By Robin McDougal
When it comes to leadership, “thinking big” means coming up with innovative solutions to common problems, standing strong through adversity, and being able to eloquently articulate your vision.
I can’t think of a better example of an entrepreneur who embodies these abilities than Sophia Nelson, an attorney and a social and political contributor for MSNBC, who has also been a guest analyst for CNN, NPR, and BET. For years, she has been a strong voice in the discussion about the conditions of women in the United States.
It was my pleasure to interview her about her book, Black Woman Redefined: Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment in the Age of Michelle Obama.
The goal of the book, she explains, is to teach black women how to understand and transform unsettling trends, such as high workplace stress and halted career advancement. She also hopes to help black women better understand how to balance spirituality and sexuality, and tackle challenging situations in their personal lives. For example, 70 percent of all professional black women she interviewed were unmarried, but reported a strong desire to become mothers.
“My hope is that the book will gently urge all college-educated black women, especially the generation of young aspiring professionals in their 20s and 30s, to reject stereotypes and predictable outcomes by redefining themselves,” she says. For this group of black women (which numbers in the millions) to find lasting satisfaction, she believes they must begin to understand their unique experiences, family patterns, social contexts, and spiritual strengths—rather than focusing on weaknesses and limitations.
“Only then can we rid ourselves of that hard exterior and reveal our innate beauty, brilliance, compassion, sensuality, and soul,” she insists. “Then we can be free not only to thrive in our careers, but in our personal lives as well.”
Read on to learn more about why this fascinating woman is determined to spread her redefining message.
Robin McDougal: Thinking big entails growing a concept into a big idea. How, and why, did you embark on writing this book?
Sophia Nelson: Writing “Black Woman Redefined” was a passion. In fact, I was somewhat mad about it, which I believe happens to most people who pursue big dreams, goals, and projects. They have to get mad so that they can withstand the pitfalls and inevitable problems they encounter along the way to success.
Robin McDougal: Redefining the African-American woman is obviously a huge and complex task. Why was this so important for you to do?
Sophia Nelson: Because I have two nieces (as you’ll read all about in Chapter 9), and I adore them. if I can accomplish anything with this book, it will be for them never to have to endure some of what I have dealt with. I want them to know their value, and to be able to ignore any negative images about black women that dominate our culture. I am appalled by the blog entry that was originally posted (and then quickly removed) on the Psychology Today website, entitled, Why Black Women Are Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women. My book pushes back on rubbish like that.
Robin McDougal: What type of impact do you expect your book to have on black women, and also on the American community?
Sophia Nelson: I am determined to see the “age of Michelle Obama” be one that truly transforms the lives of black women and of women everywhere. Of course, she is doing a beautiful job as a role model. My hope is that the book will simply provide additional data and anecdotes to further support the trend that she is setting.
Robin McDougal: Thinking big can be a lonely process. What environment best supports your creative process?
Sophia Nelson: Yes thinking big can be a lonely place. So I do everything possible to keep those in my “sanctum sanctorum” (my inner circle) close by. These are people of faith, of inspiration, and of truth. These women and men breathe life into me when I feel the strain and stress of pursuing my big dreams, and their constant encouragement and thoughtful feedback makes all the difference to me. These are the people I trust with my life.
Robin McDougal: Big ideas often require a collaborative effort, often with others who have divergent abilities. Who helped you with the book project, and what steps did you take to bring it to fruition?
Sophia Nelson: Many people helped bring this book to fruition, but I have to give a lot of credit to pollster Kellyanne Conway. I began working with her in late 2005, and it took us five years to make the book happen. One of the biggest challenges was to stay patient. We started out with the required book proposal and research strategy, and we had a plan, but were flexible. That helped the most, because despite quite a few unforeseen setbacks, we were able to persevere.
Robin McDougal: I know from experience that big ideas are often rejected before they are embraced. How was the concept for the book initially received?
Sophia Nelson: This book was met with a lot of resistance by agents, publishers, and my friends in the media. But, as people who are driven to succeed do, my team and I made our way around the obstacles.
The late Manie Barron was my literary agent until Claudia Menza took over at BenBella Books. Manie was one of the first black men to be an editor in a major publishing house, and he understood that serious black books, written by black authors, sharing our life experiences and perspectives, were rare—and that we need to expand the publishing horizon to include our voices. Sadly, he died before the book was published.
But I am like the fabled Tortoise—slower, more strategic, always underestimated because of my size (5’ “3, 110 lbs.), gender, and race. But in the end, somehow I finish first.
I think it is too early to say how well this book will do, and if it will be embraced by the broader culture. But if pre-sales are any indication, then this book will be very popular. I knew it on the day I walked into the largest Barnes & Noble in the Washington, DC, Metro region, and saw 25 of my books prominently displayed at the front of the store. The young black woman who worked there came up to me and said, “You are the first black woman who has ever had a display like this in our store.” I wanted to hug her.
Robin McDougal: Leaders inspire others to be the best version of themselves. How does your book help women to harness their power?
Sophia Nelson: I hope that they realize that life is not about things or achievements, but that it is a journey. It is about the people you love, the things you love, and who loves you back. Lock that down and you can unleash your deepest passions and abilities. When we are loved, nurtured, and fulfilled—we soar!
Robin McDougal: Thinking big requires a fearless outlook. But aren’t there challenges, too?
Sophia Nelson: You bet there are. I truly believe that this is the century of the woman. We are fabulous and doing everything we dream of. The challenge is that we are also doing everything—from taking care of our families (kids, husbands, and often our aging parents) to working long hours in tough jobs or running our own businesses. We clean up, we cook, we shop, and we try to find time to exercise, relax, and be with our friends.
Too often, that leaves us tired, weary, and burned-out. While thinking big is critical to achieving one’s goals and dreams, it must be balanced with a good safety net, a support network, and lots of faith. That is what I want most to impart to women everywhere.
Robin McDougal: What advice do you give other thought leaders?
Sophia Nelson: Be the master of your fate, and the captain of your soul. Keep walking toward your dream, even when everyone tells you it cannot be done, or that you will not succeed. Period. In order to be a true thought leader, you have to persevere in the face of tragedy, triumph, loss, and pain. The quest to find success is a journey. Going through the process is the only way that we grow.
Robin McDougal: Many leaders believe the buck stops on their desk. Do you agree?
Sophia Nelson: Harry Truman is my favorite president, and I live by his famous statement, The buck stops here. Granted, it can be a tough maxim to embrace in our culture, which embraces selfishness, entitlement, and lack of accountability.
The lessons that I learned drafting, researching, selling, writing, outlining, and ultimately publishing this book with a major publisher are so many I could never list them all. But the biggest lesson I learned was that life is like a storm—one minute the sun is shining and you are basking in the light, and the next minute some storm clouds appear, and the wind rages.
The key is to be adaptable, like water, and to be able to travel through, over, and under any terrain to get to where you know you must be.
I did not have a choice in writing this book, and I mean that sincerely. I am a woman possessed with making sure this message, at this time, gets out to the masses. I learned that in the midst of winter lay in me an invincible summer.
Robin McDougal recommends the following steps when crafting your next big idea.
- 1. Think on a national, global, or integrated scale.
- 2. Take the time to identify those who will benefit by your idea. Once you know your audience, it will be easier to speak to them in an effective manner.
- 3. Collaborate with like-minded people.
- 4. Exercise divergent techniques to expand your thinking.
- 5. Follow through on your vision by articulating your intent to the people you serve. Utilize social media, publish, speak, and make presentations to get your word out.
- 6. Commit to your determination to deliver your big idea, regardless of the obstacles or barriers.
- 7. Surround yourself with believers and block out naysayers until you can stand strong.
- 8. Brand your idea and own it. Always trademark your intellectual property.
- 9. Build a cadre of communicators to spread your story on your behalf, and go viral with your big idea.
- 10. Design an organic success formula that others can follow, because thinking big means helping others achieve their goals.
For more information, “click here to read more about Black Woman Redefined by Sophia Nelson.
About Robin McDougal
For the last 25 years, Robin McDougal has been a marketing executive at Trans World Airlines and the Marriott Corporation, and has conducted spaceflight simulations and developed a critical thinking and problem-solving curriculum for the Challenger Center for Space Science Education.
In 2001, she founded e-GLAM Inc., a manufacturer of high-end laptop briefcases and handbags. For more information, visit www.e-glam.com.
Check out Robin’s blog, Robinmcdougal.wordpress.com.
And click here to read how Robin McDougal, Has It in the Bag.