I will never forget my first day of first grade in small-town Michigan. I woke up excited to wear my brand new backpack and meet my teacher. Dad walked me to the bus and coached me on what to expect when I got to school. I was bursting with excitement, but my hopes for the year were dashed the moment the bus door closed behind me. As I stood at the top of the aisle scanning for a seat, every single child moved to the outer edge of his or her seat as if to say, “you can’t sit here.” The message was clear: I wasn’t welcome. It only got worse from there as my schoolmates lambasted me with unthinkable slurs. Some kids yelled them out, some simply whispered them under their breath, and not a single soul came to my rescue.
I spent that entire bus ride awkwardly walking up and down the aisle, having nowhere to sit. I couldn’t understand why these children didn’t like me. Race had not been a major theme in my household growing up, and I was unprepared to encounter it as a young girl.
As the years have passed, the question I’ve asked over and over is why didn’t the bus driver do something? Why did she sit there when she had the authority to stand up for me?
A year later, my family would move from that small town to another, where I encountered a more subtle form of racism. The implicit biases were hidden throughout the culture of my classroom. My teacher rarely picked on me to answer questions. When she spoke to me, her tone was patronizing. And for that entire year, my desk was in the very back corner of the room. I didn’t enjoy school and I began to quietly wonder if I simply wasn’t smart like the white children in the classroom.
But that thinking changed when my family moved to Washington, D.C., in fifth grade and I entered Mr. Veasley’s classroom. He was the first teacher who I felt truly believed in me. He was relentless and never compromised his standards and the entire class rose to the occasion. He showed us how to think critically and be aware of the events shaping our world. He taught us to use journaling as a tool for self-reflection (something I still do to this day.) He was a terrific role model and the first black teacher I ever had. It was in his class that I felt smart for the first time. In retrospect, Mr. Veasley modeled what now forms the basis of my coaching philosophy: leadership is love personified.
As the founder and CEO of Teach To Lead, a leadership development organization, I devote my life to guiding clients to become the type of authentic and inclusive leaders that Mr. Veasley was. My passion comes from personally experiencing the pain of exclusion.
I am convinced that change starts when conscious leaders make the decision to lead with their “lights on.” LIGHTS is the acronym that I use to encapsulate the core values of an inclusive and authentic leader. These values guide our work at Teach To Lead, and we offer them as a model to clients who desire to apply a more value-centered approach to their leadership. They stand for:
The first six years of my career were spent on the front lines of urban education as a teacher and school principal. It was there that I was able to see the transformative nature of these values at work.
With three years of fulltime entrepreneurship and seven years of leadership coaching under my belt, I have four pieces of advice for other women seeking to transition into doing what they love:
- Don’t edit your dream
Allow yourself to spiritually and mentally conceive the exact career and life that you want to have. Regularly dwell in that grand dream of yours. Plans and roadmaps eventually have to be dealt with, but if you don’t dream first you won’t get very far. You can have it all.
- Seek mentorship
One of the best things I’ve done is to seek mentorship from other successful women who are further down the business and entrepreneurial path. I encourage other women to do this too. I met my mentor through a start-up incubator that I joined shortly after starting Teach To Lead. Incubators are great places to find mentorship, but networking groups, alumni associations, and service organizations are also good.
- Use what is in your hand to get what is in your heart
Use the passion, position, and experience you have now, to take incremental steps towards where you want to be. This principle has been central to my “career 2.0” experience.
I started off as a teacher through Teach For America. I loved those first two years of teaching, and my passion was recognized when I won a prestigious teaching award in my second year. Through a series of serendipitous events I was offered a teaching position at a KIPP charter school. The principal of the school was very stretched dealing with external issues, and he eventually called on me take over fulltime leadership of the school. While I was young for the role, my intuition told me to go for it. I am a big believer in honoring those inner voices! Good thing I did because I grew in ways I never would have otherwise, and our school ended up becoming the highest-performing middle school in Baltimore.
I eventually went on to coach and train teachers and school leaders from across the KIPP network. This experience revealed that coaching was my true calling. My next step was launching Teach To Lead in 2012 as a coaching resource for school leaders. My vision has continued to crystallize, and I recently expanded Teach To Lead’s mission to encompass personal and professional leadership development programs for leaders from all industries.
Looking back, I love seeing how each role prepared me for the next and brought me to where I am today.
- Master your story
Something that I don’t talk about often is that I am a survivor of physical and sexual abuse. As a result, I went through some extremely hard years, and even considered ending my life in college. Thankfully, I made it out of that darkness and resolved to not simply survive but to thrive.
A key to overcoming was learning to harness my hardships – from the racism I experienced as a school kid to the devastating abuse – as strengths. It is not easy. I would be the first to say that it takes every ounce of grit and humility that you have, but my encouragement to others is to do the necessary work to get emotionally healthy. Once you do, you own an inner power that makes you unstoppable in business and life.