It was 86 degrees outside, inside it felt like 96 because there was no AC in this apartment. Last night we slept with the mini fridge open because we couldn't afford fans at the time. The DVD player looped every episode in the Fresh Prince of Bel Air disc set because there was no cable or internet. The kitchen was rodent infested and the water was clear when it chose to be.
Each morning was a routine - folding up the air mattress and storing it in the closet so that we had enough room to iron. Memo: this rhetoric isn’t to make my circumstances sound any more dramatic, but rather to make the details more bearable.
We could only afford to rent one room out of the three bedroom apartment deep on 169 St. Jamaica, Queens. For the rest of the summer I would travel from 169 St. & Hillside Avenue to Soho to make my unpaid internship work. If you're familiar with New York City, you know that's quite the culture shift. But today it was my first day and I was happy. Today was June 3rd, my 21st birthday.
But that's not why I was happy, I’d actually forgotten until HR reminded me that morning. I was elated because of the opportunity and it’s the best birthday gift I’ve ever given myself. I was a marketing intern at Blip Networks, which was later acquired by Maker Studios. They were an entertainment hub for web series and for an entire summer I had the chance to work hands-on in their marketing department. Strategically I sat in between the Marketing Director and the Head of Sales. Each day I tried to learn as much as I possibly could and every night I would camp out at the local college library, using their internet until it closed at night.
Creatively, I was always forward thinking and my drive is purely why I’m here. I was the child who got up earlier on snow days, not for the sledding, but to shovel my neighbors’ walkways before they got the chance to for spending money. I took the same approach in the work environment. I was on a very tight budget during the time, the only income I had was from freelance writing in the off hours. For said reasons, New York City was a dream that I could touch and feel but at the moment it wasn’t an option.
I had one, potentially two, years left in school back in Maryland. With that in the back of my mind everyday, my desire was to get the most I could out of my time. That entailed creating as many relationships at my internship as possible and I closely studied how a successful startup operates internally. After that summer I had written a marketing campaign around one of Blip’s new shows and worked on various other projects for their new programs. The only possessions I had to my name was the car I’d driven to up to New York City in and the trunk that had become my new closet. I bought the car myself from freelance writing projects that I’d done over the previous semester. But now I’d had a vision of where I wanted to be, what I wanted to do professionally, and the massive amounts I just learned.
Sounds simple right? Simple, not easy. My mindset since a kid has always competed with the notion that some fictional human being is always outworking me. Regardless of how tired I was, regardless of the circumstances or the obstacles faced - there was someone with a worse situation that will persevere. The only issue was that I had to conquer this educational feat while dealing with real life.
For the next year I took 22 credits per semester with 12 credits taken over the following summer. But the next 18 months also meant a life of sleeping out my car when I had overstayed my welcome at the homes of various friends or didn’t have the gas to get from point A to point B.
From time to time I slept in the library at my alma mater, UMBC (I really appreciated the whiteboards). To make money, I continued to freelance and started a B2B digital tech service that I would work on after class. My outlook was that the education and internships wouldn’t be enough to beat out my competition in the corporate world, I needed more. My father laughed when he’d heard that my friend Ben and I started a company called Kid Genius, though it seems the name fit pretty well. We created mobile apps and websites for our clients and then helped them with marketing execution for following months. Our business was essentially kickstarting digital platforms and it helped us pay our way through school.
There may be no better learning test than marketing with no money. I had to truly find organic strategies for inbound marketing but the experience was unrivaled. I graduated with 3.4 GPA but more importantly I’d gotten the validation that I can earn my degree all the while getting entrepreneurial experience as well.
My mission was to diversify my background but gather a true understanding of content and digital marketing. This meant everything from writing for Funny or Die to writing and directing the short film Black Theory about racism in the media.
The obstacles were undoubtedly plentiful but I was set on a goal and hadn’t veered from that mission. Even after a day of 5-6 classes, at times I would take the four hour Greyhound bus ride if I had an interview in New York City. My class schedule was so hectic that I’d often have another bus ticket booked for my return trip directly after the meeting. But I took any opportunity as gold.
Eagerly I was working and waiting for until I got my degree and could make my way back to New York City. Ironically, my friends from summers before were gracious enough to lend me their couch as I attempted to navigate the New York City’s job market. I’d given my car to my mom in an effort to “burn the ships” and I packed my two duffel bags of clothes in preparation for the next chapter. I was determined to never live out of the trunk again After a long two months of couch surfing, I landed my first role at a creative agency in the financial district.
I was raised in a low income household but in a financially sufficient neighborhood, so there was clear diversity in the town and schools. To give you a clearer depiction, my local high school had both a day care and a full selection of AP classes. My parents were hardworking but busy with real life, and to keep my younger brothers and I afloat, they had to keep their head above water.
Just last year was the first deep breath I’ve gotten to take in a long time. There were so many instances when I thought “Have I been tricking myself?” or “Is all this really worth it?” even though I didn’t really have another option. In hindsight, everything was worth it. I’ve heard hundreds of No’s, made bus trips only for a CEO to cancel a meeting, and I probably wore the same shirt and tie to my first 20 interviews. But, more importantly, I knew what I’d learned and took the initiative to teach myself what I didn’t know over the years.
All the various skills I’ve sought to perfect have all came into play at some point throughout my professional career. I now work in one of the most forward thinking industries in augmented reality and I never thought I’d be able to say I have Madison Square Garden in my backyard.
Writing gave me a voice - whether I was writing on a pen and a pad in my backseat during college nights and transcribing it on computer the next morning or using content to drive leads for a marketing campaign. I’ve always said I’m not a product of my environment but a product of my situation. I’ve failed many times. Many times my ideas seemed extreme or too insurmountable. Despite it, I wasn’t afraid because I knew the right effort would eventually result in more important successes. I invite you to challenge conventional thinking and continue to battle stigmas like the idea that millennials aren’t hard working or even that there isn’t enough time in the day. It’s rarely crowded on the extra mile. As the young kid from Maryland who turned his passion of storytelling into his profession - you can truly change your outcome with the right mindset and work ethic.