From The Hood To Silicon Valley: Rukayatu Tijani On What It Means To Be A First Generation Attorney
There's a billion-dollar industry promising to guide the masses to purpose.
Best-selling books adorn polished store shelves waiting to be read by those starved for answers. Sold-out conferences and seminars convince us to look to their hosts for guidance. Podcasts crash through the glut with episode after episode of anecdotes, interviews, and advice. Everyone's got 'the key' to ultimate success - whatever that may mean today - and we pay them our hard-earned money and our time when many of us haven't spent time examining the course of our lives for the glimpses of destiny we so desperately seek.
The course of Rukayatu Tijani's life made her destiny clear early on. Her path to studying law was set at five years old, when she learned of African-American giants of justice like Thurgood Marshall and Charles Hamilton Houston. Their carefully crafted and executed litigation strategies dismantled structural racism in education and formed the foundation of American integration as we know it today. This narrative intrigued Rukayatu, or "Ruky," as many lovingly call her, and motivated her to forge a path similar to those legal champions whose pictures now grace her office walls.
A Clear, Unpaved Path
Kayla Schmah Photography
Creating a career in which she could catalyze equity, inclusion, and the reclamation of dignity was exactly what she wanted to do. But there was no blueprint for a first-generation Nigerian-American girl from the projects of Brooklyn, New York.
So the path to her Juris Doctor would be hers to cut, step-by-step.
"Looking back I'm really grateful that God kept that vision consistent, notwithstanding the context in which I grew up," she says reflectively during our call. "There's a complexity to my upbringing that I've recently brought to light; my 'hood,' where there were crack vials in the staircase and urine in the elevators, formed the foundation, in a sense, of my grit, drive, and tenacity. But it also brought forth feelings of immense pain, torment, and trauma. I never really saw attorneys growing up, so the fact that I can [now] be an advocate, and use my Brooklyn beginnings to inform the work I do, is amazingly powerful, especially as I navigate the Silicon Valley."
"My 'hood,' where there were crack vials in the staircase and urine in the elevators, formed the foundation, in a sense, of my grit, drive, and tenacity."
Ironically, Ruky has had to do a lot of climbing in her 30 years of life to reach the Silicon Valley. Some upward paths found her pushing past fear of failure and survivor's guilt. But through it all, she found her footing, showing up as her authentic self - heels high, locs set, and her signature bright smile, stretching from ear to ear. She learned to navigate life confidently and define for herself what it meant to be a first-generation attorney.
Though her childhood wasn't easy, it isn't a past she wants to bury. Living in the inner city presented hurdles. With no close examples for who she wanted to become, Ruky found guidance and encouragement in sage mentors, her education, and sometimes, her own life. "I consistently say that I grew up in the projects because I'm proud of it. It taught me determination and resourcefulness."
Leaping Over The Bar
Kayla Schmah Photography
From the outside, it would seem that the path to becoming an attorney is fairly straightforward: study law, pass the bar, and land a job at a good law firm.
But this narrative is deceptive. A closer look at the details lays bare the specific ways in which many aspiring lawyers can fall through the cracks. And those details proved challenging for Ruky, as well as many first generation professionals learning to navigate professional spaces; spaces their peers were groomed to navigate from childhood.
"[The hardest part was] not knowing what I didn't know about the application process, including what I needed to do in high school and college and beyond. Just like there's a pipeline for prison, there's a pipeline for law school. From a young age, it's assumed that you're either going to be successful in this space or you're not; so if you don't 'fit' the success metrics, it can be hard to break into the field later on."
"Just like there's a pipeline for prison, there's a pipeline for law school. From a young age, it's assumed that you're either going to be successful in this space or you're not."
She benefited from the counsel of mentors and sponsors and participated in programs like CLEO, LSAC, TRIALS - all of which armed her with information she wouldn't have necessarily been privy to. "They encouraged me to take this journey step-by-step and I got comfortable asking questions. I had a village to help guide me along the way."
From a deep-seated desire to pay it forward, Ruky founded the First Generation Purpose Project, which helps first generation professionals create actionable steps in their workplace, career, and life by utilizing the tenacity and grit they already possess. The idea for FGPP came, Tijani says, from her own road to career success and the lurking feeling of wanting to give up.
"I'm a proud first generation four-year college grad but it was a difficult journey and janky road. I wanted to be a lawyer since I was 5. And while generally, I didn't waver in this sentiment, suddenly, less than two years into my career, I wanted to quit. In fact, I was determined to quit. But I didn't know why. I had to take time to unpack what undergirded my motivations. And after reflection, I noticed that a good number of my colleagues come from lawyer families. I didn't have that network or community to ask questions or figure out things with. I didn't have a community committed to convincing me not to quit."
And then there is the assumption that with a degree in hand or a white collar job secured, there is nothing left to do but enjoy a long stretch on Easy Street. This is not the case for most first generation professionals as they are still, to varying degrees, straddling two very different lives.
"[There is the] psychological difficulty of living between two different worlds. The 'homeless to Harvard' trope conveys that as soon as you get to 'Harvard,' everything is solved and that's just not true," Tijani explains.
"When I graduated from Berkeley (a top 10 law school), I came back to New York City and lived near Harlem. I navigated New York as a young urban professional uptown while my mom was still in the projects in Brooklyn. Although I 'moved up' in a sense, I was still tethered to a background that was, frankly, still under-resourced. I couldn't run away from this, so in order to engage and appreciate both worlds, I felt like I had to do mental gymnastics of sorts - essentially moving in spaces where people paid $500 for a pair of shoes, then returning to neighborhoods where a cab ride was a luxury."
Ruky realized she had to take the time to unpack two crucial questions: 1) Why this was such a hard journey and 2) Why no one else was talking about it.
She decided to start talking.
Equipped To Equip
Kayla Schmah Photography
Through speaker presentations, one-on-one consulting, and telling her own story, Tijani wields the First Generation Purpose Project as a weapon against isolation, impostor syndrome, and intimidation for first generation professionals. Harvesting anecdotes from her own life and data from her research, she speaks to the most prevalent obstacles that first generation professionals face.
"One of the biggest [issues] I've seen is the inability to engage friends and family to 'level one up,' frankly, in career and everyday life. This inability stems from the seeming lack of networks and social capital."
Another challenge comes from the physiological and psychological effects of shifting socioeconomic statuses. This influences budgeting and forming healthy financial boundaries with family members and friends.
"What does it mean to now identify as a person with more means, newfound privilege, and social capital? And what can we do with that?" Tijani asks these questions as she finds answers along the course of her own life. And as a result, she stands as an example. "If we don't see it, we can't be it, so I articulate my story and who I am."
"If we don't see it, we can't be it, so I articulate my story and who I am."
Clear on her grounding principles and practices, Ruky offers that prayer and an array of friends and mentors are important in combating impostor syndrome, survivor's guilt, and wanting to retreat to former comfort zones. "Prayer is the big tool. I also learned to be open to different displays of mentorship, including mentorship from white men who have been so gracious and have taught me a lot of the skills needed to hone my craft."
First Generation Purpose Project is another helpful tool to stay in a profession where she's often encouraged to leave - by friends and foes alike. "My pitch [with the FGPP] is that I'm teaching first generation professionals to navigate the workplace; this encourages me to stay in this space so I give legitimacy to my brand. It motivates me to stay in it for the long haul."
Her recent trip to Yale Law School was her first speaking engagement as founder of FGPP. "It was all student-initiated, which speaks to power students have in how they can shape the institutions they navigate," she recalls. "The night before my Yale presentation, I was creating an elaborate PowerPoint, making sure I incorporated all the bells and whistles. But at the last minute, I decided to chuck the presentation and speak from the heart. I spoke about passing the California and New York State bar exams while my mom was on food stamps. I spoke about the daunting task of leasing a car because I grew up with a Metrocard. I spoke about going to schools like Berkeley but coming home to different spaces in Brooklyn."
And the response to that honesty was overwhelming.
"The students said they'd never heard a talk like this and they were so glad they didn't have to let go of themselves in order to pursue their greatness."
The number one lesson she's learned along her path as a first generation professional?
"Keep going, God is working. If I could go back to my 21-year-old self or even yesterday, I would say keep going. Even if you don't see it yourself, somebody sees it. So it's going to work out, I promise."
You can connect with and learn more about Rukayatu's journey and work with First Generation Purpose Project at www.firstgenpurposeproject.com and on Instagram.
Featured image courtesy of Rukayata Tijani
Ashley is a storybuilder and storyteller who writes and produces to inform, connect, encourage and evoke. Vibe with her on Twitter/Instagram: @ashleylatruly.
Unapologetically, Chlöe: The R&B Star On Finding Love, Self-Acceptance & Boldly Using Her Voice
On set inside of a mid-city Los Angeles studio, it’s all eyes on Chlöe. She slightly shifts her body against a dark backdrop amidst camera clicks and whirs, giving a seductive pout here, and piercing eye contact there. Her chocolate locs are adorned with a few jewels that she requested to spice up the look, and on her shoulders rests a jeweled piece that she asked to be turned around to better showcase her neck (“I feel a bit old,” she said of the original direction). Her shapely figure is tucked into a strapless bodysuit with a deep v-neck that complements her décolletage.
Though subtle, her quiet wardrobe directives give the air of a woman who’s been here before, and certainly knows what she’s doing. At 24 years young, she’s a “Bossy” chick in training— one who’s politely unapologetic and learning the power of her own voice.
“I'm hesitant sometimes to truly speak my mind and speak up for myself and what I believe,” she later confessed to me a couple of weeks after the photoshoot. “It's always scary for me, but now I'm realizing that I have to, in order to gain respect as a Black woman— a young Black woman— who's still navigating who she is. And you know, I'm realizing that closed mouths don't get fed. And if I keep my mouth shut just because I'm afraid of what people's opinions of me will be or turn into, then that's not any way to live.”
For Chlöe, the journey into womanhood is about embracing who she is, without succumbing to the perceptions of what others think of her. From the waist up she’s everything you’d imagine. A gorgeous goddess with the kind of sex appeal that some work hard to embrace but fail to exude. But unbeknownst to anyone not on set, her bottom half is covered by a white robe, surprising coming from the girl who boasts “'Cause my booty so big, Lord, have mercy” on her first hit single “Have Mercy.”
But that’s the beauty of Chlöe. There’s more to her than meets the eye. More than what a few sensual photos sprinkled throughout an Instagram feed could ever tell you. Just like the photo-framing illusion of her portrayed from the waist up, what we know about the songstress is just the tip of the iceberg. There’s so much more beneath the surface.
Some hours later Chlöe leans back in a high chair as her locs are transformed from a formal updo to a seemingly Basquiat-inspired one. It’s pure art, and at her request, no wigs are a part of the day’s ensemble. She’s fully embracing her natural hair, a decision that wasn’t always a socially accepted one.
In the suburbs of Atlanta, Georgia, (Mableton, to be exact) Chlöe began to explore the foundation of her self-image. At an early age she and her younger sister, Halle, demonstrated a vocal prowess and knack for being in front of the camera that caught their parents’ attention. Soon after, they were sent on a parade of local talent shows and auditions, and eventually broke into the digital space with song covers on YouTube.
It was during these early years that Chlöe first learned that the entertainment industry could be unforgiving to those who didn’t fit a particular beauty standard. Despite the then three-year-old snagging a role as the younger version of Beyoncé’s character, Lilly, in Fighting Temptations, casting agents requested that her natural locs be exchanged for more Eurocentric tresses. Ironic, considering that growing up Chlöe saw her hair as no different than that of her peers. “I remember specifically in pre-K we had to do self-portraits and I drew myself with a regular straight ponytail, like how I would put my locs in a ponytail,” she says. “I just never saw myself any different.”
Chlöe would also learn the true meaning of a phrase that would later become an affirmation posted on her bedroom mirror: “Don’t Let the World Dim Your Light.” After attempting to wear wigs to fit in, the Bailey sisters instead chose to rock their locs with pride, which undoubtedly cost them casting roles. Yet they would have the last laugh when making headlines as the “Teen Dreadlocked Duo” who landed a million-dollar contract with Parkwood Entertainment, and the coveted opportunity to be groomed under the tutelage of a world-renowned superstar.
Credit: Derek Blanks
While that could be the end of a beautiful fairytale of self-empowerment, the reality is that it’s just the beginning of the story of her evolution. For most girls, the transition into womanhood takes place in the comfort of their own worlds, often limited to the number of people they allow to have access to them. But for Chlöe, it’s happening in front of millions of critiquing eyes just waiting for an opportunity to either uplift or dissect her through unwarranted commentary.
Many in her position wouldn’t be able to take that kind of pressure. But Chlöe is handling it with grace. “I feel like all of us as humans, we have the right to interpret things how we want,” she says. “I put art out into the world and it's up for interpretation. I'm learning that not everyone is going to always like me and that it's okay.”
Chlöe isn’t the first artist to receive criticism for her carnal content, and she certainly won’t be the last. In 2010, Ciara writhed and rode her way to banishment on BET when the then 24-year-old released her video for “Ride.” In 2006, 25-year-old Beyoncé received backlash for “Déjà Vu."
"I put art out into the world and it's up for interpretation. I'm learning that not everyone is going to always like me and that it's okay.”
So much so that over 5,000 fans signed an online petition demanding that her label re-shoot the video because it was “too sexual.” Even 27-year-old Janet didn’t escape critical headlines when she shed her image of innocence for a more risqué appearance with the 1993 release of janet.
It’s almost as if public reproach is a rite of passage for young Black women R&B singers on the road to stardom. Good girls seemingly “go bad” whenever they embrace the depths of their femininity, and fans only like you on top figuratively. But Chlöe has learned not to bow down to other people’s opinions, but to boss up and control the narrative. As the saying goes, well-behaved women seldom make history. If sex appeal is her weapon, she wields it well.
On set, Chlöe exudes the energy of Aphrodite in an apple red, off-shoulder dress with a sexy high split. In between shots, she mouths the lyrics to Yebba’s “Boomerang” as it echoes throughout the space in steady repetition at my recommendation. The hour grows late, yet Chlöe is heating things up as eyes stare in deep mesmerization of the girl on fire.
Credit: Derek Blanks
Through music, she explores the depths of her being, a journey that seems to be, at its foundation, rooted in self-discovery. Whereas their debut album The Kids Are Alright (2018) boasts a young Chloe x Halle empowering their generation to embrace who they are while finding their place in the world, their second album Ungodly Hour (2020) shows the Bailey sisters shedding the veil of innocence for a more unapologetic bravado.
What fans looked forward to seeing is who Chlöe shows herself to be on her debut solo album In Pieces. In an interview with PEOPLE, she confesses that releasing her first project without her sister was “scary.” "It was a moment of self-doubt where I was like, 'Can I do this without my sister?’”
Chlöe has never been shy about sharing her insecurities or her vulnerabilities, all of which are laced throughout the 14-track album. “I want people to have fun when they listen to it and to just realize that they're not alone and it's okay to be vulnerable and raw and open because none of us are perfect; we're all far from it. And I think it's healing when we all admit to that instead of putting up a facade.”
The gift of time has given the self-professed “big lover girl” more encounters with romance and heartbreak. Love songs once sung for their beautiful riffs and melodies become more than just abstract lyrics and are replaced by real-life experiences, which she tells me is definitely in the music.
In her single “Pray It Away,” for example, she contemplates going to God for healing instead of going at her ex-lover for revenge for his infidelities. “With anything dealing with art, I am completely vulnerable,” she says. “I'm completely myself, I'm completely open and transparent. So it's pretty much all of me and who I am right now.”
Has Chlöe been in love? That still remains to be said. Of course, she’s been linked to a few potential baes, but dating in the digital age isn’t as easy as a double tap or drop of a heart-eyes emoji. It requires a level of trust and vulnerability that’s hard to earn, and easy to mishandle. To let her guard down means to potentially set herself up for disappointment. “It’s difficult dating right now, honestly, because you really have to kind of keep your guard up and pay attention to who's really there for you. And you know, I'm such an affectionate person and I love hard.
"So when I meet the one person that I really, really am into, it's hard for me to see any others and I get attached pretty easily. And you know, I don't know, it's…it's a scary thing.”
Credit: Derek Blanks
“With anything dealing with art, I am completely vulnerable. I'm completely myself, I'm completely open and transparent. So it's pretty much all of me and who I am right now.”
While broken hearts yield good music (queue Adele), what’s in Chlöe’s prayer is the desire to be happy. What does that look like? Well, she’s still figuring that out herself. “Honestly, I'm the type of person who I don't truly learn unless I experience it. So it's like I can view and watch my parents and watch the loving relationships that I see in my life and be like, ‘Oh, I want that. I would love to have that.’ But then I also have to experience [love] on my own and see what my flaws or my faults might be or see what my good things about myself are. I feel like it's really all about self-reflection. And even though our base is our family and that's our foundation, we are still our own individuals and we have to find out specifically the things about ourselves that may be different from what we saw from our parents when we were growing up.”
Her ideal beau, she tells me, is someone she can feel safe to be her fun, goofy self with, but who also gives her the space to be the boss chick chasing her dreams. A man who understands that just because the world compliments her doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to hear those words from his lips or feel it in his touch. A bonus if he shows up on set after a long hard day of work with vegan cinnamon rolls. You know, the basic necessities. “I like whoever I'm with to constantly tell me they love me and that I look beautiful because I do the same. I am a very mushy person, and if I see something or you look good, I will never shy away from saying it out loud. And I want whoever I'm with to do the same, be very vocal. Tell me that you love me. Tell me what you love about me because I'm doing the same for you because that's just the person I am.”
Until she meets her match she’s married to the game, and for now, that seems to be perfect matrimony.
Credit: Derek Blanks
On stage at the 2021 American Music Awards, Chlöe solidified her position as a force to be reckoned with. It was a full-circle moment. In 2012, bright-eyed and baby-faced Chloe and Halle would walk onto the set of The Ellen Degeneres Show and blow the audience away as they bellowed out their future mentor’s song. Ellen would present the sisters with tickets to attend the AMAs, assuring them that they would be back and had a promising future. Nine years later, Chlöe descends from the sky cloaked in a snow-white cape and matching midriff-baring bodysuit for her debut performance. It’s the first time she’s graced the stage of the very award show that she was once an audience member of.
As she shakes and shimmies and boom kack kacks out her eight counts, it’s clear that she’s in her element. Just like her VMA performance a couple of months prior, and the many more stages she’ll continue to grace, she brings an energy that has earned her comparisons to the beloved Queen Bey herself. An honorable statement, considering few R&B songstresses are getting accolades for their entertainment capabilities. It’s on these very stages, in front of hundreds of astonished eyes and millions more glued to their televisions at home, that she tells me she feels most sexy. Powerful, even.
But off stage, it’s a different story.
It’s more than just the commentary about her image and media-flamed rumors that get to her. Mentally, she’s in competition with herself. The desire to be the best burns at the back of her mind with every performance, every production, and every time she steps into the booth. Before, she could share the weight of this burden with her sister. Being a part of a duo meant she could turn to Halle for quiet confirmation and encouragement without a word being exchanged. But lately stepping on the stage means stepping out on her own. And despite being a breathtaking, five-time Grammy-nominated star, Chlöe doesn’t escape the reality that sometimes we can be our own worst critics.
Over the last year, she’s been coming to terms with who she is on her own while overcoming the fear of failing to become who she’s destined to be. While the world waits to see how Chlöe wins, the real triumph is in every day that she chooses herself and continues to walk in her purpose. “I don't really have anything all figured out, honestly. But what I try to do, a lot of prayer. I talk to God more and I just try to do things that calm my mind down and just breathe.”
To whom much is given, much will be required. She’s been chosen to walk this path for a reason. Once she fully embraces that everything she’s meant to be is already inside of her, she’ll be an unstoppable force. “My grandma, Elizabeth, she just passed away and my middle name is her [first] name. So I feel like I truly have a responsibility to live up to her legacy that she's left on this earth. I hope I can do that.”
There’s no doubt that she will. With a role in The Fighting Temptations at three years old, a million-dollar record deal, a main role on five seasons of Grown-ish, five Grammy nominations, a number one solo record in Urban and Rhythmic Radio, a debut solo album, and starring roles in recently released movies Praise Thisand Swarm (just to name a few), Chlöe’s certainly already made her mark, and she’s just getting started.
Photographer & Creative Director: Derek Blanks
Executive Producer: Necole Kane
Co-Executive Producer: EJ Jamele
Producer: Erica Turnbull
Digitech: Chris Keller
DP: Alex Nikishin
Gaffer: Simeon Mihaylov
Photo Assistant: Chris Paschal
2nd Photo Assistant: Tyler Umprey
Features Editor: Kiah McBride
Special Projects: Tyeal Howell
Hair: Malcolm Marquez
Makeup: Yolonda Frederick
Fashion Styling: Ashley Sean Thomas
For More: Cover Story: Issa Rae Comes Full Circle
More Women Are Taking The 'Girlfriend' Title & Exclusivity Off The Table In Dating — Here's Why
Nearly a decade ago, Chris Rock famously coined the phrase, "Men are only as faithful as their options." And as if to be a vexing prophecy, the concept provokes an all too familiar frustration within the dating scene to this day: havingtoo many headaches and not enough options.
Ask any single woman in their mid-twenties or early thirties navigating the trenches of their love life, and you’ll be met with the disappointments of failed situationships and lack of commitment. While on the other end, men seem to freely date a roster of quality women without a single care about the emotional rubble they leave behind.
It begs the question of whether men have known all this time that finding “the one” all comes down to a numbers game.
Felicia Gloria, a social commentator and YouTuber from Toronto, Canada, thinks so.
After a breakup with her long-term boyfriend and a few years of dating in her late twenties, Felicia came to the realization that the system of modern dating was no longer serving her. “I was meeting guys who would be interested in me initially, we’d date for a while, and it wouldn't go anywhere,” she tells xoNecole. “I was just sick of becoming attached to these men and then going through the pain of breaking up.”
The cycle of micro-breakups caused her to alter her approach to dating, one that was rid of emotional attachment, fantasy, and aimless hookups — a method she calls “rotational dating.”
"Rotational dating is when you don't date one person at a time. You date multiple people until someone gives you what it is that you are looking for," she explains. While every woman's end goal in dating may differ from babies to boyfriends and bills being paid, Felicia's happy ending starts with a ring.
Meaning, the 'girlfriend' title is off the table, there's no exclusivity, and you date multiple men at a time until one promises to have your hand in marriage. "If you do want marriage and you don't want to have your time wasted, there is no reason for you to go through a trial period with a man as a girlfriend," she says.
Radical? Some may believe it to be, but with the state of the dating market being where it stands, a shift could be necessary.
"I feel like traditional dating benefits men more than it benefits women because men are not on the same crunch for time," she shares. "So by them being able to have a girlfriend, they get to have sex, companionship, and all the benefits that they would have in having a wife. Meanwhile, women their age are trying to settle down."
Thomas Barwick/Getty Images
But dating with the intention of marriage isn’t a new concept. Many women find it more beneficial to date with the goal of long-term commitment over short-term gratification. And with this shift in mindset, women could regain a sense of balance so that their romantic life becomes less about how they can find their soulmate in every man they meet and more about vetting suitable partners they’d like to spend the rest of their life with.
“Women have been conditioned and programmed to not do this because it disempowers them. If they had all this power and were engaging with multiple men, it would mean that men would have to step up to win a woman’s attention,” says one TikTok dating coach.
Since rotational dating leads with the intention of receiving a proposal in order to sign on for full exclusivity, it’s normal to find that some men won’t always be enthusiastic to get with the program. But as men naturally fall by the wayside, the ones whose intentions align with yours should then be prioritized.
“The most fundamental thing to vet for is if this person wants to marry you. And the only way to know if a person wants to marry you is if they propose to you, they could say anything. When men love women, they will propose,” Felicia says. “You have to be willing to accept that a lot of guys are going to say ‘no’ to you because of this. And a lot of guys are going to think you're absolutely wretched, and maybe some women will as well.”
While it may seem extreme to make such a drastic shift in your approach to dating, it could be an option that may serve you in your love life if your current approach just isn’t working. When you reach a certain age and stage of life, you begin to reanalyze what’s serving you and where there could be an adjustment. And if your long-term goal is to be married or you just don’t have any more talking stages left in you, could it really hurt to seek a ring over, say… endless coffee dates?
“I think the failure of an engagement is actually a success of rotational dating because it shows that you did what it took to get to that certain point,” Felicia says. “At least you can look at them and say, ‘You know what? It wasn't meant to be, but we gave it our best shot.”
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Featured image by Dean Mitchell/Getty Images