Roquita Coleman-Williams coined the word “storealities” to describe the moments in time when you realize the disconnect between your own narrative about a situation and the reality. “It’s when you’ve learned from that moment,” she says. “How did you get there, and what’s the wisdom you want to pass on to other women?” Roquita has curated 22 of these moments from a varied group of women in her book Storealities to encourage all of us to honor our own stories and the role we play in where we are today. In addition to being an author, this mother of two model sons – in every sense – is also a certified train conductor as part of her solutions manager role with Canadian National Railway, was the first African-American female brand ambassador for Vibram footwear and serves on multiple philanthropic boards throughout the Memphis community. Before she introduces you to the subjects of her book at Novel. on August 25, get to know our newest FACE of Memphis, Roquita Coleman-Williams.
Where were you born and what was your upbringing like?
I was born in Memphis, 38126, which is the poorest ZIP code in the city. My mom and my father were having difficulties, so my mom asked my grandmother and her then-teenage daughter, my aunt, to take care of me, and so they did. Those were the two people to raise me. I graduated from Sheffield as a 16-year-old and got a full ride to University of Memphis, and the rest is history.
How did the Memphis community shape your story?
Pretty profoundly, because there were actions that I took, particularly coming from an impoverished background, that normally would derail someone’s life, and it didn’t derail mine. I graduate at 16 and go off to college, but then by 17, I’m pregnant. There were people who showed up to make sure that I stayed in college. Every critical opportunity I’ve had came from someone being a witness to where I was at the time and saying, let’s give you some help.
How did you get started in the rail industry?
Ten years into my career at UPS, Stephen Cohen’s office calls me one day and says, “Hey, the railroad has started a division, and the recruiter is calling us and asking for referrals. We’re going to give them your name.” I wasn’t really clear how my background in sales and marketing at a common carrier fit with the railroad. I knew what the job description required, but what I had to figure out was, what was the value? I noticed there was not a real presence in the city. The value in my role was to be that voice for the rail industry.
What is the message you want your own story to tell other women?
I want them to know that you’re not imprisoned by your history, your story or where you came from. That’s not a predictor of where you’re going. I realized that so many people thought that my upbringing was more polished and that I’d come from more privileged circumstances. I realized, gosh, there are women who are probably in those circumstances today who may have no idea what they could become or what is possible because I denied having this conversation.
What did you learn about yourself through hearing other women’s stories?
Like most people who find themselves working around men, I had that story of, “I like working around guys because women are hard to work with.” I don’t know why I thought that I needed to minimize women in order to feel good about working with guys, but that was the path I took. It does take a lot to do a collaboration with 22 people, but it didn’t take any more energy to do that than some of the stuff I’ve done with three male colleagues. That was a very valuable lesson.
I’d also created this story that Memphis women were even more challenging than “regular” women, and that’s even more untrue. Particularly in the last couple years, I’ve seen more women connecting and getting together and being empowered and seeing that there is not much difference between us. It’s very fascinating to hear some of the same stories from women of all backgrounds.
You have been very open about having two different mothering journeys with your sons. How did you connect those two paths into a unified family experience?
It’s a challenge because they’re 17 years apart. I’m a different mom today than I was with my oldest. I’ve had to be intentional about making sure I show up for Jamie as an adult in the same way I show up for Kai as a child. Building business together happens to be one of those ways. Instead of hiring someone to do my web development, I hired someone to teach Jamie to do my web development. Here’s an opportunity to help him to learn something that helps him to be independent, and at the same time, it gives us a chance to work together.
Have there been female mentors in your life who have made a specific impact?
Carolyn Hardy was an unexpected mentor. She was one of the first accounts I called on when I started with UPS at 21 years old. I walked into the building of Hardy Bottling, and I was so nervous that the words wouldn’t even come out. She definitely became a huge mentor for me in terms of my civic responsibility, where to serve and how to do it strategically.
My aunt Sharon Coleman has definitely been a mentor. She owns Ritzee Florist & Interior Design and was the first woman business owner who had an influence in my life. She taught me how to conduct business and how to negotiate at a really young age.
Delores Warren was one of my first bosses at UPS. I was very plain, very no-makeup, I wore these big box suits from Sears. She was the first woman who told me that I didn’t have to bland out my physical features in order to be taken seriously professionally.
What is your best advice?
The best advice I’ve been given is the advice I least wanted to hear at the time, which is no matter where you are in the world, to be humble. I thought at the time that the person telling me that was telling me to be small. The last thing when you’re on your path to getting where you want to get is anything that resembles “be small.” But now I understand that in context very differently, particularly as I look back at some of the opportunity that I’ve had. Humility and grace go together.
The advice that I give often is: Have a strategy around a professional brand. If it’s your desire to be successful, to be impactful socially, then get people in your life who will help you build a professional brand. You have a brand whether you want it or not, so choose the brand you want to have. Be intentional about it.
What are three things you can’t live without?
My Vibrams, my “work hair” and a good dessert. I will skip every meal in the day to have a really good dessert.
Thank you, Roquita! To learn more about Roquita, visit roquitacwilliams.com, and catch her in person this Saturday, August 25, along with some of the contributing authors of her new book, Storealities, for a book signing at Novel.
Thank you to Abbey Bratcher for the gorgeous photos of Roquita!
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