Nicole Banister has worked in 23 countries across five continents, then she quit. Banister reinvented her career and herself, making the unpredictable shift from international development to entertainment, and now hosts a celebrity interview series on Instagram Live.
Banister – known to her followers as Nikki Banz – is adept at just “picking up everything” and adjusting it in order to survive. But in order to then thrive, she’s had to learn to be comfortable with that constant uncertainty and change.
She talks to The Thread on how uncertainty helped to launch her into the most authentic and empowered version of herself.
You resigned from what you thought was your dream job in March 2021 – a job with an international development organisation, which in theory would allow you to be a changemaker. What made you walk away from the security that comes with working for an international organisation in order to pursue an alternative way of work on your own terms?
When I entered the international development sector, I wanted to make a difference. As corny as it may sound, I wanted to work side-by-side with leaders from various countries in order to amplify their existing assets and resources. I didn’t want to enter those spaces like hey, I’m American, and this is how we do it better where I’m from. That’s the white savior mindset. I wanted to enter these spaces in community with people–leveraging our shared global experiences to create change for people of color everywhere.
So I did that for a decade. I worked for the US government as a Peace Corps Volunteer in South Africa; worked with the UN as a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Fellow and speaker across the US, Spain, Morocco, Egypt, and Qatar; and I worked with international NGOs by leading multi-sectoral partnerships for public health, youth engagement, and sport empowerment programs. Throughout my career I’ve worked in 23 countries across 5 continents.
As time went on, I realized the hard way that the projects I wanted to pursue, the opportunities I wanted to create, and the resources I wanted to share with my global peers were constantly being rejected. And they were rejected because I was Black. The ugly truth of many international organizations is that they’re not really international–they’re white-led with white American agendas that push institutionally racist perceptions of aid onto low-income brown and Black communities around the world. Despite the authentic relationships I had built and the good I personally thought I was doing, I could not be a part of that system anymore. So I quit.
A significant number of employees, especially women, are quitting their jobs. But there is also a lot of uncertainty and anxiety that exists when you quit a job and walk away from the certainty of a fixed income; steady workflow; employee benefits. Have you experienced feelings of doubt, anxiety, vulnerability in carving your own path and how have you handled the uncertainty?
Walking away from my former employer with absolutely nothing planned next was one of the most terrifying and liberating things I’ve ever done in my life. I had no doubts at all about leaving, but I was nervous and anxious about literally everything else that came next. I had a million questions (and more) constantly spiraling in my head, but the light at the end of my tunnel was that I would rather try to answer those difficult questions than stay comfortably in discomfort.
I’ve handled the uncertainty of funemployment by setting boundaries. I set boundaries on the types of job offers I will entertain based on my stage of healing from a toxic workplace and industry. I set boundaries on what I will and won’t do for fun based on the remaining savings in my bank account. I set boundaries on the types of people I have around me based on who challenges me to be the best version of myself instead of allowing me to wallow in mediocrity. The boundaries I set today perpetuate uncertainty and vulnerability for me in the short-term, but in the long-term, those same boundaries launch me into my most authentic and empowered self.
You’ve chosen to curate your own content, putting yourself, your ideas and passions out there in the world without corporate mediation or protection. It’s what Brené Brown describes as Daring Greatly, but the courage to put yourself out there also carries much uncertainty, and fear. How do you navigate this each day?
On a daily basis, it’s incredibly important for me to be grounded in who I am, and allow all of my intersectional identities to build off of one another and protect me.
I am half Persian. I am half Black. I am American. I am a Third Culture Kid. I am Cape Townian.
I am a woman. I am an empath. I am an emcee. I am a public speaker. I am a globetrotter.
I am a Hoya. I am a UN speaker. I am a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. I am a United Nations Alliance of Civilizations Fellow. I am a social justice champion.
I am tall. I am loud. I also have really big hair.
I am all of these things and more. Historically, the diversity of my experiences and identities proved difficult for me to navigate and let shine; yet all of these things combined define me and make me the leader I am today. When I remind myself of that and showcase my lived experiences front and center, other people’s expectations can no longer interfere. It’s just me living my best life.
For many, success is defined in terms of their work and their roles within an organisation. When you choose to walk away from a more traditional work structure, what does success on this new path look like to you?
I am someone who’s super ambitious yet in the middle of a wild healing journey. So from the ambitious side of me, success looks like launching multiple concurrent projects that spark my creativity and joy, like my brand new celebrity talk show NIKKI BANZ LIVE where every single Tuesday I interview different influencers around the world about their passions. Success looks like collaborations with people and organizations in the industries that inspire me, like picking up a job as a trainer and creator for ed-tech startup Nas Academy where I’ve launched an online course about crosscultural communication savvy around the world.
Success looks like sharing my new work experiences with professional networks who I want to invest in Nicole Banister 2.0, like launching my YouTube channel and becoming a LinkedIn Creator. Success also looks like being exclusive and intentional about accepting the various opportunities pitched to me, like declining consulting opportunities that reinforce my trauma instead of healing it.
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From the healing side of me, success looks like having the free time to take ice cold ocean dips in the Atlantic that refresh my spirit. Success looks like investing in monthly massages, weekly yoga classes, and quarterly new braids that rejuvenate my body. Success looks like making my inner circle tighter so that my mind is focused on going up and only up, and being explicitly clear that friends and former colleagues not in alignment with my new vision will receive little time from me.
My biggest advice for folks worried about the vulnerability that comes with leaving a traditional work environment is to mute the noise. Do not let other people’s uninformed opinions of what you should do define what you actually do. Colleagues told me I was making a professional mistake by not sticking out the toxic work environment or not having a new job lined up afterward. Acquaintances told me I was being naive thinking I could transition from development to entertainment. To be completely honest–that’s all noise. And when I say noise, I mean it’s patriarchal, capitalist, insipid social norms of professionalism that are not only antiquated, they also perpetuate a definition of success rooted in whiteness that I will no longer continue to conform to as a brilliant and melanated woman.
As many companies are grappling with what the future of work looks like post the pandemic, it’s also an opportunity to address many of the shortfalls in workplace environments and culture that the pandemic highlighted. What do you see as the areas where working environments can improve to offer more supportive environments to women, and especially women of colour?
Companies must begin to identify, document, and empathetically institutionalise solutions to the needs of intersectional professional women. Hire a workforce that is ethnically and socially diverse. Provide mentorship opportunities and pathways for upward mobility for women of color within company structures. Carve out safe spaces for regular and anonymous feedback so that employee challenges relating to race and sex are acknowledged, documented, and addressed. Infuse mental health, wellness, and reproductive health benefits as part of the employee work space and compensation package. Ensure flexibility of work times and physical work locations so that women with children and other familial responsibilities can both get their work done and support their families.
When you moved to Cape Town, you started sharing really frank, open experiences on Medium from hosting the perfect dinner party to the best Black-owned business in your new city. And then, when the pandemic started, you started a sex-positive platform, My Basketball Team, which is riveting and vulnerable. You seem so brave in the face of uncertainty, going toward it instead of running away from it or trying to control outcomes. Where do you gather the courage to do this and how do you get inspired by uncertainty?
Growing up, my family and I were never in the same place for too long. The longest I ever spent at one school were the four years I spent at Georgetown University, and until then we were always moving schools, cities, or countries every couple of years. So every couple of years, I had to leave all of my friends, all of my restaurants, all of my shopping centers, all of my sports teams, and all of my life up until that moment in order to assimilate into a brand new environment. I became so adept at just picking up everything I knew and adjusting it in order to survive. In order to then thrive, I had to be comfortable with that constant uncertainty and change.
Uncertainty is so often seen as this scary and unsettling thing, but the reality is that every single thing in our lives is completely uncertain, and the 2020 pandemic made sure we were explicitly clear about that. Uncertainty is perhaps the most constant thing in our lives alongside change. And I feel like when we allow ourselves to look at it like that, to not only be inspired by uncertainty but to embrace it, and flow with it, and progress with it, we’re actually constantly preparing ourselves for our own inevitable and life-changing growth.