My Plight as a Unicorn

April 19, 2017

Shameka Brown Barbosa

Shameka Brown Barbosa is a creative director/writer by trade and a woman in the midst of a reinvention. After an unrequited, 17-year love affair with advertising, she’s now working smarter and on her own terms. Although it was unbelievably nerve-wracking at the offset, she has found a way to work remotely, fuel her passions, be present for her family, and dream bigger for herself. Highlights in 2016 have included co-leading the 3% guest blogger effort (thanks for reading, by the way,) contributing to the ADCOLOR Social Media Collective, picking her kids up from school at 3pm, and turning her love of travel into a legit business. When she can find the time, she also really enjoys spontaneous naps. Peruse her storytelling skills at and connect with her on Twitter.

In the field of advertising, I am considered a unicorn. And as a Black, female, creative director/writer who graduated from the Harvard of ad grad schools: the VCU Adcenter, I’m an extra mystical one. But here’s the thing: I absolutely despise the term “unicorn.”

I’m not sure who came up with the idea of labelling Black women in predominantly white, male professions “unicorns,” but there’s really nothing reverential or endearing about it. Inherently, the phrase relegates us to novelty status and questions our existence as anything other than a figment of the imagination.

Yet there’s nothing mystical in how Black women navigate the world: We tend to give and give and give. We automatically do this in our personal lives, but it’s an equally slippery slope when it comes to our careers, too. I know quite a few “unicorns” who have teetered precariously on the brink of emotional, mental and physical exhaustion.

In 2014, I was one of them. I was maxed out and on the verge of an ulcer. But a fortuitous layoff gave me a breather. It also presented an opportunity to be more present with my kids after my marriage ended and realign myself with my purpose on this planet.

Naturally, the industry that I had been part of for nearly 15 years didn’t get it and neither did many industry women of color. My departure seemed inexplicable. And was soon dismissed as me not being hungry and/or talented enough to seize the “unicorn” moment or adapt to an ever-changing market.

Could I have pushed through? Sure. Should I have? Absolutely not. Black women are expected to operate on all cylinders, at all times, on all fronts, in perpetuity. And we usually do it, to our own detriment. But for the first time ever, everyone else’s expectations of me and my own ego had to take a backseat.

Being a “unicorn” in a creative department for any length of time is exhausting.

By now, you’d think our intersectionality would be seen as a treasure trove of consumer insight and an internal leadership opportunity ripe for the picking. But more often than not, clients value our contributions more than the places we work.

So, the fact that I’m contemplating a return to this mayhem after three years of not missing it all, confuses the hell out of me, too. To my knowledge, things haven’t gotten any better. I’m even more of a “unicorn” now because even more people of color have told advertising to kiss it. And the stories of really promising careers cut short because talent went unrecognized, uncultivated or virtually ignored, keep piling up.

Am I a glutton for punishment? On some level, yes. Honestly, you have to be to work in advertising. Do I really want to work in the capacity I have in the past? Actually, no. I have little interest in returning to a traditional creative role. Creative Direction is cool, but I want to have a greater impact on the people doing the work. I have bigger plans to take my experience and pay it forward in a meaningful way.

Over the past few years, I have had the freedom to pursue long-held dreams, lean in to entrepreneurship and smother my kids. My time away was good and the clarity that came with it was life-changing. Among the gems: While I fully accept that I’m genetically predisposed to give, I no longer have any qualms about leaving a job that doesn’t suit me or my family.

So, let’s see who’s ready for me. Maybe there’s an organization that embraces our complexity, encourages our leadership and despises the “U-word” as much as I do. If so, now you know where to find me.