By Paula Edgar • July 20, 2010•Writers in Residence
Rhonda Powell is someone I truly admire. She is intelligent, savvy and charismatic. She has a formidable sense of confidence that leads you to believe that she can accomplish anything she puts her mind to. Rhonda’s path has led her to many different positions, including being an assistant buyer at Bloomingdales, an associate at three law firms and in-house attorney at two large corporations.
During our conversation, we discussed, among other things, having patience during times of adversity and her current position, which combines her love of food and her legal/business skills. I was inspired by Rhonda’s Esquisite Path and I know you will be too! Enjoy.
Name: Rhonda Powell
Employer/Title: Scripps Networks LLC - Vice President, Business Affairs (Food Network/Cooking Channel)
Practice Area: A meshing of Business negotiation/Legal practice
Favorite NY Restaurant: 202 (Chelsea Market), Sueños, Tipsy Parson
Favorite Legal Themed Movie: Any film having to do with Organized Crime
What did you want to be when you grew up? I initially wanted to be a lawyer when I grew up. I’m not quite sure how I got that into my head because there was nobody in my family who was an attorney. I think one of my elementary school teachers said to me at one point, because I was always trying to argue my case for something, that I should be a lawyer. That stuck with me.
I also really wanted to be an actress. The older I got, the more I realized that the two were not necessarily mutually exclusive and actually could be quite consistent with one another. I wound up not becoming an actress.
Paula: It’s not too late.
Rhonda: I know. I keep telling myself that.
When you eventually made the decision to become an attorney, what was that like for you? Were you on the legal path the whole way? By the time I got to college, I actually had a much broader outlook in the sense I didn’t go to college thinking, “I’m going to college. I’m going to graduate and become a lawyer.” I was much more focused on just, “I’m going to go to college and I’m going to find a lucrative profession, whatever that may be.” I was very business-oriented, very ambitious, but also really enjoyed the process of learning. Over my four years of college, I found that many of the jobs I knew were lucrative were actually not the most attractive to me. I was much more attracted to perhaps becoming a professor. I also did a lot of acting in college, a lot of musical theater, so I thought that I might pursue that as well.
Tell me, what was your lowest point professionally and how did you recover from it? When I left my first legal job to go to another firm, I got to the new firm and it was not what I expected. Although there was a potential for really, really good work there, it was really undercut by what I viewed as a lot of dysfunction at the firm. It made it really, really difficult to work effectively. I was always on edge. I felt that people were always being disingenuous. There was a lot of backstabbing; it was really uncomfortable.
Even though I wasn’t thrilled with the work that was available at the firm I had come from, I felt the people with whom I had worked were really, genuinely good, supportive people. So to go from that atmosphere to the atmosphere I wound up in at my second firm was really -- that was a pretty low point.
I was thrown a life raft because my group at this new law firm actually moved en masse to Proskauer Rose. I wound up leaving the problematic firm after about a year and a half and wound up at Proskauer, which turned out to be, from a learning standpoint, the best move I could have ever made. I had at least two exceptional mentors at that firm - Jack Johnson and Arnold Jacobs. Proskauer is not an easy place, but I have to say that the amount of support and teaching that I got there really has made the difference in my legal practice. It was just an amazing experience for me. It really cultivated a lot of self-confidence and independence and what they call moxie. You have to have it there. It was really phenomenal. It was great. That’s sort of how I came out of what was a low point.
My other low point, I think, was I got to a point at the company I’m at now, at Scripps, where I was in the legal department and I felt like I wasn’t able to completely utilize my skill set. I really wanted to be more of a negotiator. I really wanted to get in there more on the front lines with my clients. Even though I was an external lawyer when I was in the firm, because of the nature of the work I did, I was in mergers and acquisitions, I would get involved in transactions pretty early in the process and help the team develop a structure for their deal.
When I went in-house to Reuters, which is where I went after Proskauer, I very much operated along that path. There’s a different structure here at Scripps, where legal affairs and business affairs are separate. I didn’t have the ability to get in as early as I wanted to get in because of that, because I was in the legal department. That was more of the documentation side of the business than it was the structure side.
The solution to that -- I think I felt a bit stuck. There would be things I wanted to say and I wasn’t quite sure whether that would be appropriate. The solution to that was, a couple years ago, I moved from the legal side of the business to business affairs. That’s really solved that problem for me. It’s been fabulous.
Paula: That was lucky for you that were able to have that experience turn around.
Rhonda: Sometimes it requires a little bit of patience. If you, as soon as something goes wrong, decide, “I’m out of here,” you may wind up missing out on a better opportunity. Sometimes the best thing that you can do is maybe tread water a little bit, look around , try to read the tea leaves and see what’s going on in your environment. These days, situations are so much more fluid. Changes happen so quickly that one of the things I would definitely say to young lawyers is don’t be too quick to make a move. Always be cognizant of what’s going on around you. Put a lot of thought into what, ideally, you would like to have happen. What’s your endgame? Only actively take steps that are going to move you towards whatever that endgame is. Don’t allow yourself to be distracted by something else just because it’s easy and available. You don’t want to make a change just for the sake of making a change and wind up in a situation that’s potentially more adverse to you than the situation you’re in. That was over ten years ago at this point. I’ve been practicing now for about 17 years.
What has been your most victorious moment as an attorney? One of my best moments was when we closed the deal for Food Network to license its name on a brand of products that are sold at Kohl’s, kitchenware. The reason that was so exciting for me was because it was something the company had never thought of before, had never really entertained before in a serious way. We managed to get it done. It also was important to me because I was working with a woman, who is no longer with the company, who really put her heart and soul and effort into getting this done. Her enthusiasm for it was really, really contagious. To get the last deal points closed, she and I flew out to Wisconsin to negotiate with the folks at Kohl’s, just those last few issues. It was just so exciting and so thrilling to be out there, us two women, flying out on our 5 a.m. flight with our marching orders, basically come back with this thing done.She was a young woman, I think a few years younger than me. I was so happy for her as well because I think she really proved something to our organization. It was a fantastic moment.
The other most fantastic moment was when I found out that I got my current job in Business Affairs. That was one of the happiest moments of my life, seriously. I’ve been, for years and years and years, so passionate about food. To be able to meld that with my skill set and my expertise to make things happen for a network that’s all about food, that was -- I could barely even speak when my boss told me I got the job. I’m not one who’s at a loss for words. I could barely speak I was so excited. I called my friends. Every single one of them was like, “There could not be a better job for you. If you were going to work in corporate America at all, if you’re not going to be cast doing something on Broadway, this is what you should be doing.” That was an absolutely fabulous experience.
Paula: I can hear the enthusiasm and excitement in your voice when you talk about it. That’s great.
Rhonda: I love what I do. On the most difficult day, I still love what I do. I think it’s fun. I talk about food all day long. How can it get better than that?
What do you think is special about the practice of law, for women of color like yourself, in New York City? I think, to me, the practice here in New York City plays to a lot of our strengths. The reputation, whether deserved or not, and I think it is somewhat deserved, of women of color is that we tend to be a fairly assertive, sort of “take it and go” group of people. You have the opportunity to do that here in New York. I think sometimes the style, at least I’ve been told sometimes that my style in other contexts may be a little bit off-putting. In the context of New York mergers and acquisitions, my style is not off-putting at all.
I think there’s a lot of respect here for your intellect. Whatever you look like, whatever you do, at the end of the day, if you deliver the goods, I think you can do very, very well here. I think it’s less political here than it can be a lot of other places. I know that there are some people who may disagree, but my experiences outside of New York have been that it is a little bit more political, as opposed to just bottom line driven. I love that, in a lot of ways, New York is just about, at the end of the day, are you making your client money or losing your client money? That’s all there is to it. If you’re maximizing their profits, they don’t care whether you’re blue, orange. Dollar signs speak for themselves.
You have an opportunity, should you want it, to really play on that field here. That being said, it doesn’t mean that any of the issues you have anywhere else don’t exist at all, because they do. I just think you have a better opportunity to overcome them here.
What are your thoughts about why women of color, in general, are not progressing in the legal field at the same rates of white women and white men? I think that women of color are in a really, really unique position in that, with respect to conversations that go on about race, I think those conversations are dominated by men. I think in conversations that go on about gender, those conversations are dominated by white women.
You have women of color who actually have very unique issues and circumstances that they face as women of color without any forum to be able to get those issues and circumstances out. I think that leads to a lot of frustration, self-doubt, and ultimately leads to a lot of women of color exiting the legal profession when they bring so much to the table. It’s a shame to see them leave the practice in general,but particularly law firms.
I think until we sort of address that issue globally, not just in the legal profession but across the board, you’re going to continue to see, I think, women of color not be where they should be on the map. I definitely see that. I think it’s really that our voice is constrained. It’s frustrating because you’re not heard, but everyone is assuming that you are. People will say to you, “How come you don’t feel heard? Why would you feel you’re not being heard? This portion of your community is being heard.”
First we have to have acknowledge that there are, in fact, particular issues, which I argue very strenuously that there are. Where are those issues actually being voiced and heard? The first time I’ve seen it done was with Corporate Counsel Women of Color. That is the first time I’ve seen that done. I really commend Laurie Robinson for having that thought and having the insight and deciding that she was going to do something in that space. It’s a really empty space in a lot of respects.
Who was your most instrumental mentor and why? That’s so hard because there are so many. I know who it was. My most instrumental mentor was my sixth grade teacher, Elise Blackman. She was my most instrumental mentor because when I started sixth grade, I was an extremely good student, but I was not the best student in my class. I was very good, close to the top, certainly top five, but not the best student in my class. I was having a conversation with Mrs. Blackman one day and she very casually mentioned that I should be valedictorian of my class. It hadn’t occurred to me before that. I was always a good student, but I didn’t think of it in terms of I need to be valedictorian of my class. I said, “Why?” She said, “Because you can.” I said, “Okay.” At the end of sixth grade, I was the valedictorian of my class. She just instilled in me such a feeling of “of course I can do that.” I never had any doubt.
It’s a really empowering thing as a kid to think that way. A lot of kids don’t think that way. I didn’t realize how privileged I was to think that way until I was much, much older. Friends of mine would say things to me like, “I want to do this and this and this, but I can’t.” I would look at them like they were crazy like, “What do you mean you can’t? Why can’t you?” “Well, because I don’t this and that.”
Mrs. Blackman used to always say this to us, “There’s no such word as can’t.” You can do anything. You need to make the decision about whether you want to do it or you don’t want to do it. When you don’t want to do something, don’t say, ‘I can’t,’ just say, ‘I won’t.’” That really changes a conversation. When somebody says, “I can’t go to college,” no, do you mean you won’t go to college? It sounds a lot different when you say that.
What advice would you give to someone who wants to have a similar career as yours or to be in the position that you’re in? First of all, I think you have to be open. I think you have to allow for a possibility in your life. I wouldn’t necessarily say to someone, “Go to college and major in pre-law or major in something with the idea of being pre-law and follow any specific path.” I would say, “Think about the things you enjoy doing. Think about the things you can get passionate about and follow your way through those things. They will lead you, I think, ultimately to where you’re supposed to be.”
I always was a writer, so it doesn’t surprise me that I wound up doing a lot of writing. Even though it’s a contract, it’s still writing. I think evaluating contracts, you’re really evaluating the meaning and the importance of the words that are in them. I enjoy that. I get a real charge out of that. I get to say, “Yeah, this is a nice sentence, but it’s not really quite conveying what I want to convey” and redoing it to make sure it represents what I want it to represent. So follow the things that really make you excited and you will wind up in something that works for you. As you go along in life, you refine it and refine it and refine it.
I also don’t believe in necessarily narrowing yourself down to having one specific career or goal in that way. I think it’s really a moving target. We’re in an age where people are going to have multiple jobs. It’s no longer the company job where somebody comes and stays for 25 years. I think people are going to have multiple jobs and even multiple careers. I think that’s a good thing and something to really be enjoyed and explored. Try to figure out the connections between the job you start out with and the job you have five years from then.
My first job, I was an assistant buyer for Bloomingdales. People say to me, “What in heaven’s name were you thinking?” I still make links between things that I learned and did there and things that I learn and do now, including how to analyze the numbers and figure out whether something is profitable or not. That’s an important element of my job. At what point is what we’re doing or negotiating or the price we’re offering making us not break even on what we need to break even on? What’s the actual cost of something? Retail is all about what is your cost and then what is your profit margin?
I just like to encourage people who are younger to really explore and not rule things out for themselves and not lock themselves in so early to things. You don’t really have to. I don’t really see where it benefits. I think it’s a really, really small, number of people who wake up one day at seven years old and say, “I want to be this” and there’s absolutely no wavering, no other interests, nothing that they want to do other than that. I think most people have a lot of interests. I think how great it would be if you could make money using several of them. I just encourage them to do that.
As for what I do right now, I think the best training for what I do now is two things: to really train yourself in and really have command of the English language, both spoken and written. That’s the foundation on which I operate. That’s what it’s really all about. Second, spend a lot of time writing. You could be writing poetry or writing in your journal, just spend a lot of time writing because my job is all about communication.
It’s all about learning to communicate with a whole bunch of different people, different departments. I support so many different departments around here and trying to get their goals done, and sometimes bringing divergent goals together. In order to do that, you have to speak to each person in the language or the communication style in which they feel most comfortable. I think the best way to do that is by forcing yourself to communicate with people, both verbally and in writing.
Is balance something that you work on? If so, how do you balance the demands of your personal and professional life? I work on it constantly. I don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble, but I think it’s impossible on a day-to-day basis to achieve anything one would call balance. I think over time, you can achieve some balance. I’m a firm believer that it’s just unrealistic to think that you can have “it all” simultaneously. You might be able to do it sequentially, but at any given moment in your life, something is going to take precedence over the other. By trying to force yourself to “balance,” I think what you really do is create the ultimate in imbalance. Then you just try to do everything equally well. That becomes debilitating to you. You’re going to burn out.
What I really try to do is, sometimes there are things going on at work that keep me here and I’m really busy and work becomes the primary focus. When it’s not the primary focus, if my kids are doing something, that becomes primary focus. When I’m on vacation, I really try very hard to be on vacation. My kids assist. They have been known to hide my Blackberry, take my cell phone, but I really do focus to be present with them. They have my undivided attention. Just like when I’m at work, my kids know they can call when they get home from school and give me the general rundown, but they can’t call mom 27 million times. When I get home from work, I’m focused on them. Between the time I get home from work and when they go to bed, I do not look at my Blackberry and don’t take calls because that’s their time.
I try really hard. I think that it’s a constant struggle. I think it’s a particular struggle for women. No matter how great a husband you have or how great a significant other you have, if there are children involved, you are still going to be the primarily responsible person, with the carpool list and lunches and this and that. It just works out that way, I’d say 90 percent of the time. It’s hard. It’s really, really, really hard. Sometimes I get angry about it, but I also commend men on the fact that they are really good at being linear. Women have to learn to be a little bit more linear so that they can have a little bit more sanity. If I’m asking a man to do something and they’re already doing something else, in my mind, those two things can be done simultaneously. In their minds, they’re already doing something. You’re going to have to wait until I’m done with this and then I will address that.
What do you do in your downtime? I run. I like to run because it gives me a chance to free my mind. I do get completely disconnected from the world when I do that. I did the New York City Half Marathon this year. I was very proud of myself. It was my first long-distance run. I was pretty excited. I read. I love reading. I will read anything, the newspaper, a magazine, a book, whatever. I just like to read. I do Taekwondo. That’s pretty much it. I’m active in my church. I love my church. I like doing things with kids. That’s really what I do with my downtime, and spend time with family. I don’t travel a whole lot. I enjoy it when I do it, but it’s not a hobby or anything like that for me. I’m also trying to learn to play the guitar.
What are your plans for the future? That’s a good question. I have a couple goals in mind. I really want to write a book, so that’s one of my plans for the future. I do want to write a semi-memoir. I struggle with that sometimes because I always feel like, “And you have so much to say that you need a book?” I do want to write a memoir. I also would love to write a novel. I love characters. I just love creating the story. Particularly in high school, I used to write a lot of short stories. I do miss that. I do miss being able to get immersed in the characters that way and create a story line. I just think it’s incredibly fun.
As I look to the future, I think maybe the next career after this one would have something to do with writing, and perhaps teaching. I still cling to that love for learning. I would love to be able to impart that to other people. I don’t know whether that would be on a college level or high school level or elementary level. I am inclined to believe it would probably be on a high school level because I love teenagers, which might sound really crazy.
What makes it all worth it for you at the end of the night? I think at the heart of it all, knowing that I have been a really useful steward, a really good steward of my parents’ efforts, of really the emotional, financial, psychological investment that they made in their kids. I feel like they can see that it’s paid off. They can see not only did I grow up to be someone who can take care of herself, but I’ve grown up to be someone who sees the value in and deeply wants to take care of other people. I see everything that I do ultimately as a tool to achieving that.
I feel like I try to use my job and my position to really be of assistance to other people, to mentor other women, in particular, to provide advice to all my clients who seek it, and even some of those who don’t seek it from time to time, to really be a fully integrated and effective member of this society that we call Earth, and to leave an impression here, and to leave this spot hopefully better than I found it. I think that’s really what makes it worth it for me.
At the end of the day, I always say to my friends, “Should I get hit by the city bus as I’m crossing Ninth Avenue, I want people to be able to say she left the world better for her having been in it,” not because she worked 70 hours a week, not because she made a good amount of money, but because she really took her skills and used her talent and opened her heart and did things that left people better than they were before they met her or knew her or found her.” That’s really what makes it worth it to me.
Knock on wood, I really believe that, for the most part, people do feel better having interacted with whatever context it was that we had the interaction, even when that interaction is not a positive one. It’s not always positive because of the nature of what I do. Regardless of what the nature of the interaction is, I’m a respectful person, that I convey information in a way that shows that I have empathy and understanding and an appreciation for the job that they’re trying to do as well. I think that’s what makes it worth it.
Paula’s Two Cents on being patient through challenging times.
I was very glad that the lesson about patience surfaced during Rhonda’s interview. When the economy was better, there was frequent job changing because opportunity was everywhere. These days when there are fewer opportunities and so many people out of work, more of us are being forced to exercise patience when in less than desirable positions.
My two cents: Sometimes you have to weather the storm to get to paradise. I don’t advocate staying somewhere when you are being mentally, physically and spiritually drained, but I believe that experiencing adversity makes you stronger and usually things are much better on the other side.
Esquisitely Yours, Paula Edgar.