If you could go back in time would you do it differently? Some say yes and some say no.
If she could go back in time, she'd learn to enjoy life a lot more
Desiree Peterkin Bell tells young people to follow their passions. Photo courtesy of Desiree Peterkin Belll
Desiree Peterkin Bell, President and CEO, DPBell & Associates
Prior to establishing DPBell & Associates, a global public-affairs firm, Bell served in various political campaigns including helping to lead re-election efforts for former presidents. She served in several government positions heading communications and strategy efforts throughout the country. She is a founding member of the Simmons Memorial Foundation, a non-profit that supports students in their efforts to achieve their education and self-reliance goals. She also serves on the Pennsylvania governor's Advisory Commission on African American Affairs and as an advisor to the American Reading Company. She is a lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School for Communication, teaching a course she designed, Urban Communications. She travels the world speaking on the theme of "Purpose, Not Position," a mantra that guides her life and her passion. She lives with her husband, Brian, and their daughter, Kaelyn, 10.
Why was it important to you to be involved in public service?
I didn't start out in public service. I started working in a law firm in my hometown of New York City. It was there that I realized, working in corporate law, that I should be doing more, especially coming from a family of social-justice ambassadors. So, I had a quarter-life crisis and I decided to go back to school and get a master's in public policy.
My mother has been a public servant for most of her life. Her service has been shaped by her personal experiences being one of a few black students to integrate her school in New York City. One day, after being chased by a very ignorant person, she turned around and stood firmly in the eyes of someone full of hatred and said that she had a right to a quality education. As a result, she spent hours in the community ensuring that young people of color know that their ZIP code does not define their educational success.
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What advice do you have for young people on choosing a career?
You have to do what gets you excited every morning. I live by the mantra of "Purpose, Not Position." Forget the titles and the accolade—what is your life’s purpose? I wake up every day trying to make an impact in the world and make my daughter’s life a little better. I want people to judge her not by what she looks like but by what she knows.
Which young people do you admire?
There are so many. Right now, we are working with young people who are impacted by gun violence in their schools, communities and neighborhoods all across the country. These young people are standing up to adults who make these decisions and challenging them to make their lives safer. We help position them to make their impact in places and spaces where they will not be silenced and cannot be ignored.
What would you do differently if you were just starting out?
I would love to have gone back in time and never allow the severe insecurity of others to impede progress. There are a lot of people who simply exist to feed their own power, their own ego and their own titles. I would tell myself to focus on the good and find coalitions and accomplices to help in the pursuit for justice, truth and to be impactful. I would say enjoy life, too. You can easily be subsumed by the problems of the world and others always trying to push their own insecurities on to you. Today, when I walk into the room, as a young black woman who is a CEO with offices around the world, some people can't believe I'm the boss because they have preconceived notions of who they think I am. Historically, I probably would have gotten upset about it and my own confidence would have been impacted by it. Not anymore. Today, I would tell my younger self to walk confidently in who you are.
What have you learned about having a high-profile career and being a mom?
I believe in work-life integration, not balance. Balance means 50/50. That means everything will be equal every single day. That means holding ourselves up to unrealistic standards, which will only make you unhappy. I remember when I was on my way home to put my daughter to bed, when she was 7. I was working for the city of Philadelphia. My team called me and told me that I had to turn around and come back because I was needed onsite of a major disaster. There had been an Amtrak derailment and lives were lost. I called my daughter, who was crying and told her that I loved her and I had to make sure that someone else's mommy was safe. I didn't see her for the next 24 hours, but that was my job. It was that night that I realized this is not a 50/50 life. I would also say to make sure your kids know what you do. My daughter travels with me when she can and she has met congressional members, presidents, world leaders and CEOs. She had a chance to meet Michelle Obama and that changed her life because she saw someone she really admired.
Written by As told to Barbara Frankel for Working Mother and legally licensed through the Matcha publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to firstname.lastname@example.org.