The American dream is often one that looks to emulate what we see on TV. A clear path to success with minimal obstacles. In high school maybe you were a cheerleader hoping to marry your homecoming king, maybe you played a sport, were on the debate team or maybe you just studied your ass off to get that scholarship to an Ivy to make a better life for you and your single mom. Much of the American dream begins with competition. Being competitive with one’s self or others is so engrained into the psyche of Americans that we often place an incredible value on winning and losing. My life, thus far, has been no different.
For as long as I can remember, I have prided myself in being a levelheaded pragmatic person. I always believed in the best in people and always gave everyone the benefit of the doubt. I have always been able to compartmentalize aspects of my life to see the good. Knowing that we are all complex individuals with opinions and beliefs that likely have been passed down for generations, I always knew that much of how we were constructed likely had to do with how we were raised and were unconscious and not necessarily about our own thoughts
I was born in an environment that was considered progressive and diverse community by many. New York City is known as a melting pot of many cultures, a mosaic of beautiful shades that fill our 5 boroughs. However, if you live in the city you will quickly notice that the boroughs are incredibly segregated. As a teenager in the 1990s, we know that Bensonhurst, Bay Ridge and Canarsie was largely Italian, Bed Stuy, East New York, Harlem and Brownsville, largely Black, Washington Heights largely Dominican. What type of melting pot places people in their little corner of the city while not welcoming others to come and go? It seems a bit counter to the messaging of cultural acceptance that we as New Yorkers have been perpetuating for years.
Well, for me, I grew up in a part of Brooklyn known as Starrett City, an area in Brooklyn that opened in 1974, only 4 years before I moved in with my family as a 1 year old. Starrett, as we called it, was truly a melting pot. My friends were Black, Italian, Irish, Hispanic, Asian and Russian. I spent time in each of their homes and their parents treating me like I was their own. I ate at their tables and played together like brothers and sisters. As far as I knew, this was normal, but little did I know, it was actually far from the norm in New York City. As far as I was concerned, the rest of the city and country was exactly how I grew up. Inclusive, diverse and tolerant.
I went on to play sports in high school and excelled at football. As a young man in Brooklyn, sports were a great way to stay busy and create opportunities for higher education. The structure and discipline were exactly what I needed to position myself for collegiate football, leave New York City and receive a great education. I could see my path so clearly. I would work hard at sports and go away to college, graduate, get a great job and the rest would be history.
I made my decision to go to Towson University in Maryland and I learned a very quick lesson about our differences. One of the first friends that I made was a teammate, a fellow lineman, who grew up in western Pennsylvania. When we met, he went on to tell me that he lived in such a small town that there was only one traffic light and had never really spent time with any Black people.
I then met some of the Black kids on the team and after getting to know them, I realized that they grew up very differently than many of my black friends in Brooklyn. They were largely from an affluent black area of Maryland called Prince Georges County. Although the show was based in Brooklyn, many of these guys were living the life depicted on the Cosby Show with successful white-collar parents. What I found most interesting about them is that they often wanted to put on a tough façade although they largely grew up very privileged.
My naivety led to think that the so-called real world would reflect the diversity that I experienced in my neighborhood and on my sports teams. A team is this magical place where a collective of people come together for a common purpose. Winning was the goal and being accountable to one another was paramount on and off the field. Diversity was woven into the fabric of any successful team and I enjoyed that throughout my college career. I would learn so much about our differences and how those differences actually bonded us in so many ways.
I was well on my way to the American Dream when I graduated and accepted an entry level position in the media business back in New York City. My path from those early days growing up in Starrett City to Manhattan as a young professional was a smooth ascend. One could have looked at me as the preverbal boy next door living his dream. A charmed path paved with academic success and athletic acumen. If someone used those words to describe me, I wouldn’t have been able to argue. Life was good. I was judged by my grades, my ability to be a team player and often connected with people using all of the skills that I learned on the football field.
That all changed during my first week in my entry-level job. It’s day 4 into my American Dream and I quickly realized that I am not the typical boy next door. As I sat at my cubicle still trying to familiarize myself with corporate America, my desk phone rang. It’s the head of human resources and she invited me to lunch. Surely, she must invite all new hires to lunch is what I immediately thought. I was wrong. We sat down at lunch and she proceeded to tell me that I was the first in my department. I gave her a perplexed look that expressed my confusion. She made herself clear. “Brian, this company is almost 2 decades old and you are the first black person in your department.” How could this be? We are New York City, a city with a reputation of being a melting pot where everyone is welcomed with open arms. This is 1999 and we are decades past the civil rights movement, how could this be?
Suddenly, this boy next door was no longer. I was an outsider. A burden, a responsibility and a role were unfamiliar to me. It was explained that if I didn’t do exceptionally well, there would likely not be “another one” after me. I remember it like it was yesterday. I walked back to the office in a fog, sat down at my desk and felt like an alien in my own city.
That conversation has shaped how I have approached everything in business. It was now a zero-sum game. Every interaction mattered. Every moment mattered. I was always in the spotlight. Whether it meant, as a young professional, doing the job that nobody wanted to do, working my ass off while my peers nursed last night’s hangover or in my first leadership role, having to moonlight as the company’s de facto chief diversity officer, I had an additional burden. I also learned quickly that I had to make sure that my education was above average just to level the playing field and get a seat at the table. And, when I got that seat at the table I often felt alone and sometimes marginalized because that playing field is largely never level and still, people rarely looked like me.
I had that conversation as a 22-year-old in 1999 with only 4 days of work experience.
I would have thought that after 21 years we would be done with having these conversations about race, equity, inclusion and access but sadly we are not.
I am the boy next door just trying to live my American Dream.
BN is a Brooklyn raised lover of writing, aviation, bourbon, and the Howard Stern Show. He enjoys asking all the questions that we all think but never vocalize. He loves to connect with people with the purpose of finding that one thing he believes connects us all. He ultimately believes that there are less than 6 degrees of separation between all of us and if you spend enough time asking the right questions, you will always find that connection.
As a media executive, mentor, investor and university guest lecturer, BN loves to use his political capital and influence to help all people find their passions, particularly for those who do not have the privilege of access.
Nothing makes him happier than spending quality time with the people that he loves and having a laugh. A self-proclaimed ball breaker, he prides himself in finding the funny in almost anything and everything.