Nneka Thompson Spotlight: 'Letting Go' in the Professional World
Through our Lunch and Learn Professional Development Series, Good Counsel brings in experts, professionals, and innovators from diverse fields to present to and be resources for our community of social entrepreneurs and emerging non-profits. Our most recent guest speaker is Nneka Thompson, Principal at Mariama Consulting, LLC, which is a women and minority-owned business.
In the face of an increasingly automated manufacturing industry and undiversified career fields, Nneka Thompson helps organizations create, establish, and expand job training initiatives that benefit both employers with a skilled staff and students with better jobs that they deem meaningful. She also offers professional development strategist services for minority professionals who seek support in navigating workplace challenges that they encounter as racial minorities.
However, before consulting, Thompson’s work ranged from program management and direct service to grantmaking and practitioner, and her workplaces have spanned national think-tanks and non-profits, local community-based organizations, state quasi-public entities, and corporate settings.
In her work with national think tanks New America and the Aspen Institute, she managed skills gap remediation initiatives between employers and community colleges, and oversaw policy research and strategic communications around youth apprenticeship. At Jobs for the Future, she led a $6 million performance-based US Department of Labor contract to expand apprenticeship nationally, which received renewal three times despite federal funding cuts. “I focused my team on matters of equity and inclusion to bring diversity (e.g. racial, gender, abilities and disabilities) to manufacturing, telecommunications, and other growing industries,” Thompson said.
However, it took a while for Thompson to find her true passion in the workplace. As a new graduate in marketing from the University of Massachusetts - Dartmouth, she started her career in the corporate sector with Fortune 500 retailer TJX Companies.
“As a student preparing for my first professional job, I was focused on finding work that I would enjoy doing for the rest of my life,” Thompson said. “This notion was inspired by observing my parents who worked out of obligation versus joy and fulfillment. Related, also important to me was making the most of the sacrifices that my parents made for me to have opportunities and options for my life.”
In the job promotions soon after the beginning of her career, Thompson found titles and wage gains to be increasingly important. However, she noticed that in her corporate job, she “was more tuned into helping [her] staff advance in their careers – which was not [her] primary job responsibility.”
This is when Thompson began her transition into the nonprofit sector. While attending service in urban Massachusetts, she learned that a local church had recently received government funding to help place unemployed churchgoers into jobs. With her business experience and passion for people, Thompson provided résumé help, interview coaching, and mentorship support in this community.
“If I held on too tightly to my career plan. . . I would have either delayed or blocked my calling.”
Though the transition from a high-paying corporate job to an underfunded church with “no dedicated office space” seemed strange to those around her, Thompson knew that this was a necessary change. “If I held on too tightly to my career plan, and that was to stay in marketing, I would have either delayed or blocked my calling, and that was to really be working with people,” she said.
Afterward, she continued her work in the nonprofit sector with Dress for Success and More Than Words, a youth-run bookstore café that helped youth gain job experience through café management. All of the skills acquired through these experiences manifested in the establishment of her own coaching business, Mariama Consulting, LLC, during December 2019. “I said to [my client], ‘what my clients love about me is that I have all these different experiences of direct service serving different populations.’” With this response, Thompson sealed a job opportunity with her second client. “It was using that lived experience that really was in a season of small things to get a bigger thing,” she said.
Over the course of her career, Thompson encountered many obstacles, including toxic workplace cultures, discrimination, and personal barriers. During her time at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Nneka grappled with imposter syndrome during the application process.
“It was the mindset of, ‘Who am I to be applying to this Ivy League University? Am I even going to get in?’,” Thompson recalled. “I would sit down and do it and then I would recoil.” It was after receiving advice that Thompson learned to “let somebody else take you out of the running; don't take yourself out of the running.” In the end, she was selected as one of three National Association of Charter School Authorizer Fellows upon graduation from the Kennedy School.
“Fear is very loud, that's usually how you know it's fear. Your voice and intuition are very soft.”
She credits her success to her faith. "A willingness to be a student of the moment in time, trusted mentors, and a personal relationship with God (praying, reading, and listening) were some of the important things that made me an overcomer and gave me stamina to persevere,” she said.
Today, Thompson’s motivations are balanced. She has achieved a long-held goal of business ownership, and she gets to directly impact lives while still “having the freedom of flexibility and control over my time.”
From a diverse and accomplished career, Thompson’s main takeaway for young professionals is to ‘be willing to let go.’ According to Thompson, “It's not just the credentials, and the check marks, and the résumés; it's all that interpersonal stuff that starts to make you ready for bigger things,” she said. She noted that when difficulties happen in the workplace, “It starts to get you out of your comfort zone, it gets you out of your need to always be in control, and it helps you to let go of the idea that where you are and where you start is where you're going to end up.”