As a Gen Z Black woman who just graduated from college amidst the chaos of 2020, I've had many questions this year. More specifically, I’ve had a lot of questions about the kinds of companies and work environments would be best for me. I was fortunate enough to find a position at Essence Learning, which, in addition to helping individuals and organizations create inclusive and equitable workplace environments, has surrounded me with supportive, hardworking, and passionate Black women. This kind of community in a professional environment is entirely new to me. I didn't have a Black teacher until I was a junior in college, and in most formal and professional settings, I was one of a few, if not the only, Black woman. So, with a treasure trove of Black women to learn from, I decided to interview them. If Essence Learning seems to do everything right with regards to inclusion, what does it take to make the essence of Essence Learning more widely available in professional environments?
the black women leaders of essence learning
For a week, I video chatted with 6 of the Black women who make up our workplace. We span two cities, four generations, and experience in countless industries. I always started by asking about what generation they identified with and their previous work experiences. Their thoughts about their previous workplaces ranged from glowing to quite dim. Most of us had our first Black female boss in Valerie Wilson, the founder, and CEO of Essence Learning. She founded Essence Learning in 2018, after having long careers in retail and finance. Valerie is in good company as an entrepreneur, with rates of Black women owned businesses growing by 50% in 2019.
Still, even though Black women make up most of the Black workforce (53% to be exact), in corporate spaces, we get a fraction of the promotions despite asking at the same rate as men. Of course, this only becomes more egregious the higher that you get on an org chart. Only 1.4% of C-Suite roles are Black women, and there are currently no Black women CEOs for Fortune 500 companies. Our Marketing Director, Tiffanie, who has been at the executive level before, explained that this happens when "space is not made for us" at the senior level. She expands that in rooms where white men are in charge, they have something in common with white women and Black men, but not Black women. This can make it hard for them to let us in. Research shows that she's right. Many managers fall into the trap of looking for someone that is a clone of themselves. Of course, ignoring race and gender, this is an issue because any team needs various people to play different parts. However, the challenge of implicit bias makes this especially difficult for people of color to fit the bill.
When we do make it to leadership positions, we strive to make a difference. A study on the state of Black women in corporate America showed that more than any other group, we value the opportunity to influence a workplace's culture and be role models for people like us. My co-workers communicated the same sentiment. Kanetra, our Program Director and eLearning Consultant, explains that it is crucial for older generations to "teach [younger generations] how to get in and deal with the problems we face" so that they more effectively bring their passion and creativity into the workplace. She says that innovation and openness to new ideas are necessary for a workplace that is beneficial to employees of all ages. Valerie also emphasized the importance of being a mentor. "We didn't have that kind of support," she says, "it was hard to be a mentee because you don't feel like you can be vulnerable. So, we have to give back now so that younger people have a better experience." This focus on supporting younger employees is essential to creating workplaces where younger people and people of color feel included.
2020 - 2021 Diversity & Inclusion Intern