My first boss in the real world was Penny Hawkey. She hired me right out of school and showed me the ropes in a gigantic, fast-paced, New York ad agency. As an award-winning writer from the Mad Men era, she made damn sure I got every opportunity she didn’t have.
Penny sent me all around the world for commercial shoots and casting calls and recording sessions and focus groups and seminars and industry parties. She even sent me (a junior writer) to Will Vinton Studios in Portland so I could learn claymation. The chances of a copywriter ever needing to know how to execute stopmotion are zilch. But that’s what I learned from Penny. It doesn’t matter if it’s your job on paper. It’s your role as a creative to do it all. And as a woman, to stay ten steps ahead.
Anyway, there was this one day in Penny’s office that I will never forget.
We were sharing a bottle of red wine and reviewing scripts for a Crest toothpaste commercial. (Red wine stains your teeth – so technically this was research.) That’s when a coworker popped her head in and said, “The ThermaCare client wants to get on the phone and discuss the rough cut we sent them. They’re available now.” Penny looked at me and said, “Great. Nicole will lead the discussion.”
Huh? What? Me? I had never presented anything to any client ever before.
Me: Penny, no. I’m not ready.
Penny: You are so ready. You know why?
Penny: Because you are a strong black woman.
If you’ve never seen me before, check out my profile picture – Patti LaBelle I am not. But I have to tell you, those six words, “You are a strong black woman,” they stuck. I went from anxious to confident. From doubtful to faithful. From no guts to all guts. (Of course, you could say it was the red wine but I know it was those six words.)
I’m sharing this story for a couple of reasons.
One. I love it.
Two. No matter who I share this with, they love it, too.
I think it’s because we associate strong black women with dreams and conviction and spirit and chutzpah. (Had to sneak a white-girl word in there.) We crave these qualities. We admire them. And while it’s impossible for any one person to be all of these things all of the time, it helps when someone (like Penny) reminds us to channel our dreams and tap into our convictions. When someone reassures us that we can handle it and we will handle it – because we are strong black women.
Try it. The next time a friend tells you she’s scared or your daughter doubts herself or your mother gives up, say those six words. I bet it makes her laugh. Then, I bet it makes her think. And before you know it, she’s on a conference call presenting to the client for the very first time. Totally empowered.
Thank you, Penny. You’re pretty awesome for a white girl.