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Key Takeaways from a Diversity Panel

Dumebi Egbuna
December 9, 2020

I recently had the opportunity to participate in a panel discussion with a group of diverse college students. Hosted by some new friends at Elivade — a networking platform for diverse professionals — and Dyversifi, the purpose of this panel was to discuss the lack of resources for people of color in the workplace, share experiences as minorities in the corporate world, and promote best practices for dealing with adversity.

We had over 60 students attend, with representation from the likes of Harvard, UT-Austin, NYU, and more! I loved sharing my experience as a Black woman in corporate America with so many promising, young adults, especially as many of them are starting to pave their own paths for professional success.

I was also pleasantly surprised to be sharing the “stage” with four other women of color. My fellow panelists spanned across several industries — from technology to venture capital — and each had such powerful experiences and advice to share. Although this event was geared towards the students, I took so much away from this group of phenomenal women, and I’d like to share their words with you.

The panelists:

Discussion questions

Q: What was your experience when you first started looking for a job?

“I had a bit of an untraditional start to my professional career. No one really made it seem like it was important for me to have a job by the end of my senior year. I graduated without a job, but I knew that I wanted to work in microfinance. I ended up taking a banking job at Bank of America that didn’t require a college degree and lived with my mom and also worked as a hostess at night. I was doing these random jobs, trying to get a job in microfinance, and I think the big takeaway for me is that persistence pays off. I was the annoying person calling companies going “I see the job posting is still online.” And then finally I was annoying enough to where someone finally offered me an internship, and I packed up my bags and moved to Miami. I get there and within a week or two, I had a full-time job.”

– Renata

“Networking is so powerful, and that is also the story of how I began my career. When I graduated college, I immediately joined Teach for America. That was really strategic on my part, because as many of you are saying, I recognized the need for a strong network to be able to guide me through my career and present those open doors for me. At that time the TFA network was really strong in doing that and served as a stepping stone for other careers.”

– Glendean

Q: Are there a lot of people of color in your workplace? How has your experience been?

“[As the only black woman,] I want to do more and say more because I am the only one who can vocalize the needs of this group. I always went straight to my manager and told them exactly what I needed to feel confident. My voice is important, and I need to know you’re going to create space for it”

– Syd

“I’ve been in many spaces where I’ve been the only black woman and because black don’t crack, I look particularly young. I remember one time I made the conscious decision to never be the one to offer male colleagues who were visiting our office coffee or tea. I realized that would not serve me and the space I want to hold in the room.”

– Glendean

“I feel like I’m in a double-bind because I get conflicting feedback. Oftentimes, people tell me to be more assertive and have a stronger opinion, but when I have that opinion they often push back and don’t accept it. I’ve had to figure out how to have candid conversations and speak up for myself which has been crucial.”

– Aria

Q: What do the terms access, resources, and networking mean to you? What have your experiences been with these terms?

“Relationships are hands down the most important resources you can have in a job. Hard stop.”

– Aria

“When I think of networking, I think that people often start too late. It’s not only when you need something or are applying to a job. It has to be a continual process.”

– Glendean

Q: Why is it harder for people of color to enter certain industries?

“We all know that software engineering is the whitest, most male dominated, industry. There’s a certain amount of elitism in software engineering that makes young, Black girls from the hood not think that it’s for them. And then visually you don’t see it as well.”

– Syd

Q: How do you reconcile having a financially stable career and wanting to do work that is good for your community?

“As minorities, a lot of times we’re coming for underprivileged backgrounds. So, when we’re looking for a job, we’re not just supporting ourselves, we’re supporting our parents, siblings, grandparents back home, so there’s a lot of pressure to just take the job that pays as much as possible. I’m in a job now that isn’t what I’m necessarily interested in, but as soon as I started, I took the opportunity to help with minority recruiting at my alma mater, and volunteer with a youth basketball program in NYC.”

– Toby Egbuna, Co-Founder of Dyversifi (not on the panel, but couldn’t help himself)

“There are also jobs where you can do both. I will say that the key to finding those jobs is wearing your heart on your sleeve and making sure everyone knows what you’re passionate about. The leads and the opportunities start coming inbound much more easily.”

– Aria

Takeaways

  1. Network, network, network! — Many people of color don’t have corporate professionals in their immediate families or networks, so they are already at a disadvantage to their non-minority counterparts, who often enter the career search with friends in high places. I think the theme of this panel was really the importance of networking and building relationships that can help propel you in your professional careers. When I look at my fellow panelists, a lot of their stories began with building a strong network that opened doors to the types of careers and roles that they wanted to be in. So, while you may not have a father that’s an executive at a Fortune 500 company, you can find people in your LinkedIn network, university alumni database, or a networking platform like Elivade who are willing to help you get your foot in the door!
  2. Find your voice — As a minority, it’s very likely that at some point in your professional career, you will be the only person of your race (or the only person of your gender, or the only person of your sexual orientation, or… well, you get the point) in the room. And while this may be uncomfortable, it’s important that you find a way to speak up for yourself and make your needs heard. Learn to boldly take up space — silence will not serve you or the career you’re trying to build!
  3. You can have it all — People of color often struggle with the duality of wanting to pursue a career that is financially rewarding, while still wanting to give back to their communities. You can do both! If your job doesn’t allow you to do what you are passionate about, there may be opportunities within your company to do things that align with your mission, or you can take up activities outside of the workplace (volunteering, coaching, entrepreneurship, etc.) that fill your cup.

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Looking back on the Secrets to Success event, one thing is for sure: the future is bright. It was such a pleasure being able to help these bright students navigate their career searches. I hope that they came out of the event feeling refreshed and inspired; I know that I did.

Dumebi Egbuna
Dumebi Egbuna is Co-founder and CMO of Chezie. She is also a self-proclaimed fashionista and lover of all things interior design.

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