Three months ago, I introduced many of you to “Happy Black Girl Day!”, a holiday created by Brooklyn diva extraordinaire and fellow blogger Sister Toldja. This once-a-month holiday allows us to take a break from the constant media assault on Black women and to celebrate the sisterhood with showers of positivity. The way I choose to celebrate HBGD is by highlighting an extraordinary and prototypical Black woman.
June’s Prototype: Valeisha Butterfield, Deputy Director of Public Affairs for President Obama, and Chair of the Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network.
Valeisha Butterfield’s life is the physical manifestation of what it means to step out on faith. Within her first year of law school at her father’s alma mater, she knew her heart was not in being an attorney. Instead of Torts and Property, she was immersed in the study of the entertainment industry. That summer, she went up to New York for an internship with a talent agency, and never went back. She was in love with entertainment and refused to live a dispassionate life.
I asked her, when did you fall in love with the entertainment industry?
I had the “a-ha!” moment when I was very young when I heard the song “Summertime” by Will Smith. I was watching the video on BET and I appreciated it creatively, but I also wanted to be a part of what made that video possible. The second “a-ha!” moment came when I was at Clark Atlanta University and I saw that [being in the entertainment industry] was a realistic goal, because I saw other people that were like-minded, and had the same goal and were achieving it, so I knew it was possible.
And she made it happen. She landed a paid position with HBO Sports after that year of law school, but was still dissatisfied. She wanted to be in the music industry, so she left the job that paid her bills to intern for Russell Simmons — for free. Now that’s love.
I took a step out on faith and everyone thought I was crazy. No one authorized [me to make that decision to leave HBO Sports and work unpaid for Russell Simmons]. My parents did not understand it. To them, you work the same job for 30 years, you get your 401K and you retire. Why would you leave a paid opportunity? But I will say that I did have one person’s support: Sabrina Thompson [my childhood best friend]. She allowed me to stay in her house for several months. She was really instrumental in giving me the confidence I needed, and also some security in knowing that no matter what happened, at least I wouldn’t be on the street, I’d have a place to lay my head.
Sometimes, all you need is that one person to believe in you. And one chance. Valeisha knew that even working for free in the entertainment industry was a luxury. There was no room for error. At 24, she walked into Rush Communications as an intern, had a paid position within ten months, and was running the company as Executive Director within two years. And none of it was by accident.
I absolutely knew it from the start that I would run [Russell’s company]. I walked in as a mature young person; I was 24 years old with a game plan. No one and nothing was going to get in my way.
She then imparted to me the keys to success in any field: It’s not just about you.
I was the first one in the office everyday and the last one to leave. I worked on weekends. I used every opportunity to be of value not just for me, but for Russell.
But while getting in the door may not be easy, the steps she took to succeed can be utilized by anyone. She explained the importance of who you know and what you can do for them:
Build your network! Resumes do not work. It’s not just what you can get from other people, but what you can give.
Also, when sending out resumes, an unnatural approach is to sell yourself, and that approach does not work. I realized that after many interviews, you have to think about how you can add value to that person professionally. Its about filling a void.
Now, I get a yes to almost every single job opportunity or business opportunity I propose. I went from a 20% to a 90% success rate.
She laughed, and said “Oh no, I’m giving out all of my secrets!” And proceeded to share more:
Figure out who you are and stick to it. As women, we’re taught to be motherly and nurturing, but in business, there is no room for that. You have to increase their bottomline. Work harder, add value.
Be on time! Punctuality. There is no room for lateness.
Say what you mean, mean what you say.
Stay in your lane. There is no reason for gossip or putting down other women in the workplace or in life. That is a 100% guarantee for failure. People are watching you, and if you are putting someone down they’re judging you for it. True professionals do not respect gossipers. Do the work. Let the work speak for you.
(Are you listening, young women?! )
But even when you are the best at what you do and an asset to your company, as a woman, you will most likely face sexism at some point in your career. But enduring sexism never halted Valeisha’s ambition, nor did it stunt her dream. She explained:
I’ve learned that people will only do what you allow them to get away with. I always made sure I had a firm handshake and looked men in the eye. I would wear a suit everyday and pearls and my hair in a bun so they would take me seriously. You have to conduct yourself in a serious manner. You’ve got to stand your ground. People didn’t take me seriously, but in the end, a couple years into it, they knew I would not tolerate disrespect. I had to stand firm in my beliefs but enjoy my work at the same time and do a good job.
Also, a lot of business gets done in a social environment. People want to do deals at a party or bar. But I would never drink in front of my peers. Early on, I had to do that to keep a level head. That’s one tool I used. I wanted to have fun and I think that’s ok. But I had to check myself if I went out too many nights in a row.
But even with such a firm hold on her career, Valeisha felt her self slipping when it came to her spiritual life. She moved from behind the scenes to in front of the camera when she became engaged to rapper The Game for a short time in 2006. She was spending more time with friends than family, and more time at “brunch with the girls instead of church.” She recalled two times when she knew she had become caught up in the flash and glamor of the industry and strayed too far away from God:
The first time [I realized it] was when I looked back and couldn’t remember the last time I went to church. When I thought about it, I realized it had probably been about a year and I cried because I knew I had let go of a big part of my foundation.
The other time, I had to reevaluate my dating life and the decisions I was making. I realized I was not making decisions based on who I am. My values are not being reflected in my actions. I need to be as focused on my personal life as my career. Family has to be first. For me, it was a time when I had to reevaluate everything.
So, Valeisha changed courses and came back stronger — and more grounded — than ever. In 2007, she co-founded the Women in Entertainment Empowerment Network, a non-profit organization “committed to supporting, promoting and defending the balanced, positive portrayal of women in entertainment and society.” Through her organization of 40,000 members worldwide, she “provides entertainment-based educational programs on health, financial literacy, career development and personal advancement for young women nationwide. “ A woman after our own heart.
You see, to Valeisha, those setbacks and disappointments she faced are fuel. And being in the entertainment industry, she knows all about disappointments.
In the entertainment industry, you get told “no” 30 times for every yes. There is very little that can surprise me or disappointment now because I’ve seen it all. Disappointment is my ammunition.
When I first was out of college, I worked for the first African American Chief Justice of the Supreme Court in North Carolina. He was just an amazing man. Great person, great wife. I believed so strongly in this candidate and this campaign that I wanted him to win a statewide election. I worked my butt off and election night came and he lost miserably. We raised more money than his opponent and he was well qualified. I’m not a super-emotional person but I just broke down. I believed in him so much.
Disappointment is a tool for understanding, and a way for us to grow. I channeled all that anger and disappointment to see how I could do it better next time. I used it as a tool for improvement.
Fast-forward to Barack Obama. To see him win in my home state [of North Carolina], to see how far we’ve come was just wonderful.
But she didn’t just cheer on the sidelines when Obama won the presidency in 2008. She worked as a volunteer on the campaign and then transitioned into her current job as Deputy Director of Public Affairs for the Department of Commerce, International Trade Administration.
When the opportunity came [to work in the Obama Administration] I was so excited. There are so many challenges we’re facing: the economic downturn, health care reform that are affecting Americans and especially Blacks. I thought if I can just have a small piece of supporting this agenda – I just wanted to do my part.
With all of the criticism the President is facing — from conservatives and progressives alike — Valeisha’s says of the naysayers:
They are entitled to their opinion, but we have to be honest about what [Obama] inherited: a huge debt, two wars. I think he is handling it the best way possible. Working together, with time, these challenges will be met. I just ask [Americans] for their patience because it is not going to happen overnight. We are moving as quickly as possible.
But with all she will achieve in the Obama Administration, and with all of the women she has and will continue to empower and inspire through her organization and her life, Valeisha’s hopes for the legacy she will leave behind are simple:
I would love for my legacy to be that I was a person who never stopped growing until the day I die. I never gave up. I loved God first and my family second and was a good person who believed in helping other women and other people.
(Raise your hand if you’ve already been blessed!)
What we can learn from Valeisha: Refuse to live a dispassionate life. Step out on faith. Trust the vision God gave to you and work it into fruition. If you find you’ve wandered away from God, TURN AROUND. It’s never too late to get back to who you are.
Constantly growing, carefully planning, consistently blessing, and clearly blessed. Valeisha Butterfield is: The Prototype.