Going Freelance: How I Found A Job That Works For Me And My Family
Words: Anthonia Akitunde
Making the decision to freelance full-time wasn’t easy, but this mom of one has no regrets.
Interior design expert and freelance stylist Angela Belt is confident in many aspects of her life and career, but potty training her 2-year-old daughter Brooklyn isn't one of them—at least for right now.
“I don’t know what’s going on,” Belt says, laughing. “Some days are really hard. I just keep telling myself she’s going to get there one day.”
And Belt, 32, has made sure she’ll be there to celebrate when Brooklyn hits that major milestone—and all the others that come after—by freelancing after years of working as a visual merchandiser for Room & Board. Belt, who you may recognize from her work on her sister Jeanine Hays’ global interior design brand Aphrochic, says it was the best decision she was blessed to make.
Belt chats with mater mea about how she branched off from her corporate job to launch her own one-woman brand.
Did you always know you wanted to be an interior designer?
I [went] to Howard University and majored in political science. I met my husband [Leon] in our sophomore year, really got into art with him, [and] ended up minoring in the arts.
I interned at the Studio Museum [in Harlem] for three to six months, and then I found a Craigslist ad for [a job with Room & Board] in furniture and accessory retail. I was 22 at the time [and] that's when I started working for the company; I worked there for 10 years.
It was just an amazing place to work—you could really secure your own career. I started out in sales positions and ended up having my own showrooms in Washington D.C. I learned everything on the job: how to draw floor plans by hand, how to make a business plan, how to present... I've done model apartments for them, I've done the Hamptons Home and Garden show for them, open houses in New York... I just had an amazing experience.
When you started your own store through the company, did you have any concerns or hesitations since that wasn't what you originally thought you would be doing?
(Laughs) Not really. I think a lot of people around me were concerned, my mom especially: “You went to school for political science, and now you're getting into this furniture thing? This isn't going to make any money, what are you doing?” But for me it just made sense and I loved it.
Bringing More Color Into Interior Design
Tell us more about your working relationship with your sister and her company Aphrochic.
I started really working with the company [in 2009]. At the time it was just me learning a lot about digital merchandising and wanting to start with a company from the bottom up.
I think we always felt like there was a void in interior design [when it came to] seeing people of color [or] seeing beautiful modern interiors where we were represented. There's not a lot of diversity. If you don't see it, then you kind of need to create it.
Why do you think there is a lack of diversity in the interior design space?
I think there's a lot of different reasons. One of them is economics, and then the other issue is just getting exposure, getting your face out there, getting into the communities. Maybe people feel like, “It's not for me,” or maybe other people think you shouldn't be included, but I think social media has made a big difference [in] reducing that gap.
When you mentioned economics, did you mean that it's expensive to be in interior design or that it's not particularly lucrative?
I think it's not particularly lucrative at first. A lot of times you may meet women who will say, "I'm a stay-at-home mom, my husband makes a lot of money, so I'm able to explore interior design." A lot of women can't do that—maybe both people need to work—and interior design isn't always going to be the most lucrative option when you start out. You can of course become extremely profitable, but starting out you do need to have some money.
“This Needs To Become My Full-Time Job”
What kind of challenges did you face when you first got started?
I'm pretty young. Right now I'm 32. So trying to do a lot of the things that I do, a lot of people are always asking who is in charge. People don't think it's me. (Laughs) People are always kind of looking around for someone else first, so I think I've always had to get over that barrier.
I really love connecting with people, love collaborating, so the barrier comes down probably after the next five minutes. I like making people laugh. Sometimes I'll just go up to someone and say, "I know he may look the part, but I'm the one in charge"—just to break the ice. I don't let it go too far out of hand; people need to understand I'm the one making the final decision. Let's get focused.
How did you begin to transition into freelance styling?
[Aphrochic] became a really great project that Jeanine and I worked on together. We ended up doing a ton of collaborations; I've been able to work on projects with HGTV, we did a makeover together for Lonny Magazine, [and] I just recently helped her with her apartment for Elle Decor.
The collaborations always seem to go quite well; I get a ton of exposure. It's just fun to give people a different idea of what modern and contemporary style is—[that] it does have people of color in the forefront of the design. I started getting more experience with working with other clients.
Then in 2011, we started working on the [Aphrochic] Remix book, and that was a really exciting process. We got to work with Random House and with some incredible interior designers in LA, New York, Philly... I got to travel around the country getting a very unique experience for two years.
When the book came out in 2013, I was pregnant with my daughter. I think once motherhood hit, I realized people tell you all the time that everything has to change, but I don't think you really understand it until you go through it yourself. I think over the past year I've made some big changes, really saying “OK, if I really want to do this freelance photo styling, this needs to become my full-time job.” This past April I left Room & Board, I'm doing freelance photo styling full time, and this past December, I started writing and photo styling for About.com.
Thank you! It's definitely overwhelming and a little scary, but I feel like I need to be more involved in my daughter's life. I felt like trying to manage a full-time job plus trying doing the freelance photo styling and the writing... there was just no time left.
Now I have this freedom—I can do calls with her during the day, and then if I need a babysitter for a shoot for a couple of days, that's not nearly as bad as how it was in the past. It just let's me have a lot more involvement in her day-to-day growth; it really helps a lot.
Was there a moment when you realized you had to start freelancing?
I think in some ways yes, and maybe some ways no. My husband got a job offer to work for ESPN in Connecticut [and] I think it was the first time in 10 years where I actually had the option to not work full time on the table.
I'm going to take the risk and see if it works out. It makes things tougher and tighter; I'm definitely calculating what we eat now, trying to make sure it all falls into the budget. It's not easy, but I just realized I needed to be more involved with her. I was missing too much and that was becoming hard.
So now that you’re freelancing full time, what are some projects you have coming up that you’re excited for?
I'm redoing my daughter's nursery! I'm super excited about that because she's over 3 feet tall; she's really big for 2. We've already converted her bed to the toddler [size] and it's not working. Her dresser's falling apart, her bookshelf—poor thing grabbed a book and the whole thing fell off. It's definitely time. That's probably the most exciting thing I'm happy to be working on right now, getting her whole room and starting over.
Anthonia Akitunde is the founder and editor-in-chief of mater mea.