Opening Doors: Linda Calhoun (COM’80)
Founder, Career Girls
They are determined to use their experience, influence, and positions to help make their business, organization, and world more inclusive. They are breaking barriers—and then reaching back to help those behind them overcome the same hurdles. They are BU alumni, faculty, and staff—of every race, ethnicity, age, and gender—and they are “Opening Doors” for the next generation.
Growing up in Connecticut in the 1960s, Linda Calhoun was used to being one of the only Black girls in a group. By the time she entered the workforce—after earning a degree in mass communication at BU and embarking on a career as an international policy coordinator and data manager, among other things—that hadn’t really changed.
A stint for USAID, the United States Agency for International Development, would prove pivotal for Calhoun (COM’80). As a consultant, she was helping the agency develop databases for a property-registration project in the Kyrgyz Republic. Every time the agency brought its private contractors together, Calhoun was the sole Black or brown person in the room. An idea began to take form for her.
“I knew the only reason I was there was because of what I was passionate about, combined with my level of educational attainment,” says Calhoun from her home in San Francisco. But she couldn’t help wishing she’d landed on consultancy sooner: “My parents were from the rural South and were the first in their families to graduate from high school. No one in my family had had that type of consultant experience,” she says. “If I had known that you could write a scope of work, tell someone how much you would do it for, and that people would pay you [that amount]? I would have prepared myself from a much earlier age.”
So in 1996, Calhoun founded Career Girls, a nonprofit that uses video to introduce young women and girls to a variety of careers. Each Career Girls video features a real-life professional (referred to as a “role model”) talking about their job and what skills they acquired to enter their industry: interviewees include a systems engineer for NASA, a CEO of a construction company, and a former 7News Boston reporter.
Career Girls is all about “closing the imagination gap” for girls of all ages and backgrounds, Calhoun says. That’s why her organization features role models of all sizes, shapes, colors, and specialties. “I love that you can come to our website and see the rainbow in all types of careers and find someone who resonates with you and really sparks your imagination for what’s possible,” she says. “I want all girls to see someone they can relate to.”
Calhoun spoke to Bostonia about her time at BU and what it’s like to influence a generation of young minds.
With Linda Calhoun
Bostonia: What was your BU experience like?
Linda Calhoun: Boston itself took some getting used to, after growing up in a very small community where I didn’t even have a house key until I went away to college. Boston’s “gruff” demeanor was a little off-putting, and there was a lot of racial tension at that time [in the late ’70s], with [things like] antibusing protests always in the backdrop of off-campus activity. But it was great to be in a city with, like, 70,000 18-year-olds. I also had a wonderful advisor at BU, Betsy Dickerson [at the College of Communication], who I really felt was an ally. She checked in on me and just held my hand a lot during my first semester, which was hard for me.
As my freshman year progressed, I sort of found my way. I found friends that I enjoyed spending time with, and I explored the city and my passions [like going to the ballet and opera]. By junior year, I could take more of the electives that I cared about. I remember taking an economics class that helped me understand all that was happening in the late ’70s—that was really when everything came together for me in terms of education supporting what you’re interested in and having that give you some acumen into current events. I remember being like, Oh, this is what formal education can do for you. So I’m very grateful to [that economics professor].
Bostonia: Career Girls is all about introducing young girls and women to different kinds of workplaces and showing them professionals who look like them. Why is that so important?
Linda Calhoun: One of the things I love the most about the work that I do is we completely disrupt stereotypes about who can be successful in a huge range of careers. We show that talent is equally distributed, even if opportunity is not. So if someone were to say, “Only this group of people can do this type of work,” I’m very proud to say that we can roll the tape and show them that no, anybody can do this work.
An anecdote about that: I did a workshop where we showed one of our videos, an empowerment video about the importance of math. The first three speakers were Black women. I was observing a multiracial group of Girl Scouts watching this video, and I watched the posture of the Black Girl Scouts change—they were sitting up straighter [by the end]. I also saw white Girl Scouts look at [the Black Girl Scouts] differently—they looked at them, and then back at the women that they were seeing on screen. It’s really wonderful and rewarding to help people understand that there are no limits in terms of who can do what. Race or ethnicity is not a barrier.
Bostonia: You’ve talked about being the only woman of color at the work table. Do you think that’s gotten better for today’s professionals?
Linda Calhoun: One point that I want to make is that it’s never hard to find diverse women to include in our video shoots. The way Career Girls works is, we pick a geographic location, set up shop, and interview 25 to 30 women over three to five days. Having a diverse group of women to interview is never difficult. So I don’t understand this notion of “We can’t find any people of color [to hire].” We never have a problem. It simply is not difficult.
It also bothers me because that makes it seem as though there’s something special that Black [or brown] women need to do in order to be found or to be brought into a discussion. But no, they’re living their life, they’re doing their work. Finding them is incumbent upon anybody who wants to do [even] a cursory search.
Bostonia: Who opened doors for you?
Oh my goodness, so many people. First, my third-grade teacher, Ms. Koss. I loved her accessories game; it was always on point. One day she complimented me on my ribbons in my hair, so I just thought I was all that. But what was important about that was that I was seen, and not this invisible presence in the classroom. My love of science I attribute to my AP bio teacher, the late Emile Daglio, who always encouraged that interest in me. To this day, I still remember the Krebs cycle!
Another person was Sandra Royster, my supervisor when I worked for the city of Chicago. Working with her was amazing. Not only was she my first Black woman supervisor, but her boss was a Black woman, the mayor’s liaison was a Black woman, and we had a Black mayor. That was really the first time where I got the cultural nuance of a workplace and the trust that comes from that.
Bostonia: How are you paying it forward?
Our 800 Career Girls interviews translate into approximately 16,000 individual video clips. That means we have this knowledge base of 16,000 videos of women sharing their first-person narrative experience in the workplace, and life writ large: not only do our interviewees talk about how to be successful in the workplace, but they are also speaking to the soft skills that are required for social/emotional learning—teamwork, empathy, integrity, resilience, financial literacy, and the importance of math. They really want to give girls insights on all of the elements that go into having a successful career, and life in general.
I’m just incredibly proud of that knowledge base. For me, it answers the question of why my life matters and why it was important for me to be here. This is the legacy that I want to leave behind.
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