June 1, 2021
Latin for Agile, “Agilis” defines the everyday Executive pursuing extraordinary goals. This month, we have the honor of sharing the Extra(ordinary)journey of Alice Gyamfi, Associate lawyer with DLA Piper LLP (US) in New York. Alice can trace her family's lineage back over 17 generations. Each generation of women fought for a voice; for equality to raise their children in a world where diversity would be celebrated...and yet, not one of them were taught to read. Alice shares moments with us that define the challenges we see today across the globe, tangled in discrimination and racial profiling. We admire her courage and respect her desire to memorialize just how impactful her family, her background and heritage has been on her journey to becoming a lawyer…including her pursuit for belonging in a world that continues to challenge the voices that need to be heard during the struggle for diversity, equity, and inclusion. For Alice, this degree was her warfare. This degree belongs to her.
“I’m a first generation American,” she begins sharing. “I was born in Ghana. Both my parents were born in Ghana as well. My father originally came to the United States when he was twenty-six years old. We’ve heard so many immigrant stories that are like this. Immigrants with the sheer determination to make something of themselves that has sustained them. I very much come from a mother and a father who had that same outlook - if we can get over the Atlantic; if we can just touch the ground, we know that God is going to do his part and we know that we have the drive to do our part. I think that was very much my parents’ thinking when they decided to move to the United States. My father essentially came to this country with his life savings of four hundred dollars in his pocket. So, I originally came here when I was three years old, but I moved to Alexandria, Virginia permanently when I was thirteen.”
Alice bravely discusses why and how she felt different than her peers through her school years. “I always felt like I was alone, that people were outperforming me; that people were doing better than me. I don’t come from a wealthy background and I don’t come from a wealthy family, but the school systems that I went to were ones where I was always surrounded by white students. Even when I was in Advanced Placement classes and International Baccalaureate classes, I would be the only person of colour. Period.” She continues, “When you’re in middle school and high school, you feel the pressure to mold yourself in a way that isn’t authentic, just so that you can feel like you’re not alone. I remember feeling so insecure about my identity. Today and now, it’s cool to be an African. Now, people are really embracing African culture and African music. It’s cool now. But, it was not cool when I was in middle school, high school, and even college. Growing up in America and feeling so inadequate made me really invest in the things that I knew I was good at. I knew I was good at school. I knew that if I applied myself, I was going to get it. So that’s what I did. I made that my focus. When I say this now, it sounds like ‘Oh, well that’s so brave of you!’ No, it wasn’t. It was just the fact that I felt like I had to belong somewhere. And studying was a space that I felt I was good at and belonged to.”
Alice continues, “I remember when I was in the sixth grade, I decided that I was going to run for Class President. The Elementary school I attended was math and sciences focused, and set in a suburban community. The only reason I was able to go to attend this school is because my parents had enrolled me in a daycare that would bus me to this school. Otherwise, we lived outside of this suburban school district. When I decided that I was going to run for Class President, I understood that I was not the idyllic version of what the Class President at this school had always looked like. But, I still decided to run. My opponent had a significant advantage, including funds to support making special stickers from an expensive printing company. She had buttons. She had baked goods. She was able to pull out all the stops - it was like a movie! I did not have fancy buttons or stickers.” Alice becomes emotional at the memory… “My father is a technician and he owned his own business. He also worked as a custodian to clean the schools and universities after hours. At his shop, he had these plain little stickers that he would print his company name on for invoices. I was aware he couldn’t afford professionally printed stickers, so I wrote by hand ‘Alice For President’ on the invoice stickers, and designed them really nice, cut them out, colored them, etc. etc. That was that. We made it work. And I advocated for my candidacy; I didn’t allow my limited resources to prevent me from feeling that I couldn’t win. And - I won! I ended up winning Class President that sixth grade year. I realized that I am not limited by my resources; I am only limited by my confidence. Today, there are so many lawyers who come from backgrounds like mine, where they are not seventh generation lawyers and they don’t have lawyers in their family. But, they are ashamed to say that they do not fit the profile. Because they’re ashamed to tell their story.”
Alice recalls the moment that challenged her ambition to study law: “I remember during my junior year, I was sitting in front of a counsellor who was reviewing my college list. I recall discussing my strategy, and the counsellor looked at my GPA and SAT and said, ‘Not bad, but I want you to be really realistic about the school you’re applying to…you need to be realistic because, honestly, you don’t have any connections. You don’t have the kind of background that these schools are looking for. You don’t know anyone who can help you get in. You are going to be competing with a white student majority. I just don’t want you to be disappointed when you are not accepted.’ I reveal this to highlight that there are times when you have to understand that no matter how much you focus on what you can do, something will be found that is lacking. For me, that was a lesson in understanding that the best does not always mean your best. So, if I have given my best, I just have to be content with that. I have to be proud of that. Sometimes, the very best that I can give doesn’t mean that you win the overall prize, or first place, or the entire competition. It means that you give every single thing that you could possibly give. And, that is enough. When the counselor told me she did not think that my effort and credential was going to be enough or amount to anything, I realized that I have to change my idea of what the measure of success is. I have to change my idea of what the measure of enough is. Because if I do that for myself, no matter who I sit in front of; no matter who is consuming my portfolio; or, looking at my grades, their evaluation is never going to be as important as my own.”
Alice shares that this moment was an incredible turning point for her. She recognized that there are objective measures that are used in the evaluation of candidacy. “If you’re trying to apply to Law School, your LSAT and GPA are going to be important. Those are the objective measures by which these Law Schools are using to evaluate you. There still are metrics that they're looking for that won’t completely disqualify you if you don’t meet them; but, recruitment is hard for someone to advocate for your candidacy. One of the things I realized is, yes, those objective metrics are important, but the character behind the person is important too. As you said, if you are my client, you’re working with me on a daily basis. You’re working with my character. You’re working with my understanding of how I respect your time. You’re working with my understanding of my own ethical code and my understanding of my own work ethic; how much am I willing to invest in this case, even when I’m exhausted and even when I don’t feel like I can give it any more. That is the aspect of me that you are working with, not the firm. Not the name. You’re working with the character that I bring to the day-to-day aspects of the case. We can’t be naïve - the objective measures are important. But, what about the character behind the person?”
Before attending law school, Alice worked at a hair salon to support her school fees through undergrad. “I was working at a beauty salon over my junior year summer, and I pursued a volunteer opportunity as a staffer for President Obama’s U.S. Africa Business Summit. After three days of volunteering, I was offered a paid position. So, suddenly, I went from working in a beauty salon to working for President Obama’s U.S. Africa Business Leaders Summit...all within three days! I think a part of me realized at that moment that just doing the work and showing up is sometimes all it takes. Working for President Obama’s U.S. Africa Business Leadership Summit completely changed my perception of what is even possible in a career. We had the Presidents of Madagascar, Sierra Leone, Congo, Cameroon…these were the people that I was liaising with daily. My entire outlook on what was possible for me changed from just this one opportunity. The pride Alice carries when sharing this memory is heartwarming. She continues, “Following this role, I still had one more year of my Undergrad, so I took the opportunity to do a study abroad program in The Netherlands at the University in Amsterdam. When I returned and completed my senior year, I thought, ‘I know I’m going to Law School, I just have no idea how to get there.’ I felt like I was doing all of the things that were expected of me and that I was supposed to do, but I wasn’t anywhere near where I wanted to be. I think that’s one of the things that people who come from backgrounds of wealth and privilege underestimate - the freedom to decide for yourself what to do with your time. Like you had stated, the value of communicating and offering our time. What is our time is worth? How can we make it tangible for clients, for people? The ability to decide and define what your time looks like and how much it is worth. I didn't have that - yet.”
Alice takes us through her faith, and the strength she receives through her spirituality. “It’s God. Honestly, there were times after I took my LSAT where I thought that it would never happen for me. I’m not being dramatic, I just sat down and thought to myself, ‘It is possible that this career path is not for me.’ And, I have to say it’s my faith in God that got me through because it’s that still and quiet voice that just kept telling me to push forward. To apply anyway. To submit the application anyway. To go to that Law School fair anyway. To present my resume anyway. It was a still and quiet voice, but it was so persistent. The voice kept telling me to just keep going. So, that’s what I did. Even when I got my first LSAT back and I was so discouraged, that voice just kept telling me to go anyway. Every single time there was another hurdle for me to overcome, another opportunity presented itself. And, these opportunities are not like gifts. The idea, the persistence, the dedication, the strength to wake up every day. That is a gift. Finding the motivation to pursue opportunities when they come is a gift. I reflect on that so often now because that built my work ethic and a resilience that is unmatched. I really just say it’s God because He’s the divine source of my motivation. When I think about who I am meant to become and what I am meant to do and what I am meant to achieve, I find all of those answers in Him. I’ve been on the opposite side of all of those feelings and those emotions, and I did not give up because I had the Lord telling me that He would not bring me this far to leave me in a place of desperation, depression, or grief. It was just constantly the voice of God affirming in me that I was somebody.”
Alice’s grandmother had a significant impact on her drive to becoming a lawyer. “I waited until I was accepted into law school before telling my grandmother. I look at my generation; we are very used to announcing everything immediately, and the pressure we feel to let people know our plans. In some respect, I think this is excellent. People who have the boldness to say, ‘I’m doing this and if I don’t get it, that’s okay anyway.’ But, on the other hand, I think a lot of people in my generation are experiencing severe depression because they feel like they’re not keeping up. Because they feel like they can’t measure up. Because everyone is projecting their success. No one is projecting their failures. So, my approach is: If I win at this, I’ll celebrate it. If I don’t win, but I get second or third place, I’m still going to celebrate it. But, not if it’s going to affect my mental health. That is a form of self-care. I think that’s one of the reasons why I only told my grandmother upon my acceptance.” Alice smiles as she shares her grandmother’s reaction, “In our language, Khee, my grandmother starts dancing and singing ‘Oh God, we thank you!’. My grandmother had to fight for herself when she was just four years old; she is not a stranger to a fight. She views my success as honouring her. I can trace my family's lineage back over 17 generations. Each generation of women fought as everything from mothers to warriors and yet not one of them were taught to read…so, when I told my grandmother I was going to law school, she started calling me her 'granddoctah'!”
“How do I measure success? My definition of success includes the idea that I have an obligation not to be successful alone.” Alice continues with humility, “One of the things I really enjoy about being an attorney is that because you’re an advocate, people naturally come to you for counsel, for advice. That’s literally your job. I realized that one of the things that I truly love to do is to counsel young people - young people of colour, especially, because of the fact that in the United States, only 5% of lawyers are black and only 3% of lawyers are black women. That is a statistic that is published every year without shame. The American Bar Association publishes this statistic every year. The culture, society and structures in which we live are not served by having more black lawyers. They’re not served by having more lawyers of colour who want to work in communities of colour, who want to work to reform the justice system. We want to work to help minority business owners create their own businesses, establish generational wealth, leave something for their children, and create a legacy for themselves. This is not in the best interest of the current established system. Because of this, information is not accessible to the communities who need it the most. That's where I want to work and that’s what I want to do. I think I can affect change in a way that gives people freedom. By employing people. Whatever the sliding scale is about how a person measures success, how can I help them achieve that?”
Alice’s journey isn’t just her own. It’s a generational journey that she has bravely brought forward, choosing to celebrate her perseverance and ambition through circumstances that continue to challenge minority groups in achieving their goals. Alice has shared a story which blankets many journeys that we are subliminally choosing to not address as a society…a global society with people who have the advantage today to change the world.
“The moment that we refuse to be ashamed of our background and we start celebrating and recognizing that it was our mothers, who were custodians, who saw us through Law School; our grandmothers, who were farmers, who put us through our undergrad; our fathers, who were technicians, who swept the floors of colleges and universities that paid for us to study at colleges and universities - that’s when we start reaching out to the generations of leaders who refuse to believe in themselves right now.”
Together, we can change the narrative.
We need to change the path.
We have an obligation to change the story.
“My grandmother says that opportunities are yours for the taking. But, if you can’t swim in the ocean and if you can’t do what it takes to get into the depth of that opportunity, then go into the lakes and the rivers where you’ll be more comfortable…where you can wade. Where, even if you can’t swim, you can stand in those waters and there won’t be a challenge, and you’ll be completely fine - IF that’s what you want. She would say: ‘Go to the lakes and rivers that you’re used to...’ But that’s not what I want. That’s not what my grandmother sacrificed for. And, that’s definitely not what my parents came here for...I thank God that the generations after me will never know illiteracy again.”
Alice Gyamfi, J.D.
How do you measure success?
-Written by Reena Khullar, Founder & CEO
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