Find Your Compliment, Not Your Carbon Copy When Creating Your Workforce

I had the pleasure of interviewing J. Marcelle, CEO of Girls With Knowlege Inc, a collective of female leaders whose mission is to empower…

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I had the pleasure of interviewing J. Marcelle, CEO of Girls With Knowlege Inc, a collective of female leaders whose mission is to empower girls and women in marginalized communities by providing encouragement, support and inspiration towards living purposefully through a journey of self discovery and global service. J. Marcelle is also the COO of Xposure Foundation Inc. a 501c3 nonprofit organization with a mission to expose children and people of all ages to the worlds of science, technology, finance, employment/work ethic, fitness/nutrition, community service and stronger parent/child partnerships.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! What is your “backstory” regarding diversity in the workplace?

My professional experience was built on the foundation of challenging, sink-or-swim, highly competitive corporate environments within white male dominated industries. After graduating undergrad in Atlanta, I moved to New York in search of “true competition”. In my mind at the time I couldn’t stake my claim of being the best until I worked amongst the best. The best of the best were in New York City. Having this mindset upon entering the NYC workforce may have very well blinded me from seeing the truth of the matter — that while through the diligence, smart work and dedication of proving myself to be “best-in-class”, I may have only really been seen as the “non-threatening black girl” that enabled a company to check off their diversity boxes; female — check, immigrant — check check, and black — check check check. .

Women were consistently marginalized in my professional environments. Often gratuitously given a level of access, but only at the sanction and within the boundaries set by the men. Once we got too smart, asked too many questions or excelled beyond the accomplishments of our male counterparts, we would quickly be pushed back in our corners. This was always a challenge for me because my vibrant, infectious, full figured presence always stood out in the room. That’s where I began to embrace being an unapologetically Brilliant, Big and Black Woman!

Throughout my career I longed for more professional sisterhood, support and collaboration. When a new woman would join the organization, my natural reaction would be to gravitate to her, but I would hesitate because sadly I knew it would only be a matter of time before the gloves would come off and we would be pitted against each other. There was only room for one! It was this point in my journey that pushed me to the place that I am now. A place of passion for reciprocal collaboration with women to support and advance the rights of women and rewrite the narrative of women having to compete for one position. I have created a collective of women that are strong, powerful, best in class, and truly willing to support each other. We aren’t competing with each other, we’re competing against ourselves.

Can you share the funniest or most interesting story that happened to you since you began leading your company?

A few years ago, during an excursion to Northern Nigeria, I traveled North in an effort to establish strategic partners for a GWK innitiative to provide solar powered digital schools in the villages. My contacts on ground in Nigeria for this initiative were men so they escorted me from village to village to meet with all of the Ministries that would be benefitting from this endeavor. I remember vividly entering the office of one Minister, in particular, who upon meeting me nodded his head as his religious restrictions wouldn’t allow him to shake my hand. With respect for his religion, I was totally accepting of his restriction. But then I kept noticing that as we were engaged in casual conversation prior to the meeting that he kept addressing his comments and eye contact to the men. As far as he was concerned I was irrelevant and invisible in the room. After a short period of time he question the men about when the Oba (a Yoruba term commonly used in West Africa to refer to a ruler, boss or chief) would arrive so we could begin the meeting. Perplexed and embarrassed the men quietly whispered to the Minister “Oh no sir, sorry I don’t think you understand. She IS the OBA”. Suddenly, with his eyes wide open and a deep penetrating stare, I became visible.

What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?

We stand out because we don’t build boundaries on our creativity, collaboration, or innovation. There are no limitations to what our women and girls can do. No industry that they cannot pursue. We provide them with a platform for a voice and choice to use as they desire. For so long, women have been marginalized in the workplace, in their communities and even in their families. Our mission is to eradicate the marginalization by providing tools of empowerment. We are proud to be a part of this generation’s female Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials who have united to build a platform that is creating a new way for female Gen Yers. Between the “Me Too” movement and a push for inclusion of female founders/CEOs, our Gen Y girls have a partial paved road of opportunity to pursue their girl power and goddess magic. That’s amazing, and far from the climate 40 years ago. The foundations of empowerment that our organization continues to lay of education, opportunity, access and action is what I wished I had as support in the earlier years of my career. We created this and we’re continuing to fight to ensure that girls today can be empowered and uplifted. It’s an opportunity for them to write their own narrative and chart their own course without limitations. I’m proud to make my contribution as a small pioneer.

Are you working on any new or exciting projects now?

I’m very excited to be the Director of the Beauty & Style Experience at the 2018 ESSENCE Festival in New Orleans. It’s definitely black girl magic at its pinnacle. Essence is a publication for women of color, run by women of color, and an overall celebration of people of color. It literally feels like the antithesis of what my career has been for the past 20 years. When I work from the ESSENCE offices, I see firsthand the power of Black Girl Magic manifested by brilliant people with amazing minds creating historical moments in urban pop culture. Seeing the magic coming from women of color working collaboratively is dope! I’m so proud to be a part of that. It’s redefined my understanding of being best in class and has realized my dream to work amongst the best.

What advice would you give to other CEOs or founders to help their employees to thrive?

Find your compliment, not your carbon copy! Reflect on who you are, even your limitations (yes, you have limitations) and confront them by surrounding yourself with brilliant people who can supplement them. Embrace a diversified perspective and a 360 degree approach to doing business so that its well rounded and representative of inclusion. Eliminate the “yessers” and find people who will diversify your mindset by challenging you to think beyond your own capabilities.

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are?

I am grateful for all the difficult people that I’ve reported to because they have each contributed significantly to who I’ve developed into as a leader. Their adamant push-back has propelled me to continuously think of new strategies to achieve my goals. Their positive and negative influences have contributed to the vision that I have crafted for my own organization. Most recently my mentor, Raymond L. Thomas Jr., CEO of Xposure Foundation Inc. has had a huge impact on my perspective about leadership. One of the things that I respect about him is his fearless and relentless nature, particularly when others begin to doubt him. When he met me, he knew that I didn’t have prior experience in youth development or not-for-profit services, but he would say “you’re passionate, brilliant and have grit, that’s all you need, I can teach you the rest.”, and he did! He accepted and embraced my unconventional approach because he respected my previously achieved success. He took a chance on me, and it paid off. While we don’t always share the same philosophies and I know that I work his very last nerve with my pushiness, I am forever grateful. That has been my confidence as a leader and determination from a person who never wants to hear “No”.

How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?

While I am extremely proud of the opportunities that I have had to work with amazing brands to produce some truly iconic moments in pop culture, I am MOST proud of my decision to use my expertise and relationships to work from a place of purpose and passion. Using my gifts of storytelling and advocacy to impact the lives of youth and advance the rights of women and girls globally is my small contribution to bringing goodness to the world. Providing a platform for them to re-write misconstrued narratives and join with like minded individuals is my career come full circle. The tent of the disenfranchised has gotten really really big. For me, it’s no longer just about being a black woman anymore, it’s about full representation in so many ways. This is only the beginning!

Can you share the top five ways that increased diversity can help a company’s bottom line. 

A commitment to moving my business beyond bias is not convenience or trend, it’s a non-negotiable. Being a minority, immigrant female founder/CEO, who represents the epitome of diversity, affords me the luxury of weaving those same values into the fabric of our infrastructure. Let’s face it, diversity is only void in companies whose leaders don’t value inclusion or minority voice. Their company reflects them, mine reflects me and that of my team.

Our inclusive environment positively impacts profitability in that it breeds innovation — the more a person’s uniqueness is valued, the more they feel free to create, equity — when people know that they are being supported and equipped with the tools they need to excel, they are more inclined to thrive, and productivity — through a team effort they outperform the competitor. Not only does diversity permeate throughout our workforce, beginning with the C-Level leadership, but it also extends to our partnerships. We support and align ourselves with other diverse brands and initiatives who promote and demonstrate equity and inclusion. We empower our team with education, access, opportunity and action to create a true sense of community that opens up honest dialogue to strengthen relationships and build cultural understandings.

We are in a bad place when it comes to diversity. Granted we have come a ways, but we still have such a long way to go. People are not stunned when they see a board that is not diversified. That’s a problem!

It’s no longer sufficient for a company to “talk the talk” of diversity in their brand messaging, they’ve got to make a firm commitment to “walk the walk” and move to action. Remaining focused on an inclusive mission with the input of a diverse team that is committed to the vision will keep the company purpose-driven and profitable.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”?

“If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” — African Proverb

Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this 🙂 

Mellody Hobson’s life — from her humble Chicago beginnings to success as an investment guru, to marriage and motherhood — has shattered stereotypes of every kind. In the midst of all her accomplishments and success, she still remains gracious and humble. It would be my honor and pleasure to partake on a multidimensional conversation with her and join her in being “unapologetically black and unapologetically a woman”.

Jilea Hemmings CEO & Co-Founder of Best Tyme. She is running a series on how diversity can increase a company’s bottom line

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