Minister of Truth
Selfie - “I only know one way to be, and that’s real straight. What you see is what you get."
Super Power - Nurturing
Message to women everywhere - “Own your superpower!”
Andrea Baker says, "I only know one way to be, and that’s straight. What you see is what you get.” What you see and get is a magnetic and magnificent truth-sayer hailing from Jamaica. A serial entrepreneur ten times over. A proud mother who has nurtured several children in addition to her own two sons. A community builder. An outside the box thinker. A believer in education and investing in children is the surefire way to elevate a community. A frequent actor of random acts of kindness. A wife of thirty years who gushes about her man like a girl in love for the first time. The only thing you see that you don't get and would be shocked to learn is how many years she has walked the earth. She is in fact as old as dirt (her words), but Andrea is, and one can only imagine, always will be, a larger than life force to be reckoned with.
Spending time with Andrea is like being in the presence of a mighty waterfall. Her effervescence and lyrical storytelling is mesmerizing. Her audacity simultaneously cracks you up and makes you sit up a bit straighter. Pay attention, you tell yourself, this badass lady knows how to break the rules. She can put you and every other shmoe in his place, but the only place she winds up putting you is inspiration point to speak your own truth. She pushes boundaries and consistently chooses the path of generosity and integrity. She is so unapologetically honest, irreverently bold and openly caring that you want to be your best self around her. Andrea likes to say, “I am all in” and you plainly get the sense that she’s all in with you when she’s with you.
Andrea was all-in when (1) her mother left her family in Jamaica to immigrate to the US, and Andrea, who was nine and eldest, took care of her four younger siblings aged between nine months and eight years old, and for many years, ran the household. When (2) in the 1960’s, her all-girls British high school in Jamaica issued a rule prohibiting afros, and Andrea led the student body in a series of protests to overturn the policy. When (3) she learned that all the major hotels in Jamaica, a country renowned for its tourist industry, were owned and/or run by non-Jamaicans —“and I said, ‘What the hell, all the hotels are run by expats who are flown in? This is our industry, our country, that's bullshit, I’m about to change that'” — so she pursued a degree at Cornell then the best school to study the hospitality industry, where she worked to pay for her education which she obtained in three years, then moving to professional jobs in which she held her own as the youngest person or only woman in the room, but not before she made the Valedictorian speech at graduation. When (4) she re-visioned another future for the declined neighborhood of which she’d been a resident for many years, and activated then aligned the residents, business owners, developers and city government to revitalize economic development and bring vibrancy back to the area. When (5) after twenty years of estrangement among family members, Andrea began one Sunday to call each of her siblings one by one through what became a ritual of what she calls Sibs-Sundays, when she didn’t give up after not hearing back she just kept calling, kept showing up, until her family was willing to put aside the past and pull back together, Andrea weaving these bonds. Still more of Andrea’s all-in’s, not the least of which is her marriage celebrating 30 years with Byron, a man who keeps his promises, with whom she has raised two sons.
Andrea is the person we want running the Ministry of Truth if we had one whose mission is to set the record straight, cut down the bollocks and make change for good. She fights groupthink like nobody’s business. She's the person who says, “I’m sorry to tell everybody, but the emperor has no clothes on. You want me to act like he’s fully dressed? I can play the game, but I’m just sayin’: He. Got. NoClothes. Ownng.” She delivers her truth with heart and humor, commanding respect, creating rapport. An example of how she told some folks about the emperor’s lack of attire. She was being interviewed for a community development project for which she and her firm were well-qualified to run and would have loved to take on. After some discussion, it became clear to both the potential client and Andrea that they held different notions of what community engagement meant. In classic Andrea-straightness, she said, “I need to be upfront. It doesn’t have to turn out the way I would like it to be. But you need to know from the get go, I’m not necessarily on board with the way you’ve proposed because that’s not really getting the community involved. That’s just checking the boxes. I’d love to make it work, but you have to know who I am and what my work is about.” Sometimes being the Minister of Truth means she loses opportunities she’d otherwise like to take, but as Andrea says, "All money is not good money." Another example many years ago, the first time she went back to work after being at home with her sons, she said to the potential employer, “Before we confirm this, I need to tell you something. I’ve never been accused of not working hard enough. Never. But you need to know that for me my kids come first, because my kids don’t have another option. If you ever ask me to make a choice between my kids and you, your feelings are gonna get hurt. I tell you this because I’ve got two young kids and there are going to be times when I get the call and I gotta leave.” Still many more years before that, Andrea telling her direct boss, the general manager of then the largest convention hotel in New York, for not issuing her business cards which she needed to do her job. She was the only employee in the male dominant team not to receive business cards. Once she pointed this emperor out, she promptly got cards and continued to bring excellence on the job. Andrea’s truth has made her legendary with the people and across the organizations she encountered. Not everyone will agree with her, but they are clear on where she stands. And Andrea is clear with herself. "This is who I am. I have to be real.”
Andrea was real with her first husband, a man of prominence. When they married, he grandstanded that he was bringing Andrea — who technically "grew up poor but I didn’t know it or see myself that way” — into his world of wealth and prestige. Andrea said to him, “Here’s what you need to understand, I’m not marrying you for what you believe you have. I’m really clear on how to make my way. If I need to make money I know how to do that. I’m marrying you for all the things that money can’t give me. I choose you for all those things.” Later, during their marriage when he would question her sense of self and criticize her for a dress she wore on a special occasion, her response was, "Oh that’s okay, I’m not asking you to wear it.” True to herself, when they divorced, Andrea walked away quickly, leaving his world of wealth behind, not wanting or taking any of it. Over the course of the subsequent decade, she went on to start and successfully run several retail posts at the San Francisco Airport and Moscone Center, a cafe in the Ferry Building, a catering business, a gift basket business, and a Jamaican restaurant which she established for her mother who’d dreamed of becoming a chef.
When Andrea's son Justin was graduating from college, he told her that he will probably go to law school because it’d pave a secure and lucrative career. But if he was being honest with himself, what he really wanted to do at some point was teach. Andrea said to him, “Do the thing that makes your heart sing. You’ll want to do it all the time because you just love it. Because you do it all the time, you’ll become an expert and somebody will pay you for your expertise. And if it doesn’t work out, you can always find another way.” Justin went on to becoming a teacher, creating innovative programs for middle school students around matters of civic engagement and social equity. This is the same man who as a boy learned from his mother that it's not enough to stand by in the school yard watching someone get picked on, even if he had nothing to do with the situation. “When you have the power, it’s your job to protect the person who doesn’t,” Andrea taught him. "Stand up for the person who doesn’t have the power.”
Andrea lives her truth. The fundamental elements of her work involve giving people a voice to bring about change. The mission of her firm Andrea Baker Consulting is Empowering Communities to Thrive. Andrea facilitates community outreach, implements space activation and drives economic development for marginalized neighborhoods. With her many decades of entrepreneurship and deep experience in both public and private sectors, Andrea is a powerful bridge for diverse stakeholders. Andrea believes that people in the community need a forum to express their voices, and her job is to create this forum. What Andrea loves about her work is that she gets to connect people, lay the groundwork for innovative projects and support the project's growth. Her work aligns with the way she wants to move in life. Makes sense with Andrea's "I’ve always found it easier to ask, even demand, for somebody outside of myself. If I see something that’s larger than me, I get big, I am all in.” Consistent with Andrea’s “Big problems don’t scare me if I’m working on them” and "I especially like it when I have a role in something and nobody knows it.” Ultimately what Andrea says is, "Say yes more than you say no.” To communities and the work of building up lives. To family and love. To life. Say yes.
Photos from HERliograph