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Courtesy of Watchen Nyanue

Watchen Nyanue Is Making Space For Black Women To Climb The Ladder Of Success On Their Own Terms

"I love us for real. If you get us in position to win, we're always going to make sure that we all win."

BOSS UP

The ability to advocate for oneself can be one of the greatest tools in our arsenal of personal and professional growth. For Black women in the corporate world, specifically, this is a unique rite of passage earned through speaking up on your behalf for promotions, negotiating salaries, or even overcoming workplace bias and discrimination. This process, though challenging, can reveal to us the inner voice that will serve as both a guide and champion for our upward mobility. Thankfully, women like Watchen Nyanue, founder and CEO of I Choose the Ladder, are creating space for Black women to find their voice in the workplace to climb the ladder of success on their own terms.

Watchen grew up in Liberia during a time of civil war and national unrest. From the ages of six to eight, she watched as her country was tugged between war and peace, exposing her to the worst of what the world could be, and ultimately reshaping her views on fear. "I think living through that trauma gave me an appreciation for life, but it took fear away from me. Life can be very fleeting, so I always tell myself, 'Why not just try it?'"

After her family emigrated to the US, music and television served as a guide for who Watchen saw herself becoming. Unlike most traditional immigrant households where becoming a doctor or lawyer is revered, Watchen's parents gave her the license to discover her passions and explore her skills outside of these trades. "My dad is an engineer, and because he understood what it took to become that, he would say, 'Go find what you want to do and be the best at that.'"

Courtesy of Watchen Nyanue

This freedom to explore granted Watchen the space to gain clarity on the purpose of her work and the legacy she would shape in the long run to impact women like her. Because of her tenacity and the relationships she built along the way, Watchen has a resume that extends from companies like Comedy Central, Johnson Publishing Company, and now serves as the Senior Vice President of the WNBA, Chicago Sky; one of the youngest Black women to hold that position.

Today, Watchen applies the wisdom she's gained in her professional career to her work as the founder of the career summit, The Climb, and career consulting company, I Choose The Ladder, which bridge the gap between ambitious Black women and the corporate elevation that awaits them.

"I love us for real. If you get us in position to win, we're always going to make sure that we all win."

On reshaping the Women’s Empowerment/Conference space and launching the Climb Summit.

"For me, I tend to create what I need. If I need it, there are probably other people who need it too. There was a level of frustration that came with conferences. I'd receive all this information, but I don't know what the first step was to do with it. At the I Climb Summit, we take away all the fluff. We make sure we're intentional about the women who are leading and teaching and make sure they identify as Black women and feel comfortable talking about their journey as Black women because the challenges that we face are very unique to us. We don't need to see the highlight reel, we need to pull back the curtain a bit to show what it's really going to take to succeed."

Courtesy of Watchen Nyanue

"We don't need to see the highlight reel, we need to pull back the curtain a bit to show what it's really going to take to succeed."

On giving Black women the tools to advocate for themselves in the workplace.

"We launched our latest product, The Review Planner, because I feel like our annual reviews don't always get maximized. For me, it's always been about keeping receipts and having clarity around how my success is being measured. The planner helps you track your progress all year long so when it's time for your performance review, it's not your manager telling you what they think you did or you telling them what you remember, it's actual data that backs you up. It's your job to bring to their attention how much of a boss you are and what you bring to the table. If you don't find ways to infuse that into conversation with your managers, they may never know."

On how to navigate spaces when you’re the “only” in the room.

"My goal with I Choose the Ladder isn't to convince Black women to leave corporate, it's to make sure that once you do, you leave with as much as you gave. There's a price we pay to be in these spaces, so we need to make sure we're getting the benefits, which can't just be our title or salary because those things can be easily taken away.

"If you plan to be senior in any industry, most of the time, you're going to be the 'only'. But perspective matters: what do you want to get from the people in these rooms? Yes, it's going to be tough, but what reward do you want to receive for having to pay that price? Be very strategic about how you spend your time in these spaces."

"There's a price we pay to be in these spaces, so we need to make sure we're getting the benefits, which can't just be our title or salary because those things can be easily taken away."

On strategic networking and the power of building organic relationships.

"I have a solid squad of mentors and sponsors and everyone that I have, I found doing work -- whether on a committee or volunteering my time. So when they say 'be organic', don't put yourself in spaces because you have an ulterior motive. When you are engaged in the things that you care about, you tend to work harder, people see you as your best self, and you naturally gravitate towards each other.

"Another thing is, I have a natural curiosity about people; people are interesting. Ask folks about themselves, the books they're reading, the art in their office. It doesn't always have to be career advice. Figuring out your intercepting points of interest can take a lot of the pressure off and be a jumping-off point for a conversation that can lead to a relationship."

"When you are engaged in the things that you care about, you tend to work harder, people see you as your best self, and you naturally gravitate towards each other."

On denouncing shame around unemployment and how to pivot during a pandemic.

"If you're in this economy and find yourself unemployed, underemployed or just doing what you need to do to pay your bills, there's no shame in that. Give yourself some grace; it takes time to pivot. You can't control that you got laid off or if a company hires you. What you can control is how prepared you are for your interviews, how intentional you are about growing your network, and how much work you're putting into yourself to develop new skills for when, not if, that new role comes."

On the one piece of advice that shaped her the most in your career. 

"Most of the things we fear never happen. And sometimes we don't try things because of fear of the unknown. Whenever I'm feeling uncertain about a decision, I do an exercise called, 'What if? What is?' I write out all my 'what if's' and in the 'what is' column, I balance it out with what's true. By the time you reach the end, you'll see that you've already handled a version of what you're afraid of. I tell people all the time that you have all that you need right now to do what you need, right now. Just trust the process."

To connect with Watchen, follow her endeavors on Instagram @ichoosetheladder, and tune into her podcast, I Choose the Ladder.

Featured image courtesy of Watchen Nyanue

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You may not know her by Elisabeth Ovesen – writer and host of the love, sex and relationships advice podcast Asking for a Friend. But you definitely know her other alter ego, Karrine Steffans, the New York Times best-selling author who lit up the literary and entertainment world when she released what she called a “tell some” memoir, Confessions of a Video Vixen.

Her 2005 barn-burning book gave an inside look at the seemingly glamorous world of being a video vixen in the ‘90s and early 2000s, and exposed the industry’s culture of abuse, intimidation, and misogyny years before the Me Too Movement hit the mainstream. Her follow-up books, The Vixen Diaries (2007) and The Vixen Manual: How To Find, Seduce And Keep The Man You Want (2009) all topped the New York Times best-seller list. After a long social media break, she's back. xoNecole caught up with Ovesen about the impact of her groundbreaking book, what life is like for her now, and why she was never “before her time”– everyone else was just late to the revolution.

xoNecole: Tell me about your new podcast Asking for a Friend with Elisabeth Ovesen and how that came about.

Elisabeth Ovesen: I have a friend who is over [at Blavity] and he just asked me if I wanted to do something with him. And that's just kinda how it happened. It wasn't like some big master plan. Somebody over there was like, “Hey, we need content. We want to do this podcast. Can you do it?” And I was like, “Sure.” And that's that. That was around the holidays and so we started working on it.

xoNecole: Your life and work seem incredibly different from when you first broke out on the scene. Can you talk a bit about the change in your career and how your life is now?

EO: Not that different. I mean my life is very different, of course, but my work isn't really that different. My life is different, of course, because I'm 43. My career started when I was in my 20s, so we're looking at almost 20 years since the beginning of my career. So, naturally life has changed a lot since then.

I don’t think my career has changed a whole lot – not as far as my writing is concerned, and my stream of consciousness with my writing, and my concerns and the subject matter hasn’t changed much. I've always written about interpersonal relationships, sexual shame, male ego fragility, respectability politics – things like that. I always put myself in the center of that to make those points, which I think were greatly missed when I first started writing. I think that society has changed quite a bit. People are more aware. People tell me a lot that I have always been “before my time.” I was writing about things before other people were talking about that; I was concerned about things before my generation seemed to be concerned about things. I wasn't “before my time.” I think it just seems that way to people who are late to the revolution, you know what I mean?

I retired from publishing in 2015, which was always the plan to do 10 years and retire. I was retired from my pen name and just from the business in general in 2015, I could focus on my business, my education and other things, my family. I came back to writing in 2020 over at Medium. The same friend that got me into the podcast, actually as the vice president of content over at Medium and was like, “Hey, we need some content.” I guess I’m his go-to content creator.

xoNecole: Can you expound on why you went back to your birth name versus your stage name?

EO: No, it was nothing to expound upon. I mean, writers have pen names. That’s like asking Diddy, why did he go by Sean? I didn't go back. I've always used that. Nobody was paying attention. I've never not been myself. Karrine Steffans wrote a certain kind of book for a certain kind of audience. She was invented for the urban audience, particularly. She was never meant to live more than 10 years. I have other pen names as well. I write under several names. So, the other ones are just nobody's business right now. Different pen names write different things. And Elisabeth isn’t my real name either. So you'll never know who I really am and you’ll never know what my real name is, because part of being a writer is, for me at least, keeping some sort of anonymity. Anything I do in entertainment is going to amass quite a bit because who I am as a person in my private life isn't the same a lot of times as who I am publicly.

xoNecole: I want to go back to when you published Confessions of a Video Vixen. We are now in this time where people are reevaluating how the media mistreated women in the spotlight in the 2000s, namely women like Britney Spears. So I’d be interested to hear how you feel about that period of your life and how you were treated by the media?

EO: What I said earlier. I think that much of society has evolved quite a bit. When you look back at that time, it was actually shocking how old-fashioned the thinking still was. How women were still treated and how they're still treated now. I mean, it hasn't changed completely. I think that especially for the audience, I think it was shocking for them to see a woman – a woman of color – not be sexually ashamed.

I hate being like other people. I don't want to do what anyone else is doing. I can't conform. I will not conform. I think in 2005 when Confessions was published, that attitude, especially about sex, was very upsetting. Number one, it was upsetting to the men, especially within urban and hip-hop culture, which is built on misogyny and thrives off of it to this day. And the women who protect these men, I think, you know, addressing a demographic that is rooted in trauma that is rooted in sexual shame, trauma, slavery of all kinds, including slavery of the mind – I think it triggered a lot of people to see a Black woman be free in this way.

I think it said a lot about the people who were upset by it. And then there were some in “crossover media,” a lot of white folks were upset too, not gonna lie. But to see it from Black women – Tyra Banks was really upset [when she interviewed me about Confessions in 2005]. Oprah wasn't mad [when she interviewed me]. As long as Oprah wasn’t mad, I was good. I didn't care what anybody else had to say. Oprah was amazing. So, watching Black women defend men, and Black women who had a platform, defend the sexual blackmailing of men: “If you don't do this with me, you won't get this job”; “If you don't do this in my trailer, you're going to have to leave the set”– these are things that I dealt with.

I just happened to be the kind of woman who, because I was a single mother raising my child all by myself and never got any help at all – which I still don't. Like, I'm 24 in college – not a cheap college either – one of the best colleges in the country, and I'm still taking care of him all by myself as a 21-year-old, 20-year-old, young, single mother with no family and no support – I wasn’t about to say no to something that could help me feed my son for a month or two or three.

xoNecole: We are in this post-Me Too climate where women in Hollywood have come forward to talk about the powerful men who have abused them. In the music industry in particular, it seems nearly impossible for any substantive change or movement to take place within music. It's only now after three decades of allegations that R. Kelly has finally been convicted and other men like Russell Simmons continue to roam free despite the multiple allegations against him. Why do you think it's hard for the music industry to face its reckoning?

EO: That's not the music industry, that's urban music. That’s just Black folks who make music and nobody cares about that. That's the thing; nobody cares...Nobody cares. It's not the music industry. It's just an "urban" thing. And when I say "urban," I say that in quotations. Literally, it’s a Black thing, where nobody gives a shit what Black people do to Black people. And Russell didn't go on unchecked, he just had enough money to keep it quiet. But you know, anytime you're dealing with Black women being disrespected, especially by Black men, nobody gives a shit.

And Black people don't police themselves so it doesn't matter. Why should anybody care? And Black women don't care. They'll buy an R. Kelly album right now. They’ll stream that shit right now. They don’t care. So, nobody cares. Nobody cares. And if you're not going to police yourself, then nobody's ever going to care.

xoNecole: Do you have any regrets about anything you wrote or perhaps something you may have omitted?

EO: Absolutely not. No. There's nothing that I wish I would've gone back and said to myself, no. I don’t think at 20-something years old, I'm supposed to understand every little thing. I don't think the 20-something-year-old woman is supposed to understand the world and know exactly what she's doing. I think that one of my biggest regrets, which isn't my regret, but a regret, is that I didn't have better parents. Because a 20-something only knows what she knows based on what she’s seen and what she’s been taught and what she’s told. I had shitty parents and a horrible family. Just terrible. These people had no business having children. None of them. And a lot of our families are like that. And we may pass down those familial curses.

*This interview has been edited and condensed

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Feature image courtesy of Elisabeth Ovesen

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