The age of 17 for many teens usually means making the last year of high school the year to remember. There are also those thoughtful teens who may wonder what life will be like for them in the “real world,” and how they might take over. But, at 17, Harlemite Danya Steele, was already a force, armed with a resume that could go up against any international studies major ready for the world. The short list: Teen People magazine honored Danya with their “20 Teens Who Will Change The World” for her work in media and with youth culture, she’s lead several non-profit organizations for youth development and wowed big league-rs, having spoken at Columbia and Oxford Universities. She’s also worked with major media outlets like NBC’s “Our World” with Ed Gordon and Black Enterprise, ESSENCE magazine, MTV and Rolling Stone. At 20, she was elected the youngest chairwoman to the Board of Directors for HarlemLIVE, an organization that uses media to empower youth. The short list was promised, but some accomplishments are impossible not to mention.
Today, Danya is excited about Africa, and here at Clutch, we’re excited about her and what she’s doing. Having left a comfortable career at a hedge fund, a career many would die, come back and die again to have, and packed it up and moved to South Africa for a project she’s extremely devoted to. She’s working on a book chronicling the lives of young people doing great things, post apartheid. Danya is currently in the states for Africa Gathering, a conference later this month in Washington D.C. where many come together to discuss what’s good in Africa. It’s a late night in Atlanta, and Danya’s dressed comfortable like she’s ready to crash and call it a night. But, she’s alert and happy to fill us in on how she’s arrived where she is today.
Clutch: In your words, who is Danya Steele?
Danya: Danya Steele is someone who loves, always tries her best and always gives her best while working as consistently as she can to speak from her heart, to work from her heart and to act from an enormous place of love.
Clutch: What is your mission in South Africa, and do you feel this is your life mission?
Danya: It’s deeper than that. I wouldn’t say my mission is in Africa, but rather in the world. However, my focus is in South Africa. The mission is to expand the international conversation about Africa at large, South Africa in particular, so that it’s more positive, more empowering and more accurate. I think the pre-existing conversation about Africa is outdated. It places undue weight on what’s problematic instead of speaking about what’s promising. One of my personal philosophies is that what you focus on will expand, so I would like for the whole world to begin to focus on more positive things, news and conversations coming out of Africa. While the focus is South Africa, my audience is an international audience, and my project is intended to be a big global impact. I’m in the business of changing the way the world sees Africa in the nation’s leading economy, and I naturally want to go out into the world and share that. I think it’s all bigger than my life’s mission.
Clutch: I like that you refer to yourself as a “change agent,” and a “social investor.” If you could describe your purpose in two powerful words what would they be?
Danya: To love. If I do all this work, and I’m not doing it from a real place of love, then what am I doing?
“I’m in the business of changing the way the world sees Africa…”
Clutch: Teen People magazine once named you one of “20 Teens Who Will Change The World.” Is that heavy for you?
Danya: No, not really. It’s like having a tattoo. One of my really good friends, Suzanne Africa Engo, who’s a celebrity activist and an amazing person, speaks out about AIDS in Africa and raises a lot of money. She has tattoos all over her arms like I Have a Dream and The United Nations, etc. So, she can’t wake-up and half-ass because of these tattoos that are all over her. They are a constant reminder that she can’t be a small person. They are a reminder of the greatness inside her. And, for me, the Teen People honor is a welcome reminder of what I’m here to do. It’s not expecting anything of me that I can’t do. I feel like I can’t really get away with playing small with something like that behind me.
Clutch: One reality of our current economy is that people must be creators of themselves and their own futures. What is your advice to those who are seriously considering writing their own job descriptions as you have?
Danya: That’s a really cool question. One of the things I would say is to listen to your inner voice. Prior to my project, I was working at an amazing hedge fund, and I’m still on great terms with many of the executives there today. But, I was itching to do something else. One day, I literally sat down and mapped out the life I wanted to have, and what I wanted to give to the world. It started from there, and I assumed that I would win. All of the attention that this project has gotten happened because this is a really great project. I’m very fortunate to be involved with it, but it really has nothing to do with me. I’m just sort of a channel for it to happen. So, my advice to someone who wants to write their own job descriptions is to step back and figure out what you really want; would love to wake-up and do everyday. Start with that. Then, begin to map out your plan, and expect that you will succeed. Also, talk about it constantly! Launch a blog, launch a Twitter account, launch whatever and keep talking about what you believe in. It should be something you’re totally in love with. We’re living in a time where it’s very difficult to be inauthentic because of the economy, etc. People are more economic about how they spend their time, and how they spend their money. People only want to endorse things that are real; things that strike a cord with them. So now is the perfect time to do what you really believe in doing! The opportunity is there, and there’s no reason not to step into your greatness.
Clutch: Some very ambitious people feel that they are their work. Do you feel this way? If so, does that mean balance is not an issue for you?
Danya: I don’t feel like I am my work. I feel like I’m an awareness. I’m a spiritual being having a human experience. I like to represent love as much as I can, and I bring who I am to my work, to this project and to everything. So no, you’re never your work. Your work is an expression of you, but you are something else. You’re never any label…you bring your energy to the roles you want to take on. I currently don’t think balance is an issue for me, and I’ve never experienced balance as an issue. I still have time for love, my friends… There’s nothing that I value that I don’t have time for, and I think that’s part of what it means to design the life you want.