Sharon Smith-Akinsanya of Rae Mackenzie Group: “We must lead out loud and not keep to ourselves”

…We must use our influence to get other people to change. We have to get out of our ivory towers and rally the troops. Our words have to pierce and create a snowball effect. We must lead out loud and not keep to ourselves. As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take […]

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…We must use our influence to get other people to change. We have to get out of our ivory towers and rally the troops. Our words have to pierce and create a snowball effect. We must lead out loud and not keep to ourselves.

As part of our series about ‘5 Steps We Must Take to Truly Create an Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society’ I had the pleasure to interview Sharon Smith-Akinsanya.

Sharon Smith-Akinsanya is the CEO of Rae Mackenzie Group, an award-winning Minnesota-based Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) marketing firm. She has consulted with Fortune 500 companies, nonprofits, and top employers, including U.S. Bank, Best Buy, Midco, Andersen Windows & Doors, Thrivent, Make-A-Wish® America, and more. She is also the founder of People of Color Careers™ Social Hiring Network for Professionals of Color, and the author COLORFULL: Competitive Strategies to Attract and Retain Top Talent of Color.

Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you.’ Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Yes, I love talking about my upbringing. I grew up in a small-town suburb of St. Louis, MO called Kinloch. Kinloch was an all-Black community of about 5,000. We had everything we needed in the community — our own grocery store, our own post office, our own fire and police stations, our own schools, our own churches, our own mortuary, everything! You might be more familiar with the area if I told you that it’s about 10 minutes from where Michael Brown was shot, a little bit of a sense of how close Kinloch is to Ferguson.

I grew up with my mom, dad, and brother. We were poor, but I did not know it. Mom and Dad made sure we had all we needed and spared us from the gravity of our reality. We had a close-knit community, one of the ones where if you did something wrong, somebody had already called your parents and told them by the time you got home.

My mom was insistent that we get a good education, and she could never accept that my brother and I were not allowed to go to the good schools with the rich kids just a mile up the road. So, she borrowed addresses from people who lived on the “right” side of the tracks and registered us for school. We attended until we got found out, got put out, and had to start the cycle all over again. It took this happening eight times before it was legal for us to go to the Ferguson Florissant School District Mom wanted us in.

Fun fact, Kinloch has a history of being home to some amazing women. Representative Maxine Waters is from Kinloch. I had the opportunity to connect with her about this when I interviewed her a few weeks ago. And Jenifer Lewis, the legendary actress herself, was my neighbor.

Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?

Master of the Game by Sidney Sheldon changed my life. After reading that book, I knew that I was going to have my own business, name it after my child, and create a legacy for my family. Legacy was everything for the powerful Kate Blackwell, who took care of her family and took no prisoners while doing it. She was clear on what she had to do to make things happen and take charge.

Even though it was a work of fiction, that novel inspired me because I knew that I would have to make things happen for myself. There was no trust fund waiting for me like some of the women I knew from college. If I were going to be successful in this world, I would have to make it on my own, and I knew that owning my own business would give me the best shot of creating a legacy for my family.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

In fact, I do! My favorite life lesson quote is, “What is the grief to dollar ratio?” Here’s what I mean by that. As a small business owner, the biggest asset that I have is time. And since my small business (thankfully so) has a reputation for delivering powerful results, many requests often come in at once. While I am happy that business is booming, so to speak, I have to be real with myself on what my capacity is. And I learned this the hard way. I remember starting out early in my company, and I had over committed, took on too many clients. While I met my deadlines, all within days of one another, I felt utterly depleted and no good to anyone around me for about a week after the last project was due.

My team, my clients, and my community depend on me to deliver quality and impactful work. As a small business owner who has to make payroll every two weeks and working hard to give back to the community, I have to make some hard choices. If I take on a project or client, I have to assess how much energy and resources I will have to extend based on what is coming back into the business. It’s a constant, necessary tug of war.

How do you define “Leadership”? Can you explain what you mean or give an example?

Leadership is the ability to make responsible decisions — good decisions, important decisions, tough decisions, big decisions — that positively impact your group, organization, or team. It’s the ability to see the long view and anticipate what is coming around the corner before you get there. Leaders always have their teams in mind and at the forefront of their decision-making. You see, good leaders learn from their experience then draw from that same well to make necessary decisions for the good of their team and the company.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

Your mind is everything! And you have to make sure that you take measures to keep your mind clear and focused. One of the things that I do to destress is work out. Every morning, I build time into my schedule to get in a good home workout (we are in a pandemic, I am not leaving my house). Especially during these Covid times, the release of endorphins has been key to keeping me sane!

Another relaxer for me that few people who know me know about is my love for black & white films. I love black & white films! Bette Davis, Joan Crawford, those are my girls! And if you have not seen the 1963 version of Back Street starring Susan Hayward, you need to put it on your list. Every so often, I will take a Saturday to curl up on the couch with a glass (or three) of wine and make it a marathon.

The workouts and weekend movie binges relax me and help me process information. They prepare me mentally to tackle what I need to get done for myself, my family, and my business.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality, and inclusion. This is, of course, a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Yes, America is at her boiling point. This issue has been festering and smoldering since the first slaves hit Virginian shores in 1619 and were marketed and sold off as property instead of being regarded as humans. Since then, throughout American history, the inhumanity with which Black people have been treated has constantly evolved to perpetuate the same spirit of systemic racism in many different forms. What we are dealing with is systemic, built into America’s DNA. What is happening now is a long-overdue disruption of a societal system that has been in effect for far too long.

Jack Nicholson as the Joker says it best in Batman (1989), “This town needs an enema.” America needs an enema. Our country is in pain, bursting at the seams from all the junk that needs purging. We’re constipated! And here’s the thing, we will feel better once we relieve ourselves. We will be free.

We are more alike than not. We have more in common than that which divides us. It is stupid for us to opt to stay bloated with a stomachache than to embrace one another and be healed.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

For the past 25+ years, I have worked with companies — from Fortune 500 corporations to leading nonprofits to everything between — advising them on how to position themselves in the marketplace to attract, recruit, and retain top Talent of Color. Advocating for People of Color in the workplace to ensure that they have equitable access to opportunity is my life’s passion. It is what I can do to help correct disparities that Black people and other People of Color experience in the workplace in my region and our country.

To ensure that Professionals of Color could better access recruiters, hiring managers, and decision-makers at companies, I founded the People Of Color Career Fair™. It was a wildly successful in-person event that helped many Professionals of Color land their dream careers.

Then Covid happened, and I had to pivot the Career Fair into a digital experience where Professionals of Color could have the access and opportunity of the Fair in a 24/7 format. People Of Color Careers™ Social Hiring Network is unlike anything anyone has ever seen before. It is the premier social hiring experience for Professionals of Color, and it is going to revolutionize diverse and equitable hiring in America. It will officially launch in January 2021. Check us out at

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Sure. The best way I can say it is this way, representation matters. And it extends beyond optics, even though that is part of it. Here’s what a representative, diverse executive team does: 1) it attracts Talent of Color to your organization; 2) it creates a heightened organizational sensitivity to the needs and wants of internal and external stakeholders; 3) it fosters a culture of inclusion, creativity, and innovation, three of the most important factors to maintain marketplace longevity and a competitive edge; 4) it demonstrates an awareness and sensitivity for understanding that your workforce must reflect the consumers you serve from entry-level roles to the C-suite to the boardroom.

And I can go on. By 2042, America will be a majority-minority nation, and now is the time to cultivate and build relationships with the future demographics of the American workforce. And all strong CEOs know that a more diverse workforce leads to increased profits.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society.” Kindly share a story or example for each.

I am happy to do so. I touch on this topic in my book COLORFULL: Competitive Strategies to Attract and Retain Top Talent of Color. I think the first thing we must do is acknowledge our American past and the stain of slavery and systemic racism that created the health, wealth, education, and income gaps that we’re still battling today. Secondly, we must examine our role in how things are. Where do we fit in the mechanism; are we part of the solution or the problem? For instance, do we turn a blind eye to some things because we are recipients of privilege? I believe that if we see an injustice, we should speak against it, regardless of how uncomfortable it could potentially make our lives.

The next step involves empathy and proximity. I believe we have to be intentional about interacting and building relationships with people who do not look like us. There is no way we can get “it” without hearing others’ stories. Proximity is critical to understanding the ills of the world. Fourth on the list is we have to be committed to course correct. We have to decide that we are going to make things fair, then do it.

And finally, we must use our influence to get other people to change. We have to get out of our ivory towers and rally the troops. Our words have to pierce and create a snowball effect. We must lead out loud and not keep to ourselves.

We are going through a rough period now. Are you optimistic that this issue can eventually be resolved? Can you explain?

I am optimistic that we will evolve and that things will get better because, frankly, they have to if we are going to live in the same country together. Will they get totally resolved? No, I do not think so. There are too many feelings, too much generational hatred passed down for things to go away any time soon. It is going to take a few more generations, at minimum.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

I would love to have a meal with Barack and Michelle Obama. Yes, both. Together. They are both the bomb. They have a poise and grace in their influence for change and activism that is absolutely special and commendable. Even deeper, there is something about their joint bomb-ness and how they flow with one another that is so unique. And I honestly want to check in on them and see how they are doing after their stint in the White House. You know, ask them how the girls are doing and about what they are working on next.

If I could have a second (or third, I suppose), I would love to sit down with Stacey Abrams. I am absolutely in awe of her and the hard work she has been doing around getting out the vote. She is a force, and I would love to spend some time with her and get to know her.

How can our readers follow you online?

I love interacting with individuals online. I am on the following platforms:

Looking forward to speaking with you!

This was very meaningful, thank you so much. We wish you only continued success on your great work!

You’re very welcome, I enjoyed it! And thank you for having me and for this opportunity to share my story, experiences, and thoughts with you and your readers.

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