Zitty, Zuckerberg And Zeitgeist

First, my siblings are going to destroy me for my shameless use of alliteration in this blog title. I couldn't help it. All the elements were there, so I decided to lean in. Thanks, Sheryl Sandberg!

Also, in the spirit of giving credit where credit is due, the term "zeitgeist" (in reference to the question I recently asked Mark Zuckerberg) came from a personal Facebook post from Jordan Green, who published this write-up of Zuckerberg's visit to Greensboro, NC in Triad City Beat. Thanks, Jordan!

I'm fascinated by the response surrounding my recent encounter with Sir Zuckerberg. His visit has gotten mixed responses, but I happen to think it was very cool of him to choose to engage our HBCU in conversation, as he clearly has other things he could be doing. Building community begins with showing up, and he did that.

I am a 3rd year doctoral candidate in the Department of Leadership Studies at North Carolina A&T State University (Aggie Pride!), and I was included among the group of students invited to an hour-long town hall hosted by our Chancellor because I'm currently serving as the Communications Chair for the Graduate Student Advisory Council. As good fortune would have it, I got a chance to ask Mark a question.

Here is what I asked:

"It's no secret that some of the wealthiest entrepreneurial circles lack diversity. What do you intend to do about that, and what advice would you give to us, as minorities, to strategically navigate the entrepreneurial world so that we can be included?"

For context, I am an entrepreneur. I just launched my own communication and leadership development company called Deftable™ (pronounced like "capable" except "deft"), and I was asking the question from the perspective of an entrepreneurial founder. I, like Mark, desire to be a job creator and ultimately, a philanthropist. I have worked for others, and certainly see value in that experience. I may work for someone again in the future, but I love having a business of my own through which I can actualize a long-term, massive vision of community-centered inner development training.

My question was asked, not as someone waiting to be hired, but as a Black woman who sees myself as a Founder and CEO in my own right. The whole idea of "strategically navigating" spaces in which I'm not wanted is exhausting. I want the entrepreneurial world in which skills and energy are the ultimate determinants of success.

The night before this town hall, my sister and I went to a bar to enjoy a glass of wine. Before long, our table was surrounded by a colorful assortment of super friendly, questionably tipsy bar hoppers. We were all laughing, talking, and having a great time. I found myself sitting beside a White guy (let's call him "John Doe") who shared with me that he's a computer programmer, and that he and his team have had difficulty communicating about what they do in layman's terms. I empathized with his struggle. How do you explain C++ and Java in a way that non-tech-savvy folks can get, right?

I'm not a programmer. But before starting my Ph.D. program, I taught speech communication and public speaking classes at NCA&TSU and Guilford Technical Community College (GTCC). It doesn't sound very sexy, but my students and I did some powerful work together. Many of them were engineers and computer scientists, and we spent time working through how to take their technical, jargon-heavy messages and translate them into digestible, easily understood language. We practiced communicating for job interviews, collaborating on projects, and engaging in cross-cultural dialogue.

Communication (not tech) is my wheelhouse.

"John Doe" loved what I shared with him, and expressed vehement appreciation for the fact that I understood his predicament. I handed him a business card and he kept talking with me about how much his company could benefit from my services. He told me how impressed he was with the work I do, and then...

...he leaned in and whisper-shouted (as bar volume dictates) a question in my ear: "Has it been hard for you to get clients because you're Black?"

I thought I'd heard him wrong, so I asked him to repeat himself. He asked again, "Has it been hard for you to get clients because you're Black?"

It revealed a sad truth with which minorities are far too familiar - that perhaps unconscious bias isn't that unconscious after all. In fact, it may often be quite conscious. Most people just don't SAY it... unless they've had a few beers.

It's true that there are those who are eager to be hired by the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world, and Facebook says they're doing what they can to widen that door. We'll see.

But, my question to Mark was intended, not necessarily to challenge his hiring practices (although I'm very glad it did), but to see what he'd have to say to other entrepreneurs who haven't had the same cushion of assumed respect that he's had.

There are those, like me, who are working every day to be in the position to hire employees of our own while leading initiatives that can revolutionize the way we (fill-in-the-blank). If we wait to be seen, heard, and supported by groups that have historically been quite bad at it, we'll likely be waiting for a very long time. As Sidney Fussell's Gizmodo article mentions, the problem isn't just in Silicon Valley. It saturates America's business communities.

I got everything I hoped to get by asking my question to Mark - a chance to voice a question that is really in my power to answer. His response is why I've wanted to start my own company.

Everyone who knows me also knows that I am an eternal optimist when it comes to race relations. I haven't used Facebook (or any platform, for that matter) as a tool through which I sound off about the world's injustices. Those who know me also know that when I've been ignored, insulted, or threatened by someone (White or otherwise), my response has always been self-reflective... to a fault. I ruminate over how I could have been more memorable, what I could have done better/differently, and how I could have been less threatening.

And when I interact with people, my assumption is not that I am being discriminated against or judged because I'm Black. Over and over again, I have given people the benefit of the doubt. I have found myself as the only Black person in the room many times, fighting to deny the idea that some of them may have doubts about my capabilities, or questions about why/how I ended up with a seat at the table.

I, like many minorities, have tried really, really hard to assume the best.

I've made this effort not because I don't believe that racism exists, but because when my life is over, I want everyone I've encountered to know that I didn't use others' interpretations of my Blackness and/or womanhood to stop me from waking up everyday and believing I could be amazing and leave the world better than I found it.

Still - The fact that in mainstream America, Black folks have historically gotten fewer opportunities, less pay, and a narrower margin for screw-ups is something we just need to be willing to admit. Admission is the precursor to real change.

Being minorities makes our psychosocial experience heavier, our decision-making processes more complex, and our efforts to collaborate more daunting. If we make it look easy, you need to know that it's not. W.E.B. Du Bois called it double consciousness.

It's the struggle of living with a divided identity and being judged by a set of rules that many of us had no say in creating. I obsessed over my inability to get the words "entrepreneurial world" out of my mouth flawlessly when asking Mark the question because of fear that in an instant, I would lose all credibility. And as "John Doe" implied, even if I perfected The King's English, some won't ever give me a chance because I'm Black.

And that's just the point... we see it in hiring practices and we see it in entrepreneurship.

Kathryn Finney, the founder of Project Diane - a research study about Black women entrepreneurs - was referenced in a May 2016 Fast Company article. Finney described the investment made in companies owned by Black women as "more of a intermittent 'drip'... versus the massive 'drop' of the 'young-white-guy-from-insert-big-name-school' founders.”

To be clear, my community of mentors and advisors is diverse in thought and ethnicity. From Bulgarian to Nigerian, Russian to White American... I am attracted to people whose intent feels pure, and not just whose skin is dark. I was born in Swaziland and raised in Greensboro. If I held out hope for only building relationships with people who were just like me, it'd be slim pickings. To Mark's point, I am intentional about keeping "good people" around me. And I am fortunate to have found some stellar folks over the course of my life who have helped me to feel valued, encouraged, and genuinely loved.

Although "John Doe" sang my praises that night at the bar, his question to me reveals a lot. His reality (once sober) is that it may take courage on his part to introduce a young, Black woman with locks and a nose ring to his predominately White team, and tell them that I've been brought in to do communication training. His question reveals his reality, and it validates the power I possess to create mine.

Whether vying for a position in an enterprise, or daring to start one of our own, being Black while maintaining authenticity and aiming to be great is really hard. I don't have exact numbers related to diversity in the workplace or the hiring practices of companies. I'll leave that work to the statisticians. Yes, I'm Black. Yes, I'm a woman. I'm also an educator, writer, and a leader whose work is to love people and share everything I've learned to whomever's willing to listen. I just so happen to dream of building an empire, too.

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