Awesome Women of Excellence – ep.130

 Black Employee Collective  – ep.129
March 7, 2024
Artistic Expression   – ep.131
March 21, 2024

To celebrate Women’s History Month, I wanted to highlight the exceptional work of four powerfully, tenaciously brilliant women, Letitia Hanke, Jordan Gray, Tareka McClellan, and Aiko Bethea, all of whom are fierce trailblazers shaping their industry.

A small-town girl from Lake County, California, Letitia (LA-TISH-A) Hanke (HANK-EE) grew up dreaming of a music career. Recognized from childhood for her musical talents, she attended Sonoma State University envisioning a future in the performing and recording arts. When the opportunity arose, she took a position at a prominent roofing company and managed the business for 8 years. In 2004, she started her own roofing company, ARS Roofing and Gutters, now celebrating 27 years in the industry. She currently employs 24 full-time, year-round employees servicing the North Bay.

Aiko Bethea is a leader, builder and connector who has successfully navigated leadership roles in government, philanthropic, nonprofit and private sectors. The founder of RARE Coaching & Consulting, Aiko guides leaders and organizations, including Fortune 100 companies and global nonprofit organizations, to remove barriers to inclusion. She has been recognized by Forbes as one of the top seven anti-racism educators for companies and is a senior equity consultant for the Brené Brown Education and Research Group.

Jordan Gray is a professional athlete and American Record Holder for track and field competing in the Women’s Decathlon. Jordan founded The Let Women Decathlon movement whose mission is to advocate for gender equality for women to compete in the Decathlon at the Olympic Games.

Tareka McClellan serves as the Student Trustee to the Board of Directors at San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California where she is committed to serving faculty and students by coordinating and preparing all student activities on campus, chairing all campus life and inter-club council meetings and quickly address and resolve all student complaints as received. 

Melyssa Barrett:  Welcome to The Jali Podcast. I’m your host, Melyssa Barrett. This podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around equity, diversity, and inclusion. Each week I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share or is actively part of building solutions in the space. Let’s get started.

Welcome to The Jali Podcast, where we celebrate the mosaic of voices shaping our world. As we now enter March, we embark on a journey of honoring resilience, courage, and innovation. And March isn’t just any month, it brings narratives woven together to commemorate Women’s History Month. This month we stand at the crossroads of past struggles, future triumphs, even current triumphs, and pay homage to the trailblazing women who shatter glass ceilings, defy expectations, and those that have paved the way for generations to come.

Women’s History Month is more than just a reminder of the battles fought. It is indeed a testament to the unyielding spirit and tenacity of those who dared to challenge the status quo. In this special episode, I wanted to shine a spotlight on some of the dynamic and inspiring women who have graced our platform: Jordan Gray, Tareka McClellan, Letitia Hanke, and Aiko Bethea. These extraordinary individuals, and believe me, there are many, many more, represent a tapestry of experiences, perspectives, achievements, and they each contribute to the rich fabric of diversity, equity, and inclusion.

From corporate boardrooms to community activism, from entrepreneurship to academia, these women exemplify the power of resilience, the beauty of diversity, and the importance of lifting each other as we climb. Their stories serve as beacons of hope, reminding us of the endless possibilities when we dare to dream, when we refuse to be silenced, and when we embrace our inherent worth.

This month I thought I would take some snippets from some of the prior episodes just to highlight how fabulous these women truly are. Join me as we honor Women’s History Month by amplifying the voices of those who have shaped history and continue to carve out paths of progress. Seek those women that are close to you. And if you are a woman, let’s focus on lifting as we climb. Let us celebrate the past, empower the present, and inspire the future.

As a CEO in the roofing industry, are there things that you would have either told your younger self or to the folks that are in your academy? Are there things that you wish you would have done different or that you would advise people? Because I think a lot of people now, you hear a lot about solar and all of how AI is going to change the world, but at some point you still have to build an actual house. How does that transform what you’re doing, and what kind of advice would you give for people that want to go into the industry?

Letitia Hanke:  One of the things I think about a lot is when first got into this industry as a female, when I first started, I just wanted to blend in. I was afraid to be out there, I was afraid to be an individual. And so when I first got in, I was wearing polo shirts and jeans and my boots. And I’ll never forget my first very, very first networking event that I went to, a bunch of contractors there. And I walk in, I’m in my polo shirt with my logo on my left shoulder there. And I’m walking in and, “Oh, you’re with ARS Roofing?”

I’m like, “Oh, yes, I’m the CEO of the company. My name’s Letitia.” And he’s like, “Oh, from the kitchen to the rooftop, huh?” That was my very first interaction was that comment. And I realized from that moment, and I had another incident later on, that I didn’t want to hide anymore. I wasn’t putting my face on anything. And so if there’s anything that I would change, is that for all those years that I hid in the background signing my name LR Hanke so they would think that I’m a man. And not putting my face on anything so they wouldn’t know that I’m a female or Black. I stopped doing that just about eight years ago.

And when I did that and I started signing my full name and I started putting my face on all my business cards, have my face on it. And you go to my website, I’m all over the place. Once I stopped hiding, my business completely skyrocketed. Because now everyone that I do business with, they know that I’m Black ahead of time. They know that I’m a female. They want to work with me. I’m now working with people that want to support me and want to work with me. And if I hadn’t started that off years and years ago, we would probably be a franchise by now. We would be a bigger company.

But it took me a lot of years because I pretty much reverted back to the Scared Letitia as a little kid, when I was bullied as a little kid, because I was being bullied as an adult. And I got stuck in that bubble. And it was a couple that I had met. What made me come out of that shell is this couple that I had been talking to over the phone for weeks about their project, and they’re just like, “Yeah, we’re ready to move forward. We want to look at roofing samples. Let’s do this.” And I’m like, “Great. I’ll be over with the samples and we’ll sign the contract.”

And I get there to their house and the wife answers the door and she steps back. And I’m like, “Oh, huh.” She scared me. And I put my hand out and I’m like, “Hi, I Letitia.” And she shakes my hand. Then her husband walks over, I’m like, “This so great to meet you, I’m Letitia.” And I put my hand out for him to shake it, and he looked down at my hand, back up at me, and then down on my hand again, and he walked away. I was like, okay, should I run or do I go? What do I do right now? She invites me in. I’m a little apprehensive at this point. She invites me in, we’re sitting down at her kitchen table.

I’m like, “Well, thank you for the time today. Which roof did you decide on? Here’s the sample board.” She says, “Well, actually, I don’t think we’re going to move forward at this time. We’re not really ready to do this roof now.” Remind you, I just told you they asked me to come over to sign of the contract. And I said, “Okay, well, I did bring the sample board over. I know you guys wanted to look at colors, so maybe for the future…” She says, “Let’s just do that on your way out.” So I said, “Okay, no problem.” And I picked up my stuff and I’m walking out the door. And her husband comes back over as I’m walking out the door and he says, “I just want to let you know we have an alarm system on our-

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, my goodness.

Letitia Hanke:  And I still remember that feeling. It’s not a good feeling. And I remember I said, “Thank you very much for your time today.” And I got in my car. I had never felt like that in my life. And I went back to my office and I told my staff what happened, and I shredded their contract. And I said, “We don’t have to do business with people like this.” And that day forward is when I called up my graphic designer and I said, “We’re doing an overhaul.” And that’s the day I changed everything. Everything. And from that day forward, my business has just been booming.

And because my business started booming is how I was able to start the nonprofit. So it gave me what I needed, that boost, that little kick that I needed to make that happen. Yeah.

Melyssa Barrett:  I don’t know that everybody wants a kick like that, but I appreciate and applaud the fact that you used that negative energy to turn it into something that is literally changing people’s lives. It’s like, your purpose is so fundamental, and I’m so glad that you were able to fuel your own transformation out of such a negative experience.

Because I think even in corporate, people experience, I would call that more than a microaggression. But it’s incredible how each of those types of experiences, it’s like scars that are left. Like razor blade scars left on your body. And it’s like, you don’t get rid of them, they go with you. And hopefully they fuel something positive, like they did in your case. But a lot of times it’s, again, that mental health where it’s still there. It’s a scar-

Letitia Hanke:  It’s still there.

Melyssa Barrett:  … that will remain. And it’s just so sad that there are people in the world that still have those types of reactions.

Letitia Hanke:  Reactions, yeah.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. Woof. That brings me back. Now look, that brings me back.

Letitia Hanke:  Yeah. Wow. I’m sure you have some stories.

Melyssa Barrett:  Oh, yeah, I have some stories. Now, with the things that are going on with The LIME Foundation, and all of the work that you’re doing in roofing and gutters, and I know you guys do a whole lot of stuff. What types of things do you have built in mind for the next 10 years? Because you seem like you’re one of those people that has a vision.

Letitia Hanke:  I just know. As far as my roofing business, I’ve got such a great team that just makes sure that company runs really smoothly. But my nonprofit-wise, my goal is to be able to have a NextGen Trades Academy all over the country, because it’s needed. And what we learned from being on that micro show, we turned in the favor, and we were on the Kelly Clarkson Show. And what happened were people from Kentucky and Florida and Denver and Utah and New Jersey, they were calling us and emailing us, “Oh my gosh, we need a Trades Academy here.”

And we just started recognizing that this isn’t just a problem we thought we were having right here in our little county, it’s happening everywhere. And there’s youth everywhere that are going to college because they don’t think there’s anything else to do. They’re getting into debt, just like I did. I had student loans, my parents couldn’t afford to put me through college. The grants that I did get got me through a year, but the rest of the time I had to get student loans to get through the other couple years. And so I was in debt for many years. I just paid off those student loans just a couple years ago. So I’m like, how do we not have our 17 and 18-year-old kids in debt, because they’re just going to college just to go? And that’s my goal, is to say, “Hey, there are other alternatives.”

Now, have I had some of our youth go through our NextGen Trades Academy and then say, “You know what, I think I’m still going to go to college.” Yes, we have. We’re like, go. But we’ve also had some of them realize they’re going to go to college for architecture, they’re going to go to college for engineering. They still realize that they want to go to college, but they want to stay in this industry. And then we’ve had the youth that just said, “Great, I’m ready to get a job with an electrician or welding.” And then we got them a job in welding or with different contractors.

That’s what I want to do for the next 10 or 20, until I retire. That’s what I want to do, I want to build this program up and help our at-risk. And specifically, I would love to focus… And the program’s open to all of our youth, but I definitely have an emphasis on our underserved youth, our BIPOC youth, our at-risk youth, our probation youth that just need an opportunity in life. And our young women in the industry in these fields that want to go in these fields but think that they can to or shouldn’t, because it’s male dominated. That’s why I do what I do, because I know that they just need to be taught and they just need to know that it exists and it’s an opportunity for them.

And that’s what I want to do. The stories that I hear about the lives that we’ve been able to change, students that were homeless, living in their cars, and now they have a beautiful apartment with their family. And that’s all I want to hear. I want that joy and that happiness and to know that I saved someone’s life, that someone who was in despair just needed to know how smart they were and that they were capable, and that they had a purpose in this life.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, I love it. Wow, that’s amazing.

Jordan Gray:  I was a basketball girl, so I was in the tail end of basketball season when that started. And so I was in a game where I went up for a layup and a girl pushed me, and I sprained my ankle so bad I pulled a piece of the bone off. And I was like, “Well, we have to win this game.” So I told no one. I was like, “It’s fine. We’re good,” and I kept playing. And then I sprained my other ankle because I was compensating so much. And I was like, “Well, now I got nothing to limp on, so we’re just going to keep going.” So game ended, we won, took my shoes off finally, and my ankle swelled up to softballs. It was awful.

I went to my first track practice in a big old boot and a brace. And so the coach just like, “Well, you seem strong, so we’ll teach you shot put and javelin if you want to try that.” And I was like, “Okay.” So those are the first events I learned. And then when I came out of the boot and brace he was like, “Well, you can jump and you can run, so we’ll have you do the heptathlon.” And I was like, “Okay.” I don’t know what’s going on, I don’t know what that is. I don’t really know. Yeah, okay, sure. I didn’t know it was 400 meters around a track. I knew nothing.

And so my first track meet ever, my parents and I have tried to figure this out. I might have thrown shot put only in one track meet before, but I’m pretty sure my first track meet ever was a heptathlon. Because I remember being very confused that some people didn’t do this. People are like, “Yeah, I throw discus.” And I’m like, “And what else? What else do you do?” You know what I mean? I thought everyone did track and field. It was just such a whole new world to me.

And so, did a heptathlon. It was awful. But I did it and I had so much fun. I fell in the hurdles. I ran so slow that I got two points. Usually people are scoring almost 1,000 points, I was 0.3 seconds away getting no points at all in the hurdles. And so that just took off from there. And I kept having fun and I kept loving it. And pretty quickly my parents were like, “I think you could go to college doing this.” And I was like, “No, I want to play basketball in college, I don’t want to do track and field.” And eventually my mom just very lovingly was like, “Jordan, you are good at basketball because you can run and jump, and now we have found a place for you to run and jump.”

I was like, “Okay.” So I started visiting schools to get a gauge on what it would be like to do track in college. And I visited a lot. But the one that I ended up going to actually ended up being pretty close to my hometown, it was Kennesaw State University. I had a great time with the team on my visit, and the coach was just very much so what I was looking for. I’m very like, tell me why I’m doing something and don’t let the reason be, “Because I did this in the 70s.” Just, I want to know why I am doing things. I want to know how it’s making me better. And when I walked into his office there were just shelves on periodization, endocrinology, kinesiology that he had read and/or written. And so that was awesome. Showed me annual plans and all these things.

And then just the cherry on the cake was, he was like, “Also, there’s a bus in the parking lot, and if you happen to be on that bus at 10:00 AM on a Sunday, it will drive you to church.” And he would drive a bus of kids to church every Sunday. And I was like, “This is it.” And so me and my dad were walking out and I was like, “This is where I’m going to go to school.” My dad said, “Yep.” And so that’s where I ended up going. I still didn’t know very much about track and field, I had just been doing it. But from then on out I was doing the heptathlon, and that’s how I got my start there going to college.

Melyssa Barrett:  For us laypeople who maybe don’t know what the heptathlon is, can you talk about… Because I know it’s seven events, but what are they? Because I can’t imagine just going from one thing to the other, to the other, after being exhausted from one thing. You know what I mean?

Jordan Gray:  It’s definitely something you have to train for, just the work capacity to be able to get through all of them. But it’s day one, you do the 100 meter hurdles, the high jump, the shot put, and the 200. And then day two, you come back and you do the long jump, the javelin, and the 800.

Melyssa Barrett:  Wow. Okay.

Jordan Gray:  Yeah, it’s a lot of fun. So that’s what I was doing in college. And I had injured myself pretty bad right at the tail end of my indoor season. And so outdoor season came around and I was just watching and helping, and I had never really taken time to watch other events. Just because what you said, we were just bouncing between stuff. And so I was watching a bunch of people pole vault at a competition, and I went, “I want to do this. I’m going to pole vault.” And my coach was like, “No, I am not teaching you pole vault. You have seven events to learn, I’m not doing that.”

And I was like, “Nope, I’m going to learn pole vault. I’m going to learn what all these sizes you guys are talking about, and these numbers and all these things.” And then a bunch of college boys are standing around me, obviously, so they start making jokes and they’re like, “Oh, Jordan wants to learn about pole sizes,” or whatever. And I was like, “You all can make as many jokes as you want, as long as somebody teaches me how to do this.”

Melyssa Barrett:  That sounds like a man.

Jordan Gray:  Yeah, exactly. It’s like, okay, college boys, ease up. Just want to pole vault. But so, I whined and whined and whined for a year. A full year. I was like, “Someone’s going to teach me this. I’m going to learn this.” And after a year, there was one practice, super hard, super challenging. Got done, just so ready to walk home. And coach came up to me and he’s like, “Hey, the decathletes are warming up, today’s pole vault day. If you want to come learn pole vault, today’s your day.” And I was so tired. And I was like, “Oh, but if I say no, he will never give me this opportunity again.” So I put my backpack down, I was like, “Okay, here we go. Pole vault.” So I went out, started pole vaulting. And then from then on out, I basically just became a heptathlete who pole vaulted.

That first year, I think I practiced three times and competed once, or something. I really didn’t do much that first year. But then junior year it started actually working into my plan. And that same year he actually asked me if I would learn discus, because our conference had been a little weak in discus, he thought I could pick it up quickly and score some points. And it was at that point where I was like, okay, so I’m basically doing a decathlon now, because those are the other field events. You add the discus and the pole vault and the 100 meter dash, that’s what you add. And so I was like, “Why do girls not do the decathlon?” So I had told my coach, I was like, “I’m going to do a decathlon. That is my new thing. I’m going to do a full decathlon.” And he was like, “No, you’re not doing a full decathlon.” I was like, “Well, that’s what you said about pole vault, so… And I’m going to do a decathlon.”

Melyssa Barrett:  I don’t think they understand your full mindset.

Jordan Gray:  Yeah. I’m like, “I don’t think you understand how this works yet.”

Melyssa Barrett:  I love it.

Jordan Gray:  I’m going to do it. I started looking into the history, just because I all of a sudden got really curious on why girls didn’t do the decathlon. And basically, almost as soon as I started researching it, I was like, wow, okay, so this is super sexist. That’s awful. And so just the more I read, the more mad I got. I was like, “Are you kidding me? That’s why we don’t do the decathlon?” And basically it was just girls were incapable. Girls can’t handle this. A lot of “it’s unhealthy for them to be able to do this. Women are not physically capable of pole vaulting.” So basically the history was, in 1912 men got the decathlon. And in 1912, girls could almost do nothing in the world of sports.

And so 1964 rolled around and they said, “Okay, you know what? We think maybe you guys could handle five of the events. We’ll let you guys do five. You can do a pentathlon, but you still can’t do all 10.” So girls started rocking it in the pentathlon, as they do when you let them do anything.” And then in 1984 they said, “Okay, it’s become clear you guys can handle the five, but we still don’t think you can pole vault. We’re still not letting you do the discus in this. So we’re going to take out a run, jump, and a throw, because you can’t pole vault, but we’ll let you do seven.” Because girls weren’t allowed to pole vault in the Olympics until the year 2000. The pentathlon was 1984, so girls weren’t even just allowed to pole vault, much less do a pole vault and nine other events in the 80s.

 And then, basically since then, everyone’s just gone, “Yep, heptathlon, just the way it is.” And I’m like, “Are you kidding me?” It just made me so upset. So my coach actually is the one that found the opportunity to do the decathlon, because I had said I wanted to. And the main reason he said no is because you can’t do it in the NCAA if you’re a girl, you can’t do it at US championships. There’s just no places really. And so he eventually found a place, the Women’s Decathlon Association put one out in California. And he was like, “I think you could go. I think it could be really cool.” And I was like, “Great, let’s do it.” And then on the way there, he was like, “I think you could maybe break the American record of this.” And I was like, “No, I don’t think so. I don’t think… That’s not why we’re here.”

And he was like, “Well, I ran the numbers. Maybe you should run the numbers on what you think you can do, because I bet you could.” And so then I went in and started playing with the numbers. And I was like, “Oh, man, maybe I actually can do this. That would be really neat.” So went there, did it. Broke the American record, which was great. It was super fun. But I think that it just opened up a floodgate that I didn’t realize what happen, because women have been throwing themselves into decathlon since the 70s, just saying that they can do it. But there hasn’t been a ton of movement for its push. And so when I broke the American record, I all of a sudden had people from all over the world messaging me saying, “This needs to change. I think you could be the face of it. This is such a great revitalization of this.” Just all sorts of stuff. And it really just sparked this whole initiative that I didn’t plan on starting. I didn’t go into thinking about starting. But it’s really been awesome to see what’s happened since then.

Melyssa Barrett:  Can you talk a little bit about how it fits into leadership? Especially when there’s so many different styles of leadership, and everybody doesn’t like their boss. And a lot of the CEOs… As a CEO, it’s like sometimes it’s like, okay, that employee, they’re not going anywhere. Or whatever. And then you realize, okay, why am I thinking that way if I’m not challenging myself to really push my own leadership and lens for diversity, equity, and inclusion?

Aiko Bethea:  One of the things I often tell folks, we don’t really put ourselves out there as, oh, we do DEI work. We’re really clear about, this is leadership development. And I think that if people understand the fact that having a diverse workforce, having an equitable workplace, having an inclusive culture, those are outputs of strong and competent leaders. Ask yourself on the other end, what’s going on when I have a team, or I have an organization that really is not diverse?

And when I’m talking about diversity, I even want to back up and be really clear. You can’t talk about diversity in the context of diversity, equity, inclusion unless you are always including historically excluded groups. So you’re not talking about diversity at the only thing you’re talking about is diversity of thoughts, or you’re talking about, gosh, just pick your poison. Hey, we went to different Ivy leagues. That is not diversity or geographic diversity. We have people in California, we have New York, we’re very diverse. Unless you are including racial diversity, particularly if you’re thinking about the folks who are the most excluded, nationality, faith. All the things that we already have a social contract around in terms of even if you think about if you’re US based, in our own constitution, what are the protected classes? So if you’re not talking about, then you’re not talking about diversity in the sense of diversity, equity, inclusion.

I want to start there. If you don’t have a diverse workforce, and a majority of people all look the same. If you don’t have an organization that’s equitable, that’s actually thinking about the historical context too. Because you can’t just jump in and say, we’re doing equity just from this point in time. You got to think about, why are there already barriers and where do they come from? Then there’s inclusion, of course, where you’re having an environment where you’re welcoming people to be part of decision-making and co-creation. All of those things. Are you being a good leader if you don’t know how to recruit and retain a team that is diverse as we named it?

So I’m really clear about, if your team looks really homogenous and the same, then are you being a successful leader?

Melyssa Barrett:  Right. What’s wrong?

Aiko Bethea:  You’re already at a deficit because you’ve already limited your talent pool and perspective, so that ain’t going to work. Are you equitable when you’re just thinking that everybody needs to be doing the same thing the same way? And you’re not actually thinking about, what are the gaps and skills and other things that you need to provide support around? That’s how leaders need to think about it. It’s like, wait, wait. I’m operating at a deficit already because I’m not encompassing this greater talent pool. I’m not able to retain talent that’s bringing forth the diversity that we need to be successful. People need to think about it as a deficit and not a nice to have.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, yes.

Aiko Bethea:  What’s the issue here that folks don’t feel like they can speak up and they might get fired or be shamed or blamed because they’re speaking up about something that’s not already the norm? You thinking, hey, you’re operating at a deficit as a leader. So the competencies of a leader, them having emotional intelligence, self-awareness, did the self-work, awareness of others, and understanding how to regulate and manage relationships, are you really equipped to be a leader? Are you even competent at all?

Well, so just the definition of what it means in the benchmark of leadership has to be elevated. And the litmus test is also about, what’s the environment they’re creating and sustaining?

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, that makes… Yeah, totally. I love it. And quite frankly, you talk a lot about what competent leadership looks like, so now people know what it doesn’t look like. What would you say to a DEI professional that isn’t getting the resources that they need? Because I think a lot of so-called leaders, or they’re at least in the leadership position, they say they want DEI, but they really don’t want that much of it, I’ll say. They don’t want to change their whole organization, they don’t want to push too hard, they just want to make enough change so that people are okay with it. I feel like. That’s my experience. You have some that are just like, oh, we’re going full board. And then you have all these other companies that are just thinking they’re doing enough to get by.

Aiko Bethea:  Yeah. I think for a DEI professional, or somebody who’s just focused on DEI component in an organization, I think even before you go in for the job there are questions you need to ask to figure out, is it aligned and can you even make impact? And honestly, why are you even in the work? And if your work is about being value centered, if it’s about making impact, there’s some questions you need to ask before you even accept the job.

In terms, it include things like, what are the resources? What’s the team I’m going to have to work with? What’s the budget that we’re going to have? Why is this organization even interested in doing this work? And asking those questions alone. Just three questions, because you can ask other things about asking, can I see an employee climate engagement survey? Things that are going to help you understand what the battle’s really going to be. Those can help you understand, is this my place or not?

When I interviewed for roles and been invited to interview and I realized, wow, one, where does this role sit in the organization as a chief diversity officer? Oh, I’m reporting to the chief HR officer who has no insight, hasn’t done their own work already, maybe even feels threatened by me. I’m probably not going to make much of an impact here.

Oh, the reason they’re doing it as well, we understand now with the climate, this is what everybody’s doing and we need to get onboard, but there’s not a values alignment, there’s not a philosophical alignment. And so certain things will already give you a cue. Wait a minute, this isn’t what I think it’s going to be. So you had to figure out, what is your success rate?

Some folks, you’ll take a job like, hey, my goals, I’m going to get paid. Or I’m going to get some experience, but I know what it’s going to be. So it’s the idea about being intentional about, what is it really going to be? And I think many chief diversity officers or people are in diversity programming, et cetera, realize, ooh, I’m not going to be able to make the impact I want to make. Oh, man, I can’t thrive here. We know that based on the numbers, the retention rates. But also, there are other folks who feel like, I’m in here for the community that’s here with me. So the places where I would stand up, Employee Resource Group, that became our community.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yes, absolutely.

Aiko Bethea:  That became our support system, that became our people. And sometimes we need that at the moment more than we’re thinking about what we’re getting out of an organization. Because frankly, there’s just not a lot of organizations where people are thriving who don’t look like the C-suite leadership. There’s not a lot. There were, the C-suite leadership will look different.

Melyssa Barrett:  Yeah. Well, and it’s so funny, because when people talk about equity, if you’re involved in any level of politics, you see so many things where people are not understanding equity.

I want to understand now you are doing comedy. You just decided you were going to step into it. She’s hilarious, everyone. She is. But all of a sudden you became Meemaw Jenkins.

Tareka McClellan:  Okay.

Melyssa Barrett:  How did that happen?

Tareka McClellan:  As you know, I like to talk a lot. I love people. I love to be outdoors. And so, during the pandemic I was having a really rough time. I know a lot of people was having a rough time. But not being able to be near family, friend, in the house. And so I remember one day I was sitting there. And it is funny, what kicked off Meemaw was I was getting sick and tired of hearing people say, “Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Wash your hands. Don’t forget to wash your hands.” And I’m like, “Why do you keep saying Wash your hands? Everybody’s supposed to be washing their hands. I don’t need you to tell me, I’m tired of these commercials.”

So I was sitting and I seen a wig from a play that I did at Damaged, and I said, “You know what? Everybody’s online,” because everybody had been doing TikToks, Instagram online. I was like, “Here’s my opportunity. You know what, God? I said that I want to do something. You give me the opportunity to do it now. The world shut down. I probably have five people watching me, but that’s okay. I’m going to entertain these five people.”

And so I grabbed the wig, and my first video was about washing your hands, and how I was frustrated with it. Because growing up, my grandma always said, “Wash your hands.” She washed everything that came from the store, the two liter sodas, the cans. Because she said, “You never know what people are doing before it get to you.” So she would always say that. So we knew that. And so I did that video just thinking, five people going to watch it. But then I started getting inboxes about, “That was funny. We liked the video. Okay, when you going to make another video?”

And I’m like, really? People watching me? Okay, no time. It’s show time. So I started making videos and then posting them online. And then one of my friends, Stephanie Nelson, shout out to her, Steps Dance Studio. She know that I love to dance, because that’s another thing, I was dancing and then making funny videos. And so I was dancing and she was like, “You want to come to my block party and dance as Meemaw?” And I said, Meemaw?” Oh, actually, Meemaw didn’t have a name yet. “You want to come and dance as your character?” And I said, “Are you serious?” She’s like, “Yeah, you need to come outside. People need to see this because you’re entertaining. I love what you’re doing, and the world needs to see you.” And then I said, “Okay, I’ll do it. Ain’t got nothing else to do but sit in the house on Zoom.”

So when she was doing the flyer, she was like, “Okay, what’s your name?” I said, “I don’t know, I don’t have a name.” She was like, “You got to have a name to put on a flyer.” And I was like, Meemaw?” And she was, “Okay.” And so she put Meemaw on a flyer, and so I had to take the picture and send it to her. And when I went to her block party, it was so funny because the women were like, “How do you know that old woman? She’s so funny. And is that your grandmother? Does she go to church?” And she’s like, “Do I tell them?”

I’m like, “Well, this is really me.” Because in my mind, I am Meemaw in my mind. That character is really like… Melyssa can let you know, that’s really like me. I just have on a gray wig, something about people listening when you have a gray wig on. And so then I got in contact with a guy named Jerry Law. And you were with me, as a matter of fact. On my birthday I wanted to go to a comedy show, because I’ve always loved comedy, but I never thought that I could do comedy myself. I used to watch Comic View, Def Comedy Jam when I wasn’t supposed to, but I’ve always loved comedy. I always been silly and cracking jokes and doing skits at school. But as far as standing in front of somebody, when them looking at me and I’m looking at them, I was like, “Oh, no, I can’t do it.”

And so he did a comedy show. And a group of my girlfriends and sisters in Christ, really. Not girlfriend, they’re my sisters. I believe it was Damon Wayans.

Melyssa Barrett:  Damon Wayans. Yeah.

Tareka McClellan:  Damon Wayans, because I love the Wayans Brothers. If anybody is listening here, Wayans Brother, I’m their sister that they didn’t know about. I need to be a part of them, because that family is hilarious, and I’ve always admired that family. My goodness. So I had to go see it. We went to go see it, and I remember leaving and my friend Leslie Littlejohn, energetic hands, she was like, “Go over there and take a picture on the stage.” I’m like, “Girl.” She like, “Go over there and take a picture on stage, because one day you going to be on that stage telling jokes.” And I’m like, “Girl.” For whatever she’s like, “Go.” If y’all know Leslie, “Get your butt up on there.” Okay.

Melyssa Barrett:  We all need a friend like that.

Tareka McClellan:  Oh yeah, Leslie going to network. I call her Network, AKA Bela. So I went up there and took the picture, like Leslie said. And so I have been following Jerry Law Too Raw online. And so after the show he began following me. And so he has seen my skits, and he was like, “Are you ready?” I said, “Ready for what?” He said, “Are you ready to do some comedy?”

Once again, I’ve always, because of the fear that I had. That’s why message, I’m getting ready to give y’all a message. Get out of your head. Don’t say what you can’t do. Because if you can imagine it, if you think about it constantly, you can do it. It’s just, we are always in our head. And I’m working on that still to this day. I get in my head and then the doubt kick in, and now I just have to step out on faith. And so I had a fear. I was like, “No.” And so, one of my friends, Kenya Gaston, which is also a comedian, she had been doing comedy. And so she had been doing open mic nights. And so I was trying to book her for the show, and I said, “Well, I could book my friend Kenya, because I’m not doing it.” And so Kenya ended up being not able to do it.

And so I went to the show anyway just to go support his shows. And so I went to the comedy show and he had some comedians there. And then I was like, “Maybe I can do it.” And just to rewind it back, there had been three other guys that had reached out to me on social media and asked me, have I ever thought about doing standup, because I was funny. And I was like, “No.” But then at that point, after Jerry said it, and then three more, I said, “God is definitely telling me something, and I need to listen. Because these are three different people saying the same thing. And I’m saying no, but they’re saying yes. So obviously someone sees something in me.”

So at the end of Jerry’s show, he was like, “Are you ready? Because if you’re ready, I’m going to schedule you next month for your first standup.” He said, “You can do five to seven minutes. That should be enough time.” And he said, “I want to pay you as your first paid comedian. I want to be the first person to pay you as a comedian.” And I was like, “Okay.” Let me tell y’all. I was like, “Oh, my goodness. Why did I say yes?” I was in my head that whole time. That whole time.

So I did it. It was at the 40 and Up Club, and I did my seven minutes. And when I got on stage, I was terrified. But when I tell you I got out there… Music is something that helps me. Music helps me cope. I love music. I speak music. If you ever talk to me, I may speak to you in music. And so the music hit, boom. I went on stage. Everybody’s like, “Hey!” I was like, “Oh, my goodness.” And it was a room full of people. And on top of that, I was supported by family and friends. My first show I had about 30 of my family and friends present, so that just was another high that I was on at that time.

Melyssa Barrett:  And you were on stage as Meemaw?

Tareka McClellan:  As Meemaw. And I went on stage and they loved me. And I was like, wow. And I remember going back home thinking I did it. I did it. I was on stage. And so Jerry called me the next day and he was like, “How you feel about it?” I was like, “Oh yeah, it was good.” I said, “I was scared.” He was like, “Well, I just want to let you know that people loved you.” He was like, “So many people came up to me and told me how much they love you.” He said, “So I would like to know if I can be your mentor and I can have you come out here once a month to develop yourself as a standup comedian.” And I’m like, “Really?”

And so, let’s just say it’s almost two and a half years that I have been a standup comedian with a character that was created during the pandemic, Meemaw. And Meemaw is booked, blessed, and busy. She taking over my life, I got nothing but gray wigs all over my life right now. I was looking for a picture of me, and Meemaw is taking over. And Meemaw is fearless, and I love it. I’m having such a good time with her, and I don’t think that she’s going to stop. There were people that were saying, “We going to start with the character.” You have haters. And I’m like, “I’m just doing me.” And then you have the people that call you and say, “We love Meemaw. We support Meemaw.” And even from young kids, they love Meemaw. Old, everybody. Everybody loves Meemaw.

Melyssa Barrett:  Meemaw is hilarious. First of all, because Meemaw is the only older woman… I don’t know exactly how old she is, but she will drop it like it’s hot.

Tareka McClellan:  Drop it. Call her Auntie with the good meganese.

Melyssa Barrett:  I can’t even get down like that. I’m like, woo, she is limber.

Tareka McClellan:  I didn’t know I can do it. Meemaw has taken over.

Melyssa Barrett:  Thanks for joining me on The Jali Podcast. Please subscribe so you won’t miss an episode. See you next week.