It is 8:55 a.m. on a Monday morning. I walk by the office of a coworker who always seems to “know” what is going on in the office. She steadily checks her clock before greeting me as I walk to my office. I put my bag down, throw my jacket around my chair, and turn on my computer. I then take a deep breath without feeling a sense of relief or calmness.
This was my morning over and over again at my previous job as a director of legal education. Was I stressed because of the nature of the work?
Did I feel like I had a great support system at this place?
Was I the only person in my director position who was black in the office?
This was not comforting at all.
According to Fortune, “African-American women made up just 1.5% of senior-level executives in the private sector in 2014.” And Catalyst reports that African-American women represent 6.1% of the workforce. Did you know there were only 14 black male CEOs in the entire history of the Fortune 500?
As an African-American woman who’s a lawyer, entrepreneur, and educator, I wanted to pose the question: What do African-American men and women need to do to thrive, not just survive in Corporate America?
I don’t have all the answers, but from my experience I do have four strategies that’ll make it easier:
1. Create Your Own Support System
It’s easy to feel like you’re the “only” one dealing with a situation. The fact is, if you’re the only African-American leader in your office, you must make an effort to connect with other similarly situated African-Americans to build a community for yourself outside your company walls.
Organizations like the National Black Chamber of Commerce, National Association of Black Journalists, National Black MBA Association, Inc., National Society of Black Engineers, 100 Black Men of America, Inc., National Coalition of Black Women, and The Executive Leadership Council can provide that sense of community and support you need to get ahead.
2. Find A Workplace That Wants You
Believe it or not, diversity and inclusion is more than a clever HR recruiting buzzword at some organizations. There are definitely companies that have a genuine interest in not only recruiting candidates of color, but also creating work environments where people of different backgrounds actually feel wanted and included at their place of work.
Do you know these employers in your industry? If no, then it’s important to communicate with current and former employees you may have connections with, review potential employer’s websites, gather as much information from recruiting and search firms, ask critical questions when you’re interviewing, and utilize employee review sites before you sign an offer letter.
3. Embrace The Similarities, Not The Differences
Being the “only” one means you stand out all the time. When I was the only African-American director in my region at my former employer, I remember feeling alone.
Instead of focusing on being the “only” one, find the similarities that exist with your colleagues. Do you need to be BFFs with your coworkers? No, but you should enjoy where you work.
4. Speak Up
Have you ever felt like you were passed over for an opportunity? Or, your accomplishments were not valued as much as your other coworkers? If so, did you speak up?
Too many times, I’ve heard friends and coworkers complain about this exact issue and not take it up with the right people.
When dealing with work issues, you have to be your own advocate. You can’t look to others to make your situation better. Will speaking up always get you what you want? Sadly, no, not likely.
However, suffering in silence gets you nowhere. Once you voice your thoughts you can make that personal decision to remain where you are or take steps to go elsewhere if that is what you need to be happy.
It’s so easy to get caught up with what is happening around us that we forget about who comes after us. How are we making strides to ensure other African-Americans can have an easier time joining the ranks? What are we doing to make sure they don’t feel so alone? These are the questions I often find myself asking as I break down various barriers in my career.
Personally, I’ve always believed that people are stronger together. African-Americans who are breaking down doors in Corporate America not only need to stick together (regardless of their industry), but they also need to share their experiences on a public platform to inform and inspire others.
Write a blog (or LinkedIn post) about your personal experience. Or, if you are into videos, share your story that way. Or welcome the opportunity to be a guest speaker or panelist at a school event or conference. Do what feels most comfortable to you. Just know that you can’t imagine the impact your story can have on others.