I was a 20-year old recent math graduate with enviable job offers and a potentially lucrative career in banking already on my horizon.
But… something was missing.
For one, I never actually wanted to work in finance. I wanted to be creative but no one would ever let me. Ever since my school teachers discovered at the tender age of eleven that I had a talent for math and sciences, I’d been nudged, cajoled and downright shoved (the shoving part by my parents) in that unwanted direction. Now I felt backed into a corner.
Most people rebel in their teens but I’d been raised by strict Ghanaian parents in London. As an immigrant, I was well aware of the sacrifices they’d made to give me a good education and I didn’t dare start pushing back against authority until I was prepared to leave home..
Then one day, I was walking down the street, deep in thought when I caught a glimpse of the really swanky west London office building that always had the most interesting people milling around the entrance. It was one of the coolest companies in London at the time and on a crazy impulse, I plucked up the courage to march up to the imposing doors, over to the reception desk and ask for a job. I mean, who does that? Clearly I did. And somehow it worked.
The fashion forward receptionist looked both impressed and amused. She introduced me to an equally fashion forward HR executive and they offered me an internship. To say I was elated was an understatement. This was beyond my wildest dreams. Bye bye banking. Hello new life filled with avant-garde friends and blue-sky thinking.
To say that everyone operated at the edge of their limits, physically, emotionally and mentally, was an understatement.
I was joining a creative agency with mostly fashion clients and I was looking forward to learning how to channel big ideas and connect to the zeitgeist. I was to start on Monday and I spent the entire weekend figuring out the perfect ‘haute couture on a student budget’ outfit for my first day.
The office interior was like a futuristic glass emporium and I took to feeling my way around with my hands to ensure I didn’t walk into walls and doors. To say I worked my butt off during that internship period is a gross understatement. I was the first in and last out, offering my services to anyone who needed them, my coffee making skills honed to perfection.
The agency traded in ideas and were early pioneers of the marketing lingo that’s so ubiquitous today. We were always ideating, disrupting and wordsmithing. It was like the Hunger Games of ideas, and you needed to generate new concepts to survive. I was in my element. All the creativity lying dormant in me burst forth.
The company also had a daunting initiation exercise where junior executives were taken to a crowded bar and tasked with engaging a stranger in conversation for 15 minutes, to help hone our communication skills. That unorthodox training has actually served me well to this day.
My work ethic paid off. After only two weeks, they offered me a full-time junior account executive job and as far as I was concerned, my dreams were made.
But I hadn’t factored in the stress. And screamers. To say that everyone operated at the edge of their limits, physically, emotionally and mentally, was an understatement. The senior directors raised their voices, a lot. Bosses came out of their offices to scream, and others screamed back. It was like the scream Olympics. But that was nothing compared to what was coming. London Fashion Week was imminent and they were one of our prized clients. It was all hands on deck. Nothing was allowed to go wrong.
This was the heyday of London fashion – the time of John Galliano, Alexander McQueen, Philip Treacy and Vivienne Westwood. I supposed that working Fashion Week would be the fullest realization of my wildest creative dreams.
But I was woefully wrong.
By day five I was a mess. I was outwardly calm but shaking violently on the inside.
I learned very quickly that the fashion business was filled with people who thought status was conferred on them only by belittling and condescending to those lower on the totem pole. And as the most junior executive, whose role was to sit at the reception desk, I was on the absolute bottom rung, the front lines of the firing squad, the punching bag for everybody and anybody who had any form of grievance. And they came at me in droves.
First was the glossy magazine editor with the tight leather boots, tight leather dress and tight leather hat. Even her face seemed tight and leather. She was deeply unhappy with her seat allocation. ‘Row 3! Do you know who I am’, she snarled. I didn’t.
Next came the fashion designer whose box of plumes were missing. First time I’d heard plumes used in a sentence. Models screamed at me because there was no diet water, designers screamed because their shows started late.
And at the end of a very long day, I would have to go back to the office and stuff invitations into envelopes, then get the late train home and collapse, only to repeat the entire process the next day. By day five I was a mess. I was outwardly calm but shaking violently on the inside. I somehow held it together to the end, then called a friend and let it all out. It was a mini breakdown of sorts. I just cried until I had nothing left.
That culture of dictatorial behavior exists throughout society, not just the fashion industry. I saw it again in full effect in the film business where I eventually found my true career passion. Leaders are modeling behavior that’s morally unacceptable and it has contributed to the current predicament faced by women in the workplace. While we’re having the #MeToo conversation we also need to talk about bullying.
Although I’ve experienced a lot of workplace stress throughout my career, nothing has ever quite matched that first experience. It was a baptism by fire but because of it or maybe despite it, I now handle deadlines and emergencies like a pro. An immovable rock. Oh and did I mention that I met Princess Diana at Fashion Week. It lasted all of thirty glorious seconds and she was as gracious and as princess-like as you would hope. That part made it almost worthwhile. Almost.