6 Tips for Getting Ahead (Faster) in Your Career
Seven years ago, I was invited to a rooftop soirée, an industry- only event for women. It was a Who’s Who of industry professionals. I knew their names and faces. They didn’t know mine.
A friend and her friends were annoyed by the prevailing idea of women in “the industry.” They were the types that went on speaking tours in high schools and colleges. One, the HNIC of an organization, would give her speil about working her way from intern to, well, HNIC, and when it was time for Q&A would be asked, “are you a groupie?”
It wasn’t personal. It’s that the young women only saw women in entertainment that looked like them in two ways: groupie or video chick. Maybe rapper. That’s it. They didn’t know about all the behind the scenes women, the ones who make decisions and quietly run things, but don’t get the shine like the people out front.
The women in attendance on the rooftop were once young girls who were interested in entertainment and they figured it out without the benefit of an organization. And unless they wanted the doors they banged open to close behind them, it was time to start recruiting and helping. This, more or less, was how WEEN— the Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network— was born.
I was in the room because I knew somebody important– a WEEN founder. I had written for magazines for years, but nothing groundbreaking. I was still trying to get on somebody’s masthead. I was a book editor, editing romance novels at Harlequin, which sounds more glam than it is, if it sounds glam at all. I’d just started blogging on MySpace. People I didn’t know had started reading and commenting, so I was expanding.
After the conversation and the name-picking (cause you know women have to vote on everything), it was time for mingling. I made a beeline for the editors. My bestie, Penelope (who doesn’t work in entertainment), made a beeline for the bar. It was there she met the EIC of HoneyMag.com.
Penelope brought her over to me where I was sulking after being not so politely dismissed by an editor. “D, this is [HNIC],” Penelope began. “D’s a great writer. She can write anything.” That was her alley oop. She walked off, leaving me to dunk.
“What was the last thing you wrote?” the EIC asked.
“Um, I have a blog. On MySpace. I wrote about this date I went on and…” I explained, trying to sound confident, but nervous as hell.
“You write about dating?” she asked.
“Yeah. It’s kind of like Sex in the City, but like about me, a Black girl. In Brooklyn. It’s starting to pick up traction. I think it might be great for Honey. I can send you the link,” I said as I fished around in my purse for for a business card.
I was so busy looking for a card that I almost missed the good part.
“It sounds great. Send me your next post. We can run it on Honey.”
She started to repeat herself and I interrupted to be clear. “You want to run it on Honey?!”
She thrust her card out. “Yeah. Email me here when you have another post. We’ll see how it goes.”
“And send me the name of your blog and a picture to go with it when you submit.”
Oh. Um, Ok.
I tell you this whole backstory for a reason. If I didn’t have that friend, I never would have been at that rooftop party. And if I was never at the rooftop party, I wouldn’t have met the EIC at Honey. And if I hadn’t met her, there might not have been A Belle in Brooklyn. I didn’t even have a name for my blog when I met her. I was just writing because I had ideas in my head and my pitches weren’t being accepted regularly. She was the one who made me focus.
And because there is A Belle in the Brooklyn, the blog, the book, potentially the scripted TV show, anytime WEEN calls and says, “hey, D, come speak to the girls at the WEEN Academy,” I figure out time to go speak to the girls.
So that’s what I did Tuesday (my third year speaking to them) alongside my publicist and friend Christina Rice from Luxe Life Media. About twenty young women packed themselves around her conference room table and we d told them our “how we did it” stories from Junior year of college on.
I’d tell you those in depth, but 1) this post is already long; and 2) I’ve told mine a million and one times on here. (If you want the most recent re-telling, it’s here.)
So we tell our stories and to make sure the young women take something from it other than, “ok, story time”, I ask each of them to tell me what they took away.
Here are the top 6 (with explanation):
1. Apply Yourself
If you’re moderately competent, you perform better than most of the people in your desired field. And you can coast by and maintain doing little to nothing. If you want to be the best at what you do, go after what you want. Don’t wait for it come to you.
When I was a junior in college, I wrote a paper after I got home from the club. I just forgot about the thing. I stayed up all night and pounded it out. A couple weeks later, my professor reads this intro paragraph to the class, and I’m sitting there thinking, “if I could write like that, I’d be a writer.” Turns out, it was my paper. I switched my major and actually decided to apply myself to writing because maybe of I tried, I could make something decent of myself.
Christina owned a clothing store when she was 22. She had some coin stacked from her job in promotions and events and felt like opening a store. So she got a bunch of books on how to do it, and voila. Just like that. At 23, she moved to a bigger space with 3-levels. Who does that? Christina.
Christina later decided she might want to be a publicist since she had a lot of connects. She read up on the job extensively, pitched herself accordingly and her first gig was the North American PR dIrector for a luxury French brand. Boom!
3. Build Relationships, then Build on Them
Christina and I both got to where we are by building on what we’ve done previously. I’m a pretty good public speaker because my first job was giving presentations around New York City about how citizens should interact with the police. My first job as an editor was because two years prior I’d gone on an informational interview and made a good impression on a publisher. When I was ready to publish a book in 2010, I got fast-tracked because I worked in publishing from 2003-2007 and had contacts. See? building.
In Christina’s case, she took those editorial contacts from the French brand with her to her next PR gig (see below).
4. Be Confident (and Graceful Under Fire)
Christina was 20 minutes late for a big PR interview that a friend had recommended her for. She was meeting with the CEO. When she walked in, he told her he wouldn’t hire her because she was late, but would hear her out. “Why should I hire you?” he asked. Her answer? “Because I’m the best.” She got the job.
5. Fill the Void
Every lane is supersaturated. And yet, you still find yourself wondering, “why is there…?” Or “why doesn’t anyone…?” That’s where you come in. If you’re wondering, lots of other people are too. Take the initiative and put them out of their misery.
I started my blog in 2007 because no one was saying what I wanted to hear. No one was telling the stories of growing through a quarter life crisis while Black (or any other color) that I wanted to watch/read. I complained and complained and finally someone said to me, “why don’t you just write it then? I mean, you’re a writer.” So I started writing.
6. Go on Informational Interviews
It’s not a job interview. You’re going to pick someone’s brain about what they do, how they do it. AND who they think you should meet in your field that would be helpful. You’ll get passed around the inner circle and someone will eventually have a job opening. Hopefully, they hire you. If not, you still have great connections at the top of your field. That will pay off in the long run.
Bonus: Date (Actually) Nice Guys
This isn’t one that we discussed, but toward the end of the session, we were asked for closing thoughts, ie, all the things you wish someone had told you. As a dating coach, I had to weigh in with advice.
The guys you date can have a profound effect on your career. An unsupportive BF who doesn’t get what you do or respect your work is a distraction you don’t need. So is the guy who wants you to dim your light so his can shine brighter. What you want is a partner who sees the best in you and says “you can do it” when you’re frustrated, and understands when you have to put in the extra hours. It’s hard to find them, but they do exist. You’ll get further and faster if you have a supportive partner, or you’re single.
What advice would you give to young women 20-25?