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A Black Woman in Corporate America

The pressure, the opportunities, the lessons learned to own my unique greatness being the "first" and the "only" in the room.

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I remember when I got my first job offer to work in corporate America. I’d just graduated college – the first person in my family to do so.

I was happy to get the offer, but I also had a flood of other emotions – fear, nervousness, and feeling lost, as if I’d been dropped into the middle of a forest with no compass. How would I navigate the world of business? Would I fit in? Would I advance? I was the first and only person in my family to enter the corporate world – while it was an accomplishment the weight of figuring it all out was real.

Sometimes we have a tendency to minimize our skills when we perceive them as insignificant compared to others we believe are further along than us. For many women of color, our ambitions can get disillusioned on the road to success – particularly when we don’t see people that look like us in the very roles we desire.

I’ve spent over fifteen years in the corporate world and learned a few things about what it means to be a black woman leading in global companies. Let me be clear, this isn’t a dismal list of wrongs that need to be made right, this is what I’ve observed and learned to thrive as a woman that believes she holds tremendous value in her career and personal life – despite the challenges she’s experienced.

1. I represent what people in the room don’t see often: Let me be honest – in a number of rooms I’ve sat in during my career, there weren’t many or any people that looked like me. What did that translate to? Added pressure – to represent, and to represent well, so the next black woman (or man) would be invited into the room without hesitation. This might sound extreme but check the latest McKinsey statistics on women of color in the workplace – particularly in senior leadership roles – and you’ll know I’m not exaggerating. There are assumptions about people of color– it can come across in a comment, a question, but often misinformed, prejudgments that I’ve bore – and had to prove them wrong. I could be guilty by association of skin color until proven innocent. Add that to the countless stories I’ve heard from women of color about being stifled in advancement and I know there’s still work to do.   

2. Being the first and only brings a steep learning curve: When I got my first job offer, I wish I could tell you that I negotiated my salary – but I didn’t. I was just happy to be offered a job, happy to be invited to the table. And as ashamed as I am to admit, that wasn’t the last I didn’t negotiate. I didn’t have anyone I knew, or at least trusted, to ask career info – no one I knew around me had already been where I was going. I thought, “How could I, a black girl from nowhere dare ask for more from a big corporate entity? Surely they could’ve offered the job to someone else – I should just be happy with what I got.” To be clear, this is a mindset I quickly had to unlearn – I recognize my value now but it took experience, mentorship, and self-realization that helped me learn what to absolutely ask for without reservation.

3. I have opportunity – as pressure filled as it might be: My grandmother never held a “professional” job- she was born in 1918 and chopped wood on the railroad tracks as a young woman, cleaned people’s houses and worked in the kitchen at my preschool when she got older. With that perspective, I gladly lead and represent in my profession because I know the reality of what wasn’t possible at all for her. I still remember the smile on her face when I graduated, and the joy in her voice whenever I called to tell her about another success in my career. While there is still much work to be done to advance women of color in the workplace, the opportunity to grow is still present – even if it means bowing out of an organization that does not, or will not, recognize your value and joining one that celebrates, and not just tolerates, you. It’s #teamvelera 100%.

4. There’s an (unspoken) advantage: One of the biggest, yet often unspoken challenges, is knowing that cultural differences matter at work and affect who’s promoted and who’s not. I’ve watched it happen time and time again – often managers and senior leaders promote people that look like them or have similarities. So where does that leave women of color? Often on the sidelines – working just as hard but not getting promoted as often.
According to the 2019 McKinsey & Company Women in the Workplace study, for every 100 men promoted, only 58 women of color were promoted– the least of any race of women. It’s a reality, some people will not support me for whatever reason – and I’m ok with that, I’m actively building my tribe and personal board of directors that advocate for me without hesitation when I’m not in the room. I must say that I’ve been fortunate to have amazing support from women and men in my career – but that’s not the case for every woman. Real challenges and obstacles exist to career advancement for women of color.

It’s in this intersection of being truthful with myself about the challenges that I also see the resilience, the courage, and the flourishing that has occurred in my life as a woman with purpose as I advance in my career.

Here are a few principles and convictions that have been pressed into my heart as a result of my experiences:

1. Know When It’s Time to Walk Away: This point is first by design -because sometimes it’s the best thing to do. You hold tremendous value – the time and money spent investing in your career and skills are worth something and should be treated as such. I’ve talked to women that have been in the same roles for yeeeaaarrrs waiting for the promotion or the raise they were promised. Nahhhh. Pack your stuff and move on because believe it or not, there is a company that will value you, or at minimum, pay you what your skills are worth. Life is too short to stay miserable and under-recognized somewhere you spend eight-plus hours a day. Move on when you know you’ve done all you can do where you are. Do it smartly of course – but do it anyway.

2. Help Another Woman Up: It’s become my passion to help other women because I remember being the woman who was just happy to get invited to the table but hadn’t figured out her worth. I know what it feels like to question whether you’re “the right fit” because of some external or internal invalidation that has occurred. I’ve written guides to help other women in their career for this very reason – to shave off time, shorten learning curves, understand the rules to advancement, and boost their confidence at work.
I believe that when you realize your value, you will show up differently in your career – and that will lead to even greater opportunities for you, not ones that you’ve waited on, but ones that you’ve created.

3. Leverage Your Unique GREATNESS: As women of color, our experiences bring tremendous perspective to the tables we sit at and it’s not to be discounted – workplace studies show how racial and gender diversity in leadership positively impacts innovation and value creation for companies. Even if you’re under recognized, underpaid, or underestimated by one person or entity– know that you make a positive contribution wherever you go. So, hold your head up, share your knowledge, and know that what you do matters.
As you gain experience realize that YOU are the brand so shrinking isn’t an option – because it’s denying the greatness inside of you that’s being developed. Work hard and show up with confidence wherever you go because there is a door that will open for you (yep, I’m all about those doors – trust me, if you keep knocking one will open for you too). This is the mindset that’s allowed me to make progress in my career.

4. Ask for What You Want: I say this in just about every panel I sit on or speech I give – if you are afraid to ask for what you want you will always be shortchanged. Being fearful to ask for what I really wanted professionally taught me that denying my desires to make others feel comfortable did me a disservice. As women, we too have a responsibility to leave a legacy – so what will it be? Will it be a list of what we should’ve, would’ve, could’ve done? Or will it be a list of things we did.  Our legacy is directly correlated to our willingness to ask for what we know we want – and to go after it. And this isn’t a matter of waiting for permission – it’s a matter of knocking, pushing, and seeking until the dream is realized.

To every woman reading this – regardless of your race, whether you’re the first or only one in the room, or simply unsure of your greatness from time to time, know that there’s something amazing on the inside of you, and even when challenges persist, the fierce overcomer that you are will thrive regardless.

Velera Wilson is a speaker, author and consultant who helps ambitious women and organizations develop their talent and leadership skills. She’s also the founder of Positive Identity, a company that creates inspirational and educational content to help women own their greatness. Visit www.velerawilson.com to learn more.

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