The other day I walked into a shoe store for the first time in a long time and I was caught off guard when I saw the Nike Flightposite 2s on the shelf. The shoes took me back in time and like Lebron James the Nike shoes immediately took me back to my “humble beginnings.”
I hadn’t seen these shoes in almost 20 years and I was reunited with them the day after I was promoted to Vice President at a big advertising agency in New York. This caused me to stop and reflect on how far I had come since I owned the shoes two decades earlier.
I remember having these Flightposites as a sophomore in high school. I don’t remember how I got them because my mom didn’t really buy me expensive sneakers and I didn’t have money as a 15 year old. I think this may have been a time she bought me a pair of expensive sneakers because of good grades and because I didn’t really ask for much.
Nevertheless, as I mentioned I don’t really remember a lot about the shoes themselves, but what I do remember is wearing them so much that they developed a hole in the bottom of them, but I still wore them because I didn’t have a ton of sneakers, I liked them a lot and the hole was on the bottom of the sneaker so people couldn’t see it.
But the crazier thing is how I got the hole at the bottom of the sneakers to begin with.
I’ve never told anyone before, not even my closest friends knew about this up until now.
Only my mom, sister and close family know the extent of challenges my family faced growing up, but I think it’s important to share my story in case it inspires others to overcome their circumstances.
So here it goes…
I put a hole in the shoes walking home from school on days that I stayed after school for sports, extra curricular activities, etc.
But I actually didn’t have a home at the time.
When I was walking in those Flightposites, it was walking to a room in a shelter.
My mom and I were staying in a shelter during my sophomore year after a long tough year on the move.
The shelter was a room in a small church in Laurel, MD and I still remember the pungent smell of the mice behind the refrigerator in that room to this day.
It was a demoralizing time for me because I had to constantly try to skate around questions from friends on where I lived. The school bus dropped off right in front of the church too so I had to wait until everyone started walking away before I could go in the room.
Then, Sunday’s before church felt the worst. There was one girl that was in my class in high school that went to the church and I was always scared that she would see me and say something to everyone else.
I don’t know if she saw me, but every Sunday my mom and I would leave the shelter to attend our church in DC while the service at the church we were staying at already started.
The church has a wall full of windows with the blinds open where it would be easy to see us walking out to our car.
This was exhausting after a rough couple years which was part of a lifetime of humbling experiences.
We landed in that shelter after moving all over the DMV starting starting during my freshman year.
After eviction notices from our apartment in Laurel, we first moved to a hotel for a week in Northern Virginia.
My mom still drove me all the way to school in Laurel every day and then I had to stay after school and wait until she picked me up.
Then we moved in with someone from our church for a year or two close to Suitland, MD. Then eventually we moved into a place in Temple Hills, MD, literally across the street from Alabama Avenue in Southeast DC.
The whole time I was still going to Laurel High across the county because I was a part of the honors program. At one point my teacher for Spanish class found out I was living outside of the allowed area and called the office in front of the entire class. I’m not sure why she felt the need to, but luckily I didn’t get kicked out of Laurel.
All of this time we were moving around with my sister and her husband who had just got married.
My sister ended getting a good opportunity to go overseas for work which was a good opportunity to improve her situation, but it meant me and my mom had to find a place which is how we eventually ended up in that shelter.
After being overseas for my sister asked me if I wanted to come live in the Netherlands with her for the last year of her assignment as her job would pay for me to go to private school.
I ended saying yes because if my situation. I probably would have not done so if I was in a better living situation, but in this case I really didn’t feel I had a choice.
I couldn’t take the smell of those mice behind the refrigerator anymore and there wasn’t much else good about living in the US at that point despite me being a bright young black kid born into difficult circumstances which unfortunately is not out of the ordinary for many exceptional African Americans who are often misunderstood.
I was a little nervous going to Holland. I remember wondering if there were any black people there and what to expect.
Moving ended up being a good experience for me. The people in the Netherlands are very friendly and the school I went to was pretty good.
I ended up going to an American School with a bunch of rich kids, some of who were scoring perfect and close to perfect scores in the SAT. Many of the kids were from Texas with parents working in the oil industry.
Going to the American school was great for me motivation wise because I held my own intellectually just like I did anywhere else while still playing sports traveling across Europe.
This was yet another reminder to me that others were not better than me even though they had more.
Subconsciously a lot of people do think they are superior or at least their actions say so, but I’ve always had confidence in myself and been able to take a realistic assessment of what I bring to the table.
But without any guidance on trying to navigate corporate America and while still struggling, my first few years working were tough.
I was living in NY on my own without family and making nothing as an entry level employee. Then after student loans hit, that was the first time in my life I felt like I was depressed for a sec.
There was absolutely no way I could afford my undergrad and grad school loans.
I could barely even afford groceries and my super cheap rent that I was lucky to get through my boys sister.
Numerous studies on Blacks in advertising have shown that the numbers don’t grow because many can’t afford the ridiculously low pay in the first few years as agencies with the cost of living and crazy student loan payments. Other groups are more likely to have a parent or family member to help out some.
On top of that I didn’t like what co workers liked, I didn’t fit in and I had no clue how to progress in corporate America.
I’m also someone that only knows how to be genuine and I’m pretty direct.
I’m sorry if I don’t want to laugh at your corny jokes or beat around the bush, but circumstances often impact who people are and code switching is not a part of my DNA.
Needless to say the first 5 years of my career were pretty rough. I had to deal with people tryna come at me and also trying to paint a negative perception of me because I’m different. At that stage of your career, it is tough because you’ll probably have bad or inexperienced managers and many will not understand that people are different.
It wasn’t until I became a manager that things changed for me and I got to see how things really work in Corporate America.
Up until then I had given my managers too much control over my career. I would work hard, take on larger work loads than peers and expect that I would be rewarded and promoted at the end of the year.
It never happened.
Never….not once before being a manager.
I ended up having moving companies to get promotions and for people to appreciate my work until it was time for promotion….
And oddly enough the jobs I left appreciated my work after I left and they realized what I was doing was noteworthy.
But I didn’t know how things worked. So I just worked hard and nobody knew about what I was doing except for my direct manager.
Once I became a manager, I saw that a lot of people weighed in on growth prospects for team members even if they were not qualified to do so and didn’t have a real understanding of what that person brings to the table.
I also saw how my direct reports were more aggressive about asking about promotions and getting ahead. Even when they weren’t a top performer.
So from there, I started to figure out how to navigate Corporate America with each bump up, while still remaining true to myself.
But to see these sneakers while being named Vice President really hit home.
Before the last few years, VP is not something I even thought about. As a kid, the furthest I thought about was 30 years old and to manager or Director level. I never thought about after 30 and what is possible.
The thing is I still feel like I haven’t accomplished much and I really just got the blueprint perfected for the future.
But I think it is important for me to share this information with others that are struggling like I used to.
At my last couple of organizations I have found myself informally guiding, mentoring and advising people of color. If I sense something is up, I’ll just pull random people to the side even if they aren’t on my team to see if I can help point them in the right direction.
I didn’t have that when I was coming up so I’m happy to do so for others.
If I can do it, you can do.
And taking it back to the sneakers. Make a plan and as Nike says, Just Do It.
And help each other until there are “no more humble beginnings.”
I take pride in giving back information to others coming up. I have created an organization called Unleash Your Identity to provide advice on progressing through Corporate America while staying true to yourself. Be sure to sign up for the free email list to join the community. For those looking for more dedicated help, feel free to contact me.