On Friday, February 19, as a part of Credera’s Black History Month celebration, we hosted our fifth installment of our Credera Listens panel event. The event and celebration were sponsored by CredColor, Credera’s employee resource group for Credera team members of color.
Through a panel and open forum discussion led by Nickoria Johnson, a principal in our Management Consulting Practice, we explored the topics of race, allyship, intersectionality, microaggressions, and authenticity, among others. Each of the four panelists and leaders shared their experiences and perspectives.
The theme of this panel was “When You Rise, I Rise,” and throughout the conversation we focused on personal stories highlighting the impact of allyship and sponsorship on each panelist’s career journey and life experiences. Our goal was that, through this conversation, we would equip each attendee with fresh perspectives on how to be a better ally and lean into fighting the inequity you see every day. We hope this conversation helps to create more empathy and understanding of what it is like to be a Black industry leader in America today and inspire others to support and uplift one another in our daily experiences.
Our esteemed panelists included:
Kendra Clarke, senior vice president of Data Science & Product Development at Sparks & Honey
Todd Scott, general manager, Global Technology Services for the U.S. Communications Market at IBM
Kathy Hubbard, assistant dean of diversity, equity, and inclusion at Southern Methodist University
Peter Yobo, principal, Management Consulting at Credera
The First, The Only, and Different
As the panel began, Nickoria asked the panelists to share their journey of “where you came from to where you are now,” coupled with sharing a little bit about the people along their journey who were most influential and impactful to them.
Kendra Clarke kicked off the discussion and went “way back” sharing that she was adopted by a white family in the 1980s in rural Indiana who decided they wanted to adopt Black children during a time when transracial adoption was not common. In addition to being anti-racist, her parents wanted to adopt Black children because they knew it was harder to place them and this was a way they could personally address inequity within their own home. Her parents were intentional about taking on the responsibility of creating positive identity building for Clarke, seeking out advice from other Black friends and associates in their circle, and creating connections and experiences for her to understand Black history and be a part of her Black community.
Across her studies and in her early career journey, she references being “the first, the only, and different” within the tech industry, in terms of being the only Black person in a position of power and/or the only Black technologist in the building. This has created a passion to inspire change through mentoring others outside of work and leading teams. She focuses on creating equity through education and learning from each other. In Clarke’s eyes, we do better work when we connect with each other and are able to bring our whole selves to work.
The Value of Sponsorship
Kathy Hubbard shared experiences she has had at Southern Methodist University in her 20-year tenure within the school of engineering. She considers herself “a triple minority” there, since she is Black, a woman, and not an engineer; working in that environment has had its own set of challenges. Through it all, Hubbard had some very impactful experiences with advocates, people who noticed her heart for students, and her heart for marginalized students in particular.
She notes that students of color, especially in engineering, are oftentimes struggling to survive and exist in that environment. Kathy has had the opportunity to champion and be a sponsor for those students, making sure they are seen and invited into those places and spaces where decisions are made; she recognizes the impact it has on their lives and on her life.
The conversation continued with Peter Yobo sharing his story about growing up in Ghana for most of his formative years. He attended a boarding school and his housemaster there became his first sponsor, pushing him to be the best, giving him stretch roles to excel, and always reminding him that he could do better.
When Yobo landed in California, he already had this mindset of focus on accomplishment and achievement. Early in his career journey, he appreciated the fact that this country affords him opportunities to exert effort and energy and to see results and fruit of that labor. However, he also saw there are some barriers and challenges for some groups and not others. He sought out sponsors and people who could help lead and guide him.
One of Yobo’s mentors was very intentional about investing in and helping to shape his career. Yobo saw advocates become sponsors, clearing the path for him and opening the door for him to do great things. Now Yobo is able to be that sponsor and advocate for others on his team and in his community. Finding ways to connect people, bridge cultures, and deal with what he calls “human issues” is a passion and his life’s commitment.
Todd Scott shared about his career journey that began over 33 years ago at IBM. He started as a client executive in Greenville, South Carolina, in the late 1980s and recalls when he would get looks and experience odd behavior while taking his wife (a woman of Puerto Rican descent who could be mistaken for Italian) out for dinner because he was a Black man with a “white” woman. Scott also had a difficult time with certain clients he represented, but also highlights that his first-line manager was a true advocate and ally; they are still friends to this day. Scott’s manager helped him build his confidence as a businessperson in a way that emulated the level of confidence he had as an athlete. This confidence gave Scott the support he needed to deal with the stereotypes and situations that surfaced across his professional and personal life.
The Difference Between Allyship, Advocacy, and Sponsorship
Johnson shifted the topic to encourage the panelists to dive deeper into advocacy and allyship. He reminded us that “ally” is a verb, not a noun; being an ally is lifelong work and actions do not stop next week nor simply by posting on social media.
In terms of defining what the difference is between an ally, an advocate, and a sponsor, Yobo shared that an ally is someone who understands the challenge and the pain. They stand with you and rally for change. On the other hand, an advocate is a person who has more context of who you are and they speak about you whether they are present with you or not. They remind others of the value you bring to the table and speak life into others about who you are. And finally, a sponsor says your career matters to them, and they take definitive, intentional steps to advance your career trajectory, exerting efforts beyond a simple conversation to really make things happen.
The Power of Allyship
Clarke shared a personal example of working with a chief technology officer (CTO) who made a deep impact on her life. At the time, she worked with a man who had an anti-female bias, who couldn’t (or wouldn’t) hear what she was saying and did everything to marginalize her presence. She went to her CTO, shared her concerns with being heard by this one individual. They worked together on an approach to help amplify her voice and free her from the gaslighting she was experiencing. When another difficult situation arose, she had this same supervisor to confide in, be her support system, and help her deal with the pain and struggle she endured as result of this experience. She is eternally grateful for his partnership and for him helping her to “take up space” and be heard in her white male dominated work environment.
Hubbard shared that many of her sponsors have been white males. She said they didn’t let “who she was and the skin that she was in” prevent them from seeing her, acknowledging her work results, and supporting her in her journey. She has a passion for pouring into young women and encourages them to seek out relationships and sponsorship with women, but don’t shy away from also establishing those kinds of relationships with men.
Shifting the conversation to microaggressions, Johnson shared a definition: Microaggressions are brief statements or behaviors that, intentionally or not, communicate a negative message about a non-dominant group. Another definition she shared says that microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, put downs, and insults that people of color, women, LGBTQ populations, or other marginalized people experience in their day-to-day interactions with people.
Yobo shared a personal example of being a 6-foot-4-inch, 280-pound former football player at a large consulting firm and having a partner who would avoid walking past him in the hallway at all costs. Yobo took it upon himself to go and investigate why this behavior was happening on a consistent basis. In the conversation, the partner asked if Yobo worked at the firm; Yobo sought to understand this particular microaggression (a large Black man must not work for the company) and after conversations, it was brought to light that the partner was operating from a buried and unconscious bias. At the end of the day, Yobo established a relationship and was able to walk with this partner and created empathy in the process.
Scott reminisced about a time when his whole team came together for a major meeting in New York City. He walked onto an elevator with three women, said good morning, and they all moved to the other side of the elevator. It was an awkward moment for all of them. At the team meeting of over 100 people, his director introduced him and he walked past the three women in the audience. After delivering his vision and strategy to his team, the three women came up to him and apologized for how they treated him. Sometimes it is behavior and not the words that are the microaggression. Scott’s mother said that you must smile all the time to make sure you don’t scare people. Small statements like “you don’t act Black” or “you don’t sound Black” and others are also microaggressions that may not be intentionally offensive but can be highly offensive to the receiver.
Facing Unconscious Biases
Clarke reminded us that many microaggressions are built on biases created by stereotypes based on media and trained reactions are unconscious. To the people on the receiving end, these seemingly small negative interactions occur many times in a day and it can be exhausting. For many, living with the fear of being labeled as the “angry Black female” makes them feel like they cannot show true emotions (which they are trained from childhood to suppress). If someone does show a little bit of emotion, it may be read as being out of control. Most of the time, Clarke said, “I can let these statements, assumptions, and behaviors go, but there are days when that one thing, on top of the accumulation of the other days, can shatter you because you have just had enough.”
Hubbard pointed out that “the hair” is a sensitive topic for many Black women. Most comments are rooted in authenticity and curiosity. However, if a Black woman chooses to wear her hair straight or pulled back, statements like, “I like your hair like that,” can be negative to the receiver. Being Black in the environment we live in today causes many to have a constant awareness and pressure of self and of how you are coming across, whether that is in terms of asking questions like, “Am I being friendly enough?” or “Should I be smiling more?” or making sure to put your hands on the steering wheel in a certain way. This is mentally exhausting, causes Black women to second guess themselves, and decreases productivity. Frankly, it can feel like you are running under water. People should strive to make themselves more aware of the biases they have and take an honest look at whether they are making the same statements to all people or just to certain groups.
Focusing on Empathy
Generating empathy is the primary goal of these conversations and creating safe spaces for open dialog is critical to affect change. Johnson asked the panel, “What can we do to create more empathy?”
Scott shared some of the methods and techniques they have in place at IBM. They have created virtual conversations, similar to this one, where executives share their experiences with their associates across the globe. In his opinion, our Black population needs to be courageous and authentic. For those who are not Black, try not to figure out a silver bullet, but consider this time as an opportunity to learn from each other. Listening and learning is a truly big deal.
“It is all of our responsibility to inform and to educate and it is all of our responsibility to embrace it,” Scott said. His specific encouragement is that “this is a business imperative.” Organizations can’t be all that they could be if they are not willing to embrace it.
Yobo shared a personal example of how he didn’t have genuine empathy for working mothers until he saw his wife try to balance working full time with motherhood. He is now more sensitive and understanding of the pressure some women on his team might be experiencing. When it comes to race, listen to understand and not being afraid to ask, “What is it like to be Black in corporate America?” and then have the conversation is critical. At Credera, our leadership sets the tone that this is a safe culture to have these interactions. We all need to make sure we are listening to understand.
Moving Forward With Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion
Closing comments from Clarke highlighted that there are everyday moments to create empathy. For example, one client was focused on Black hair care and beauty products and Clarke was able to give a unique perspective the client didn’t have. Hubbard said that after George Floyd’s death, the students were the ones to share thoughts and perspectives via social media. The students were ready to affect change.
As a leader, Hubbard wants share with vulnerability and transparency and create a unified call for action. She shared a reminder that we all need to give each other grace to keep moving forward and this is not an exercise of perfection. It’s OK to share that you are not sure what to say or how to say it and then start a conversation about it anyway.
“We can’t get tired of this work we are doing and have to believe that it will create new realities for those in the future,” said Hubbard.
In closing, Johnson reminded us of three things:
There must be grace in the process.
The only way we can create empathy is if we actually connect.
We all can learn something from each other.
Credera would like to thank our panelists for their heart, willingness to share their advice, and their time. We appreciate the investment and the deposits everyone who participated and listened to this conversation made.
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