How She Went From Front Desk to Corner Office and Why She's Helping Other Women Do the Same

Michelle Avan is paying it forward by helping other sisters achieve corporate success.

This feature originally appeared in the July 2017 Issue of ESSENCE Magazine.

At 19 Michelle Avan was a receptionist at the investment firm Dean Witter. Today the 44-year-old is a director and supervision ­executive for the west division at Merrill Lynch, overseeing multimillion-dollar accounts. Here she shares how she went from the front desk to a corner office and why she’s helping ­others do the same.

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Essence: What does your job entail?

Michelle Avan: I have a team that supports the ­company’s financial advisers to ensure that we’re serving the best interests of our clients and meeting the policies and procedures of our industry. If a client is trading and has some questions about how much risk to take or about industry policies, he or she can ask us. We would look at a portfolio and ask the client, “Are you okay with the level of risk? What are your goals for your money?”

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Essence: You started out as a receptionist. How did you make the leap?

Avan: I was a young mother, so I had to work to support my family. When I started out, I was excited to see all the people in their suits coming in and out of the offices. Over time I had the opportunity to sit in just about every role in a branch office, from reception to back-office cashiering. I knew that I wanted to be a leader, so I asked my ­manager what it would take to advance my career. She told me what I needed to do, including taking a licensing exam, so I did it. 

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Essence: What’s a typical day like for you?

Avan: Every day is different. I spend time with my team going over various client situations, I talk to our business partners and I’m involved with community leaders, making a meaningful impact on the lives of others in both a financial and metaphorical sense. It’s about building our branding and growing our market share among Black businesses within our L.A. community.

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Essence: You’re in a field that is notorious for not having many women or people of color. How have you navigated that?

Avan: Learning how to be heard and how to be assertive without being typecast as the stereotypical “aggressive Black woman” took time. It took time to get to that place to figure out how to finesse those conversations. And it took confidence—confidence in the fact that I knew my job, that I knew the role and that I deserved to be in the role. I even hired a Black female executive coach, because the higher up you get, the more you realize that the technical skills that got you there aren’t the skills that are going to keep you in a senior-level position. It’s about relationships and presence and learning how to lead.

Essence: What motivates you?

Avan: One of my mantras is, “To whom much is given, much is required.” I have an obligation to do something with all this power and privilege that I have been given. And that involves mentoring and helping young people, specifically African-American girls, because I feel that demographic is so underserved. I sit on the board of the International Black Women’s Public Policy Institute, which is committed to enhancing the lives of women everywhere. And locally I take part in a group called This is Girl Power, which is a faith-based mentoring organization for young girls. I do it with my daughter. I can help her be a more positive young woman, but I can also help other young girls who so need positive role models they can see themselves in. 

Jihan Thompson is a writer and entrepreneur in Chicago. 

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