When a Black woman discovers her calling, her mantra is often “Dream big or go home.” Ninety-one percent of us say we are ambitious, and we are more likely than White women to desire a powerful position and prestigious title, according to a recent Center for Talent Innovation study. But many of us are living a dream deferred, with 44 percent of Black women feeling stalled in our careers. Get a jump start by learning new skills, making yourself more visible or even changing lanes completely. We asked five career superstars to share their proven strategies for getting ahead.
ETHIOPIA HABTEMARIAM, The Music Mogul
When a LaFace Records employee spoke to Ethiopia Habtemariam’s high school class two decades ago, the then 14-year-old asked if she could shadow the executive for a day. That connection developed into an internship and started Habtemariam’s ascent to the upper echelons of the music industry. A stint at Universal Music Publishing as a creative manager led to a series of promotions and today the 36-year-old runs two of the company’s divisions, serving as president of urban music at Universal Music Publishing Group and president of Motown Records. In those roles, she has signed such songwriters and artists as Chris Brown, J. Cole and Miguel.
TO CHART HER PATH TO EXCELLENCE:
SHE MASTERED EVERY JOB.
Instead of thinking about what her next promotion would be, Habtemariam treated each role as if it were the most important position she could take. When she worked as a part-time assistant for LaFace Records, a senior-level executive “noticed how professional I was when I would answer the phone and how on point I was when it came to assisting my boss,” she recalls. That good impression led the executive to eventually offer Habtemariam a job at Universal. “You never know who’s watching.”
SHE FOCUSED ON “WE” RATHER THAN “I.”
Habtemariam learned early on that teamwork is paramount to success. To keep everyone on her team motivated, she lets them know their contributions are valued by holding creative brainstorming meetings every two weeks where everyone from the assistants to the top executives discuss current projects. “We give everyone an opportunity to offer their opinion and talk through ideas, because we’re invested in this together.”
SHE UNDERSTOOD THE VALUE OF PASSION.
The way Habtemariam sees it, being good at something will only take you so far. “I believe that you get the best out of people when they are operating from something that they actually believe in,” she says. Her love of music and its power to connect people has given her the strength to withstand setbacks and the inspiration to put in the long hours and dedication needed to do the job. “I’ve only said yes when it felt right for me and also felt like I had a purpose and an understanding of what I could contribute.”
SOMARA THEODORE, The Rising Star
Anyone who thinks millennials have to spend years paying their dues hasn’t met Somara Theodore. After graduating from Penn State in 2013 with a degree in meteorology, the 25-year-old became the weekend meteorologist at WJCL, Savannah’s ABC affiliate. Today her early-morning forecasts are seen by up to 1.4 million viewers on Cleveland’s ABC affiliate, WEWS, and her radio spots are heard by Cleveland-area listeners of the Tom Joyner and Rickey Smiley morning shows.
TO SPARK HER METEORIC RISE:
SHE REACHED OUT TO MENTORS.
Theodore sought guidance from Janice Huff, chief meteorologist for WNBC in New York City. “You might get a rejection,” Theodore says, “but you have to cast your net wide.”
SHE SACRIFICED COMFORT.
Internships in television meteorology are typically unpaid positions, but Theodore applied for spots in several cities. “I was going to sleep on [family members’ couches] and do their dishes, but I would have an internship,” she says.
SHE DID DOUBLE THE WORK.
After winning an internship for the CBS affiliate in Atlanta, Theodore was offered another by The Weather Channel. “You usually do one internship over the course of the summer,” she says, but she didn’t see the sense in turning one down. So she took on both.
STACY BROWN-PHILPOT, The Master of Reinvention
Some people stay in one career all their lives. Stacy Brown-Philpot is not one of them. After making a name for herself as a senior associate at PricewaterhouseCoopers and then working as a senior analyst with Goldman Sachs, 40-year-old Brown-Philpot set her sights on technology. She climbed the ranks at Google, leading global operations for the development of such products as Chrome, Search and Google+. In the process she founded the Black Googler Network, an initiative to increase diversity in technology. Today she’s the chief operating officer at TaskRabbit, a Web site that connects consumers needing chores done with people in their neighborhood who can do them.
TO CONQUER THE TECH WORLD:
SHE VEERED OFF THE BEATEN PATH.
Though she was on track to become a partner at an accounting firm, Brown-Philpot started anew and went to Stanford Graduate School of Business. Once she finished, she sought a financial analyst job at Google. The company was happy to get a proven financial professional, and in return “I could learn about technology and how tech companies were run,” she says.
SHE VOLUNTEERED TO DO HER MANAGER’S WORK.
“I would go to my boss and say, “Hey, what are you working on,” ” she recalls. Once he told her, she would ask if she could take the task off his hands, proving that she could handle more responsibility.
SHE TOOK AN INTERNATIONAL ASSIGNMENT.
Brown-Philpot moved to India for a year to lead a global team, even though it meant putting off having children and leaving her husband, Chris, behind. The two made the decision together, she says. “It was a bet that I made that my marriage was strong enough to sustain this experience.” Her bet paid off and today the couple have two daughters.
KARLA MARTIN, The Seasoned Strategist
Some people view their careers as a destination, but Karla Martin always saw hers as a journey. That meant she had a general idea of where she wanted to go but remained “extremely flexible to opportunity,” she says. She started as a litigating attorney, then moved to consulting, where she became a partner at Booz Allen Hamilton. Not one to rest on her laurels, Martin shifted direction to become director of global business strategy at Google, where she was responsible for overseeing key initiatives. Being flexible also allowed the mom of Sophia, 16, Carol, 11, and Marty, 9, to manage motherhood along with a soaring career.
TO ENSURE SUCCESS AT EACH STEP ON HER JOURNEY:
SHE SOUGHT OUT SPONSORS.
Mentors may give good advice, but sponsors agree to advocate for you in the C-suite. Martin asked her boss at Google to recommend her for opportunities that might suit her. Unless we ask, “women in particular can sometimes find ourselves overly mentored and under-sponsored,” she says.
SHE BUILT A POWERFUL INNER CIRCLE.
Whenever Martin wanted to learn how to do something, she found a personal adviser who knew how to do it. For example, when she wanted to be on a board, “I was talking to people who are on publicly traded boards,” she says. By having a Rolodex of contacts at higher levels, she gained access to wisdom to guide her next steps.
SHE SPOKE UP ABOUT HER DESIRED TRAJECTORY.
Some women keep their aspirations a secret, but when Martin took a marketing position she let her managers know that it wasn’t her end goal; she ultimately wanted to work directly with clients. When the time came for her to apply for a position on the client side, “it wasn’t a big fight,” she says.
JILL BISHOP, The Connector
During any given month, global education strategist and development consultant Jill Bishop’s calendar reads like an ancient sub-Saharan trade route. From late May to June, the 48-year-old attended the presidential inauguration of Muhammadu Buhari in Nigeria, mentored a group of girls at the International School Moshi in Tanzania and laid the groundwork for a potential American business partnership in Kenya. Her passion for implementing education and technology solutions in Africa, where she spends half of her time, makes the jet lag worthwhile.
TO CREATE THE EXACT JOB SHE WANTED:
SHE FOLLOWED HER CALLING.
“I think we all have callings and mine is Africa and developing economies. It’s what I was built to do: merging business, economic development, capacity building and philanthropy. I have a heart for serving the people of Africa,” Bishop says. To many African politicos and agencies, she’s a trusted broker for implementing changes in education and information technology.
SHE NEVER STOPPED LEARNING.
Bishop, who holds a TRIUM Global Executive M.B.A. from the London School of Economics and Political Science; the HEC School of Management, Paris; and the New York University Stern School of Business, is a firm believer in staying on top of what’s going on in the world. “You have to do your research,” says Bishop, who splits her time between Washington, D.C., New York City and Atlanta when she’s not overseas. “You cannot walk into a country and not know what’s going on. I have to know about the economy, the policy; I keep up on the news, I have to know who’s who, the people, the political structure, when the elections are, who’s running, what the platforms are. You have to be smart.”
SHE KNOWS HER END GOAL.
For Bishop, the fluidity of her work in Africa is underscored by another passion: exposing Black Americans to the continent beyond what’s often reported about it. She says, “In my small attempt to change the prevailing stereotype of Africa being dominated by [the] poor, rife with illness and having unappetizing food, I try to present individuals who are able to influence large groups of followers to another side of Africa that I know and love.” Last year, she arranged East Africa experiential tours with celebrities such as E!’s Terrence Jenkins and Dwight Howard.
Tamara E. Holmes is a writer based in Washington, D.C. Cori Murray is the entertainment director at ESSENCE.
This article was originally published in the November issue of ESSENCE, on newsstands now!