T.W. Lewis Center speaker series gives students opportunities for intimate conversation with professionals

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February 18, 2020

Paloma Ahmadi made the difficult decision to leave her dream job as an attorney in Major League Baseball’s Office of the Commissioner to find something that better suited her lifestyle. 


She talked about the challenges of taking a different professional path after having a prestigious job with a group of students from Barrett, The Honors College at Arizona State University. Her talk, held on February 10 in the Barrett Downtown ASU suite, was part of a speaker series presented by the T.W. Lewis Center for Personal Development. The center provides services, including innovative courses, workshops, and an engaging speaker series, exclusively to Barrett students. All programs are designed to help students achieve their personal best during and after their university experience.


The Center typically holds multiple programs each week that give students the chance to interact with prevalent voices in the community that they may not hear otherwise.


Ahmadi was connected to the T.W. Lewis Center by Executive Director Scott Kaufmann, who knows Ahmadi through personal ties. Once she heard about the purpose of the center, she said she would be happy to come speak.


“A lot of the speakers that we have within the Lewis Center hear about what we're doing, see the value in it, see that it hasn't ever been offered really anywhere else before, and want to come speak,” said Danyel Chleborad, Program Coordinator, Sr. at the Center. “So they're super energetic about doing it.”


Ahmadi’s talk focused on the complexity of life and one’s career and how she handled that as someone who found herself in a job that many would envy. She explained that many people think of life like a ladder with specific events on each rung leading up to the present. Then, she showed what life really looks like: unpredictable, non-linear and like a chaotic vision board.


“I want to get away from thinking about decisions as a ladder, because what happens if you miss a run on a ladder? You fall,” Ahmadi said. “But there's no missed rung here. You can jump from any of these dots any of the other dots.”


Ahmadi’s journey to the present looks just like the disjointed, unpredictable picture she described. 


Her career started at Harvard University, where she studied English and African American studies in her undergraduate years. In that time, she worked multiple jobs unrelated to her majors and held four club leadership positions mostly relating to politics.


The summer after her junior year, she landed an internship at a consulting firm after her friend recommended she apply. That internship turned into a job after she graduated, so she put her plans of going to law school on the back burner and spent a year working in consulting. 


After that year, Ahmadi applied to law schools. She was accepted at Georgetown University, but waitlisted at Harvard. That waitlist decision made her want to go to Harvard more than ever, and for the wrong reasons, she said.


“It is a very lucky thing that I actually love being a lawyer, and that law school was the right choice for me, because there are a lot of unhappy lawyers, because people go to law school for the wrong reasons,” Ahmadi said. “For law school, I think the most important question is, ‘Do I want to be a lawyer?’”


She compared her determination to go to Harvard for law school after being waitlisted to the fictional story of Elle Woods, the diva-turned-lawyer starring in Legally Blonde. 


“Most of that movie was really about her impressing other people with the fact that she's a lawyer, not enjoying being a lawyer, and it was that reaction of other people that was determining her success in that movie,” said Ahmadi.


“If revenge is the point, then how long is your career really? That external positioning is a risky one.”


Ahmadi did end up attending law school at Harvard after all, and held several jobs in law firms while earning her degree. After she graduated, she was preparing to move to Houston, Texas, with her husband, when a former employer told her about a job opening at MLB headquarters in New York City.


Ahmadi took the job and relocated to New York, 3,000 miles away from her family. Her job at MLB took her to several World Series, the National Baseball Stadium in Havana, Cuba, and all over the world. It was definitely a dream job, she said.


“When you work at MLB, and you tell people where you work, they give you a lot of just, ‘That's so cool,’ ‘That's so exciting,’ ‘It's so awesome,’” Ahmadi said. “And it makes it really hard to pull away from it because it's so much social approval that you get from having a job like that.”


After working with MLB for over four years, Ahmadi had to reconsider where she wanted to be. In 2018, she had her son, and wanted to be able to spend more time with her family rather than constantly traveling for work.


There were a few turning points that made Ahmadi really start to rethink staying at her MLB job. One of these occurred when she was in Singapore for work and dozed off at her hotel. When she woke up, she had no idea where she was and had to look through her room for hotel stationery to figure it out. This and other realizations about the demands of her job confirmed to Ahmadi that it was indeed time to move on.


She acknowledged the challenges that came with making the decision to quit her dream job, especially the pressures and doubts that were projected onto her by other people. 


Ahmadi encouraged attendees to keep three key questions in mind: What are my career goals and how does this job help them? Do I like my work? Do I like the people I work with? 


“Make sure that the answers that you're getting for yourself come from you and the thoughts you've given to it and your real values and your real needs and wants, because not every job is right for every person and not every dream job is right for every person,” Ahmadi said.


Many people, she said, second-guess their answers to these questions, afraid people will judge them for their decision. She said people have 50 working years after finishing school, time enough to have five careers.


“Just because you've pictured yourself on a ladder for one career doesn't mean you can't change, because there is no ladder,” Ahmadi said. 


“When you start to feel like there's a disconnect, start looking at these questions and thinking about the answers, and you may discover that part of the reason you're feeling a disconnect is because the answers aren't yours. They’re somebody else's.”


Gabrielle Ducharme is a sophomore Barrett student studying sports journalism. After graduating, she hopes to work either in the NBA or WNBA in media relations or as a sideline reporter, or in radio doing play-by-plays.


The fact that Ahmadi is a woman who worked in the MLB is what drew Ducharme to the speaker series. 


“Hearing the perspective of someone who essentially worked in the industry and wanted to have children and wanted to have a family and everything, I wanted to hear from someone who was doing it,” Ducharme said.


Ducharme will go to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo on a trip through the Cronkite School to report on the games, and Ahmadi’s story about traveling to Singapore stuck with her.


“Just trying to remember that I have to keep perspective, and I can't get caught up in all the travel and then all the stress and stuff, to appreciate the moment and to appreciate where I am [is important],” Ducharme said.


Something that struck Ducharme about Ahmadi was her down-to-earth, personable character. It was something Ducharme didn’t expect from her, especially considering all the athletes she has been around in her career. 


“She was really, really sweet and really welcoming, which honestly, I appreciate that as a young college student, especially a young woman trying to get into sports and into journalism,” Ducharme said. “It can be a very cutthroat, competitive environment.”


Ducharme left the talk feeling reassured about her future in the sports realm.


“The idea of coming across someone that successful, who's also that welcoming and kind to a young woman like me, it just makes me that much more excited. It makes me feel much more comfortable going into the male-dominated industry that I'm going into.”


Story by Greta Forslund, a Barrett, The Honors College student studying journalism.