Unicorn, Pariah, or Invisible: What It’s Like To Be A Black Man In Corporate America
Vol. 1, No. 22, August 6th, 2021
Approximately two months ago, I started a new role at a startup. Anyone that has worked at a startup knows the amount of effort needed to execute your responsibilities effectively, particularly when there are not certain systems or processes in place that more established organizations have in abundance. As someone who has close to 15 years of experience in my field, coming to a company that’s growing is equal parts exciting and frustrating. As someone in leadership, the polar emotions are amplified ten fold. Being a leader with years of experience at a startup is one thing, then layering that with the distinction of being Black makes for some moments that will be shared in whatever future memoir I decide to write.
Corporate America is such a weird arena to navigate as a Black man in leadership. You’re so many things at so many times - unicorn, pariah, or invisible. The mental gymnastics you undergo each day seems absurd when you verbally express it to anyone that doesn’t share your hue. Between code switching, being overly nice, and ensuring you’re not too direct in your approach to team members, peers, and the executive team, it’s maddening what you have to go through each work day.
As I reflect on my years attempting to climb the corporate ladder - which is smothered in oil and on fire, I find my story being similar to other Black men in the rat race when we have frank discussions with each other. I had a great introductory conversation with one of the leaders in the C-suite, who is a brother, earlier this week. As I continued to pelter him with questions, one of his many responses punched me in the gut. He described the struggle of being a Black man in the corporate world, you’re between a rock and a hard place. When you’re direct while being professional, you’re viewed as a jerk or aggressive. Conversely, when you’re pleasant, you’re deemed not to have the executive chops for decision making roles. None of this is our fault, yet we have to maneuver these spaces delicately.
There’s not one solution to this problem. We all choose to attack it in one way or another and I’m not personally opposed to how one chooses to operate as long as it doesn’t directly impede the progress of someone else. One of my mentors is a “non-threatening Black guy” (his words, not mine) and he’s leaned into that narrative as long as I’ve known him. He makes waves just enough where he can be effective and advocate for others, but not too much where colleagues are turned off by his approach.
The culmination of my conversation with the C-suite brother at my current company left me with even more vigor. He revealed that it took him six months to shed the corporate trauma of organizations in the past and really be his whole self at our current company. That achievement was only obtained through watching another brother in the C-suite (yes, there are more than one) be his authentic self without any repercussions from the founders or board of directors. He admitted to me that was the turning point of him shedding the mask. It was only made possible due to our current environment and the organization’s commitment to psychological safety, directness, and a workplace free of retaliation.
In my years of experience, I’ve learned as Black men that we’re fighting several battles in corporate America. My advice is to stay strong mentally, physically, and spiritually regardless if you’re in an organization that allows you the freedom to be your whole self or not. Challenge the status quo in your own way and don’t let anyone belittle your solution to the problem. We have the choice to be as free as we want, but be reminded that freedom comes with some sort of cost if you’re not at the right company for you.
What I’m Listening To
It’s been awhile since the last newsletter. In that time, I’ve listened to a ton of music. Some that I chose not to run back for obvious reasons, but others that I really had to sit with for a minute and digest. Mach-Hommy’s Pray For Haiti, is one of those albums. It’s unique in the lyrics that had no punchlines, but make you want to rewind to ensure what you just heard. Sonically, it’s not quite boom bap, but it is most certainly New York rap. If you’re a fan of jazz loops mixed with gritty rhymes, this is the perfect piece of work for you.
August is National Black Business Month in the U.S. There’s plenty of ways we can celebrate and spread awareness. With technology, particularly social media, access to Black businesses have become even more streamlined. This month, put your dollars to use and spend them with one Black business a week during August.
“Look, I can do in days what may take them years. I done parted ways with those who move in fear. Hard to go astray when the vision's clear. Low-key they might have to throw parades when I'm no longer here.” - Tobe Nwige