In a recent blog post, I hinted at a previous job transition I had made going from your typical multinational corporation to a smaller, younger company with a more start-up vibe. At the time, I was ecstatic about this change! Finally, I was leaving a place that had too many rules about the wrong things i.e. what I wore to work, whether I could work from home, exactly when I could take lunch, etc. I was going to a place where I could make an impact, where my voice could be heard and my expertise valued. A company whose values aligned with mine. Not only could I relate to its products, I liked what the company stood for: health and wellness.
It’s ironic but, well is not how I would have described myself after working there for a year.
Many corporate startups/smaller companies pride themselves on their company culture and use this as a major recruitment tool. Shortly after the words “our culture” is spoken, it’s followed by things like: in-office yoga, free food, ping-pong, cornhole sets, no dress code, and in my case, free kombucha. Since I loved kombucha and couldn’t afford to pay for it as often as I’d like, I was sold!
But as Krisserin Canary alludes in her article 5 red flags every woman should look for when considering a job at start-up, these perks do not a culture make. She goes on to indicate that for a lot of these misguided companies, culture is an “arbitrary set of attributes that define what a person who works here looks like.”
I quickly found that I did not look like anyone else who worked there. I was the only Black person and there were zero efforts made to change that. This was a company that believed in the philosophy of “We don’t see color. We only hire the best people for the job regardless of demographic. However, our talent pipeline is filled from two distinct sources (1) the same mainly White schools within a 10-mile radius; (2) friends and families of those who already work here.” Though I am very confident in my abilities, I am still very surprised till this day that I was hired.
In addition to my Blackness, I was from a different country which meant my world view was often different from those of my colleagues. Such as when I overheard a senior leader mention that he did not believe water should be a right. Implying that the richer you are the better the quality of your water. I suppose he thinks the folks in Flint, MI don’t deserve any better than what they are getting. Or the people who made it clear they would never vote for Hillary during a conversation about Trump being fit for president. Or like the time someone said in a meeting that money remitted to Africans as part of sustainable farming practices were usually squandered away “because most of the men are drunks.” Or at lunch the day following a particularly devastating incident of police brutality when my blonde, female colleague (with whom I had just finished “nerding out” over our mutual love for essential oils) randomly, but emphatically stated that the victim deserved to be fatally shot because he did not comply immediately with police. And everyone just kept eating their quinoa unbothered by the color draining from my face and knot in my stomach. I could go on and on….and I just might in another post.
These knots in my stomach became a staple. I was constantly anxious. Sitting in an open floor plan with no cubicle or office walls to offer even the flimsiest of barriers to serve as a reprieve from the onslaught. Knowing it was only a matter of time before I’d have to bite my tongue to keep me from clapping back. Constantly vacillating between the urge to clap back and the desire to belong and be approved of. Body and mind weary from contorting myself to fit in.
“Was my hair too Black for them, did they get the style, or did they just think it was untidy?”
“Even though everyone was wearing yoga clothes, were these yoga pants appropriate for my body type?”
“When they would ask me what song was playing on my headphones, should I be truthful and say Solange or just say Green Day (both of whom I love)?”
My introversion became mislabeled as shy, antisocial or maybe even inadequacy, when in fact introverts simply recharge their batteries from energy within, and need space to do so. And in this mentally draining environment let me tell you, I needed to stay constantly charging. Like that old cellphone that doesn’t even hold a charge anymore.
Being new to the company and to this particular industry, a great culture would have also included some form of structured training that would have allowed me to learn the basics while hitting the ground running. Again, another deficiency of most Corporate startups is that there is often no such thing as training or onboarding. Tribal knowledge, bro culture, and an inordinate amount of hallway conversations are the name of the game, often excluding new employees, especially introverts. This, coupled with job roles that are ill-defined and blurry, as well as hazy direction from leadership, just create chaos in a mind like mine and makes for a very challenging start.
Startups, by their very nature are more stressful, in my opinion. There is a lot to do and often fewer than required resources to accomplish tasks. Things tend to be more aggressive as the company struggles to gain a foothold in the marketplace. I get all that. And I wouldn’t have accepted the opportunity if I hadn’t been prepared to work. To roll up my sleeves and get stuff done. But I must admit I did not do my homework on this culture stuff. I took it’s real definition for granted and definitely learned a very expensive lesson on the subject.