That Time I Left Corporate America & How You Can Too

With this being the first blog post of my foray into capturing my life, I feel like this story is important to tell. Why? Well honestly, it’s because I feel like there have to be others out there like me, looking for that next level of fulfillment in life, hoping that there is more than just where we are now. I’m made the leap to search for the next level, a leap that some may still be contemplating. My belief is that telling my stories as I go, while in the process of leaving my legacy in and for my family, can help folks on that same path go beyond the barriers in their hearts and minds so they can reach the fulfillment they seek. So here we go…
I am a millennial. I was born in ‘83, raised in blue-collar Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where I spent 18 years of my life growing up. I got the chance (by way of an amazing story I’ll tell in another post one day) to attend to Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland for electrical and computer engineering. I spent 7 years of my life in Baltimore up until I got the opportunity to start my engineering career. Northrop Grumman was the company that gave me a shot. After 2 interviews, they told me they had good news and bad news.
I said, “okay what’s good news?”
“You got the job.”
“Great! So then what’s the bad news?”
“The bad news is that it’s in Los Angeles, California, pretty far from Baltimore. You want the job?”
To me, all of that was good news; a great opportunity, a fresh start in a really dope city with amazing weather. Obviously, my answer was yes. So, my girlfriend at the time (who is now my beautiful wife), my oldest daughter and I all moved out to LA and started this new journey and awesome part of our lives together. The universe had to be on my side because not only did they hire me, but they paid to move me from the east coast to the west coast.
Or at least so I thought. It didn’t take me long to realize that I really hated my job. I spent all this time, literally 7 years of my life getting prepared for this moment to start an engineering career to only get into it and realize I hate everything about it (except the pay of course. Engineers get paid pretty well. lol). I hated the social environment. It wasn’t a space where workplace culture was important to leadership. I never felt like I had work-life balance. Working at a place that does government contracting, there is a certain old-school culture with how you are supposed to do you work. Being one of the youngest guys there (my coworkers literally were all 20+ years older than me), and coming from a school that prepared me for the workforce with cutting-edge technology, let’s just say I didn’t fit the culture. On top of that, I understood that I just didn’t love engineering like I thought I did. It was a miserable experience for me. It was clear, corporate life was not for me. I spent 3 years there and tried to get along to go along. It didn’t work. This is my career, this is the life that I chose and spent 7 years preparing for, and here I am was waking up every day dreading to go to the office. This is a feeling I know so many others have felt. I did it until I couldn’t do it anymore. Something had to give.
If it wasn’t for my wife…
In the summer of my 3rd year, I came into the house one day, I don’t think she knew it at the time, but she changed the course of my life. After asking me about my day and me giving my knee-jerk miserable response, she asked me an amazing set of questions. She said, “Derek, what is your essence? What is it that you want to bring to the world and would do it for free if you could? And if it isn’t engineering, then why are you doing it?” These were such simple questions but they were so hard to answer cause I never thought about my life that way before. I mean, she was right. We have this one life to live. Why waste it doing things that don’t move me to be the best ME that I can be? I really thought about it. It took me two weeks. The answer? I wanted to help people become the best version of themselves, whatever that may be.
I spoke that reality into my life. I know this sounds crazy but it was then that the universe started to move. At this point, the recession started to make its impact. Northrop decided that it had no choice but to let go 500 employees. Yes! 500 EMPLOYEES! Even wilder, my mentor, 1 of 5 black people who worked in my division and one of the longest-tenured employees with almost 30 years with Northop, was selected to be a part of that 500 employees being let go. I couldn’t let that stand, plus I wanted out anyway, so he and I went to speak to my supervisor, I asked if they could let me go instead. My reasoning was that being younger, I had a better shot at being picked up somewhere else but he would have a harder time. They agreed and on January 1st, 2011, I officially got laid off and started collecting unemployment but most importantly I got the time to begin doing something totally different.

So what do I do next?

This is the main question I was asking myself. The answer? I had no idea! Lol Lucky for me though, The questions Nicole asked got me thinking that the next steps should at least be something that really mattered most to me. My essence was to, in whatever way I am able, help people become the best version of themselves as possible. Now that I know my ‘essence’ though, what did that mean I had to do? Did I need to go back to school? If so, for what? How do I know people even need that type of support? Do I need money to start up a business? If so, where do I get that money because my people don’t have it? More importantly, I have a family, so how do I make a living doing this? Answer again, no idea. During this time in my life, I really didn’t know anything about being an entrepreneur and creating my own path either. I had no idea where I would end up if I worked toward this goal. What I did know for sure is that the rabbit hole I was already in after going to school, going to college, getting a job was not where I wanted to end up. I might not have known where I was going, but I knew I didn’t want where I’ve already been.

In conversations I had with friends and colleagues, what most people were suggesting I do is just continue seeking the fulfillment I was searching for in another job. Every time I heard that I kept thinking to myself, “but that’s how I got here in the first place.” They wanted me to keep putting myself in this vicious cycle of spending 3-4 years in a job, realize it not for me, then going to another job and doing it again; like them. I just went away from that energy altogether.

Here are the #MajorKeys for You…

In the same instance of uncertainty in my life, I saw that the set of questions I was asking myself were the same set of questions that someone who is looking to make that leap like I did would be asking themselves. Then it clicked. I found my starting place. I am going to answer these questions for myself by helping others answer the same questions. But did I have to courage to take the leap of faith in this new direction? If I’m being honest, no, I didn’t immediately. But when I spoke it into existence, the universe began to shift around me, making it easier every step of the way.

Step 1: Determine what matters most

Ex: So obviously, I started with my wife. She was my first ‘client.’ 😉  She had a vision for building 100 community school and home gardens in the community we lived in. Why? She wanted to do this because a year earlier, I was diagnosed with high blood pressure and we had to change our lifestyle. Living in a food swamp, where there’s nothing but unhealthy options and not having a car, we needed another way to get access to healthy food. The longevity of our lives really mattered to her and building gardens was her solution for us and the community.

Step 2: Assess where the barriers are, then acknowledge your strengths and play to them

Barriers: Neither one of us had skills in gardening, building community gardens, managing community gardens and being fairly new to the community, we definitely didn’t have the connections to get a program started.

Strengths: I did know how to write a proposal and how to do research. I was never afraid to talk to people and knew that this type of project would need to have some level of school or city government involved. I didn’t know Inglewood politics all that well but being in student government leadership during my college experience, I knew how to deal with politics. We had answers for all the barriers that would have kept us from getting started, so we got to work.

Step 3: EXECUTE! Then repeat step 2

After reaching out to our Councilman who became the mayor, he loved the proposal and linked us up with the head of the organization that adopted the 100 gardens program that is now called the 100 Seeds Of Change food system initiative. Every time we overcame our barriers, new ones would arise. We would just stick to our why, reassess our landscape and execute again. Rinse, wash, repeat. In the last 7 years, we’ve built 104 gardens, taught over 5000 families in nutrition education obesity prevention, given away over 6000 fruit trees to community members so they can grow their own produce, started a farmers’ market, a food delivery program, changed 4 state laws, all while creating a living for ourselves and 8 others doing this work.

Personally, there was nothing but ideas of what my life could be after I left Northrop Grumman. Seven years later, I’m an even prouder black husband and father. I’m also an advocate for health in the community as programs director at the Social Justice Learning Institute. I co-founded Raise The Standards Consulting Group to help businesses modernize their practices and culture to be better suited for millennial employees and also a brand ambassador for a lifestyle club, making me a part-time entrepreneur. Now that this post is published, I am a blogger together with Nicole, and I even have my own podcast too. All of this came from being open to walking within my essence.

The goal is the same, to support those who want to do the same in whatever way that means for them, but now it also includes making an impact in this world, leaving a legacy of progress and wealth for future generations to come in my family. This is why moving forward in 2018, Nicole and I are using this platform for you, and for them. We felt like documenting our level up process, telling the story of our journey to #livelegendary in real-time can be used as a tool for people like you who may be in the same space in life and just need a nudge or a little validation that where you are is ok, and you can do more if you want.

Did this resonate with you? Are you looking to get started in a new direction in your life where you call the shots but don’t know where to start? Do you have the ideas and drive to get started but don’t have the funds to get going? Hit me up. Let’s chat. I may not have all the answers for you, but what I do know is we have this one life and we should be looking to live it as full as possible. Count on me, count on us to support you if you are ready to live more out loud.

Thanks for reading! ???