwork and leather work, like my ancestors did. Long story short, I was able to turn it into a career. I got good enough at it and figured out how to make a business of it that I supported myself for over 10 years this way. I developed a modest but national level of recognition because I won many awards for my work in the most prestigious Native American art events in the country. It helped validate my tenuous sense of identity as a Native American woman, and it brought my mother pride as well.

I was also raising a son as a single mother for most of those years. It worked out well for me because I was traveling a lot in those days doing the art show circuit which took me all over the country. There were some years I was traveling 25 weekends or more; my son would go to his dad’s house on the weekends while I was out traveling and during the week I was able to be at home with him. But my son’s father passed away, leaving me a sole parent when he was nine years old. By then I had become very active in local Native American political issues and had begun writing articles in the local newspaper about some of those issues. Knowing I would have to have a degree in order to be taken seriously as a writer, and also being burned out from my career as an artist, I decided to move to New Mexico and go back to school. That’s when I entered Native American studies program at the University of New Mexico at 47 years of age.

I stayed in school for six straight years and got a master’s degree. While I was a senior I reconnected with an old love from my past and ended up marrying him when I was in grad school. My son and I moved to back to Southern California (where I was born and raised) to be with him. It’s been two years now, and about seven months since I graduated.

So that’s how I got to where I am now. My plan had been to stay in school for a PhD and then get out and teach Native American studies. But at some point it became clear to me that staying in school was not going to benefit me so for now I’ve decided not to go back. Never in my wildest streams did I imagine I would ever move back to Southern California and marry my lost love.

But here I am, happily married, and having to reinvent myself once again in less than ideal circumstances, career-wise. It’s been a real gift but at the same time I’ve had to make some big personal sacrifices. That’s what I’m trying to find my way through now.

Does this job move your heart, how so? If not, what would?

My moves my heart, yes. And when I can find other writing jobs in Indian country (sometimes I write magazine articles for native publications) then I feel like I’m doing the work I’m supposed to be doing. But sometimes out of financial necessity I take jobs that I don’t really enjoy.

When I’m writing about native topics I feel like I have the power to change the way people understand history or dispel popular misconceptions about Native American people. It’s really gratifying to me when somebody I know reads my work and says “I didn’t know that and I really learned something.” I’ve always had an internal need to make a difference in the world in some way. Maybe it’s just impacting someone’s individual life for a moment; but now it’s more like wanting to make my mark in the world as an artist or a writer. An elder/teacher of mine once taught me that the goal of life was to leave a legacy. I suppose that’s what I am striving to do.

I was hired for one project recently that was funded by the Canadian government, for an organization that does work in the realm of mental health and addiction in Aboriginal communities. I had to write a literature review and report of my findings; it was an opportunity to insert a very indigenous perspective and draw on cutting-edge scholarly work in the field. It was very challenging but I felt like I was doing work that meant something.

I mentioned that I work in the local school district as a volunteer. What I do is act as an assistant to the district’s Indian education director, who has created a Native American museum that is a teaching tool for the teachers. We give tours to school kids and teach teachers about Native American culture and history. We are trying to set up a new exhibit that teaches about ecology and environmentalism from the Native American perspective, but raising the money for that has been a problem.

If we can ever raise the money, the goal was to create a paying position for which I would be the director. But that’s a lot easier said than done. It may be possible that I would fill the position of the Indian education director for the district if and when the current director retires, which she says will be doing in the next year or two. So I am kind of holding out for that possibility. It’s still only a part-time position it wouldn’t pay all that much, but it would help.

Why do you get up and go to work each day? Can you give an example of something that made you feel really good or proud?

Well, writing is very creative work and I’ve found that I need that creativity in my life. I thrive on it. I know what it’s like to do work that is soul-killing and I really don’t want to have to do that anymore if I can help it. So I get up in the morning, go downstairs to my computer, and begin another search for jobs and hope that this day will present something new, with some better financial potential. The only missing piece for me right now is a good paycheck! And in the meantime I enjoy the rewards of writing content for and enjoying surfing and dancing.

What did you learn the hard way in this job and what happened specifically that led up to this lesson?

I’d say that I’m still just trying to find the perfect career. I don’t know if that really exists, because I’ve been through several different career paths in my 50-some years. For me the path has been a process of growing and changing as a person and it is imperative that my career reflect who I am as that person. If I’ve learned anything the hard way, it is that there is no one perfect career or job that will last for my entire lifetime.

In some ways I wish that I could be the kind of person who could be satisfied with one career or job, but I think that is pretty unrealistic for most people these days. Plus, I’ve never been driven much by money. I’ve always been driven more by principle and the need to have a good balance between my personal life and my professional life.

How did you get started in this line of work? If you could go back and do it differently, what would you change?

I didn’t get out of college with the intent of being a full time freelance writer, although I have always wanted to continue to write, and write professionally. So even though it’s not ideal, I’m doing what I do now because there is a certain level of convenience. What I do for a living has to fit in with the rest of my life as a married person, living in the particular community I live in (which happens to be a pretty great place to live, but geographically difficult in several ways in terms of the ideal career for me).

I did a lot of research on the Internet about what it takes to make a living as a freelance writer. I stumbled into one thing that would lead to another thing and another thing. Now most of my work comes from and occasional other sources but everything I do is Internet-based.

I don’t know that I would say that I would change anything. I could not have foreseen how my life would change and when life hands you opportunities you take them if you’re smart. Life handed me love unexpectedly and I took it even though it derailed my plans. It’s like John Lennon said, “life is what happens while you’re busy making other plans.”

That’s what happened to me. And it’s good, but I suppose I’m just sort of waiting for the final pieces of the puzzle to fall into place. And that would be the ideal job or career, or at least a little more consistent money.

How stressful is your job? Are you able to maintain a comfortable or healthy work-life balance?

One of the beautiful things about what I do is that it’s very low stress (except for the fact that I feel I don’t make enough money). Being able to make my own schedule is awesome and I don’t have someone staring over my shoulder telling me what to do all the time. I love working at home and I have a lot of freedom to do other things. So I would say that I have a very comfortable and healthy work/life balance.

What’s a rough salary range for the position you hold? Are you paid enough and/or happy living within your means?

I have read a report which claims that freelance writers on average make between $29 and $59 per hour, but I have my doubts about that. Maybe I’m just doing something wrong. Sometimes I get jobs that give me that kind of margin, but more often than not I don’t.

If I wasn’t married and had to support myself on my own with what I’m currently doing, I would not be able to, especially where I live now. It scares me to think that with my education I’m making less money than I’ve ever made, but that’s the current reality for me.

What kind of challenges do you face and what makes you just want to quit?

My biggest challenge is that my education is not suited for where I live. It would be easier for me to get a job in Indian country if I was living in New Mexico or some other place where there are more Indians. But that would mean I would have to move and I’m not willing to do that. So I am forced to figure it out based on where I live now.

What makes me want to quit is discouragement. I fill out dozens of applications every month and it is very rare that I even get a response. But if I don’t try I certainly don’t have a chance.

What education and skills do you need to get hired and succeed in this field?

As far as being a freelance writer, I think the more education you have the more credibility you have. Not only can you specialize in writing about your academic field, you also demonstrate that you have the ability to research which is a really important skill in writing pretty much anything. Obviously you have to have good writing skills. I often come across jobs that specify people with an English or journalism background.

Another really good skill to have is the understanding of SEO, which is search engine optimization. The more computer skills you have the better off you are as well.

What would you tell a friend considering your line of work?

I really started about nine years ago writing op-ed pieces and news stories for a community newspaper, for free. I was just thrilled to be published and that somebody thought what I had to say was worth printing. Once you begin establishing a body of published work you have something to refer to for potential clients. You have to have as well-rounded a portfolio as possible.

Internet based freelance writing is a really fast growing field right now. There are more and more new websites coming online that specialize in connecting freelancers with jobs. There are websites called content mills that are good places to start as a professional freelancer.

That’s what I did; I got hired on by Demand Media, which owns, and others. I wrote articles for, which only pays about $15 per article but it’s a good way to get started writing professionally and gives you good experience working with an editor. Most of the freelancing sites and content mills are very low-paying jobs but it’s a good way to start.

Another thing I would tell a friend if they wanted to pursue a career as a freelance writer is to learn how to use a dictation program. I started having a lot of trouble with my wrists because I was typing so much and you can really damage them. But learning how to use a dictation program really saves you.

How much vacation do you take? Is it enough?

I don’t take much vacation time at all. I really don’t like to travel very much anymore because I spent so much time traveling for a living, and I hate dealing with airports. I live in a Southern California beach community which is the kind of place that people come to vacation. I spend a lot of time on the beach and in the ocean so I really don’t feel a whole lot of need to get away because I love where I live. I have a pretty laid-back lifestyle, I must say, so I really don’t feel the need to get away much.

If you could write your own ticket, what would you like to be doing in five years?

Wildest dreams? What I’m doing now – only making a lot more money at it. I’d also like to be working in an academic or educational environment, maybe teaching part-time.