How You Can Secure Your Seat at the TableAliza
Over the last few years there’s been a plethora of career advice books aimed at women: Lean In, Girlboss, Leave Your Mark, and more. However none of them have been specifically focused on women of color. Minda Harts, the founder and CEO of The Memo LLC, a career development company for women of color, is aiming to change that. Her first book, What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, set for release on August 20th, has been described as a “no-BS look” at the obstacles that women of color face in professional settings. In advance of its release, we spoke with Harts about why Lean In doesn’t work for women of color, the importance of building relationships, and her advice for women of color looking to secure a promotion before the end of the year.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
ZORA: Before founding The Memo LLC, you worked in development at the University of California, Los Angeles. What motivated you to become an advocate for women of color in the workplace?
Minda Harts: I had an epiphany around the time of the Trayvon Martin shooting. For some reason, his death was the thing that made me lift my head up from my cube. It made me realize that there was an advocate inside of me. It wasn’t the same as the people leading the Black Lives Matter movement, but it made me think about what my advocacy would look like and what could I do to add value to my community.
Our experiences are very different from those of White women. We’re always the asterisk or completely left out of the conversation.
I started thinking, who was advocating on behalf of women of color in the workplace. We often hear about the importance of advancing women but I felt like Black and Brown women were missing from that conversation. Our experiences are very different from those of White women. We’re always the asterisk or completely left out of the conversation. So, starting in 2015, I decided to start talking about what it was like for women of color in the workplace. I needed to be a voice and speak for those who may not have found their voice yet.
Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg was the go-to career book for many years, but we now know a lot of the advice doesn’t work for women of color. In fact the 2018 Lean In study found that women of color are more likely than White women to want a promotion but receive fewer promotions. In your opinion, why doesn’t leaning in work for us?
It’s hard to lean in when you’re not even in the room, let alone have a seat at the table. Sheryl Sandberg was talking about doing that when you’re already in the room. Often times, Black and Brown women are not in the room to even be able to lean in. There are also systemic issues that hold us back. One of the things discussed in Lean In is to build your network. But if you have an Ivy League network like Sheryl Sandberg doesn’t that make things a little bit easier? You could make that phone call that we can’t always make, right? It’s written from a place of privilege which we don’t often have to lean on.
We have to stop being fearful of what others might think when we speak up for ourselves. I do think you can advocate for yourself with diplomacy.
What are some of your top tips for women of color who may be looking to get promoted before the end of this year?
Self advocacy is a big one. I think for so long, Black and Brown women were told this narrative of “just do your job and keep your head down and somebody will tap you on the shoulder when it’s your time to advance.” So I think we need to bet on ourselves and put ourselves first at work. Oftentimes people may not know you want that promotion. You’re doing all the things you think are going to lead to advancement and [management] didn’t even think of you because you never said you wanted it.
I think, at least for myself, there’s a concern that if you advocate too much you can come across as the “angry Black woman.”
That goes to my second point: Build an internal network at your company. If you’re building those relationships, then Bob is not going to call you the angry Black woman because he knows you. Also when somebody else tries to call you that, hopefully Bob says “No, that’s not Minda. That’s not who she is. We actually should get to know her.” This also ties back to my first point: We have to stop being fearful of what others might think when we speak up for ourselves. I do think you can advocate for yourself with diplomacy. We’re so fearful of what others might say or might call us that we might miss out on opportunities that would require us to speak up.
Let’s say I’m the only woman of color at my office. How can I find common ground with my co-workers to start building those relationships?
It is going to take some conversation and a little digging. You can use holiday time to get started. Let’s say it’s Halloween. Go to the store and put candy on your desk. People will start coming by to say hi. It’s the little things we can do so that people see us in a different light and still be authentic to who we are. It’s just inviting others into our space sometimes.
One of the things that we hear, sometimes, is we’re not approachable, right? But if we create spaces, like the candy at the desk — it seems really silly or really something very small — that can go a long way. Some people who you probably never spoke to may now stop over at your desk to grab candy and that leads to a conversation.
For women of color who may be the “only” in their office, the thought of additional networking or facetime after hours may feel draining. How can one balance professional advancement with self care?
In my former life in sales and fundraising I was always on the road. Sometimes I’d have to go on group work trips with my colleagues and I’d be with them all day. When we would get back to the hotel everyone would want to hang out some more and in my mind I’m like, “I’m trying to go upstairs and relax because I’ve been with all of you all day.” But I knew that if I went to my room and everyone else on the team was downstairs what it would look like. So I wouldn’t stay in the lobby with them all night long but I’d sit for 15 to 20 minutes and make sure everyone saw my face and that was enough.
The Memo will be released later this month. What’s your goal with this book?
For so long, women of color have not seen our experiences in the top business/career books. We read them and we take what we can and apply it to our situation. With The Memo, Black and Brown will finally see themselves in a career book and have someone saying, “Don’t feel isolated, don’t feel alone, and don’t feel crazy for the way you’ve been feeling.” The message is “I see you, you can secure that seat, and we’re also here to create more seats for each other.”