Corporate Startup Culture & a Young, Black, Introverted Woman

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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.”

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“I Love Your Hair! It’s a Weave, Though, Right?”

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In this post, I wrote about my initial hair-related experiences in Corporate America as a Black woman. Sadly, after over a decade later, I still experience the unsolicited, often annoying commentary regarding my tresses. And I must say, I have still not gotten used to it. Even though I have come to expect it, I still find myself getting worked up. However, judging by the number of hair-related tweets that were featured in the #BlackWomenAtWork twitter eruption this week, I am not alone.

Recently I worked with an amazing, fast-paced, startup – unbelievable perks, flexible environment. The kind of place that has essential oil workshops, Wednesday in-office yoga and free vegan food at our fingertips. This is the company of my dreams…with one exception. I am the only Black woman that works there. The only raisin in the proverbial cookie. Let that sink in for a minute.

So I essentially have two jobs. One is the job I was hired for, a Supply Chain executive, while the other is the more tedious, unpaid responsibility of representing Blackness.

A couple of weeks ago, I walked into work on Monday, doing my usual route – walk in, head to kitchen to drop off lunch, fix my breakfast smoothie and eggs, before heading down to my desk. I should mention that this kitchen is unlike that in most offices. Equipped with a full range, pots and pans, a Vitamix and free food, our kitchen is often the office hangout, as someone is usually making breakfast or baking vegan goodies for everyone. Anyhoo, as I walk in, one of my White, female coworkers (let’s call her Becky) engages me in the following exchange:

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If I Were a Boss…

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Many of us have goals and dreams of leading and managing our own teams someday. While some of us are closer than others in achieving that goal, it is never too early to begin identifying and developing the right skills and mindset required for those responsibilities.

So, if you were in charge,  if you called the shots at a multi national, multi billion dollar organization,  what would you do? What kind of environment would you foster?  It is so easy to point fingers at our managers, but what would you do differently?

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“Your hair! It’s so…interesting.”

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I remember my first day in the Corporate American work place.  I had graduated with Honors a month prior with a degree in Accounting and had accepted a position as a First-Year Associate at a “Big” Accounting firm.  I recall the feeling of nervous excitement as I walked through the shiny sliding doors, eager to start my new life. The day before, I had micro-braided my hair.  Having just moved to a new city, I opted for a low-maintenance hair style until I figured things out.

The HR coordinator met me in the lobby to welcome me and begin the New Hire Orientation.  She was blonde, petite and dressed impeccably in a grey skirt suit.  Her black heels clacked as she strode confidently across the room towards me. As she approached, she introduced herself, firmly shaking my hand, subtly eyeing me up and down.  And then, there it was…the dreaded double take.  She looked twice at my hair and said, “I like your hair.  It’s so…interesting.”

As I mumbled my thanks, I recall thinking that I had never seen my hair as different before.  I wondered if ‘interesting’ was a euphemism for something less…pleasant.  Would I be considered “less-capable” or “less professional”? Would I fit into this ultra-conservative work environment being the only Black woman on my team?  I pondered some of these questions within my first few weeks as I met my other team mates.

This was only the beginning of my hair journey in the Corporate space.  Throughout my career, as I have moved departments, offices, jobs, I have had a plethora of adjectives used to describe my hair- whimsical, cool, unique, fickle, ‘out-there’.  I would often wonder if they ascribed these same descriptions to me as a person and not just my hair.  Someone, a middle-aged, White male colleague once said to me, “It’s like a Chia pet.  It can grow from nothing to several inches in like 2 weeks!!”

The biggest change was when I transitioned from relaxed, straightened hair to my natural, more kinky texture.  Although I knew it was the right move for me personally and health-wise, my biggest  concern, believe it or not, was how my work colleagues would view me.  After my ‘big-chop’, it was as if I was no longer the same person.  Some thought it was cool and wanted to touch it, while others just stared as if I had been deceiving them all along with my ‘fake’ hair.  I have even had the discussion with other Black female colleagues about whether or not my short twist-out was considered “professional” and appropriate for our work culture.

I consider overcoming my hair struggles in the corporate world as a badge of honor.  I could very easily have continued to wear my weave at work just to fit in.  I could have continued to apply perms to my hair just to avoid the stares and questions.   However today, I choose to embrace my hair in and out of work. I choose to maintain confidence even through the stares.   I know deep down that I have become a better professional woman for it!