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“Who you are determines your career path, not the other way around.”
We set out to challenge the notion that individuals are more than just their job title and that’s actually your identity that shapes your career path. So we approached three LSA alums with incredibly diverse identities, career paths, and academic majors to ask them what they thought about this proposition. And we picked up some golden nuggets of wisdom along the way.
Meet our alums:
Eboni Freeman. Engaging, deeply persuasive, but most of all, an honest storyteller. Learn about how she threads her identity as a Black woman into the scripts she develops in the writers room as a co-producer on NBC’s This Is Us, one of the nation’s most watched TV shows.
Andrew Brown. Thoughtful, intensely introspective, committed to his LGBQTAI+ community. Read below about how he was able to carve a space for himself and find community on the other side of the globe.
Beth Michelson. Ambitious, excellent, and unapologetic. How did she become a top woman in finance? Beth states: “It’s in my DNA.” Discover how she navigated this predominantly male industry and why she believes every young woman doing the same should have her own “board of directors” of mentors and sponsors.
"Being authentically you is the biggest asset you have."
Writing what you know
Beth Pearson is a ballerina. Or at least she was. After her father’s premature death, she gives up her dreams of becoming a professional dancer at the insistence of her mother and is forced to focus on her school studies instead. At the cusp of adulthood, Beth encounters a salient adult experience: embracing both the potential and tragedy of life. Although Beth Pearson isn’t a real person, but rather a character on the hit series This Is Us, parts of her story are vividly real.
“I used to be in ballet,” Eboni Freeman explains. “And when they were deciding to do Beth’s origin story, they wanted to make her a dancer, but no one else in the writer's room had ever been involved in dance. So that whole story about her being a Black ballerina and how she lost her dream was from my own life experience.”
Like other writers, Eboni prescribes to the approach of “writing what you know” in order to produce the best work possible. Authenticity, she says, is one of the keys to being a powerful storyteller. In This is Us, Bethany’s story is her own, but parts of it belong to Eboni.
“Looking back on it, I've always been a storyteller,” Eboni reflects. “And I think that started with ballet. Before I wanted to be a writer, I was a dancer. My mom put me in ballet when I was seven years old, and I studied modern dance, jazz, and all that stuff well into high school.”
As an LSA undergraduate, Eboni continued to perform with Cornrows Dance Company, a modern dance troupe on campus. Although she hadn’t considered dance professionally, she still “wanted to be in the arts in some way, shape or form,” which brought her to Sports Management in her sophomore year.
The summer of third-year, Eboni found an internship with the television network FX. Although the work experience was in publicity, she figured an internship was an internship, and it also had the plus of being a paid opportunity. But the internship offered more than she had hoped.
“I believe that it was God who put it in front of me,” she reflects. “I started reading the scripts there because I was bored when I was working as they didn't have much for me to do in the department. And so, I would read the scripts in my free time and I thought, ‘this is really cool, people actually get paid to do this’. And it just sparked something in me.”
“It was a different avenue—that I hadn't realized was an avenue—to be creative in the way that I wanted. It just sparked something in me.”
It was this internship, Eboni says, that catapulted her into a successful career as a writer.
“I think that it was the storyteller in me that latched on to that,” she affirms. “When I think back on it, I was a bookworm—like I was a voracious reader—my nose was always in the book. I had books on books on books as a kid, but also as a teenager. So I love to read, I love stories. I've always loved telling stories.”
That summer at FX, Eboni ‘tried her hand’ at a script or two, and when she returned to Ann Arbor in the Fall, she enrolled in a few script writing courses.
“That was really when it started to connect with me that, ‘oh like this feels right’,” Eboni explains. “It was a different avenue— that I hadn't realized was an avenue—to be creative in the way that I wanted. Because of that internship experience and subsequent classes, I was able to latch on to the right career path.”
But writing wasn’t always easy for Eboni—she struggled to connect her scripts to identity.
“Before I got hired on This Is Us, for many, many years I wrote things with white characters because I was writing stories that I thought were for the market,” Eboni explains. “It wasn't until I started writing stories that were personally connected to me, that were with characters that I understood and that came from my life, my background and my point of view—that was when people took notice.”
People taking notice meant Eboni got a job as a staff writer on This Is Us, where she's been since February 2018, graduating to co-producer this year.
“When I got on the show, there were two other Black writers already working on the show,” Eboni explains. “They were both pretty established, both had been in the industry for at least several years, and they were well respected on the staff there. I remember my first day they pulled me aside and they were like ‘hey, if you have any questions if you need anything, come to us, we're here, we got you.’ They were cognizant of what it felt like to be in the writers room for the first time, a room that is majority white, and they wanted to offer support. So for me, I never felt isolated on my show. Our work has really really great people in general, but those two writers really helped me feel protected in that way.”
But Eboni emphasizes that her positive experience on This Is Us isn’t universal for Black writers in Hollywood
“Oftentimes, you might be on a show where you are the only Black writer,” she says. “So number one, that's a lot of pressure to be the Black voice because Black people are not a monolith; we all have different experiences and points of view. Then number two, maybe there’s something they're not getting right when it comes to the Black experience, and you want to speak up, you want to say something, but if you don't have that level of status in the room you may not be listened to, or you may be afraid to say something because you want to keep your job, you don't want to go against the showrunner or your boss. So that's the tricky part about navigating the writers room is trying to maintain that delicate balance of keeping your job, and also making sure that you are representing those characters, and that if it's a Black character making sure that the stories being told are being told right.”
Still, she emphasizes no matter what else, the most important thing is to show up as yourself every day.
“One of the things that's exciting about working in this industry, is that being authentically you is actually the biggest asset you'll have,” Eboni confirms. “The sooner you realize that the better. What you are bringing as a writer—[your lived experiences, tragedies, conflicts, achievements, all of it]—that's who your showrunners are hiring. They're looking for someone who can bring a different yet authentic perspective to the room."
Creating a Community
Andrew Brown never thought he would live abroad. But after he completed his Master’s of Social Work in St. Louis, he received an offer to work on public health research in Australia through one of his graduate professors, an offer Andrew and his partner jumped at.
“Chris had always wanted to live abroad, and both of us actually had wanted to study abroad during undergrad but hadn't,” Andrew explains, referring to his long-time partner. “So we both had this sense of, it'd be really great, not having had a semester or a year abroad in undergrad and to have that opportunity.”
So they moved to Melbourne, Australia, where Andrew expected to live and work for a year before returning to the United States, likely Detroit or St. Louis, two communities he had lived for a time and could envision himself settling in. Six years later, the couple are still in Melbourne, and Andrew says he’s 'fairly loving it.'
Upon their arrival, Andrew and Chris made an effort to explore their new surroundings, trying new foods—including Vegemite, an infamous Australian breakfast spread—and adopting new slang. Still, there were challenges and realities that accompanied the embracing of a new culture.
“Same sex marriage passed in the US shortly before I moved to Australia, but it hadn't actually passed here,” Andrew explains. “So when I moved to Australia the campaign was really getting up and going, so that was a really interesting and exhausting thing. It's not like I thought the battle was over anything, but I thought the marriage thing was done so now we're working on other issues. So it felt like I was in a time loop.”
But Andrew also emphasizes keeping an open mind when entering a new culture, offering Australia's civil union laws as an example. The laws allow anyone, regardless of gender or sexual orientation, to be united in a civil union, which grants couples the same rights offered afforded in marriage. Although Andrew maintains the importance of being able to use the title of marriage in Australia, he points out that civil unions were never achieved in America’s journey to legalize gay marriage.
“All countries do have their own history and way forward so it's worth being aware of where countries are at and what the implications are, both at a legal and cultural level,” Andrew explains. “There were subtle cultural differences where I found Australia to be more accepting than the US, even if legally, it was a bit behind. So I'd say to students: really embrace that nuance of living abroad. The laws are going to be different but the culture could be quite nuanced, so keep an open mind of where a country might be.”
Being in a new place, Andrew also had to be conscious of building up a new community: personal, social, and professional support networks.
“When we moved I didn’t have an established LGBTQAI+ community yet,” Andrew explains. “People really did want to go out of their way to be supportive of same sex marriage, and the straight allies were trying—they had the best intentions. But they really did see same sex marriage as the end all be all, and it was very superficial. So navigating that was weird, and also isolating, particularly because it was so soon after I moved. In the US, I might have connected to my close LGBTQAI+ friends and said, ‘let's talk about how there's so much more here.’ But I didn't have the same people. So to not be isolated, I found it really important to stay in video contact with friends from home while also making sure to meet people here.”
“I'm going to invest my energy in the things I want to invest in, the people that I want to invest in.”
But how he built that community, where he invested in those relationships—Andrew says he had to learn to be conscious of his own time and energy, particularly when it came to frequent invalidations, like coworkers addressing his partner with the wrong pronoun.
“In terms of being authentically myself, it's important to sort out the long term relationships from the people who I’m not going to be working with regularly,” Andrew explains. “So making a lot of those discernments—like who do I think I can trust to have those hard conversations of how I prefer to talk about my identity—is exhausting. And that doesn't just apply to sexuality—it also applies to race, disability status, gender.”
Andrew continues, hitting an important note:
“I know that it’s not my job to put all my energy into constantly educating people. So it's about also being kind and patient with myself and sometimes saying ‘I'm probably not going to see this person again, it's not worth the energy to correct them.’ And that I'm going to invest my energy in the things I want to invest in, the people that I want to invest in.”
Ultimately though, it was Andrew’s foundational questions about his own identity at UM that paved his journey to Australia.
“My career journey really started with the fundamental question of being gay and being religious,” Andrew reflects. “I saw those parts of my identity as a contradiction and I wanted to explore that tension further, which is why I designed my own major at U-M LSA to study both religion and sexuality. So those fundamental questions about myself lead to the major that I chose. And then from there, I knew there were other values of mine that I wanted to integrate like social justice, social change, helping others, and making a difference.”
Those values extended beyond undergrad, pushing Andrew into his professional pursuits and vocational work.
“When I was coming closer to the end of my LSA experience, it became clear to me that I wanted to study social work,” Andrew explains. “Again, that was driven from the values that I had internally, as opposed to just picking social work because it was something I could do. The order is important: I cared about social justice first and therefore, opted to pursue social work.”
Andrew brings himself back full circle to the original idea that who we are determines our career path, not the other way around.
He concludes: “Supporting others, being an ally, fighting for social justice, giving support where I can, are all very much part of my values. And I've invested in that in both my education and my work.”
All In, All the Time
A seasoned private equity executive for the last two decades, Beth Michelson understands what it’s like to work in an industry known for its monolithism, sharing that “usually, I’m the only woman in the room and certainly the only woman at the board table.” When asked if she’s ever felt the need to sacrifice her sense of self to ‘fit’ into the workplace, Beth responds with an emphatic ‘no’:
“I don't try to be like a man,” she explains, referring to the prevalence of men in the finance and banking industries. “In terms of how I present myself but I also don't try to be ‘masculine’ in my behavior. Sometimes I am tough and firm, characteristics that have traditionally been associated with men, but I can also be empathetic and a good listener. But it's not isolating being a woman in this male-dominated industry—I actually think it can be an asset.”
Beth graduated from LSA in 1991, receiving a BA with distinction before going on to receive an MBA from Columbia Business School, and an MIA from Columbia School of International and Public Affairs.
She is currently a Senior Managing Director at Cartesian Capital Partners, a global private equity firm, and has spent more than 20 years sourcing and managing investments in several international and emerging markets while serving on the boards of various portfolio companies.
“My career is a big part of who I am,” Beth affirms. “When I reflect back on my professional journey, I know: I made that, I created that. Who you are—your personality and your drive— it’s in your DNA and it very much defines your career path.”
But Beth doesn’t necessarily see the intersection of her identity and career as finance-specific. For her, it's about cultivating a mentality that has helped her achieve the success she pursued.
“There are definitely things about me that go back to undergrad, and that are apparent in my life today, that fueled my career growth,” Beth reflects. “When I was in Ann Arbor, the mentality—both mine and very much a Michigan mentality—was ‘work hard, play hard; not one to the exclusion of the other. And that translates to my life today as being all in. Wherever I am—whether it's at work, whether it's with family, or with friends—I am always all in.”
Being “all in” for Beth also means dressing to impress, not to conform.
“I've always thought it's important to dress up,” Beth emphasizes. “Dress how you want to be perceived. When I walk into the office everyday, the guys are all casual, wearing khakis. I don’t care. I still wear a dress, I still wear heels everyday because for me, that’s empowering and how I express myself. My mentality has always been dress up, show up and never give up.”
Although she’s been a bulwark against the pressure to “be like a man,” she recognises that her counterparts will choose to navigate that pressure in different ways.
“I think all women are different, I don't think it's fair to say that there are characteristics that define women as a whole,” Beth explains. “I think it's more important to think of yourself first and what defines you as a person. I try to be warm when I need to be warm, and tough when I need to be tough, to create the dynamic I need. While that may be something women are better at, and some also think women are more intuitive, I think it’s more specific to who I am.”
But for Beth, especially entering the industry in a pre-LinkedIn, pre-LSA Connect, pre-social media era, there were still challenges to navigate as a woman in finance.
“One way in which being a woman did impact me was that until recently, I never had a female mentor or sponsor,” Beth reflects. “When I graduated from Michigan, the only women I knew who had careers were my mom and her sisters. All of them had careers. So initially I thought my options were to be a civil rights lawyer, a chemist, or a hematologist. It was really limiting and hard to find other role models.”
"You want to be the truest, best, and highest version of yourself, but ultimately, you just need to be yourself.”
Beth identifies two key supporters to have as a young woman breaking into the industry: a mentor and a sponsor.
“A sponsor is somebody within your organization who is going to support you, wants you to advance, is going to help you advance, and is going to go to bat for you,” Beth explains. “And I've always had that. I've been lucky that I've found wonderful sponsors. But what I didn't have was mentors.”
While a sponsor may champion you for advancement opportunities and participation in new projects, a mentor typically sits external to the organization you’re in, more experienced, and generously offers their time and expertise as a way to pay it forward.
“Mentors can help you navigate things internally and also to think more holistically,” Beth explains. “As you’re charting your career path, it's good to have outside perspectives because they bring different things to the table, they can help you see things that you may not see otherwise.”
Beth now works to fill that gap by mentoring various young women, offering advice, her time, and internships, and even full-time positions where she can.
“Young women in finance have a special place in my heart,” Beth emphasizes. “And it’s because I wished I had that support early on in my career. I think it's incredibly important to give back and to give opportunities, so I mentor a bunch of people and I just grab them as I find them.”
Beth offers a recent example of a young woman who recently completed her undergraduate degree at Columbia, where Beth completed her Master’s. This student approached Beth after she spoke at a conference and Beth responded by sharing advice and offering to look into an internship opportunity at Beth’s organization. A month later, this student nabbed an internship, and soon after she was brought on full-time.
So for LSA students, what’s the secret to exploring careers? Breaking into an industry? Making your mark?
Beth echoes what Eboni and Andrew both preach: authenticity.
“It’s all about being authentic,” Beth emphasizes. “Be who you are and try to capitalize on that. You want to be like the truest, best, and highest version of yourself, but ultimately, you just need to be yourself.”