You’ll lack relevance. You really must have an organization that reflects your audience and your consumers, and this country is made up of so many rich cultures and backgrounds, but most of our mainstream culture still reflects the experience of Whiteness and maleness.
I had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Kyra Kyles of YR Media, an Oakland-based national nonprofit that provides creative resources and career opportunities to predominantly BIPOC youth in the areas of media, music and technology. Its CEO, Kyra Kyles, is a 20-year veteran of the media industry and passionate advocate for youth voice. As an expert in diversity and representation, she is helping to create pathways for young people to drive the national conversation and, ultimately, take their seat at the table as leaders in media, tech and creative industries. Kyra has always placed a consistent emphasis on equity and representation, and holds an impressive track record of expanding young audiences and leading sustainable organizational growth.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a story about what brought you to this specific career path?
Absolutely, and thank you so much for this great opportunity for discussion. Oddly enough, I never made a cognizant decision early in my career that I wanted to be the CEO of an organization. For the past 20-plus years I have been a journalist and a communications executive leading teams, with those two pathways converging when I joined the then-Johnson Publishing Company in a role as a Senior Editor at JET. At JET, I was responsible for the coverage of lifestyle, the iconic LOVE section and penning cover stories on African American public figures and celebrities. A few years into this role, I received a promotion from one of my industry MVPs, then-Editor-in-Chief of JET, Mitzi Miller who tapped me to run the organization’s Website and its historic app. A few years later, I took on responsibility for EBONY’s digital platforms and eventually, the print product as well. Toward the end of my tenure I maintained oversight of all of the editorial properties before working in philanthropy, funding nonprofit BIPOC media organizations on the underrepresented South and West sides of Chicago.
About a year ago, I learned of a great opportunity at YR Media, an Oakland-based national nonprofit that provides creative resources and career opportunities to predominantly BIPOC young adults in the areas of media, music and technology. This represented the perfect combination of all of my past experience in management, editorial, championing youth voice through volunteer work as a local leader of the National Association of Black Journalists and my staunch belief that we can’t just say we want more diverse, representative newsrooms and media entities. We must commit to it and make it happen with whatever platform or influence we hold.
For me, it’s leading a racial equity-centered organization that in its decades of service has watched YR Media (formerly known as Youth Radio) alumni go on to leadership positions in media, music and technology companies where their impact is apparent. Young people are often talked about in the media or targeted by music and social media companies, for example, but all too seldom are they provided access to platforms or seats at the table where decisions are made. YR Media provides not only access, but agency, and that is a throughline in my career: working within roles both in my career and through volunteering initiatives to ensure that the underrepresented voices are heard and centered.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you began your career?
When I was a reporter and columnist at a mainstream newsroom, I was part of a unit focused on Millennials and cultivating their interest in reading print newspapers. As such, I had limited interaction with the main news organization as we had our own area of focus and audience. However, during the Hurricane Katrina tragedy, I was summoned by the other side to an urgent meeting and I was shooketh! I could not imagine what they wanted from me. It turns out that as I was one of the few African Americans in editorial, they wanted to gauge my opinion about whether it was appropriate to call those who lost their lives, homes and so much more during the catastrophic hurricane as “refugees.” I found myself in a room filled with mostly White male executives and I could not believe I was being asked that question. I realized the depth of the disconnect in that moment as I looked at those in editorial who likely wouldn’t fathom calling people in Idaho refugees after an earthquake, nor would they write that about Kansas residents displaced after a tornado. These are your fellow American citizens and they were using the same terms they would for someone from outside the country fleeing a war or religious persecution. The “othering” was evident.
Can you share a story about the funniest mistake you made when you were first starting? Can you tell us what lesson you learned from that?
When I landed my first job as a TV reporter, I was assigned a photographer who, unbeknownst to me, also wanted to be on-air talent. As a result, it became clear he was not exactly working with me for the best possible product and one sign of that was the way he was lighting me. In all of my stories, my on-camera appearances ended up looking like I was emerging from the shadows of a cave, because as we know, brown skin requires a different lighting effort and that effort was not being made.
Though I didn’t want to fall into the trope of being a diva, and I was very aware that me complaining might read differently than one of my colleagues complaining, I had to advocate for myself as these stories were ultimately all viewers knew of me. I was so excited when a new photographer, who was brilliant and had majored in film in college, joined the team and the difference was clear from his first day. Though I can now laugh at what could charitably be described as my Babadook-like presence in early stories, it reinforced that if you don’t speak up for yourself, who will?
Can you share three reasons with our readers about why it’s really important for a business to have a diverse executive team?
- You’ll lack relevance. You really must have an organization that reflects your audience and your consumers, and this country is made up of so many rich cultures and backgrounds, but most of our mainstream culture still reflects the experience of Whiteness and maleness.
- Making a regrettable mistake that could have been avoided. We see so many corporate apologies that could be avoided by having a diverse and inclusive decision-making team and process from the onset.
- It’s wrong. This is the most important reason, but I offered the others first because clearly the basic recognition that it is patently harmful to leave out diverse voices, perspectives and human beings is not a compelling enough reason. I find it sad that this current racial recognition is such a wake-up call to those who have been pressing “snooze” or “dismiss” on these alarms for far too many decades.
More broadly can you describe how this can have an effect on our culture?
This can have the effect on our culture of disabling the “default” setting that the country, and the world even, must come through a prism of Whiteness and maleness. That doesn’t reflect our global community and, increasingly, it does not reflect the makeup of this country. Sharing all experiences is important in a world where information travels so quickly and there are so many opportunities to connect. There is also a huge cost assigned to dismissing diversity and effectively enabling racism to remain baked into this country’s DNA. It was recently calculated in a study by Citigroup that the U.S. economy lost a whopping 16 trillion dollars because of anti-Black discrimination alone. Specifically, their research shows that had the U.S. closed unfilled gaps in housing, investment, education and wages 20 years ago, there would have been an additional 16 trillion dollars added to the country’s economy. For those who don’t have a moral responsibility, maybe a monetary reality check will make the case.
Can you recommend three things the community/society/the industry can do help address the root of the diversity issues in executive leadership?
Yes, it is well known that though segregation is allegedly a spectre of the past, it is indeed prevalent in areas as simple as friendship. We are not in each others’ circles. It is up to companies to reach outside the networks they are comfortable with, as some technology companies are doing, by establishing formal programs and rapports with HBCUS for example, and widen their pools.
Additionally, once these individuals are within a company, provide the opportunity for advancement and leadership that are well deserved. The so-called microaggressions that at times drive African Americans out of their desired workplaces are not “micro” and must be removed to create not only a diverse, but an inclusive workforce.
Just as importantly, there is microscopic investment in Black business by banks and VC firms. That must be rectified because entrepreneurship has long been a staple of leadership for the Black community who has been locked out of the C-suite. My own father, the late W. Louis Kyles, was an entrepreneur, first a professional medical supply business owner and then a franchisee for Burger King. He did this because, despite his stellar performance in the workplace, he witnessed and experienced discrimination that turned him off from corporate.
We need more options and opportunities within and outside that structure. This is why at YR Media, every aspect of our organization, from what we cover to how we cover it is done in consultation with the young content creators we serve. This co-leadership approach differentiates us from many of our peers and ensures that young people’s voices are heard and that when they get opportunities to move into other companies, they enter already confident in their own power and capacity.
How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?
For me, there is a stark difference between a “leader” and a “boss.” A leader works hand-in-hand with everyone in their organization and identifies and helps solve for any challenges or roadblocks. A boss looms over their team, being punitive when goals aren’t met, regardless of resource or, more pointedly, lack thereof. I define a leader as someone who looks out ahead and foresees and helps solve problems. This person also isn’t above doing what they are asking others to do…or not do. A leader should be inspiring, not pitting team members against each other or creating an environment that fears any and all failures, as sometimes a failure can lead to a success down the line or at minimum, provide a lesson worth learning from for future decisions.
What are your “5 things I wish someone told me when I first started” and why? Please share a story or example for each.
Thankfully, I am very instinctually driven so for the most part, I feel as if I can look back at my career and personal life and know that, even if not the correct choice, my choices were my own. For me, that is the biggest piece of advice I’d give or live by, but there are three lessons I learned early in my career that I think are important to share.
- Say “yes” even if you’re not 100% sure you can do something. Impostor syndrome is real and especially in BIPOC communities and among women due to discrimination linked to race and gender. Because of that fear of failure and causing others like you to “look bad” alongside you (since we are judged often en masse and not individually), sometimes we don’t take risks. While still a graduate student at Northwestern University, I was offered a hip hop column in a local newspaper by one of the top executives there and I didn’t take it because I told the editor that I wasn’t 100% sure I had enough content for every week and I thought it was so early in my career. Not only did I have more than enough content, I clearly let fear guide me. I never did anything like that again, but it is one of my biggest regrets. I highly doubt that some of my White male peers in journalism would have hesitated to take that column and run with it.
- Focus on the team, not individual effort. In school we learn to put our noses to the proverbial grindstone and work to earn grades. In fact, team projects become the most loathed exercise because it is often easier to succeed when you hold all the control. Working in organizations, both for- and non-profit, teaches you that the opposite will be your experience and I think the focus on singular excellence is misguided. Learning to work well with others is as critical as learning to work well.
- DIY. Do. It. Yourself. I truly admire influencers of the current and future generations because they are not waiting around for any company to validate them with a job or certain role. They are subverting that construct and becoming experts on different topics, from travel to civics history to beauty to natural hair, and capitalizing without formal invitation. There were times in my career I could, and likely should, have stepped out on my own but I was hesitant to do so and, as a result, contributed more to the companies I worked for than I did for my own individual efforts. Life is short. Take the plunge if you see an opening.
You are a person of enormous influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
I want to see a dramatic and abrupt change in law enforcement and the justice system, specifically with respect to the way African Americans are treated. One of the things that saddens me more than anything is that, as a journalist who has been in the industry two decades and now is serving as the CEO of a media organization, the same stories have been reported about those topics because not enough has changed. With the racial reckoning of 2020, there were echoes and parallels to past movements, and my own mother who is in her 70s told me she never thought I’d be facing what she and her peers were facing as it pertains to the lack of justice and limited opportunities for African American citizens. That is a critical issue because it is life threatening, though of course, the idea of closing that racial economic income gap is another movement that I want to help inspire and see through.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My mother (now retired) was a brilliant educator so I grew up absolutely surrounded by powerful quotes, a number of those drawn from great African American civil rights leaders, entrepreneurs and authors. It is very difficult for me to provide a favorite. One quote I can share that governs the way I live my life today is one that comes from the incomparable Toni Morrison who said: “If there’s a book that you want to read, but it hasn’t been written yet, then you must write it.”
That advice could easily apply to so many layers of my life as a Black woman in America. I, like so many Black women and other members of underrepresented groups, have to be willing to break the mold or create new molds altogether because the existing system was not built for us to succeed. Her quote speaks not just to “books,” but could inspire new business models, philanthropic approaches, and entrepreneurial initiatives because if we wait around for those who benefit the most from systems to change them, we’ll be waiting an inordinately long time.
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, especially if we tag them. 🙂
There are so many dynamic individuals with whom I’d love to sit down, but in this moment, I’d be honored to speak with Stacey Abrams who played such a pivotal and crucial role not only in beating back historic voter suppression in Georgia, but in this country. The blueprint she established and her resilience and brilliance needs to be recorded for posterity in all history books and I am looking forward to seeing how this approach will provide Black Americans with the long overdue and much-deserved agency they deserve at the ballot box.
How can our readers follow you on social media?
They can follow me via the @thekylesfiles on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter.
This was very meaningful, thank you so much!