She Ditched the Corner Office

How do you go from single corporate executive to married best-selling author? One woman’s story.

By Jean Hanff Korelitz
Author Lalita Tademy (Photo: Winni Wintermeyer)

Leaving the Corporate World

In the early 1990s, Lalita Tademy, then in her 40s, was earning in the mid-six figures as a vice president at Sun Microsystems, a multibillion-dollar computer company in Silicon Valley. On a typical day, she would rise at 5:30 a.m. and commute 35 minutes to work, usually arriving before eight a.m. She would endure a crush of back-to-back meetings, constant phone calls, and as many as 150 e-mails — all while cramming down lunch at her desk and dealing with endless logistics — until leaving the office nearly 12 hours later. She would come home to prepared meals delivered in plastic containers to her front step. Often she would be so exhausted and so hungry that she would just stand at her kitchen counter to eat the food, dropping the empty containers back on her front step to be picked up. She was single but not dating. Once a three-times-a-week player of hard-charging racquetball, Tademy no longer even knew where to find her racket. She gained 40 pounds.

So in 1995 she quit her job.

"I’d loved it for a really long time," she says. "I loved doing deals. I loved the challenges and proving the impossible could be done. But it was no longer feeding me. Something in the back of my mind said, ‘This is not enough.’"

After a career that had taken her from Philip Morris to Xerox to Sun, from New York to Los Angeles and back to the Bay Area, where she grew up, she could have scaled back or taken a leave. But Tademy knew that she had to make her move in such a way that there could be no escape back to corporate life. She had a financial cushion for three years, but she only allowed herself one: a year to take a deep breath and find a new direction. "I made a contract with myself that I would not take any work, no matter what headhunter called or what opportunity came up," she says. If she couldn’t think of something else to do, she figured she would then have two years to find the right job.

Of course, what had felt like a sensible decision on Tademy’s final Friday at work was absolutely terrifying when Monday rolled around and she woke to a bafflingly empty schedule. She began phoning the people she wanted to reconnect with and found that (no surprise) they weren’t available in the middle of the day. "Suddenly," she says, "I had to find something to do with 80 hours a week."

Unearthing Her Story

What emerged from Tademy’s daunting new leisure was time to think. She had always been fascinated by her family’s history in a small Louisiana town called Colfax. She started spending time at her local branches of the National Archives and the Mormon Family History Center, "working the genealogy like a job," as she puts it. Along the way, Tademy amassed roughly a thousand documents — land deeds, census records, birth certificates, and newspaper articles — and learned about the generations of slaves and slave owners, massacres and injustices, repression and ascension that formed her family’s history. As she read the documents, she says, "The stories started to pop out and dovetail with the things I had heard as a child."

In the 1950s, Tademy’s father, Ted, had formed a loose association of five African-American families and purchased land, through a white front buyer, in a white suburb of Oakland, California. His intention had been to build houses for each of the newcomers, but his own family, the first to make the move, was shunned. The new neighbors were so resistant to the integration of their town that they pooled their money to buy back the land — at a profit. Ted declined the offer. "We were the lone black family there for a while, and it was very tough," Tademy says. "The kids that I made friends with were constantly being snatched away because their parents forbade them to play with me. I found that books were my friends."

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