Risk takers, strivers, achievers — leading the way to greater equality
Black/African American women are smoothing the path for the next generation of women in the workplace, offering career lessons for us all.
AS OUR COUNTRY PUSHES for greater racial equity in the business world and everyday life, Black/African American women aren’t waiting for change. Powered by a drive to forge their own paths to success, they’re taking on new professional roles, demanding recognition for work well done, providing mentorship for others and serving as testimonials to the power of diversity.
And these actions are all being taken with a sense of great confidence: According to research conducted by Merrill, affluent Black/African American women were 30% more likely than the general population of affluent women to be optimistic about their financial future and to describe themselves as financially savvy. What’s more, 37% say they are motivated by a desire for personal achievement.1
Although Black/African American women are still underrepresented in leadership roles, progress is slowly but steadily being made both within and outside corporate America. For the first time, there is more than one Black woman CEO in the Fortune 500.2 More Black women than ever are leading American law schools,3 and a Black woman holds the second-highest job in U.S. government.
At the same time, Black/African American women are reaching for success on their own terms — as the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs in the U.S., they represent 42% of new women-owned businesses, three times that of the general population of women.4
Beyond their individual achievements, Black/African American women leaders understand the power of preparing the next generation to build on their success. In that spirit, below several executives from Merrill and elsewhere offer tips that can help as you reach for your career goals.
“As an African American woman, you may be faced with challenges along the way that will require you to take extra steps in order to be seen, to be heard, to be recognized and to stand out,” says Merrill Financial Advisor Linda Davila. “I took a detour from entering law school when Merrill offered me a career in finance, and I never looked back,” she adds. Early on, Davila was paired with a senior financial advisor to present a seminar on fixed income, specifically municipal bonds — topics she was still learning about. “I decided that it was important to be visible, even if I was still learning,” she says. “I made sure my senior colleague was ready to fill in the gaps if I didn’t have immediate answers to a question.”
Showcasing your abilities can mean taking a risk, says Adrienne Hughes, National Client Experience Executive with Merrill. Earlier in her career, she saw greater opportunity for advancement outside the U.S. but was anxious about leaving home. Ultimately, she decided to take the plunge, spending two years in London and four in Dubai. Her experiences there formed the foundation for her future successes. “I always encourage people to be open to new and different opportunities,” she says.
Sometimes the risk comes in the form of the challenge you’ve accepted for yourself. Gwendolyn Mikell, Professor Emerita of Anthropology and Foreign Service at Georgetown University, recalls, “I chose a path that’s still not chosen by many Black women. But taking that pressure head on is what helped me fulfill my potential.” She adds, “If the career path you want doesn’t appear to exist, then help create it. Learn the sub-parts of the specialty you envision, and work hard at it. You’ll find that once you were ahead of the curve, but eventually you could be leading a new field.”
And yes, sometimes taking a risk means falling on your face, notes Merrill Financial Advisor Nedra Agnew — and that’s okay. “Have no fear of failure,” she counsels. “What is failure, anyway? There’s no such thing. If you learn something, you have taken a step forward.”
Stay focused on your goals
Developing singlemindedness can help you power through the biases and challenges that Black/African American women inevitably encounter in their careers, says Merrill Financial Advisor Judith Lee. “When I find myself in spaces where I am the only Black woman, I actually find it empowering. I tell myself, I’m here because I belong and can add value.”
For the first time,
there is more than one Black woman CEO in the Fortune 500, and a Black woman holds the second-highest job in U.S. government.
And don’t underestimate the value of hard work, says Davila, who made a name for herself by working seven days a week during a two-year training period and graduating six months early. “Learn to make sacrifices today and reap the rewards tomorrow. That’s how I was recognized for my business acumen. Take every opportunity to shore up your credentials, whether it’s through additional training, studying for an advanced degree or achieving professional designations.”
Seek out role models
There’s universal agreement among successful Black/African American women that role models, mentors and sponsors are critical for career inspiration as well as moral support. “With a role model, you have a benchmark for your own success,” notes Agnew. For Mikell, seeing another Black woman in the field of anthropology — a woman who went on to be a college president and museum director — was what opened up the door of possibility for her. Adds Lee, “As the saying goes, you can’t be what you can’t see.” Lee’s inspiration is the Black female CEO and president of a prominent mutual fund company. “She allowed me to envision my future.”
Role models don’t have to be the same gender or ethnicity as you, notes Davila. “My mentor was a man, a senior advisor who believed in me, my authenticity and my determination to succeed,” she says.
Prioritize giving back
According to a study conducted by Lean In and McKinsey & Company, among employees who aimed for executive rank, Black women were most likely to be motivated by a desire to positively influence company culture or to be role models.5 That’s because success is more rewarding when you’re able to offer your skills and support to others, explains Hughes. “My success comes with an inherent obligation to give back.” Agnew agrees: “How do I change the conversation? Bring one more along — but not a mini me, someone better than me.”
After all, at the end of the day, says Hughes, the importance of a woman’s career amounts to more than just their title or pay grade. “When I’m retired and living on an island,” she adds, “I won’t be thinking about all the presentations I did. Remembering the people I helped along the way — that’s the real mark of success.”