It can be intimidating being the only black person in a meeting, conference, team, or company. This is especially true when there are little to no other people of color. The unfortunate truth of these situations is that we’ve worked harder than our white counterparts and lacked half of the resources and possible connections to get that seat at the table. How can we turn lemons into lemonade? We work together. Here are some things I learned after beginning my career in Corporate America that I hope will be the beginning of a larger discussion and a hopefully large community of young black professionals.
**Gem**: Crunched for time? Skip to the end for the TL;DR version, you can’t miss it.
1. A network is empowering.
Many people underestimate the power of a good network. Those people you meet in college or your local summer program could be key contacts later on. If you’re still in college look for groups and organizations in fields that interest you or pick up an extracurricular activity you’d enjoy. Although you share a common interest with the group(s), you’d be surprised how diverse the mindset can be within even a small group. Just make sure those individuals are pushing you not just to be better, but to change your perspective on life as well. College is where you begin to mold yourself into who you’ll be as a grown adult.
If you’re already a practicing professional consider joining a professional organization (I.e. National Association of Black Accountants (NABA)). Meeting others in your field with similar goals or who have already achieved the things you hope to accomplish can be great sources of inspiration or soundboards. These contacts could eventually vouch for you when you’re ready to make your next career move and even become lifelong friends. Having other perspectives on work-related issues can help you navigate the corporate world and educate you on the adversity you may face during your career. Once your network gets bigger, you can get invited to awesome events, meet other interesting people, and get cool swag. Note: if you’re like me, you LOVE free swag. It’s also great to go to events and know at least one person in the room from your network once you get there if you went alone.
2. Show up, don’t show out.
Because you have to work harder, first impressions are everything. When you’re at an event or even a meeting, be fully present. If you don’t know what your meeting is about, try and do some research beforehand. Be the first one to the meeting room and have a question ready in case the opportunity arises. Make sure this question is well-informed. Please don’t go in with a doofy question. Synthesize information and this question could change or become more complex as the meeting continues. In most of my experiences, particularly when you’re in an entry-level position, people remember the attendees that ask questions and generally appear more engaged than others. Your attitude, punctuality, and appearance can take you further than you think.
3. Manage your emotions/reactionary responses.
At work, there will be microaggressions. These may be with your team, collaborators, colleagues, bosses, or the entire organization. Here’s what you need to remember: you can’t control other people’s actions, but you can control your reaction; the moment you get visibly upset about something someone else says or does, you give them power over you. Understand that the ignorance you’re going up against may not be defeated in your lifetime. While I’m not saying you have to smile and laugh at every uncomfortable interaction, there is a way to politely check people. If you feel blatantly outcasted based on your age, gender, or race, you should go to your HR department and their response will show you whether or not it’s time to go.
4. Help others as you climb.
Maybe someone in your network helped you along the way or took you under their wing. Maybe you did/are doing it on your own. Remember how that help or lack thereof made you feel? The chances of more black people being in the room are inhibited if you don’t pass the torch and pay forward kindness shown to you in your career. One of the biggest issues I’ve personally had with our community is that we don’t always understand exactly what community means. You can’t have a community of one. By sharing your knowledge, you’re not only making it easier for another black person to climb the corporate ladder but creating space for more black people overall. We don’t have to be the only ones in the room, but we do have to do our due diligence in helping to create space and opportunities for others. This can be done by advocating for others that you’ve worked for or with, creating resource groups, pulling junior staff members into meetings (when appropriate), and becoming a formal or informal mentor.
1. Get you a network.
2. Show up early and overprepared.
3. Keep your emotions in check. No crying or screaming in the office, please.
4. Be willing to give as much as you take. Help your fellow young or seasoned black professionals out.