Can I Be “Unapologetically Black” like Kendrick?

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Did you see the Grammys last night?  I did. I rarely watch award shows, or TV in general for that matter. However I happened to be at the boyfriend’s last night and we ended up watching it.

So…Kendrick Lamar. Kendrick Kendrick Kendrick! My mind is so blown, I am not sure where to start. That performance stole the entire show! His spirit, his fire, his lyrical talent, his artistic vision, his message! I was so proud to be Black in that moment.  Throughout his entire performance,  I was completely enthralled, not caring who else was in the room and what they were thinking or experiencing. Not caring if his passion and directness made anyone uncomfortable.  It was for me. He was…

Raw.
Untempered.
Uncensored.
Authentic.
Unapologetic.

Unapologetic. Not feeling or showing regret or shame. Without apology or qualification.

This is such a sharp contrast to the general conduct of Black folks in the Corporate workplace. The last thing the average “dual citizen” wants at work is to be recognized or characterized as Black or African or Nigerian. Rather than be proudly associated with our heritage and culture,  we shy away from it because in truth, we are worried about the perceptions of others.

Will I make them too uncomfortable?

Will they like me enough to promote me?

Will they think I’m lazy or unqualified?

Will they think I’m too ghetto? Too loud? Too stereotypical?

If I hang out with other Black folks, will they feel threatened? Left out?

If I speak with my authentic accent, will they understand me?

As a result of being overly concerned with these, we limit ourselves drastically and contort ourselves to fit into a mold that was never designed to contain us. We conform to standards of behavior that in fact have nothing to do with actual job performance,  but everything to do with creating a comfortable feeling for the White majority.

Kendrick is in great company. We have always had socially conscious artists throughout history. Artists like Nina Simone, Public Enemy, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Mos Def are a few that come to mind.  Beyonce’s Superbowl performance of Formation lent her powerful voice to the ongoing conversations. However, with race relations remaining persistently strained in this country, it is increasingly important for Black people to….wait for it…

just…

Be Black & Proud.  In whatever field or, industry,  through what ever medium. Just be You. 100%.  Take up space. More space. You are no less qualified to be here than anyone else. Do not confine or refine or define yourself by the standards of anyone else. Why should anyone dictate how you are to be?

I know that this is not easy. We have “learned” to be the way we are now and may not even realize when we are being regretful or shameful of ourselves. So here are some small ways I plan to start making a change.

  • Eat what I want at the company picnic…I actually happen to love watermelon above all fruits.
  • Stop trying to force my natural hair into a ponytail so that it’s less…”whimsical”.
  • Hang out with other Black people at work.
  • Stop trying to soften my voice to sound more… “chipper”. Didn’t realize I was doing this but when you sit around 20 – something year old White women at work, all of a sudden you start noticing the extra depth in your voice compared to theirs.
  • Do not censor my likes or dislikes when talking to my White coworkers. For starters, when discussing the Grammys, I will be proud to say my favorite part was  Kendrick.

Because his performance reminded me of something very simple, yet important. To live an authentic life. Unapologetically so.

Any take aways from the show? Please share your thoughts and experience on race relations and Corporate America.

Surviving The Cube Life

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In this post I shared my initial experience sitting in a cubicle at my new job.  Since then, I have gotten quite used to this new environment by employing some simple tips. My general theme is peace and relaxation at work. See if these work for you.

Music

This is a constant for me. Especially with the high noise levels in the bullpen area I sit in. Tip: To avoid the embarrassment from this post, make sure your headphones are properly plugged in. I personally prefer softer sounds so easy listening, smooth jazz and some R&B.

Tea
I am a huge tea drinker. In addition to the numerous health benefits, the right cup of tea can calm your nerves which is essential when you do not have your own walls to keep away the nonsense.  While green tea is great in the morning, I prefer an oolong, peppermint or rooibois as the day wears on.

Space

 Those who know me know that I am a bit of a neat freak. I can’t stand to have clutter. Same goes for my desk at work. When my space is cluttered, so is my mind.

Along those lines, I used to be one of those people who was extremely minimalist when it came to my work space. My mantra was…if I had to leave the company today, I wanted to be able to pack in 2 minutes flat. So for a long time I had no personal effects at my desk. I would go to great lengths to create a nurturing and rejuvenating space at home, but would put no effort to recreate the same effect at work. The unfortunate truth is that we spend most of our waking  hours at work. So why not create a space that is welcoming and nurturing to your soul? Things like crystals, lighting, plants, inspirational sayings, pictures and other personal belongings have helped me achieve this effect at work.

Quiet room

My office building has a lot of these spread out throughout each floor. These are tiny rooms with comfortable seating and a phone. You can pop in for a quick private conversation or take a power nap. Up to you. When I feel the need to leave my immediate work space,  you can find me in one of these room doing anything from eating lunch to meditating. If your employer doesn’t have this,  schedule 5 or 10 mins every couple of hours to leave your cube. Take a walk. Outside or inside. Sit in your car…whatever you can do to get some alone time. Hugely important.

Be friendly with your neighbors

While you may not be the loudest person in the bullpen (and you shouldn’t be!), you should try to get to know at least a couple of folks in your area. Sitting in a cube farm helps when you know and like the folks in the same boat as you. A quick chat always helps break up to monotony of work and helps alleviate tensions.
These are not new.  They are just simple reminders to help make your cube experience…bearable.  Hoping at least one of these resonates!
Any tips you have used and want to share?

“I Am Old Enough To Be Your Father”

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OK, so no one actually said this to me directly.  Not in those words anyway.  I put the quotation marks to rattle you.😉

All kidding aside, the sentiment behind the title is one I have encountered countless times as a young woman in Corporate America.  Given the fact that I am often the youngest person at my level at each company I have worked at, this isn’t surprising. Having a coworker or supplier throw their years of experience in my face has become somewhat of a daily occurrence. Usually it’s prefaced with the statement, “I don’t want to date myself…“, but their intent is to do just that. To let me know they have been doing this job since I was in diapers. That my “fancy MBA” cannot compete with their hard-earned on-the-job training.  Other times they say things like “In the good old days…” or they find a way to work in the even-less subtle “I have a daughter/son about your age…” in the conversation.

As someone who was raised on traditional African morals,  I have been brought up to correlate age with wisdom.  To assume that the older you are, the more likely it is that you know what you are talking about.  I respect age. I value age.  I admire age.  But I am not intimidated by it.

I think a lot of professionals with similar upbringing are nervous and timid when they find themselves in conversations, especially heated ones, with someone who surpasses them in age and/or experience.  They doubt themselves, doubt their competence, even belittle themselves indirectly.  I used to be that woman. Afraid to speak up in a conference room full of my “older peers”.  Worried that my limited experience would make them question my value.  These days however, I am taking a different approach.
My approach starts with valuing myself and acknowledging what I know, and don’t know.  It also includes giving myself a mental pat on the back. After all, I am here. Talking with you, my 57-year old, “I’ve worked here for 25 years” peer. Not bringing your coffee and not making your copies, but discussing strategic directions and negotiation tactics. And not only do I not sound like an idiot, I am giving you a perspective you hadn’t thought of before.  I ask questions, I challenge the status quo.  Yes, this is how you’ve done it for 20 years, but perhaps we could try something different?  I may be the same age as your daughter, but I know my sh*t. And you know that I know my sh*t. Otherwise, you wouldn’t resort to futile and desperate attempts at intimidation based on age.  You may have prejudged me based on skin color, gender and age, but you are quickly realizing how incorrect you are.  And that scares you.
I don’t claim to know it all.  Which is why I do listen quite a bit.  So when you see me silent, it’s not because I have nothing to say.  Rather, akin to a sponge, I am soaking up whatever valuable information is dispensed.  I go back to my desk and Google things I do not know.  I make a point to read books on topics where I still seek knowledge.
I realize that part of the issue here is your growing insecurity.  You worry perhaps that with many companies cutting back, I may edge you out of your cushy job, mess up the retirement benefits you are just a few short years away from enjoying.   You do not need to worry.  You still have your privilege and there is probably nothing I can do to take it away from you. Not that I knowingly would if I could.  This job represents a very small part of my full life.  Unlike you, I have no insecurities when it comes to my work.  Just learning and growth opportunities.  So, instead of seeing me as some kind of threat, let’s figure out how to work together and use our individual strengths to get more done.  We’d both be better off for it.

Cube Farm Life

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Have you ever had to go from sitting in a nice cushy office with one employer to switching to a cubicle with another?

Let me tell you. It is not easy.

I. miss. my. office.

In my current role, I get to work in an ultra-modern, brightly and naturally lit building with fully equipped gyms, convenient dry cleaning, fully stocked cafeteria, flex hours and…….yup, cubicles. Everyone, from the person in the mail room to director level folks sits in one of these.  I am not claiming to be above sitting in a cube. Before my last job, I had always sat in them as well. But trust me, after a 4 year stint, a girl gets accustomed to certain things. Such as  having a door and being able to shut it on occasion. Lol.

All of the below happened to me in my first 2 weeks of being in a cube:

1. I like listening to music at work. A little Sade, Yuna or Amel goes a long way in alleviating work stress and tuning out the bs. In my office previously,  I would have just played directly from my iPad,  no headphones, low volume. Here, headphones are a must, of course.

So, I plug in my headphones and crank up the volume. But for some reason, although I can hear it, the sound is not projecting as clearly as it should.

Turns out, my headphones were broken and the entire floor was treated to “I’m crying everyone’s tears…King of Sorrow”.

Yup.

I heard their collective heads turn to behold the new, afro-haired, Black woman with a love for Sade. Sigh.

2. Along these same lines, on occasion, a friend will send the funny Instagram or Facebook post, designed specifically to serve as comic relief and break up the day. A few days in, I received one of such IG posts, involving a video of Chief Obi (my non-Nigerians, please google). So yea, I must have accidentally clicked on the post, and my office was delighted with this wonderfully humorous skit in a highly exaggerated Igbo accent. I couldn’t hit STOP fast enough! I’m not sure I’ve lived this down yet. Lol.

3. I have also had to explain my food more than ever because I have had a few working lunches. You know from this post, how I feel about that.

Other things that make the cube farm life fun include:

People literally watch your comings and goings. Everyone knows when you arrive in the morning, how often you leave your desk, and when you leave.

Phone conversation can be difficult. If you want to have a spur of the moment call with a business partner, those are challenging  because noise levels tend to get high. I had a supplier call me at my desk. As I was speaking to him, my cube neighbor decided, at that precise time to engage in his own, very colorful convo. If you want to have a personal conversation,  you must leave your desk, or be an expert whisperer.

Although I have an issue with trying to maintain my privacy, I am equally disturbed by people revealing TMI during personal loud phone convos. Like, did I really need to overhear you talk to someone about your bunion surgery? Or your yeast infection? Or hear about your crazy ex? Doubtful. Now I can’t help the ensuing side-eye I give you when our paths cross.

Oohh, this one is good. Your computer screen. You need to take measures to secure your screen from the peering eyes behind you.

I have also had to be very…stealth about more personal things such as quickly shoving a tampon in my pocket before rushing to the bathroom.  Or more embarrassing things like hoping no one could hear my stomach growl either from hunger or worse, gas, like the day I had bad Thai food. Lol.

In my next post, I will share tips I have been employing to make my Cube Farm life more…bearable.

What have you experienced while sitting in a cube environment?  Do you like it or dislike it? Please share.

Who Taught You To Be Confident?

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If you’ve read my last few posts,  you may have noticed that I am a few months in with a new employer. As I’m sure you know, there are definitely challenges and growing pains that come along with any major transition. Mine has not been easy but I’m making it work.

My new role involves being a senior team member with the responsibility of helping to develop an up and coming team.  One of the team members is a young woman; smart, personable. She was very welcoming of me to the team and she frequently expressed her gratitude for “having someone she could learn and grow from.”  Over the last few months, we have developed an informal, but close mentoring relationship where I not only coach her through specific job tasks, but her career overall. This excites me! I have struggled to find my path in the Corporate world, wondering if there is a way for my double consciousness to intersect seamlessly. I know now that whatever I end up doing will involve coaching and mentoring young Professional women.

We have spent a great deal of time together, mostly over lunches or even text  messages.   Over the course of many conversations with her, I found that her biggest obstacle is self confidence. Shortly after this realization,  it occurred to me that she reminded me of myself 10 years ago. I then pondered on how many people I’ve met, women especially who still struggle with understanding their value and place in Corporate America.

We spend so much time and money educating young minds on technical knowledge  and no time on the emotional and psychological mindsets required to succeed in this crazy world. When I think back to the preparation I received for Corporate America,  I remember Math, Accounting, Finance, Supply Chain, etc. Don’t misunderstand me; these are necessary. Without those key words on my resume, the doors would never have been opened to me.

But what about the less tangible skills around dealing with harsh criticism from an insatiable organization?

What about learning how to navigate a severely “matrixed” organization, where it’s impossible to know who your true boss actually is? One where you really do have to please everyone to succeed?

What about maintaining composure and feigning motivation when you keep bumping against that glass ceiling, and have been passed over time and time again for promotions you worked for?

We hear that women make $0.78 to a man’s dollar.  What we never hear is how young people should prepare for that and not have their self esteem shattered by it.

What about staying “professional” when your male counterpart adds a few extra levels of bass in his voice, as he obnoxiously interrupts you in a meeting in front of your entire department,  to steal your game – changing idea, and then eventually win an Excellence Award for it? Oh, and by the way, you had mentioned the idea to him and he brushed it off as “completely infeasible and way off mark”?

I could go on and on…

Are we just assuming that young people, barely out of school are inherently equipped to deal with this? That they know innately to keep their heads up and not cower even when that is the most natural reaction? Clearly not, or I wouldn’t have come across so many like the young lady I described above. Really smart, knows her stuff, but steadily receiving a daily dose of confidence – eroding, microagressive feedback from bosses, coworkers and the system in general.

I think this is a huge miss. I think courses targeted towards building your self esteem should be incorporated squarely into the curriculum of any B school or any Professional academic institution for that matter.  I would argue that possessing the ability to successfully navigate the Corporate American environment, having the stomach and mind for it, may even be more valuable than having the “head”, the technical expertise for it .

I know I cannot effect a massive overhaul of anyone’s curriculum overnight (or maybe ever). But I do plan to continue to invest my time and resources into filling that void, by mentoring young women who come my way, making sure they never lose sight of their true value. And that’s how this dual citizen plans to make a lasting contribution in both worlds.

Corporate Eye Candy

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List the top 3 things you need to make it in the entertainment industry as say, an actor or model.  Come on…It’s not a trick question. Pretty sure appearance made the list, right? Every minute of everyday, we are being bombarded with images of society’s definition of beauty and attractiveness. Seems to me this definition, while constantly changing, becomes narrower and narrower. With the surge in social media, these images are now all over Facebook and Instagram. If I have to see one more person on IG with their ass pointing towards the camera, or a picture of someone’s abs…

Anyways,  this is not a post about defining beauty. That is an age old debate, albeit incredibly worthwhile.  Today, I am especially troubled by the realization that Corporate America can be just as harsh in judging people based on appearance.

If I had asked you to list the top 3 things you need to make it in Corporate America, odds are looks wouldn’t be top of mind. You may have thought education, experience,  network, etc. And you are right.  But after over a decade in this space,  I have witnessed first hand how shallow, frivolous and simple-minded the Corporate universe can be.

I once had a boss at a previous job. By 37, he had managed to attain the role of VP which in my department was the 2nd highest ranking role. He was smart and driven.  In the 2 years I worked for him, he made sooo many inappropriate remarks about women and their looks, it was disgusting.

Once, he told me a story of how he had hired an intern. When his colleague asked why he hired her, he retorted, “Have you seen her?”… basically implying he hired her because he considered her attractive.

Another time he said to me about a vendor of ours who had married her boss who was the head of a major business unit, “She’s not that beautiful, I wonder how she managed that.”

Most of his comments were borderline at best. His excuse was always, “Hey, I’m from Europe…”, implying that Americans were too politically correct about everything.

His remarks were one thing.  He would also look openly at women, not even attempting to hide the lewd nature of his stares. Rather than an executive at a large multinational firm, he often reminded me of a teenager just barely into puberty.

Anyways, what was most troubling, was watching women who he thought were beautiful rise higher and higher in the ranks. I mean, I am never one to hate on anyone’s success,  but some of those promotions were so obviously undeserved. However, most of the women involved were long-haired, slim, long-legged white women, often clad in mini-skirt suits.

For the others who did not fit his standard of beauty,  they may as well have been chopped liver, so to speak.   The only saving grace was if any of them were EXTREMELY indispensable at their jobs and there were one or two lucky ones.

I wish I could say he was an anomaly.  That I haven’t encountered others like him. Truth is, while he was the most blatant,  I have come across men who in some way, reduce women to looks.  The other day I heard a male coworker say to another male about their female colleague,  “Ooh and she’s redhead”. And then they giggled like school children.

Anyone who doesn’t fit what the majority consider beautiful is often ignored even when their expertise surpasses those of their “more attractive” counterparts.

Here is the crux of my rant.

What and why do you care what I look like? I am not your wife or girlfriend. I am a professional, and I thought you were too. I was hired to do a job, not be your eye candy or comic relief. Why should I have to consider what you like before I get dressed in the morning? As long as I am not violating your corporate dress code, that should be enough. Should I be trying to compete for your attention like the other women who reapply their red lipsticks and perfumes before going into a meeting with you?  Why are you making “seemingly harmless” comments about my hair, telling me you like it when I wear it long and straight? Who cares? Tell your wife to wear her hair straight. Ridiculous!

The measure of a true Corporate professional,  beyond being able to deliver, is leaving your biases at home. It’s paying more attention to what is in my head and not what is on it. Especially when you are a leader with the careers of others in your grip. Women have enough to contend with in order to compete in this impossible environment you have created, without also having to worry about looking attractive to you.

I don’t care what your standard of beauty is. And I shouldn’t have to.

The Spotlight is Shining. Stand in It!

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If you know anything about growing up in an African, ultra-Christian home, then you know a bit about how I was raised.  I, like most of you, was brought up by family members who believed humility and gratitude were the most extolled virtues. It’s hard to disagree when you think of how many chapters in the Bible are dedicated to this ideology.

“Blessed are the meek…”

“In all things, give thanks…”

Where religion leaves off, conventional African wisdom picks up with sayings like…

“Pride goes before a fall…”

“The fool speaks, the wise man listens…”

“Pride is the mother of arrogance…”, etc again teaching us, from a very young age how far we can get in life simply by being humble and meek.

So it suffices to say that I grew up with these values ‘beaten’ (literally, albeit lovingly) into my subconscious.

As a young adult entering into the Corporate American landscape, I struggled with balancing these values long inculcated in me, with the new Corporate values of self promotion, i.e., speaking highly of one’s self and achievements.  I had a difficult time talking about or taking credit for good work I had done.

It also became obvious to me, very quickly, that many of the coworkers I came in contact with, had not had the privilege of the same ‘upbringing’.  Conversely, they seemed to have been taught the desire for leadership. Everyone seemed to want to be named leader.

Once as a new hire, I worked on a project alongside a small team I assembled. The project yielded over $1 million in savings and it was my ideas and actions  specifically that led to the breakthrough. We were asked to present to the SVP. During the presentation, I couldn’t use the words “I did”.  I just couldn’t. I continuously found a way to divert the spotlight. As if this wasn’t bad enough, a member of the team, who had done nothing but scratched his behind all day tried to jump in and claim the success as his!

During my corporate journey, I have come across non-U.S native, Corporate-Americans (especially Black folks) who seem to have the same struggles I did. You forget that most of the reason you have made it thus far is your hardwork, your determination, your inner hustle. You were not handed this job. If you are like me, you didn’t get hired because your daddy knew someone.  You earned it!

Now, I am not encouraging arrogance and ingratitude. There really is a fine line between arrogance and confidence. Be careful to know the difference. I am proud of the way I was raised and the values I was taught.  But I have realized that it is not enough. I have begun to expand my value system to incorporate confidence and occasionally, the “self back-pat”.  At the appropriate moment, I am not ashamed or too humble to remind my bosses of what I’ve done. It is necessary.

I am learning to subdue that part of me that wants to downplay my achievements, and allowing myself to stand in the spotlight from time to time.