Asila calhoun

I wanted to coach people that were already identified as stars…and help them become superstars.

Chapel Hill, NC | Washington, DC

Black, coach, wife, childless by choice, explorer, auntie, connector, foodie, creator

I was worried about going out on my own—was I really going to be able to do this and make it work? Even though I have a supportive husband, I didn’t want to be reliant on him and his income. Of course, I was scared.  Who wouldn’t be? It’s scary!  But my friend’s dad always told her, “Work done in the margins is marginal work.” That stuck with me. I didn’t want to work in the margins anymore. Coaching is what I want to be doing.  It’s what I need to be doing. I know that I am helping leaders grow and become more effective.

We are descendants of Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings. When historians have done DNA sampling, Thomas Woodson – our branch of the lineage – has not come up, but the oral history is so strong that even Monticello recognizes the Woodsons. I have mixed feelings about this history. It’s complicated. 

I was born in Ann Arbor at the University of Michigan, but we moved to Bakersfield, California right before I turned four in 1973, so I grew up exclusively in California. Bakersfield is a very conservative agriculture and oil town. There wasn’t a ton of diversity when I was growing up there. We spent a lot of summers going back to Michigan since my entire extended family was in the Detroit area. Detroit is one of the Blackest cities in the country. Taking this huge pendulum swing from my predominantly white day-to-day experience, to going days without seeing a white person in Detroit was a bit of a culture shock. And also great. I think it was it was an important part of my development and growth. Detroit was a very different world than the world I lived in the other nine months of the year.

In my family, we’re all really good cooks, so there’s a lot of cooking and eating… and talking about cooking and eating. Mac and cheese is very sacred in the family. There are certain ways that you make it and certain ways that you don’t. But our way, of course, is best!

It was just me and my older sister, and then my parents divorced when I was about five. My sister and I initially lived with our mom and saw our dad every weekend, and then we did the opposite when we moved in with him from ages 10-17. My dad remarried several times, so I have a little brother who was born when I was eight, who I adore. We like to call my dad “the International Lover” since he married a white, then Latina, then Asian woman after my parents divorced. My mom is a lesbian, and growing up in the 70s and 80s, that was definitely not the time when people were out. It added another layer of awkwardness to the whole situation of divorced parents in the 70s, which was also uncommon, and being Black in a predominantly white area.

My parents were very big into making sure that we were getting a good education and studying hard.  They were both educators – my mom taught middle school English and my dad was a newly minted PhD professor hired to start the education department at Cal State-Bakersfield – so there were a lot of expectations around grades and performance. You add to that what I would say most kids in a Black home get – the pressure to do even better, do twice as much work, be twice as good – so there was a lot of pressure to do well in school.

It was challenging because I was often the only Black girl, sometimes the only Black child in school.  That changed in high school.  Bakersfield High had students who my mom had taught because my mom taught at the Black middle schools, but I was in college prep classes and lot of them were not. So even though I was not necessarily “the only” at the school, I was still often one of the very few Black students in my classes.  I continued to struggle to fit in with the Black students.

I went to college at UC-Berkeley and ended up studying sociology.  I worked a lot in college because I didn’t want a bunch of student loans to pay off when I graduated. Even though my parents had prepared us mentally for college, they were not quite as prepared financially to send us away. My first job during college was at a very popular record store near campus where my sister, who also attended UC-Berkeley, had been working. I started out as a cashier and then eventually became a buyer for the Soul/R&B section. I also met my husband, David, the first day of school freshman year. The RA from his dorm introduced the two of us and we became good friends and had other classes together. We didn’t start dating until after we graduated.

College was the first time I really had a lot of Black friends, including a good friend I met in the dorm who became my roommate for the rest of college.  I met David, who is biracial, and just spent more time with other Black students.  I still felt awkward sometimes because I didn’t have some of the same experiences growing up.  I grew up often being the only Black person, whether in my class, in my grade or even in my schools. And because we didn’t have any family in Bakersfield, I grew up mostly around white kids. We also didn’t grow up in church, so I didn’t have a Black community from family or church. 

After college, David and I both ended up staying in the Bay Area, even though a lot of our friends had moved. I worked in Human Resources at a large global engineering company based in San Francisco. I was part of a rotation program where supposedly every 8-12 months, you got to rotate positions and try out a different HR role. That was not my experience. I was left in my position as a service award coordinator for 16 months, and I was way over it. We had service awards for employees who had been with the company anywhere from 10 to 40 years. It was fun at first to plan parties and host events, but it got old after about a year.

At the 16-month point, when I was getting really frustrated and bored doing service awards, I was taking on additional work to continue learning about HR, but they didn’t have an opening to rotate me into. However, the company had a big project in Boston, and they needed help reviewing resumes and applications for a few months, so they sent me on a long-term business trip. It was a nice experience since I was 23, and it was my first time traveling anywhere by myself. They eventually found a more permanent role for me for a few years, and then a couple years later I left the company when David and I moved to North Carolina so he could attend law school at UNC-Chapel Hill. It was a good time to leave the company after four and a half years, and I wasn’t feeling challenged or appreciated. I was ready for a change.

When we got to North Carolina, I found myself not working and not being in school for the first time ever. I thought I’d try the temp agencies because I knew I wanted to keep busy while I looked for a full-time job in HR. I went to the Manpower Professional office in Raleigh, where I met with a recruiter who said, “What would you think about working for us? We’re looking for recruiters. You’ve got this great HR background.” Everybody at Manpower was my age, so I made instant friends. That was probably the most important thing since we moved to NC without knowing anyone. And I found that I really liked recruiting. I also really liked working in a role where you’re contributing to the bottom line, which is not the case in HR.

After I left Manpower, I held several other HR leadership positions in the clinical research, healthcare, and research industries, which are huge in Research Triangle Park. I was very active in one of the local SHRM chapters, including becoming chapter President and on the board of the NC State SHRM Council. It felt good to give back to the HR community and to help create programs for HR professionals and mentor early career HR professionals.

Several people had encouraged me to become a coach, and I knew people that had gone through the coach training program at North Carolina State University. But, when I applied for the program in the fall of 2014, it was full, so I had to wait a year to apply for the next cycle. At the same time, I was also applying for new jobs in HR. I had been with a company for about 2 ½ years, and it wasn’t a fit for me. I loved my boss and several HR colleagues, but I felt like the company leadership lacked ethics, and integrity is one of my core values. I couldn’t continue working there.

I got a new job in HR right during the holidays, and I started in late January 2015. Meanwhile, six weeks after I started my new job, my husband found out he got a job in Washington, DC. Here I was, brand new, and I had to tell them I needed to move. But they were kind enough to allow me to continue working for the company in their DC office. The agreement was for me to come back down to North Carolina once a month because that’s where most of my client groups were, as well as fill the role of Office Director, a rotating role for senior level staff in the DC office to manage the full-time office staff for 3-5 years. I said yes since it allowed me to stay with the organization and travel back to NC regularly.

During the fall of 2015, I applied for the 10-month coach training program again – early so I didn’t get wait listed again – and I got in. It was very grounding and helped me get through a difficult time. I was still new in DC, I was new at the company, and my boss who hired me had quit and took the entire team with her to her new local company. Being in HR can be isolating. You can never be too friendly with people because you might have to fire them someday, so it was really nice to have support through the coach training program. Having that monthly course, learning something different about coaching and learning about myself, feeling supported, and having community was invaluable to me.

I knew I wanted to coach new managers because throughout my career, I saw new, first-time managers getting dropped into the deep end without a life preserver. They were often promoted because they were great at what they did technically, but not necessarily because they were going to be great leaders. I saw the need to develop leaders early in their leadership careers by giving them tools, training, and coaching to set them up for success. I wanted to coach people that were already identified as stars…and help them become superstars.

I continued coaching in my spare time and sought opportunities to do more with coaching at work. About two years after I graduated from the coach training program, I wrote a job description and a white paper on the benefits of an internal coach, and why this role change would be great for me, too. I presented to the head of talent development, and he said, “This is really great, but we have these other priorities right now. Maybe in two years.” I didn’t have two years. I went back and suggested doing a six-month coaching pilot instead. I designed the program, came up with the criteria, the evaluations, everything. It was six months of coaching for 12 new managers. At the conclusion of the pilot, I had super positive feedback from the coaching clients as well as their direct managers and senior leadership in the division, so I created a slide deck with all of the data, fully expecting HR leadership and company leadership to sign off on a role change, but they said, “Yeah, we’re still not ready.” I wanted to make something work at the company, but I knew that I was not going to be happy if I couldn’t make this change in my role.

In the meantime, I was growing my business on the side, which is hard to do when you are working full time. When you’re in a coach training program, they want you coaching immediately. You start getting clients, working with people out of the gate, so business was building and growing. I had a property management client that I had been working with; they wanted more, and I also had other clients that wanted more. I got to the point where I said, if I stay, I can’t grow; something’s got to give here. So I turned in my notice at the end of January 2020 for an early March departure. I obviously did not expect that two weeks after my first day of being in business for myself full time we’d be locked down for COVID. The pandemic was not part of my plan.

My business is called Calhoun Coaching and Consulting. At the start of the pandemic, very few clients were seeking coaching. Companies weren’t talking about coaching. Nobody was talking about leadership development. Everybody was thinking, “How do we keep the frickin’ lights on? How do we pivot to working remotely?” And here I was two weeks into working for myself full time. Of course, I freaked for a minute. Who wouldn’t? But I didn’t stay in that space. I quickly pivoted to: Now what? So I said, I guess I’m going to be doing more consulting.

Coming fresh off a 25-plus year career in HR, I was thinking about all my HR friends and former colleagues struggling with getting everyone working remotely. Policies, procedures, the drama of it all. All I could think about was all of the employee relations issues, the stress employees were under, and the new laws that were put into effect for employees taking leave around COVID. All of this on top of what is always already a very busy job. So, one of the first things I did was offer a free self-care workshop for HR professionals. My mom is also a coach, so we joined forces and did it together, which was so much fun. We had over 50 people sign up, so we offered it again and another 50+ people registered. From there people asked if we could offer the workshop in their organizations. It was doing things like that and making myself available to other clients, developing or teaching other trainings, partnering with other people in my network, and creating content. I focused on what I could do to keep busy and start to generate interest in my coaching and consulting services. I said yes to anything that sounded remotely interesting. I was pleased with how the first year went.

During those early weeks of the pandemic, I started writing a weekly newsletter because I felt like I needed more connection, and it seemed my clients also needed more connection. My newsletter is called the WINSDay newsletter, where I share my wins and the wins of my clients. Each week I shared more about what I was doing and what I was thinking. I started writing about diversity after George Floyd was brutally murdered the same weekend that Christian Cooper and Amy Cooper had an incident in Central Park. I started getting inquiries about diversity, inclusion, and equity (DEI) work, and clients, friends, coaches, and colleagues started asking me to step into that space. The instructor for my coach training program reached out and asked me to join the faculty for an inclusion coaching certification program she was developing with another coach and DEI expert. I said yes to that and started doing my own deeper learning to navigate that DEI work. My old boss connected me with a consultant who had her own diversity and HR consulting practice, so I started doing some DEI consulting for them as a sub-contractor.

In 2021, I wanted to be more intentional about coaching in the leadership development space. I was fortunate to get some more coaching, leadership training, and facilitation business, through my network and referrals, including people from my coach training program. We have a tight knit group; I probably talk to somebody from my program every day, and we continue to do a lot of collaborations and partnering.

My latest project is a group coaching program for Black professional women. It’s the group that I would have loved to be a part of when I was in corporate America. Especially for Black women who are “the only,” and are struggling to navigate those spaces where all their hard work, all of their energy and effort is not valued, appreciated or respected. I want to help women who are going through what I went through because the story is universal. There isn’t a safe space for Black women who are in this situation to go and heal, to learn how to move forward, and I want to create that.

I’m a content generator, so I’m constantly thinking about what’s next. It isn’t that I am trying to compete with anyone; rather, if I see a need and if it’s something I can help with, then I want to fill it. I would like to continue to grow and develop my business and continue to grow and develop personally.

A lot of coaches say they hate the sales and business development stuff, but that doesn’t bother me. I actually like the marketing side. I shy away from the systems stuff and social media. One thing I have learned about weaknesses is that if there’s something I don’t do well or don’t like, then I outsource it. I like to work, and I put a lot of hours in, so since I started working for myself full time, I don’t have very clear boundaries about when I’m working and when I’m not. I have a goal this year of working less, whether that is blocking my calendar more or taking actual time off. I’m charging more so I can take this time off, and because I am learning to recognize the value I bring, something many of us women entrepreneurs, especially Black women, struggle to do. If I want to work on the weekend, I will pick a day or a few hours, but I won’t work nonstop. I have to have a break and some downtime. I don’t want to burnout, and I want to practice what I preach about self-care.

In 2021, I became a certified meditation teacher, so I have a strong meditation practice. I meditate every day in the morning without fail – no excuses. I am a big work out person, so I have a Peloton. I love Barre3 and I do workouts several times a week. I do a little bit of yoga, and I have a personal trainer that I work out with once a week. I try to move every day. I have a terrible sweet tooth, so it’s a good thing that I like to work out the way I do. My biggest self-care hurdle is sleep. It’s not stress related, like it used to be when I was in the corporate workforce; it’s more hormonal, being a woman of a certain age.

I am thoroughly enjoying what I’m doing as a coach and consultant. I like working with different clients and having a variety of projects, and I love being able to say no, which I was never able to do in HR. I love the flexibility and the diversity of the work that I do. Until recently, I was a DC based business – and I had a little tiny desk in the living room of my 800 square foot condo, which was my office. We recently moved back to NC since we are both working from home full time now, and we wanted the space and to be closer to our core group of friends. I love that I can work from anywhere, spending various times of the year elsewhere, to be with family or friends, because that’s important to me. Especially as I get older, I want to spend more time with my parents and my siblings. I never expected to be on the East Coast this long. I thought we would be out here for three years and then move back to California. I want to be able to be flexible—go where I want to go, take trips, spend time with loved ones, and have the financial freedom to do that.

My meditation teacher often asks, “Who’s in your front row?” For me, definitely my husband, my parents, my siblings, my in-laws, my cousins, and several close friends. My parents are so cute – I know that no matter what I write about in my weekly WINSDay newsletter, I’m going to get two people who write me back and tell me how great it is. I have amazing friends and colleagues, but a handful who are definitely in my front row cheering me on. Also, people that I went to my coaching program with, we’re still very connected. Our closest group of friends in NC includes four families that are super close – we call ourselves the family of choice or FOC. We’re always there for each other. All the kids are like cousins, and they call us auntie and uncle.

I think success is feeling fulfilled—that you’re living your purpose and thriving in all aspects of life. I’m proud of what I’ve been able to do with my business in such a short time. I have zero regrets. I didn’t think I’d be where I am financially and with the variety and diversity of work that I do, the clients that I have, the speaking engagements and other opportunities that have come my way. I certainly didn’t expect to match the salary I made in my corporate role in two years. It finally feels like Black girl magic. Truly.