I have worked at some of the largest corporations in America. I have also worked at some of the best law firms in this country. By most accounts, I would be considered "successful."
For the most part, I felt prepared to work in corporate America, but I must say, I was not prepared to feel some of the inadequacies, loneliness, and - if I'm keeping it all the way 100 - anger that I felt while working in predominantly White corporate environments. I mean, after all, I was basically told my entire life that as long as I worked twice as hard as everyone else, I would do well and climb the corporate ladder. But what I have concluded is that working twice as hard doesn't work and we should stop giving out that advice.
Growing up, I was told, "You have to work twice as hard to get half," or "You need to make sure you don't make mistakes," or better yet, "Never let them see you sweat, cry, or look weak." But after looking at the abysmal numbers of Blacks in the C-Suite, I have concluded that although working twice as hard might help select individuals gain success, bearing the burden of the "twice as hard" mentality has not helped increase the numbers of Blacks at the top of the corporate ladder. So I think it's time that we start giving out different advice -- work hard and if your company doesn't appreciate you, learn all you can, and then strategically position yourself to own your own company or at a minimum, leave that company.
Plan for success instead of just dreaming about it Getty Images
Numbers don't lie, and we are still underrepresented in almost every major professional field, but the numbers of Black professionals are particularly dismal in the STEM, legal, and medical professions.
Why? Simple. Many of the organizations in which we work were never built with us in mind – not us as Black professionals anyways. Many of us work in corporations, firms, and organizations that started at a time when Blacks and Whites couldn't share a bathroom - let alone an office space. So, it is no wonder that no matter how hard you work as a Black professional, it is possible that you may still be undervalued, underpaid, and overlooked.
Could this be fixed? Here's the thing, if organizations really wanted true diversity, where racially diverse professionals felt valued and free to be themselves, they could obtain that. But in order to effectuate the change companies need to put in place systems by which individual bad behavior could be policed; real systems that punish things like implicit bias, racist remarks from superiors, and inequitable reviews across professionals of different races. But, until organizations put these systems in place and punish those that perpetuate inequality within these organizations, there will never be true racial diversity.
So what's our takeaway? We will never have power if we are seeking it from organizations that were never built with us in mind. Our power is found in knowing who we are absent the approval of unjust systems.
Instead of teaching our kids to work twice as hard to seek the approval of people and companies that simply don't know how to appreciate and respect Black brilliance, let's start teaching our kids that racist systems will never be able to fully value them because many were never built with them in mind, but they are exceptional whether it's recognized or not.
Consider this, if I built my house for people that are three feet tall, could a man that was five feet tall enter my house? Maybe, but it would be uncomfortable and after a while, he would have to leave. Why? Because he would start experiencing pain from being in an environment that was not built for him. Where would he go? Well, probably back to his own home.
Nothing will stop of us now Getty Images
We need to find our own homes.
So, are we helpless? Absolutely not. Find your voice. Believe in yourself. Get centered and ask for wisdom in navigating systems that were never truly built for you in the first place. And, if you want to dominate those systems and organizations, you can, but there's a cost that you have to be willing to pay. Nothing's free.
Here's what I don't think some people understand: when you are Black and every single day you walk into a company where the only other Blacks you see are working in service positions, and not as your professional peers, it weighs on you in a way that is often not discussed. It tells you that you are an anomaly, but overall your people aren't "good enough" to do this job, and, if I am being all the way real, the implication is really that maybe you aren't good enough either.
Before owning my own firm, I remember making a conscious effort, daily, not to internalize the subliminal messages that a predominately White workspace spews out, but it was not easy. And to work in that type of an environment for a certain amount of time requires you to sacrifice a piece of yourself that I am not sure many are willing to sacrifice. What piece? Your voice.
You are expected to be grateful for a seat at the table, but you are often not invited to talk.
God forbid you want to call out racism or inequality – it can impair your chances of rising to the top. We need to prepare Black professionals early for the very real battles they will face when working in systems that were built at a time when Blacks were only expected to do one thing: serve and service White folks.
At some point, we have to expect greater and not entrust our worth to unjust systems. I learned this the hard way, but in 2018, I left my close to $300,000 a year cushy corporate law firm job to open my own law firm, Mobile General Counsel, which helps entrepreneurs to legally protect their businesses with trademarks and contracts. I also provide gender, generational, and racial diversity trainings to corporations and colleges across the country. The fact that I've been able to help dozens of minority-owned companies is a major plus of my new path, especially since while working for large Chicago-based law firms, none of my corporate clients were Black-owned.
Even though I left corporate America to be an entrepreneur, I don't think we should have to choose between a hostile corporate work environment or entrepreneurship. Companies should work harder to make all employees feel valued, but until they do, don't you worry, know this:
Your brilliance is beyond measure. Your swag stays on one million and despite what your colleagues, superiors, and peers may tell you, you can do anything that you put your mind to.
In case no one has told you today, you are valuable. You are doing a great job. You matter. The world needs your voice. Your ideas are earth shattering and your presence is felt.
If no one else has said this to you, hear it from me, I respect you and I hope that you keep your head up and eyes on the big picture when working while black.
Ashley Kirkwood, the self-proclaimed "lit lawyer," is a Northwestern University School of Law graduate, TEDx speaker, and founder of Mobile General Counsel, the trademark focused law firm for entrepreneurs and growing businesses. She also hosts The Currency of Confidence - a weekly podcast that teaches you how to level up your confidence so you can demand what you want out of life. Even though she's a lawyer, she teaches entrepreneurs how to do their own legal work through her fun classes, such as Clapback With Contracts and Get The Tea On Trademarks. Connect with her on Instagram @theashleynicoleshow or @mobilgeneralcounsel. If you want some free legal tips for your business, text 66866 to join Ashley's mailing list!