Yes, she’s judging you: Luvvie Ajayi on writing a bestselling life

Patron looks at books at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Pasadena
A patron looks at books at a Barnes & Noble bookstore in Pasadena, California November 26, 2013. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

December 7, 2017

By Chris Taylor

NEW YORK (Reuters) – Sometimes in life, the best teachers are not elder statesmen who have been around for decades. Sometimes we can learn the most from young entrepreneurs who are creating something new.

Take Luvvie Ajayi, the 32-year-old author, speaker and digital strategist. She came to the United States from Nigeria as a kid, built a voice and brand and community through her blog Awesomely Luvvie (awesomelyluvvie.com/), about pop culture, technology and activism. She became a best-selling author with her book “I’m Judging You,” which was then optioned by Hollywood power player Shonda Rhimes.

For the latest in Reuters’ “Life Lessons” series, we sat down with Ajayi to find out how young entrepreneurs can carve out a space for themselves in a rapidly changing world.

Q: Did coming from Nigeria as a 9-year-old give you a unique perspective on American life?

A: There was definitely some culture shock. I had never been the “other girl” and now I was in a new place where my name was different, my skin was different and my accent was different. I was no longer the default, so there was a huge adjustment.

Q: When you started blogging, did you ever think you would develop hundreds of thousands of readers?

A: For me it was more of a hobby than anything. I didn’t really think about how I would cut through all the noise and how I could stand out. There was no expectation and no strategy at all. I was just enjoying writing in a way that was real to me.

Q: At what point did you realize this hobby was going to the next level?

A: I got laid off as a marketing coordinator in 2010 and even then, I didn’t look at my blog as a career. Very few people had been able to take a blog to an extremely successful level. Then in 2012 I got press credentials to cover the Academy Awards and there I was right alongside journalists from places like the BBC, hanging out with the heads of huge media conglomerates. That’s when I first understood the power of what I was doing.

Q: When money started coming in, how did you handle that?

A: I didn’t start balling out in any way. I did buy my first place this year, in Chicago. But I’m trying to be responsible, and think about things like retirement. I have a team around me to tell me the best way to handle it.

Q: What advice do you have for other entrepreneurs starting out?

A: Make sure you succeed on your own terms. I wasn’t the only person out there writing about pop culture and race, but I stayed true to my voice, and people felt attracted to that. They said it felt like they were having brunch with their best friend.

Q: What about the business side of success, any words of caution?

A: Even if there is no one else on your team, get an attorney. You can’t afford not to have a lawyer. For the last five years I have had a lawyer to review contracts. If I don’t notice something, they notice it. It’s a great way to stay on top of everything and not be taken advantage of. Because people will absolutely try to take advantage of you if they can.

Q: Where have you directed your philanthropic time and money?

A: I co-founded the Red Pump Project nine years ago, to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS issues. I met someone in college who had 20 cousins all living with a relative in Malawi, because all their parents had died of AIDS complications. That woke me up that this is still an issue.

Q: What life lessons have served you well so far?

A: Underpromise and overdeliver. People will be pleasantly surprised that you gave more than they expected. And remember that there is always room for us to be better and do better. That’s what I am calling for. Not just everybody else – myself, too.

(Editing by Beth Pinsker and Bill Trott)