Cup 31

Person: Kenyatta Berry

Location: Phone call from Michigan to California  

It’s all right to strike out a few times.

In college, Kenyatta Berry found herself on academic probation. It wouldn’t be the first time, and it wasn’t because she wasn’t smart. In high school she had gone to a Detroit magnet school for gifted kids, never left the house without a book to read if she had a few spare minutes, and was always interested in learning. But her grades hadn’t reflected that. Still, she had made it into Michigan State, where she graduated with a degree in Business Administration and then headed to law school.

It was during her time at law school that she discovered an emerging technological phenomenon called the Internet. Kenyatta didn’t understand was it was, or what it would become, but she knew she wanted to be a part of it. She started aiming her law classes toward Intellectual Property and and Patent Law, and helped start a student group focused on Internet Law.

She was active and driven, but her grades weren’t cutting it—once again, she was placed on academic probation. Unfortunately, that wasn’t her biggest worry. During her senior year, her law school had a controversial racial issue that prompted Kenyatta to send an audacious email to the student body, which she copied to the Dean of the college.

The Dean was not impressed. He threatened a defamation suit, which led to a host of issues and problems that were eventually worked out without a lawsuit taking place. At the end of the year Kenyatta walked to the Wailing Wall (the spot where grades were posted) to discover her grades were sufficient to graduate. She happily collected her degree and moved on to the next stage of her life without looking back.

Kenyatta was set on a job in the tech space, specifically one in D.C. She called the company every day, and her persistence paid off. They offered her a job so she picked up and moved to D.C., where she worked until the dot-com crash terminated both her job and the company. She wasn’t unemployed long before finding an opening at a small unknown company called Blackboard. Although she was greatly overqualified, she took the position and quickly rose through the ranks as Blackboard became a leader in online platforms for education.

After five years, Kenyatta realized she needed a change and decided to leave the company. When she quit Blackboard she didn’t have a plan, but wasn’t worried, she knew her experience working for Blackboard would be one that opened a lot of doors in her future. Plus she was resourceful. She was right. She soon took a job with a different Internet company in Massachusetts exploring her true passion: genealogy. She had become fascinated with the idea of tracing her roots and decided to  convert it from a hobby into a real venture.

In the process of looking for funding, an investor gave her valuable advice. Kenyatta was most interested in genealogy focused on slavery. The investors in Massachusetts weren’t interested in touching a sensitive issue like slavery, and told her she needed to move to California where the strong entrepreneurial environment might create more opportunities for her idea. Without hesitation, she picked up and moved across the country to put her idea in motion.

It was a smart move. Kenyatta found a job, her current position, in Los Angeles at an education company that she truly enjoys; she is also working on building her own company during her free time away from work.

The rest of the story is unwritten. Where her company and genealogy passion will take her is uncertain, but she is excited to find out. Despite the ups and downs of college, the short moments of unemployment, company changes, and multiple moves, Kenyatta has built a life that she greatly enjoys. It is a life filled with meaningful employment and opportunities to pursue her passion, helping others in the process. She may have gotten a few bumps and bruises along the way, but she’s overcome the mistakes and close encounters with failure that stood in her way.

That’s an important lesson for a 22-year-old to hear, especially one who’s not prone to discord.

During high school and my first two years of college, grades meant a lot to me. While I’ve since subscribed to Mark Twain’s admonition not to let schooling get in the way of my education, back then grades were my highest priority (and source of stress). I still work hard in school, but those three numbers in my GPA are no longer indicators of my ability to succeed in life.

In high school, I was the last to raise a ruckus. I wasn’t perfect, but I could usually figure out the system well enough to know how to bend the rules without breaking them. Either way, I made it a point to stay between the lines—I didn’t want one accidental misstep to get in the way of my future.

In the end, my choices paid off. My permanent record had a handful of gold stars and (aside from a few parking tickets) not a single red flag. I left high school with a collection of wonderful memories, a great scholarship to college, and the expectation of keeping my good streak going.

Now don’t get me wrong, I think I approached high school in positive way; however, looking back, I realize it was a safe approach, almost timid. I wanted to be what people expected me to be, which was both stifling and stressful. It prevented the type of bold actions that might ruffle a few feathers, or lead to a failure that all my friends and family would see.

That certainly kept me out of trouble in high school, but now that I’m past  that  adolescent phase, I’m considering various entrepreneurial ventures that don’t allow for timidness. Kenyatta showed me that boldness is an asset; she has spunk, as do a great number of other game-changers.

I explained to Kenyatta how our mindsets differed, and asked how she handled so many strikes against her. Her response, and the conviction in her voice as she said it, will stick with me: “Everything is a learning experience.” Each of her academic and personal struggles taught her something and made her stronger for the next challenge or stumbling-block. Her experiences have made her resilient, and she knows she’ll never encounter a defeat too large to recover from.

It is that arsenal of resiliency, passion, intellect and vision that makes her unstoppable and able to push boundaries.

It’s also a combination that requires a lot of hustle to maintain. Academic probation and unemployment aren’t exactly relaxing situations. Kenyatta has been in a lot of sink-or-swim situations, which means she knows how to work hard and be resourceful. She admits that it was a lot of work.

Kenyatta’s story showed me how to be comfortable with failure. That doesn’t mean trying to fail, or being okay with it, but rather accepting failure as a common ingredient in life. It’s not the end of the world.

I realize now that I had stayed in line and worked hard so external sources could validate me: good grades proved that I was smart; no major failures meant I was a success. But if I continued to build that life, I might not take risks out of fear I’d misstep and lose everything in the process—including the validation from others.

Kenyatta taught me the value of looking inward, to find validation based on self-awareness and past experiences. If you can do that, you can create a confidence and resilience that fosters risk taking, because you know that failure doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough, it just means you need to get up and attack the challenge again.

Cup 31 taught me I shouldn’t be afraid of striking out, and to refuse to give up until I hit a home run.