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This is how I lead with compassion as a queer, Black woman in tech

The COO of Next PR reveals the journey from hiding her true identity both publicly and privately to becoming the kind of leader who fosters inclusive workplaces.

This is how I lead with compassion as a queer, Black woman in tech
[Source illustration: Natalia Vorobeva/Getty Images]

Recently, a friend and leader sent me an SOS about her new IT job, “I don’t know how you did this, please send help. How do I succeed here as a woman?” We set up a series of mentorship calls, but my overarching advice for her echoed throughout: “You deserve a seat at the table. Don’t act like you’re new or stay quiet. Take up space–you’re in that room for a reason. Speak with confidence. Don’t undermine yourself.” 

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I no longer hide myself at work. But it wasn’t always this way. When I started my career in tech, I was already living inauthentically. I was married to a man, and my colleagues were mostly straight, white men, whose clothing styles I emulated to try to fit in. Yes, that meant I showed up to work most days in khakis and a polo shirt. I wasn’t dressing for my personality, I was dressing to play a role. A manager at the time pulled me aside and told me I needed to dress more professionally, which really meant fitting into the conformed standard of femininity: blouses, skirts, lipstick, and heels.  

I quickly realized I had lost my voice. The once-confident intern with a degree in computer science and a passion for tech hid under the cloak of the heteronormative IT world. I didn’t have role models or mentors who looked like me or who could give me cues of how I should dress or act. There was a lack of representation in my space. I was often the only woman in the room and one of the few queer people. I was playing a part and hiding my identity both publicly and privately. 

Taking up space

This changed once I decided to finally start living authentically. I met a woman who would eventually become my wife and the love of my life, moved across the country, even spent a year pursuing my own Eat, Pray, Love narrative. I left corporate America and started a position at a woman-led tech PR firm. I stopped  showing up only for others and started showing up for myself. 

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I’m now open about my identity. I rarely wear makeup unless I choose to, my brightly rimmed red glasses are often a conversation piece on video calls, and I rock what we’ve deemed a “fro-hawk” with my natural, un-dyed hair. I take up space and no longer hide who I am to make others feel more comfortable.  

I still get remarks like, “You don’t look like a COO,” to which I counter with, “What does a COO look like?” This is usually met with silence or discomfort, as in their heads they’re thinking, You don’t look like a Ken doll.

For years, I’ve flown with United Premier 1K status. On many occasions, I’ve been asked by other passengers, “Are you in the wrong line?” or simply pushed aside as people assume I’m not meant to be in that boarding group. Equality and acceptance in America continue to be an uphill climb, but every person who brings their authentic self takes us one step closer. 

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Creating safe workplaces

The onus of equality in the workplace doesn’t just fall on our queer employees. As leaders, we need to be aware of and observe the dynamics of our spaces. It’s not just about fairness; it’s about awareness that someone may be hiding their light instead of shining. 

The foundation of inclusivity and compassionate leadership is creating a psychologically safe environment for all employees. It starts with deep listening. You need to listen to your team and understand their challenges. It helps you make better-informed decisions and provides a safe space for feedback and growth. While you can’t carry others’ problems, you can understand their perspective and offer guidance and support. 

You also need to look inward. Are you leading with a people-first approach? Are you bringing your full, vulnerable self to meetings and conversations? Ensure your leadership team is doing the same: Set up internal dialogues to help coach leaders in supporting an authentic, inclusive culture. 

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Part of creating a safe space is shutting down bad behavior in your organization. Allowing for homophobic behavior, even if guised as “jokes,” automatically makes your workplace psychologically unsafe. Shut it down. Reprimand those team members making lewd comments, pursue corrective action, remind them this isn’t the culture you’re striving for. And don’t just act privately. If a team member makes a homophobic joke during a meeting, call it out as unacceptable right then and there. This action signals safety to queer colleagues in the room. 

Fostering change

For those who may be struggling with identity at work, hang in there. You will find your people and your allies, but it can often be exhausting. That’s where compassionate leadership comes in. As leaders, we need to be fostering an environment of peer support and empathy. Encourage team members to bring their authentic selves to work and create an environment of safety and acceptance. 

Building this culture takes time and consistency. Small changes and repeated actions support an inclusive environment—it won’t happen overnight. Ultimately, if you come from a foundation of safety, you’re already welcoming to queer employees. Lead from a place of love and compassion and everything else that follows will be based on this foundation.

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Geri Johnson is the COO of Next PR.

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