Campus & community, People, Profiles

Graduating student Ockemia Bean: ‘Build a community that will support your dreams’

UC Berkeley Haas Ph.D. student developed a road map for healthy businesses by confronting tragedies and obstacles in her own life

Graduating senior Ockemia Bean stands for a portrait at the Haas School of Business at UC Berkeley.

Ockemia Bean, a 2022 graduate and future Haas Ph.D. student, developed a road map for healthy businesses by confronting tragedies and obstacles in her own life. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

This I’m A Berkeleyan feature was written as a first-person narrative from an interview with Ockemia Bean. Have someone you think we should write about? Contact [email protected].

When it comes to being a dreamer, I’ve always been one.

Dreamers trust by faith. We’ll close our eyes, see what’s in front of us, take that leap and just trust that everything is going to be OK.

I don’t treat dreams as just thoughts or desires, but as manifestations that will come to pass through a series of decisions I make and actions I take.

Many of my life experiences may cause people to wonder how I can still dream. What they may not consider is that I’ve realized my dreams because of my relentless optimism and the support I have had from family, friends and communities throughout my life.

Childhood photo of Ockemia Bean

Ockemia Bean grew up in Richmond where she lives to this day. (Photo courtesy of Ockemia Bean)

My story begins in Richmond, California, where I grew up and have spent most of my life. I am the youngest of my mom’s three kids. My father and I had an estranged relationship most of my life, but later we were able to somewhat rectify it.

I’m so happy we decided to try; he passed away in 2021, and now I have the gift of getting to know eight more of my siblings, some of whom I had never met.

My mother was my favorite person in the world.

She was literally a huge cheerleader for anything I did. If I wanted to be like Diana Ross, she would buy the record, turn on the music and be the most incredible audience member that ever attended a show!

My mother never tried to limit any parts of me. She taught me to embrace who I was and everything I wanted to do. I took her message to heart.

Once, as a little girl, I remember standing in the middle of my aunt’s living room and spinning around until I made myself dizzy.

“What are you doing?” my cousin asked. And I’m like, “I’m turning into Wonder Woman!”

I literally thought I could become a superhero if I tried hard enough. She instilled in me that I could do anything; that’s something that I’ve held onto through my highest highs and my most challenging moments.

Childhood photo of Ockemia Bean and her cousins.

From left to right: Bean’s cousin Cindy, sister Tachia, Bean as a child, and her cousin Stephanie. Bean said they were all very close to her mother. (Photo courtesy of Ockemia Bean)

When I was 14, I lost my mother to colon cancer. She was only 42 years old.

Because my mother’s faith was anchored in God, she passed that on to me. God and attending church helped me during that time of grief. My mother and I had never been apart for an extended period. We were all close, and losing her at such a young age was devastating.

None of us had imagined life without her.

Two weeks after my mother’s funeral, I had to relocate to Michigan. I experienced many traumatic experiences during my time there, all while trying to process the internal grief of my mother’s death.

I understood throughout this time that those experiences didn’t define who I am.”

I tried very hard to navigate life as normally as possible, which was confusing. Nothing that was happening to me was normal. After moving around from California to Michigan, Michigan to Georgia, and Georgia back to Michigan, I finally decided to come home. I ran away and moved back to Richmond to live with my sister.

I did a lot of personal work over the next two decades. I went to therapy, saw coaches, attended workshops, and did whatever I needed to do to better myself and to deal with the abuse and trauma from past experiences.

It took me nearly 20 years to cope with the traumas during that unfortunate time. It took a lot of healing to realize that I didn’t have the power to change things then and that those experiences no longer held any power over me.

One thing I refused to do, even while healing, was to allow those experiences to define who I was.

Despite the instability that came from bouncing around from place to place, I graduated from high school with my class in 1993 from John F. Kennedy High School in Richmond.

It was something I promised my mom I would do when I was a little girl, and I kept that promise.

Ockemia Bean at her high school graduation in Richmond with family.

Bean’s high school graduation outside of the Richmond Auditorium, with her brother Fredrick Mayfield, sister Tachia Fletcher, aunt Augustine Mayfield and Godmother Annie Green. (Photo courtesy of Ockemia Bean)

After high school, I stayed in Richmond because it really felt like home for me. I worked in retail for some time, then transitioned into temp jobs and was soon led into managing roles and ultimately into human resources positions within nonprofits, corporations, startups and tech companies.

In every role, I took it upon myself to understand the operations within organizations. I also jumped at the chance to support others in their roles.

I completed courses at Berkeley City College and enrolled in every professional development opportunity available to me. I enhanced my communications, presentation, training and facilitation skills and honed my ability to coach others.

Soon, I became an expert in human resources and operations, and a dynamic job coach.

My skills continued to increase over the years, giving me the confidence to address any issues no matter how difficult the topic.

Ockemia Bean posing with a friend after graduating from Contra Costa College.

Bean with Contra Costa College’s Extended Opportunity Programs and Services manager George Mills during her 2019 graduation. (Photo courtesy of Ockemia Bean)

I began to notice a trend in leaders in several companies I worked for: Though many were educated and trained in their fields, they were not equipped with the tools to effectively engage with their teams, and many didn’t understand how to enroll people into their vision or company.

I began to work as hard on morale and culture as I did on policy and personnel.

My roles transitioned from 50% to 70% policy and personnel, 75% to 80% coaching. People would come into my office and express how they felt. Some managers discouraged “bringing personal stuff to work,” but I don’t always agree.

It’s challenging to give 100% of yourself when you’re mandated to check 40% at the door. I found that many of their “issues” were affecting their performances and together we created action plans that helped them in the office and in their lives!

As an employee at the time myself, I understood the importance of having space to be human and having others be OK with that. I explained to employees that having a bad day doesn’t make one an irresponsible employee. However, not respectfully communicating with others about what’s going on, or what your needs are, can possibly cause confusion and ill feelings when it’s simply unnecessary. It’s not necessary to share all of your details, but sharing that you’re in a space that requires solitude or concentration may help others give you what you need.

I worked hard to create spaces where everyone from the janitor to the CEO felt seen and appreciated. Creating realistic and safe work environments has always been important to me. They generate higher morale and they are more productive.

I spent years instilling open communicative cultures in companies. Soon, I saw the difference in the office and in the bottom line of our balance sheets.

I often felt reminded that I was a Black woman from Richmond with nothing more than a high school diploma.”

I took inventory of the benefits I reaped from teaching leaders within my organization how to properly manage and interact with one another. I was training leaders on how to lead, and I loved it!

However, my style of organizational change wasn’t always welcomed. Although my track record proved success, the modifications and structural pivots I’d suggest in meetings — with other executives with higher education and bigger titles — were often dismissed as minor and unnecessary.

I often felt reminded that I was a Black woman from Richmond with nothing more than a high school diploma. I had these beautiful ideas to enhance organizations — to improve working environments and increase profits — but often felt dismissed because I wasn’t academically accomplished.

When I would tell colleagues that I was from or lived in Richmond, I always received “the look,” and things like, “Oh, you do? You are? I’ve heard a lot about that place.”

Everybody wants good for themselves and their family. And people from Richmond are no different. I think a lot of people know about the poverty and crime, and they stereotype the entire community. But there’s some beautiful people here who are intelligent, driven, talented and have lots to offer to the world.

Richmond residents have seen companies move to our city to pay less to rent nice, spacious facilities. But they have no intent to invest in the community or the people that live here.

Richmond CA refinery

Chevron’s oil refinery in Richmond. (Creative Commons photo by Scott Hess)

In my last full-time position as a human resources manager for a tech company in Richmond that made mixers for drinking water tanks, I worked with a host of scientists and engineers.

During the interview, I expressed to the staff my love for my community and the importance of them engaging with it. I told them that if they were going to be here, they needed to be here.

Peter Fiske, a Haas graduate and a director at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, was the company’s CEO at the time. He has become a friend and mentor of mine over the years, and he always points out to me how taken aback and impressed he was by my comments and how I helped wake up everyone in the room to understand how significant it would be for the company to really engage and be a part of Richmond’s community.

And after that, many of them did.

When the company was acquired, and my position was eliminated, I decided it was time to fulfill one of my lifelong dreams of returning to school. I started at Contra Costa College, earning four associate degrees.

Ockemia Bean sitting on a bench holding a framed photo of her mother.

Bean posing with a framed photo memento of her mother, Mae Bell Ross. (Photo by In Her Image Photography)

Although it had been years since I’d dreamed of being a Cal Bear, UC Berkeley was not on my radar until 2018, when I met Merryl Owen, the director of the Transfer Alliance Program for UC Berkeley. She convinced me that I was definitely Berkeley material and encouraged me to apply, and I did. I was accepted for the 2019 fall admission.

When I look back now, the times when I’ve jumped off that metaphorical ledge to take risks, it was fueled by the foundation of confidence and optimism that my mother instilled in me, and my belief and trust in God to make my dreams come true.

Trusting myself to pause a stable career to return to community college and ultimately to transfer to Berkeley as a re-entry transfer student-parent was a huge risk. But I reminded myself that no reward comes without risk, and this risk has certainly proven to be worth taking.

Berkeley can be overwhelming, in both great and not so great ways. It’s a huge place to navigate filled with many opportunities that also comes along with competition and stress. But I really want current and future students to know the importance of building a support team on campus.

There is power here and in every space on campus to create your own community of like-minded people. So, find people that are invested in your dreams, and that see you how you hope to see yourself. Find people that will go all the way for you, and with you.

Doing that has helped my journey and transition back to school. And no matter which walk of life you entered this campus from, I’m sure it will help you too!

The connections and networking opportunities here are priceless. From the Transfer Student Center to advising and Stiles Hall, I have a point person on campus for anything and everything I need help to get done.

That is the power of community.

Ockemia Bean posing with her supporters on campus.

Ockemia Bean stands for a portrait with Luisa Giulanetti (right), Geremy Lowe and Dr. Keisha Hicks (left) at Berkeley’s Haas School of Business. Bean said they are her “dream supporters” on campus. (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

So, don’t think for one second that other Berkeley students do it completely on their own. They don’t, and you don’t have to either.

As a soon-to-be Berkeley graduate majoring in both psychology and interdisciplinary studies, I have been able to merge my interests together and create personalized curriculum I know will help me impact the world.

Before starting at Berkeley, I was unsure of my ability to become a good researcher. When I first joined a lab, I felt like people around me were speaking in another language. So, I did a lot of observing and listening and very little talking. I was sometimes apprehensive about being in these spaces.

But I didn’t let the fear of the unknown stop me. In fact, giving into that fear would be like throwing away everything I’ve been through. So, I kept going, and I kept fighting. And I’m proud to say that Berkeley has allotted me a supportive community to do that.

And that fight continues to pay off!

Bean discusses the historical and modern wealth thresholds for Black Americans that lead to perceived threat or bias. Her interdisciplinary studies aimed to test an unresearched inclination that “Black wealth” is an aversive concept to white and Black Americans. (UC Berkeley video)

After graduation this summer, I will continue my education as a Ph.D. candidate at the Haas School of Business here at Berkeley. I have been chosen as a SURF fellow for the second time and as a fellow in Berkeley’s Othering and Belonging Institute, where I look forward to researching the behaviors of companies and diversifying them.

In the business world, I don’t want diversity to just be a statement. I want people to understand there is value in bringing our different experiences into these spaces together.

It can help our communities as a company’s bottom line and profits — I’ve seen it happen.

Ockemia Bean hugging Geremy Lowe.

Luisa Giulianetti takes a photograph at the Haas School of Business of Bean hugging Geremy Lowe, whom she refers to as her “academic sounding board, goal encourager and dream supporter.” (Photo by Brittany Hosea-Small)

As a motivational speaker, I continue to support the communities that have helped propel me to where I am today. I often speak at events or retreats to inspire people with my experiences — both professional and personal — and how I overcame the challenges in my life and turned them into powerful tools to help myself and those around me.

It’s almost like I really did turn into some form of Wonder Woman after all.

And although I feel like I’m just an average person who is a fighter and believes that anything is possible, people often express that they see me in a different light — as someone who isn’t afraid to try anything.

But that’s not true.

I have the same reservations, fears and, at times, even self-doubt, that most people have. The only difference is I refuse to let those moments of uncertainty stop me.

I fear not knowing what’s on the other side of the possibility far more than I fear anything else.

While coming to Berkeley seemed like it wasn’t possible for many years, I’ve proven to myself once again that no dream is too big, or too old, to go after. The people and communities that have helped support my journey here have become part of a dream that I forgot existed. And that’s something I think people need to understand.

There are people here to help you win, you just have to be willing to put yourself out there and ask for the help and support you need!

Sometimes, our dreams don’t show up like we think they will. Sometimes, they’re better.