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Branding Room Only Interview with Conway Ekpo: Connecting, Championing, and Making Change

Branding Room Only Interview with Conway Ekpo: Connecting, Championing, and Making Change
Conway Ekpo is a former Wall Street lawyer who now thrives in the fintech industry as the Director and Associate General Counsel of Product for fintech startup Brex. He is also an advisor and investor in several minority-owned fintech startups. Conway is the founder of the Black Big Law Pipeline and several other initiatives focused on empowering Black lawyers in the legal profession. His professional experience includes Bank of America Merrill Lynch, Morgan Stanley, and other firms.

Here’s a glimpse of what you’ll learn:

  • How Conway Ekpo built his brand
  • “The fishbowl” and how it applies to minority lawyers
  • The danger of ego in the professional world
  • Overlooked elements of leadership and leading by example
  • Conway’s pivotal moment that set him on his current path
  • Advocating for Black lawyers and professionals
  • Why selflessness is so crucial
  • Conway’s advice for personal brand building
  • Connecting people with the access they need

In this episode:

In this episode of Branding Room Only, Paula T. Edgar sits down with Conway Ekpo, the Director and Associate General Counsel of Product at Brex, to discuss how he elevates and champions others. They discuss the dangers of ego, defining yourself by selflessness, and the underrated tenets of leadership. They also discuss Conway’s career, highlighting some of his distinctive qualities and the elements that contribute to his brand.
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Resources mentioned in this episode

Sponsor for this episode

This episode is brought to you by PGE Consulting Group LLC.

PGE Consulting Group LLC is dedicated to providing a practical hybrid of professional development training and diversity solutions. From speaking to consulting to programming and more, all services and resources are carefully tailored for each partner. Paula Edgar’s distinct expertise helps engage attendees and create lasting change for her clients.

To learn more about Paula and her services, go to www.paulaedgar.com or contact her at [email protected], and follow Paula Edgar and the PGE Consulting Group LLC on LinkedIn.

Paula Edgar: Hi everyone. It’s Paula Edgar, host of Branding Room Only, where I bring on industry leaders and influencers to learn about how they’ve built their personal brands, using their skills, talents, and experiences to create and amplify their personal brands. I also love to hear about their reflections on other people’s brands and what they’ve done and what they shouldn’t have done.

So we’ll get into that in a moment. Today I am super excited because my guest is Conway Ekpo. He is the Director, Associate General Counsel at Brex, Venture Capital investor, and Founder of the Black BigLaw Pipeline, Black In-House Counsel Group and 1844. A little bit about Conway. Conway is a fintech product lawyer for one of the top fintech companies in America, Brex, which was ranked number two on CNBC’s 2023 top 50 disruptors list of innovative companies advancing breakthrough technology. In addition to his work at Brex, Conway is a venture capital investor in Black and Brown startups and is the founder of several nonprofits with focus on positive outcomes for Black lawyers. And I know this because I sit alongside him on many of those initiatives and organizations, and I’m happy to do so. Conway, welcome to the Branding Room Only podcast.

Conway Ekpo: So great to be here. So great to to be talking with you, Paula.

Paula Edgar: Thank you. So the first question I have for you is, what does personal brand mean for you? How do you define it?

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, I think personal brand, I think most would agree is this is what people are saying about you when you are not in the room and especially in those rooms where you are hoping to have some influence. That that’s really what, how you should think of it is like, what can I, what would people know about me? Just how would they describe me? How would they advocate for me or not when I’m not in the room and decisions are being made.

Paula Edgar: The advocacy piece is such a huge part. We know this because we have been in some of the rooms where people are being discussed, and also we have heard about when we have been discussed in some of those rooms as well. So I think that was a spot on definition of, of personal branding. So tell me then, how would you describe yourself in three words or short phrases?

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, I think I’ll defer to how I have heard others describe me, which is, as an investor in others.

Paula Edgar: Mm-hmm.

Conway Ekpo: So I’ll say an investor. A connector because I’ve often developed a brand of just really connecting people to each other, to issues, et cetera. And then a champion, champion for my friends, champion for causes, champion for those who don’t have access.

Paula Edgar: I love that. I will also add as your friend, that you are really smart.

Conway Ekpo: I’ll take that one too.

Paula Edgar: Yeah. Yeah.

Conway Ekpo: The check’s in the mail.

Paula Edgar: Exactly. Gotcha, gotcha. For me, when I think about those, and I think that you hit them right on the head, so using other people’s reflections and you make sense. As somebody who knows you and have known you for a long time, it is… I always think of you as, oh, what happened? Something happened in the news today. Let me see what Conway has to say about it. Which, which, which is helpful to me because I definitely, particularly with Supreme Court, I just don’t wanna read the things, you know, it’s just a lot.

Conway Ekpo: Oh, I know, I know. Listen, you and me both, we, we can touch on that some more in the show, but yeah, I have some thoughts there.

Paula Edgar: I bet you do. Alright, so before we jump into all of that, tell me, do you have a favorite quote?

Conway Ekpo: I do. And so as you know, I’m, I’m a Morgan Stanley alum, and if you are any, any Black person from Morgan Stanley, then you know, and are definitely familiar with the great Carla Harris. She is a legend to say the least at Morgan Stanley.

And one quote that she says often in her, in her Carla’s Pearls that sticks out with me is: perception is the co-pilot to reality. So whatever people think about you, how they perceive you, that has a very strong tendency to shape the reality in which you find yourself, in which you find yourself, especially as it relates to others.

Paula Edgar: Which is, I mean, when we’re thinking about personal brand, which makes total sense too, right? Because it’s how you’re being, it’s those rooms that we were talking about, right?

Conway Ekpo: That’s right. That’s right.

Paula Edgar: Okay. I love that. Okay. On the flip side, what is your hype song? And let me give you a little like what a hype song is for me.

It’s either what you are hearing in your head when you’re walking into a room where you know you need to like kill it, or if you don’t feel good, you need to hype yourself up. What is your hype song? It might be the same or it might be two different songs. Which one?

Conway Ekpo: Yeah.

Yeah. Yeah. So my, my hype song, I have my family hype song, and then I have my, like you said, when I need to get into killer mode hype song. And so like for my kids, for my, for my wife, my family, it will be Happy by Pharrell. But when when I need to go into killer mode, it is Ridah by Tupac.

Paula Edgar: Okay. Okay. I can see both of those. I thought we were gonna come with like Gracie’s Corner or something for the family one. Alright, I get it.

Happy’s a good one across the board and I’m like okay. Very nice. Very nice. Right. Okay. So let’s jump into the conversation. Tell me before we jump into other people and other things about how you have built your personal brand. Like what are some of the ways, the platforms and networks that you’ve used in order to build your personal brand?

Conway Ekpo: You know, it’s such an interesting question because I never really gave a lot of thought to building my personal brand probably much to my detriment along along my career path. And I didn’t really realize what my personal brand was until it was shortly after law school and a BLSA student had reached out to me.

I think I was serving as the at, at the time, I was probably one of the advisors for the Northeast Regional Black Law Student Association and … which is something that, you know, I was just give, just for giving back’s sake. And so I didn’t really put a connector to it. And then a, a student reached out to me and out of the blue, didn’t really know her that well.

Met for coffee and she was laid out like, Hey, I’m trying to I, I really like how you are, you know, what your practice is at the firm that I was at. I’m really trying to get into that more. Really looking for any career advice that you can give me, and I, it would just kind of, it was one of the first of those types of meetings that I had had.

And the reason why it stood out for me is because I was usually the one in her shoes. Asking other folks, Hey, can you give me some career advice? And it was the first time someone had really actually asked me for career advice. And I was like, am I now that person? Is that me now? Is that my role?

And it just kind of really stuck with me and, and really made me give some serious thought to Okay, I guess whether I see myself this way or not, others are now seeing me as this person who is in a position to be able to help others to be able to give advice. And so since, and I, that informed really how I ordered my steps from that moment forward in terms of like being really intentional, setting myself up to be surrounded by other people who could also weigh in on advice for mentees.

And just really trying to pick up nuggets along the way that I think might be helpful for those who are coming up behind us.

Paula Edgar: So, I mean, I love that because essentially you’re highlighting the fact that you’re a thought leader and a mentor. Right? And it’s really number one, how we met.

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, that’s absolutely, that’s absolutely right.

That’s right.

Paula Edgar: For those of you who may not know, and that’s probably most of you Conway and I met when I was the executive director of a program called PALS, Practicing Attorneys for Law Students. Again, one of the initiatives in which I was thinking about supporting Black lawyers and…

Conway Ekpo: one of the many things that you do.

Paula Edgar: Right?

My Jamaican flag is flying at all times. And, and you mentioned BLSA, and just for those of you who may not be familiar, that’s Black Law Students Association and NEBLSA is Northeast Black Law Student Association and, and NBLSA is National Black Law Student Association and the, all of those, right.

All the bosses and all those organizations are ones in which you know, we serve as mentors. And you know, essentially once you have completed a step, I think you’re looked at as a mentor. Right, right. Like you’re looked at as somebody who’s able to get to that next step, but

Conway Ekpo: Right, right.

Paula Edgar: To your point it’s one thing to be reached out to.

It’s another thing to sort of accept the calling and, and then start to, to your point, order your steps in order to to, to emulate what you want folks to do. And I think that’s a hard thing, particularly when you’re thinking about personal branding. It’s one of the challenges that I’ve definitely had where I’m like, I’m gonna do this because I want you to also align with this, but not everybody always does those things as well, so it’s all good.

We’ll talk about that a little bit more later.

Conway Ekpo: That’s right. Right.

Paula Edgar: So, I mean, essentially some of the platforms that you use are organizations, right? And the ones that we have been involved in, but also including your work. And so in thinking about your work, I had a memory this morning and remembering when you won the award for the New York City Bar Association, another organization we’re involved in for the Diversity Champion. And you told a story. Yeah. And that story still sticks with me because it was a great analogy about the experiences of Black lawyers within law firms. And so do you wanna quickly talk about the fish bowl?

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, absolutely.

You gotta feed the goldfish folks. Gotta feed the goldfish. So this, this was a very timely, when I, when I received that recognition from the New York City Bar. And shout out to the late Jen Munoz, who was very instrumental in, in, making sure that I received that recognition. The, it came at a time where I had recently experienced career turbulence coming out of BigLaw.

And when I, one of the things that, that many Black lawyers and any lawyers really, but Black lawyers in particular will do whenever we get some bad career news is we will often just shut down and go into a silo. And we don’t, we don’t talk about it. And one of the things that I found out from talking about it actually out and whenever I would actually be at a, like, at a panel or what have you, and mentioning it, is how many other people have experienced the exact same thing and very, you know, people who are brilliant, who have gone on to very successful careers.

At some point or another, if you are a Black lawyer practicing in a large law firm, you have probably, chances are you have probably experienced some type of bad review, bad markup on assignment, bad something. And so it’s, it’s foolish to think that we are the only ones going through this. And so all that to say, I had just gone through something like that when this recognition came about, and so it was very timely and very present on my mind where I was like, okay…

it seems to me there’s a disconnect between how law firms think they are doing on diversity, equity, inclusion, and then the reality that I have heard expressed by numerous Black lawyers, New York, DC, LA, Chicago, San Francisco, Houston, you name it. Either we are all suffering from the same delusion, or law firms have a long way to go on their efforts on diversity, equity, inclusion.

So the analogy that came to me of my time at the time, my daughter, who’s now eight…she was a youngster at the time even more so than she is now, and she was watching Sesame Street and there was a goldfish episode on there and something about feeding the goldfish and it kind of just connected to me.

Say, oh, you know what? I’m gonna make an analogy about that. Because what law firms are basically guilty of doing is they will recruit Black associates to their firm. And I analogize that to the, essentially buying a goldfish and putting it in a fish bowl and setting it out on your counter and showing everybody, and Hey, look at my fish bowl.

I got a fish here, everybody check it out. But you don’t really feed the fish, which feeding here being the analogy for giving key assignments, bringing in to meet key clients – you know, giving that real substance that actually sustains and sees a associate grow from junior associate all the way through the partnership track.

They don’t, they’re not as good at that component. They’re good at bringing us in the door… Relatively good. I’ll say, we’ll, you know, we’ll give ’em some A for effort.

Paula Edgar: Yeah.

Conway Ekpo: You know, they do okay on bringing us in. But once we get there, we are a distant afterthought. And so that, that was the analogy that I made to essentially, law firms are guilty of buying goldfish, putting it in a bowl, and then not feeding them, and then when the goldfish die, they wonder why the goldfish died from starvation or chose to die from starvation. And so that’s kind of like the aloofness of their approach to feeding young Black talent in these halls of law firms.

Paula Edgar: And they miss the goldfish and they lament that the goldfish is gone.

But when they had the opportunity to feed the goldfish, they did not feed the goldfish. And I will point out, because I, as I mentioned, it’s stuck with me as a diversity consultant who works mostly with law firms – it was also, sometimes you’re feeding the goldfish, but not what the goldfish needs to eat.

Conway Ekpo: That’s true, also true.

Paula Edgar: So it’s like, you know, the goldfish cannot eat chicken. Like, that’s not gonna work. We gotta feed it goldfish food. We gotta do something that’s going to actually prepare the goldfish for all the things. And so I’m glad that you were able to retell that because it definitely stuck, and I have a feeling particularly with what’s happening in this current atmosphere that it will stick with others as we retell it as well.

Conway Ekpo: That’s right.

Paula Edgar: I just thought about amplification of platforms and using your platform in order to send a message. And that’s a part of your brand too.

And you just recently won an award from the Metropolitan Black Bar Association.

Conway Ekpo: Y’all, y’all don’t stop giving me all these awards, man.

Paula Edgar: I mean, you know, well, we’ve had conversations about awards that may not necessarily have the… Yeah. …That I would love. But when I think about the awards that you’ve won and the vetting process behind the awards that you have been selected for I’m very proud of number one and strongly okay with you having won them as opposed to some of the ones that are out there that are less amplifying of your brand because they tend to be pay to play or other ways that

Conway Ekpo: That’s right.

Paula Edgar: Aren’t actually valuing your brand in that, in that sense.

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, and that’s a really good point. And something that is core to my philosophy.

I don’t do the pay to play stuff. I don’t need to see my name on a screen or in spotlights or anything of that nature… like if somebody, if an organization like MBBA, which I have utmost respect for you know, wants to honor me with recognition, absolutely. That’s a whole other story, but I think as attorneys we can probably kind of get a little too wrapped up in the ego of wanting to see our name out somewhere. So we do all these pay to play and self-select things I think that kind of can detract and… and not exactly… I… you know when you’re talking about branding, you know, you wanna be known what the question is. You know, really what do we, what do you want to be known for?

Do – do you just wanna be known period, you know, for famous, for famous sake or, you know, do you actually wanna be known for something worthwhile, you know, meaningful? And I think that’s really how I look at it, which is, you know, look it’s great honor to be recognized by the peers who I respect.

Absolutely …

Paula Edgar: Mm-hmm.

Conway Ekpo: But I’m the last person you’re gonna see, you know, shelling out cash just to see my name on a website somewhere.

Paula Edgar: Yeah, no, it’s important. And you know, I think that both you and I have gotten asked this question a lot. Like is this something I should invest in because it’ll help my brand.

And essentially what you just went through is what we tend to recommend, right. What’s the organization? What’s the process? Do you have to pay to play? And if that’s the case, then you wanna think about who else has won it, how have they shown, you know, there’s a lot of things that can go in into that.

But really it’s not just having your name out there, it’s having something underneath the wrapper, right? It’s having some substance underneath there. So I’m glad we delved into that space because you know, that’s one of my pet peeves. So it’s just like I, I’m just gonna create my own award and be like, you could win the Paula Award.

Conway Ekpo: Right, right, right.

Paula Edgar: $12,000. Thank you. Okay, so tell me, and this is an interesting question, given that I know you, I wanna see what your thoughts are. How has your brand evolved over the course of your career?

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, so, I think kind of going back to the initial story I was telling about, you know, the junior attorney or the law student rather who reached out to me when I was a junior attorney.

My brand has evolved in terms of how I see myself, you know, and that’s largely informed by, like I said, like how others will see me in that space because I fortunately or unfortunately, I just have not, I didn’t really always start out seeing myself, you know, in like anything, like there was anything spectacular to anything that I was doing.

I saw … and a little background on that, I’m the oldest of six kids. And so in my household when my younger siblings messed up, I’m the one who got the whooping. I’m the one who got held responsible. You know, whenever they didn’t do their chores, it came down on my head.

And so I made it a point to make sure I got my younger siblings in line, like bootcamp … Because out of pure self-interest, Paula out of pure self-interest because it was making my life easier.

Paula Edgar: Yeah.

Conway Ekpo: I’m like, look, you guys are going to do the dishes and we’re gonna mow this lawn and we’re gonna go out here, we’re gonna rake up these leaves and we’re gonna do what we gotta do before dad gets home.

‘Cause I’m tired of hearing about it, and so this is what we going to do. And so, you know, in doing that, I’ve kind of, I didn’t realize at the time as a youngster, but you know, that was, that was like, in some many ways, like servant leadership. You know, making sure I was holding being my brother’s keeper, my sister’s keeper.

And, and holding them…

Paula Edgar: Literally. .

Conway Ekpo: ..accountable. Yeah, yeah, yeah. And so for me, stepping into doing that, I have a tendency to do that in spaces wherever I go. Whether it’s at my companies where I work, or in the organizations that I’m a part of, I’m the type of person that’ll come in and I’ll see a problem that we all recognize and my first instinct is, okay, let’s, how do we go about solving this?

And how do I go about empowering the people around me to collectively solve this, whatever the problem may be. And so this is a long-winded way of me answering your question of how my brand has evolved because I would say that’s been the one through line from childhood to adulthood of the way that it has stayed the same.

But it is certainly evolved in the sense that my platforms have grown in influence, in size. I’m more involved in organizations. I would say one thing that it has that I’ve noticed and this came from the late Charles Ogletree – I had run for National Chair for the National Black Law Student Association.

So the Chair of the National Body. And I was unsuccessful in my campaign. It was a very, very close, close race. Ended up coming like in second at that. But, you know, no prizes for second place there. And so there I was feeling sorry for myself sitting on the side after the elections had happened and Charles Ogletree was there and he’d given some remarks at that event.

This was in Washington DC in around circa 2006. And so he came up to me afterwards. And was like, Hey, you know, was really impressed with how you conducted yourself. And, we had a really nice one-on-one long conversation about leadership and what it means to step up and have impact.

And one of the things that he told me that’s really stuck with me is that you don’t need titles to be able to impact and raise up our community. You don’t… To have an impact on our community you don’t need titles. And I, that’s something that it was an evolution of my thinking because here I was thinking, you know, the only way that I could make a difference was to actually get the title.

And there I was on this eve of defeat from having, you know, lost this bid. And he was like, yeah, look, I get that. But he’s like, you’re clearly somebody who is committed to helping our people. And I see that, and you should continue with that. You don’t need a title to do that. And so that’s one of the things that has always stood with me since that moment, and that happened to me when I was a 2L in law school.

And so coming into the practice after graduation and coming into the practice, that’s kind of been a theme of how I’ve evolved and how I look at being involved in organizations. I really don’t get really wrapped up in having titles in organizations to the extent it’s necessary to get, like to break up log jam and get things moving.

Great.

Paula Edgar: Yeah.

Conway Ekpo: And I understand there are organizations like MBBA or the MBA, where like that is a… it’s very structured and there, you know, there’s a lot of impetus put on that, and I get it. And that makes sense. But I tend to gravitate more towards organizations like, you know, my Brother’s Keeper, My Sister’s Keeper like what we do in Black BigLaw Pipeline, like what we do in 1844 and other groups where there’s no titles, we’re just out here having an impact. We’re doing it ’cause it needs, we’re doing the work that needs to be done. And, you know, no one’s claiming credit. ’cause we don’t care about credit, right? It’s all about, hey, how can we impact other people’s lives and lift each other up as we climb?

Paula Edgar: It’s literally one of my favorite words. The word impact is always on my vision board, even if that’s not my word of the year. It’s always someplace, it’s something that my mother would always sort of instill in me is like, it’s not, to your point who’s driving the car as long as we all get there, right?

You and I can give directions from the back. I could be on the side. You know, there’s ways for us to get there in that same space without being the driver, without being the leader. I love the leading part though, but yes…

Conway Ekpo: And you’re very, I mean, you’re good at it.

Paula Edgar: But to that end, it’s true, you know, I always say that you don’t have to be a leader only from the front.

You can lead from any…

Conway Ekpo: That’s right.

Paula Edgar: …any place. And in that fact, you can have more power in that sense as well because you’re not, so many eyes aren’t on you, you can get a lot more done. So great, great response. So, recently when I was I guess this was maybe early in the spring of this year, I was looking at LinkedIn, which I love and I look at every single day, every morning.

And I saw a video that had been produced by your organization.

Conway Ekpo: Yes.

Paula Edgar: So I was like, well, lemme see what Conway is talking about. I pressed play and I was shocked, was like, I was like, what is this? This is not true. Essentially you talked about your experience having dropped out of school and I was like, how have I known Conway for such a long time and did not know this story?

Conway Ekpo: Right. That’s right.

Paula Edgar: Particularly because of how much success you had and how you’re being, you know, been looked at as a leader, as a mentor and a thought leader to have a trajectory in which you now have talked about failure in that one place in terms of wanting to ascend to leadership. But, having diversions and sort of stops on your road to where you are now is an important lesson that people need to learn. It looks great when it’s shiny new and et cetera, but to hear what some of the trajectory has been of folks who are on my podcast is an important part for me. And so I’d love for you to tell the story about number one, making a decision and then coming back to your senses and getting back online.

Tell me how that happened.

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, absolutely. And shout out to Daniel Stokes at Brex, who put that, who had the inspiration to put those videos together for the company. But yeah I thought it would be. Impactful and appropriate to talk about that in that space.

Because you’re right, it’s, we often, we don’t see how the sausage is made. We just see people and we can, you know, go down the list and name all the, you know, the greats in our community we only see those success stories, but we don’t really see what goes on behind, you know, what did it take to get there?

And so for me, it was a very pivotal moment when I was 16 years old. My dad and my mom split up and as I mentioned, I was the oldest of six kids and my dad’s from Nigeria. And he went back to Nigeria at that point when I was 16 years old and never returned to the United States.

Paula Edgar: Wow.

Conway Ekpo: And that was a very, very tough time. I was a sophomore, yeah…sophomore in high school at the time. And my mom and my stepmom who are still back here in the US were, you know, facing some really tough financial times, trying to raise the five, the six of us. And so I thought in my 16 year old infinite wisdom that the best way to do this would be to drop out of high school and start working immediately so that I could start helping pay bills around the house.

Paula Edgar: Hmm.

Conway Ekpo: And so I did that, dropped out after like, I think it was my… did one semester of sophomore year, and started working at the only jobs that you can actually work at the age of 16 without a high school diploma, which is basically fast food. And so there I am. My first job was actually a Sonic Drive Thru.

I don’t know.

Paula Edgar: Oh my gosh. Sonic,

Conway Ekpo: Hooking up those number one and number two burgers, dropping them fries in the hot grease, the whole nine. Coming home every day smelling like food, just… clothes just reeked of food. And so I was doing this and then and then got a what I thought was a career advancement where I left Sonic and went to a fancy restaurant downtown where I was like a busboy.

And so I was even, even more like coming home, you know, reeking every night of food. But I thought at the time I made this move. ’cause I went from minimum wage, which at the time, I can’t remember what it was, it was like four something an hour, y’all like…

Paula Edgar: This was in Kansas City, right?

Conway Ekpo: This was in Kansas City, yeah.

And then went from, I went from four something an hour to like $5.75 an hour or something.

Paula Edgar: Ballin…

Conway Ekpo: Yeah. Right. And I was like, oh man, I’m ballin’, ballin’. Can’t tell me nothing. And a couple of my really good friends from high school who I credit to this day, and, you know, we still joke about this.

I’m still in contact with them. They came to my job. They came to my job after I’d been working there for a couple months, came to my job. This was like right around the, when we were about to, I think the summer had just hit and they had just finished what would’ve been my end of my sophomore year, and they came to my job on a mission.

Little did I know, I thought they were just stopping by to chop it up.

Paula Edgar: Uhhuh…

Conway Ekpo: They came through like, Hey man, what’s going on? You know, we dapped up for a minute, did a little small talk, and then after a while, you know, one of ’em was like, listen Conway, what are you doing here, man? I was like, what do you mean what I’m doing here?

I’m finishing my shift. What are you talking about? He was like, no, no, no. Yeah, we, we see that. No, we’re talking about, what are you doing here? Like, what’s, what is your goal? And I was like, what do you mean what’s my goal? Like, I’m helping out my family. They’re like, all right, well listen, P, if your goal is to help out your family, then don’t you think you can do a much better job of that if you actually go take your butt back to school, finish with us and like actually get like a real job when you don’t come home smelling like fish grease every night.

And I was like, I can’t even argue with the logic of this.

Paula Edgar: Yeah.

Conway Ekpo: And they’re like, listen, and so they were there to stage an intervention. So they harassed me and were persuasive. Got me back in. And the selling point was, look, we know you’ve missed the semester. We’ve already thought about that.

We can tutor you on the – there was like a test I had to take to get back on track to be a junior in the fall. And so the whole summer we spent going – they, my friends, my peers – educating me on the subjects that we had missed, pre-calculus, honors English, all this stuff.

And I ended up taking this exam and long story short, got back on track my junior year and finished on time and graduated with them when we walked through the high school. But I think my takeaway from that point is to be very mindful on who you surround yourself with. That is my takeaway from that lesson.

’cause if I had had friends who thought it was cool to sit around and, you know, like toke every day or play PlayStation or whatever, many things that, you know, 16 year old boys were doing, you know, in high school. I would not be here talking to you with you right now. That’s just period point blank. ’cause at that, at the time, remember my dad was gone and he was the major influence in my life in terms of education.

And so he had, he was gone, so he, there was no longer anyone there beating that drum.

Paula Edgar: Wow.

Conway Ekpo: And my mom only had a high school education. Bless her. And so she could not really speak from experience as to what college was about. She knew that it was something that she wanted me to go to. But she couldn’t give me the, how you get there, how do you apply for scholarships, how do you do this, how you do that.

And so, but for my circle of friends back then, I would not be sitting here talking with you right now, you know, that and God’s grace, of course.

Paula Edgar: Well, yes indeed. Obviously. You know, it’s an important point to pull out here as you go along in life, your personal board of directors, whether you call it that or not, the people who will come and snatch you up when you need to be snatched up, which – you know, will come, will come to the restaurant and snatch you.

Conway Ekpo: That’s right.

Paula Edgar: And the people who you can call when things are good and when things are not so good to kind of help set you straight are really, I think, the most pivotal piece of your brand, period.

Conway Ekpo: Absolutely.

Paula Edgar: ’cause you can say, oh, this is what I want it to be. But if you don’t have folks who are actually saying, this is how it’s showing up, right? Or maybe you should do this or have you heard of this opportunity? You can maybe get there, but not as fast. Right? And not as deep as, as it would be when you have a team around you.

And I’m blessed that we have each other as a part of that team, and…

Conway Ekpo: Absolutely.

Paula Edgar: …we have so many other people who we surround ourselves with who are dedicated to our collective and individual success. And that’s an important piece when you are thinking about building your brand. So I’m glad we kind of diverted there, but it’s a perfect segue into this. Conway, tell me why Black lawyers are important to you?

Conway Ekpo: Man, how much time we got? Oh man. So I mean, so many reasons. First of all, I think, even taking it out of the Black lawyer context, just Black people, period, I think are the driving force that actually makes America live up to its true values.

And Black lawyers even more so. From Thurgood Marshall all the way through to Justice Ketanji every time that we see America moving forward with progress that is typically at the behest or direct influence of Black people making, holding America’s feet to the fire. And making America live up to the ideals that we have enshrined in those documents that we say we’re gonna live up to – life, pursuit of happiness – all these freedoms that we hold dear are things that Black people have been historically in a unique position to be able to say, well, hold on. You said, we are all equal. Yet here’s how we’re getting treated. So clearly we’re not equal, so we need to revisit this. And so I think Black lawyers are uniquely positioned to be able to take up the mantle on that fight. And whether, and I’m not saying everybody, if you’re a Black lawyer, you have to be a constitutional lawyer. You are just a living example of success in whatever endeavor that you’re in, whether it’s corporate M&A or public defenders or whatever.

Especially on the prosecution side, we need as many Black prosecutors as possible to make sure that those sentences are being recommended fairly and equitably to all people. And so I think it’s just such an important role that Black lawyers play in the history of America, and that we are integral to securing America’s future. And so that’s why I give of my time, my treasure, my talent to pouring into the next generation of Black lawyers and to my peer groups of attorneys wherever I can.

Paula Edgar: My head is like, Yes, yes. All of that. Everything you just, everything you just said, because as I shaped the question for you, I thought the same thing about myself. I was like, what is it? And I’ve said in so many different places, and you know, and use my platform this way to say like, Black lawyers drive change. And it’s not just the seeing it and being like, I see it. It’s a seeing it, it’s a talk about it and be about it of it all, right?

And it’s the making it happen. And it’s a powerful collective of folks. And, you know, I’m just coming back from having been at the National Bar Association Convention and at the American Bar Association Convention and understanding and seeing, you know, you’re in a space where, the second week when I was at the American Bar Association, I was like, you know, NBA was created ’cause ABA would not allow Black lawyers, and the seeing the energy around Black lawyers and being in Minneapolis and going to George Floyd’s Memorial. There was so much energy around thinking and what can we do? What do we need to do? What, you know, as we go into election years, as we go into thinking about how many societal ills exist that we need to change and shift.

And that it is each of us individually, and it is all of us collectively that will make those things happen as a catalyst. And so, I’m gonna jump off of this box that I always get on, but I’m glad you answered it in the way that you did because it is so important for people to realize that the more that we don’t make our organizations – whether it be law firm, corporation, nonprofit, et cetera – accessible and welcoming and belonging for the Black lawyers, we miss out on that time, talent, and treasure that you were talking about that is so powerful when ignited and activated and so…

Conway Ekpo: Absolutely. And, like to your point, representation matters, you know, and I saw you representing up there at the ABA and I was like, that is exactly where somebody like Paula should be.

Paula Edgar: Yep.

Conway Ekpo: Up there representing making our presence known. And you know, hats off to you for taking up that mantle.

Paula Edgar: Oh, no problem. You know, I love a little leadership. I love a leadership role. Alright, so we kind of went into the, how leadership and volunteerism have helped build your brand, but talk to me about when you’ve had to pivot or shift. When it’s a little something, something might’ve gone down or that you thought this is not working.

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, yeah. I mean, you know, listen unfortunately this can be a contact sport at times and, it, it’s not everybody. My, naivete is assuming incorrectly that we all understand this struggle that you and I have just articulated, and that if you are in these trenches with us, that you are here for the greater good. And not for the personal. And I have been fooled, a couple of times, when that has turned out not to be the case. Where people have put the personal over the group, where people are, have… it’s come back to bite me in a couple of organizations that I’ve been a part of where I did not see it coming, and I’ve had to pivot. I’ve had to pivot and make moves.

And, fortunately you’ve been with me during some of those pivots where we’ve been in the trenches together to make sure that we can keep the ship from sinking. And, you know, I think looking back on those, you know, it’s important to not let that, those type of episodes, you know, shake your faith, and shake your commitment to wanting to help others because that’s a small subset. That’s more of the exception than the general rule. I find that most folks, if you are taking the time outta your busy day to be, the President of the Metropolitan Black Bar Association, or to you know … Lead in any of the many organizations that we’re a part of, ABWA, you name it…

Paula Edgar: All the letters, every letters.

Conway Ekpo: You’re doing all these things. That’s usually because it’s coming from a place of selflessness and not selfishness. And so I think most people, I think that’s the general rule, and most of us recognize that.

You know, it is, it’s unfortunate, but, you know, every now and again, you run across folks where that’s not the case. And you know, you gotta, hopefully you recognize that before you, you know, give ’em the keys to the kingdom and trust them with the leadership role. But you know, even if you should happen to be in that unenviable position you know, I think at the end of the day it’s just important to keep your eye on the North Star and just recognize that like, hey, look sometimes you gotta make a pivot. Sometimes things don’t work out. Listen, it might it might, you know, cause some hard feelings for some folk, but hey, that’s, that’s the… I will endure some hard feelings and some side-eyes from some folks if it means that at the end of the day the organization endures and we are able to continue to lift up other Black lawyers who need our help.

Paula Edgar: A hundred percent. A hundred percent. And, you know, in asking this question, I always reflect back on things that have occurred for me and people who have big personalities and have platforms are often targets. So, you get yourself in that space out of a place of selflessness and wanting to have impact, but not everybody can align with number one, strategy, and, also with light shining and I recall having to like, give myself pep talks to be like, you know what, regardless of what anybody says, haters are gonna hate, but you gotta keep on going. And my therapist always says this, that growth begins where comfort ends.

And so I expect to be a little uncomfortable all the time because I always wanna be growing. And all of those situations, whether they’re internal in an organization or external or personal, they make you grow. While you’re in it – while you’re in it, you may not be loving it, but as you are able to reflect back on it, it is, those are the growth places, those are the places where you’re like, this sucks, but I get it. Like afterwards, like I had to go through that in order to understand the X, Y, Z thing. And that’s a part about your personal brand as well. Like, it’s not, it’s not impenetrable, right? It should be malleable. It should be able to shift because of what you have learned.

Conway Ekpo: That’s right.

Paula Edgar: Or else you’re not being responsive to your environments and the things that people need or that you need to come out of it. So glad we we went down that road as well.

Conway Ekpo: Yeah. Yeah. Listen, you know, adversity, it makes you stronger. So like you said, I’m more appreciative of having had the experience.

Paula Edgar: A hundred percent. So tell me, what advice do you have for people who are trying to build their brand? And I want you to answer this from the perspective of maybe some of the mistakes that you’ve seen.

Conway Ekpo: Yeah. And so this kind of ties back to something we were talking about earlier, which is, what do you wanna be known for?

Like, what do you want? What are you doing out here? So I think, follow your passions. Because at the end of the day, people can sniff out inauthenticity. So you wanna be your authentic selves… and I think everything flows from that. For me it revolves around I think, the building of genuine relationships without the expectation of anything in return, and I think a lot flows from that. So if you’re trying to build your brand, I think a couple things you wanna resolve for yourself. One, what are you most passionate about?

’cause that’s likely what you would like to be known for. And then two, we have a saying, African proverb that if you want to go fast, go alone, you want to go far, go together. So if you are trying to develop, to the extent you’re trying to develop that brand and be known for that, you want to surround yourself with the right people, you gotta go together.

No one makes it alone. And so you know, think about who your personal board of directors, who you want to be in that ’cause likely, you are gonna be the average of the sum of those parts of whoever you surround yourself with, and so if they’re limited in thinking, that will have a tendency to limit in what you see as possible.

And so I think a lot of intentionality needs to be put into surrounding yourself with the right folks to follow your passion. At the end of the day, this is your brand. You’ve gotta protect it. It’s a very hard thing to develop and earn, and a very easy thing to lose, and you want to protect that brand. And a lot goes into it. And so, you know, make sure that you are setting it up for success and and the rest will follow. But I think if you can resolve those couple of things early on of what are you passionate about and who do you want in your personal board of directors – I think that those two things above all I think will get you to where you’re trying to get to.

Paula Edgar: Couldn’t have said it better. Love that. So, let’s pivot as we come to the close of our conversation. Tell me about the fun stuff. Something that’s interesting, fun about you, that’s also part of your brand.

Anything you wanna share?

Conway Ekpo: You know, prime example, you know, I love, I just love, you know, seeing other people step into their value, realize their value. I love seeing that and I love being a part of that. And, you know, shout out to Nneka Ukpai, my sister from another mister you know, we talk about this all the time where, we literally, she texted me the other day and was like, Hey, who do we know at XYZ firm? And I was like, oh there’s an 1844 brother over there. And she was like, oh, great. She’s like, I got a client on the line. They’re looking for someone at this particular firm. Let’s make sure that all the work goes in through him.

And this particular brother happened to be on the West coast, so he wasn’t even awake yet. And here we were, seven o’clock in the morning, New York time already plotting on how we can make his life better. And so by the time he woke up, he saw these flurry of emails and text messages like, yo, bruh hit us back, we got an opportunity for you. And so like, stuff like that where it’s like, hey you know, he had no idea waking up that morning he was going step into an opportunity, but, you know, we made that happen and I love being a part of that, that type of process. That, to me, that’s the fun stuff, is where we are just out here building each other up being each other, you know, being witness to each other’s success, helping each other, everybody win. You know, we’re trying to, you know, we’re all in this, all in this together. And, you know, I think that, people who are going it alone or like the haters who are out there trying to tear the folks down like, you went about this the whole wrong way, man. Like, it’s way better on this side, trust me. It’s way, way better on being, being on the winning team.

Seeing other people shine. And I think you get there by being a team player with other people of like mind who just wanna see each other succeed and, lift each other up as we all are climbing in this thing.

So I think that’s, to me, it doesn’t get much more fun than that.

Paula Edgar: It’s true, and I wanna, I’ll amplify that because what the folks who are not in our circle may not know is that we take the time and we make the time to get together and not just for work things, but to be able to be in community with each other.

And I do think that that is number one, fun. But it also is a part of how you build relationships and how, you know, and doing those things without the, to your point, expectation of getting something back is such an important piece. Like, you know, speaking of Nneka, who’s gonna be a guest on Branding Room Only coming forward…

Conway Ekpo: Alright.

Paula Edgar: There was an opportunity recently and somebody asked me who I had in mind, and I said, oh, I know the right person, and it was her and not because I didn’t know other people, but because you think about who is in the circle, what they need and what time, all of those things are important.

And not just when things are good, but also when things are challenging, how we can support and lift each other up is such an important…

Conway Ekpo: Oh yeah. Oh yeah. I mean, talk about that. ’cause like building community, it is, like you said, it amplifies the good times and it sustains you through the bad times.

And if you are waiting until a bad time to start building community, you already behind the eight ball.

Paula Edgar: You in, you in another country, you’re not even… If it’s like, Ooh, something hurts. I need these people. And, and folks are not they’re not fooled by that. Right? They understand that you’re being transactional as opposed to trying to actually build, so I’m glad that we brought that out too. Alright, so. There are two questions that I ask every guest on my Branding Room Only podcast. Number one is Stand by Your Brand. So what is the authentic aspect of your personal slash professional brand that you’ll never compromise on?

Conway Ekpo: Yeah, I think one thing that I will never compromise on is my putting others first. You know, and much to my, you know, I talk about this with my therapist often.

He was like, look, you need to give yourself some grace. Like you need, you know, you hear often that you know, you need to, they tell you on the airlines, like, put on your own oxygen mask before helping others. And so one of the things that, you know, I try to balance in a healthy way but will still never compromise on, it’s still this, the desire to just want to see others succeed, and, you know, I have to, in my own personal life, remember to put on my oxygen mask whenever I need from time to time. But like, that’s something that, you know, for me it’s, it’s just kind of core to my DNA. I’ve realized this about myself going back again to the beginning where I was talking about being the oldest of six kids.

I’ve been a teacher, a professor you know, it’s just something in me and that wants to give back to others. And so that’s something that I wouldn’t compromise on.

Paula Edgar: Love that. Okay. Similarly, but not the same, Branding Room Only. So what is your magic? Tell me about something that’s your gift, your skill, your brand proposition that a crowd would gather to see. A crowd is gonna be standing room only for that thing.

What is it?

Conway Ekpo: I think I don’t know if I’m gonna get any crowds, but I think one of the things… My magic is really connecting people to access and I do that without thinking sometimes just kind of like, it’s, for me, it’s like breathing. It’s like in my DNA. And so connecting people to access in meaningful ways that has real impact on their lives.

And I’ll remember stories that people will tell me at like a cocktail party about how they’re trying to break into a new sector or they, or, you know, just trying to get into a particular program or they could just, you know, they just wanna try to get into, you know, whatever it is, what they’re trying to get their foot in the door of access.

And I often fortunately, run in a lot of circles where the gatekeepers to those, to that access reside. And so I instinctively and intuitively, I’m always on the lookout. And will just start to say, Hey, you know so and so told me the other day they were trying to get into this particular thing, and here I just found someone who’s been doing this for 20 years. Lemme pair these two together with a warm intro. You know, people will just say… I’ve been the recipient of a lot of email intros. Where like, Hey, Paula, Conway, want you two to meet. Bye. You know, take it from here.

You know, when you’re giving these email intros, I think it’s crucial to put some context to it, put some meat on the bone, be like, Hey listen, this person is dear to me because… I have known them for X amount of time and they are on the path to try to do this. And this other person I’ve known for X amount of time and they had done this, and our kids go to the same thing and we do the thing. And so you’re making these touch points. So it’s a warm introduction for the two people who are strangers who you’re introducing to each other, which will then make their meeting going forward that much more fruitful because then they have points of common besides just you in the introduction of the email, like they actually see that they have points of common with each other and to you know, be able to grow from that. And so, yeah, for me, that’s my special skill, my magic. And you know, and hopefully if, if, you know, I don’t, like I said, crowd or no crowd, you know, that’s where you’ll find me is, in the background, making those connections, providing access to folks trying to lift us up.

Paula Edgar: I would agree. I think that that is absolutely definitely a part of your magic. And from your point, I would like to just make one point that is a sticking point that I always have when you are making intros warm or not, please reach out to the person who you haven’t spoke to, to find out if it’s a good time for that intro.

Conway Ekpo: Yes.

Paula Edgar: Just send a quick text, a quick note. Hey, I wanna make an introduction to somebody. Is it a good time? Especially now, post pandemic, but still living in this crazy world, you just don’t know what folks are going through.

Conway Ekpo: That’s right.

Paula Edgar: And people will send emails willy-nilly and have no idea that you’re about to give birth or whatever the thing is.

And I’m just like, can you ask if this is a good time because then you don’t wanna seem like you are not engaging, but it may not be a good time. You could be on vacation or whatever the thing is, so, you know, to supplement that. All of those things make it warm, but also make sure it is the correct time. And if it’s not, absolutely say this is gonna be better in the fall, let’s do it then. So Conway, I knew that I was gonna love this conversation and I absolutely did. And I want to thank you for being a guest on Branding Room Only, and joining me and my peeps – Paula’s Peeps. I’m working on that. I don’t know if I’m gonna call ’em that. Anyway it was a pleasure to have you here.

And before we go, how can listeners and viewers find you if they want to connect with you?

Conway Ekpo: Oh, you know the answer to that. LinkedIn. LinkedIn. LinkedIn. You know, find me on LinkedIn. Shoot me a message. Happy to chat. If you are a friend of Paula’s, you’re a friend of mine, so feel free to reach out.

But yeah, I say it is really, really good. I’m just, you know giddy over here just having this opportunity to talk with you, be with you, talk about something we both love talking about. We could talk about this all day. But just really happy that you are with us and you are doing this and this is, you know, you’re doing God’s work.

So we appreciate you and love you for it.

Paula Edgar: Well, it’s a mutual fan club. And so I will just close by saying if you enjoyed this episode and I know that y’all did – subscribe, tell a friend. It is important for us not to keep the things that we learned to ourselves, but to share it. And I think that was the point of our conversation.

It’s each one, teach one and the collective success will be our individual success. So we don’t gotta worry about losing when we give of our spirit and of our talent, time and treasure to others. And so Conway, I thank you for doing that. And I’m going to close with just saying that I just had a moment in thinking about how important relationships are and how you can access them and how you can amplify them.

And so if you didn’t hear or see from this, like, this is what it’s about. I knew that I could say, Conway, I would like you to be on my podcast and I know that you’re gonna drop some gems. And I knew that it was gonna happen. And it did. And you need to have relationships that you can access when you need them, and you need to give as much as you can whenever you can.

And so with that, thank you for joining me on Branding Room Only. I’ll talk to y’all soon.