More Mentors And Sponsors
BY: NIKOLE THOMAS
Reading time: 5 minutes
EXCERPT FROM LISTEN BITCH
Blacks have a very difficult time within corporate America because we lack that well connected network to prep us for success and to guide and teach us throughout our careers— and women face similar issues. When I worked for Macy’s corporate in New York around 2006, one of my supervisors, Holly, helped mentor me. She was the Men’s Basics merchant and I was her assistant buyer. She said, “Nikole, one of the biggest issues people have within the company is that they don’t get good career advice.” In other words, they may have had someone advising them, but they didn’t advise them appropriately as to what would have been best for them professionally. For instance, during one of my midyear evaluations, Holly instructed me to consult with her supervisor to keep him informed of the projects I was working on. After I told her I was uncomfortable doing that, I asked, “But isn’t that ass-kissing? Running in his office just to tell him what I’m doing? Like ‘Look! Look at me . . .’” She softly replied with a smile on her face by saying, “So? If that’s how it’s done and you’re getting what you want, what do you care?” She also advised me that it’s important to let superiors know about your value since they’ve got so much going on that they’re not always focused on you. Besides, if you don’t do it, others will, and they’ll become the ones that will be top-of-mind when promotion time comes around.
During my freshman year at Haas, Alicia Boler-Davis, General Motors' SVP of Global Quality & Customer Experience, gave a speech during the Dean’s Speaker Series, which was a lineup of influential leaders and corporate executives who spoke to Berkeley students and staff on campus. She was recently announced as GM’s highest ranked African American at that time, so naturally I made sure I attended. I was fortunate enough to grab the mic for the last question and I basically asked her to comment on the differences between white males and women or blacks that she had witnessed as a high-ranked executive. I started by explaining that the issues we face at the workplace are likely two-sided—there’s the discrimination factor which positions minorities as the victim but there could also be things that women and black people are doing incorrectly or not doing at all that cause us to stunt our own development. She replied by telling an anecdote about the time she finished giving a presentation at GM and what happened afterwards when everyone had an opportunity to approach her and ask questions. She talked about how all the people who spoke to her were white males who admittedly did not know anything about what she did or who she was, but after her speech, they were inspired to learn from her and wanted to work under her regardless of her job responsibility; they just wanted to be on her team. She then stated that she couldn’t remember one woman or black person that approached her; they all got up and immediately left after the speech without taking the opportunity to ask questions or at least introduce themselves. Alicia then said, “The biggest difference I see when it comes to women and black people: you don’t ask. You don’t ask for what you want.” She continued to point out how she admired the persistence of the white men for pursuing what they wanted even though they did not know much about Alicia nor her team. But it’s those kinds of discussions and feedback that we as women and blacks need to promote self-improvement.
Not every firm has an Alicia to look up to, or another executive who would even notice such things. Moreover, the biggest sign of validation that I received for asking that question was at the end of the event when everyone began exiting. Groups of women and blacks alike walked up to me with a look of relief and a smile and said, “Excuse me. Excuse me . . . Thank you!” Some also said, “That was a good question.” This proved to me that several people wanted to ask something similar and everyone probably found it beneficial to hear the answer. The disappointment was that I was the only one who dared to ask that question. Every other attendee inquired about the technical aspects of her engineering background, which I didn’t particularly care about as a non-engineer. I was more interested in her personal journey as a black woman who successfully climbed the ladder and her experiences while doing it. And judging by the crowd’s remarks to me, they were too. My hope is that more people, especially high-ranking leaders, will foster an environment with open, honest and constructive dialogue about the challenges facing women and minorities in their workplaces. Without that, the same issues will persist with very little hope for resolution.
I have a PhD in being a black woman. Harvard can’t teach this shit! I was born with it. Life was my university and society served as my professors. Ever since fifth grade, when my mother transferred me to a predominantly white school, I have experienced what it means to be “the only one.”
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