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Shekeyla Caldwell Sandore (MBA 2021) has turned her real-life experience of having a unique name into a children’s book, A Name Like Mine. We asked Sandore about her inspiration behind the book, why it’s important to pronounce someone’s name correctly, and how we can all be more inclusive and respectful.

Tell us about your book, A Name Like Mine.

The book is a true story; it is my childhood experience mixed with my adult understanding. It’s the story of a little girl who loves her name until other people tell her that it’s awkward and something to poke fun at. She decides she wants a different name. As a child I told my mother that I wanted to be named Nicole—no one ever made fun of, or misunderstood, the name Nicole. I hurt for my mom when I said that to her. She chose a special, beautiful name for me, and I let outside forces tell me it wasn't. This story is my reflection of that time and how children and adults can improve these situations.

How does the main character address it, and how have you addressed it yourself?

She uses the same jingle that I used as a little girl: "She is a girl, put the key in the door, and everyone says lalalalala!" Now that I'm an adult, I've switched to a more adult version of the jingle, which is “Shekeyla rhymes with tequila.” I actually used it in one of my HBS classes, and that professor never said my name wrong again!

The main character learns that she can give tips to help people pronounce her name, and that those tips are enough—she’s not the only one who has to work on names, it's the responsibility of others who care about her.

What are some of those things that others can dofriends and teachers?

There are a few pages that focus on her friends' reactions. They didn't know that it hurt her feelings when they gave her nicknames, they didn't know that it was uncomfortable for her when the teacher messed up; they just snickered because they knew the teacher was getting it wrong. It was a realization for them, as it was for my friends. They cared about me and simply didn't know it was an issue.

It was a realization for the teacher as well, recognizing that starting with negativity is really hard for kids. If a child sees a negative reaction from their teacher reading their name on an attendance sheet, it tells them that seeing their name makes someone frown and be uncomfortable. Switch it up—if there are names you don't know, maybe start with a name game and have the children say their names to you, and write them down. Skip the discomfort. When teachers start class asking how to say my name, and they keep saying it right, it makes a huge difference to me. It tells me that the teacher cares that I'm there.

Why is this issue particularly important to you?

My true name takes effort. It is harder to say Shee-key-la than Shuh-kay-la, and there is beauty in that. When people take the time to say my name in the correct way, it tells me that they care enough about me to pronounce my name as it is intended. And that's really special. I feel very strongly about this topic.

There are so many different aspects of identity that are difficult to bring up and talk about honestly, especially if you're not the one holding power. If you have an unusual name, you can go from a childhood experience of getting made fun of to the corporate world where people might not take you as seriously or think you're not as professional because your name sounds like something they made fun of when they were kids. I don't know many CEOs named Shekeyla. When someone sees my name on a resume, how much bias—conscious or unconscious—is going into their decision to put me in an interview if my name is one you might have made fun of or thought of as "ghetto"?

I see the book as a starting point, as a conversation starter. I’ve received text messages from former coworkers who read it to their kids, and their kids are talking about it and telling them about their experiences in school. And that's an easy way to continue the conversation—the kids may not be in the boardroom, but the parents are!

Why a children’s book?

Earlier this year I spent quite a bit of time talking with a professor about how to pronounce my name. The professor got it wrong again in the very next class. I felt like it was time for me to speak up. The classroom wasn’t the right platform, so I started thinking about writing an article. But then I thought about why this was so important to me and realized that it all came down to my childhood experiences. I was still using the jingles that I taught myself when I was in elementary school as a graduate student at Harvard. That told me that this might be a really big, difficult topic, but at the end of the day I need to explain it as I would to an eight-year old. If the topic is broken down to where a child can absorb it, it shouldn't be that hard to understand as an adult.

In the beginning of our conversation today, you made sure you could pronounce my name, and I made sure I could pronounce yours. That should be the norm. It's a basic kindness. How can you say you know me if you don't know how to say my name, or if you don't feel like saying my name? It's one of the basics.

What has the reception been to the book?

The first week, I was absolutely overwhelmed. All of my friends and family ordered it immediately and I started getting texts and emails and Instagram posts. It was crazy and amazing to get that support. I have friends with zero children in their lives, but they supported me and liked the story. Former coworkers sent me pictures and videos of their children reading it with them, which was amazing! It’s awesome to see it in the hands of kids, to have them understand it and take the message away and be able to start a conversation. I have a lot of little customers who might be reading it upside down, but one day they'll be able to read it themselves. In the first week I sold 110, which was my goal for the entire book! I'm absolutely thrilled. Amazon is very secretive about their rankings, but it was the number two hot new release in the children’s manners category. A very niche corner, but I'll take it! I'm very happy with the response. It's amazing that people actually want the message.

What’s next for you?

I came to HBS wanting to figure out how to have a big impact. I thought that I’d start a private investment consulting firm that highlighted diverse investment managers. But now I’m going into consulting because I want to learn and discover more industries and do something with a diversity and inclusion angle. I think everyone really needs to have that element in what they do; I don't see it as a role for one person, I see it as something that every person needs to take on in order for a workplace to actually be inclusive. I'm figuring out what my contribution is, and that starts with my experience. When I think about my impact on the world and how I want to help people with what I've learned, the very first thing is my name. I can't tell you about myself and my experiences if I don't tell you my name first, so I see this as a starting point.

The original article was published on the HBS Newsroom.