How did being Black and a woman shape your experience at HBS and thereafter?
I am asked countless questions about my unique experiences as a corporate executive, a woman, and an African American, a journey that has been fascinating, mostly wonderful, and sometimes painful. How many other C-suite executives grew up on the South Side of Chicago and were trained by the Jesuits before landing at Stanford University, Bain & Company, and then HBS? Very few of my colleagues have ever dealt with anyone like me. Many times, men have played sports with other men, and women have been in clubs or sororities with other women. Yet most C-suite executives have never had a deep relationship with an African American woman. This has worked both for and against me. Some people just accept me for my fundamental capabilities and make no pre-judgments. Others, however, assume risk and distance. "What they don't know, they cannot trust." This is often not a conscious feeling, yet it is terribly real. It is left to me to bridge the gap for both of us. And, yes, there are also a few "haters" out there, i.e. the people who do not want the world to progress so much that a well-educated, fully capable, and highly confident African American woman can attain the highest levels of corporate leadership. The haters sometimes win a battle but never win the war, because of my own perseverance. When knocked down, I always, always get right back up. And, for every hater, there are as many CEOs and board members with fairness and decency at their core.
My advice to future HBS African American women is to be relentless. The highest level of success requires the highest level of commitment. It is unimaginable how much competition exists for top roles or great funding. It is also unspeakable how much effort is required. Not only do you need to deliver extraordinary business results, you also need to navigate to the best opportunities, and you need to build meaningful relationships with an entire assortment of people and personalities.
During my upbringing, my exceptional and loving parents raised me with the knowledge that as an African American woman, I would need to work twice as hard. Now I say that they are well-intentioned, yet wrong. You need to work five times as hard and keep showing up to ensure that you find the right opportunities at the right time. Despite all the hard work, it is a thrilling and worthwhile ride.