The Difference Dialogues, Chapter 5
From Passion to Profession; A Spotlight on Leslie Harris
Welcome back to The Difference Dialogues! We’ve returned from our brief hiatus with refreshed minds and exciting new ideas on how to diffuse the message of inclusivity and diversity within the Marketing and Advertising industries. This blog series serves to convey the objectives laid out in The Mosaic Principles, an initiative composed by the American Advertising Federation (AAF), to highlight important topics on diversity, and recognize talent of all backgrounds around Austin to highlight their ever-present impact on today’s rapidly shifting marketplace.
So without further ado, allow me to introduce Leslie Harris. Leslie is a creative force originally hailing from Detroit, Michigan, who currently works as a Visual Designer at T3, an innovation agency headquartered in Central Austin. Her career journey is not unlike most, with its meandering path through her youth into the vague uncertainty of decision making in college (that is until it one day clicked for her, read on for the full story)—except for the fact that it’s actually entirely different. As a Black woman in America, Leslie has faced many social obstacles in the pursuit of her passions, and transforming those passions into a career has been no easy feat. It’s no secret that young professionals often feel lost or misguided in their attempts to settle on a career, but those cuts run deeper when they feel unwelcome in spaces based on gender, cultural pressures, or the color of their skin. With this in mind, she knew the only way to break through her glass ceiling was to hammer through it. Her story carries history from as far as grade school, subtle wit, and a kind of forthrightness that’s rare in younger generations. Her tough mentality and approach to embracing her true identity is truly laudable, and we’re grateful to her for sharing her story.
Leslie received her BFA from Grand Valley State University and is currently completing her MFA from Texas State University.
When did you finally realize you wanted to go into Visual Design?
I didn't really know what I wanted to do when I started school so I majored in Psychology. Hated it. It wasn't until my sophomore year that I changed my major to art but I was incredibly worried I wouldn't be able to make money in the field. Even when I graduated with a job I was unsure how well I'd do or if this was the job I really wanted. I don't really have doubts anymore but I think it's largely because I keep working and learning new things that challenge me, which I love. I figured out I was gonna be a designer in the car with my mom on my way home from God knows where. It was a total Step Brothers moment. She was like "Did we just figure out your whole life?" I was like, "Yep!" If you don't know Step Brothers well enough to know what scene I'm talking about then we can't even be friends honestly.
Who/What inspired you to seek out a career in Advertising?
I started my career in technology working as a designer in-house for a mobile advertising company. Advertising just kind of felt like the next step for me. I've been a designer for a minute now and I saw holes in my education, or rather, things I wanted to know, so I dove head first.
What is the hardest part about your job?
The hardest part of my job is feeling lost. But it's also the best part. Knowing that I'm lost means that I'm onto something new, it means I'm about to learn something new. I'm a good designer, but I get better with each day and I have people around me pushing me to get better.
I don't see criticism and feedback as someone attacking me personally. I see it as someone saying "I know you can do this, keep pushing"
My dad always told me that people ask things of me because they know I'm capable and I'm the best person to do it. I see that a lot in my career.
What was the most important lesson/class/experience that prepared you for your career?
One of the most important lessons I have ever had in my life as a person was from one of my middle school teachers, Latha Krishnan. She was notorious for her speeches in school but on one occasion she was discussing the concept of the word "No" in reference to the opportunities that you will receive in life. Mrs. Krishnan was an Indian American woman who spent the majority of her career as an English teacher in Detroit public schools, some of the poorest and decrepit schools in the United States.
For this particular speech, she was talking about how the world will tell you 'No'. As someone who is both Black and a woman, I have heard the word 'No' so many times and in so many different formats you would not believe.
Anyway, Mrs. Krishnan said “No,” in this scenario is just, and I quote, "A two letter word. And who should be afraid of a two-letter word?"
She shouldn't have told me that. I started flexin’ after that.
Growing up, did you feel you were given much of an option when it came to choosing a career path?
Yes. My parents pushed me to do whatever I wanted to do as a child. They just wanted to be sure I was happy. As an adult, I'm eternally grateful for it. My parents gave me space to figure out what it was I wanted to do in life. Now that I'm a "grown-up" I can see a lot of people I know unhappy with their lives and jobs because they didn't have the opportunity to really figure out what they wanted to do/who they wanted to be in life.
What internal challenges did you face entering into the industry?
Being a Black woman in almost every professional space is pretty weird. So in addition to being in a position where you often function as a mouthpiece for your entire race, I also have people asking me questions about things like my natural hair as if the internet doesn't exist. I started off my career in Tech which is very white and male, so I stood out like a sore thumb. In the beginning, it bothered me a lot. I caught myself censoring myself often so as not reveal too much of who I really am. A few years ago, however, I decided to stop censoring myself and just be me. Being a Black woman (from Detroit, no less) is what makes me amazing.
Could you tell us of a time you felt you were treated differently/hindered from something in the workplace on an account of your race/gender, or both? How did you deal with it, and what did you learn from it?
In my career people have often tried to put me in positions where I might ultimately fail because they have not afforded me the proper resources to succeed. In the professional world, Black women are often put in positions that are less than ideal because it is a well known fact that they will make the best out of whatever they have. Making something out of nothing is part of the magic that is being a Black woman, however, we are not your fixers or your scapegoats.
A few years ago I made the conscious decision to start saying "no". I'm a firm believer in only taking part in things that return the same amount of energy to me. This is for everything in my life including people, jobs, opportunities, etc. If the relationship is not mutually beneficial, it doesn't exist.
What advice would you give these young students, so they can find success in advertising?
Learn as much as you can. Ask stupid ass questions. Leverage every bit of technology you have access to succeed in this world. HUSTLE. Take care of yourself. Mentally, spiritually, emotionally, whatever. You can't give if you ain't got. Be yourself. Don't censor yourself. That lil extra sauce is what makes you, you and it's what makes you poppin’. Flex.
Oh and finesse the system as much as you can, as often as you can.
Thanks for joining us. Stay tuned for more projects from Ad 2 Austin’s Diversity Committee in the not too distant future. In the meantime, stay warm! Or dry. Or hydrated. It’s Texas, who knows.