Teaching personal branding to first-generation college students

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Today I had the extraordinary opportunity to deliver Google’s Introduction to Personal Branding course to a group of first-generation college students and their professional mentors. The event was coordinated by New York Needs You, which helps these students — most of whom come from low-income families — overcome the 89% dropout rate for kids like themselves.

At more than a hundred students and mentors, the audience was the largest I’ve had for a class. The space where I led, in the Goldman Sachs building on West Street, was also the nicest room I’ve ever led in: I had monitors in front of me to watch my slides, as well as big digital clocks ticking off the time in front of me, and the audience had mics on their tables, UN style. And the people who came to the class were enthusiastic and engaged. They were the sort of people who chose to spend their Saturday in business clothes, hanging around Goldman Sachs to hear what some Googlers had to say about careers, so they were predisposed to pay attention.

I was a little nervous about talking to such a big room, on such a big stage. What I didn’t realize was that it would amplify the energy. Punchlines that get some smiles in a conference room with twenty Googlers got big laughs. Exercises created an excited murmur. Questions and answers with the audience played differently too. Early in the class, there are some parts where I ask the audience to call out adjectives that come to mind. In a typical small room, I wait for a while for someone to break the silence, and then a few ideas come trickling in, usually from the same subset of talkers. In the bigger room, everyone started shouting at once. The energy was fantastic, but I had to run things more tightly just so I could hear. Later on, when I called on individuals to contribute, there was a decisive dynamic at work where I was the leader, up on stage and dispensing wisdom, and they were eager participants, like someone David Letterman has picked out to play with.

I rode that energy and delivered the best class of my life. Credit goes to the Google team who developed the class, of course. It’s great content, and the students and mentors loved it. Afterward I talked with various students for more than an hour. I gave my usual advice about pre-graduation panic: yes, you’ll make lots of mistakes, and that’s fine; it’s how you learn what you like and what you don’t. And it will all work out OK, so relax.

I also helped a few students to find the value proposition in themselves. One young man wasn’t sure whether he had anything special to offer. As we talked, he explained that he’s getting a 4.0 studying finance at Baruch College, that he came with his family from Azerbaijan at the age of 5, that he speaks Russian and English, that he’s been working two jobs to support himself and his mother while he goes to school, and that one of those jobs is actually a tutoring service that he created. For a young woman who’s studying economics and urban planning at NYU, I brought it to her attention that there’s a unique value proposition in being the only person in her program who can compare America’s urban planning challenges with Jakarta’s based on personal experience and a knowledge of the local language.

That got me to thinking about my own unique value proposition. I sometimes downplay it — we all tend to — but I’ve had an interesting career, to say the least. I’ve seen drag queens on roller skates hand out sushi at a dot-com holiday party. I’ve danced the Hokey Pokey for money and the amusement of Korean kindergarteners. I’ve written speeches that were read in the United Nations General Assembly and been asked by a senior South Korean diplomat for my solution to the North Korea problem (I didn’t have one). I’ve taken time off to study in a Tibetan monastery in Nepal and watch bodies burn in Varanasi, and I’ve traveled to India to convince an outsource team to speak their minds in meetings. I’ve taught classes at Google and written articles about cutting-edge technologies and learned to swing dance and ski and spent three days in the woods learning what color I am (orange). I’m getting a master’s degree in Asian studies, which has put me in the classroom with a former CIA analyst and National Security Council member.

Does this make me an expert on careers in general? No, probably not. But does it mean I can tell you something about what it’s like out there in the world, and what opportunities there are if you’re willing to go on a few tangents? Yes. I’ve actually managed to accumulate some wisdom and experience that’s useful to others, and I’m good at communicating it in a way that people can use. I want to get better at it. I enjoy it. And today, so did my audience.