The L-Suite examines the diverse ways in which Latinx professionals have built their careers, how they’ve navigated notoriously disruptive roadblocks, and how they’re attempting to dismantle these obstacles for the rest of their communities. We’ve partnered with Elivade, a career advancement platform for Black and brown professionals, to help you take these L-Suite tips to the next level. Sign up here to easily find and network with peers and offer or seek mentorship. This month, we’re talking with interior designer Neffi Walker about navigating the industry as an Afro-Latina, balancing motherhood with a career change, and the impact she’s looking to make with The Black Home.
When it comes to popular home renovation television programs or the interior designers behind the celebrity homes coveting magazine covers, there’s a clear racial disparity. The interior design industry has risen to consumerism notoriety as a predominately white space with TikTok videos, Netflix shows, and sole magazines — as Black designers account for less than two percent of the American Society of Interior Designers. But Black designers are looking to change that reality more than ever. Following the global protests against police brutality and systemic racism last summer, the Black Interior Designers Network created a campaign to encourage non-Black members of design to fight against systemic racism within the design industry. Last fall, designer and artist Malene Barnett launched the Black Artists + Designers Guild (BADG), an online directory and community for Black creatives.
Another voice in the fight against the lack of representation in this industry is Neffi Walker, an award-winning Black and Puerto Rican interior designer from Harlem, New York. This profession wasn’t always in the plan for Walker, who ran basketball clinics and events for NBA hopefuls. When the constant traveling for work put a toll on her family life, she decided to pivot, and the timing couldn’t have come at a better moment as she was getting ready to decorate her newly bought home in New Jersey. She would go from designing her own home to working with celebrity clients like Porsha Williams and Dreena Whitfield, carving a space for herself in the design industry. She is now in the process of opening her home store, The Black Home, in Newark, New Jersey, on Juneteenth with the hopes of licensing out her name one day and having her products sold globally.
In anticipation of her storefront, we asked the interior designer about balancing her work as a mother of five, navigating spaces, and starting her own business in an underrepresented industry. Walker shares more about the unapologetic impact she hopes to make in the design industry, ahead.
Purchasing her first home in the suburbs of New Jersey gave Walker a chance to start over and switch her career to interior design. “I felt a little disconnected from corporate, and I started redoing my home. It gave me a lot of comfort and joy,” she says. “I did a couple of other friends’ homes, and it also made me feel all the feels. So, I just decided to turn it into an actual career.” While transitioning careers was scary for Walker, it gave her an opportunity to build herself up and figure out what it is that she loved.
While the commute from where she worked in New York City to New Jersey, with a newborn at home, played a part in her decision to leave her corporate position, there was also a lack of fulfillment that she began to feel seven years into her career. “It was an all-around realization of like, ‘Damn, this whole career that I’ve built, I have to give up because I just don’t feel like it fulfills me,” she recalls. “It was one of those pivotal moments in my life where I felt like I was at the top, and then at the same time, I felt like I was all the way at the bottom.”
Walker stresses that it’s never too late to reassess your interests and pivot your career based on your needs — no matter how many years you’ve dedicated to a particular industry. For those interested in entering the interior design industry, Walker suggests starting within your own home. “See how you feel about merchandising and changing certain things. See if your friends allow you to go into this space, design it, and take great pictures,” she advises. “Then, you can take online courses. As long as you start, try to figure it out, and see how you feel about it. You just have to start.”
The 2019 Design Census, an annual brief on demographics within the design industry, revealed that 71 percent of the 9,429 participants, which consisted of designers, students, educators, freelancers, and business owners, identified as white. Eight were Latinx, and five were black. Fueled by numbers like these, Walker proudly affirms her Afro-Latina identity in every space she enters. In fact, her cultural identity also serves as inspiration for her work, including the Verna Fogg wallpaper she designed with banana leaves, influenced by Puerto Rican pasteles.
“I am very black, very Puerto Rican, and I lead with that in everything,” she shares. “I made it my business to surround myself with people that could understand and support who I am. I don’t navigate in white people’s spaces. They can come to me.” Instead of navigating underrepresented spaces, Walker urges people of color to build and nurture a network of support and not be afraid of creating their own spaces.
The Black Home
Walker’s The Black Home will open its doors on Juneteenth, a day that honors the emancipation of those enslaved in the United States. The inspiration behind her business is one that came from frustration with her design work at home. “Everything in my house was stark white and made me feel like I was in a museum — I couldn’t touch anything,” she explains. “I went and bought black paint. Black gets a bad rap. I wanted to showcase how beautiful black is, and that was very intentional and important.”
The significance of using black paint led to her decision of having The Black Home open up on Juneteenth, although the shop has been ready for launch since February, a decision she made based on what the day symbolizes for the Black American community. With the day still not being officially recognized as a national holiday, Walker aims to have her business commemorate it as such, honoring it the same way that other companies observe Fourth of July or Labor Day. “I wanted to showcase the store as part of the annual celebration,” she shares. “As time goes on, I would love the Juneteenth celebration to be the place where people come from nationwide [to the store].”
Once the store is open, she hopes it inspires Black people to invest in their spaces and create the comfort she’s built in her home. “We put money into our hair and shoes, and sometimes we miss the boat in making sure that our home and our space feels incredible as well,” she tells R29. The interior designer also hopes her business motivates Black aspiring designers and Black entrepreneurs to invest in their ideas even if nobody else is willing. Venture capital currently invests in fewer than 1% of Black female founders, so Walker recommends those founders to find a mentor in their industry and ask them questions.
Balancing Motherhood & Work
As a mom of five children, Walker proudly admits that she doesn’t have the perfect balance between work and family, but she ensures that she’s making time for herself and the kids whenever she can. That’s why Walker stresses that you don’t have to wait for that “perfect balance” to advance in your career while starting or growing a family — understanding that this comes with access to resources like childcare.
“I had children at eighteen. I had two children before I even understood what being a mother really was,” she expresses, also sharing that she speaks with young women often on this topic. “Sometimes society can make you feel that you can’t dream outside of that capacity of being a parent or mother.” Walker hopes that other mothers of color can look to her and know that they can accomplish their goals while building their families. The interior designer switched her career path, launched her interior design business, and expanded it into a shopping experience with her storefront while becoming a mother of five. “Anything is possible as long as you have a good head on your shoulders and you have goals,” she says. Being a Black mother in the U.S. is hard enough with the worst rate of maternal deaths and the pressures of raising Black children in a society that fails to protect or uplift them. Still, Walker won’t let the misconceptions of motherhood stop her from being the best mother and businesswoman she can be, and she wants other women of color to feel that same empowerment.
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