You Gotta Be Bad!

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“You Gotta Be” My Experience As A Black Female in Corporate America

Last week I received this illustration depicting white male privilege. I must admit it made me smile for I had never seen it expressed so creatively. As a black female in corporate America for the past 35 years, I have faced and overcome countless obstacles so there are very few things that surprise me. Although the obstacle course is visible in this picture, most of the hurdles we must overcome are camouflaged, subtle but real. However, the optimist and lyricist in me decided to title this graphic, “You Gotta Be.” When Des’ree released this song in 1994, it quickly became my fight song. “You gotta be bad, you gotta be bold, you gotta be wiser.” In retrospect, it has been my theme song most of my life. It began in the 60s growing up as the first and only black girl in Euclid, OH. It continued in high school where I was the first black girl to graduate from Hawken, one of Cleveland’s top private college prep schools. So you can imagine after being “first” in so many environments, I thought I was prepared for entering the corporate arena. Armed with a freshly minted MBA from Kellogg in 1986, I was ready for the world. It did not take me long to realize the “world” was not ready for me, nor was the playing field level.

One of my favorite experiences was watching my manager squirm while explaining why I was passed over for a promotion despite exceeding my numbers and goals. I remember being told, “You smile and laugh too much.” Now just how was I supposed to unpack that? Who was I going to talk to? Who could I trust? Affinity groups were just beginning and I did not know what it meant to have a mentor or a sponsor. So I leaned on the words of the person I most trusted. My Dad. I could hear him say, “You must be smarter, work harder and be better just to be recognized. But you have a right to sit at that table.” It was his way of giving me permission to be bad, be bold and be wiser.

“You gotta be cool, you gotta be calm, you gotta stay together”

My next teaching moment came when it was time to recruit more talent just like me. It was the mid 80s. By this time I am working in advertising account management with my own Don Draper and Roger Sterling and still the only black in my function. “Cecilia, we want to hire some really good black men, we just can’t seem to find them. Do you know where we can find some?” Eager to help, I quickly went to the great Rolodex in my brain and with deft swiftness I replied, “If I knew where they were, do you think I would still be single?” To this day I delight in remembering the look on their faces as they realized how ridiculous they sounded! I also continue to smile laugh and use humor to throw some sophisticated shade, expose the obstacles, keep calm while remaining true to myself.

“Listen as your day unfolds, challenge what the future holds”

Ask any of us who have achieved executive levels in corporate America. We could all share stories that would leave you shaking your heads and wondering how and why we persevere. The answer is simple. We remain underrepresented. Black women accounted for only 1.1% of corporate officers in S&P 500 companies according to a 2015 Catalyst report. This lack of progress has resulted in many women of color leaving the workforce to pursue other options to increase their economic and societal impact. But we still need black women to achieve success in corporations. As consumers our dollar is strong and we need to see products, services and images that truly reflect our market. It makes me proud to see my younger sisters like Bozoma Saint John, Head of Global Consumer Marketing at Apple Music or Tiffany Warren SVP and Chief Diversity Officer at Omnicom raising the bar and not conforming to anyone who tries to tamp down their creativity and spirit. Keep challenging the status quo and knocking down those obstacles, one-at-a-time. I remember a day in the not so distant past when we were not as free to be ourselves, embrace our blackness for fear of hindering our careers.

It is my belief that today’s broad-based diversity programs do not adequately support the needs of black female executives. They must be supplemented with personal coaching for both existing leadership and female talent to create a culture where each person is respected for being both a “teacher” and a “student”. In the meantime cut out this picture, paste it to your vision board and remember, you are not whining, you just gotta be bad!

2 Responses to “You Gotta Be Bad!

  • Gwen Clayton
    3 years ago

    Great song choice for thought provoking encouragement. Your authenticity and share of your success inspire and remind us that United we stand. Next step : be bold and step into our own journey

  • You write so hosnltey about this. Thanks for sharing!