Mother Knows Best: 9 Successful Women Reveal The Best Career Advice They Got From Mom

January 11, 2013  |  
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You can go to business school. Have mentors. But sometimes the most useful advice comes from the woman who knows you best.

Mom is a wellspring of advice and information. We asked nine successful women for the best career advice their mothers gave them. As you can imagine, that advice is colorful, useful, and inspiring.

Dr. Julianne Malveaux, founder of multimedia production company Last Word Productions, stepped down as president of Bennett College for Women in May 2012 after five years at the HBCU. She’s a well-known economist, author and commentator who’s currently working on speaking engagements and a book project that focuses on the “so-called” post-racial age.

“My mother gave me lots of advice, but I can boil it down to: 1) Always do your best and leave the rest to God; 2) Put your best foot forward and look the part 3) Always be prepared, if not overprepared; and 4) Failure is not an option.”

Adrienne Lance Lucas is president of fund development planning firm Lance Lucas & Associates and a principal and chief operating officer of ICG Real Estate Advisors, a private equity commercial real estate fund with more than $200 million in managed assets. Lance Lucas is also the president and founder of K.E.N.O. (Kid Entrepreneurs Need Opportunities) Micro-Fund through which she provides opportunities for children around the globe to learn financial literacy and business skills early in life and launch and run their own businesses.

“The best career advice that my mother gave me was not to be afraid to play with the boys because I can do everything that they can do. I think that is what led me to always focus in male-dominated fields of finance, private equity, oil and gas, etc.”

A’Lelia Bundles, president of the Madam Walker/A’Lelia Walker Family Archives and author of On Her Own Ground: The Life and Times of Madam C. J. Walker, the award-winning, New York Times bestselling biography of her great-great-grandmother. Bundles, who is also chairman of the board of the Foundation for the National Archives, also enjoyed a 30-year career as an executive and Emmy award-winning producer with NBC News and ABC News. She is at work on a biography of her great-grandmother, A’Lelia Walker, a Harlem Renaissance icon.

“It’s not so much what my mother (A’Lelia Mae Perry Bundles, 1928-1976) said as what she did that helped shape my ideas about my career. As the fourth generation of women in her family to have been an executive of the Madam C. J. Walker Manufacturing Company — the business founded by her great-grandmother in 1906 — she had been groomed to have a career.

From a very early age, I visited her office, sat at her desk, watched her prepare financial reports and conduct meetings. But perhaps most important, I observed how she interacted with other people, both those who considered her the boss and those who were her peers. She treated everyone with respect, was compassionate and encouraged those with aspirations to reach higher. She knew how to bring out the best in others.  Whenever I’m in a position to do the same, I do my best to follow her example.”

Ava DuVernay is a writer, filmmaker, producer and winner of the Best Director Award at the 2012 Sundance Film Festival for her second feature film Middle of Nowhere. She has written and/or directed films, documentaries and music videos. Previously, DuVernay worked as a film marketer and publicist for more than 14 years, forming DVA Media + Marketing in 1999 working on campaigns for acclaimed directors such as Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Michael Mann, and Bill Condon.

“My mom’s best life and career advice is to treat everyone the way you want to be treated. One hears that and may immediately think it means to be nice to people. But it’s more than that. I want to be heard. So I try to really listen to those I work with. I want to be valued. So I make a point to tell people exactly how valuable their work or attitude is. I want to be respected. So I work very hard not to consciously disrespect others. I want to be included. So I strive to create a team environment that everyone feels a part of. In every facet of our work, I try to think of what I would want, and then provide that to others. Not always easy, but I try. Gotta listen to mom.”

Lisa E. Davis is partner in the law firm, Frankfurt Kurnit Klein & Selz representing celebrities and businesses in the motion picture, television, publishing, music, theater, and media industries. She has served as counsel on such documentary films as Free Angela, The Black List, and 9/11, and features such as the classic Spike Lee films Malcolm X and Jungle Fever. Ms. Davis has an extensive publishing practice, representing authors and author estates, literary agents and publishers, like Terry McMillan and Valerie Plame Wilson. Davis recently received a Women Of Power Award from the National Urban League and was named “Lawyer of the Year” by the Metropolitan Black Bar Association (2011), and was again named a New York-area 2012 “Super Lawyer” in the field of entertainment and sports by Law and Politics magazine.

“My mom was the first person to impress upon me the value of networking. She used her relationships to help worthy young people get summer jobs and taught me that it was as important to develop strong relationships with people as it was to do good work.”

Attica Locke is an award-winning novelist, author of The Cutting Season and Black Water Rising, Locke’s first novel, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Orange Prize in the UK in 2010, and nominated for a 2010 Edgar Award and an NAACP Image Award. Locke has worked for years as a screenwriter, writing movie and television scripts for Paramount, Warner Bros, Disney, Twentieth Century Fox, Jerry Bruckheimer Films, HBO, and Dreamworks.

“I will say, in one sentence answer, that the best career advice my mom ever gave me was: “Don’t ever be afraid to say ‘no.'”

Gwendolyn Covington is style editor of fashion and couture at Covington is also founder and chief editor of Prior to joining Zappos, she worked at VH1, served as accessories editor at Essence, and was a freelance wardrobe stylist working on The Mo´Nique Show and as wardrobe assistant for Jill Scott.

“My mom always told me to never be afraid. She is close to 60 years old, and in her day, the world was cruel in a different way, so the parents often sheltered their children. She and my dad always told me that I can do, dream, and be anything I wanted to be. Some priceless advice from my dad when it comes to my career is, ‘In order to keep something, you must never be afraid to lose it.’ That was to be applied to my career as accessories editor at Essence magazine at the time, and for life in general!”

La’Verne Perry-Kennedy, a former record company executive who spent 35 years as a vice president at Columbia/Sony Music where she crafted publicity campaigns for countless hit makers, has launched La’Verne’s Closet and LPK Couture, under which she designs one-of-a-kind handbags.

“My mom, being of Caribbean descent (she was from Trinidad), she always instilled a ‘no one is better than you’ attitude in us, which made ‘company politics,’ a game that I didn’t play well. In my mind, I was just as important as the president, CEO, and every other high-ranking executive, and I’m talking about when I first started at CBS Records as a receptionist. I maintained the same attitude my entire career at CBS/Sony Music Entertainment.

My mother was also very big on dressing for success. Although I worked in a very relaxed atmosphere, and you could wear jeans and T-shirts to work, I always dressed up. I think I was there for about 20 years before I started wearing jeans to the office. It’s advice that I also passed on to my interns and it made a real difference in their attitudes, their work performance, and how they were perceived by other executives.”

Eula M. Young is the founder and COO of  Griot’s Roll Film Production & Service Inc., a video marketing company, that provides video services for businesses, non-profits, corporations, city and state agencies. They have done work for an array of clients including the New York City Department of Education, British Airways, the Jewish Board of Family & Children Services Inc., and New York City Housing Authority.

“My mother (Mrs. Gertrude Young) said not to allow anyone to direct you away from God’s plan for you. People have their own agenda. Follow what God put in your spirit and you will be happy.”

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