Powerful Ebony woman
Maxine Williams' story as told to Lorraine Waldropt-Ferguson
“Just try a ting”, in Trini parlance, in other words, assume no limit to your potential to overcome obstacles and give every challenge your best shot — this has always been my life philosophy. It is one of the reasons why I have reached where I am today. As I reflect on my achievements — capturing a spot amongst Ebony magazine’s elite Power 100 — the 100 most powerful African-Americans — my belief that effort and risk can lead to reward has never waned. An island woman with versatile ambition, in view of all my occupational escapades, the only common thread in all my professional choices is that I try to do what inspires me and strive for excellence in whatever I choose to do.
My journey began in my beloved Trinidad and Tobago. Born and bred in Woodbrook, Trinidad, music and mas were always in my DNA. I remember going to sleep at night and putting a pillow over my head to sleep during the Carnival season when the small pan band two houses up was practising and Stephen Lee Heung and his people were welding a big mas two houses in the next direction. How I wish I had that problem now!
A clear case of déjà vu for my homeland, my most treasured memories were in my twin island republic. I attended two outstanding institutions- Maria Regina Primary School and then St Joseph’s Convent, Port of Spain. As a child, comprehension was my most valuable subject. Learning how to think sounds simple but requires so much practice and investment from others. To receive information, process it, analyse it, prioritise it and connect it with impartiality, to other aspects of life or areas of understanding, is a skill that I have always rated very highly. Indeed, my foundation was set in hard stone through my local education system. It was a system where you needed to learn from your mistakes and keep moving if you were going to take advantage of the best that it had to offer. My friends and I still joke to this day about Sister Mary Margaret and how she would give you one look that said, “It’s on now!” Up to this day I am a big fan of challenging children to achieve excellence and think creatively while setting boundaries that ensure respectful behaviour.
The good old school days and so many other good recollections of my childhood in T&T — roller skating through Woodbrook with neighbourhood friends, eating $2.25 roti from Elsie and Nursie at the corner of Ariapita Avenue with my brother and going to school Mayfairs and “Sunday School” in West Mall. Whilst my pivotal start was in Trinbago, my journey continued through new places and new experiences which taught me valuable lessons for life.
When I left Trinidad for the US at the tender age of 16, my inner voice echoed that a liberal arts education was more suited to my broad interests than the narrower specialisation of other systems. This interest and my zeal to learn were my tickets to Yale University not my best orange cotton skirt which I selectively wore for the interview. Yale. It was where I learned a vital life lesson — when navigating unfamiliar waters find mentors who you could trust to give you the support you need to find your way.
I remember after I got my first report card, I asked a third year student if my grades were in line with what most people were getting. I had two Bs, a B+ and an A-. He looked at them and told me frankly that most people were getting As and that it wasn’t that hard to do. The bar was higher than I had hit and it was on me to step it up. From that moment forward, I was determined to get nothing less than an A. This wasn’t personal, it was business. And so after Yale, I won the Rhodes Scholarship and went to study law at Oxford University. If it weren’t for my Guyanese/Bajan friend who had also won a scholarship I would would have never known about the golden “Rhodes” which many Americans were groomed for from the time they could read. With this seed of ambition planted in my mind, my thinking went beyond the daunting premonition of studying and all-nighters! My whole approach to life changed at Oxford. Life lesson take two — surround yourself with people who want the best for themselves and for humankind. The map of my life journey was being charted not only by my own drive to succeed but also, by positive people and positive influences.
Upon the heels of Oxford, I began my occupational path working in a number of different capacities including practising law in Trinidad with the most brilliant attorneys in the world — they took chances on me and I gave them my all in return. I taught law at the University of the West Indies, St Augustine Campus; I was an on-air commentator, host and actress; a human rights coordinator and a diversity professional. So many different walks, while some called it “spreading yourself too thin”, I called it diversity, living up to my fullest potential. My strategy was to work with people who I respected and could learn from and this tactic was my rocket to greater frontiers. Which brings me to life lesson three — being at the starting point of a learning curve is the most exciting place to be and each time you step up your game to meet or pass the bar of excellence, you earn your reward.
Today, I am now the Global Head of Diversity at Facebook. In this role, I develop strategies to harness the unlimited potential of Facebook’s talent. The people who use Facebook are more than 1.19 billion in number and as diverse a group as you could possibly imagine. Bringing peoples and cultures together and sharing world diversity — my mission at Facebook is not separate to my life mission. I love learning about people and listening to their life stories — what motivates them, inspires them, reduces them and challenges them. Personal stories are fascinating. Amidst my law stints, I always found time to do interviews of various people on camera for TV and special projects. I still try to incorporate this passion through a personal project called Past, Present and Personal to record the extraordinary lives of ordinary people.
Extraordinary without a doubt, this phenomenon we call life. With regards to my own life story, I feel accomplished and grateful for being named in Ebony’s Power 100 but most of all pride overcomes me to be a Trinbagonian. I still cover Carnival events in Trinidad — relaying the energy of the moment to people who can’t be there in person. But undoubtedly, there is nothing like being in the middle of the crowd at a Carnival event and feeling the collective energy raise us all up to the sky. Something similar to the feeling you get when you “just try a ting” and you get your well-deserved rewards after hard work and determination.
About Maxine Williams
Maxine Williams is the Global Head of Diversity at Facebook. Prior to Facebook, she served as the Director of Diversity for a global law firm. A graduate of Yale University, she received her law degree with first class honours from Oxford University, where she was a Rhodes Scholar. As an attorney, she has represented clients in criminal, civil and industrial courts in both her native Trinidad and in the UK at the Privy Council. She has worked with multiple international organisations on development and human rights issues and has had a parallel career as a broadcast journalist and on-air presenter.
Recently, Williams was named by Ebony magazine among the 100 most powerful African-Americans.