A Love Letter to Black Professionals
I recently participated in a panel discussion about diversity, equity, and inclusion in corporate America. As I sat in my makeshift office on Zoom, I was prepared to share my perspectives as a Black woman with an engineering degree, who worked in manufacturing and HR at a large consumer product goods company for 24 years. I felt pretty confident. Public speaking and panel discussions were not new to me; in fact, I enjoyed them.
The first question came, and I felt great about my response: Clear, fresh, with a touch of humor. I watched all the nods and smiles on Zoom as the discussion continued. Clearly, the conversation resonated with attendees. As the moderator was about to wrap up, a final question appeared in the chat, and it was for me.
“You have been so successful in corporate America. As a Black woman, how did you overcome all the things you surely experienced?” I was silent. I had nothing. For the first time in a long time, I was literally speechless. I started sweating, and it was not a hot flash. The question wasn’t off-base. The whole point of the discussion was for us—for me!—to share our experiences. Why was I struggling to respond?
I cannot even remember what I said. I probably said something about resilience and having great mentors—which is all absolutely true, but the question (and my inability to formulate a response) stayed with me.
I was—and am—successful. I had accomplished things that many doubted I could do. I was one of a handful of Black women in engineering, in manufacturing, and later in senior leadership at General Mills. I had stories to share and lessons learned, which I had gone over before the panel discussion. What was going on with me?
It took some soul-searching, but I finally did figure it out. I had spent so much of my work life helping others achieve their goals and share their stories, I had forgotten how to confidently share and celebrate my own journey. In essence, I had lost my voice and the importance of my own career goals.
How did this happen? Here are two big factors:
- I “grew up” in a corporate environment where diverse leaders existed at every level, including the company’s senior leadership team. I worked for and was mentored by Black leaders. I knew my company was unique. I heard from Black colleagues elsewhere how frustrated they were at not seeing anyone who looked like them in leadership. The truth was that I had taken for granted how powerful it was for me and many others to work in such an inclusive environment with powerhouse leaders like Kim Nelson, Marc Belton, and Rick Palmore. They taught me the importance of advocacy, authentic leadership and a strong bias for action and achieving results.
- I’ve always taken my human resource role as employee advocate and trusted advisor very seriously. It is work that I love so much, I choose to do it now that I’m out on my own. In my corporate life, I never gave myself permission to celebrate my own accomplishments and acknowledge I had survived and thrived in an environment that wasn’t made for me. It took closing the chapter on my amazing corporate career to allow me to see and appreciate all that I have accomplished and my worth professionally. It’s almost like my new work life as an entrepreneur and independent consultant helped me rediscover my interests, passions, and strengths.
Here is what I know. Our stories are important. The experiences of women and people of color in corporate America must be shared. My daughters need to hear these stories. Your sons need to hear these stories. Company leaders need to hear these stories.
The biases and microaggressions women and people of color face at work affect how we do our jobs every single day. Sometimes, we get so used to it, we undervalue the strength and resilience it takes to thrive in our reality. Our stories can lead to action that creates company and community cultures where everyone feels respected, valued, and heard.
To all the women of color in corporate gigs: You have my never-ending respect and love. You make it happen every day, despite the daily stream of insults masked as questions or questions riddled with insults. You have so many superpowers, many of which will not be recognized by the organizations you work so hard to support.
But know this—I notice. Your resilience and your strength are both immeasurable and remarkable. It can be hard to lean into your superpowers, but you must. Continue to lead with the grace and strength that comes from years of hard-won accomplishments. In other words, do you.
The next time I’m asked about succeeding in business, my response will be simple: I believed in myself. I learned from the best. I listened more than I spoke. I rejected stereotypes. I embraced my passions and created a work life where I love what I do and I do what I love.
Stephanie Pierce is a connector, coach, and founder of two Minneapolis-based businesses, KJP Consulting, a leadership development firm, and stephpierce.com, a community of diverse women inspiring each other to do the work they love.