Awareness is always the first step towards change. A lot has been said regarding gender inequality in the workspace, as the gender gap still exists and no current solution seems to properly tackle the issue: “Women’s salaries are lower than men’s throughout every level of the workforce. But the disparity between men and women is perhaps most pronounced at the level of CEO, where women are egregiously under-represented.” Being a woman of color while aspiring to a leadership position adds an extra layer of difficulty. Since a very young age, I knew that my career growth would depend on how successful I was in navigating obstacles as a person belonging to a double-minority. I thought that sharing my own personal story about becoming a leader could clarify the disparity women face when aspiring to reach leadership positions. I would like to share as well, the awkward situations I still face on a daily basis, as I find myself explaining over and over again that yes, I’m the boss.
Women of color and leadership
Despite the obstacles we face, women of color are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the US: “The number of businesses created by black women in the United States alone is up more than 460% over the last 20 years, making them the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the nation. In addition, black women are the majority owners in 1.5 million businesses, with more than $42 billion in sales, and $7.7 billion in payroll.”
Four years ago, I co-founded DarcMatter along with Sang Lee, an undergrad school classmate and good friend of mine. Our fintech platform connects fund managers that are raising capital with investors around the world.
Since I was young I had a great passion for increasing diversity and awareness of black entrepreneurs, and more specifically, black female entrepreneurs. When I was in my junior year of high school I became the youngest participant to start a corporate internship in INROADS, a non-profit organization founded in 1970 fixing the lack of ethnic diversity in corporate America. I also won the Girl Scout Gold Award from the city of Mount Vernon, New York, a minority suburb outside New York City. Since then, I grew up aware of the fact that I represent a minority within a growing minority, and that awareness has been the fuel behind my career goals, to succeed at becoming a black female entrepreneur in the fintech space.
Three lessons learned as a black female entrepreneur in the fintech space
Stereotypes: You will be stereotyped, so be yourself
A recent psychological study used Twitter to ask people to make judgements based solely on their posts: ‘This included guessing their gender, age, education level and political views. Almost every woman who posted about technology was inaccurately believed to be a man,’ explained researchers. Assumptions of how black people act has caused a lot of damage to our self confidence. Black women are easily stereotyped, but putting braids in our hair or speaking louder than the rest doesn’t mean we are ‘bitchy’ or less qualified for the job. On the contrary, it shows that we are comfortable in our own skin, nevertheless, this won’t change the mindset. Men constantly approach me in a different way than they do with my male co-founder, even if they know I’m leading the meeting. Many times, I have to tell men to take a step back and watch their tone. Verbalizing what is happening, has always helped me to let them know that their approach is not ok. In the end, a confident attitude and showing your expertise at work will surely create the right expectations about your unique persona.
Mansplaining: If you’re the captain, steer the ship
Researchers have found that when asking to ‘Picture a leader’, most people will draw a man: “People make judgements holding unconscious assumptions about gender. This seems to affect people’s abilities to recognize emerging leadership. What they found is that getting noticed as a leader in the workplace is more difficult for women than for men”. In a conference or meeting, most people will immediately approach my male co-founder assuming he is the one leading the discussion. I learned as a co-founder and COO not to let men patronize me or run my meetings just because others THINK they are in control or know better than me. Mansplaining is a term inspired after Rebecca Solnit’s book “Men Explain Things to Me”, where Solnit makes an interesting observation after a man once explained the contents of one of Solnit’s famous books to her, not realizing that she herself had written it. “Men explain things to me, and other women, whether or not they know what they’re talking about. Some men. Every woman knows what I’m talking about. It’s the presumption that makes it hard at times for any woman in any field; that keeps women from speaking up and being heard when they dare; that crushes young women in to silence by indicating, the way harassment on the street does, that this is not their world. It trains us in self-doubt and self limitation just as it exercises men’s unsupported overconfidence (Men Explain Things to Me, Chapter 1).”
Mentorship: Be the person you needed when you were starting out
At some point, while climbing the ladder of leadership, it is important to look behind our egos and help other women of color who are also growing up. When I was starting out, it helped me a lot to find a mentor with similar background and goals. Having someone to look up to and reach out to or advice and mentorship, enhances comfort for women of color in the workplace and shows camaraderie: “It’s called passing the torch, and I’ve seen my white counterparts do it well. It’s important for us to mentor and groom each other for higher roles. You have someone you can look up to who looks like you and can also show you the ins-and-outs of thriving in the industry. And once you’ve benefited from this, don’t forget to reach back and do the same.”
In my career, and honestly throughout my life, I have been blessed with some pretty great mentors. All whom have come into my life at the right time for one reason or another. One whom I am always trying to keep up with, both a great sister-friend and mentor, is Bozoma Saint John. I met Boz at PepsiCo many years ago, and of course, was instantly in awe of the powerhouse that would walk past my desk. One day I literally just said “HEY! I’m Natasha and I don’t know you yet!” to which she replied, “Natasha! I am Boz, and now ya KNOW!” From then on, I knew I needed to get to know her and her story. She became a mentor of mine when I asked for her advice regarding my career path and her thoughts on my next steps were. She showed me first hand, how important it is to show up and show out for your people, and why we as females, nonetheless black females, need to create the support we want through our own communities. Because if not us, then who? She was also the poster child for “bring your whole self” to work, and inspired many others to do the same!
Currently, only 2% of CEOs ranked in the list of highest paid executives of Fortune 500 companies are women. Nevertheless, women of color are the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs in the USA. I represent a minority within a growing minority. So how did black women become the fastest growing group of entrepreneurs? The answer is resilience. The strong desire to create real change is the fuel people need to achieve their goals, and resilience is an inner characteristic black women can proudly brag about. According to the 2017 State of women-owned business report, “Higher unemployment rates, long-term unemployment, and a much greater pay gap led women of color to start businesses at a greater rate out of necessity and the need to survive, rather than a desire to seize a market opportunity. For the last 20 years, women of color have turned to entrepreneurship at an extraordinary rate. While the number of women-owned businesses grew 114% from 1997 to 2017, firms owned by women of color grew at more than four times that rate (467%).” In my case, whether it be through an inappropriate approach or mistaken assumption of my responsibilities and role in the company, I often find myself having to prove to men how I made it to the top of the career ladder. Many women might find this constant validation exhausting but from a young age, I’ve learned to fight against stereotypes and patronizing behavior. This hasn’t stopped my motivation to keep moving forward; instead, it reinforces my passion to increase diversity, raise awareness on the matter and keep encouraging women, and black women in particular, to follow their dreams.