I’m a Black woman who left her job at an architecture firm to go out on her own and I’ve never been happier

  • Xena Stryker left corporate America several years ago after feeling discriminated against. 
  • She now runs her own architecture-consulting firm and feels in control of her life. 
  • She recommends other women seek mentorship before they launch their own companies. 

This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Xena Stryker, 35, an architectural designer who previously worked in corporate America, about why she decided to start her own firm. The company, Xena Design + Marketing Firm, has offices in Atlanta and Beverly Hills, California. The following has been edited for length and clarity.  

At a previous job, I was the only Black woman at an architectural firm with hundreds of designers. By the way things looked at the office, you’d think it was 1950.

It often felt like the other designers would stare at me, like they were examining my hair, my clothes, or the way I spoke. Many made comments about my expensive car. They wanted to know where I came from. I was asked dozens of times what an HBCU was — a historically Black college and university — and why don’t we just quote integrate. I wanted them to leave me alone so I could simply do my work. 

When big clients came to visit, higher-ups suddenly placed me out on display as a show of staff diversity. But once the guests left, they put me back into my cubicle. I felt like I was the Raggedy Ann doll of the office. I’d be pulled back out and put on display during the firm’s holiday party as, once again, a showcase of the firm’s so-called diversity.

I was tired of feeling like a prop for diversity

I felt management constantly gave me the most difficult architectural-design tasks. As one principal told me, he was testing me. I complained to HR, but didn’t feel that they listened to me. 

I asked a manager, a white woman, if we could host a job-shadowing day for my sorority’s teenage mentees. She asked me if the girls had ever gone on a field trip before, and if they’d know how to act, because they may be coming to party. I have no clue why she believed high-school honor students hadn’t been on a field trip since kindergarten. The job-shadow day never happened. It was just one of many racially charged microaggressions thrown my way. 

If this was corporate America, I wanted out. 

Several months before I quit, I launched a secret acting and voice-over career, working on shows like “P-Valley” on Starz. When the day came several years ago, I used all the money I had saved up from my acting gig, cracked open my retirement fund, and left. 

I started my own company, Xena Design + Marketing Firm, and life is phenomenal right now. 

Many of my clients tell me that other, traditional firms feel condescending, racist, and out of touch. Considering that I’ve worked in these environments, I get it. My firm provides a safe haven. We hold our interviews while eating ice cream in Downtown Atlanta or while riding the SkyView Atlanta Ferris wheel. My firm takes on fun projects from clients, such as The Atlanta Airport, Live Nation, BET, and some celebrities. It’s incredibly exciting.

I launched my own firm, and here’s my advice 

Having a mentor is so important. And professional networks are going to become your best friend. I graduated from Project Reap through the Urban Land Institute. The program bridges the gap between talented minority professionals and commercial real-estate companies. The Urban Land Institute’s Los Angeles branch paired me with an amazing mentor since I’ve relocated to Beverly Hills. I get brunch with my mentor, look up at the palm trees, and it all feels so surreal. She’s there for any questions I may have — business or personal.

Mentors help you navigate so much. Professional organizations provide high-end networking that may lead to clients, and they provide continuing-education courses that can be more beneficial than earning a college degree.

If you’re in a similar position as I was previously in corporate America, my advice is: dream big, determine your unique selling point, find a supportive dream team, and get out.