This Black History Month, we’re celebrating the achievements of Black independent professionals on our platform—and welcome members of the Upwork community to celebrate with us.
As part of this celebration, we have launched the new Black Future Community group—a space to highlight Black achievements and network to move diverse businesses forward.
We sat down with presentation designer Courtney Allen and PR pro Gabrielle Pickens—both members of the community group—to learn more about what motivates them, and how their paths led them to Upwork.
We also chatted with two members of the Upwork team—Antonio “A.J.” Riggins and Lindsey Willis—who have been integral in developing this Black History Month celebration, including the release of new artwork celebrating a vibrant Black Future.
Publicist and CEO of Pickens Creative Agency
How she starts the day: Getting herself and her toddler ready before taking a mother-daughter dance break.
”When I hear the words Black Future, I immediately think of more. More self-actualization, self-improvement, self-determination.”
Gabrielle Pickens has held many roles through her life: competitive dancer, mother, PR pro, Navy veteran, and podcaster among them. The overarching thread? Her commitment to supporting the well-being of the Black community.
“Black Future is just us. It’s not necessarily ‘us vs. them,’ it’s just us, period. How can we reinvest in ourselves, our community? Black Future…means Black prosperity,” Pickens said. “We need to make sure that we are talking about things that matter, that will impact other people—our people—for the long term.”
Pickens’ work is focused on creating more opportunities for prosperity and abundance in the Black community—from starting her workday at a local Black-owned coffee shop to liaising with Black journalists.
“(My) impact is how I am using my voice, and how I am using my skills not only to educate my community, but to give them the confidence to speak up,” Pickens said. “Go and pitch yourself. You are the expert in your field. You don’t have a degree? It doesn’t matter. You know better than anybody else how this works. So express that—insert yourself into the conversation.”
Presentation Designer and CEO of 16X9
Who’s always inspired her: Her mom—a longtime storyteller and adventurer.
”(Community) will be a cornerstone of the Black Future.”
Courtney Allen’s passion for travel originally led her away from her job as a presentation designer at a Fortune 100 company—but she couldn’t stay away for too long.
“I broke off on my own and started a travel company, but then started doing presentation design again to supplement that income,” Allen said. “I got on Upwork around the end of 2015.”
It was a move that, as Allen says, changed her life. Now based in Seoul, South Korea for part of each year, she’s able to structure her life around travel and design.
“(Upwork has) really connected me to so many opportunities that I wouldn’t have imagined I’d ever be able to work with,” Allen said. “I officially started 16X9 in 2017, brought on subcontractors, and now have full time employees.”
Allen is happy to see her work resonating with other Black designers.
“At first, I wasn’t necessarily sure that I was making an impact within the Black community, but I recently received a message from a Black woman that I mentored in presentation design,” Allen said. “She told me that as she’s joined other presentation design communities and met other presentation designers, that my name has come up and I’ve inspired many others to do presentation design as a career. That was so moving.”
As Allen continues to grow her presentation design agency, she’s begun engaging more and more with other Black freelancers online in community spaces such as Twitter.
“I’m excited to see the reintroduction of more communities and spaces for us so that we can network with each other, build with each other, and support one another,” Allen said. “(And) it’s been incredible to see how my story has resonated with and inspired others in the Black community to embrace the gig economy and even jump start another career.”
Allen plans to continue her community-building work as one of the guides for Upwork’s Black Future community group.
“I’m incredibly excited for the opportunity, and it really aligns with my thoughts (on) Black Future,” Allen said. “As a Black woman, my observation on the world of work today, and moving toward the future, is that it’s rife with opportunity, especially at this point…I really think there are a lot of open doors in terms of both getting a traditional job as well as carving your own path forward.”
Creative Producer at Upwork
What gives him motivation: Family, especially his wife and son.
”Black history is created daily—and influences many of the ideas and trends shaping the future.”
As a creative producer on Upwork’s in-house Creative team, Antonio “A.J.” Riggins manages the production cycle and workflow for Upwork’s video, photo, cultural, and digital campaigns.
When Riggins thinks of Black Future, he thinks of how what’s already happened connects with what is yet to come.
“Black Future encapsulates black excellence’s past, present, and future,” Riggins said.
His own creative past—taking a two-year career break to explore and start a new endeavor—led Riggins to his current role with the Upwork team.
“In 2018, I took a two-year career break to enter the world of the unknown,” Riggins said. “Partly to start a new endeavor, and to explore the journey of healing. That two-year journey was a defining moment in identifying the ‘why’ and the purpose of my work life, and spearheaded the chapter I’m currently in.”
Today, he drives projects that help other people realize they can choose the way in which they work.
“I partner with independent talent and agencies on Upwork. (We produced) a campaign for International Coffee Day that included custom illustrations from Upwork talent around the world and a documentary of our roasting partnership,” Riggins said. “It shared the story of entrepreneurship, creativity, and what’s possible when we’re willing to break old systems to build a new way of working that works for everyone.”
Senior Designer at Upwork
What she’s listening to lately: Beyonce’s “Renaissance”
”Black Future, to me, means prosperity.”
When Lindsey Willis looks back on her creative path, she remembers drawing in the margins of notebooks and painting on all surfaces as a child. It wasn’t until reaching college that creativity began to become a career path.
“I’ve always been creative since I was a child…I just never knew I could be creative as a career,” Willis said. “I had two wonderful mentors who really saw a gift and told me I should pursue design. I ended up going to grad school, meeting other like-minded creatives, and have never looked back.”
Willis is focused on the future—both the future of her career, and of her communities.
“In the future, Black people will be leading and shaping culture,” Willis said. “We’ll have a larger voice, and more space for our community to grow and thrive.”
Willis has embraced her own role as a leader through her work as an independent creative professional, now part of the Upwork team.
“Upwork has allowed me to define where and how I work. It’s created a workspace that allows me to thrive through working by my own rules,” Willis said. “And I make great work with great people—that has always been my guiding light. It is a joy to work with the team every day, and they’re truly the best part of my Upwork experience.”
Led by group guides Courtney Allen, Ryan Clark, and Abigail Baker, the Black Future Community group is now open for discussion, networking, and celebration. Learn more and join in on the conversation by visiting the Black Future Community page and signing in with your Upwork account.