Promises kept

Posted: February 04, 2014

It's one thing to fantasize about telling your boss, "Take this job and shove it." To quit a good-paying gig with no backup plan takes guts.

Hilary Beard, of Mounty Airy, did exactly that 17 years ago, after holding down corporate positions at Procter & Gamble, Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi. She had no clue what would come next.

"I felt like I was just a liar," Beard recalled last week. "I was working for Pepsi, and I didn't drink Pepsi. I just wanted to have integrity. . . . Integrity is when what you think and what you feel and what you do are all in alignment."

Beard, now 51, forged a career as a successful author, collaborating with the likes of Venus and Serena Williams, Angela Bassett and Courtney Vance, and Lisa Price, founder of Carol's Daughter, a skin-care line used by Jada Pinkett Smith, Solange and Halle Berry.

Not that she's starstruck. Beard and first lady Michelle Obama have been friends since their days at Princeton - a fact that a reporter had to pull out of Beard.

The writer's latest project is a companion book to the award-winning documentary "American Promise," which will air on "POV" at 10 tonight on WHYY12. Promises Kept: Raising Black Boys to Succeed in School and Life discusses an achievement gap that affects even African-American males from well-off families.

Beard also is establishing herself as a career transition coach, helping people step out on faith the way she did to live more authentic lives.

I caught up with her last week at the brightly painted Juice Room, in the 7000 block of Germantown Avenue, where she frequently goes with her laptop to write rather than work alone at home.

Although she's not making anywhere near the money she used to, her life is rich. And her house will be paid off in 18 months. She's currently between projects but not the least bit worried.

"The whole time I've been self-employed, I've never looked for work," she said. "Work finds me."

Listening to Dad

Growing up in Shaker Heights, Ohio, Beard was a creative kid who loved to write and draw. Her favorite novels were Moby-Dick and A Tale of Two Cities. Beard also competed in tennis and served as co-captain of her high-school volleyball team.

When it was time to consider colleges, she wanted to apply to art school but her dad nixed the idea, fearful that she wouldn't be able to support herself. Beard wound up at Princeton University, where she majored in political science and struck up a friendship with Michelle Robinson, who would go on to become the first African-American first lady.

In 1984, Beard graduated with honors and accepted a marketing job at Procter & Gamble, where she "schlepped around talking to people about Pringles and Duncan Hines cake mixes."

Meanwhile, her father was ailing and her mother newly diagnosed with breast cancer. Just calling home was enough to depress her. At the same time, Beard was less than fulfilled at work.

"When you graduate from a place like Princeton, you don't think you're going to end up building cake displays," Beard said.

She began to search, bouncing first to a small company, then to Johnson & Johnson and Pepsi. During her off hours, Beard explored her creative side, taking hip-hop and jazz-dance classes and studying art.

She joined a women's circle in North Philly, where she learned about self-care. She worked on a novel. And she went into therapy, asking herself soul-searching questions such as, "Why would I have these gifts if I wasn't supposed to use them?"

Stepping out on faith

Her mother died in 1997, and Beard took it hard.

"Everything was coming apart in my life, so let me take the rest of it apart," she recalled thinking. So she quit her job at Pepsi.

"When people heard I was leaving corporate America, a lot of people thought I was nuts," Beard said. "It was the first time in my life I didn't have a plan. But I had to do it. I didn't want to look back on my life and say, 'I woulda, coulda, shoulda.' "

Slowly, she began to remake her life in her own vision. In 1999, Beard landed a job at a now-defunct, family-owned health magazine as a managing editor. Through a publishing bigwig whom she met at the Art Sanctuary's Annual Celebration of Black Writing, she connected with Lisa Price, a wildly successful businesswoman with a line of beauty products that she'd created in her own kitchen. Beard signed on to co-write Price's 2004 memoir, Success Never Smelled So Sweet: How I Followed My Nose and Found My Passion.

"I had the amazing opportunity to sit at her feet and listen to her talk about making business decisions based on spirit," Beard said. "Even though I was getting paid to write her book, I felt like I was getting mentored."

Beard then worked with tennis greats Venus and Serena Williams on the young-adult book Venus and Serena: Serving From the Hip: 10 Rules for Living, Loving, and Winning.

Projects just kept coming, including Bassett and Vance's Friends: A Love Story.

Beard's projects landed on "The Oprah Winfrey Show."

Friends started to ask her advice about career transitions.

"I started to understand that I know something and other people could benefit from it, but I was still insecure and I kind of ran from it," Beard said.

She mentioned this to the Rev. Alyn E. Waller, at Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church, where she attended services. He invited her to share her ideas with church members. Roughly 300 people showed up for her first class, back in 2010.

"It's very humbling but so exciting to see, with a little support, people have been able to connect with the things they feel passionate about," Beard said.

She certainly has.

On Twitter: @JeniceArmstrong


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