This interview is the third in our series, Black & Bold: Perspectives on Leadership. For more about this series, click here.
Ify Walker, Founder and Chief Talent Matchmaker, Offor Walker Group
Womanist. Talent Curator. Thinker.
What are some of your career highlights?
Definitely teaching. I grew up in Wisconsin in a predominantly white city and attended predominantly white schools. Teaching in Philadelphia through Teach For America (TFA) offered me the opportunity to come to a city unfamiliar to me. It was the first time I walked into a city and school where the adults and students looked like me. It was powerful and humbling to witness the growth and transformation of my students. The challenges and successes I experienced in the classroom were a career highlight. (Ify Walker pictured at right.)
Another example is during my time at TFA when I was responsible for opening new sites across the country. This involved parachuting into a city, raising $4-6M over six months or so, and getting contracts to place TFA teachers. Sometimes it required changing teacher licensing laws to create alternative pathways. While in that role, I was able to raise $40M and had never raised money before. I was almost always the only person of color and only woman in those meetings. The audacity of asking for sums of money -- numbers I had never said out loud before -- was new to me.
I loved TFA, but chose to leave without having another job lined up. I'm proud of the fact that my husband and I had set up our lives for me to be able to do that so there were no handcuffs. I went on to start the Offor Walker Group. We are often implicitly or explicitly given a path. As a child of Nigerian immigrants, there are a few "approved" professions (being a lawyer is one -- which I did), so the idea of starting something on my own wasn't a consideration, but I had faith that I could do it. Now, I have clients from all over the country. One of the highest compliments is for me to hear, "I don't think of you [or your firm] as recruiters or headhunters." That's a compliment. Our firm is able to hold up the mirror, push on race, and offer aggressive opinions. I can say, "We are not the help, so you might not want to work with us." Sometimes people say they feel like they're working for us, which might be exciting for some and not others.
There's a freedom in being able to say "this is who I am" and being able to say "no." Every organization might not be the right client for us and we might not be the right organization for them. This is who we are. We try as much as we can to act like talent agents in some way for many leaders of color and be an advocate at the decision-making table. I have challenging conversations with CEOs. For example, recently I said to a client, "When you said this individual was a 'one-trick pony,' or 'too bright for the job,' let me tell you what it might reveal about your perceptions of leaders of color. I'm just going to ask you why and how that relates back to this job." In response, one client said, "I think I have a bias against Black men. Can you please help me hack it?"
If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?
How you see yourself is literally everything. At so many moments during my leadership journey, I think of my mom as the standard bearer. She raised six kids, attended school, and worked full-time. I used to think my mom was the meanest person ever. But she was not mean. She had standards and she didn't suffer fools. She was our biggest advocate, and I think I'm tied to fairness and justice because of my mother. When my brother was in elementary school, a teacher tried to hold him back. My mom blocked and tackled. My brother went on to get engineering and law degrees. I ask myself what my mom would do in moments of leadership challenges. Thinking about what my mom would do inspires and guides me.
What are your favorite types of challenges?
Situations where I think I am uniquely positioned (where I tell myself I am supposed to be here) to address challenges in a way that others may not be able to. The Dear Black Women posts on LinkedIn are a response to the Black women who are incredibly frustrated through their job searches. They hear feedback that they are "too academic," or "not buttoned up enough." They've gone to the right schools and taken the right jobs, yet it takes so long to land a job, as though they have done something wrong.
For example, I was sitting in a meeting with a CEO who said a candidate was arrogant because she mentioned she attended Harvard. Yet the question he posed to her was where she went to school! I'm uniquely positioned as a Black woman who has seen these frustrations and has earned a seat at the table with board members and CEOs. I heard what these decision makers really thought so I could amplify it. I'm uniquely positioned to do something different and special. There are many times I wake up with a sense of angst if I'm doing the work that I think anyone could be doing. I constantly want to change things.
Though even in pulling back the curtain on how it works, sharing the reality that the system is rigged is frustrating. Being told that [as a Black woman] it's just going to take you longer is hard to swallow. The next challenge -- since I can't just name the problem -- is to share concrete strategies on how to negotiate and be clear about what Black women may face that they aren't going to read about in Lean In. I'm constantly asking myself: How do I share what I have seen work in this very nuanced position I hold where I see both sides?
What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?
I have two that come to mind. First, The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho. I have read it multiple times throughout my career. It's so powerful -- the idea that when you really really want something the entire world conspires to help you get there. I actually believe that. When I think about challenges I ask myself, Ify, are you really putting this intention out there? Are you sharing that with the world? How are you showing up? All roads lead back to self.
The second is not a popular answer for a lot of Black women and it's Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg. Even though she was really talking about white women when she wrote it, the book opened the door to a conversation about leaning in that allowed other voices to be heard. Black women have been leaning in and raise their hands for the C-suite more often than white women. The book has been a really great foil for the conversation I want to have.
Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one's values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?
There have been so many times! One reason I left a former job was a values misalignment. At the time, I was about to get married. I didn't see anyone I wanted to emulate who was married and had the life that I wanted. I had an idea in mind of what marriage would be and during my engagement I was traveling three to four days per week. I decided I was not starting marriage like that and took time off for marriage. People take time off for babies, health issues, other reasons. Other people thought I was crazy for taking time off just to get married and set a foundation for marriage. I felt like it was the right thing to do.
There have also been instances with this related to board leadership. I've been approached to serve, and the opportunities are very exciting and compelling on paper. The question I ask myself is whether twenty years from now, when my kids ask what I was doing since I was away so much, whether those opportunities will be good enough reason. Will I be proud to say I was part of this board? If not, then it's not a place where I should be. There are moments in time where there is values misalignment and I'm able to run towards that tension because I think I can be a part of the solution. But, there are other times when I have to remind myself that our bodies (Black women's) and our time are made for more than suffering -- for more than enduring.
This summer, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, "reclaiming my time," as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin's attempts to waste her time with nonsense. Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?
We all have to reclaim our time. I've had a handful of these instances with clients. In one case, we went to do due diligence for a client and were about to sign the contract and I had a pit in my stomach. The CEO had not been responsive. He was trying to rush the due diligence process and didn't answer tough questions in a substantive way about how race was playing out in his schools. The check was on its way, but I didn't think we should work together. I called him and said I didn't think the factors were in place to succeed. He acknowledged the issue and offered an explanation. That moment was a reset of the relationship and the client became a good partner.
Another instance was when I observed a colleague not reclaiming our organization's time while running a search. We had presented an amazing candidate to the client and the client's response was that the candidate was "too smart." The client dragged their feet on checking references and it wasn't until the candidate had other offers that the client was interested in making an offer. It was as if the client needed external validation that the candidate was great, but by that time the candidate accepted another offer. The client wanted us to restart the search. We were still committed to the outcome, but not restarting a six-month process. We developed a plan to extend it for three weeks. It's important to not let the red herrings derail you, and my team has more courage now to intervene much sooner when things are off track.
What's your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?
Walking and movement are important. I have a Peloton bike literally in my bedroom. Aesthetically, it doesn't look right, but is a present reminder that I need to hop on the bike and ride.
One of the most powerful things a leader can do is to journal and write down what is accomplished each day. For me, it's a way to slow down in a world that is continuously rewarding speed over effectiveness. It's hard to catch patterns that may be holding me back. I might read my journal and realize, Hey, I was really snarky in these two communications. I fired out that email and maybe I should have waited a day. As a leader, there is so much rattling in the brain and I need moments to pause and reflect. Journaling has accelerated my ability to develop and grow.
My incredible husband champions my self-care. He encourages me to go and be without having to be someone's mother or wife for at least a weekend. These getaways to step away and be are really necessary. If you don't have a partner and want one, it helps to pick the right partner who will aid in self-care -- someone who is supportive and not going to try to make you feel guilty for taking care of yourself.
Working with my kids on chores and letting them know that they have a responsibility to our family is another aspect of this. My son overheard me say that I wanted a break and asked if it was a break from him and his sister. I could have denied that was part of it, but instead I asked him if he's ever wanted a break from his younger sister. His answer was yes and now I catch him reminding himself that it is okay for me to do things for myself. It's important to coach them to understand and respect that I am more than just their mother. It reminds me of what my friend Annis Stubbs often says: "Black women's bodies are made for more than just work." It's important to raise kids up believing that self-care is important.
What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?
1) Get yourself a Kitchen Cabinet: Create a Lean In circle of Black women. Isolation is the biggest silencer of all good ideas and finding great ways to move forward. I count on the other women in my circle and seek their counsel. I had a situation where I was offered an honorarium that wasn't commensurate with the time required or my worth, and wasn't sure what to do about it. I sought advice from my Kitchen Cabinet and was able to increase the honorarium five times over. We are so powerful when we work together and so often that's not the narrative out there about Black women. I might be the only person sitting in the room, but I'm not alone. I bring my army of supporters with me in spirit.
2) Build your skill as an advocate: This is a self-hack technique I use. Research shows that when we (women) think we are advocating on behalf of someone else, we are just as effective as men. As a mom, when I'm advocating for something, I hold my daughter or son in mind and position it as if I'm advocating on their behalf. Through challenging circumstances at TFA what enabled me to persevere was holding my students in mind. I would tell myself: I am going to ask this billionaire for $10M and my voice is not going to shake. I could only do that with knowledge of my students from Rhodes Academy in Philadelphia and keeping their faces in my mind when I made the ask. They could not be there, but I could. It helps to think about who you are standing for -- whether for yourself or others. We are more powerful and successful when we hold someone else in mind.