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  • Writer's pictureJess

Race and the Workplace a Black Experience

Updated: Nov 2, 2023



Last month I was asked to speak at Oxford Brookes University as part of their ‘Race in the Workplace’ series, I was asked to speak about my experiences as a black woman in corporate spaces.


It was a great evening, and I met some lovely inspirational people.




Here is a summary of what I shared:


1. YOUR HERITAGE AND BACKGROUND ARE UNIQUE, THEY ARE YOUR SUPERPOWERS.


Remember that no one else is you, that is your superpower, so instead of trying to play down your heritage or comparing yourself to others, stand in your own unique power.


Early in my career I work for a publisher called Dorling Kindersley, I loved going to work every day, we were in beautiful offices in Covent Garden, I really thought I’d made it at that point, now, many of my colleagues were private school educated and had trust funds I clearly did not. This was one of my first jobs and I really wanted to do well and fit in, so I didn’t really talk about my background, I always kept things vague and there was the voice of my parents on my shoulder reminding me not to chat my business!


Then in 1999, Dk was releasing the Ultimate Barbie reference book to celebrate 40 years of Barbie. So how is that significant to this point, well, we were putting together a big event celebrating Barbie and off course promoting this Ultimate guide, there was to be a day of activity followed by a big evening event at the Savoy in London where we would host retailers, other brand owners and key stake holders, all of my colleagues had these ideas of how this would go down, for a while I stayed quiet agreeing but it all felt a little dry, if I’m honest, in my head I was thinking a party needs food and music at it’s centre, well that’s what I grew up knowing. So, I suggested this, and, guess what, it sparked a different conversation, and our celebration became a party to remember.


The point here is that I drew on what I knew and remembered as part of my heritage brought it to the workplace and made something great happen, it would have been easier to just go with the flow, but I didn’t, and it made a difference.


2. USE YOUR VOICE AND SHARE YOUR POINT OF VIEW


It’s unique and valuable. I once had a boss who whenever I went to him with a query, or an issue would ask me “what do you think we should do?” Now, this guy started as my boss’s boss and when said boss left instead of replacing him, he decided that I had potential so I could report directly to him (this could also have been a cost saving exercise by the company, but whatever it was, it a great opportunity for me). The thing is he was Senior and about 15 years older than me. So, the question “what do you think we should do?” at first this was a really difficult question for me as I had grown up to respect my elders and to take their lead on all things important and here, I was, with this hugely successful, experienced, and influential person asking me to make decisions on some key issues. Now don’t get me wrong he didn’t always go with what I suggested but, it taught me a valuable lesson about the value of using my voice, speaking up, as although I may not always have the answers my point of view influenced the strategic direction of our area of the business and in turn how I worked and what I worked on.



3. UNAPOLOGETICALLY ASK FOR WHAT YOU WANT


Ask for what you want, be unapologetic. If you don’t ask you don’t get. No one knows what’s on your mind or what you really need from your career but you. Now, I’m sure the same boss referenced in point 2 started to ask himself what he had created when it came to annual review time and pay negotiation.


Gratitude is a value of mine and one I’ve grown up with, and, I had a good job which paid reasonably well, why rock the boat. Well, he was getting me to ‘step up’ I was working hard, taking on more responsibility, yes, my title was one thing, but my work was quite another so, I told him this and asked for a larger pay rise.


You see if I hadn’t have done that I would have got my increment, in of itself would have been fine but I knew my work was worth more and only I could advocate for that. So be continually looking at where you are in your career what work you’re doing the impact you are having, what the market is doing and self-advocate, because if you don’t no one else will.


4. SELF PROMOTE – OWN YOUR GREATNESS


I know I was taught not to boast and brag / to be big headed. In the world of work, you must know how to self promote, you do it best and remember it’s not bragging is it’s based on fact. Think of it as helping people to make the best use of your skills.



5. NETWORK NETWORK NETWORK


Many times, what gets you ahead is not just what you say about yourself but what others say about you when you’re not in the room.


Through my career in marketing there were many opportunities that came my way because of someone recommending me or because of someone else talking about my work.


It’s all about the relationships you build, and these can be online – Linkedin is most definitely a well-used and successful business network space and in person. And, your networks will not just be the professional, there are the personal one’s too.


I have formal and informal mentors who I can call on for help and advice and who have been in my circle for many years.

In the workplace, mentors are important, but sponsors are even more so. Sponsors are those people who have influence in an organisation, who are in those spaces and conversations where decisions are made about key projects and who will work on them or about who will be promoted. Having sponsors and advocates in the workplace are key.


The way I look at it is that mentors are the people who will guide you to the door with advice and support, sponsors are the people who will open those doors.


And remember, as you progress you can pay it forward and be a mentor / sponsor to others.


I was recently asked to do some work for a large non-profit organisation, they initially came across me as they saw I had engaged with someone on Linkedin that they knew well, they contacted that person to ask about me and my work then got in touch with me, this happened as a result of 1 comment and a relationship that spans several years advocating for my work.


I’m here today speaking to you at Brookes, I’ve worked with the University for a number of years in different ways as a Coach and Mentor, it all started because I came to support an initiative a friend was doing here about 8 years ago, whilst I was here, I connected with some people, we shared stories about our work and here we are.


6. SEEK OPPORTUNITIES TO LEARN AND GROW AND FAIL FORWARD


Seek opportunities to learn this is not just about qualifications, they are important but also learn about people and what they do. And remember that to learn you must fail.


You won’t always get everything right all the time and, you will always learn through the process. Remember I said earlier my road has not been a straight one and life never is and that’s ok if you make time to reflect and take the learning.



7. KNOW YOUR WHY


And finally, what will really help you is to tap into what’s important to you, your why, your purpose. This will be rooted in your upbringing, your beliefs, what makes you get out of bed in the morning and the difference you want to make in the world.


This is one of the key things I work with all my clients with. I draw on the work of Simon Sinek, who talks a lot about the importance of knowing your WHY. This is your purpose, your reason for being, what makes you YOU. It will be different for everyone and there is no right or wrong and, it will evolve you do.



From your experiences in the workplace, what would you add?

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