Bourree Lam: What do you do for work and how did you get into it?
Debra Leonard-Porch: I have been some sort of administrative professional most of my adult life. It didn't start out that way.
I went to school to be a meteorologist. I was in college, and my counselor at that time said, "Oh dear, I don't think that this is where you want to be." At that point, she meant there were no colored weather people, she suggested that perhaps I should be a teacher or nurse. I was like, "Wow, that's kind of stinky."
I thought about it, and my other passion was actually journalism. I thought, "Okay, if they don't have any meteorologists that are African American, they're probably not going to have that many journalists, so I'm still not going to wind up with the job." As most administrative professionals, I lucked into this job because I knew how to type.
Lam: What year was this?
Leonard-Porch: It feels like it was 1902. It was the '70s. It was an interesting time to be young and African American I suppose. Long story short, I went to school but did not graduate because I was working and going to school, and then the money got very good. I went to school at night for a while, but then I became very involved in work. I started out as a receptionist; I mastered that very quickly. They tried giving me other duties to perform; I really started liking that. It just snowballed from that point on.
Lam: How did you learn how to type?
Leonard-Porch: I learned in high school. Back in the day, you either took typing or you took home economics. I had known how to cook since I was seven or eight years old, so that wasn't something I was interested in. I took a typing class, and I actually quit because the teacher would make all of the females cut their nails. You had to hold your hands up every week, and if your nails were past a certain point, she would actually cut your fingernails.
That wasn’t going to work for me, because I was kind of vain. If I had spent all that time painting my nails, I wanted everybody to see my nails. I had the basics [of typing] down and I just kept doing it. I took some self-study classes, and my sister had taken the same class and she taught me. That's how I learned how to type.
Lam: What was your first job as a receptionist?
Leonard-Porch: I started my receptionist career at an in-house magazine for a nonprofit organization that helps struggling communities. I worked as a receptionist for about a year. I outgrew the position and there was no place else to go. Then I moved on to another position at Cook County Hospital as a floating secretary. I went from department to department, wherever anyone was out or needed assistance. From there, I became an assistant in the Department of Cardiology.
[After some months,] I answered a random ad in the newspaper and got a position with the National Parent Teacher Association. I think that's really when my love affair started, because I was an administrative assistant and I was in charge of my own little department within the National PTA. Then, a friend of mine was at a PR firm, she said, "We have a position you might be interested in." From that point on, every position that I have ever gotten has been through another administrative professional. [People in the administrative world] knew my values and my work ethic. My career just progressed from that point on and I spent 11 years at my last position at Edelman, a public-relations firm.