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Skillcrush Q & A: Binta Brown

One of the perks of working for Skillcrush is the opportunity to talk to so many women working in different fields. This week, I got the chance to shower Binta Brown with questions.

At the tender age of 10, Binta decided she wanted to be a tax lawyer so she could grow up and get things done. She spent her college years sustaining her passions for music and liberal arts. After 15 years practicing corporate law for large firms, Binta is reevaluating her goals and getting ready for the next phase of her career. She currently holds a fellowship at the Harvard Kennedy School and is an Executive-in-Residence for the New Orleans Startup Fund and PowerMoves.NOLA.

Binta wrote her senior thesis (in 1995!) on the “world wide web,” and these days, she continues to be captivated by media, tech, and entertainment, and the way they are changing the world.

Here’s what Binta had to say on making big decisions, staying productive and organized, and maintaining balance.

1. Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I grew up in Arlington, VA, the daughter of a syndicated columnist and public school teacher, attended public schools until college, fell in love with computers and entrepreneurship at an early age, as well as music performance and composition, but decided to pursue law at ten years old, because I thought it would be cool to be a trusted advisor and solve big problems (and I thought law was the way to do that, likely because of the civil rights movement, which seemed to solve some pretty big problems).

I learned to play 11 instruments, studied conducting, couldn’t decide between conservatory and liberal arts, so took courses at Manhattan School of Music and Barnard College my first semester of college (anticipating that I would earn two degrees, one in music from a conservatory and the other from Barnard). Well, during a performance at Carnegie Hall with the New York Youth Symphony, I decided to take a break from music to explore other interests.

I wrote my senior thesis in 1995 on this thing called the “world wide web” and how it would revolutionize the world, before working for a media startup. Then it was law school, and the rest is history. I am deeply passionate about the arts, technology, humanities, science and education, love travel, photography, reading and writing and probably would have thrived during the Renaissance.

2. Where are you working right now, and how did you get there?

I am a Senior Fellow at the Mossavar-Rahmani Center for Business and Government at the Harvard Kennedy School. In addition, I advise early stage technology, media, entertainment, and legal tech businesses, am a frequent judge of business plan competitions, and sit on several corporate and philanthropic boards. Harvard Kennedy School appointed me to the fellowship last year.

I am also an Executive-in-Residence at the New Orleans Startup Fund and PowerMoves.NOLA, where we are building a national movement to increase investment in scalable, minority-led or -founded startups and enterprises. I am sourcing deals (startups), building relationships, and attracting investment. 

After practicing law for 15 years, and becoming closer to the technology, entertainment, and media worlds through that work, I wanted to take time to understand emerging business models, how capitalism is changing, and the various barriers to new business models from a regulatory, policy, cultural, and systemic perspective.

As for the companies I am working with now, I got here primarily through word of mouth. The great thing about a little visibility is that a lot of entrepreneurs find their way to you, and many of them have brilliant businesses. Almost all of them have friends who are also starting and running businesses, and when they are happy with the advising I provide, they pass my name along.

I also speak throughout the US and globally, and so I meet founders that way. It probably doesn’t hurt that my name is “Binta”… that makes me relatively easy to find, for those who can remember my name.

3. What does a typical day in your life look like?

My days tend to be pretty jam packed! I wake up between 5:30am and 7. For a decade I’ve written morning pages – something one of my mentors told me about – which is a great way to get mentally organized and prepared, and to keep me focused on different projects and initiatives. Three pages each morning. Gets me focused.

Then it is breakfast and the first swipe at my email. I avoid answering any emails that come in overnight requiring a substantive response immediately–I like to save those for later in the day. That’s one of the truly great things about no longer being at a large global law firm. I can take my time to think about my responses and craft answers, or I will pick up the phone and walk the person through the issue (if I can’t ride my bike to see them).

Then it is off to the gym or to the reservoir, if I’m in New York, to run 4-6 miles. The rest of my days are really a function of what day of the week it is. I spend a lot of time on the phone and in meetings, but I have to read constantly to keep abreast of everything.

In addition to the work portion of my days, I pray regularly, workout, and break up meetings, phone calls, and reading with walks. I practice my bass for about twenty minutes a day. I’m usually in bed by 1am.

I’ve found having a disciplined approach to my days and weeks is absolutely essential. Because I’m involved in so many different things at the moment, flying by the seat of my pants would not only make me incredibly unproductive, it’d be fatal.

4. Has there ever been a time in your career when you were unsure of the right next step to take? How did you decide what to do?

Absolutely!  I would expect that any thoughtful executive/professional/advisor is familiar with the pain of uncertainty.  Probably the first step is embracing uncertainty (and struggle) as fundamental parts of our existence.

After school, everything is uncertain, there’s little that is easy to predict. Sometimes you purposefully decide what to do, other times it unfolds gently and you just have to be open.

Deciding to leave my law practice was one of the biggest challenges I’ve faced professionally.  I’d been practicing for 15 years, but wasn’t happy with the direction of the legal industry, the way we were serving clients, our hesitation at being genuine partners and problem solvers, but it was also what I knew, and the pay wasn’t too bad. I’d been recruited for every position I’d ever had, so I hadn’t really thought about going out on a limb, being entrepreneurial in shaping the contribution I hope to make in the world.

So the first step was leaving. Fortunately for me, I have a lot of incredibly supportive and encouraging family and friends, people who know that I would like to run a business eventually, who know my passions that transcend law practice. That helped a lot.

A simultaneous step was allowing myself to mourn leaving my law practice. I know that sounds weird. I don’t mean it in a weird way. It is just that whenever you go through a significant change there is some loss of self, that is neither good nor bad, it just is. Whether I liked it or not, I had an identity, an identity that had become very comfortable for me, a very quick and easy explanation of who I am and what I do… and suddenly I was without that identity. So I had to allow myself to heal a little bit.

Next for me was taking a break, I did service projects, helped others, started walking more and riding the subway at different times of day, walking in the shoes of other people, people with whom I hadn’t interacted very much during the fifteen years of my legal career.

Finally after introspection, healing, recovery, some travel, some good parties, and talking to others,  I had a good sense of the direction I wanted to head in; knowing the things I’m passionate about, the problems I really want to dig into and solve, and taking the time to reconnect with myself to really think about these things is instrumental.


5. What is your favorite app?

Oh my, where to start. Well, I love Apploud. It is still in beta, but it is going to be an amazing music discovery app, especially for new artists.

I’m keen on apps that are about solving problems, creating efficiencies, and new platforms to better connect consumers/users and creators. I also am a huge fan of SoundCloud – such a great way to discover music and new artists, stuff that isn’t played on the radio (yet) or even necessarily blogged about by music writers.

There are a few apps in development, for example the Lassy Project, which is a truly wonderful app for preventing child abductions. A bunch of entrepreneurs are working on apps to help track and prevent kidnappings, abuse and other abductions, and I think it will provide a whole new level of safety for children and women especially, as well as travelers. I’m very excited for this class of apps.

For productivity, I love all of the Evernote products. It has been so helpful to have Evernote and Penultimate for research purposes, clipping articles, summarizing work – really helps me stay brilliantly organized in that regard.

Finally, I can’t lie.  I love Instagram.  The first app I downloaded to my iPad though? Drawing Pad.

6. If you could learn one technical skill, what would it be?

Sound/audio engineering and production. Seriously.

7. If you could learn one magic skill, what would it be?

To grow money (for the purposes of investment and philanthropy) on trees. Now that would be amazing. Or is that called bit coin?

8. What piece of career advice would you give yourself 5 years ago?

Leave Big Law now. Spit out the Kool-Aid.

9. Have you ever been afraid or anxious in your career, and how did you deal with it?

There’ve been times when I’ve not known what to do, but few times when I’ve been afraid. I work very hard to ensure that I’m never governed by fear. That’s a really bad way to proceed. So I focus on love instead, which seems the proper antidote to fear. If I get anxious, I call my mother.

10. What has been the most exciting moment of your career so far?

I think the most exciting moment of my career is yet to come. Which in and of itself is exciting, because it’s been quite the ride so far!

11. What do you do to unwind? How do you balance work and life?

I listen to a lot of music, see a lot of theatre, play a lot of music (practice my bass or jam with friends in a studio), work on photography, write and engage in other creative pursuits–you know those things that remind us that we are human beings. Sometimes I read philosophy, other times I read scripture. Take a lot of long thoughtful walks.  And I try to spend a lot of time with my dog, my parents, and my friends (basically in that order). But I don’t really think about balance – everything I do is something I love, so it has just worked out for me.

12. What advice do you have for someone working to get into your industry?

Advice. Hmm. Be excellent. Serve others. Be willing to die to self. Love your work, and say thank you a lot, and mean it. Read constantly, and really focus on building high quality relationships, not for the purposes of getting something quick or transactional out of it, or for the purposes of elevating yourself, but to build partnerships with people who share the same values, ambitions, and desires to make the world better, to solve interesting problems. The better your relationships, the more likely you are to find a team of people with whom you can collaborate, problem solve, and build great businesses.

Be resilient, be flexible, be open minded, but don’t give up.

Photo Credit: Elizabeth Griffin