Why Corporate America is Not Working for Women of Color

Next Pivot Point Podcast Interview with Minda Harts

I read Minda Harts’ book The Memo:  What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table early 2020 and remember thinking how different the lived experiences women of color were in Corporate America.  From hair touching, to microagressions about “aggressiveness” and unfair judgements about appearances, Minda’s story was eye-opening for me and many white women.  I was so thankful she agreed to join the Next Pivot Point podcast and discuss the book and what Corporate America can do to be more inclusive to all people.

Let’s get to the show notes…

Julie Kratz: We have with us today Minda Harts, and she is the CEO of The Memo, a career development platform for women of color. She’s a best-selling author, author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, which I’m gladly holding in my hand. And she is the assistant professor at NYU Wagner. She has been featured on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Fast Company, The Guardian, Time Magazine, and she frequently speaks at companies like Microsoft, Levi’s, Google, and Bloomberg on topics such as leadership, managing diverse teams, and self-advocacy. She also hosts a weekly podcast called Secure the Seat. Well, I’m so excited to have you, Minda. Welcome.

Minda Harts:  Thank you, Julie. I’m happy to be here.

Julie Kratz:  I read the book a few months ago. And I think it was before all of the events of the summer, and of course all the great social justice work that’s come out of this. But reading your book earlier and the journey that you went through in corporate America, it really resonated with me and my own corporate America experience. But of course, you had another lens. I had the gender lens. You had the gender and race lens, and the intersectional lens. So it was so interesting to compare notes with your story. Help us understand, why did you write this book? Because it’s really geared towards why corporate America is just not working for women of color.

Minda Harts:  It’s funny, it says women of color on the cover, but I really was hoping that our allies and managers would read it too, and I’m sure we’ll get into that. But I wrote it because the best way I can describe it is, the late Toni Morrison, she said, “Write the book you want to read.” And I had been reading so many business and career books written by white men and women. And I would use the information, and I thought this is great. But I never really saw myself in their stories and in their advice. That intersectional lens was missing. And I’m like, “You know what? It looks different for us. We have to deal with certain things that the dominant majority will never have to deal with. And I just want to read that for a change.”

Minda Harts:  And also the frustration I knew that women that look like me probably felt in wanting to lean out and not lean in, due to what’s going on in the workplace. And so I really wanted to write the book to say, “Hey, I see you. I know it’s hard. I know it’s tough, but there are tables that want you there.” Not every space is trying to oppress us. We just have to figure out where those are and build our networks. And so I felt like it was so necessary, and even more so now.

Julie Kratz:  You were quite ahead of the times. And in so much of your own experiences, the things that happened to you that were unique microaggressions, unique experiences of really being the only one that looked like you at that table and giving women a blueprint, a guide to follow as a result of that. What’s been some of the feedback from the book? If people have read it, what are they taking away from it to apply, to improve the experience in corporate America for women of color?

Minda Harts:  I would say two things. I would say, one, the women of color that read it, I get at least 100 emails a week just saying, “Thank you. Because it was just nice to be able to read our stories.” And granted, I can’t speak for every woman of color, every black woman, but some of the shared themes, we’ve all experienced it in one shape or another. And so just, “Thank you for that. I needed it. I thought maybe I was going crazy, like all of the things. And so just to clarify and validate the feelings that we were feeling.” So that alone, I hear that every day. And so I’m glad that I could be that person to say, “Hey, no, you are sane. It’s this toxic workplace that’s the issue.”

Minda Harts:  On the other hand, I’ve been pleasantly surprised by how corporate America has embraced inviting me in to have these conversations that may be uncomfortable and may open up Pandora’s box to things that we haven’t spoken about out loud. So I think the theme’s really is that self-advocacy. I think for women of color especially, we’ve been told for so long, “Don’t play the race card. Don’t talk about race.” And so it’s this weird juxtaposition now where now corporate America is ready to talk about race and like, “Wait a second. Is it safe? Can we do this?” And I think it’s a very, very interesting time period.

Julie Kratz:  Yeah. Don’t talk about it, but now it’s okay to talk about it.

Minda Harts:  Now it’s okay to talk about it.

Julie Kratz:  Are we really okay with talking about… Because some of your stories, they’re really heartfelt and they’re painful. And I think, are we really ready for women of color, people of color, or people with different lived experiences to really share those stories? Because it doesn’t feel good for the majority group when you hear them, and especially when you hear them multiple times. There might be some truth to this. Right?

Minda Harts:  Yeah. Absolutely.

Julie Kratz:  And that’s what you’re doing with sharing your story and the feedback you’re getting from women, “Oh, so she experienced it too. This isn’t just me. This isn’t just happening to me.” I think sometimes you feel like you’re the only one experiencing it because you have no one else to compare notes with by sheer volume. For our listeners that might be in a non-inclusive workplace that isn’t doing the best with inviting different voices into spaces and doing some of the hard work that we know is required for that journey of diversity and inclusion, what do you recommend for folks that are in these spaces that maybe aren’t the most inclusive? What can you do to lead from where you’re at in an organization to help them be more inclusive?

Minda Harts:  And I think to your point, we all are at different starting points on this diversity journey. So my expectation is not for someone to be where I am, but start somewhere. And so, whatever that looks like to you. I often say it takes courage, and you said it too. It takes courage to be inclusive. It takes courage to speak out on inequalities in the workplace. And so I would say that there’s been so many leaders that have come before us that have been courageous, and we are direct beneficiaries of their courage. And so who are we going to be courageous for?

Minda Harts:  It’s really going to require us making sure that if we have a opening, let’s make sure, “Hey, I know it may take us another month or two to fill the position, but let’s make sure we have a diverse slate of candidates.” It’s things like that that go a long way. And when you signal to the room that this is important, then the others, kind of that group-think, then the rest of the room thinks, “Oh, I guess this is important.” And I think those are some of the things just in our day-to-day practices that we can create inclusivity.

Julie Kratz:  People are always looking for the quick wins. Like, “Just tell us the one thing I need to do to diversify my team.” And I think, really the temptation right now is to do the D side, the diversifying side, the recruiting and the hiring side. Well, we’re clearly not there, so let’s hire people. And then we’re not working on the inclusion side, like what you’re saying, by making sure this is a place that people really feel seen, heard, belong, they can have those courageous conversations, like you said. And I love that question. Who are we being courageous for?

Minda Harts:  It’s something interesting too, because I often say, to your point, I’ll have people say, “Well, where can we hire five black women?” I would say, “Well, I don’t know that that’s what you need to do right now.” It’s like, “What are you doing to create a space in which that woman would want to stay?” You know what I mean? And that takes some internal work, that takes some educating of ourselves in making sure that they’re going to want to stay. And I think that’s the thing that, a lot to your point, it’s not a wash, rinse, repeat situation. It’s like, “No, how do we create an environment in which that person can thrive and not just survive in?”

Julie Kratz:  Well, and I know you’re working with some of the big corporations on this, and bringing those experiences in to understand, especially women of color. How do we create spaces where women of color really want to work? Because there’s never been such a demand for diverse talent. And I often see this in the diversity world. And corporations think that they can hire this experienced diversity inclusion person that’s been doing this for 10 years. Just really unrealistic expectations. These people don’t exist. Or where are you going to find, to your point, five women of color? It just doesn’t work like that. But, Minda, for the organizations that are doing things right, what are they doing to create inviting spaces? Especially from a woman of color’s perspective, where would I want to work? How would I know the signals to know this is really a place that honors me, and I’m going to feel welcomed and heard?

Minda Harts:  I think that prior to COVID-19, I think that that would have been a hard question to answer. But I think now being that we’re in an environment in which a lot of companies are making commitments to black employees. So I think, for us, seeing who in fact, who’s even said that black lives matter. What companies have even made that as a first step? If they haven’t said it yet, then that’s probably a place that maybe you want to have a second thought about.

Minda Harts:  So, I would start there, and then maybe also tapping into your network and seeing who actually works there and say, “Hey, have you seen traction since those first comments, and what’s actually happening?” And I think that we have to have courageous conversations with each other to say, “Hey, well, actually we haven’t done anything since.” Or, “Yes, we’ve actually implemented this.” And I think the companies that win, and this is a journey, but the companies that get to the finish line are those who are implementing everyday practices, not just, to your point, the quick wins. Creating inclusive environments is a lifelong journey.

Julie Kratz:  We often say, “It’s a journey, not a destination.” I get asked the quick one question way too much that part of me is like, “I feel like I should answer this, but I don’t really want to.” That’s a really great way to frame it though. Hey, assuming that they made a statement about black lives matter or something this summer, what else has been done since?

Julie Kratz:  That’s the intentional piece that I do agree with you that I’m seeing. Organizations would make the PR statement, the statement that probably a lawyer wrote or something, didn’t feel genuine, and then go away, and then come back the next time something happened. Now they know it’s an intentional commitment. And the signal I’m getting is we need to think about a strategy for this. And it’s like, “Hmm. Like we would any part of our business. We need to invest money, time, resources.”

Minda Harts:  All of those things.

Julie Kratz:  Empower the person that’s leading diversity and inclusion to actually make decisions. That’s a big miss too. So I think looking for those signals, like you said, reaching out to people in your network to find that if you are looking now has never been a greater time, I think, for diverse talent to be choosy with where they want to work. And I hope so.

Minda Harts:  Absolutely. I hope that we will be choosy because I feel like we’re in a time period where we can be. I don’t know how long that’ll last, but I know that right now we can be choosy. And we always can be, but I think it’s clearer, now more than ever, who might be ready to be courageous. Right?

Julie Kratz:  One of the other things, there are so many great quotes in the book. As I was rereading it yesterday with all my tabbed pages, one of the things that stuck out to me that I hear a lot of in social media, the rhetoric around representation matters. And there’s the hashtag. And a lot of the things that we see on Twitter and LinkedIn and Instagram, like great, I love following these things. But I love how you drove home such personal stories with the terms that people use. And with representation matters, I loved how you defined it in the book. You said, to quote Minda, “Representation isn’t some charitable act. It’s an intentional action that has the power to shape our mindsets and even the thinking of generations. So when you hear someone say representation matters, it matters to those who are never represented. And being represented and seen has the power to change the way women of color view themselves and the positions we aspire to.”

Julie Kratz:  And you use your own grandmother’s story of being an immigrant, and her own experience of being the only one that looked like her, that had her lived experiences. And that’s still largely true for a lot of women of color in corporate America. So build on that for us, Minda. When you think about representation matters and how we can use a message like that to really bring our allies into the conversation, bring others, the majority group, into the conversation. How would you explain that to them in a way that they can embrace why representation matters?

Minda Harts:  To me, it’s so important because, as I mentioned, it matters to those who never see themselves. And I think that’s why The Memo was such a hit, if you will, because people were able to see themselves for the first times in a career narrative. And it does something to you when you experience that. And I would press our leaders who are in rooms with people who look like them or think like them or whatever have you, that, what would it feel like if you were the only one? What do you think your experience would be in that room? Or how often do you go to events where you are the only one? Sit in that for a little bit. Sit in that, allow yourself to humanize the experience of someone who was constantly being told that yes, diversity matters here, but never seeing it.

Minda Harts:  Even right now, when you have a lot of leaders saying, “Oh, diversity matters. We’re invested in this. Black lives matter,” even. But they have to matter inside just as much as they matter outside. And so if I’m a woman of color working for you and you’re telling me diversity matters, but yet I look on the About Us page and I don’t see that, I don’t believe you. And this is a trust thing. And I think what some of the conversations we’re not having is this is about trust. Because if you have trust in your company, then that loyalty factor, then you have productivity. And that’s good for business.

Minda Harts:  And I think that people get so stuck on just, “Oh, they just want another black woman or another brown woman or another black man at the table.” It’s not necessarily about that because you could have that person and they’re not included in the conversation. They don’t get to… So I think we really have to be intentional about saying, “Hey, it’s not just good for business. This is important for us to move into the future of work. We need a diverse group of thought leaders.”

Minda Harts:  Again, humanize my experience. What do you think it would feel like to always see white people in every way, shape, or form and never anyone asks me, “What do you think, Minda? What does it look like to be invested in your success?” And, again, I often say that success is not a solo sport. And it’s like, you got to that room probably because someone invested in you, represented you, they spoke your name in those rooms. And it’s so important that we’re doing that for the next generation and those who don’t have some of the clout to be able to do that for themselves in those rooms. And so I just think that everybody benefits from a diverse room.

Julie Kratz:  I love that question of when were you the only one? Really think on that. Because I know from my 12 years in corporate America, I was often in white rooms. I don’t remember very many people of color at all. Actually, really to be vulnerable, I remember a specific example where I was working in agriculture. I worked in a lot of very white male industries. They all are, but It was an agricultural client, and I’d only met him on the phone. And I remember going to meet him for the first time. And I was completely shocked that he was Black. I couldn’t believe it because I hadn’t seen any one of color in those spaces before. And it’s kind of this jarring moment. And I was really embarrassed about it. Of like, “Oh my gosh. Why did I think he was white? Why did I assume that?” Well, my brain had taken note of all the patterns that I’d seen in those rooms.

Julie Kratz:  And so I think sometimes for white people, for the majority group, it’s not that… We don’t want to get to the tokenism. We need just a person of color. Or it’s at a zero sum game. Like somehow if we bring people of color in we solved the problem, and it’s taking away from majority group. It’s really an additive. We’re all benefiting from that value. And it’s okay to recognize, “Hey, we look around the room. It’s usually pretty male and pale. We have an opportunity to be a little bit better here.” And then by not having the experiences, especially of a key demographic that’s largely a part of our consumer base and who we want to do [inaudible 00:18:50] with, with women of color, with people of color, we’re missing out.

Julie Kratz:  And I know that’s part of the message I use with allies. And I know you have a different term that you use, success partners. So I’d love… Minda, tell us why allies can be problematic as a term and more about your take on success partners. I’d love to hear more.

Minda Harts:  Yeah. So for those who are using allies, I think it’s great because we have universal language around what it looks like to potentially show up for somebody else. So I get that. But what I say is that, what would it look like to shift our allyship into action and actually be in partnership? And that’s where I use the word success partners.

Minda Harts:  Because when I look back on my corporate career, it was two men in particular, Rob and Chuck. They were two white men, and they were invested in my success. And even to this day, if I were to ask them, I don’t think they were invested in me because I was the one black woman in the place. I got to know them, we built a relationship. And they’re like, “You know what? She should be here. She should have these opportunities.” And they really looked out for me in a room that looked just like them. And, so I can actually have tangible receipts, tangible things I can point to to say, “This is what Chuck did for me. We were in partnership.”

Minda Harts:  And I say that because many of you may have been in Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, whatever have you. And oftentimes in order to get the badge, you had to do the act. And I think with allyship, we’re calling ourselves allies without actually doing the job. It takes courage to be an ally. It takes courage to show up when somebody needs it or to say the unpopular thing in the room when it needs to be said.

Minda Harts:  So I really want to challenge our leaders to say, like I talked about at the beginning, who are you being courageous for? Do you really want to be an ally? So if you don’t, if you’re not ready for that, then you got to work. You got to be honest with yourself. Because it takes something, it takes an action. And that’s why I say be invested in someone’s success that maybe doesn’t look like you, or hasn’t had some of the opportunities, because together it makes us both better. We’re in a partnership. This is a long game. And I want to see more of us in partnership together to get the business case that we want. It’s really going to take the two of us, or three of us, or four of us.

Julie Kratz:  I love that. Rob and Chuck. That’s great. You think about white men and the opportunity we have to engage them, as you would say, success partners. And I like the deep commitment that you talk about, and the badge mentality. It’s funny. I actually have clients that are using badges to signal allyship, but you have to do something for them to get points. You have to earn them. It isn’t, “I just put it on. I’m an ally. I did the work.”

Minda Harts: Give me, yay, look at me.

Julie Kratz:

Yeah. Then it’s about you again. Like, really? So it is an intentional act over time, that you greatly described, with courage. Speaking up, doing hard things, being invested in your success, even when others may not see the value that that person brings. Especially then in trying times.

Julie Kratz:  I know we were comparing notes of pandemic world being virtual and bringing our allies in. I have kind of seen it as a positive, especially for white men coming into the conversation. Because being a white woman myself, a lot of white women have come into the conversation. I talk a lot to women of color, white women. But white men are always hard for me to get to. Or I get excited like, “Yes, they’re here.” Especially if there’s a lot of them. It doesn’t happen that often, especially with diversity and inclusion training. So I’m curious from your perspective, the Robs and Chucks out there that may or may not have found their way yet to allyship. What have you seen of this increasingly virtual world bringing allies in or the opportunity to kind of leverage and build off of this?

Minda Harts:  To your point, I wholeheartedly agree. I think that we’re able to fill a space and have a conversation in a virtual room that we weren’t able to have before. And I’m very optimistic about the opportunities and possibilities for better managers, leading from diverse lenses, better colleagues and future success partners, because they’re allowing themselves to come into the room. They’re allowing there selves to read some of the books out there that they wouldn’t have probably read prior to COVID-19. And even when I think about Rob and Chuck, I don’t even know if they consider themselves well versed in allyship and things like that. But they just realized, “Oh, I want to be invested in her success. She’s what they call the rising star,” or whatever have you. But they allowed themselves to look outside of themselves. And it can be that, “Yes, and?” And I think more white men are seeing, “You know what, I do have privilege. And how am I using that? It can’t just benefit me.” It’s okay to have it, but how are you using it for other people?

Minda Harts:  And the last thing that I’ll say is when I was on traditional book tour for the first edition of The Memo, I went to over 50 cities. And I can count on two hands how many white men and women came into the room in those situations. And now being in virtual environment where I’m in book tour right now for the paperback, it’s been like… I’ve seen so many allies showing up, digging in, even when it’s maybe difficult for them at times. But they’re showing up. And that signals to me, Julie, that we’re headed down the right direction. So however you got to get in the room, just get in the room. Be a part of the conversation.

Julie Kratz:  And I love what you said earlier when we were talking about, I don’t care how you got in the room. The fact that you’re here. You’re on the journey. And like you said, it is a journey. You got to stay on it. So I often say, once we get people on the journey, it’s hard for people. They’re going to have some missteps along the way. They’re going to say and do the wrong thing. And I think for us that know this space and know what they shouldn’t say, it’s a little hard to grimace and be like, “Oh no, that’s not the same thing.”

Julie Kratz:  And white women are notorious for this, which you do such a great job in the book of calling it out. We do tend to make it about us, and get tearful, and white fragility. I mean, all of this stuff, I feel the white guilt percolate when I read these stories too. It’s not about me. It’s not the time to talk about me and my lived experiences. This is the time to talk about women of color. This is the time to talk about others that are different than me when we’re being allies, and standing in that space, and listening. And like you said, the courage factor.

Julie Kratz:  So, Minda, as we’re wrapping up, what do you think it will take to sustain this energy? We have such great positive energy going into the close of 2020 with appreciation for diversity, getting success partners in the room. Like you said, this diverse audience that you’re getting in your virtual events right now. One, do you see this continuing? And how do we keep momentum up, because we’ve seen this roller coaster ride before. What do you think it’ll take to keep us moving strongly?

Minda Harts:  It’s going to take is all hands on deck. It’s really going to take what I said, the success partners, because it can’t be all the women of color, all the people of color, any marginalized group, it can’t be just us sounding the alarms. It’s really going to have to take everybody invested in equity. Invested in racial justice. And the only way that I think we’re going to continue this momentum and really make it a daily practice is when it’s everyone’s issue. And it’s not just my issue.

Minda Harts:  And so, thank you for the way that you’re leaning into the conversation, and the way that you’re showing up and providing resources. Because to your point, we are going to make mistakes. Nobody’s perfect. We’re human beings. But I think that we give each other space and grace to say, “Okay, I might’ve misstepped here, but I’m on the journey. I’m not giving up.” And I think that again, as we close out 2020, and we enter in a new year, that it’s really important that we don’t forget all the tools that are in our tool kit because we need to use them. And so let’s keep leaning into our courage and pushing aside our cation.

Julie Kratz: Speaking of which, The Memo is a great tool to add to that toolkit. So the book came out earlier this year, but it’s now on paperback as well. And I think as I was accumulating my favorite books on anti-racism, I know yours speaks specifically to women of color, but fitting it in my top 10 list of books that I like this year. I’d say too, Minda, I don’t know if anyone’s given you this feedback, but I just read Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here. And your story and her story… Both were very intersectional women of color stories, obviously. But I found myself really seeing both of your stories in different but similar ways, as a white person reading it.

Julie Kratz:  And I just thought, “We need more books like this.” I can’t even tell you. I think 2020 is the first year I’ve read books like this. Looking at my bookshelf is embarrassing, how much it was written by white people and women. So I think we can all do a better job of diversifying our bookshelves. So listeners, one tangible thing you can do, get men this book. But also look at your bookshelf and look who you’re listening to. Chances are, it’s probably somebody like you. And you’re just not learning as much when you’re just surrounding yourself by people just like you.

Minda Harts:  Even myself, in the last part of the year, I’ve pushed myself to read more. I was always reading white men and women. I read black authors, but even more LGBTQ and veterans and just so I have a different… If I want to be a success partner, at least I’m educating myself on how to do that and understand what the needs are if I have the opportunity to do so. And we all do. And I think part of it is listening, educating, and activating.

Julie Kratz:  Listening, educating, and activating. Because as we’re learning, we have to activate. We have to use this information, too. Otherwise you lose it. I read this five months ago, how have I already forgotten some of these things? But our brains need it reinforced over time. And find your point of privilege. Everyone has some level of privilege or association with the majority group. Find other areas. Like you said, whether it’s LGBTQ+, disabilities, veterans. Whatever it is, find other voices you can listen to. You’ll learn so much about different human experience. I find it fascinating now.

Minda Harts:  Me too. I’m like, “Oh, I hadn’t thought about that.” And I challenge myself, the language I’m using, and the way I’m showing up or not showing up.

Julie Kratz:  Yeah, exactly. So we’re always learning and learning to get better. So I say like the diversity dictionary, the words we use around this is always expanding and changing too.

Julie Kratz:  Well, Minda, it has been such a thrill to have you today. Thank you for bringing your voice to this world, for magnifying and amplifying the experiences of women of color in the workplace. I just love, love, love everything you’re doing. And Minda’s really active on Twitter. So listeners, be sure to follow her there. Grab the book, The Memo. Minda, other ways that our listeners can engage and follow you?

Minda Harts:  Yeah. Thank you again, Julie, for having me. Loved today’s conversation. If you go to mindaharts.com, you can find all the ways to connect with me there.

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