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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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:

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10 Stupid Questions And My Snarky Responses To Them

2015-04-25 15.07.32Americans have a saying : “There is no such thing as a stupid question.” I’ve heard professors say this as they try to encourage students to speak up in class and learn from each other.

Well, I disagree.

There are stupid questions. Many. I have been asked these questions by coworkers, classmates, acquaintances, frenemies, even strangers. In my previous post, I was asked a stupid question by a coworker which had me uncharacteristically stumped. Usually though, when  assaulted confronted with these, my first instinct may be to rain down a litany of African curses on their heads. The kind my grandmother used to dish out. But then, I would not only scare them, may also be labeled the anti-social, crazy, Black woman. So… what do I do? I check them with one of my snarky comebacks, while keeping my facial expressions pleasant by adding the following:

  • A big smile
  • Eyes opened a tad wider
  • Nodding
  • Frequent blinking

One or a combination of these will give off a very cheerful, friendly and chipper vibe, thereby creating a nice contrast for the sarcasm you are about to unleash.

Here are some questions I have gotten and my responses.

(At a work happy hour with a Supplier) You look too young to be in this role.  How old are you? Old enough, I think. Actually, I’m not sure. Would you mind cutting up my food into smaller, bite-sized pieces? Thanks.

You are so articulate and you’re from Africa. You speak English so well, how did you learn? At the airport. As soon as I arrived, I stopped the first White man I saw and asked him to teach me English.

Oh, where are you from? Nigeria? Oh cool. There’s a man in our church who’s from ummm… (*turns to husband*Honey where’s Peter from again? I think Tanzania. Do you know him? Peter from Tanzania? Oh, yes! I think I might. I think his hut might have been a few doors down from our compound.

Is this really your name? It sounds American. Did you just change your name because you were applying for the job? 👀…Yes. My reeaaal name is spelled  Nduxgherzxyhjsfikwe. It actually means Oh Sarcastic One.

Wow, you travel a lot. You must make a lot of money? Yes. You know I also work nights as a part time flight attendant.

Oh, you went to a ‘Black’ University? That’s… interesting. Do you feel it was as good as sayyyy a…..non ‘Black’ University?  You may be right! *rubs chin thoughtfully* We did spend the entire time learning about MLK and Malcolm X and Stomping the Yard.

The length of your hair changes so frequently. First long and then short and then long again in 2 weeks. Yea, Black hair is like that. You literally pull on it and it extends out of our scalps. Cool, eh?

I heard Black women can’t wash their hair.  How gross! Is it true? Yea well, we do our bit to conserve water. We do care about the planet.

You run? That’s … different.  I don’t know any Black women who run. I think it’s because of their hair, right? Oh no, that’s not true. We have to practice running from the Police.

You like watermelon. That makes sense I guess. Do you like any other fruits? No, just watermelon. Yea, as kids we used to practice who could spit the seeds out the farthest. Wanna see me try?

What stupid questions have you gotten and what are your snarky comebacks? Please follow and share.

Resident “Alien”

Have you ever had a conversation with someone at work that left you … speechless? Now, I consider myself quite witty and have no issue dishing out clever reparte when necessary. But this was…
A White, male peer, who once sat in a neighboring office, found out somehow that I was on an employer-sponsored visa. Let’s call him Jim. Since I did not divulge this information to Jim, he must have overheard me talking to my lawyer.

Jim:

While standing in my office doorway and speaking quite loudly…

So I heard they asked you to move to France and you said no, because of your visa situation?

Me:

Uhhh… I guess.

Trying to decipher how he found out.


Jim:

Man, that sucks. It would have been a great opportunity. I hear they are offering XX thousand dollars in signing bonus if you go.

Me:

Yea

At this point I’m showing all the obvious signs of discomfort with this conversation. I have shifted away from him to face my keyboard and have begun to type an email. He continues…

Jim:

I hear they might lay people off if they turn it down.

Me:

O….k. Hadn’t heard that.

Jim:

So how does the visa thing work? If you get laid off, you have to go home, right?  What will you do? You’re from Africa, right? You would have to go back there? That would suck with all the issues going on there right now.

Me:

silence.

disbelief.

blank stare.

Jim:

well, good luck. Hope it all works out.

—————–
I have to say, I still haven’t properly collated my thoughts on this issue. But I know it upsets me.
Ever since my arrival into the U.S almost 15 years ago, I have been reminded constantly of my “alien” status. It started in college as professors and students would not only mispronounce my name, but do it so dismissively. Like they couldn’t be bothered. I dreaded that roll call first day of class.  Just as I had begun to get used to this feeling, by my second year, I started realizing that I was not allowed to go after certain internships I was otherwise qualified for, because I was an “alien”.
Once I got my first “real” Corporate job, still on a visa, I remember this nagging feeling of being…unsettled. I didn’t feel like I could lay down any roots. I didn’t buy any nice furniture, much less think of home ownership. I would even use disposable utensils.  Because, who knew? I could be asked to leave at any time, and even though I had spent my entire adult life here, I would only have 30 days to pack it all up. I can tell you that this is not a good feeling and really does hinder your quality of life.
I commend every non-US native, Corporate-American who has endured this. With all the struggles of the job and life itself, you have this to contend with as well. And you do it with grace. Without letting them see how unsure you are about your future.
To the ‘Jims’ of Corporate-America, I have some choice words for you, but I will opt for a more…diplomatic route :).  Please treat this topic sensitively as it is sensitive for us. In case you are that obtuse and can’t tell, we really don’t want to talk with you about this. It is really none of your business. I choose to discuss this topic with friends and family, people who genuinely care about my well being. Many have come here to seek a better life for themselves and their families. Much like your ancestors did. Do not ask annoying questions about our immigration status. It is difficult enough to try to do a great job and compete (as we are often have to work harder to prove we are good enough), without adding your tactless comments to the mix.
And please, can someone think of a different term to refer to non-US natives  that does not include a word also used to describe extra terrestrial life not originating from Earth?!

No! I am not here to make you laugh!!!

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I once attended a work dinner involving my department and our Board / senior leadership from our global team. If you read this post, you know how much I look forward to these types of events.  Leading up to this dinner, the whole day had been spent in meetings where each team presented their new ideas for the year and basically had to justify their existence to these guys. Weeks and weeks of intense  preparation characterized by sleepless nights, numerous Power Point slides (I think my team got up to version 59), multiple ‘dry-runs’, etc.  This was all to ensure that we looked good in front of the Board.  No one wanted to make a fool of themselves. Also, given the competitive nature of the job and teams, we all wanted to out-do each other. I’m sure many of you know the drill.
 By the way, there are about 30 people in my department.  Two of us are Black, myself and another guy. Let’s call him … Will. Will is a heavy set, middle-aged guy, very smart and experienced. He is well-liked by the team, mostly because of his jovial nature. In my opinion, sometimes, he can be a bit too…comical, but usually, he’s pretty good at knowing not to cross the line.
At the dinner, I saw a completely different side of Will. I am not quite sure what happened. Maybe he exceeded his two drink maximum. He went from harmless one-liners, to full on self deprecating humor. He made fun of his weight, his Blackness, his childhood, his heritage, etc. Before long, everyone,  including the white-haired board members were clutching their sides in laughter. The more laughs he got, the more elaborate he became. Eventually,  he went from telling his jokes while sitting, to standing, gesturing and demonstrating, complete with song and sound effects! I was mortified!  He reminded me of the old clips I had seen where Black folks had to entertain their owners during Slavery.  I was beyond embarrassed and a few of my coworkers would occasionally glance at me to guage my reaction. While I did not want to be viewed as the Party pooper,  I did not find any of it funny. I felt as if his behavior somehow reflected negatively on me; I felt guilty by association. So I sat there for what felt like one hour of torture with this fake “plastered – on” smile.
 As the evening wore on, and my face began to hurt from my strained smile, I went from embarrassed to contemplative to angry.

Many Black professionals, present company included,  continue to struggle to find our identities in the Corporate world. Rather than be ourselves,  we try to be cool enough, smart enough, or funny enough just to be accepted. I have been told by previous bosses that I didn’t appear “nice enough.  We try to fit into this mold defined for us by everyone else, while they themselves are free to be whomever they choose! I had never seen Will behave that way in a one-on-one interaction. However, he felt the need to put on a “performance” in front of the higher ups.

I suppose this is all part of being a dual citizen. Keeping parts of myself locked away in order to fit in. As much I would love to be myself 100%, I know I am not there yet. Maybe one day, maybe never. However, I would rather have a blank stare than become the butt of my own joke just for your amusement. I do not mind the sleepless nights and endless Power Point slides. This, I can handle. I am there to do one job only and it does not include being a self-deprecating Comedian simply for your enjoyment. No! I am not here to make you laugh!!!