Navigating career paths as a person of color

On managing microaggressions, forging relationships between mentors, and mentees and other hard-earned wisdom

Rena Chase, the founder and CEO of One Home Away real estate, knows first-hand the downsides of being the only person of color in a room. “Being a person of color and the CEO is challenging,” she said. “People say to me, ‘I want to talk to the person in charge.’ When I say, ‘Here I am,’ they go, ‘No, really—the person in charge.’”

The entrepreneur—who, seven years after starting her company in her mother’s kitchen in Brownsville, Brooklyn, has hired eight employees and moved her startup into WeWork 3537 36th St. in Astoria, Queens—was speaking at a panel discussion among black industry leaders hosted by We of Color, a resource group for The We Company employees of color, at her WeWork building in celebration of Black History Month.

Chase and four panelists shared the challenges they’ve encountered along the path to success—microaggressions and outright bias that have made scaling the ranks feel precarious at times.

“The truth behind those very linear-looking bios on LinkedIn can often be a lot of pain,” said Craig Robinson, the global head of Powered by We services at WeWork, where he is focused on helping enterprise clients devise an ideal employee experience, and the event’s moderator. But he and the speakers also shared how they have managed to rise in their respective fields. Here are some of their inspiring takeaways.

Find mentors and sponsors—and understand the difference. There’s a key difference between mentors and sponsors.”A sponsor can be an advocate for you getting the job when you’re not in the room,” Robinson said. “A mentor helps you figure out how to be successful once you’ve got the job.”

Establishing a mentor-mentee relationship takes time, vulnerability, and sometimes luck. “Outside of my hometown in Atlanta, I’ve had to search for that a little bit more,” said Curtis Friends, director of sports marketing at ESPN.

After sitting in a meeting with someone he wanted to get to know better and learn from, Friends sent the man a note saying that he’d love to talk periodically: “I see you as a mentor. You really know the media industry, and it’s something that I’m just breaking into. Can we do that?” His direct approach worked—the two began to meet for breakfast from time to time.

“Nobody pulls you aside and says, ‘This is what you might face,’” said Sakita Holley, founder and CEO of House of Success PR, explaining that she started the popular Hashtag + Stilettos podcast for just that reason. “I can help change the conversation, especially in the black- and brown-beauty space.”

Sometimes, Holley said, black entrepreneurs need to be their own mentors. Her advice: Pay attention to the people who are running events you care about, who are being featured in trade publications, and who are sharing knowledge on social media.

Seek out places that are already leaders in diversity and inclusion. “I felt a big shift in diversity when I moved to New York from Chicago,” said Lauren Williams, the vertical marketing director at Pandora Music. “In New York, people of color are fleeing from advertising because they don’t have the mentors or the support.” For those who remain, “it’s a competition between me and you because there can only be one black woman at the top.”

Williams eventually went to a company that was more inclusive. Like an increasing number of tech companies, Pandora publishes its diversity and inclusion goals online; theirs is to reach 45 percent employees of color in the company’s major offices by 2020.

“We have an amazing D&I team, and they make sure that is 100 percent part of our culture,” said Williams.

Panelists (from left) Lauren Williams, Sakita Holley, Soffiyah Elijah, Curtis Friends, and Craig Robinson, share career stories at WeWork 3537 36th St. in Astoria, Queens.

Know that your race can be a double-edged sword. Holley intentionally focused on black and multicultural brands when she launched her PR company, but she says that black professionals sometimes shy away from “things that are innate to us” out of fear of being pigeonholed as “the black brand person.”  

“When we see mistakes happen in the marketplace, we’re like, ‘You need to hire black people!’—but if the black people are running away from those opportunities, how can they staff?” she asks. “We understand the language and the nuances. We’re an asset because we are the customer.”

Soffiyah Elijah, the executive director of the Alliance of Families for Justice—a nonprofit for families with incarcerated loved ones—has had a different experience.

“I personally have loved ones who have been incarcerated, so there’s an authenticity, empathy, and rapport that I can bring to my work,” Elijah says. “However, when it comes to getting grants, my demographic doesn’t seem to be an asset. The reality is, racism permeates the nonprofit world—and so I just call it out.”

Tailor your battles to the arena. When asked how to deal with microaggressions or outright bias from colleagues and clients, Williams suggested taking a moment to breathe, then “find a diplomatic way to speak up.”

“If you’re angry, process that first,” she said. “Then take the person aside at a more appropriate time and explain how you felt.”

Elijah noted that context also plays a key role in your response. She recalled a time a court supervisor implied she’d gotten to where she was because of affirmative action.

“In one surrogate court, the supervisor told me that I was an NAACP plant,” she said. “How I handled that might have been different if I were talking to a funder and needed to raise $100,000 for my nonprofit. Know when you’re in a position to do something about it, and when you might have to lay in the cut and wait.”

Find allies who can push for change from within. Although it might feel counterintuitive, Williams said that people of color should sometimes take a backseat in discussions about race if there are trusted colleagues and supervisors who can do the work instead.

“A lot of times, black women want to push the agenda forward, but it’s not necessarily [us] who should deliver that message,” she says. “We have to be open to having strong allies who don’t look like us because they can have conversations with people who look like them, to help them understand.”

Find a way to bring your full self to work. Robinson called it a luxury to be “in this season of my life and career where I expect to have permission to bring my authentic self [to work], and to be at a company that welcomes and embraces diversity.”

Curtis said that reserving particular parts of himself for certain communities isn’t inauthentic, but simply a way to deal with the reality of being black in corporate America.   

“I do have a Work Curtis, an Atlanta Curtis, and a Home Curtis—a Dad Curtis. All those things exist and I’m OK with that,” he explained. “I don’t feel like I’m a sellout. It’s just different versions of yourself, and you have to find the best way to live with that. That’s who you need to be to play the game.”

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