“I didn’t have a strategy.”
When’s the last time you’ve heard that? And yet, Danyel Smith has held positions across multiple media platforms. She climbed her way to success and interviewed some of music’s biggest stars –and still, with no “strategy,” she’s winning.
“My strategy was to win. That was it. I just had a goal,” she told Her Agenda.
It seems like that was her strategy from the moment her grade school teacher told her, ‘This writing thing you’ve been doing? You’re good at this.’ She took the positive remarks from her teachers and mentors, and used it to fuel her passion for writing.
Smith’s career journey is definitely not what we’re used to hearing nowadays. She was freelancing in California’s Bay Area until landing her first gig managing pages as the music editor at San Francisco Weekly. She eventually moved to New York City to become Billboard magazine’s first female African American Rhythm and Blues Editor. Then came Spin Magazine, then the New York Times lead to a role as the Music Editor at VIBE magazine in 1994. She then spent a year in the National Arts Journalism Program fellowship at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1997, she returned to VIBE as editor-in-chief.
This all appears seamless (and normal), until you consider the fact that Smith did all of this without a college degree. Most millennials couldn’t even begin to envision a successful career without one. Shortly after high school, Smith attended UC Berkeley but didn’t receive her bachelor’s degree until her 30’s, while steadily teaching at The New School in New York City. She simultaneously received her Master’s. During this time she was also planning her wedding with her husband, journalist Elliott Wilson.
However, Smith had already made up her mind that failing was not an option far before she was even making a living as a writer. She told me about an internship at The Guardian she wasn’t able to complete because she couldn’t afford to work for free. Family issues beyond her control. Bad boyfriends.
“They [your readers] should definitely imagine the worst thing that’s ever happened to them,” she shared in reference to what she was going through at that time.
All those factors added extra stress, yet she still found a way to practice her passion. She continued to build a career and network which meant working multiple jobs and freelancing on the side until she landed her first full time gig. Although she admits being a bit jealous of women with a straighter path, she simply didn’t lead a life that allowed her to walk on one. Still, she doesn’t seem to regret it.
“If you misstep, if there’s a problem, if you have to drop out for a reason…or if you get a year of bad grades…we’re women [so] if you get pregnant– we can all rebound from these things. A left turn or a right turn is not a jump off the cliff. It’s a detour. And you can get back on track.”