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Brand Manager Erika Pope On Thriving Through Crisis & Using Linkedin As A Road Map

Erika Pope proves the path to success doesn't have to be straight but it can be fulfilling.

BOSS UP

Nowadays, everything might seem a bit uncertain, and whether you're super-employed, self-employed, or underemployed, the stress factor is real. COVID-19 has changed how we live our lives, and with that change, many of us have had to roll with the punches, do some serious soul-searching, and even reconsider our next boss move.

One thing's for sure in hard economic times: Having a job you're great at---one you love---can be your saving grace. One enterprising professional who can attest to that is Erika Pope, global brand manager for House of Cheatham, the parent company of popular haircare lines including Aunt Jackie's Coils and Curls, Argan Smooth, Texture My Way, and Aunt Jackie's Kids.

"I love this space. It's so fun. I really like that it's not just about a product or the glitz and glam. It's honestly the opportunity to work in the community with women and make them feel good about themselves," Pope said in an xoNecole interview.

Image by Stephon X Photography

"I love this space. It's so fun. I really like that it's not just about a product or the glitz and glam. It's honestly the opportunity to work in the community with women and make them feel good about themselves."

Her path to beauty brand management wasn't a straight one, but the journey helped her learn more about her passions, her capabilities, and her strengths. In 2008, Pope found herself in unfamiliar waters at Michigan State University. She was the first in her immediate family to attend a large school away from home.

"I knew I had a creative and artistic mind, so I started off wanting to do fashion design. I got into the program and realized how much I hated sewing," Pope recalled. "I ended up in a retail merchandising program and studied a dual degree in art. When I finished college, I left [for] Chicago, and like most young adults leaving college, I still had no idea of what I'd be doing."

With few prospects, Pope said, she did odd jobs and then stumbled upon an opportunity to work in digital media. "That was my introduction into social media and marketing, and I loved it." Pope then went on to work as a buyer for TJX Companies (think TJ Maxx, Marshalls and HomeGoods) through an opportunity via LinkedIn. "I went through their training program, and it's globally regarded. It's extremely hard to finish. They [accepted] about 200 of us and by the end, there were only about 40 people that they actually hired on full-time," she said. "I was selected to help launch and curate TJMaxx.com---part of the team that built and created the e-commerce platform that they have today. It put a lot in perspective for me because I knew from there on out, I always wanted to work with brands."

Pope would continue to work as a buyer for several years before eventually starting her own consultancy, Pope Solutions. "It's a full marketing services agency, and [we've done] some consulting for different brands."

Image by Stephon X Photography

She's a huge advocate of the power of LinkedIn, especially for finding new opportunities---or positioning yourself for them to find you. Her current boss, she said, found her on the platform and hired her to consult before she landed the full-time position she's loving today. "It's the Instagram of the business space. I've been obsessed with it since college. Some of my friends would make fun of me for being so heavily interested in LinkedIn, [saying], 'Oh, that's where all the old people are.' But I'd say that's where you can connect [with people offering] the jobs that you want, so it's important."

With more business owners and CEOs at home and online, Pope says it's a good idea to leverage the platform, especially when reevaluating your career path or trying to connect with leaders in your industry.

"I think of LinkedIn [as] a road map. You can look up roles you want, find people in those roles, look at the roles they had prior to getting where they are, and find out what skills they gained along the way. There's not just one way to do anything."

For Pope, COVID-19 isn't a time to shut down the enthusiasm for work that you love, but a time to elevate the passion and find the balance needed to be your best self for your job or even the job you want. As a wife and manager, she finds it important to be her best self, and in order to do that, she carves out alone time to meditate, stretch, and exercise on her Peloton bike. "I can imagine I'm in Paris or traveling abroad. I've realized that nothing is going to work out if I'm not [well]. I'm responsible for all these different aspects of this brand along with my personal brand, so if I'm not centered, nothing else is going to be right."

She's also found that this time as an opportunity to connect more deeply with the consumer base she serves and a challenge to get creative. "We've adjusted our focus in how we engage with people, and we are putting a lot more energy into building out digital campaigns," she explained. "We [Aunt Jackie's Curls & Coils] just recently partnered with xoNecole and did their first digital Pajamas and Lipstick event. It's just [about] becoming more creative and figuring out how to stay top-of-mind. I try to put our consumers first. Knowing that we're in such a different time, people's mental health is really important, and I don't want to feel like we're being insensitive to the things that are happening---being salesy and just pushing products. One of the things about my personal platform is [that it's] all about women's empowerment. It's a win-win for me to work with consumers---women specifically---all over the globe, just making them feel good about themselves. [I enjoy] standing behind a product I actually believe in and use myself."

For more of Erika, follow her on Instagram.

Featured image by Stephon X Photography

When I was ten, my Sunday school teacher put on a brief performance in class that included some of the boys standing in front of the classroom while she stood in front of them holding a heart shaped box of chocolate. One by one, she tells each boy to come and bite a piece of candy and then place the remainder back into the box. After the last boy, she gave the box of now mangled chocolate over to the other Sunday school teacher — who happened to be her real husband — who made a comically puzzled face. She told us that the lesson to be gleaned from this was that if you give your heart away to too many people, once you find “the one,” that your heart would be too damaged. The lesson wasn’t explicitly about sex but the implication was clearly present.

That memory came back to me after a flier went viral last week, advertising an abstinence event titled The Close Your Legs Tour with the specific target demo of teen girls came across my Twitter timeline. The event was met with derision online. Writer, artist, and professor Ashon Crawley said: “We have to refuse shame. it is not yours to hold. legs open or not.” Writer and theologian Candice Marie Benbow said on her Twitter: “Any event where 12-17-year-old girls are being told to ‘keep their legs closed’ is a space where purity culture is being reinforced.”

“Purity culture,” as Benbow referenced, is a culture that teaches primarily girls and women that their value is to be found in their ability to stay chaste and “pure”–as in, non-sexual–for both God and their future husbands.

I grew up in an explicitly evangelical house and church, where I was taught virginity was the best gift a girl can hold on to until she got married. I fortunately never wore a purity ring or had a ceremony where I promised my father I wouldn’t have pre-marital sex. I certainly never even thought of having my hymen examined and the certificate handed over to my father on my wedding day as “proof” that I kept my promise. But the culture was always present. A few years after that chocolate-flavored indoctrination, I was introduced to the fabled car anecdote. “Boys don’t like girls who have been test-driven,” as it goes.

And I believed it for a long time. That to be loved and to be desired by men, it was only right for me to deny myself my own basic human desires, in the hopes of one day meeting a man that would fill all of my fantasies — romantically and sexually. Even if it meant denying my queerness, or even if it meant ignoring how being the only Black and fat girl in a predominantly white Christian space often had me watch all the white girls have their first boyfriends while I didn’t. Something they don’t tell you about purity culture – and that it took me years to learn and unlearn myself – is that there are bodies that are deemed inherently sinful and vulgar. That purity is about the desire to see girls and women shrink themselves, make themselves meek for men.

Purity culture isn’t unlike rape culture which tells young girls in so many ways that their worth can only be found through their bodies. Whether it be through promiscuity or chastity, young girls are instructed on what to do with their bodies before they’ve had time to figure themselves out, separate from a patriarchal lens. That their needs are secondary to that of the men and boys in their lives.

It took me a while —after leaving the church and unlearning the toxic ideals around purity culture rooted in anti-Blackness, fatphobia, heteropatriarchy, and queerphobia — to embrace my body, my sexuality, and my queerness as something that was not only not sinful or dirty, but actually in line with the vision God has over my life. Our bodies don't stop being our temples depending on who we do or who we don’t let in, and our worth isn’t dependent on the width of our legs at any given point.

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