On The Record: The Evidence of Success w/ Travis Nembhard
Travis is the youngest administrative law judge in Washington, D.C., Nembhard oversees hearings and mediations at the D.C. Department of For-Hire Vehicles, an agency he helped draft legislation to create as an aide to D. C. Council member Mary Cheh. Travis attended Binghamton University where he completed a Bachelor of Science degree in financial economics, while competing as a Division I athlete in Men’s Varsity Track & Field. He later earned a juris doctor at the Villanova University School of Law.
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Episode 9: The Evidence of Success w/ Travis Nembhard
Written by: Sope Aluko
What was growing up like for you?
Travis: I grew up in a five sibling household. I had all brothers. My parents were Jamaican immigrants. We lived in Long Island, New York. We were a middle class family focused on education with my mother being a nurse and my father being an engineer. That was the driving force for my brothers and myself. With five brothers, it was competitive and a lot of fun. I was in the middle so I think that being in the middle has been helpful because you learn how to lead your younger brothers but also get to follow you older brothers. You get the best of both worlds.
As a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up?
Travis: I’ve wanted to be a judge since I was six years old. At the time, I felt like whenever I would get into arguments with my brothers, or I would see unfair things happening, I would think to myself, “Man, I wish I could do something about it” and I would say “One day, I’m going to become a judge. You better not show up in my courtroom.” It started out that way but eventually over time, I learned more about what becoming a judge entails and that you often have to become a lawyer in order to become a judge. That filled in the blank and directed my trajectory.
What did you study and what were your next moves to position yourself to become a judge?
Travis: I didn’t actually target becoming a judge over the long haul. It just kind of happened. I first wanted to become an attorney. I was speaking with my father, who is a life coach of mine, and he told me to do economics because economics was another way of thinking and it will help you with the LSAT, which people often take to go to law school. I decided to do financial economics and it was actually really hard. There were a lot of classes I could have taken and gotten As in, but economics was a challenge. Sometimes I would ask myself, “Why did I do this? Why didn’t I just take what I was good at?” I was good at English, Spanish, and Science but economics was tough. I was glad I did it because when I went into the legal profession, there weren’t as many economic majors. I think to an extent, being an attorney helps because you have to educate yourself on different issues that have come before you to help out your clients. After Binghamton, I went to the Villanova University School of Law and concentrated on business law to stick within the economic realm. At that time, I had switched off the judge mindset and was thinking I was going to do big merger and acquisition transactions. By the time I graduated law school, that was completely out the window. I shifted to helping in public interest, working for something bigger than myself. When I did those internships, I would often find myself sitting and thinking, “What’s the point? What’s the purpose? Why am I here?” I wanted to work for something bigger than myself.
What was your first job after you left Villanova?
Travis: It was two jobs, actually. The first job was unpaid because I couldn’t find a paid job while I was waiting on the bar results. It was a challenge. I got this opportunity as an assistant attorney general. The title was there, the salary wasn’t. I had my own office in downtown Wall Street in Manhattan. No salary. I worked at Dunkin‘ Donuts overnight and the commute was an hour and a half, one way, so three hours total. I would get home, suit up for 8 o’clock, work an overnight shift, and then go to sleep for an hour or maybe two, get up and start all over again, for almost a year. It was a humbling experience and I’ll never forget it. I have a burn. They use these oven mitts that I used to bake the donuts and the bagels. I was the only one working overnight. It charred through and it burned my hand. I ended up dropping the tray and the door of the oven closed on my arm. The burn is going away but I always used to joke that it’ll be a reminder to tell my grandkids, “Stay humble.”
What is a day in the life as an administrative judge in D.C. like?
Travis: As an administrative law judge, what I primarily focus on is the industry of transportation, specifically for-hire vehicles. It’s actually at the D.C. Department of For Hire Vehicles. I started there from the inception.I worked for the Ward 3 Councilmember Mary Cheh as her legislative counsel, and drafted a bill that created the agency. At the time, I didn’t know that while creating the bill, I would eventually end up there. When I started at the agency, I first helped build out the office. A lot of my early role was setting the rules for other judges to abide by, getting the gavel and the gown and all those things. I felt like I was starting a business. Now, it has shifted more to conducting hearings like the vehicle for hire vs. the city. There’s public and there’s private for hire. If a Uber driver or a cab driver gets fined, they can appeal that and it comes before me, and then that appeal comes before the D.C. Court of Appeals. I can either grant their appeal in favor of what they’re asking for or deny it. Private for hire vehicles have definitely helped drive up competition in a way that will make the taxi cab industry better. Working for the Department of For-Hire Vehicles, I have found that, depending on the length of the trip, it can be cheaper to take in a cab when you’re riding a short distance, especially during the times when private for-hire vehicles do surge pricing. The Department is starting to roll out innovative things such as the DC Taxi app and a rating system so customers are able to rate their taxi experience. That speaks to the ability to improve the experience in all sectors.
How important has mentorship been to you in order to get where you are today?
Travis: I would say that it’s been important in helping open doors. The biggest mentor has been my father in guidance with making decisions. As to the actual opportunities during my 1L summer, I got an opportunity in D.C. and that’s unheard of from a lot of other schools in other markets because D.C. is the lawyer capital so everybody was trying to go to D.C. I had that opportunity because of a professor who helped me out and I’ll never forget that. Shoutout to Robert Thomas Miller, who is now a professor at Iowa Law. He helped tremendously.
If you had to think about three or four people on your Mount Rushmore of Inspiration, who would they be?
Travis: The first one is very cliche but it would be my dad. He inspires me in many ways. I wasn’t always driven and on the right path. My dad was there to help guide me. One of the biggest things I see is kids who stray. They don’t have that person to guide them on the straight and narrow. One of my brothers had it on his own. It didn’t matter what neighborhood he was in. He was going to succeed. For me, I needed that influence and my dad was that influence. My dad is definitely an inspirational figure. The second person would be President Obama. He was my former boss. I had an opportunity to intern at the White House, my last year of law school. It was completely random in the sense that when I went through law school, I was never the person that was top of the class. I was somewhere in the middle and in law school that is one thing that people beat over your head-grades, grades, grades. In reality, grades aren’t everything. Experience through internships and other opportunities that teach you the real world are everything. I applied to the internship and I didn’t think that I was going to get it. I just submitted it at whitehouse.gov. The night before, I had to do a one page memo about what you would say to the Chief Of Staff and how you would brief them on a pressing issue. I talked about drones, something I knew nothing about but I went and researched about. Thanksgiving came around and the day before Thanksgiving, I got a phone call. Before, I had an interview and thought I bombed it because I’m horrible at talking about myself. I just took my resume and read it. It was a phone interview so they didn’t see me. I warmed up eventually but I thought to myself “What are the chances?” I got into a conversation with three people, and one guy I really hit it off with. They said, “Let us know if you don’t hear anything back.” I thought that was interesting but I didn’t want to assume anything. Thanksgiving comes and I get an email saying I got that internship. It was one of the greatest experiences. The only thing greater than that besides getting married, was riding in his motorcade. It was an eye opening experience. MLK would be the third person. He was pivotal in a lot of ways. I think between him and Malcolm X, they balance each other out. MLK peacefully protested in a way and changed the way civil disobedience could be done in this country. The fourth would be Abraham Lincoln. When I went to the Lincoln Cottage with my wife, then fiancée at the time, they told us the history behind the wedding venue and the Lincolns. He had over 8 attempts on his life because of his anti-slavery position. His wife actually got injured one time because someone loosened the wheels on Lincoln’s horse carriage. It was cool to hear that and see that he stuck by his principles.
What is your passion and when did you know?
Travis: My passion is being a ripple that changes many people’s lives for the better. I learned that pretty early on. I had an inkling of it when I was younger.I didn’t like things being unfair. I said, “I’m going to become a judge one day and lock all the bad people up.” That started to shift and I started to look at different opportunities where I had experiences in public interest. I had a case where they were still discriminating based on race in New York. They said “No colored persons allowed” in a hospital because a patient didn’t want to deal with any Black staff. My experience with knowing that if my dad wasn’t in the picture, I wouldn’t be where I am. School wasn’t a priority at the time. He had the vision to move us out of where we were originally in Hempstead, Long Island. That made a difference. At the new school, you’re completely encapsulated in a world where kids saw academic success as pivotal. Even sports somewhat fell by the wayside. Even sports fell on the wayside. I’ve always been a big sports guy but that transformed my mind over time to appreciate the need to focus on school. I wasn’t a huge fan of school, but I knew that in order for me to get where I need to be, I need to first do the things that need to be done.
What has been the biggest challenge for you as a Black man to get to where you are today?
Travis: I’m in a profession where it’s not very diverse. In D.C, it’s a little different. In many ways, a Black male in the legal profession outside of D.C is not by any stretch of the imagination a majority. Even when I spent some time at my first internship at Goldman Sachs, which is pretty diverse, you can still see there was a “token” component. I worked at FINRA, which is the other side of investment banks as a financial regulator, and there, there was only one Black person per department in our office. The people there are great, and they are driven, but a lot of the hiring occurred through who they knew.” Communities are very segregated up until today. In fact, New York has the most segregated school system in the country, even more so than Texas. When I moved from Hempstead, I moved from a predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhood, to a predominantly White neighborhood. I was the only Black kid in my class. The students were like, “Can I touch your hair?” They had never interacted with a Black student prior to meeting me. As we got older, there were more Black students but it was still a big disparity. For me, navigating as a Black man has been easier for me because of my Dad’s foresight when he moved us out to a safer neighborhood with a better school system. Diversity is really key because it opens doors and we see this more than ever in this country. When people keep to their camps, there is misinformation on both sides. I think that’s the biggest challenge. For me, it hasn’t been as bad because I grew up exposed to it. Some of my other brothers weren’t used to the demographic shift, which made it somewhat harder for them to adjust.
What separates people who have made their dream a reality from those who haven’t?
Travis: I think that one portion of it is luck. I would be lying to you if I said I didn’t get lucky. My application for the White House Internship could have landed in front of someone that had no interest in my resume. Even the law school I went to. I was visiting different law schools and Villanova hadn’t offered me any scholarship money. My dad was like, “don’t waste your time visiting that law school and just head back up to school." I was taking off time from college to look at some schools. Something told me to go there and I met with the academic advisor and the head of Financial Aid. I told him I really like the school. They didn’t have a tour guide, but they asked a current student and she offered to take me to her next class. It was unplanned and it was great. I met the professor and he later ended up being one of my recommenders on applications when I was in law school at Villanova. I told the Asst. Director of Financial Aid, ‘I love this school, but I can’t afford to come here.” He asked me how much the other schools were giving me and when I said $60,000, he said, ‘if I give you the $60,000 scholarship would you consider attending Villanova?” I, of course, said yes. I told my Dad and he was shocked. You have to drive and the push for it. I saw that it was important to knock on all those doors because when you do, you don’t know what doors are going to open up. If I had limited myself and said, there’s no point in applying for the White House internship, I would have never gotten it.
What inspires you to succeed?
Travis: I would say my parents. The sacrifices that they made. Seeing where my dad grew up, it’s like he lived two different lives because I couldn’t imagine him growing up where he did.” The view was amazing, but his upbringing was humbling. We later went to Kingston to see where my mom grew up and for the first time, I saw my dad get a bit nervous. Parts of Kingston, where she grew up, I thought the roads were gravel, but in fact, my dad told me the roads were once paved and that the roads appeared to be gravel because the city never kept up with some of the roads. My Dad understood that there were certain parts of Kingston that were like that I always used to joke with my parents and say “Kids are like lotto tickets. Good for you for having six.” All of us are very different and are in different professions. We are all very driven. There’s nothing more inspiring to me than me wanting to see that my parents sacrifices weren’t made in vain.
What frustrates you the most about today’s culture?
Travis: The thing that frustrates me the most is the lack of understanding for the other side. For example, the misunderstanding of the Black Lives Matter movement and what it stands for. Black Lives Matter is said to promote the idea that only the lives of black people matter, but that’s not true; what it’s trying to say is that “Black Lives Matter, Too.” If you look at the recent attack by Trump on the FBI, whatever happened to respecting law enforcement? When it’s coming from him, it’s okay, but if it’s Black Lives Matter talking about law enforcement practices, it’s viewed from a totally different lens. I’ve seen both sides growing up in a low to middle income neighborhood, and moving from one that was very diverse to one that wasn’t. I have friends that are very conservative and see it one way and I wish we could bridge that gap. I think diversity is going to solve that. We don’t think about getting people to think like us when we've grown up together. No one thinks, “Oh that guy is scary because I’ve never seen a Black guy before” if you’ve grown up around black people. As the country continues to grow in its diversity, which is inevitable whether we have a wall or not, it’s going to happen. The numbers are there.
Is there a book that has really inspired you as a law professional?
Travis: I would say not really in the legal profession. There was a book when I was younger. I had a chip on my shoulder and the book taught me how to control my passion. I think a lot of people are passionate but they don’t know how to guide it. That’s one of the things my dad was able to teach me.At first I didn’t know how to harness it and it was more destructive than it was beneficial. That book helped and I think he knew that when he gave it to me to read.
What advice do you have for someone who wants to succeed in law or politics?
Travis: Never give up and stay motivated. The only person that can impact your future is you. There are different hurdles that come your way and you can’t control that. There are different people that will try and get in your path- they’re going to get jealous, and envious, and want to undermine your successes. As a young administrative law judge, people feel threatened. I interned at this company, there was an opportunity where I had met the CEO and he said, “Reach out to me when you have the chance.” I told my internship coordinator and he said, “I don’t think you should” and I never did out of respect. I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers. I regret it. I regret not telling him AFTER I had already set up the meeting. He wouldn’t say I had to cancel. It was one of those, “Better to ask for forgiveness” things. In many ways you drive your ship. In many ways, I have always felt that in this country, we have our hiccups, but we have a lot of opportunities. I look at life as a highway. Switch into the next lane and go right past. That’s what it comes down to to motivate yourself. You’re sitting down thinking, “I don’t feel like doing this right now." Just think each day that if you do what you have to do in order to move towards whatever you’re trying to succeed at, it will get you closer to that goal.
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