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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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!!!

It’s Partyyyy Time! Or is it? …

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Last weekend, I attended a Nigerian party in the LA area with some family and friends.  In true  Owambe fashion, the “turn up” was real.  Food, drinks, music, “money spraying” were in full effect and everyone truly had an awesome time.  We partied into the wee hours of the morning and the next day, I woke up sore and achy from dancing to Wizkid in my high heels.  I remember at many points that night feeling like…myself!  I ate enough jollof rice to feed four big women and then proceeded to dance and sing at the top of my lungs with friends when Sir Shina Peters played, as it reminded me of my childhood.

There was no worry of eating or drinking too much as I was surrounded by love and friends and family.

This is what I call a party.

Now, contrast this with the so-called parties hosted within Corporate America.  Sigh…

I have had the dis pleasure  of attending more than a few corporate parties.  I shouldn’t even call them parties really.  Events is more like it.  Take the Christmas party at one of my previous employers, a very conservative Accounting firm. Here are a few of my favorite observations:

  •  Deciding how to dress for one of these is almost impossible. The task at hand is to find an outfit that is not too short, not too long, sexy but not too sexy, flattering but not too form fitting, conservative but not business-suit like, etc… Inevitably, I end up with the contents of my closet scattered all over my bed before I decide on something.
  • The menu is another one.  Now, I have been described by some as “bougie”, but let me tell you, sometimes you just want food you are familiar with.  Somehow, my definition of party does not include some dried up veal or King Fish-caviar or drinks such as Cynar and Punt e mes. Often, after these “parties”, I have been known to stop by the nearest drive-through or Chipotle on my way home.
  • Now everyone knows that at these dinners, there is a fun end and a boring end of the table. The fun end is where you sit with your peers who are hopefully not arrogant, self-important jerks.  Here, you can maintain some semblance of real talk and not have to worry whether you used the salad fork to eat the main course.  No one cares too much. As long as you manage to remember to drink out of your own glass and not that of person next to you (haha, this happened!), then you should be ok.
  • If you find yourself on the boring end then… Via con Dios! Here is where real talk ends as you are seated next to some big shot, or big shot wannabe who continues to crack dry jokes you do not understand, but you are obliged to laugh anyway.  The kind of fake laughter that makes the side of your face hurt and can cause facial spasms later.  Here, the steak is very rare, almost raw and although said big shot is allowed to order endless bottles of wine, you, my fellow dual citizen, dare not exceed your 2 glass maximum!!
  • Here’s one that never ceases to amaze me!  Some of my fairer-skinned compadres still manage to turn all the way up at these events! Invariably, someone ends up (a) sitting on a partner’s lap, (b) making out by the bathroom,  (c) grinding obscenely in the name of dancing, (d) telling very, very inappropriate, sometimes racist or sexist jokes, (e) passing out (f) drinking way too much, which I guess causes all of the above.
    These have all happened at these events and the thing is, in many cases the perpetrators not only remain employed, but this seems to have absolutely no negative consequence on their careers.

I often think of how it must feel to be that free.  To know that you will be ok, no matter how much you screw up.  The stern faces of my Nigerian parents and grandparents come into focus in those moments, reminding me of how much they toiled so I could be here, rubbing shoulders with them. I used to think that I would stop feeling this way once I rose to the level of management and was no longer at the bottom of the totem pole.  Now as a mid-level manager, I know this feeling will never change.  I will never be able to completely relax in this world.

So no matter how many times they call it Christmas party, or Thanksgiving potluck or company picnic, or corporate happy hour, it will never be a real party for me.

What are some of the things you have observed at company parties? Please share your thoughts.

Performance Evaluations: Who Should I be This Year?

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Most people I know do not like the process of being criticized evaluated; much less in the workplace.  At least once a year, someone, likely your boss, gets to provide feedback on how you have fared. If you are lucky, this process is constructive and painless, where your successess are highlighted and rewarded and your few shortcomings discussed in a collaborative way.  Many of us are not quite so lucky.

I am sure many social experiments can and have been conducted on performance reviews. I, for one, am usually amused by the use of euphemistic terms such as “Areas needing improvement” or “Development needs”.  Rather than saying, “You just don’t cut it” or “Start looking for another job”, these terms are replaced with the aforementioned, even though every experienced person knows what they mean.

My particular beef with this process is how almost completely subjective it can be.  No matter how hard you try during the year, you can never really score a perfect 10; unless your boss wants you to.

Let me give you an example:

Some employers use a forced ranking system where they list a bunch of attributes and basically grade on a bell curve.  One of the attributes we are typically measured on is Passion and Determination to Achieve.  This means that you stop at nothing to achieve your targets which by the way, get more unattainable each year. It may include employing tough tactics with your competitors, other departments and even your coworkers just to get ahead.  After all, a forced ranking system means that if Joe is ranked 1st, Jane would have to be ranked 2nd or lower, so no ties.  This attribute is the often most important  and is usually rated highest which is no surprise: it’s how we achieve results.

Another attribute is Empathy which measures your willingness and ability to relate with others and help them solve problems, even sometimes at your own expense.

Is it really possible to score a perfect 10 on both at the same time?

One of my natural strengths has always been the former.  Having been blessed with the competitive gene, I  work extremely hard to achieve KPIs as this is how I am measured quantitatively.  This may mean that I am not always available to chit chat and schmooze with coworkers. But it does mean that my numbers are met and often exceeded.  However, rather than passionate or driven,  I have been called aggressive, pushy, a bulldog and some other less than flattering names because I do not go out of my way to socialize and am more likely to go straight to the point.

Being a West-African woman adds another dimension. I was raised to distinguish between work time and play time.  I was brought up to speak carefully about my personal life, divulging as little as possible and only to those who needed to know.  So I may not be the loudest at the lunch table, nor will I be the one pretending to understand pop culture references that are foreign to me (hmm, I think I should do another post on this).  Point is, I am pleasant without letting it affect my work.

Once, during a discussion on my performance and upcoming promotion, my White, male boss said to me, “You can definitely do the job but you just don’t smile enough”. This was hard for me to deal with seeing as neither him nor his boss nor anyone else at their level walked around the office all smiles.  Why were the rules different for me than for them??

To further complicate things, I have observed other colleagues who would probably score very highly on the Empathy attribute be considered soft and weak and unable to lead. They too, have been passed over for promotions.  Many companies pride themselves on valuing diversity, which is not only about skin color and gender, but also about personality types. Still, I find myself contemplating if there truly is room for diversity at the top.

So … what would it take for me to not only fit in but move up? Will my fate be determined by whether or not my boss likes me, or is there a more objective form of performance reviews?

Please leave a comment and let me know how you feel about the review process at your job.  Is it objective, fair, easy to understand? Or do you find yourself wondering, “Who Should I Be This Year?”

“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!