The Grind After College To Find A Career Path

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Growing up in America, I always knew my ticket out of poverty was a college education. 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 return for graduate school for my MBA in Strategic Leadership. I had a lot of momentum during those years building on my personal brand. 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 forged relationships with organizations in New Hampshire and throughout the country. They booked me as a speaker fairly frequently.

I knew that getting a degree would not magically open up opportunities. The summer between college and grad school found me a very busy man. Along with many other people, I applied for a job with a State Department 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 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 Rick 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 Kisha and me. Kisha was very supportive. She worked full time and went to school part time. We were excited to be married and tackle life together.

Community event at the Pakistani Leadership Institute

Community event at the Pakistani Leadership Institute

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 when I was freshman in college, I had planned to pursue a State Department 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 knowledge 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. So I knew I would allow nothing but time to come between me and my goals.

Deo speaking to students in Pittsburgh PA in 2011

Deo speaking to students in Pittsburgh PA in 2011

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 good friend Tyler York decided to come on board to help me promote myself. He introduced me to his brother Travis who ran a marketing agency. I told Travis my story and the work I had been doing. He was pretty captivated. I don’t think he blinked until I was done with my pitch. Then he leaned closer to me and kind of smiled. “Your brand is Deo Mwano. Right? So you should be the public face of the brand.” His tone was matter-of-fact, as if what he was telling me should be obvious. In retrospect I guess it was. I just didn’t want people to think I was being boastful, or egotistical, splashing my name and face all over every promotional piece. “And go with the tagline you’ve been using, ‘Persevere to Excel.’ You’re the definition of persevere and excel.”

Deo Mwano logo Diego created after taking advice from Travis and Kyle York.

Deo Mwano logo Diego created after taking advice from Travis and Kyle York.

I left that meeting and reached out to my friend, Diego, a graphic designer living in Pittsburgh, PA. 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 at my workshops all over the country. Tyler’s support and the tools I was learning in my graduate classes worked hand in hand. I tried applying 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. Her fan page had a few million followers. 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. TedX events, which are part of Ted Talks, which are locally hosted and organized forums that allow subject matter experts to present for up to ten minutes. It is a big deal for speakers who are trying to get their names out in public. I felt very honored to be selected to present at TedX Amoskeag  the first local TedX event to be hosted in Manchester NH. The presentation was half-story and half-performance, and lasted 10 minutes. After it was over, one of the hosts reached out to Tyler and me. She worked for a speaker’s agency. She enjoyed my story and invited us to meet with the rest of her team in Boston. The agency liked our presentation, too, and decided to represent me . It meant that they would pitch me for potential speaking engagements all over the country. The agreement was non-exclusive, so I could book events on my own without violating agency policies. Shortly after the agreement was finalized, I got my first booking. I was paid $5,000 for one presentation. The agency fee was 15 - 25%. I was very excited to have an agency pitching me to different organizations. The non-exclusive aspect was beneficial because it allowed us to get our own bookings. This motivated me to grind even harder to push the Deo Mwano brand.

Deo presenting at Tedx AmoskeagMillyard 2011

Deo presenting at Tedx AmoskeagMillyard 2011

What energized me about creating and pushing the Deo Mwano brand was that it reflected what I believe in. It revitalized me to see my ideas turn into 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 who to choose for a partner and who to turn down.

Even with all the excitement about my new business taking root, I remained very focused on my MBA program. It was no surprise that I remained 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 would have to push very hard to provide for my wife and me. On the other hand, the State Department route offered job security and amazing benefits. So, while pushing the Deo Mwano brand, I started applying to different State Department 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 lined up. I was a little frustrated that I did not yet have a secure job though. Many prospective employers were not even replying, and the ones who were interested in hiring me didn’t appeal to me. I did not want to compromise myself for a paycheck. I wanted to make sure the job aligned with my values and mission. On the other hand, my life had recently change in a way that dramatically shortened my timeline to land a secure job after becoming a father.

I applied for a Department of State job at the National Passport Center as an adjudicator. This job appealed to me, since it would give me an opportunity to use many of the skills I learned in college. These skills convinced me that I was a very marketable entity. I started to become invested in the possibility that I would get the State Department job. I was encouraged further when I received an automatic reply that my application had advanced to the next level. Even my was persevering on its own!

While I waited to hear more about my submission status, my former graduate school professor, Heather, was 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 the college recently received Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation money to develop a coaching model for adult learners. So, I met with the Chief Learning Architect, Yvonne. 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 made me an offer, along 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.

Deo and Learning Coach team at a coach retreat.

Deo and Learning Coach team at a coach retreat.

The opportunities with the five other coaches were amazing. We had a blank 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 have 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 be offered a Department of State job with a substantial pay increase every year. I could not justify turning it down. The hitch was that I needed to obtain a High Security Clearance first because my job would require dealing with sensitive documents. The clearance took another two months. During that 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. Working from 6:00 a.m. to 2:30 p.m. allowed me to also work for the university from 3:30 to 8:30, as well as remotely on some Saturday mornings.

Deo’s desk badge at the National Passport Center

Deo’s desk badge at the National Passport Center

Adjusting to the new hours was quick and straightforward. Adjusting to working two great jobs every day was emotionally challenging. 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 and the students.. I was moved by my students’ stories, and coaching was very rewarding for me. I learned a great deal about people—and perseverance—through their tales of overcoming setbacks and challenges. I found myself digging deeper into the coaching model we were developing based on the milestones I was seeing my students reach. I wished I could spend more time them, hear about their milestones in real time. Missing a milestone was like missing your baby’s first steps.

After 6 months on the job, I decided to leave the State Department 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. They all gave me a green light regardless of which direction I decided to go.

I never looked back. I excelled 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  150 of coaches to inspire positive results for over 4,500 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. 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. It changed my life, too.

Deo in Rwanda with Kepler students in 2015

Deo in Rwanda with Kepler students in 2015

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 learning approach initiatives. I was not going to learn those skills at the State Department, at least not early in my career. Most of the work I did at the State Department as an adjudicator was prescribed. I had a script to follow. It did not use all of my brain. The job was merely a stepping stone. It did not compare in terms of excitement and innovation to 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 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 on what drives them.

It is a powerful tool to communicate with others in a way that empowers them to dig below the surface. Perseverance is a current that, on one level, is easy for people to see. But it is also an undercurrent, invisible to the eye. To fully tap into it requires introspection.

Empowering others to dig deeper has also transformed how I view others in their own 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, and 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 to landing a career you want is being resourceful and knowing what your personal brand is. Stay true to your brand and your mission will flow from it organically. To put it even more simply: what you do is who you are.

In my experience people don’t aimlessly jump from one job to another because they keep following the light. They do it because they are operating in the dark. They have not yet discovered their own brand.

Knowing your own brand is essential because it gives you a point of reference to identify how it aligns with the work you are doing for someone else. When I first got out of college, finding what I really wanted to do was a grind. Once I discovered my own brand, all the pieces of my career began to fall in place.