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WHO ASKED US?: Being the Boss Why I Plan to Build the Ladder, Not Climb It

New America Media, Commentary, Swan Gray Posted: Apr 25, 2007

Editors Note: When Bendixen & Associates, at the request of New America Media, asked California young people what they expected to be doing in ten years, a surprisingly high number32 percentsaid they thought they would be running their own businesses. The numbers were highest among African-Americans (45 percent) and Latinos (39 percent). Swan Gray, 23, explains why shes planning her future around running a business rather than counting on a degree and what her older family members have to say about it.

SAN FRANCISCO -- My dad, Aunt Bonnie and Uncle Bo sat around our kitchen table, stuffed after my aunts famous Sunday night dinner. Everybody passed around the ripe strawberries and homemade whipped cream. As the subject of conversation turned to me, their advice began to fill my ears until I was forced to swallow a dilemma I have been battling with them since I was 16.

At first, I didnt want to listen. To me, it sounded like, You need to finish school blah blah blah and A degree will bring you stability blah blah blah. Id heard all this before and I know it would be better to have a degree than not to. I just dont believe that a degree is going to be what saves me or defines my place in society.

Im going to build a business of my own, I tried to explain to my family. In fact, I already have two in the works a music label, which has evolved into a multi-media company and is now producing a television comedy series, and a custom fashion design company. I never want to work for anyone else and I dont want to spend half of my 20s jumping hoops for a piece of paper. I plan to be rich, and you cant get rich working for someone else.

Youve been reading too many Rich Dad, Poor Dad books, my Uncle Bo smirked.

I just dont want to end up like Auntie Joan, who is 65 years old and still looking for employment, I answered. She has been working all her life and cant afford to enjoy retirement in her golden years. That is what a person who depends on a degree is facing nowadays.

Aunt Bonnie looked me in the eye. I wish I had gotten a degree, she said. I never was able to because I began working when I was young, and as my responsibilities piled up, I just didnt have the time. I dont know where I would be right now if my husband didnt have a degree.

I dont see why everyone is acting like Im a drop-out, living on a beach, drinking rum, I said, a little annoyed. I have a good job, Im living well on my own, and Ive been working on two businesses since I was 18. I have friends who have slaved over school books, gone through hell and spent what could have been a nice chunk of change to start their first business on a degree, only to find themselves in jobs they hate that barely pay enough to survive. School will not teach me what I need to learn to get rich doing what I love to do. It just wont.

What if you were to get pregnant? my aunt asked. What would happen if you lost your job? Most of the poor and homeless are women of color who are single mothers with no degrees. It is too easy to become poor and to stay poor as a woman in this society without the back-up of a degree.

I havent gotten pregnant yet, I smiled. I wont have kids until Im 30 and retired with my own island in Fiji.

My laughter was met with serious expressions. I have to make my dreams happen whether I have a degree or dont, I continued. I know it wont hurt to go ahead and finish up those math classes so I can graduate. But Im not trying to get a degree so I can impress a boss. If Im the boss, people have to impress me.

My aunt, who had just taken the last strawberry, smiled. As a woman of color, there is a prejudice that isnt always seen, but is there in the way people interact with you. A degree says that you are educated and that you just might know what you are doing or talking about. It makes people take you seriously because you have demonstrated that you can see something through from beginning to end. In the world of business, a degree for a woman of color is a necessity.

Sometimes I forget that Im a woman or that my skin is brown, and that in this society no matter how interracial and mixed up it is there is always the race factor. As a woman, nothing is stable, and we have to prove so much more than men when it comes to business or jobs. I can understand the need to have all the security available.

I look at my aunt, a strong woman in her 50s, and I can see where she is coming from. She isnt trying to say that a degree will do anything more than keep me from becoming a poor single mother.

I see her point, but I still believe that getting a degree is not as important as innovation. The most successful people are successful because of something they were able to create and I plan on being one of them.

Swan Gray is the founder and CEO of Ruff Diemindz Eentertainment and Swan Fashions, and a content producer with YO! Multimedia.

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