The Power of the Pivot
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2021 issue of ESSENCE.
From Editor to Acclaimed Author
In the summer of 2013, Dawnie Walton’s personal life was in a transition. Her first marriage was headed toward divorce, and she was experiencing the mysterious symptoms of endometriosis. This caused the Florida native to pause and reflect on her situation. Her career as deputy managing editor of ESSENCE was in a great place. She created content, oversaw digital strategy and worked on Essence Festival, developing programming for the annual event that inspired the film Girls Trip. But even with her cushy title, good salary and careful sav- ings, Walton wondered, What am I building?
A writer friend, who had been a MacDowell fellow, read Walton’s fiction and suggested she apply for a prestigious residency at the artist colony, located in Peterborough, New Hampshire. “I didn’t know anything about fellowships or resi- dences or M.F.A. programs, nothing,” Walton says. “But I’d been working on a novel, because I’d get ideas that would spark while I was watching a film or listening to music. My ideas always started with, ‘What if?’ What if there was this kind of person, and they met this kind of person?”
The fellowship application called for Walton to submit 20 pages of a story. As her finger hovered over the submit button, she made a promise to herself that if she got accepted, she’d jump and follow the opportunity wherever it led. Walton got in—and made good on that promise. In 2015, instead of staying for two weeks at MacDowell, she opted to stay for six. She then decided to leave her day job and follow her passion for creative writing. Truth to be told, the Florida A&M University alum was terrified. “What I’d tell anybody is that the first step is the scariest,” she says. “I was scared of rejection, but I was also scared of what I [was] supposed to do if I get this, because it was going to mean going out on a limb. But once I made that first move toward the ledge, I was fine after that.”
When her time at MacDowell ended, Walton survived on her savings and stayed focused on her novel as she applied to graduate school writing programs. She was accepted to the highly regarded Iowa Writers’ Workshop, and there she finessed her fictional oral history about a 1970s rock-and-roll duo and the secret at the center of their fame. That work—The Final Revival of Opal & Nev—is now one of the most highly anticipated books of 2021, and will be released on March 30.
Walton says that making a commitment to her writing made her fiction better. Before MacDowell and Iowa, she was “noo- dling” on the story and shaping it based on instinct. But focus- ing on her craft without the distractions of a day job allowed her to add layers of complexity to her novel. And even though, at 40, she was the oldest person in her class, being seasoned had its advantages. “I had a life to come back to, with a solid foundation of friends,” reflects Walton, now 44. “I went in with experience. And most of all, I went in with an appreciation for the gift that I had been given.”
These days Walton doesn’t put limits on what may happen next. She met a new love and remarried last year. She’s excited to teach, work on her second book, and explore screenwriting, and she’s found a work title that fits her best: storyteller.
From Investment Banker to Culture Curator
For four years, Nana Quagraine had a long commute—traveling 17 hours by plane from Brooklyn to her beloved South Africa, four times annually. For the woman who’d been curious at an early age about ways to build Africa’s economy, and who entered college to study metallurgical engineering at 16, eventually working at “the largest public fund manager in Africa, and investing in roads and telecommunications” was the job of a lifetime. So she and her husband Mark made things work for those four years.
But Quagraine, who earned an M.B.A. from Harvard, also thought about becoming an entrepreneur. There were hurdles to jump, however. “[Before business school,] I didn’t really understand how businesses get pulled together,” she says. “How do you fund a business? What’s the lifeblood? I knew that I wanted to work at an investment bank. I wanted to build [business] models. I wanted to dissect and look at financials and be able to tell you what’s happening on an income statement.”
Still, she had no idea what kind of business was in her future—until her twins were born in 2017. Her parents flew in from Quagraine’s native Ghana for the twins’ naming ceremony, with beautiful, tailor-made Kente cloth outfits for everyone in tow. “Everything fit perfectly,” she recalls. “We walked from home to church and you could see the reaction. This is Brooklyn. Everyone loves theater. And they were staring like, What’s this joy? What’s this all about? You could feel the energy, and I thought, Wow, what if I could bottle this? How can I share this?” Then she thought about the talented designers in Africa who are just as skilled as those in places like Scandinavia and Japan, but who didn’t have access to the same breadth of world markets. Enter Quagraine with her vast network of African professionals. Through her work, she’d traveled to more than 20 countries in Africa, so picking up the phone to connect with a designer in Zimbabwe or Ghana or Tanzania was an easy call to make.
But first, she had to reckon with going from writing $100 million checks as part of her investment banking gig, to selling $50 swaddle designs. It was quite an adjustment to start from ground zero, but Quagraine was determined to trust the outcome. Her business, 54kibo—an online home decor brand featuring sustainable pieces by designers from the African diaspora—is named for the number of African countries and the continent’s highest peak, Tanzania’s Mount Kilimanjaro. She decided that if the venture didn’t succeed, then she’d just try something else.
“For me as a Black woman, it really feels good to have a piece that’s designed by another Black person,” she says. “We want to see ourselves in [design] spaces, because once we are there, others will take note and also want to include our aesthetic. But they don’t have friends in Africa. How are they going to access the pieces?” Now, they can find them via 54kibo.
As Quagraine digs deeper into African design history by exploring the textiles, woodworking, metalworking and gold- smithing that define it, she’s planning to introduce new items. “We realized that the interest is there,” she says, “so we’re deepening our collections. We have to build our marketing capabilities, and grow the website traffic, and really turn 54kibo into a world-class brand.”
From Ad Director to Media Maven
One day in 1999, Bevy Smith landed in Milan for the men’s runway shows wearing six-inch heels and a golden-brown mink hugging her shoulders. Then a beauty and fashion advertising director for Vibe magazine, she felt like royalty as she was whisked to her corner suite at the Hotel Principe di Savoia. But when she was finally alone, Smith collapsed on the hotel’s pricey Frette sheets and cried.
Her fabulous life had started to look like a scene from Bill Murray’s classic Groundhog Day and she felt unfulfilled. At 33, she decided to yell “Cut!” She thought back to when she cohosted the red carpet with Fonzworth Bentley for the first-ever Vibe Awards, and something clicked. “Everyone was telling me that I had ‘flair,’ ” Smith recalls. “They would say things like, ‘Do you sing?’ They just felt creative energy radiating off me.”
But it took another five years—and another lucrative magazine job, this time at Rolling Stone— before she announced to her corporate bosses that she was leaving to pursue a “creative life.” Management thought she was having a mid-life crisis—and Smith herself wasn’t exactly sure how to pursue her new goal.
Turns out Smith was right to tap into her right-brained self. Approximately eight months after quitting Rolling Stone, she was offered a contract to work on Tim Gunn’s Guide to Style on Bravo. Although Smith didn’t sign because “the contract was bad,” she appreciated the universe for showing up with a confirmation code. The Harlem girl took it as a sign that she was on the right path. “I never went into any space trying to convince anybody of anything,” she says with her trademark confidence. “I simply knew that I belonged there. I knew I was good for TV, and when I went to auditions, [others knew it, too].”
And for Smith, “No, thank you” wasn’t the end of the conversation but the beginning. As a salesperson, she’d heard “no” all the time, so she was prepared for the rejection that came along with being a curvy, chocolate woman in front of the camera. It took seven years before she landed a hosting job on Fashion Queens, opposite Derek J and Lawrence Washington. The nationally syndicated show Page Six TV soon followed, and she now hosts Bevelations on SiriusXM.
Today, the author of Bevelations: Lessons from a Mutha, Auntie, Bestie is the first to admit that pursing the creative life wasn’t always a crystal stair. She had a broke-but-blissful period that taught her how to make one can of $5 salmon stretch into croquettes for breakfast, lunch and dinner. “I saved enough to pay my rent for two years, but I didn’t realize how much of my life was subsidized by my corporate job,” she recalls. “I never paid for car service or meals, and I received gifts from luxury brands. So every season I’d receive handbags from Gucci, Prada or Vuitton or somebody.” Imagine her surprise when the cell phone bill slid into her mailbox. If your favorite auntie had a chance to do it all over again, she says now, she would’ve snagged a financial planner before going out on her own.
As far as Smith is concerned, everything was as it should be, because during her lean years, she created Dinner With Bevy, an invitation-only affair attended by fashion, entertainment and media influencers. That venture catapulted her into a very elite group of celebrities, making all of her previous wins and losses just the warm-up. And Smith, now 54, is about to pivot once again, this time into producing and curating art collections for films and television shows. As the creative media personality likes to say, “It gets greater later.”
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