Born into the world of entertainment, Deja Riley is a star in her own right. And if her last name sounds familiar, it is because she is the daughter of legendary producer and King of New Jack Swing, Teddy Riley. But rather than rely on her father's connections and last name, Deja chose to forge her own path into the entertainment industry. Going from dancing professionally with the likes of Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, and the queen herself, Beyoncé, to now becoming one of the most sought-after MIRROR home fitness trainers, a lululemon global ambassador, and the creator of her own fitness brand, the Sweaty Smiles Squad.
In an exclusive with xoNecole, Deja opens up about her professional dance background, transitioning into a career in fitness, being an advocate for Black people in the fitness industry, and the importance of 'Deja Dailies' to her self-care routine.
xoNecole: Let's first get into your dance background. How long have you been a dancer and how did you begin dancing for some of our faves?
Deja Riley: Dancing is actually something that I've always done. My parents put me in dance at the age of three so it's always been a huge part of my life. Once I started competitively dancing at 12, I started taking it more seriously. When I moved to LA at the age of 19, my first dance job was working for Laurieann Gibson as her assistant. She was a huge mentor who gave me my first celebrity gig which was on Dancing with the Stars with Lady Gaga.
Since then, I have danced for Britney Spears, J.Lo, Nicki Minaj, Katy Perry, and the list goes on and on and on. So it's something that will always be a passion of mine. And I think that that is why I love dance fitness so much. It's because I get to incorporate both my passion for wellness and then my passion for dance as well.
xoN: What made you decide to transition into the health and fitness space?
DR: I've just always had this inclination to move my body. I love movement of all kinds. It varies from yoga to HIIT workouts. I love kickboxing. I love boxing. So at the age of 27 or 28, I was transitioning out of the dance industry. I remember being on the football field at Super Bowl 50, dancing behind Beyoncé with all of the glitz and glamour and lights. And I still felt small. I felt like I was not enough. And my mental health is important. So when I started feeling that way, I knew that it was time to shift. It was time to switch gears into something a lot more fulfilling for not just my body, but also my spirit and my mind.
It took six months to a year for me to fully make the transition. But I had already been working out a lot so I decided that I wanted to lean into fitness even more. At first, I was like, maybe I'll do some fitness modeling. Then I was like, maybe I'll go into personal training. And I landed in group fitness where I started my fitness journey as a leader.
"I remember being on the football field at Super Bowl 50, dancing behind Beyoncé with all of the glitz and glamour and lights. And I still felt small. I felt like I was not enough. And my mental health is important. So when I started feeling that way, I knew that it was time to shift."
xoN: As a Black woman in the fitness industry, what hurdles have you had to overcome?
DR: That's a great question. Representation is so important. Especially because when I was a little girl, I didn't have very many examples of that. But we have more today. And it is up to trainers like me and other, Black and brown women to continue to pave the way and show our young Black women that you can lead a healthy and happy life. I think that is part of my mission, as a trainer, as an advocate, as an activist. I take that responsibility very, very seriously. In terms of obstacles that I've had to conquer, it goes back to the very beginning of my journey as a dancer.
I was oftentimes faced with this idea of tokenism. Like there can only be one of us in the group, or there can only be one of us on the platform. And that's not true. Combating that narrative is so important. It's not competing, it's about sisterhood. When negotiating my contract for lululemon and MIRROR, I had to seek advice from other mentors in other industries because I didn't know anyone within our industry to help me navigate that. So now mentoring people that come after me is very important. I currently work with an organization called Fit For Us which advocates, supports, and continues to push the agenda forward for Black wellness and fitness professionals. That is near and dear to my heart.
I've done things like fireside chats, one-on-ones, and being transparent about fair wages and what other Black fitness professionals should look out for in their contracts. I think it is important that we continue to band together and teach those that come after us on progressing and pushing forward. And that's what I'm on a mission to continue to do.
"In terms of obstacles that I've had to conquer, it goes back to the very beginning of my journey as a dancer. I was oftentimes faced with this idea of tokenism. Like there can only be one of us in the group, or there can only be one of us on the platform. And that's not true. Combating that narrative is so important. It's not competing, it's about sisterhood."
xoN: As the daughter of super-producer Teddy Riley, what was that journey like making a name for yourself and not relying on your father?
DR: I think what is often perceived by the public is that I got to where I am, because of my dad, and it's quite the opposite. We can never escape the name. My siblings and I work very hard. We all have different careers in different industries. And we all do our best to let our work and our character speak for themselves. My dad instilled in each one of us a very strong work ethic. So it was never an option to only lean on my last name. I always had to work for everything that I had.
When I was in the dance industry, I had to audition just like all of these other dancers and work for the job. My dad wasn't making phone calls to choreographers or artists for me to get the job. But I think that I do have the privilege and the honor of being able to get industry and career advice from somebody like him. He has paved the way for so many in the music industry, and I'm hoping to do the same in the fitness industry.
xoN: How do you prioritize yourself and approach self-care in your busy life and the different titles you juggle day-to-day?
DR: I make self-care a priority every day. I couldn't put out radiant, joyful energy in the world if I didn't start with me first. I use my 'Deja Dailies' -- my own internal assessment I roll through -- to set the tone for my day. I meditate first thing in the morning and take time to read and journal. I usually get into my favorite book of the month, read articles that challenge my brain or inspire me and then take time to journal and take into account feelings that I need to get out on paper and release.
I make it a priority to get nourishment into my body, which could be through food, music, or movement, so I find space to dance or run, or whatever I need that day to feed my soul. I make sure to intentionally set the pace of my days; even if that means going to bed early or waking up earlier, ultimately I do what's necessary to be my best self each day.
"I make self-care a priority every day. I couldn't put out radiant, joyful energy in the world if I didn't start with me first... I make it a priority to get nourishment into my body, which could be through food, music, or movement, so I find space to dance or run, or whatever I need that day to feed my soul."
xoN: What are some sustainable lifestyle changes that people can incorporate into their lives?
DR: So I'm going to give a little bit of motivational advice, and that is you have to do something that you love. If you don't find what resonates with your heart, you're eventually going to quit doing it. There are so many ways to move [your body]. Also, "Start where you are, use what you have, and do what you can."
That's actually a quote from Arthur Ashe. I think we oftentimes forget that he, like many others, had to start somewhere too. So I go back to that phrase often. And if you get overwhelmed, from looking at the entire staircase, just focus on one step, focus on being present.
For more of Deja Riley, follow her on Instagram @dejariley.
Featured image courtesy of Deja Riley
I think it's fair to say that most of us long to reach that place where the money resides, especially in the present times when life is so uncertain and people are likely to lose their jobs at any given moment. On the other hand, perhaps thanks to the plethora of entrepreneurs that document their journeys on social media, there's the sense that abundant financial wealth seems more accessible now than it ever has before. With that said, despite all the step-by-step guides to becoming rich available on the market, we can still hear the same question echoing in our heads: How do I get to the bag, though?
Well, apparently, it's in the mind, chicas. It all happens in our minds first.
The mind is a powerful tool that, depending on how we choose to use it, has the power to make or break us. This is a fact that the bomb business owners I had the opportunity to interview as part of this feature said to have learned the hard way while on the path to acquiring their Boss badges. The four ladies got real on the struggles that they've faced in the past which almost prevented them from becoming who they are today, the mindset shifts that helped overcome them, and more.
Befriending Fear To Unlock a World of Luxury
Image courtesy of Candace Junée
For the longest, I followed the 'American dream.' I studied mechanical engineering in undergrad, received my MBA by the age of 23, and transitioned into a job in Corporate America [and] began earning six figures. However, despite all the benefits of working that job, I knew after a little time that it wasn't what I wanted to do forever. Corporate America, I felt, deprived me of being the master of my own time. My time was theirs and I had little to no say on that.
Many times, I found myself wiping my tears because I had to work extra hours or on the weekends to complete the tasks that I was asked to do at the last minute, all while my personal life and loved ones were waiting on me. When September 2017 came, the moment finally came for me to reclaim my freedom. Although I was deathly afraid and almost talked myself out of it, I decided to quit my job and pursue my dreams.
Fear, I must say, is the companion that's been following me throughout this whole journey from giving up on a six-figure salary to building my own six-figure company. It's still there, to be honest, but I've learned how to tame it.
In the beginning, I feared wandering in the unknown. While we do know what we decide to walk away from, there's no certainty that what we'll find on our path will be any better. And then, once I became my own boss, the fear that my finances would never advance as much as my career did quickly took over me.
A year before taking this leap of faith, I launched Epic Fab Girl, "a community for women entrepreneurs who want to build profitable brands and grow their faith." The latter initially started as a blog but after I quit, I had to figure out a way to monetize it to generate revenues. On top of that, in January 2018, I launched my own marketing agency. I wanted to offer my target audience coaching services and digital courses to help them scale their businesses to six figures. Funny thing is, I was nowhere near earning such an amount of money myself, even after giving my business more than a year to grow and flourish.
While my clients were getting the desired results, on my end, I was struggling financially; I faced difficulties paying my bills, my car had been repossessed and I'd received foreclosure papers on my home as a Christmas present. Earning six figures has never been a requirement for me, but it was somewhat mandatory if I wanted to maintain the level of comfort I was living in. All of which ultimately had me contemplating [whether or not] to go back to Corporate America. However, while it's a move that my entourage encouraged me to make, I never received any signs from God that meant this was what He wanted for me. So, as a woman of faith, I continued walking the path that I was already on.
As soon as 2020 rolled around and the pandemic hit, that's when everything changed for the better. Within the first semester of the year, my revenues reached six figures for the first time—which wouldn't have happened had I decided to take some steps back or had I simply not shifted my mindset to believe that my services are worth the luxury price point.
Image courtesy of Candace Junée
It probably wouldn't have happened either if I hadn't invested in a coach to help me make the shift on top of using affirmations and visualization to help me own my abilities and brilliance when I'm doubting.
Here again, fear made me doubt whether I was making the right decision or not because I wasn't fully convinced that my audience would pay those prices—although some of my clients were already paying me four figures monthly for some of the services that I offer. But because I'd managed to reach a level of self-confidence high enough to recognize that I was excellent at what I was doing and understand that my financial situation was only the consequence of me undercharging for my services, I was ready for those who want to work with me to pay premium prices.
The best thing was to realize that I wasn't insane for believing that numbers don't necessarily throw people off. Quite the contrary, they attract the right clients, the kind that can afford your expertise, and therefore make a way for money to flow to you easily.
Wherever you find yourself in your journey, fear is going to rear its ugly head. To me, it's a sign that you're on the right path. You've probably read somewhere that, "If your dreams don't scare you, they're not big enough." I believe that it couldn't be more true. Be willing to bet on yourself and know your value. Trust that anything is possible.
Follow Candace on Instagram @candacejunee.
Unlearning Scarcity To Discover Absolute Abundance
Image courtesy of Chris Bible
One of the biggest personal breakthroughs I've experienced thus far is realizing the vital value of unlearning. Unlearning the things that hold you back is just as important as learning new [things]. It's necessary to be successful and unlock your potential.
I was a mother at the age of 16 and was raised by a single mother solely responsible for five children. Needless to say, I had to unlearn the scarcity mindset engraved in my head from childhood. Becoming a mother before I became a woman also played a major role in the endless struggles that prevented me from exploring the boss lady hibernating within. Like many, I didn't have a direct example of entrepreneurship; I was raised to play safe and to think that financial stability was something that only Corporate America could offer.
With age and an evolved self-awareness, I began to take risks and explore opportunities I normally wouldn't as a way to overcome those struggles.
In 2012, I relocated from Los Angeles to Arizona after being laid off from a corporate position that I occupied for five years. This move that I considered to be bold truly cultivated the opportunity for me to discover what my passion was. Thanks to Arizona's low cost of living, I was able to quit the new job that I'd found after working there for a year to live off of savings and explore revenue-generating opportunities which I'd hoped would unveil my purpose and passion. Moment of transparency, I must give credit to my supportive husband and his steady income. Without him, I wouldn't have been able to do so.
I tried fashion blogging and freelance writing for local publications. I even dabbled in fashion event production. Although all of that was fun, it wasn't what ignited the fire in me, which is truly what I was seeking. After many failed attempts, I found myself enrolled in a lash extension training class—a $1,300 investment. My lash artist at the time encouraged me to do so because I'd always ask her thousands of questions about how she did mine. Unexpectedly, this training class is where I found my spark.
Back in the day, I wasn't aware of all the doors that would open from just trying something new.
Image courtesy of Chris Bible
Never would I have thought that I'd one day run my own business, let alone work in the beauty industry. But it turned out that lashing was a service that quickly led to the creation of my own training academy and a full-fledged lash product line.
Seeing the revenue that I was generating is partly what helped break the scarcity mindset that I earlier mentioned I was suffering from. What was truly life-changing, I'd say, was practicing daily affirmations as well as investing in a mentor, Pauleanna Reid for instance, salon staff and marketing experts. This is what truly propelled me to my current level of success and showed me that taking control of your daily rituals on top of having an organized process for goal-setting is the difference between having a side hustle and running a six-figure business.
A boss, in my world, is a leader. She has clear morals and values, yet balances that with an attitude that gets ish done by any means necessary. Sacrifice, hard work, and patience are the ingredients to achieve success.
I didn't reach boss status before I made countless mindset shifts, alleviated excuses, welcomed uncertainty with confidence, and followed an unorthodox schedule. Most importantly, I had to embrace that I was worthy and capable of reaching a certain level of success and that it could be done all on my own. Of course, some of these shifts were easier to implement than others, while some were made out of necessity. The hardest changes dealt with inner work and self-love. I struggle with imposter syndrome and reminding myself that I am worthy is a constant fight. Having to embrace who you're meant to be can be frightening but growth never comes from comfort; it thrives in the newest version of ourselves.
Follow Chris on Instagram @sheluvslashes.
When Failure Serves as an Expensive Stepping Stone to Success
Image courtesy of Miranda Mader
I had a huge mindset shift in my early 30s when I launched a business that failed—but from which I recovered. That experience taught me a ton from bringing a dream to fruition to pivoting and iterating.
Five years or so ago, I launched a business with two friends and partners whose purpose was to encourage college students, particularly HBCUs students, to travel the world. My friends and I who are all HBCU grads have had the opportunity to travel abroad when we were younger and being aware of the benefits of doing so, our desire was to give that opportunity to an audience that didn't have the same ability as we did.
We made a ton of mistakes during the launching process. We firmly believed that this project would be the solving of an issue, however, we didn't succeed to shed light on the said issue in a way that resonated with our target audience. We failed to properly grab their attention. And then, we launched too big, way too big—and we actually paid for it.
Looking back, that situation was ironic considering that prior to that, I'd spent a significant amount of time teaching as a product manager—and now as a product management career coach and business coach to women of color entrepreneurs—to actually not do this [launching too big]. It's always best to start small and test your audience first, which is a fact that I was proven once again when I later found myself launching another venture with a pair of two other friends.
For years, we'd casually played a game about dating deal breakers during our girls' nights and wondered if it would be commercially viable. We wanted to create it and then sell it to the public. However, despite how good we thought this idea was, having learned from my past mistakes the hard way, I made it clear from the start that spending any money was out of the question for me; an announcement that caused my friends to glance at me with a confused stare stating that it would therefore not be feasible. But I knew we would figure something out. And we did.
We managed to come up with the simplest launching strategy which cost us the bare minimum but enabled us to maximize our success.
Image courtesy of Miranda Mader
To introduce the game to our audience and test both, we decided to organize a small gathering with our friends. The plan was to play with them so they could see how much fun it is and therefore potentially turn those friends into customers. As for the cards' prototype, my partners and I had opted for at-home printing, a cheap and efficient solution. When the ladies validated our concept that night, we were given the green light to start the next step of our launching process: social media promotion. There again, we'd only invested a few dimes in marketing, just enough to get a decent number of customers to pre-order the deck and allow the real production of our card game to finally begin. We suddenly had the cash to order inventory to cover the pre-orders and more, without taking a hit upfront.
While my initial attempt at entrepreneurship was a complete failure, the lessons that I've learned from our mistakes [not building proper brand awareness and launching too big] are the main reasons why my other partners and I managed to turn this second endeavor into a complete success. I told them that I wouldn't risk losing any more money and adopting such a sales strategy that spared us from buying in bulk without being sure whether we'd sell allowed me to honor my vow.
As I previously briefly mentioned, I now work as a business and career coach. I've been self-employed for approximately two years now, and the services that I offer allow me to generate a six-figure revenue. I believe it's worth noting that the journey hasn't been linear and didn't come without low-grade anxiety. Self-doubt was also ubiquitous; the "will-I-be-able-to-sustain-this-long-term" fear was real. But the thing that I did and which today allows me to say that I'm living a life beyond my dreams was pairing my ability to execute, my vivid imagination, and Godly faith. It's been equal parts of each: envisioning an outcome, believing that it's available to me—which has been difficult because as a young girl, I hadn't met many black women entrepreneurs who independently monetized their talent for the personal and professional benefit of others—, and creating and executing a plan to achieve.
Shifting from fear to possibility has gotten easier over time. I equate it to the first time you tackle a small fear. It's nerve-wracking at first but through repeated actions, it becomes a part of your muscle memory.
Follow Blair on Instagram @blairpres.
Learning How To Cope With Introversion and Impostor Syndrome
Image courtesy of Caroline Beffa Photography
My name is Bola Sokunbi, I'm the founder and CEO of Clever Girl Finance, "a mission-driven financial empowerment platform aimed at providing women with the right products and services as well as financial guidance." I'm also a super introverted individual who happens to suffer from impostor syndrome, all of which can be a tad bit problematic when you have high professional ambitions. I wish I could say that these feelings fade away with time and experience, but they don't. However, what the former and the latter did help with was to figure out my coping mechanisms.
Before I started my business, I remember how much of a struggle it was for me to make myself seen and heard when I found myself in important rooms. Instead of being as aggressive as my colleagues were in the pursuit of coveted promotions, I was trying to stay as quiet and as little as possible. I was unable to position myself for further opportunities—and had my advisor not convinced me that the founder of a brand is as important as the brand itself, my inner struggles would've probably prevented my company from growing as well.
One of my biggest challenges was to believe that my story—the story of how I managed to save $100,000, for instance—and accomplishments are valuable enough to be shared with the world. The question that would always pop up in my head was, "Who are you to actually say these things?" When I finally had the guts to put it out two years after the launch of my business, it turned out it became a huge anchor in terms of brand awareness. The exposure my story was given by other media outlets showed me that my fears of being judged were unfounded for people were actually inspired by it, and it also made me realize that what I'm doing is bigger than me.
When I first launched Clever Girl Finance, I used to decline all public speaking appearances and big events that would make me the focal point. Now, because my mindset shifted to thinking of purpose before self and I've learned how to cope with them, I'm able to seize those opportunities.
My secret when it comes to surviving being an introvert plus impostor syndrome as a business owner is to step out of my comfort zone when I need to and step back into it when I can.
When I step out of it, I prepare by repeating affirmations out loud, hyping myself up. I look for an accountability partner, whether it's a friend or my husband so that I have someone to push me and make sure that I do whatever it is that I'm supposed to do. And then, once it's done, I allow myself to rest. Keyword: rest.
Image courtesy of Caroline Beffa Photography
I came to realize that being an introvert was so much of a struggle for me—not just as a professional but in my daily life as well—because I never took the time to recover after I do an event. Or a video. Or a webinar. Basically, anything that puts me in a place where I'm surrounded by a lot of people.
By not giving myself time to recover, I was just compounding the effect of how much I disliked being out there and being the face of my business. But when I allow myself to step back into my comfort zone and sit there in silence for as long as I need to, I feel rejuvenated and motivated enough to go out and do it again.
Since I discovered the benefits that this technique has on me, 'recovery day' made it to my weekly calendar. It usually occurs on Fridays and to make it possible, I hired a team to help me alleviate the work, take the pressure off of me and allow me to hide for a short amount of time. My staff has been the best at pointing out when I need them to take specific tasks off my plate. Because one thing about introverts, when they don't feel like doing something, that's when a whole nonessential delay game begins and time gets wasted, which is a fortune that as business owners, we cannot afford to lose.
On top of my team, I can also count on my three advisors to help me to be my best self. These ladies, whom I consider my sisters and aunties in my head, make sure to speak life and words of encouragement into me. They also make me uncomfortable, but I like it because the discomfort is private. It's not happening on the public stage, but one thing that's for sure is that it prepares me to stand with confidence in front of my public.
As I said earlier, impostor syndrome and introversion are unfortunately not easy to get rid of—provided it's possible. For me, these are uneasy feelings I'll always have to deal with and I can tell from experience that they evolve with each level that you reach throughout your journey. But there are going to be times when you'll have to tell them to sh*t up because you have work to do. You have a purpose to serve—and recovery day is coming soon anyway, so you can do it.
Follow Bola on Instagram @clevergirlfinance.
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Featured image courtesy of Candace Junée
Originally published on February 19, 2021
With all the talk of inflation, heightened interest rates, and a recession looming, it’s easy to feel overwhelmed, especially after pushing through the hardships of a pandemic. If you can find inspiration and motivation to keep pushing through, just take a cue from someone whose mantra screams empowerment and fortitude no matter what life throws at us as Black women.
"We had a conference [recently] and one of our speakers said ‘You are your own economy.’ And I’m of the mindset, after working with coaches and being around people who are moving heavy in their industries, that we are our own economy," said Makeda Smith, CEO of Savvy Chicks In Real Estate, a Plainfield, IL-based marketing agency that offers community, events, coaching, and resources for women in the industry. "The economy may say that we’re looking at increased prices, but what are you going to do to meet the challenge?"
Women are finding financial freedom and empowerment through pursuing careers and businesses in real estate, representing 65% of realtors. (And it's notable that single women, in particular, are leading in homeownership, at 19%, compared with 9% of single men.)
Smith has built a lucrative career in real estate, becoming a multi-million-dollar producer and top-seller in her market. "It's from my hard work that I already put in the industry, being a top producer, that I’ve made an impact in the industry. Now, I’m able to take that same drive and shift it to help women in the business.
She is now working to ensure that Black women in the industry are able to leverage all opportunities to not only build wealth for themselves but also for those in their communities as well.
We talked more with Smith about how she got started, what has kept her passionate about the industry after almost two decades in the business, and how women can tap into a lucrative career despite the current economic climate:
Carl Ankrum of The Media MD
xoNecole: How did you get started working in real estate?
Makeda Smith: I got licensed in 2004, and it was after my husband had pestered me to go and get my license. He thought it would be a good opportunity for me to start a new career. I was coming out of [a career in] customer service. It was a completely different industry, and I wasn’t thinking about real estate until he pushed me. Eighteen years later, I’m still a licensed agent.
We launched our own brokerage in 2011. Then, in 2017, I launched my marketing agency to help women in real estate build their brands. It just came full circle.
xoN: What keeps you going after so many years in the industry, especially with the housing market's ups and downs?
MS: In the early years, [I had] the ability to help a family or an investor to purchase and sell real estate and have that be part of their wealth portfolio. Now, I’m passionate about helping the agents who have just started out in business or those who have been in business but [are] stuck and can’t get over a certain revenue hump. We have the inflation rate and gas prices are high, but people will always need a place to live and there's always opportunities.
Let's say last year, I was working with people who had a price point to where they couldn't get over showing people homes that may have been at $150,000. Those homes are $200,000 and $250,000, so a lot of the agents’ incomes are going up because the property values are moving up. It’s not like 2008 [during the Great Recession].
Carl Ankrum of The Media MD
xoN: It's good you mentioned that because some women might be a bit apprehensive about getting into real estate due to what's going on in the economy right now.
MS: If you’re a new agent coming into the business, it’s no different than when I got into it in 2004. You have to find your lane and you have to go hard in that lane. You have to have a strategy and a plan. Then you have to have a made-up mind that 'I'm going to go for this.’ Figure out how you are going to carve your own space within the saturated market. It was saturated in 2004, it was saturated in 2008, and it’s saturated now.
"If you’re a new agent coming into the business, it’s no different than when I got into it in 2004. You have to find your lane and you have to go hard in that lane. Figure out how you are going to carve your own space within the saturated market. It was saturated in 2004, it was saturated in 2008, and it’s saturated now."
A lot of people are saying that these are times that we will find people leaving the industry, but then you will find out what agents are really made of — those who stay in the industry, who find a way around the noise and distractions.
xoN: How do you carve a niche, though? What actions did you take?
MS: I did not sell traditional real estate. I said, 'Okay, how can I get more listings faster so that I am not doing as much legwork to find new clients?' I began to study and figure out how I could work with a bank like Chase, Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac who already had a bulk of listings and say hey I’d like to be your go-to agent. If you have any foreclosures in your area, I’d love to be your broker on that.' And that’s how I became a top producer. In 2007, when I made top-earner status, I had to bring my husband on in because I couldn't handle all of it myself.
Then we both made at least $100,000 each. We had never ever seen anything like that in our lifetime.
Carl Ankrum of The Media MD
xoN: Some of us struggle with networking and forging relationships. How were you able to do so with the housing and banking institutions?
MS: It's not as easy as people say. I went to a conference in Dallas and it was geared toward businesses that had assets. I said, 'If I could just get in front of them, give them my pitch, and bring them what I have to the table, let’s see if they’ll give me a chance.' I just started showing up at all of these different conferences. I’d hit up reps over and over again. The one thing I would say that worked is that time when I followed up with Freddie Mac over and over. They kept telling me no.
Then the rep finally came through with that yes. She gave me 50 listings that [they] can give you at one time and I was blown away. I finally heard that yes. I showed up where the people were. If it was me paying for a plane ticket plus a conference ticket and making sure I had money for food even when I was low on cash, I made that investment to show up where I needed to be for my ideal client. That’s how I became a top producer and my husband became a top producer.
"I showed up where the people were. If it was me paying for a plane ticket plus a conference ticket and making sure I had money for food even when I was low on cash, I made that investment to show up where I needed to be for my ideal client. That’s how I became a top producer and my husband became a top producer."
I always say, 'Stop being timid about your business.' Walmart is not timid about selling you their products or putting a commercial in your face. Target is not timid about helping you get into their stores to spend more of your money, so why are we timid when it comes to our own businesses? I don’t care if you are in your first $10,000 or half a million, we cannot afford to be timid about the businesses in which God has given us.
My mission is to help women in real estate have multiple streams of income that not only depends upon real estate transactions but you have digital products, courses Ebooks, and own paid events. Those are things that don’t teach you in real estate school and it's something I wish someone had done that for me. That keeps me going.
For more of Makeda, follow her on Instagram @makedasmithceo.
Featured image by Carl Ankrum of The Media MD
It’s always great to be able to see power in motion, and the more we see this, the more we can embody it in our own lives. Black women executives in entertainment oftentimes showcase this in more ways than one—leveling up while innovating, day by day, a single step at a time.
In the case of DeDe Brown, senior vice president of multicultural marketing and publicity at Paramount Pictures, you've got a living-and-breathing lesson in how to succeed in the entertainment industry. She is a powerful woman who’s using her role as an executive to not only push her own boundaries, but to also apply leadership for change.
She balances duties of overseeing campaigns for some of the entertainment powerhouse’s most successful projects and franchises (think, Jackass, Scream, Sonic, and The Lost City) with co-leading the steering committee of Paramount’s Project Action initiative, an effort driven by the global marketing and distribution team’s advocacy of social justice for Black and brown people around the world.
Add to that her role as the co-host of Blk on the Scene, a podcast that brings the contributions of Black creatives in the entertainment industry to the forefront and does its part to change the narrative on authentic representation.
And check a few more notches on her resume: her work in strategic leadership and boss moves are evident in her work with blockbuster films including Bad Boys for Life, Spiderman: Into the Spider-Verse, and Godzilla: King of the Monsters and TV hits like The Neighborhood, South Side, and God Friended Me. Before that, she served as a freelance consultant in fashion, sports, and media and was even the director of special events and PR at the New York Post.
Her early career path was one of twists and turns—an adventurous dance with a trio of chance, smarts, and fortitude. xoNecole caught up with the busy executive to talk about how she landed into her current role and the importance of recognizing that one’s path to success doesn’t always have to resemble anything close to cookie-cutter.
Early Days of Powerful Pivoting
The University of Alabama grad studied broadcast journalism only to graduate and decide that the career path just wasn’t what she really wanted to do at the time. “I’ve always had this interest in entertainment, and so [it was about] just not knowing what to do when I got out of school,” she recalls.
“I was thinking about starting in small markets, covering the cat stuck in the tree or a house fire, but I couldn’t look into my magic ball and realize how quickly the world was going to change with social media. I also didn’t have any mentorship or any sort of plan or path of, ‘Oh I should figure out this whole entertainment thing.’ It took like three or four years for me to really find my way.”
Brown took on jobs like waitressing and working in retail, and it was while waiting tables at a popular eatery that her life and perspective would change. At the time, there was a new themed dining experience called Planet Hollywood, a chain that would become legendary for its celebrity-connected events and marketing, and a friend recommended that she apply for a job there. (The founder, Robert Earl, is infamous for the success he had with the Hard Rock Cafe, and early investors and partners include Hollywood heavyweights like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Bruce Willis, Demi Moore, and Sylvester Stallone.)
“I had to get myself together and I just started inquiring about other things I could do. That led to me becoming the executive assistant to the PR manager and the general manager of the restaurant. This was pre-internet and social [media], [and] it was the only way people in regional markets were getting access to celebrities and talent in that whole experience. It was a wonderful introduction to the world of PR and entertainment but also [to] community relations and events. I got a really immersive and hands-on experience.”
She likes to cite "serendipity" as a major influence on the ebb and flow of her career in entertainment, but humility is also a major component, especially considering that she went from serving food to eager customers to serving big-budget campaigns and life-changing opportunities for creatives of color in Hollywood. “I do think there is some benefit to not having a plan in some way because then you’re able to take advantage of opportunities that may present themselves that were unexpected. I also presented a willingness to learn, to be a sponge, and to be super-nimble,” she adds.
Building Impact and Flourishing
As an executive, she’s a huge fan of not only “tooting your own” horn in your career, especially "as Black and brown women,” she says, but diving into personal and professional development in order to get to know your strengths and skills you could improve on.
“I was freelancing and consulting for seven years, with some success—I worked on Fashion Week and various sporting events—but I was culling it all together again without much of a plan. I learned a lot, but it was when I realized, ‘Okay, I’ve got my focus on so many different things during this freelance period, how can I narrow my focus to have more impact, a better salary, and where’s that going to take me in the next 10 years?’ That’s when I really began to hyperfocus on multicultural marketing and publicity, knowing that it was something I loved."
"I had a bit of an intro to it working in 2014 on the Get On Up campaign with Universal Pictures, and I always had in the back of my mind, again, that I loved being at the service of amplifying Black and brown voices. The more entrenched I became in multicultural publicity and marketing, the more I realized, wow, I am having an impact, I can have an impact, and how do I amplify that impact?”
Today, both in her VP role as well as her work as part of the Project Action team, whose in-action efforts include Paramount Made (an executive mentorship program that has reportedly facilitated cross-department promotions for junior staffers, the prioritizing POC-owned businesses for vendor opportunities, and the formulation of an equitable talent and intern recruiting unit), she’s able to truly tap into merging passion with profession.
“In a lot of the personal and professional development work I’ve done, I’ve realized that first I have to show up as a human being who cares about people and cares about embracing people,” she says. “The goal for me is collaboration and using our expertise, our passions, our intersectionality to come together for a common goal.”
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Featured image courtesy of DeDe Brown
If a breath of fresh air was a person, it would be Sonya Renee Taylor. Even via our Zoom call, the poet, best-selling author, and social justice advocate exudes that perfect mix of grace, intellect, and tell-it-like-it-is candor of your favorite auntie or podcast host. Taylor, who started The Body Is Not An Apology movement in 2011 and wrote The New York Times best-seller The Body Is Not An Apology: The Power of Radical Self-Love in 2018, has used her voice and platform to create a profound safe space, and drive a movement behind being unapologetically yourself as a Black woman and embracing all that comes with that journey.
Sonya has also powerfully taken on the dismantling of systems set up in the U.S. that support body-based oppression and stifle true "radical self-love," stepping beyond shame and so-called societal "norms" of what being a woman supposedly should be and into inner transformation that blossoms divinely. I had a conversation with Taylor that not only blessed my soul—and reaffirmed my own journey toward self-love— about what exactly “radical self-love” means, how concepts of body positivity have evolved—or not—and how we, as Black women, can take back our power to define womanhood on our own terms.
Courtesy of Sonya Renee Taylor
xoNecole: So, you've been a fierce advocate for 'radical' self-love, and your poetry as well as your platform have seen global recognition. You've touched so many people. How did the idea for your platform and book, 'The Body Is Not An Apology,' come about?
Sonya Renee Taylor: From a place of love. I’d asked my friend about her sexual health choices and why she wasn’t using protection with this person that I knew was a casual partner. And my friend responded very honestly–very transparently—and shared that because of her disability–she has cerebral palsy—that she felt it made it difficult already to be sexual so she didn’t feel entitled to ask this person to use a condom.
xoNecole: Oh wow...no!
SRT: And my immediate response—that I’m very clear today, was through me, not of me—I said, "Your body is not an apology. It’s not something you offer someone to say, 'Sorry for my disability.'" And those words resonated. They stuck for me. They felt like I wasn’t just sharing a message with a friend. I also was communicating something that I needed to know too, and you know, at the time I was a poet and so when something particularly compelling showed up, I wrote about it. I was going to write the poem with this refrain, “The body is not an apology.” So I wrote that poem, and I began performing it and sharing it.
I believe that language is always making things manifest, so what we speak over our lives always comes into being—good, bad, or indifferent. And so those words—the words I had written in this poem–started challenging me to look at the places where I was still living like my own body was an apology. In a small way, a few months prior, I’d taken a photo of myself—a selfie in a black corset—and I felt sexy and delicious. I also felt like I didn’t have a right to feel sexy and delicious in this fat, dark-skin body and so I hid the picture away until February 9, 2011.
"I believe that language is always making things manifest, so what we speak over our lives always comes into being—good, bad, or indifferent."
Prompted by someone who posted a photo of a plus-sized model, naked, on my Instagram page, I went and googled her quickly and one of the first ads that came up was with her in a black corset for a lingerie campaign. I just felt inspired. Why am I hiding this thing that I feel good about? What would it look like if I just posted this picture? So I posted it and asked people on Facebook, "Post a picture where you feel beautiful and powerful in your body." The next day about 30 people had tagged me in photos. I was like, ‘Maybe we just need a little space where we’re allowed to affirm ourselves and each other. So maybe I’ll start a little Facebook page and I’ll name it after this poem, and I’ll call it, ‘Your Body Is Not An Apology.’'
So, I started a Facebook page and that was 11 years ago, a New York Times best-seller-ago and a multimedia company ago.
xoNecole: That's amazing! There are a lot of women who feel like they have to dishonor themselves in order to appease a partner sexually. I love that you were that friend. Now tell me this: How has the concept of self-love evolved for you today, considering your success and considering that body positivity and self-love now seem to be trending topics. What have you seen in terms of evolution, if any?
SRT: I think that part of the reason the word ‘radical’ ended up on self-love—when I started this 11 years ago, there were less than one page of hits on the page of ‘radical self-love—it was me and one other person. [Laughs] At the time, I was really talking about body empowerment and how we honor all bodies. What’s happened over time, for me, it’s become very clear that our relationship to self-worth— to our sense of enoughness—filters into every aspect of existence. And not just our existence but everybody’s existence. This thing we think of as this very individual experience that we’re having by ourselves—in how we relate to our body—actually has global, political, and socioeconomic consequences.
‘Radical’ is so important in self-love because I want people to make the connection that I’m talking about a kind of love that changes systems, that I’m talking about a kind of love that transforms policies, that transforms institutions. I’m talking about a kind of love that transforms how we show up in the world, which consequently changes how the world exists. And I have seen, over and over again in my own life, that when I am connected to [and] moving from my own radical self-love, I am looking at how the world has said I’m supposed to experience being this fat, Black, bald, queer, neurodivergent woman—what the world says that’s supposed to mean—versus what I inherently understand what my true self knows about that, which is that each and every aspect of me is divine and that when I buy into what the system has told me to buy into about that, that I reinforce all of those negative aspects of the system.
"It’s become very clear that our relationship to self-worth— to our sense of enoughness—filters into every aspect of existence. And not just our existence but everybody’s existence. This thing we think of as this very individual experience that we’re having by ourselves—in how we relate to our body—actually has global, political, and socioeconomic consequences."
If I listen to what the world says about being a dark-skinned Black woman, I immediately become an agent of anti-Blackness. I immediately become an agent of white supremacist delusion. When I believe what the world tells me about my fat body, I immediately become an agent of fatphobia. And so, all of those systems stand because so many of us have been indoctrinated to be agents for them, knowingly and unknowingly. So, every time I tap into my own radical self-love, I divest from that job I was given, that I didn’t even know I was given, to keep furthering those systems.
And I think that that is where body positivity misses the boat because body positivity has been co-opted and turned into this incredibly apolitical thing. Body positivity was born out of the fat liberation movement of the ‘70s, which was started by queer women, disabled communities, and people of color, and it was co-opted so that white ladies could feel good in their size 14 jeans. That’s cute. I want that for people, I suppose.
I don’t want you to feel terrible about yourself, but how does that impact the wage gap for Black women? How does that stop extra-judicial killing by the police? It doesn’t, and the radical self-love I’m talking about interrupts those systems, interrupts those ideas that there are bodies that are not worthy of resources, opportunity, and life. And so, consequently, we devalue those bodies. [Transforming that system is] what radical self-love does. And to me, that’s an inherently political act.
xoNecole: So let's talk more about redefining 'woman' in that context then. Oftentimes, being a Black woman, we were raised with concepts and issues with our bodies, from our grandmas to our moms to our aunties. For me, I grew up tall and slim, so anything above a size 6 was said to be "fat" in a negative way in my family. How do we as Black women really embrace 'radical' self-love, especially considering some of the things we've been taught about ourselves?
SRT: One of the things I advocate for is that first, we have to understand where those [negative messages] come from. Oftentimes we think that we created them. Like, ‘I have this judgment about myself, this thing that popped up in my head,’ or ‘I have this judgment about myself and the boy in 8th grade gave it to me or my grandmama gave it to me.’ So we have this very centralized focus of responsibility. I encourage people to zoom the lens out and to understand that it’s an individual experience they’re having inside of a larger context of systems and structures. Your grandmother got the message that ‘fat’ was bad. Where did she get that message from?
She got it from a campaign that started in the 19th century, the late 1800s, right after the abolition of slavery, where white people needed to figure out new ways to reconstruct their power. They needed to figure out ways to reaffirm their superiority. Dieting and control of the body became that new way. And we know about this because, in the book Fearing the Black Body by Sophia Strings, she talks about the historical and racial origins of fatphobia. So that wasn’t an idea your grandma just came up with. It was an idea inside a larger system—a system we call white supremacy, inside of what I call white supremacist delusion. I don’t want to get it twisted. Inside of that system is another doll—that doll is called fatphobia. And then, inside of that system, there are communities who pass on, and become unwitting agents of that system because they’ve been told these messages.
If you can get [to] that larger level, you can recognize that these ideas are not my ideas. They are the ideas of a larger system that’s designed to control me and manipulate me, that’s designed to further marginalize and oppress me. I don’t want to be an agent of that. So, then what do I do? I start raising the consciousness and I start taking new action based off of that awareness. “Well, this is what I used to do, based on that indoctrination. What can I do now? Well, maybe I could make a little money jar, and every time I say something fatphobic about myself, I put a little something in there.” That’s my reminder to invest in myself and divest from that system.
There are small little activities we can do to help interrupt old patterns—those old stories of womanhood that often come out of those systems, but it’s important to recognize that it was the system that told us that. It’s not our authentic self. Authentic self understands our inherent worthiness.
xoNecole: A lot of us look in the mirror and see those delusions. I've never outlived the negative feelings of my Granny calling me "fat" when I gained any amount of weight. It makes you feel like you're not enough. It's taken me decades to undo the effects of that, with therapy as well. Are you an advocate of therapy as a resource to tap into that 'radical' self-love?
SRT: Absolutely. I'm a wildly unapologetic advocate of therapy. My therapist is my longest relationship. We’ve been together for 10 years. So one of the things I think particularly Black women need to give themselves permission to do is to invest in ourselves. We’ve been so conditioned to take care of everybody else—to take care of everybody else’s well-being, to look out for everyone else. And what I am a profound advocate of is that it’s of no use to anyone to give from a dwindling cup.
What I give from is my overflow and I give from my overflow for two reasons: One, what’s in my cup belongs to me. That’s how I sustain myself. So what you give is more vibrant and more beautiful from overflow. And two, I am not doing anyone any favors—I’m not actually offering the world a real gift to, like, have my backwash or the dribble at the bottom of my cup. I make sure that my cup is full first so that whatever it is I’m giving is a generous and joyful gift to the world and that, to me, relates to therapy or whatever healing modalities that we decide to undertake.
"What I give from is my overflow and I give from my overflow for two reasons: One, what’s in my cup belongs to me. That’s how I sustain myself. So what you give is more vibrant and more beautiful from overflow. And two, I am not doing anyone any favors—I’m not actually offering the world a real gift to, like, have my backwash or the dribble at the bottom of my cup. I make sure that my cup is full first so that whatever it is I’m giving is a generous and joyful gift to the world and that, to me, relates to therapy or whatever healing modalities that we decide to undertake."
First, let me learn to take good, good, good, good, good care of me. Because, one, so that I can give a fantastic instruction guide for whoever else shows up and says they want to do the job, and, two, so that when I’m offering something to the world, it never has the bitter taste of resentment and it never has the flavorlessness of exhaustion. It doesn’t have any of those qualities because it’s so full of what it is that I, first, offer myself.
Featured image courtesy of Sonya Renee Taylor
In this special Women’s History Month Boss Up series, we talk to women who are redefining what leadership looks like. They’re deciding, on their own terms, to tap into a fulfilling career, walk their own paths, and embrace the fullness of the impact of Black women when they decide to unapologetically take up space and disrupt in business.
The pandemic has had a tremendous effect on almost all aspects of life, and our careers are obviously no exception. One intriguingly empowering phenomenon within it all has been the boost in innovative and resilient leaders pursuing startups and side hustles despite the challenges.
A recent Lending Tree report indicates that 50% of millennials and 46% of Gen Zers have side hustles. Many are also turning the traditional side hustle narrative on its head, keeping their day jobs and maximizing opportunities to fulfill multi-hyphenate passions. They’re the example that you don’t have to leave a job you love to start a business. And that you might be even more successful by pursuing both professional and entrepreneurial dreams, as research also found that professionals who kept their day jobs while running a startup were 33% less likely to fail in business than their counterparts who quit their 9-to-5s.)
Melissa Carnegie is one such woman, enjoying the challenge and allure of balancing her 9-to-5 as the head of global community and communications for Cantu Beauty, with the responsibilities of building a business. And don’t call it just a side hustle. In Carnegie’s case, having a full-time job and building an enterprise keeps her invigorated and motivated. She adores both and reaps the reciprocal benefits.
Carnegie started her lifestyle blog MelissaChanel.com, as an outlet for sharing her personal style and stories of travel adventures, and of course, showcasing her massive sneaker collection. In May 2017, she launched Kicks & Fros to create a space for Black and brown women to shine among the millions of consumers behind the success of the growing $70 billion sneaker market. (And indeed, the space was more than needed, since Black consumers practically bolstered popularity and profitability booms for most if not all of the sportswear industry and have revolutionized how sneakers are created, marketed, and even resold.)
Carnegie is excited to not only help Black and brown women find their sneaker style and embrace a love for them but become a prominent figure in a very white—and very male-dominated industry. “I wasn’t seeing a lot of us— women who looked like me—on different pages that would reshare sneaker lovers or inspirational women in the sneaker community. And I knew I couldn’t be the only one who felt that way,” she says. “I’m a very small-town girl, and community is something that I’ve always had as a small child. I was like, ‘You know what? I think I need to create something. It started as an inspo page, and it grew very quickly and made me think about structuring it as a business.”
What started as an IG page has evolved into a community of more than 50,000 (from both her personal and Kicks & Fros brands) and a full-fledged business that offers opportunities for women to connect via events, custom campaigns, digital media content, and branded apparel. “You can be a boss-ass woman in the boardroom with your suit and your sneakers on, making powerful decisions. I wanted women to understand that we are in the sneaker space, we have just as much knowledge as men, and that we’re here to stay.”
A Prime Opportunity
Then Cantu came calling, she recalls. In her role at the company, she manages the hair care brand’s consumer-facing activations for events like the ESSENCE Festival, BeautyCon, and natural hair care shows. She also works with teams for ad campaigns, influencer relations, and other communications with consumers. All of this helps strengthen her entrepreneurial side, and everything becomes like a cycle of personal and professional development that benefits all parties. “My favorite part of my job is that I get to work with different creative minds, understand how people think and how they work. I also love helping women find solutions for their hair care regime.”
Carnegie adds that the team at Cantu is super-supportive of her business endeavors and has even been part of some of the events she’s thrown for her own brand. “I'm cultivating community for women in the space, and they support me 100%. If I need to take a day off, they totally understand. They’re always asking for ways to help.”
Mastering It All
Balancing the duties of both a job she loves and a business she’s passionate about requires quite a bit of planning, grace, and confidence. “As a woman in leadership, I’ve learned [it’s important to] ask for help. That’s not a bad thing. Collaborate. Work with other team members. Bring like-minded people in to take things to the next level. Time management is also something that’s big for me and that I’ve learned in leadership, especially with me having 50-11 jobs,” she says with a laugh.
To keep everything organized and work at her best for both her job and her business, Carnegie implements systems, uses apps and tech tools like Canva, Later, Asana, and Microsoft Outlook, and she practices calendar blocking to set clear boundaries for managing her time. “The most important part for me was not feeling like I had to give up on my business dreams, but I can juggle both as long as I keep up with what I’m doing and make conscious decisions about my business and what I want to happen. Just having teams, projects, and setting goals and tasks is helpful.”
Deliberate Choices, Big Wins
Standing firm in decision-making is also key for Carnegie. “It’s about using my voice and not being afraid of being headstrong and confident in [the choices] I make, and knowing that I’m making the correct decisions and sharing that with my team, especially as a woman—a Black woman,” she says. “I’ve worked my way up to now being in this amazing position with a hair care brand that I love. I believe in myself and know I’ve done the research, I have the education, and I have the background to support my decisions.”
For women who would like to advocate for themselves at their 9-to-5 in order to launch a business, Carnegie recommends not being afraid to spark that first conversation. “Just start. Share it with your team. Tell them why you’re doing it and why it’s important to you. I think your ‘why’ is very important. That will fuel you at your full-time job just like it fuels you in your business.”
And if your boss or company isn’t too keen on the idea? Owning your career and leading today requires being empowered by the choice to work for companies whose policies, practices, and missions align with your long-term goals. “I would have a sit-down discussion or meeting to see what the reasons are and to see if we could make something possible,” Carnegie adds. “If it’s something I’m really passionate about, I would try to find a position or company that respected my values and my idea of the life I wanted to create for myself, and let them know that [while] I’m still passionate about my full-time job, this is also something I’m passionate about and will do just as well.”
Featured image by Brandon Grate Photography