In an exclusive excerpt from Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In: For Graduates, Ariel Investments President Mellody Hobson shares key lessons on how embracing your authentic identity can provide a foundation for professional success and personal growth.
Recently a woman stopped me at a conference and said, “I heard you speak about ten years ago and you said something that completely blew me away.” Obviously I was intrigued. She continued, “You were on a panel and proclaimed, ‘I feel bad for White women.’ Everyone in the room stiffened. Then you explained, ‘As Black women, we know from early childhood that we are going to be discriminated against. It is a fact that runs through most of our lives. So when we get to corporate America, there are no surprises for us. White women, however, are in shock.’ ”Sheryl writes that she graduated from college believing that equality would be achieved in our generation. I was raised to know we still had a long way to go. I remember coming home from a birthday party where I was the only Black kid invited and the first question my mother asked was, “How did they treat you?” I responded, “Why would they treat me differently?” And she said, “They’re not always going to treat you well.” I was 7. My mother was ruthlessly realistic.
The Third Rail
I understand why the White women at a conference stiffen when I point out this difference. Gender in the workplace is a difficult topic. Complicating it further with race makes it that much more challenging. Despite the breakthrough election of President Obama, race in America remains a controversial and historically shameful issue. So if you’re trying to succeed in the professional world, the last thing you’re supposed to do is raise this taboo subject. It’s the conversational equivalent of the third rail—the effect is shock followed by a long silence. Many of Sheryl’s friends advised her not to speak out about gender, insisting it would kill her career. Many of my friends shared a similar concern. One practically grabbed me by the lapels and implored me not to get sucked into “the race thing.” She worried that I’d come across as one-dimensional, where all roads lead back to prejudice. And yet I feel compelled to speak out because my mother’s question still hangs in the air: How did they treat you? Over my 22 years in the workplace, I have encountered some recurrent themes and battled some stubborn biases. I do not pretend to speak for all women of color. No one person can speak for all. We are each unique...which is why it is so wrong to be lumped together by stereotypes or viewed with narrowed expectations based on color and gender.
Closing the Achievement Gap
All women struggle, but women of color must overcome “double jeopardy,” the one-two punch of sexism and racism. The achievement gap between women and men is even larger in the African-American and Latino communities than it is in the White community.The educational gap between men and women is more pronounced among African-Americans and Latinos with women earning even more degrees relative to men. Yet this educational achievement is not translating into higher pay or greater leadership roles. For every dollar a Caucasian man earns inthe United States, Caucasian women earn 78 cents, African-American women earn 64.5 cents and Latina women earn just 54 cents. Of the Fortune 500 only six companies have a Black CEO and only one is a woman. Seventy percent of corporate boards of directors are White men and 30 percent of Fortune 250 companies don’t have a Black board member. This matters because there is a direct correlation between board diversity and diversity in the executive ranks. Only two publicly traded companies are chaired by a Black woman. Ursula Burns, CEO of Xerox, is one. I am the other. I have always been ambitious—and I say that with pride. I am the youngest of six kids raised by a single mother who married at 19 and had four children by 24. I was not planned; my oldest sister is more than two decades older than me and my closest sibling is nine years older. Although I have my father’s name, I never really knew him and my parents never married. I adore my mother for the unconditional love and encouragement she offered along with her realism. When I was 5, I wondered out loud about what presents Santa might bring me and was informed point-blank, “Mommy is Santa.” Years later, when I asked my mother why she didn’t attend PTA meetings like the other moms, she responded, “Your mom doesn’t have that luxury.” Still my mother remained optimistic. As often as she told me that “life isn’t fair,” she also told me, “You can do anything.” She was extraordinarily industrious and would always wake up before sunrise. She would then rouse me, saying, “If you sleep past 6 a.m., life will pass you by.”
(To this day I am my mother’s daughter, often rising by 4 a.m.) Her own options were limited both by her circumstances and choices. She went into the real estate business, converting old buildings into condominiums, but her work ethic and gut instincts were not enough to drive success. Sometimes we lived in apartments in downtown Chicago close to one of the country’s best public grade schools that I was fortunate to attend. We were frequently evicted and when things got really rough, we would move to the South Side, living in partially completed apartments—isolated to a room where we had to heat water for baths on hot plates. While my childhood was often unsettling, it was not as difficult as some. School provided a tremendous stability for me. I was good at it, too. Even in the hardest classes up against the top students, I excelled. I had to. One thing I have learned is that there is little tolerance for error if you’re female...and zero tolerance if you’re a woman of color. That’s why when one of us achieves, we crush it.
After high school I headed to Princeton. When this comes up with older White folks in professional settings, they often look at me in a way that I almost feel like I need to add, “No, I did not take your kid’s spot.” It still amazes me how often people insinuate that race got me into the Ivy League. The not-at all-subtle implication is that my achievements aren’t real. I am an unabashed advocate for affirmative action to help offset centuries of slavery and institutionalized racism; there is still much to be done to ensure fairness, equality and inclusion. Some people of color share my views and others believe these programs hold us back by implying that we are not as good. We should not pit minorities and women against each other. I have heard so many executives point to White female advancement as a clear signal of progress. When these executives are pressed about advancements among people of color, they immediately refer back to White women. This is dangerous because it suggests diversity and inclusion is a zero-sum game where some win at others’ expense. After graduating from Princeton with a degree in international relations and public policy, I joined Chicago-based Ariel Investments in client services and marketing. Within a few years I had worked my way up to be an informal chief of staff to John Rogers, Ariel’s founder and my mentor. Soon after I turned 31, I was named president, and I’ve remained in that position. For all the stability and security I have now, I remain haunted by my childhood. A deep sense of anxiety born out of the dissonance of my childhood has driven me for all these years—and still does. I leaned in—all in—out of basic survival. I am still leaning in today.
Countering the “Angry Black Woman” Stereotype
How did I get here? It would be lovely to think that success was a result of my being extraordinary, but the answer is far more boring. I worked hard. Really hard. And to me, that is the key. Like everyone who succeeds, I had help from others. In my twenties I crossed paths with a high ranking woman at a major communications company and asked her for advice.“Smile alot!” she replied. This struck me as a superficial comment until she dove into its deeper importance. “We all want to work with people who are happy and optimistic,” she explained. “We want to work with ‘energy givers,’ not ‘energy takers.’ ” She was right. Although I wouldn’t call myself “super smiley,” I have become conscious of projecting an upbeat and positive attitude. This is especially important for Black women. The stereotype persists that we are angry. I am still amazed by the number of people who meet me for the first time and say, “You are so much nicer than I thought you would be.” Perhaps there’s an assumption that Black women should be angry because we have every reason to be. But it’s better not to give in to that anger. As Yoda says in Star Wars, written by my husband, George Lucas (we married in 2013):
“Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” We need to recognize and guard against the dangers of being labeled as aggressive. Recently I was on the phone with a prospective client being my normal hard-driving self. When he wasn’t responding, I decided to pull back. Instead of selling hard I softened my tone. I inquired about his holiday plans. I got small. And it worked. It may seem odd that I would advise “crouching,” but in some circumstances I do because I know that my confidence and authority can intimidate. So I choose to modulate myself. I don’t feel this lessens my sense of self. I actually feel empowered because I know I am in control. Also I’ve watched enough men sell, and the best ones modulate, too. Being aware of your culture—including the biases and preconceptions—is hard but essential. Before traveling to Japan I was warned that business cards must be accepted with both hands and you must take a moment to read the card and then look up and acknowledge the person who handed it to you. Just as we recognize the sensitivities in a foreign country, we must recognize them in our own work environments. The trick is to remain authentic to who you are while understanding that pounding the table at every meeting will impede your long-term success. In the investment field I know that we can’t control the stock market so I try to control everything I can. It’s the same with my approach to dealing with bias. We can’t control other people (unfortunately!) but we can control our reactions to them. We can also control how we focus our time and energy and manage our priorities. Even now in meetings, I’ll pitch an idea that is ignored until a White guy says the same thing and everyone loves it. I sit there incredulous. Did they not hear me say that already? But I shake it off quickly. Most of the time there’s no gain in speaking up and calling attention to that last idea. It only keeps you from thinking up the next. Of course, there are times when you recognize your race or gender is interfering with someone’s assessment of you; it needs to be called out. Years ago I traveled to Texas with two Black male colleagues to meet a potential client. He met us at the door of his huge office, ushered us in, then walked over to his desk and told my colleagues to take the two chairs. He then gestured to the sofa far off by the door for me. I gauged the situation and immediately said, “None of us will sit here.” Without another word, we all moved to the soft seating area and had our meeting. I was not going to be marginalized and was prepared to suffer any repercussions to my firm.
Staying True to Yourself
I love swimming (there, another stereotype busted) and one day, my coach devised a drill that required swimming to the end of the pool without taking a breath. It was really hard and each time I failed, he made me start over. I thought it was a breath-holding exercise but at the end, he claimed it wasn’t. I was stumped. Then what was it? “The point of the drill,” he explained, “was to make you feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable because that’s how most of us spend our day. It teaches you to relax into it and get through it.” It’s uncomfortable to talk about race and gender. But we must do it. And if we can start to feel comfortable feeling uncomfortable, that will be a step in the right direction. If we can relax into it, we can all get through this together. In 2005 I had an epiphany while sitting in the pews of the magnificent Rockefeller Chapel at the University of Chicago. Legendary disc jockey Tom Joyner was delivering a eulogy at the funeral of Ebony magazine founder John Johnson, and he praised him for being “unapologetically Black.” Although the idea had never before occurred to me, the concept landed with me powerfully. I immediately thought of all the times that I tip-toed around my race and gender. I flashed on the image of a church usher who murmurs “excuse me” while holding one finger in the air and quietly tip-toeing when seating people after church has started. Although the usher’s goal is not to be noticed, she is hard to miss. I was 36 years old and forever changed. Why was I subconsciously apologizing and what did I want to be excused for? I decided I would own who I am. From that day forward, I knew what I would be—unapologetically Black and unapologetically a woman.
Excerpted from Lean In: For Graduates by Sheryl Sandberg. Published by arrangement with Alfred A. Knopf, an imprint of The Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, a division of Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2013, 2014 by Lean In Foundation.
This article was featured in the May 2014 issue of ESSENCE . Pick it up on news stands now.