From misfit to MVP: The audacity to thrive as yourself

Headshot of Nat Resende
Nat Resende, executive creative director, Campbell Ewald

Only a mentor who reflected some of my experiences could have helped me navigate tough situations at work without slowly erasing myself to fit in.

I joined the ad industry as an 18-year-old bursting with creativity — and naivete. 

As a Lesbian Latina woman, I was sure agencies would be full of people like me. I would find not only a career, but a community.

Twenty years in, and I’ve found the career, but the community has been more elusive. While my identity and perspective are valued now, I rose in advertising despite who I am — not because of it.

In the beginning, I navigated creative department filled with white cis men, some who believed in me and who helped me feel seen and heard. But I wish I had been self-assured enough to walk into meetings with massive, unapologetic, immigrant and lesbian energy. That would’ve been amazing. But that massive energy hadn’t had a chance to mature yet. 

As minorities, we have to learn how to become and defend our authentic selves simultaneously. Our path up is often paved by microaggressions we’re not equipped to deal with when we start facing them. 

Twenty-year-old me didn’t have any counsel on how to respond when a respected creative director said I was “too feminine to be a lesbian.” Or how to fight back when a more senior creative ignored me for pointing out that his idea was insulting to immigrants. Or on what to do when a co-worker tried to force me to out myself at work. I had no allies then. 

Only a mentor who reflected some of my experiences could have helped me navigate those situations without slowly erasing myself to fit in. Now, how can we create a path for minorities to thrive while minimizing the scars on our way up? 

In 2022, the landscape has improved. DE&I efforts resulted in an acceptance that inclusion and representation are key elements to stronger work and healthier workplaces. Consequently, I believe folx today and tomorrow will rise by being exactly who they are. Having the words to stand up for themselves in any situation — and knowing they aren’t alone — is the game changer.

Twenty-year-old me might’ve been a lil’ baby queer in the making, but 39-year-old me has done the heavy lifting and is full of (metaphorical) muscles to fight back. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned.

Work for someone, not for some place

For a few years, recruiters have been scavenging schools and Linkedin for minority folx. That means POC and LGBTQ+ folx can finally choose our career paths. While it's tempting to choose the big agency names, I’d recommend your choice center around who you’d be reporting to. 

Choose to work for people who will empower, mentor, speak up and be your voice when you’re not in the room. Choose a boss who will teach you and be open to learning from you. 

If your potential boss doesn’t come from a minority background, ask if they have experience mentoring through that lens. Ask about their DE&I efforts. If he or she wants to hire you, they must be prepared to speak for you and help you thrive as your full self. 

When in combat, be productive

Countless times I’ve been the only minority in the room. In those instances, speaking up was hard. Most times when I did, my opinion flew right over everyone’s heads. It's hard to convince 12 white cis people that the way Latino immigrants are being portrayed in a campaign is racist, or that they way they are representing gay men reinforces harmful stereotypes. 

Often my frustration got the best of me and my words were harsh, combative and dismissible. Learn how to make your arguments productive. Assume the best of people and avoid pointing fingers. 

Your life, your boundaries

Give people the benefit of the doubt on their ignorance toward minority experiences, but set boundaries. More often than not, white cis people look to us to provide answers, as if we’re the experts in diversity. Share when and as much as you feel comfortable with, but allow yourself to say a BIG FAT NO to extra labor. Feel free to tell folx to educate themselves. 

Find — and stoke — your fire

You play a big part in the ownership of your career. Start identifying what you like doing and what you don’t. 

I tell people my agenda is the gay agenda. It doesn’t mean I add gays to everything. It means I look for opportunities for meaningful representation in every project — from the story, to the director to casting and beyond. My inclusivity lense makes the work better and gives me a sense of purpose in life. 

Most importantly, I’ve learned that when we feel free and safe to be our authentic selves, our work gets better. Twenty years ago, it was very hard to find folx that could nurture their authentic selves beyond heteronormative molds. But mentors from different backgrounds and experiences exist now. We got seats at the table, and together we can finally create the community we need to bring all of our agendas to it. 

Nat Resende is executive creative director at Campbell Ewald.

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