Lady Business: Who Taught You About Work?

A couple of days ago, I spotted a group of kids in summer camp t-shirts and remembered my favorite summer job ever as a camp counselor at the Fresh Air Fund’s Camp Mariah.

Annually about 300 teenagers from New York City’s five boroughs head upstate to the beautiful countryside and, in addition to camping and swimming, they start to learn some of the basics of building a career.

What I loved the most about that work, even when it was hard, was that I got to mentor girls like I’d been mentored and teach them what I thought I knew as a college sophomore about following their dreams and conducting themselves with grace in the world.

I decided I loved writing when I was young. While I loved the creativity and expression in it, I was always fully cognizant of the business side of a person’s passions. I drew lessons from a broad range of sources—from Madam C.J. Walker to Jay-Z, Oprah Winfrey to Tyra Banks. My mother always had a hustle, even when she didn’t necessarily have a job.

So, I learned that to be successful in business I should work harder than everyone else, or smarter. I would probably fail, but life would go on. It appeared that the best business people were great listeners who had cultivated patience, passion and their own unique vision. As Neil Gaiman put it recently, they kept walking toward their mountains.

I was lucky to have a combination of humble and down to earth mentors in real life and to understand how it important it was to be careful about who you take your cues from in the business world. What works for everybody else may not work for you, especially if you are a feminist. 

For example, during the second session of camp, I had a couple of girls in my cabin that were multitalented singers and dancers. When I watched them at lunch or when they weren’t in classes, I worried about their self-consciousness and all the body images that can keep a girl from relying on her brain and her heart instead of her body for affirmation. When I was 13, I wish someone would have told me that booty shorts and tight shirts were not the only way I could get attention.

Without judgment or shaming them, I encouraged them to augment their physical attributes with internal ones. I told them that people should be attracted to them for the contents of their characters, not what they looked like. My message was particularly directed at Tina, who sang with a lovely maturity beyond her years.

Tina was also a huge Mariah Carey fan and could sing all of her songs, word for word, pitch perfect. She wanted to be Mariah Carey when she grew up.

Since it was her camp, sometimes Mariah made a trip to visit. I was as excited as the girls were, since I had been following Mariah’s career since I was in middle school and I also sang as a hobby. I thought she was an excellent businesswoman, too; she had the princess story of legend—she had been working as a waitress when she was discovered and gradually, because of her hard work and refusal to give up on her dreams, she became a megastar in the pre-Lady Gaga era.

Anyway, after a summer of telling my girls that it didn’t matter what they wore, but it was the quality of their characters and the depth of their talent that matters, Mariah Carey showed up in a white halter top and white booty shorts with stiletto heels. She looked fantastic. The camp was wowed. I don’t think anyone heard a word she said, though I think she told them they could grow up to be whatever they wanted, or something along those lines.

I sighed heavily in frustration. My attempt to steer the girls in a different direction appeared thwarted. But I learned that it would ultimately be up to them to choose their actual and virtual mentors for operating in business, social and cultural milieus.

Who taught you the values you associate with work and business? What are some of the most helpful things you’ve learned? I’m interested in your favorite summer job, too, for a follow-up post, if you’re so inclined.

Previously: Poppin’ Pink Collars and Devaluing Women’s Work, The False Conflict of Work, Feminism, and Motherhood

Joshunda Sanders, a Black woman with short black hair, smiles brightly at the camera
by Joshunda Sanders
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Joshunda Sanders is the author of I Can Write the World, How Racism and Sexism Killed Traditional Media: Why the Future of Journalism Depends on Women and People of Color, and The Beautiful Darkness: A Handbook for Orphans. She lives in the Bronx, New York, and sometimes tweets @JoshundaSanders.

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6 Comments Have Been Posted

My first job was in my

My first job was in my aunty's jewellery shop when I was 14. (That is, other than delivering junk mail when I was 12-13 for like $2 an hour, but that was a joke!). She was a mentor to me: a great salesperson, passionate about jewellery, stern with high-expectations. I didn't get any special treatment, quite the opposite! She expected more of me because I was family.

She taught me a lot, gave me confidence, and inspired me to walk in her footsteps somewhat (I've also gone on to become a workplace trainer like she did).

My dad also inspired me - he's been self-employed as a photo-journalist for 30 years. Once again - confidence is key. He is a bit of a big-noter, but that can have it's advantages. You need to advocate for yourself - there won't always be someone there to do it for you. Especially for women - so many are too modest. (Last night I made a tray of brownies and was worried it was too squidgy. My boyfriend told me I always worry that my baking is not quite right, but it's always amazing - now that I realise this I'm going to make an effort to stop apologising!)

I was also lucky to have a mentor when I transferred interstate with my company. From when I arrived she took me under her wing and encouraged me to pursue my current role.

Telling girls that looks

Telling girls that looks don't matter and that hard work pays off? Both very dangerous lies unless they come complete with a comprehensive arsenal of ways to counter the pressure and make oneself some space for pursuing one's passion and developing one's talent and skills. Looks and image do matter, sometimes more than any amount of passion, talent or skill, especially in the entertainment industry, especially for WOC. To use the post's example, Mariah Carey is am amazing artist, but I suspect she would not be THE Mariah Carey if she didn't look fabulous and if she didn't fulfill the basic criteria of being light-skinned, able-bodied, skinny-ish.

I'm glad for the author if someone saying the words was all she needed in order to get on with her own program, but that is simply not the case for a great deal of women and girls in this world.

Jennifer Hudson's take on looks

I agree that Mariah Carey's talent might have gone unnoticed if she didn't look the part. Similarly, in her book "I Got This" Jennifer Hudson was advised that even though she is supremely talented, her weight would stand in her way. She says that she is glad to have lost weight so that her talent could shine through. She is about a lot more than looks, but looking the part removed an obstacle from her path.

World of Work Guidance?

I got, and still get, so many conflicting messages about my career from my family. The loudest one is that they don't care about my professional aspirations and that I'll be lucky to get a job or make any money at all. My dad is chronically late and I still struggle with a tendency to misjudge how long it takes to get ready or travel to places.

His most recent comment was, yesterday, that he should have taught me to "lie" better so I could tell interviewers that I am never late. Also, that I could work in his (yet to exist) coffee shop. This, and I recently graduated with a master's degree in social work! I feel very angry when I think about it.

As far as looks and abilities go, beauty is definitely a double-edged sword. I learned that I had to look as attractive as possible while somehow not caring or putting effort into what I looked like. I'm glad that the author was able to ask these girls to look beyond their physical traits while still respecting them and their dreams.

Thanks for an insightful post.

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