Positive, ambitious, kind & humble. Accurate words that describe Kandace Barker. First time I met her, she walked up to me and introduced herself. She spoke with confidence and was eager to share her knowledge and help those around her. As I got to know her, I realized she was different. Different because she had made something of herself but if you let her past and society tell it, Kandace should be uneducated and struggling to make ends meet but the opposite is the case.
I call Kandace and ask her about her story and with no hesitation, she begins…“I was born on the south side of Chicago to an addict father and a mother who abandoned me. At six months, I was adopted by a much older couple. My adopted father was an entrepreneur and an activist during the civil rights movement. At the time my parents welcomed me to the family, they had lost their businesses due to a lack of proper education leaving the family at a difficult place financially. Due to her parents struggles, they stressed the importance of getting an education and that resonated deeply with Kandace. Her mother as she recalls also stressed the importance of always having the ability to take care of herself and never depending on anyone. This sound advise combined with all what she experienced as a child set a fire in Kandace making her an ambitious, determined and driven woman.
Her determination landed her a spot at Whitney Young Magnet School for high school and then Howard University where she studied advertising under the guidance of Robin Thornhill. It was during this time she was awarded most promising minority student for the American Advertising Federation. Her diligence with her education earned her an internship at FCB Chicago (formerly known as Draft). At FCB, she started evaluating what her long term plans were and how far she wanted to go with her advertising career. While researching, she noticed that everyone who was doing what she wanted to do had an MBA and she decided an MBA was in her near future. Her mentor at FCB transitioned to a role at DigitasLBi and took Kandace along with her. As she built a career in advertising, Kandace noticed a gap, the minority gap. She mentions “A lot of minorities lack the soft skills needed to get into the advertising industry.” This observation led Kandace and a few friends to create a non-profit called MAFA- Mosaic Alumni & Friends Association now known as Coalesce (website under construction but information can be found via Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn). An organization focused on training minorities and developing necessary soft skills for the advertising industry. Coalesce continues to hold workshops and career training events that teach minorities key skills needed to break into the advertising industry and more.
Kandace holds an MBA from The University of Chicago – Booth School of Business. When speaking on her decision to pursue an MBA at Booth, she says “it was the only school I wanted to go to so it was the only school I applied to.”
Like any successful person, Kandace faced a lot of challenges throughout her life. She recalls how she struggled with understanding diversity at Howard “Before I went to Howard I didn’t realize that black people were diverse.” She noticed for the first time that there were different black people than herself. Coming from the south side of Chicago and being part of a family that constantly struggled financially, she always assumed what she saw growing up was all there was to black people. She realized she had some biases and was able to overcome many of them at Howard by allowing herself have an open mind. She credits her sister Ewan Roberts who is a Lawyer in Washington D.C. for being her support system, easing her into life in D.C and facing some of the challenges with her. After graduation, she began working at FCB, she quickly noticed, “there were no people of color doing what I did”. She always wondered how she was supposed to connect with people who did not know or understand her. She had been told, people don’t promote people they don’t know. Her reaction was to “fit in” but also show who she was. As simple a solution as it seemed, it didn’t quite go smoothly as a result, she would keep to herself a lot. Eventually she would leave FCB for DigitasLBi. When she got to DigitasLBi, she decided to forget all of the insecurities she allowed get to her at FCB and reminded herself that she was just as intelligent. With this reminder, she became more comfortable with who she was. She remembers while at Digitas a colleague mentioned to her that she was not like any other black person she knew because she sounded so eloquent and smart and the colleague meant it as a compliment. Her reaction to everything was to never take it personal but to educate them. Her mentor who took her along to DigitasLBi had mentioned to her to always have advocates and she was able to put this advise to good use at DigitasLBi where she had a few advocates. It was during her time at Digitas she decided to pursue an MBA. She took the GMAT and applied to Booth.
I asked Kandace what her defining moment was she says, “It came when I was at Booth. Even though I put in the work to get in, I lacked a great deal of confidence. I had to push past the mental barrier I placed on myself.” She realized that a lot of her cohorts didn’t grow up around African Americans and they walked around with a privilege that black students didn’t. Kandace mentioned a time she took a test as part of a group and got the highest grade. Being the only black person and a woman, one of her team members told her she only got the grade she had based on affirmative action. Her reaction? She smiled and walked away. “At Booth, there were some resources that as a part time MBA student I did not have access to and had to fight for.” She went to the head of diversity and then the dean to present her case of why tutoring was important and why part time students should not miss out on the opportunity simply because they are not able to afford a full time education. She was able to get the program to offer tutoring to part time students based on her advocacy for it. She also set up a program while at Booth that connects current black MBA students to black alumni of Booth for mentoring and to come in to speak with current minority students. The program is called Fire Side Chat.
Upon graduating from Booth, Kandace was offered a full time position at General Mills. In her opinion, “Working for an even larger corporation comes with even bigger challenges. I still face certain situations with my colleagues but like I said, I learned not to be afraid to educate people and have those conversations because we all have biases.”
I ask Kandace how her family feels about her achievements and she says they are proud but being at the level she is now, she carries a certain amount of guilt seeing her family live in a way that is not ideal. She had to rid herself of the guilt and she lives by the quote “If you give away the bricks while still trying to lay the foundation, you will never build your house but if you build your house, you can invite people in later.”
Kandace’s story proves there is nothing you can’t do as long as you put your mind to it. Wherever she noticed a gap, she did what she could to fix it always choosing to be the change she wanted to see. As Kandace’s career continues to grow, She is passionate about motivating people to change their mindset and believe in their capabilities. You can contact her via LinkedIn and email.
Kandace is the true definition of a Goal Digger and I hope her story inspires you.