Words of Wisdom: Black Alumni Who Have Created Their Own Legacies

In honor of Black History Month, the Board of Governors’ Diversity and Inclusion Committee hosted a Zoom event on Feb. 25, featuring a panel of alumni who have persevered and succeeded in creating their own powerful legacies. (View a full replay below.)

Danielle Ferguson ’97, a member of the Diversity and Inclusion Committee, introduced panelists Sean Heywood ’96, a business developer of Alexa at Amazon; Natalie Paul’ 03, actress and director; Rhonda Trotter ’79, a trial lawyer, partner, and Hotchkiss trustee; and Nathalie Walton ’03, CEO of Expectful, a meditation and sleep app for new mothers. 

Hotchkiss Director of Diversity and Inclusion Yassine Talhaoui moderated the far-reaching discussion that included conversations about the obstacles Black professionals encounter in the workplace, tools that guided them, and how being a person of color has shaped their career choices.

Rhonda Trotter ’79, a trail-blazing lawyer in Los Angeles legal community, noted three things have helped her professionally -- her faith, family, and community. “I rely on all three to give me strength and a sense of purpose that has been important to my professional and personal life,” she said. 

“Hotchkiss and A Better Chance, the program that led me to Hotchkiss, changed the trajectory of my life,” she said.

Her first Hotchkiss report card in the fall 1996 semester included two C-'s, one C+ and two D’s. Having been used to being a straight-A student, she was in absolute shock. She called collect to her mother, and told her she couldn’t handle it and wanted to return home. “She told me, ‘You don’t get to quit, and that is why I stayed. It was my mother telling me, ‘You will not quit,’” said Trotter.

Sean Heywood ’96 said his most impactful advice to students and those alumni in the workforce is to be very mindful of how they treat people.

“When I analyze every stage in my life from grammar school, to Hotchkiss to Stanford, what I remember at age 42 is: who was kind to me and who treated me equitably. I’ve tried to emulate those people throughout my career.”

Nathalie Walton ’03 said having a North Star, a personal mission to help guide her, is critical to her career. “When I applied to Stanford Business School, I had to write about what matters most to me and why. I wrote about how I had to reckon my Eastern beliefs with Western society,” she said. 

At every turning point in her career, she said, she goes back to that question and asks herself if the choice she is about to make is the right one for her. In the tech and business world, she added, she has often been the only Black person in the room. The events of 2020, she said, have changed the landscape. “Non-Black people are starting to understand the challenges people of color face in the workplace; there are meaningful conversations; there is a dialogue about how to support diversity,” she said. 

For actor and director Natalie Paul ’03, her Black identity has shaped her personal life and her career choices. 

“I felt starting out as an actor that Black history and culture needed to be better showcased to the world, that it was worthy of a larger platform. “I try to support that idea in every way  -- through the choices I make as an actor, what I write about, and who I collaborate with,” she said.

“Having gone to Hotchkiss, I am not a typical Black actor, stories like ours of being Black and attending boarding schools, as well as many other beautiful stories of Black culture, need to be told,” she added. 

Trotter commented that it has been young people willing to step up and push these issues “that has helped those of us who are older in those institutions to do something...I want to thank them for pushing,” she said.

She offered words of wisdom for parents and students: “A life lesson for me is the importance of developing enough of a sense of self and self-confidence to be able to build real relationships with people who are different. I reflect on my Hotchkiss days as one of few students of color at that time, to a large extent we isolated in what felt like a foreign environment for the sake of survival.”

Years later, when she went to her first Hotchkiss reunion in L.A. and began to talk to other Hotchkiss alumni that she hadn’t established relationships with as a student, she came to understand that the struggles that she thought were unique to her as a Black girl at Hotchkiss wasn't so simply the result of being Black person, and that some of the students who she thought were comfortable at Hotchkiss felt as isolated and out of place as she did.

“But none of us knew it. And it has been my lesson later in life to try to get to know people, because often we can find more commonality with people; we can find allies and friends with people who are much different from us.”



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