The Grind After College To Find A Career Path
Growing up in America, I always knew my ticket out of poverty was a college education. And when I got the opportunity to do so, I made the most of it. I learned a lot of valuable skills during my undergraduate years. I was placed in leadership roles, which helped to develop my motivational skills. I double majored in Political Science and Modern European History at New England College. I obtained my undergraduate degree a year early and decided to go to their graduate school for my MBA in Strategic Leadership. I had a lot of momentum during those years. And as busy as I was with course work, I always had a side hustle. I taught dance in three different studios to earn enough to cover my expenses and schooling. I had relationships with organizations in New Hampshire and throughout the country. They booked me as a speaker fairly frequently. In the fall of my senior year, my brothers and I were invited to perform on “Dancing With The Stars” on ABC. It was a great opportunity, elevating me and our story nationally. From then on, I was asked to speak all over the country. This further motivated me to pursue an MBA so that I could learn to market my work and build a business.
I knew that getting a degree was not going to magically open up opportunities. The summer between college and grad school found me a very busy man. My high school sweetheart and I were planning a summer wedding. Along with many other people, I applied for a job with Department of State program called the Pakistani Education Leadership Institute. I was selected to be one of the community advisors to work with 40 Pakistani leaders. It was an amazing opportunity for me because my goal was to work for the State Department full time after I earned my MBA. I hustled very hard to get this job. I had an awesome experience working with the Pakistani delegates. Blake Allen, the director of the program, hired and mentored me. She was an amazing person who allowed me to pick her brain every day. At the program’s conclusion, I returned home and got married. I got a roofing job with a contractor friend who needed extra help. I worked for him for a week and a half before my graduate program started. I had no shame in my game doing manual labor, because I always knew that demanding jobs of any kind were building blocks for my career. I needed to take whatever opportunity was presented to me to provide for my wife and myself. My wife was very supportive. We had known each other since sophomore year in high school. She worked full time and went to school part time. We were excited to be married and tackle life together.
My graduate classes started in the fall of 2011. I was very pumped to take things I was learning and apply them to my speaking/choreography business, which was building steam. It was strange because, as a college freshman, I had planned to pursue a Department of State job either in Massachusetts or New Hampshire. Then, after getting a few years of experience, I would transfer to DC to work as a career Foreign Service officer. From there, I hoped to leverage all the benefits and learning I had accumulated to rise up through the ranks and become an ambassador. Ultimately, I hoped to retire from public service and get into higher education, becoming a professor and writing books. That was my master plan. I knew it was a lofty goal but I considered it obtainable.
In the meantime, I felt I was ahead of the game, because even after earning my MBA I would be done with college in four years. Still, I felt conflicted. I was pursuing two different careers. One would test my diplomatic skills. The other would challenge my creative abilities. Both, in different ways, would utilize my leadership and presentation expertise. I was equally passionate about both career paths.
My speaking and dancing activities were very motivating because I controlled them. The people I worked with in this area regarded me as an expert. I liked that feeling of equality and respect. It gave me a lot of confidence to be sought out as a presenter, speaker and dancer. My really good friend Tyler decided to come on board to help me market myself. He introduced me to his brothers who helped me develop the Deo Mwano brand.
Tyler’s support and the tools I was learning in my graduate classes worked hand in hand. I tried matching every new class assignment to the work I was doing with my brand. We ran my website as a Facebook fan page first, copying the campaign run at the time by US Women’s soccer goalie Hope Solo. She had a few million followers on her fan page. When you went to hopesolo.com, it redirected you to her Facebook page. We replicated that. I always had content to share on social media. Through Tyler, I was able to land my first TedX event. I prepped the presentation with a performing crew, my best friend, Shaq, and my brother, Destin. It was half-story and half-performance, and lasted 10 minutes. After the presentation one of the hosts reached out to Tyler and me. She worked for a speaker’s bureau. She enjoyed my story and invited us to meet with the bureau’s team in Boston. They liked our presentation and decided to represent me non-exclusively. My first booking, shortly after the agreement was finalized, paid over $5,000 for one presentation. Their fee was 15-25%. I was very excited to have an agency representing and pitching me to different organizations. The non-exclusive aspect was beneficial because it allowed us to get our own bookings without being tied to the agency. This motivated me to continue to grind even harder to push the Deo Mwano brand.
Building A Brand
I was very focused on my schooling. I dissected case studies with the Deo Mwano brand in mind. I remember one time when I met with Tyler’s brother, Travis, who ran a marketing agency. I told him my story and the work I had been doing.
Travis looked at me with confidence. “Deo Mwano is the brand that should be the public face,” he said. “Go with the tag line you guys have been using, ‘Persevere to Excel.’”
It felt uncomfortable using my name as the face of the brand. I didn’t want people to think I was boastful.
But Travis was very excited about the idea. He turned toward Tyler. “Don’t you think it’s a good idea?” he said,
“Deo, tell him what your name means.” Tyler said.
“It means God in Latin,” I said. “Mwano is a fancy bird.”
Travis was pleased. “That’s it!” he said. “Run with that. Your story and the meaning of your name are powerful. They’ll resonate with people.”
I left that meeting and reached out to my friend, Diego, a graphic designer living in Pittsburgh. I related my conversation with Travis. A few days later, Diego sent me some sample logos. The first few were right on. We had to make a few small changes but essentially he nailed it. I started pushing the logo and slogan as part of the Deo Mwano brand. I made tee shirts and hoodies; I sold them at school assemblies and my workshops all over the country.
What energized me about creating and pushing the Deo Mwano brand was that it reflected what I believe in. It gave me new life to see ideas turned reality. I became a sucker for the process. I worked with different artists to tell stories, and with many different organizations both locally and nationally. I was very motivated by the creative process. Not every collaboration compensated me. I had to decide if people were just exploiting me for my story and their agenda or if they were genuine. I learned quickly with whom I was going to partner. I was always divided between pursuing the Deo Mwano brand full time after graduation and going the Department of State route. The first had a lot of financial risk. Nothing was a sure thing. I had to grind very hard to provide for my wife and me. On the other hand, the Department of State route offered job security and amazing benefits. So, while pushing the Deo Mwano brand, I started applying to different Department of State openings. I didn’t have any luck. Fortunately, I was still getting steady income from the hustle. By the time I graduated with my MBA, I was teaching dance at several studios to help pay the bills and I had a few speaking events coming. I was a little frustrated that I did not yet have a job lined up. Many prospective employers were not even replying, and the ones that were interested in hiring me were not for me. I did not want to compromise myself for a paycheck. I wanted to make sure the job aligned with my values and mission. But, at the same, my wife was five months pregnant with our first child. It was critical for me to get some kind of job quickly.
Department of State Job VS University Job
I applied for a Department of State job at the National Passport Center as an adjudicator. This job appealed to me, as it would give me an opportunity to use many of the skills I learned in college. I started to become invested in the possibility that I could get it. I received an automatic reply that my application had advanced to the next level. While I waited, my former graduate school professor, familiar with my Deo Mwano brand work, reached out to me about an innovative program that was starting at a local university. I was not too crazy about applying for a college job, but she convinced me that the program was different and I should send my resume. She mentioned that they recently received Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation money to develop a coaching model for adult learners. So, I met with the Chief Learning Architect. She was awesome. We clicked very well, and she made me excited about what they were working on. I went back for a group interview and saw how hungry the other applicants were. I thought there might be something special here. They gave me an offer with five other coaches to help develop the coaching model. We were initially part-time but could log up to 30 hours and even work remotely at times. It was a perfect job for me because it provided me with flexibility. I still taught dance, and worked remotely when I needed to travel for speaking engagements. Babies have their own timetable sometimes, and my son decided to be born six weeks early, just a few days before I started my new job. Luckily, some family members were close by and able to help out. With a new life depending on me, I felt it was even more important for me to work my butt off in this new job.
The opportunities with the five coaches were amazing. We had an open canvas to design a model that was going to help thousands of adult learners succeed in an online learning environment. I was very inspired by the strategic approach, the design sessions and the influence and responsibility that were given to me. I never dreamed in a million years that I would be given a chance to work in a university at this level so early in my career. I found my prior experiences working with different cultures and different types of problems helped me bring a very unique perspective to the team. The program started gaining steam and we took on more partners.
As time went on, I finally was contacted for an interview with the National Passport Center and was offered the job. I was shocked to have a State Department job with a substantial pay increase every year. The trick to starting was that I needed to obtain a High Security Clearance because my job would require dealing with sensitive documents. The clearance took another two months. During the same time the university offered my colleagues and me full-time positions with benefits. However, I declined this because my dream job was to work for the State Department. Moreover, the government position was secure while the university project was not guaranteed to succeed or be funded for a long time. I decided to take the safe route. When my security clearance came through, I started working full time for the National Passport Center, 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m., and then working for the university from 3:30 to 8:30 or 9 p.m., as well as remotely on some Saturday mornings.
I was torn because I was not around my colleagues at the university during the day and felt I was missing out. I was still able to contribute, as most of the group meetings were in the afternoon when I was able to participate. All the students I coached were remote so I could schedule those calls whenever it was convenient for me. I was moved by my students’ stories, and coaching was very rewarding for me. I learned a great deal about people through their tales of overcoming setbacks and challenges. I found myself digging deeper in the coaching model we were developing based on the milestones I was seeing my students reach. I was now feeling torn between the State Department and the university. After 6 months, I decided to leave the Department of State and join the university full time. This was a very difficult career decision, and so early on in my professional life, but it was the right one. In addition to my wife, I consulted with my mentor and my mother before making the final decision.
I never looked back. I excelled professionally working at the university for three and half years. I picked up projects that were in my areas of interest. I worked with community collaborators who were not part of our corporate employer partners and helped design innovative models to strengthen relationships with organizations and students. I contributed to student engagement strategies that had a big impact on how financial aid was awarded to some students. I helped design a coaching program to train hundreds of coaches to inspire positive results for over 4500 students. One project I was very proud of was strengthening the relationship between the university and a school in Rwanda, called Kepler, which also had students who were refugees from Congo. The partnership grew strong and experienced many successes. I ended up having an opportunity to travel to Rwanda, visiting the program and celebrating the first group of graduates. This project changed my life. Here was a fully accredited online American degree program—brought to Africa through virtual means—that changed the lives of hundreds of students by giving them the opportunity for western education.
Finding Alignment with Work and My Personal Mission
The work I did at the university aligned with my values and my mission of helping others. It also contributed tremendously to the Deo Mwano brand. I was given an opportunity to develop and grow, to learn techniques and strategies for working with people, and to design programs and initiatives. I was not going to learn those skills at the Department of State, at least not that early in my career. Most of the work I did at the Department of State as an adjudicator was prescribed. I had a script to follow. It did not use all of my brain, and it was merely a stepping stone job, which did not compare to the excitement and innovation of the work I was doing at the university.
At the end of my three and a half years at the university, I was a different person. My ambition for doing greater things was nurtured as I developed the skills to move forward and continue to grow. I developed awesome relationships with folks in leadership positions at the university. I consider them friends and we still collaborate at times. I have been able to incorporate so much of what I learned from my experience at the university to the Deo Mwano brand, skills that enable me to deal with people and create safe spaces for them to share their stories and reflect deeper in what drives them. It is a powerful tool to be able to communicate and empower others to dig below the surface. It has transformed how I view others in their situations. I have refined my listening skills. I am no longer a Level 1 or “internal listener” who is basically thinking about how a speaker’s words relate to him. I am both a Level 2 or “focused listener” and Level 3 or “global listener,” the former totally directing his attention toward the speaker and the later who, as a speaker, is able to assess the impact of his words on the listener.
I have also learned a great deal about problem-solving and solution-designing, being able to view situations from a 360-degree viewpoint in a process that includes all the stakeholders. I changed a lot of my presentation approach based on my experience at the university. It change me as a presenter, forcing me to look beyond my story to help identify organizational objectives to make sure I always place my audience in the driver’s seat.
The Secret Sauce to Landing a Career You Want
The secret sauce to landing a career you want is being resourceful and knowing what your personal brand is. What is your mission and what is your calling? Having your own framework is important because it gives you a point of reference to identify how it aligns with the work you are doing for someone else. The grind is even harder for minority groups in America who are trying to land a decent job after graduating from college. You have to think outside the box to find ways to make your own money so you don’t compromise the work you do for a paycheck. You have to identify your brand and build on it. Your brand is not just what you preach in social media, that which you pretend to be an expert in. You need experience in whatever field of work you’re interested in, but you do not have to work for someone else to have this experience. You can build relationships with organizations and companies within your area to identify their needs and start doing things that can help them meet their challenges. You have to create a space to build, try, make mistakes and improve. Then you have to repeat this process over and over to gain experience. You need to place yourself in an environment where you can learn. You need to find individuals who are doing what you want to do and convince them to take you under their wing so they can mentor you. Ask them if they have any side projects that you can work on in return for their mentorships. Find struggling nonprofits within your community where you can volunteer and donate your skills. This is a great way to be hands-on and start utilizing your skills by working on really valuable projects.
Of course, you cannot forget to provide for yourself and handle your responsibility. You might still need to get a job that helps you makes ends meet if you cannot afford to do the work independently without pay. You want to make sure you are still making your car payments, rent, and paying student loans on time. You do not want to jeopardize your credit. Networking and being visible in your community will be the key. Go to young professional events. Serve on a board if possible. You have to continue to educate yourself on matters regarding your skill set or degree concentration. Continue learning and doing. You need to build a group of supporters and mentors to whom you can reach out at times when you are thinking about making changes or facing tough decisions. Remember, you have to put in the work to achieve your dreams.
Read more about what I learned working with adult learners at the University;