Would you leave a six-figure paying gig with a minimal plan and only one company you've ever worked for spanning almost two decades on your resume because you were unhappy? Well, Joyel Crawford, owner of Crawford Leadership Strategies, did just that.
After 18 years with Verizon in various management roles and a checkered bill of health from being overworked, Joyel took her transferable skills in management and turned them into a business in life and career coaching. She now warns her clients, both individual and corporate, against making the same mistakes she did and witnessed working in corporate America. I spoke with the Elon University alumna about how a woman with a Bachelor's in Psychology and a Theater minor with secret dreams of Broadway ended up in a career she felt stifled her for so long before stepping into her true destiny.
Joyel Crawford, Owner of Crawford Leadership Strategies
Through our chat, I discovered that the saying "Money and success doesn't buy happiness" was all too real in her case.
You took a job unrelated to your studies, why?
Most women in my family are [in] social services and mental health so that was a natural and safe concentration. My passion was always the creative arts, hence my theater minor – but my parents weren't supportive of that as a focus. My cousin had recently gotten a job at Bell Atlantic Mobile (now Verizon) in customer service. I wanted to get my MBA and knew the company did 100% tuition reimbursement. During my new hire orientation, they presented on their commitment to professional advancement and that's when my love of leadership clicked in. Throughout my academic career, I was very active in leadership roles and was impressed by their commitment to employee development. My main focus when I first started working at Verizon was not the actual job but obtaining my MBA.
How did you climb the corporate ladder?
Networking. Even as a customer service rep, I spoke to colleagues and managers about my goals. They liked my work ethic and personality and encouraged me to go through the ranks within the company. Within five years, I got my MBA in management. I was promoted to a national accounts manager, to a coach for new hires, to finally an HR admin. From there, I settled into being a leadership development training consultant.
When did you notice you were unhappy?
Looking back, I was never happy because I wasn't doing exactly what I loved. I overcompensated by getting promotions. My knack for leadership allowed me to co-create a new leader orientation program, which was something that came out of frustration of having employees complete eight hours of online training. We consolidated it into just two hours and through that, I certified over 100 employees through that program. At one point, I was responsible for leading development and training for 30,000 employees. But I was coming to a ceiling there.
"Looking back, I was never happy because I wasn't doing exactly what I loved. I overcompensated by getting promotions."
Did you develop an action plan?
No, I just knew that my time was coming to an end there. I was exploring different options but nothing planned out. A friend suggested that I start doing public speaking and telling my story to other professionals about how to move up the ranks within their jobs. I realized that's where my passion lied. Simultaneously, I began to get sick and later discovered it was work-related.
What was going on health-wise?
It started with insomnia. I was diagnosed with generalized anxiety disorder and depression but thanks to my theater background and being a great actress, no one knew. At home, I was miserable and crying with no motivation outside of work. I started grinding my teeth and cracked a tooth and had to get an $800 mouth guard. I was put on antidepressants and a cocktail of different drugs – one to stabilize my moods, one to put me to sleep and so on. At one point, I was singing, acting, and auditioning while working full-time. On my way to rehearsal, I had extreme abdominal pain and discovered it to be a fibroid. I had to have surgery. The process of discovering the fibroid, scheduling, and having the operation and being back at work was done within three weeks. The surgery didn't help. More fibroids developed. The final straw was when I was five minutes late for a conference call and my manager called to give me an earful while I was sick from the fibroids. I quit on the spot and explained why. He was empathetic and instead, suggested I go out on emotional and medical leave.
How’d you get through that period?
My last salary was a base of $103,500. I also had my pension, 401k, and over two consecutive months of unused vacation. I rolled my 401k into an IRA. I knew I wanted to quit and had saved enough money to survive as far as living for rent and other expenses. A year before I quit, I was contemplating what was next. My husband was consulting and suggested I do the same. I had the skill set and the education but didn't recognize it. He did. So I started Crawford Leadership Strategies in 2014.
"A year before I quit, I was contemplating what was next."
How did you start?
I invested in professional memberships for networking purposes. Thankfully, I had credentials under my belt from all of the trainings I completed at Verizon. Although I had a good amount of savings, I didn't take into account the startup costs of a business. Building a website, membership fees, additional certifications, paperwork, and even business cards added up fast. My survival money was running out within six months. Things were getting bad financially.
How bad did it get financially?
My survival money was gone and I resorted to state assistance and food stamps. I couldn't claim unemployment because I left my job voluntarily – regardless of the fact that I could have attributed it to my health and said I left for medical reasons. I couldn't be modest anymore.
How did you work to get your business booming?
Letting go of pride first and advertising to family and friends. My first paying client was a woman who my aunt was mentoring. She worked in government and desired assistance with a new career and my aunt referred me. I came up with an hourly consulting fee. She hired me for a six-hour session. Through that experience, I figured out pricing and packages because she needed me to travel to her in another state and paid for my accommodations. I ended up working with her for six months and she actually became a test client for a practicum I was doing for a certification. That snowballed into other business.
How do you feel you’ve been able to sustain your business?
The great thing about my work is that I can do it virtually so I'm not limited in the clients I can take. Because of my certifications, education, and background, I can do webinars, life coaching, and career coaching. I can build curriculum and I can facilitate programs. I have a variety of what I offer.
You gave up a six-figure salary. Do you see the return on your investment?
Yes, but I made poor investments in advertising in the beginning that cost me. Now I stick to social media and utilize my network of colleagues and clients for work. My certifications help and I'm a member of the Forbes Coaching Council. I've had a small feature in Essence Magazine and I write and coach for The Muse.
Was it worth the risk?
Absolutely. My father passed this year and one of the last things he said to me was, "If you have the chance to do what you love, then do it." I was in a career that was taxing but had skills that I loved and was able to apply them to what I do now full-time. Revenue has gone up yearly. My health is in tact and although like many, I work to find balance, I am happy!
"If you have the chance to do what you love, then do it."
How is life different now?
Before, I never went on vacation and as mentioned, cashed my vacation time out when I quit my job. Since then I've gotten married to the man of my dreams, I've been traveling, and I make time for the things I love.
What advice do you give to those looking to transition?
Put yourself out there and network. It's about who you know, that's how I've landed all of my clients dating back to my first. Stay the course and have patience. I contemplated quitting because of the financial stress but my clients encouraged me and I ultimately decided to continue my business because I refused to regress into what I'd experienced before. Know and show your value and know your WHY as it won't lead you wrong.
For more information about Joyel and her coaching business, check out her website.
Brenda Alexander is a West Philly native with a love of the 3 W's: writing, wine and Whitney Houston. When she's not working or overanalyzing life, you can catch her praising Jesus with a bomb Gospel playlist or annoying those who love her as she listens to Christmas music all year round (her fascination with the holiday even produced a Christmas book). Her work has been featured on Mayvenn's Real Beautiful blog and CurlyNikki . Follow her excursions via Instagram @trulybrenda_
Whether it was your group chat, social media feed, or your favorite media outlet covering the spectacle, I’m pretty sure you’ve come across the viral Black wedding between actress KJ Smith (Sistas, Raising Kanan) and actor Skyh Black (All the Queen’s Men, Sistas). From their grand entrance to Jay-Z, Kayne West, and Beyoncé’s song “Lift Off” to KJ’s standout dance routine and the endless celebrity appearances, it’s an addictive TikTok scroll you can’t help but delve into.
But what many people would be surprised to know is that the couple’s original wedding plan was nothing like what it grew to be. What started as her simply scrolling through posts to get ideas eventually transformed into what the internet knows now as #TheBlackExperience. In an exclusive conversation with xoNecole, KJ walked us through her planning process, the morning of her wedding, and what she thinks of the online response.
Some women have their whole wedding planned out, from the bridal gown and venue to the bridal party and playlist. However, KJ was not one of those people. “I didn’t foresee a wedding in my future,” she reveals. “I was just gonna be the boss chick, rich auntie. I didn’t force love in my life until recently. I never had an idea of what a dream wedding would look like, it was easier for me to elope.”
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
And to many people’s surprise, that was their original plan – until Skyh brought up a valid concern. He was raised by his grandmother and thought she should be at the wedding, and naturally, that led to KJ wanting her grandmother to be there as well – then her mom – and later her sister – and, you’ve gotta invite the besties too, right? From there, the guest list continued to blossom. Much like the updo and pop of color bold red lip, she wore on her special day, which was initially on her Pinterest board as a soft glam look with her hair hanging on her shoulders, KJ is okay with changing her plan if it brings her and her loved ones happiness.
So let’s get into the wedding, which took place in Malibu, CA. The first thing you should know about the celebrity couple is that they’re non-traditional. They know, and they don’t care. So, in true unconventional fashion, they shared the morning of the wedding together.
“I woke up with Skyh, we walked our dog, had black coffee, and said good morning to the people who stayed at the venue with us,” she says.
Now, it was time for hair and makeup. While she was getting glammed up, she had Black-owned McBride Sisters wine and champagne (which ties into The Black Experience theme) on deck with her mom and friends, had her besties help rework her vows, retried on every outfit (sis is very Type-A), took photos, and ended the early-celebration with prayer and meditation. It seems very non-Bridezilla, I said.
“Yeah, I was the most unbothered bride ever. Everyone was just so supportive. As entertainers, we go on red carpets all the time. We actually have a production company,” she explains. “The get-ready process was like a day at work, but with people we love the most. Being entertainers, we didn’t feel stressed at all, but my excitement was so high.”
Things moved quickly, and before she knew it, it was time to line up to walk down the aisle.
“Yeah, I was the most unbothered bride ever. Everyone was just so supportive. As entertainers, we go on red carpets all the time. We actually have a production company. The get-ready process was like a day at work, but with people we love the most. Being entertainers, we didn’t feel stressed at all, but my excitement was so high.”
KJ Smith and her bridal party
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
Since everything started with their grandmothers, the couple wanted to ensure they honored them and planned to keep an element of their wedding traditional. Although we’ve all seen the reception videos and photos online, you may have noticed visuals from the wedding itself are harder to find.
“We planned for it to be traditional, but we’re not like that, so we tried to create those moments. We jumped the broom and had a salt ceremony (where the bride and groom individually pour salt into a glass container, symbolizing their lives becoming one.) But honestly, still, nothing was traditional about it.”
She goes on to explain that her mom caught the holy ghost coming down the aisle, her glam team was on deck, and she became so nervous with excitement that she had an anxiety attack – something she struggled with for years, she explains tearfully. Her friends had to literally cheer her down the aisle because of how overwhelmed she felt until she eventually calmed down.
“Skyh was standing there with his hand on his heart; we have our own little language, and I could feel the support,” she shares.
It was surprising to hear all these emotional moments happened before the party we saw online. That is until she once again got into the backstory.
“As a Black woman actress, for so long, it was popular to be mysterious and secretive, but that’s not who I am or what I like. Plus, we both wanted to create an experience for everyone there. We are the people who always host family and friends,” she says. “Like for me, the first order of business was getting sandals for the women so they can dance all night long. We had oxtail, D'ussé, and a coffee and sativa lounge – which is part of Skyh and I’s lifestyle and routine. We wanted to bring them into our world.”
Skyh Black (L) and KJ Smith (R)
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
She went on to discuss the dance routine she did for her husband at the reception, which has taken over the internet. Apparently, that’s another thing that didn’t go according to plan. According to KJ, she had promised a performance at their joint bachelor/ bachelorette party, but her outfit got stolen from her car. So, Skyh ended up performing for her – complete with a strip tease. Still, she never forgot her promise to dance for him.
So, she hired her friend as a choreographer, learned the routine, made friends and family watch it endless times, and attended Beyoncé’s Renaissance show a few days before for a confidence boost. It ended up being a show to remember. But that wasn’t all the night offered. Lil Mo performed, and the guests received special goody bags featuring their favorite Black-owned products like journals, hair care, and more.
“We made sure everyone was taken care of all night. That kind of stuff makes us happy. I wanted everyone there to experience the joy and love I have for myself, my partner, and for them. I wanted them to feel full and whole, and they had the time of their lives,” she says.
But naturally, the internet is going to internet, and while there were countless people praising the event and applauding the newlyweds, some thought it was too over the top. I was curious to know her thoughts on some of the criticism.
“It’s cool. We did what we wanted to do. I’ve decided to share my world with people. Just how I went on social media platforms and found inspiration, I want people to do the same,” she explains. “I don’t think it's fair to my supporters not to give that out. There’s so much I wanna share with brides, specifically Black brides. I love that people are adding it to their Pinterest boards."
"I wanted everyone there to experience the joy and love I have for myself, my partner, and for them. I wanted them to feel full and whole, and they had the time of their lives."
Photo by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
“I’m happy with it because we did what we wanted to do. They can do what they wanna do. Don’t be cruel, though, because you will get blocked,” she said, laughing.
The more I spoke with her, the more her sense of freedom shined through. People are always going to have their opinions, but at the end of the day, it’s you who has to live your life, and it seems like the couple realizes that and embraces that power. She also stressed the importance of not living for others and the lessons life has taught her.
“I’ve been to countless weddings, and I’ve been in countless weddings. I’m a generally older bride. So when women in my demographic get married, and you and your husband are busy working people like us, you deserve to have the one you want to have,” she shares.
“This is what we wanted to do. Our loved ones love and support us. We did so much to honor them, but we also wanted to start our own tradition, legacy, and creation. I'm not going to be pulled back into ideas of the past when I’m trying to create a future with my partner. “
If you’d like to see more of the couple, you probably won’t have to wait long. Although no content is planned yet, she admits to being an oversharer. “Me being open and transparent about my experiences lets people know it’s okay to have flaws; it makes you human, and for many years, I didn’t believe that was okay. I had pressure to be perfect, and I’d crumble every time,” she explains to xoNecole.
Now, she owns her flaws and uses them as a superpower to connect with her community and feel and express her love.
“Some people give us [Skyh and KJ] a hard time because they say we just seem too perfect. I’m like, why is that a bad thing? I love the people I love. From my man to my mama, to my friends - unabashedly. We move through time and space how we want to move. If we did it another way, we’d let ourselves and our union down.”
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Feature image by Stanley Babb/ Stanlo Photography
Aoki Lee Simmons Recalls Being Talked About For Her Looks As A Child & Where She Stands With Her Dad
It's hard to grow up underneath the harsh light and the scrutiny of the public eye. Add a supermodel mogul mom, a media mogul dad, reality TV shows, and Baby Phat runway shows to the mix, and you'll have a taste of what it was like for Aoki Lee Simmons growing up in the limelight. All that glitters isn't gold, and personal challenges don't discriminate against tax brackets.
Earlier this year, Aoki made headlines alongside her mom, Kimora Lee Simmons, as they publicly revealed what they had been going through privately as a family. Amid Russell Simmons' rape and sexual misconduct allegations, he is also estranged from the family, which all came to a head following a public dispute about Father's Day. Aoki supported her mother's claims that Russell had allegedly threatened their lives and also posted a recording of a video call between the two where he could be seen yelling at Aoki. She also told the public how damaging their conversations and relationship had become for her mental health.
Aoki would eventually stand by her truth in the days that followed, posting to her Instagram account, "Until a short time ago, this is the man who told me 'always defend and look after your mother girls' and 'never let a man curse at you, you call daddy if a man ever tries to yell at you or scare you that's never ok! Real men don't shout at women and girls." She added, "So to all the toxic men in my comments using 'I'm defending him' to be foul and talk about all the grievances you have with women, you can save it. It's pathetic. He would agree I know that for sure."
Despite navigating troubling times as a family, Aoki had an incredible year so far in terms of achievements. Alongside her part-time pursuit of modeling, she was able to graduate from Harvard University with a double major. At 20 years old at the time, she stands in history as one of the youngest Black women to accomplish such a win. One of her latest career moments can be found on the September cover of Teen Vogue.
The now-21-year-old spoke candidly about reading online about her looks as a kid, the advantages of being a "nepo baby," and where she stands on what happened with her dad.
Aoki on her looks being scrutinized and critiqued at a young age:
“At the time, I was reading a lot of crazy stuff: 'Poor her, she got the dad genes.' There were literally articles like, ‘Celebrity Kid Gone Wrong’ — and I was like, ‘Okay, I’m 11.’"
On benefitting from being a nepo baby:
“It’s totally true. I had no idea if I’d do modeling without my family, without their name helping me. I sometimes think when I look at shows or shoots — if I had done it, and it was that bad, and I was not me, would I get another shot? Would I have had the chance to develop the way that I have?”
“All you can do is be grateful and try to stay in your lane a bit."
Aoki on having no regrets about exposing her fractured relationship with her dad online:
“I don’t regret it. Part of it was already out there. There were reasons I thought it was reasonable to publish, because it was playing out in, like, a silent bubble.”
To read the cover story in full, head over toTeen Vogue.
Featured image by Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images for NYFW: The Shows