Speech: Eric Winkfield, 2018 Emerging Leader Honoree

Nadia Felder: So, I’m going to be a millennial and read my speech off my phone. You can tweet that with #PlankMentor.

Good evening, everyone. My name is Nadia Felder. Tonight, I have the pleasure of introducing the emerging leader award to a young man – Oh, I’m going to cry – to a young man who I have admired since my freshman year in college. But don’t be fooled by my haircut, I graduated six months ago. Seriously. My dean is over there – wave dean. Thanks. Nonetheless, the two things that I learned … I know, I put her on the spot. Nonetheless, the two things that I learned from college at Florida A&M University were one, drink lots of coffee before 8 a.m. and two, find a good mentor. So, I bought a Keurig for Christmas and I started on the search.

I quickly realized that having mentors is like having socks – you can never have too many. You could never have too many who admire you, who guide you and tell you what you shouldn’t wear. So, I started asking everyone to be my mentor – every professor, almost every woman and anyone who was old enough to be my mom. Sorry, dean.

The crazy thing is Eric Winkfield didn’t fit any of those categories. He was obviously a man, he was never my professor and he’s probably old enough to be maybe be my brother, but Eric and I have a different relationship. Because of him, I learned there are two types of mentors. One, an intentional mentor – one who directly seeks to inspire someone and make them better. Then there’s an unintentional mentor – one who inspires an individual without being conscious of it. To this day, here’s a fun fact, I’ve never asked Eric Winkfield to be my mentor. “Why is she on the stage then?” Right? But I’m here because Eric is my unintentional mentor.

I did some researching last night – Google is obviously where I got my degree from – and I looked up what unintentional mentor in Africa meant. Google told me the African-Swahili phrase for unintentional mentor is unbuntu. Unbuntu, translated, means I am because you are. When I got to watch Eric graduate top PR student of his class, unbuntu. I am because you are. When I saw the strength it took him to finish grad school and be the first in his family to do so, unbuntu. I am because you are. When Eric told me he had to cancel his homecoming plans because his president at Pepco asked if he could stay in town to save a project, unbuntu. I am because you are. And tonight, as I witness Eric become the first HBCU award winner for the Emerging Leader award, presented by The Plank Center for Leadership and Public Relations, unbuntu. I am, literally, here because you are.

The bottom line is every single time you, Eric, break another barrier in life, in your career, I know I can wake up and do the same. Because I was able to watch you shine, I, too, was the first in my family to go to college, graduate with five internships, a 3.7 GPA and two job opportunities before I even graduated. That was a shameless plug. And oh, by the way, you didn’t let me finish, but I also got the top PR student of my class, too.

So, Eric, thank you so much for just being humble. He always eats humble pie by the way, that’s our joke. Literally, last night, someone asked him, “Why are you in Chicago?” He said, “Oh, I’m just here for the dinner.” I said, “No ma’am, put his slice of humble pie down, he’s here because he’s getting awarded. Let me please assure you.” But again, thank you for being humble, hard-working, God fearing, all of that, I see. And because of you, I’m able to shine and truly be myself, and the best version of myself every single day.

With that, before I ask you to come to the stage, will you please stand up. I’d like to ask you a question I’ve been wanting to ask since my freshman year. You ready? Will you officially be my mentor?

Eric, come on and get your award.

Eric Winkfield: Wow. Ladies and gentleman, you never know the impact that you have on people just being yourself. Thank you Nadia, again, for the wonderful introduction.

Ladies and gentleman, I’m extremely proud of the young professional that she has become. I was just being myself. I was working hard. I was showing folks what to do along the way and she was just there, just grasping everything, listening and learning how to do what I did. And did not think that it would amount to the way she described me tonight, but again, you never know the impact you’re having on people’s lives just by being your full and authentic self.

So, I’m truly proud of the professional she is today, all that she’s accomplished and it is my privilege and honor to be somebody that she looks up to and admire. I truly believe that, it’s just as simple as being present, being dynamic in your own right, then watching the seed continue to grow. So, can you all please join me in giving Nadia a hand?

Before I go any further, I would like to give honor where honor is due. I am joined tonight by my beautiful mother, Yolanda Davis, who is over here to my right. She is also joined by my new stepfather of two months, Benny Davis, who’s here as well.

A little background about myself – growing up, my mother sacrificed a lot to provide me the opportunities and the ability to be here before you today. My mother, who has worked countless hours to raise me all on her own. We did have the support of our communities, my church, friends, neighbors and godparents, but when it came to providing the bread and the butter, paying for opportunities, paying for me to do things to really expand my mind, my mother sacrificed countless hours. And I am the man that I am today because of the sacrifices, the love and support that she is giving me day in and day out. So, can you just please join me in giving her a hand?

So, I’ll continue by saying this award is definitely a humbling experience for me. I don’t do what I do, I don’t reach back out to other folks just to get to be seen or for the accolades. I do so simply because it’s the right thing to do. So many people, countless mentors that I’ve had in my careers, through jobs, through folks who I’ve met at a PRSSA National Convention, through a National Black Public Relations Association Convention, just while I’ve been out in the community, out in our industry networking, have poured so much into me. And I think it’s robbery if somebody is invested in so much to keep that to yourself.

So, what I do is I make it my mission and my purpose, and every day I get up – I find out, I ask myself, how can I be that same light to someone else? And if you don’t take anything else from my message this evening, I want you to constantly ask yourself, how can you be that light, how can you be that trigger, how can you be that motivation for somebody, a young professional, an older professional or anybody around you? We all have the power to do so. It’s something that’s so simple, it’s just a matter of being intentional about it.

Everyone in this room has something to offer someone, whether you believe it or not. Sometimes, for young professionals, it’s a matter of reaching back and saying hey, telling them they are doing a great job, it’s going to be okay, you do not have to have all the answers right now, because guess what? Neither did you when you were in their shoes as well. So, just that reassuring word of encouragement can go a long way in a young professional’s life. It can be as simple as taking five minutes of your day to review a resume, and saying, “You should put this, you should talk about this a little bit more, you should really color this section of your resume in.” Again, can go a long way in a young person’s life.

Something that resonates with them can make them get up and say they too can be because you were. There are people in your offices, communities or even your very own table that can gain something from your life’s story or your career story. We must share, we must cultivate the spirit of transparent mentorship. Again, transparent mentorship. A lot of times, we’re so excited to talk about things we’ve done well, but we’re afraid to talk about the things that we failed at, of those serious lessons we needed to learn. And those very lessons and those very stories are what our next generation of communicators need to know so that they do not make the same mistakes.

I want to encourage you to be bold. Encourage bold thinking to be around you. They’re going to be sometimes where some folks come to you bring ideas that you would think are totally crazy. I want you to try to embrace those and try to understand them, try to harness them. Increase access to opportunity.

So, Nadia said I’m the first one right here to receive this award from a Historically Black College or University, HBCU. HBCUs in our country are quality programs who have such rich and diverse talent. Understand what are some of the local community HBCU’s in your own area, in your own back yard and understand where are those communication students and how can you engage them, and how can you open their mind up to different opportunities.

I bet you that when you go speak to those students, you’ll be the first executive, the first person of your caliber who they will even meet. And the thing is, when they see you, when they see your role, when they hear your story, you make it real for them that they, too, can do what you do.

Educate and cultivate diverse talent. We love and we love and embrace the conversation of diversity, but do we do the same thing with the conversation of inclusion? I want to challenge you to continue to have those inclusive conversations with your teams, with your young mentees, with your younger peers in your offices, because the conversation of inclusion is what’s really going to make us and drive a much more diverse, a much broader and much more powerful industry.

Before I take my seat, I’d like to just give one piece of advice for young professionals in the room, as well. Be open and teachable at all times. It’s amazing to have great ideas, innovative thoughts and new ways of doing things, but try to first understand the process that was already put in place to its fullest self. And understand that those folks who have been in their careers for 20, 30, 40, 50 years, they’ve been there and they’re there for a reason. They’ve sustained a long career for a reason, so be able to listen to them and take those nuggets, so you can be able to do the same thing.

In the reverse for you all who do have those 20-, 30-, 40- or 50-year experiences, do not be afraid to share those authentic experiences with young people who are trying, who see you and who want to emulate what they see.

I would like to thank my support system who are here tonight. If all of my supporters, my old professors, my old colleagues, my mentors, can you all please stand with me for a real quick second? So, Chad, Dianna, I want to call you out. Clarissa, Cindy, Cindy, please stand. Gene and everybody who I’ve not been able to mention, Dr. Kimbro in the back, thank you all so much. I am, to my mentees point, because you are.

You all have pushed me. You all have challenged me. Clarissa’s laughing because she knows she worked me extremely hard. But it’s because of your challenges and your push and motivation is the reason why I’m here today. You saw potential, and you harnessed that for greatness, and I will forever be in your debts because you all have just really changed my whole narrative.

So, I started out, before I went to FAMU, just a kid from Miami, who just wanted to do something in PR. I went to Florida A&M University, I met Dr. Kimbro. Drn Kimbro asked me what did I want to do, I said I want to be a single level communication executive for a Fortune 500 company. She asked me, “How did you want to get there?” Well, the way I get there is I have to have an agency internship, I have to work in-house, I have to do X, Y and Z. She said, “Great, you have a plan, let me start connecting you with some folks who can help work your plan on that level.”

She connected me with a FAMU alumn who worked at Edelman who found the internship opportunity that got me in the door. From there, that made me attractive to other internship like NBC Universal, BowStern Marketing Communications and the Florida A&M University dean’s office of communication, as well, and from those opportunities, I then met my family from West Virginia University who saw me in my role with PRSSA – so those students, be involved in PSSA, I’m looking at you – involved so heavily to the point that I was a national officer, the first one from my university to serve at that level.

From there, I met Ms. Tina, I met Chad, I met Dianna and then they saw me, they saw a talent there and they offered me an opportunity to study at the graduate level at West Virginia University, one of the greatest IMC programs in the country. I’m saying hey, we’re good. Through that experience, it’s opened up my mind, allowed me to understand strategy at a deeper level, that continue to make me ready for an entry-level job. To be able to have the opportunities by Ms. Clarissa Taylor, who saw my talent at a very young age, my sophomore year at college might I add, and just constantly talk to me, reply to the emails, reply to me saying, “Hey, this is what I’m working on, what are your thoughts on this?” and giving me candid feedback on my projects I was working on, really helped me and really made me qualified. We built a relationship and I was able to work for her on her team.

To be working for her for just one year, for the company to recognize the potential that I had, to promote me to a public affairs role, doing public policy, external affairs, community outreach, to being right here tonight with you all saying that I am the 2018 Emerging Leader for The Plank Center for Leadership in Public Relations.

So, with that, I want to thank The Plank Center for honoring me. Keith, thank you so much. Dr. Gower, thank you so much, because it is truly a life changing, a story changing, opportunity for me. And something that, again, folks who are looking at my story, who are looking at me back at Florida A&M University, at West Virginia University and other schools around, they’ll say, “Because Eric did, I can too.”

So, with that I want to thank you all again. Thank you so much for your time, and it’s been a pleasure.


More from Eric Winkfield:

Resources of Interest

The Plank Center is committed to helping you expand your skills and advance the practice of public relations.