I learned about leaning in at an early age. I grew up in North Little Rock, Arkansas in a working class, African-American neighborhood, literally on the wrong side of the tracks. In middle school, I was one of a few, if not the only, black student in the academic honors programs. I was often teased for being too smart or even “too white.” Most of my classmates lived near the school I attended and studied together. I knew if I wanted to do extremely well, I had to get past my fears about venturing into unfamiliar neighborhoods. Despite often feeling out of place, I leaned into the educational opportunities that were presented to me and strived for excellence.
During my senior year of high school, my father died after a long battle with cancer. His death forced me into independence at an early age. I was fortunate enough to receive a full academic scholarship to Southern Methodist University. I also tutored, worked at the mall, babysat and eventually worked as an intern at IBM to support myself. It wasn’t easy juggling so many balls, but I developed a strong work ethic that continues to serve me to this day.
After graduation, I set my sights on Wall Street and accepted a position as a financial analyst for a large investment bank in New York City. Soon after, I realized that I really wanted to focus on doing something that made a positive difference in an under-served community. So, I left what I thought was my dream job in investment banking (leaving a prestigious, well-paying job in the process) to join Teach For America as Chief Financial Officer. I will be forever grateful for that life-changing opportunity to help others. It was an enormously important lean in moment: I learned that pushing for professional happiness often has little to do with financial gain and more to do with finding your passion.
My greatest lean in moment came in my mid-30s. I was married, had a thriving consulting career, and had become a successful working mom. But my second pregnancy led to serious complications, and my twin daughters were born eight weeks early, weighing just over three pounds each. Their premature birth was a watershed personal and professional moment. Although I had always envisioned a long consulting career, I feared that the demands of my job, which included long hours and travel, would not be sustainable with three young children under the age of three. I also feared striking out on my own, as I had never thought of myself as an entrepreneur. But after a lot of soul-searching, I found the courage to start my own human resources consulting firm. That was almost 10 years ago. Since then, I have grown my business from two clients to delivering services to over eighty organizations on issues regarding compensation, gender pay inequity, and ways to create HR systems that encourage women to lean in.