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A 4-Step Guide to Keeping Women of Color at Your Company

Wed, 05/16/2018

Four mandates to employ and retain women of color that the ColorComm Next Gen conference uncovered

By Tiasha Stevenson, Vice President, MSL Chicago 

On a sunny, spring day in New York, the ColorComm Next Gen conference brought together 300 young women of color (and some seasoned recruiters from sponsoring organizations) to get tips, tools and inspiration for taking their career to the next level. The festivities kicked off on a Thursday night at NBC, was hosted all day Friday at Bloomberg headquarters and culminated on Friday evening at Twitter. 

In her opening welcome, ColorComm founder, Lauren Wesley Wilson shared that she started the organization when she was 26 years old, working at an agency and had the goal of becoming a Vice President by the age of 30. Discouraged that there were no women of color in that role at that time, she sprang into action. What started as a simple lunch with women of color in Washington, D.C. to share stories and solutions, has grown into a multi-city organization which hosts two conferences a year and boasts an unmatched list of guest speakers and corporate partners.   

Throughout the Next Gen leadership summit, ColorComm’s millennial offering, easy-to-follow themes for young pros emerged: take calculated risks to get ahead, lean into failure to find new opportunities, create your own seat at the table AND speak up when you get there.

For the not-so-young professionals who want to employ AND retain women of color at their companies, here are four mandates that the conference uncovered:

  1. Make a commitment to an inclusive workplace.

According to Korn Ferry, diversity is the presence of differences that makes each person unique and can be used to differentiate groups and people from one another. Inclusion is the full engagement and development of all employees. As companies have learned, time and time again, you can have diversity without inclusion, and you will struggle to retain diverse hires. You can have inclusion without diversity, and you may have an office that looks more like a family reunion than an equitable business. The commitment o create a winning workplace environment you must have both diversity and inclusion.

During an afternoon session, Marta Tellado, eighth CEO of Consumer Reports, and the first Latina woman to hold the position shared that Consumer Reports created a workplace where in 2018, 44% of new hires are diverse. Digging deeper she noted it hasn’t been easy, nor swift, but the change, surprisingly, wasn’t tied to quotas or checkboxes. It started with a deliberate choice from leadership, followed with a clear action plan.

It will take time, a clear commitment from leadership, mandatory staff training and appropriate resources to create the type of inclusive workplace where diverse hires can thrive.

  1. Hire and promote people of color into leadership.

When people who are deemed other due to gender, race, religion or sexual orientation are at the helm of a team, those teams tend to be more diverse, and according to McKinsey & Company, diverse teams are more profitable.  

Allure Editor in Chief, Michelle Lee, began the day with the inspiring tale of the twists and turns of her career that led her to making Allure Magazine the most diverse magazine in print history. When making the case for diversity in leadership, her simple statement: “Sometimes you don’t know what you can do until you see someone else do it,” underscored the thoughts and feelings that so many of the audience members hold.

Through conversations with women on-site, I learned that every woman who testified that her current work team was truly diverse, credited it to the manager of that team being from a diverse background as well. While it’s enticing to try to solve for diversity at the entry level, junior team members need to test the hypothesis of whether or not the company can nurture their career to a place of leadership. Seeing diverse leaders present and thriving is the best proof.   

  1. Make space for those who are different.

The idea of having a seat at the coveted table reverberated at this conference with people sharing stories of how they were able to set themselves apart because they were different, and others conversely sharing how isolating that same experience has been.    

There was a harrowing moment during the very intimate session where a young woman of color shared that she didn’t know if she should even keep trying to share her point of view because her differing points of view have been ignored or met with career-crushing resistance. The incomparable Gayle King offered an encouraging word to keep trying, even when it’s hard, and sometimes especially so.

To deal with the lonely, mentally exhausting effects of feeling alone in the workplace, Huffington Post reporter, Carolina Moreno, heralded the benefits of Business Resource Groups, which allow workers to tap into the insights and experiences of people with similar backgrounds to help find a voice outside of their specific team.

Whether it’s a seat at the table or a place in a group, companies must make space for those who are different.

  1. Don’t rest on your laurels.   

One of the most powerful sessions of the day was “Under 35 power achievers in advertising, media, corporate and agency.” The young, esteemed panelists shared stories about their rise to leadership and while their paths varied, they matched each other’s passion for excellence.

A quote that was met with rousing approval came from Senior Communications Manager at Twitter, Elizabeth Luke. “Looking for a job is not a mentality, it’s a lifestyle. My job is a choice every day.”

The raucous applause that followed underscores the fact that today’s aspiring communications pros have more options than ever before. When it comes to diversity and inclusion, companies with wavering leadership, token hires, empty promises and toxic, non-inclusive work environments simply will not be tolerated.

Companies have two choices: commit to having a workforce that looks more like the global and diverse audiences with which you communicate, or find yourself in fierce competition for audiences, talent and revenue with the very people you could not work hard enough to retain.


Tiasha Stevenson
Tiasha Stevenson is a Vice President at MSL Chicago, where she leads passionate teams in media, influencer and social outreach for KitchenAid, The Allstate Foundation and Second City Works.


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