A little over a year ago, I wrote a piece about one of the many existential crisis that I am currently juggling: my career. Since writing that, a LOT has happened to me, some personal (my dad died), some tangential (my BFFs each had their own ish I tried to lend support and friendship to), and some global (#Resist). I didn’t really give a second thought to that steady paycheck that keeps the lights on and funds a large chunk of America’s of internet shopping revenue. I have defined a goal for myself, but for several realistic reasons it seems unattainable… I realize that screams of self-doubt and cowardice. And cowardice leads to more unhappiness and I don’t want to come to regret my day to day existence.
I earnestly started to tackle the question of “What do I want to be when I ‘grow up’?” How do I translate the tools and skills I am gravitating towards into the goal I set for myself? Short of chicanery and witchcraft? In case you haven’t realized it yet, I am overly analytical about things; the solution I came up with is to talk to people who have pursued their passion. Maybe their bravery will rub off on me, maybe they will help me focus…ormaybe it is just an excuse to not make any big scary adult decisions.
I decided to interview people I know who went through what I am going through to gain some perspective on how to become ‘The Next Oprah’ (or as my didi puts it: “You’re not the next Oprah, you are the first Puja” – my inner circle is gold standard in supportive and empowering). I realize that I am not the only one struggling in this existential space, I wanted to share what I learned from these interviews / conversations with anyone who cares to listen/read.
First up, is a dear friend of mine Ronnika. As background, Ronnika and I met during our stint working as government attorneys, and both transitioned into the corporate financial sector after leaving that position. Ronnika is the owner, principal make-up artist, and CEO of Impeccable Faces, a company she founded to pursue her passion for make-up artistry. You may have seen her handiwork before, she was the make-up artist for Rashee’s Reclaiming My Body piece. She is trained in Film and TV, beauty make-up, bridal, she loves tribal make-up, it is something she loves to create, and some avante garde creations, red carpet, and mail grooming. Ronnika and I (and our friend Dee) sat down for Sushi one sunny March Saturday and talked about our journey towards regretting law school, career accomplishments, and future goals.
Puja: What I wanted to start with was why you went to law school.
Ronnika: I liked to argue when I was a kid. And people would say to me, particularly my family, that ‘You need to be a lawyer because you love to argue.’ And that just kind of stuck…I didn’t want to be a statistic, my mother had been very clear that I was NOT going into the military, both of my parents were in the Air Force, and my mother is anti-war anyway. When the recruiters started calling she was like “No, she’s going to college, she will not be going into the military, don’t call my house again.”
Puja: Oh my God.
Ronnika: So I went to college, and then I was majoring in criminal justice and I decided ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ That was the end game, but I wanted to be a prosecutor, so I was like let me major in criminal justice. If I had known then, what I know now, I would have majored in English, because I think law school would have been easier. Not like English composition, the amount of reading and writing [is what] I would have been accustomed to. But I majored in criminal justice because I wanted to be a criminal lawyer. I had a back-up plan, I will say that, if I didn’t do well on the LSAT [sic. law school admission test], my plan was to get my criminal justice degree, work as a parole officer for three years, get my MBA, and go work as a Federal Parole Officer, because that is where the real money is. So that was my back-up plan. Go to Sam Houston State and get a MBA in criminal justice studies and become a Federal Parole Officer. I got into Thurgood and spent a shit load of money…and regret it a lot. Pretty much all the time.
Ronnika: Well pretty much every month when I get that statement in the mail from that bitch –
Puja: That bitch being Sallie Mae.
Ronnika: And that heaux, and I look at that bill, that amount hasn’t really dropped by much over the years.
Puja: Laughs. Same with me.
Ronnika: It is still like a house.
Puja: Same with me. I understand you’re charging me interest every month, and I’m paying a little bit over, like a little bit over, like $4 but my question is, even though interest is compounded daily, like a mortgage, why isn’t my balance going down like a mortgage? I’m making the required payment and the balance isn’t decreasing and that to me seems like a fucking scam.
Ronnika: No, law school is a scam. And I think I realized it – [looking at Dee, her former law school classmate] – what did they tell us the median income coming out of school was $89,000 for new lawyers or some shit like that?
Puja: What tier law school though?
Dee: These stats are so skewed. They don’t justify or explain employment could be at Target or McDonald’s or anything. So you are thinking employment is really high numbers, but they are not explaining what ’employment’ means.
Puja: So after law school what were the legal jobs you held?
Ronnika: So I clerked with [Big Name Firm] in Houston my third year, I did records management. When I graduated law school, I was living in Houston, I didn’t pass the bar exam the first time.
Ronnika: They let me stay on until my bar results came in, and when I failed, they were like we have no use for you anymore. I came back home and I got a job. My cousin was a regional manager of [National Company] so she hired me to work one of her stores, that and substitute teaching. That was in November of 2006. After Katrina hit, I worked for the government as a paralegal specialist.
Puja: That’s where we met!
Ronnika: I passed the bar and became and Attorney Advisor, and I was there for two (2) years; then I got on the document review treadmill along with every other lawyer I know. I did that for a while, then I went to go work for a [Major Bank] and then Fannie Mae in audit and compliance, and now I am at my current job [Global Financial Institution]. In between I did my own cases and practices and that is where I really learned that as much as I wanted to be in the DA’s [sic. district attorney’s] I really actually hated litigation.
Puja: What about it did you hate?
Ronnika: It is way too rigid, you gotta remember this judge and what they do and don’t like. You gotta make friendly with these old attorneys –
Puja: That’s what I heard too. I hate that this job exists, but I’d want to do it, I wish I was qualified to do it: Jury Consulting. It is one of the reasons why I don’t believe in the American Justice System. If you have people out there telling you that they don’t like the way your hair is parted and that affects whether or not they listen to what you are saying, that is a FARCE. And I don’t want to participate in a farce. So going to court never appealed to me in that sense. And also I stutter, talk fast, talk into my chest, and I don’t feel like that any of those things will benefit anybody, and you don’t want to trust your life in my hands; I’m not that good under pressure.
Ronnika: I didn’t like dealing with clients because I did a lot of Family Law –
Puja; That’s a lot of bill collecting.
Ronnika: Yeah, it is a lot of bill collecting at the end of the day. And the Bar has it set up where you can’t withdraw because you haven’t gotten your money. It is like shame on you for not getting that up-front. If I say to a client ‘You have to have all the money paid to me two weeks before trial,’ it’s not like I can withdraw if they don’t pay.
Dee: The bar isn’t really set up for attorneys anyway. Nothing they do is beneficial. They just take your money.
Puja: That is the whole reason I don’t reactivate my license.
Dee: You deactivated it?
Puja: No I let it lapse, it costs to inactivate it and it costs to re-activate it. It was cheaper to let it lapse into “not eligible to practice law.” Because what I did is I never completed my CLEs [sic. Continuing Legal Education] one year, because like you, I went into corporate America. And I’m not gonna – coming from the Federal Government where they pay your bar dues, I’m not going to pay that money to not do legal work.
Ronnika: I hear you, but for me, [Global Financial Institution] can lay me off tomorrow, and if I have to get back on the document review treadmill to make ends meet, I can’t. I have to be in a position to continue to work. Plus I earned that damn thing.
Puja: For where I am, in my shame on me for not maintaining that degree, I just have to pay them and I am back in good status.
Dee: They are just there to take your money.
Puja: I don’t understand why it costs to much money to take the bar exam.
Dee: And you have to take those classes or you’re not going to pass.
Ronnika: I had one client, I found myself so frustrated. Nine (9) month old baby and they are in court arguing over custody. And this county pushes ADR [sic. alternative dispute resolution] before you go to court, the man was an abuser. Everyone but me was scared of him. He accused her of secreting the child. He had visitation and only exercised it 13 times, one day without notice he popped up and he got mad because she was dating someone else so he filed charges. The father is a parolee with a split sentence, pretty sure he was running a crystal meth lab out of his house. As the non-custodial parent he is not entitled to overnight visits and other stuff unless the child is school age, that is statutory. I don’t understand why his lawyer didn’t tell him that. I said ‘listen we have been sitting here for two hours, (I have worked off all my money and she never fully paid me) you are a criminal, but even if you weren’t the state doesn’t allow you to have over night visits with a 9-month old because you are not the custodial parent so why are we here?’ I told opposing counsel that we should just go talk to the judge. He [the non-custodial parent] did not like the way I was talking to him, and he threw a chair at me. So that was pretty much it for me. My client was calling me names, the bailiffs had to come in and taze him and I only got two-thirds of my fees. The client then had the nerve to call me and ask me about filing child support. So I reminded her she still owed me money, I don’t want to be a bill collector. If I practice now, it is probate, I can write a will or trust instrument from the comfort of my home. Typically those clients are a bit more sophisticated. I used to do volunteer immigration work, and those clients tend to be more sophisticated. Practicing just ain’t for me. Some people love it and are successful at it.
Puja: So where in your journey through all of this did you pick up make-up artistry?
Ronnika: I have always loved make-up. What happened was I had been praying for a long time. After leaving the Government job, there was still a part of me that wanted to practice. But after doing it, I knew it wasn’t for me. What I want to do is get into compliance in corporate America. I arrived, I prayed for that goal, and when I arrived I was like ‘God damn is this it?’ I had an existential crisis. I’d gone to school, I put forth all this effort and all this time –
Puja: How old were you at this point? You don’t have to give the exact age? Like early thirties?
Ronnika: Yeah. I’d say early thirties. Because I doubted whether it was the right thing to do. These make-up artists are twenty year olds. But I felt that I’ve arrived, it’s not like I am a SVP or anything, I am a compliance officer at a [Global Financial Institution] and I know what positions at the top look like, is this what I had to look forward to? Is this it? I am not married, I don’t have children – and I don’t think that should define you – but I can’t imagine going to work and doing that, even if I grow in the company, and that be it. I come home at the end of the day and be like [Editor’s Note: she plaintively gestured with her palms up as one does when asking ‘where is the rest?’]
I needed something else. So I asked myself what is something you love? Typical cliched question, what is the thing you would do, if you didn’t get paid for it, you would do it anyway?
It is not my day job, you have to pay me.
We all chuckled.
It was make-up, the answer was make-up.
Puja: And you took a sabbatical from work-work to get trained?
Ronnika: To get trained yes. I took a 10-day academy, it was full day, to learn color theory, face shapes, the technical aspects of being a make-up artist. Because it is carving out bone structure. Sanitation…you know because I’m not trying to kill people.
Puja: You don’t want to ruin your brand before you get started.
Ronnika: Then I apprenticed under a celebrity make-up artist for about nine (9) months. Then I went out on my own. Impeccable Faces was born in 2014.
Puja: What is your goal with your company? Do you see yourself giving up the day job to do this full-time?
Ronnika: I don’t. I am beginning to see conflicts though. No. I am already seeing, probably because I started in my thirties, it is taxing on the body.
Dee: Standing up all the time.
Ronnika: I’ve developed plantar fasciitis in one foot, I have a plantar fibroma in one foot and it is because I am on my feet all the time, for hours at a time. I would not call it manual labor like construction, but it is a type of manual labor. Instagram has changed the game and there are a lot of artists – make-up artistry has become something else and it has driven the price of make-up down. So a lot of really seasoned artists that I know are struggling. What used to be a high paying, highly skilled job, now you have these make-up artists who will do faces for $40. There are apps now –
Dee: What do the apps do?
Ronnika: Basically they rate you – the person going through the app will pay $65 and the make-up artist will get $40.
Puja: It’s like Uber…
Ronnika: Yes, like Uber. So these new make-up artist will say ‘well it’s work, we are making it up in volume.’ But the craft, you know what I mean? And what good make-up should look like has been skewed because of Instagram and all the filtering and airbrushing. The industry is changing, until people get off this Instagram craze and understand you don’t want someone putting cheap products on your face, therefore it costs for you to have a GOOD make-up artist, until the industry rebounds it wouldn’t be wise for me to basically become manual laborer and make less money. Like I love it, but it would be part-time.
Puja: What would have to change for you to be like ‘No, I’m giving it my full attention?’
Ronnika: Quite honestly if some of the investments I am making or I come into a source of steady income, that would sustain me and pay my bills and I could be comfortable, then it would be something I would consider pursuing full-time.
Puja: I thought you were going to say if Oprah called and said you’re her exclusive make-up artist, then yeah, i’m dropping everything.
Ronnika: I’d want to do celebrity faces, I don’t want to be a celebrity make-up artist. I’m good with the everyday woman, and making them feel beautiful because that is how make-up makes me feel.
Puja: I love that.
Ronnika: The celebrity angle, because I know celebrity make-up artists and I’ve heard the stories, I know that is not for me. I am older than twenty, I am more mature, there are some things I won’t tolerate. There is an R&B Artist who makes her make-up artist carry three (3) of everything in her kit. My kit is a rolly-bag, hers looks like a carry-on. And the thing I said with your body breaking down, like today, what I did was not book any appointments today because it is a part time job, it is not priority. So I give myself one weekend a month off. Oprah would be paying for hotel, meals, car so that when she said “Go” you’d have to go, it doesn’t matter if you’ve been on your feet for 14 hours and your back is hurting and your knees hurt. That is not the life I want. I only want to do celebrity faces because it would draw more regular women.
Puja: I love that your journey, in both professions, is drawing boundaries. Distinct boundaries about what you will or won’t do, that is so empowering.
My last question is what tips would you give to women, who may be in your situation, in their thirties contemplating do I start my own business?
Ronnika: Start. It is going to take sacrifices. There are days when I am exhausted. There are many days where I come home, I may have bridal trial in the evening, I may have to answer a million emails, update my website, it is taxing, it is a lot, but it is worth it. To me – it is not like that everyday – the alternative of going to work everyday and being like “Eh”… It is worth the struggle. So start. She has to make the determination if that is something she wants to do full-time. That is not my reality right now.
Dee: Also coming home exhausted from working for myself is different versus working for someone else.