Editor’s note: This week I am happy to bring my sister Kristen into our series! She recently read a book called The Memo that shares tips on navigating the corporate culture as a Black woman.

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When I graduated college in 2015, nobody told me I would soon enter the world of office politics. Nor did anybody give me a heads up that my experiences as a Black woman in the workplace would be different from my White counterparts. Some things I figured out on my own, while some things I’m still learning ….but, what I wish I would have done a lot sooner was read The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table.

The Memo was written by author and speaker Minda Harts, the founder of The Memo, LLC, a career development company for women of color. From office politics and wage gaps, to networking and investing in ourselves, she spills all the tea and gives women of color a playbook on how we can secure our seats at the table!  

Minda begins by calling out the “Ugly Truth” that most career development books written for women, a popular one being “Lean In” by Sheryl Sandberg, don’t include experiences of Black women and that “career solutions for women of color are not one size fits all.  

She notes, “our good friends at Leaninin.org put out a report stating that women of color hold less than 11 percent of management roles, less than 8 percent of senior management roles, and less than 4 percent of executive roles in U.S. Fortune 500 companies.” The problem isn’t, “oh, there aren’t any women of color to fill these spots”…. it’s why are women of color not being advanced in the workplace when we make up 14 percent of the population.  

Minda explains this book was written “for us, by us” and is a guide to advancing our careers in the workplace. She provides several great lessons throughout her book, but I decided to focus on the top five lessons I learned.

My Top Five Lessons Learned

NETWORK, NETWORK, NETWORK AND THEN NETWORK SOME MORE! 
Minda shares it’s important that we “build our squad” and identify people who will advocate for us when we’re not in the room. She suggests identifying our top 8, which consists of mentors and sponsors. Mentors are individuals who we can turn to for career guidance. Sponsors, on the other hand, are people who give us opportunities without us having to ask for them. She also says it’s important to build and maintain relationships with these individuals, even if it means heading to happy hour with work people after 6 p.m. because that’s when decisions are made and relationships are built!  

MANAGE OUR BEHAVIOR WHEN NAVIGATING OFFICE POLITICS  
In her book, Minda shares how her white coworker (Brenda) didn’t agree with Kyle’s (Minda’s direct report) leadership style. Instead of coming to Minda directly with her concerns, Brenda expressed her concerns over coffee to Minda’s boss (who she already made friends with at her former company)Clearly, Brenda was questioning Minda’s management style… but going to her boss? Now, that’s not cool!  I’ve been in similar situations like this at work when a coworker has gone directly to my boss with concerns, instead of coming to me first, and let me tell you… it’s not a good feeling. You start off feeling angry, then you end up feeling flat out betrayed. But, Minda shares in these situations, it’s important to think carefully about how you want to respond. Our first reaction is to “get somebody told,” or not say anything for fear of being labeled the “angry black woman.” But, we can’t let our emotions get the best of us and we should think carefully before we respond. In the end, Minda confronted her coworker about the situation and asked her to come to her directly with any concerns in the future! 

STAND UP FOR OURSELVES  
Minda shares a time when she worked with a white coworker (Kerry) who on her first day asked Minda if Minda would be representing the “minority clients” at the firm. Minda responded by saying she wanted to have an opportunity to represent all clients. This was just one example of the microaggressions she experienced from Kerry. Another example occurred when Kerry assumed Minda was someone at a party representing her firm because she was one of the only Black women in company, so it had to be her. Eventually, things got even worse and Kerry started to undermine Minda’s work. Finally, Minda went to the department head and reported the situation only to be told to “suck it up.” Too many times women of color are told this. Minda states, “The one thing I wish I would have done sooner is address the situation with Kerry. When you find yourself in a similar situation, you have to advocate for yourself and not let people like her get away with murder.” She also mentioned that we don’t always have to make everything work, and we can leave if we’re being mistreated… because it’s only going to get worse.

As I was reading this passage, I recalled the time I was having dinner with two of my former teammates and my boss’s boss (all white women). We were welcoming our new coworker (let’s say “Susan”) to our team. We started talking about hometowns, and Susan mentioned that her hometown didn’t have very many “colored people.” Colored people? Really? Come on girl! She’s not lying if she’s referring to Black people in the 21st century as colored, I thought. Because I was so early in my career, I didn’t have the guts to correct her. I should have made it a teachable moment and let her know that Black people shouldn’t be referred to as colored people. Instead, I just ignored it. Black women have been ignoring this type of behavior for years. But, to Minda’s point, we have to say something so it doesn’t happen to the next Black woman. 

DON’T BE AFRAID TO NEGOTIATE  
One of the biggest lessons I took away from this book was don’t be afraid to negotiate your salary or the benefits that you’re worth. Negotiating my desired salary has always be an uncomfortable situation for me. But as Minda shares, “Black and brown women fall on the lower end of the pay scale; anywhere from 43 cents to 69 cents to a white man’s dollar.” Asian women make around 83 cents and Caucasian women around 79 cents.” It makes me angry to think that I can perform the same exact job as my work peers, maybe even better, and they get paid more than I do. This is why it’s important to ask for what we deserve. She continues to tell us, “There is no reasonable or ethical explanation for the unbalanced pay scale, and we must fight to see the changes we want by starting with an ask.” We must know our worth and speak up for what we want. The answer could very well be no, but we won’t know until we try. She also mentioned we should discuss money with our friends because –  how are we supposed to know what the competitive wages are, if we don’t know what others around us are making? 

INVEST IN OURSELVES  
Minda tell us how every person can always learn and grow in their profession. Oftentimes, we might say we don’t have the money to go back to school or to take that class. But investing in ourselves is important and if we really want to do it, we’ll save the money or tap into another resource. For example, she shares that some companies offer educational reimbursement, so we can take classes for free. Corporate America is a competitive environment, and if we want to secure our seats, we must stay up to date on industry trends and find new ways of doing our job… having an undergraduate degree is no longer enough and we must set clear goals. Minda provides career goal statement templates and a list of resources (books, websites, podcasts, etc.) at the end of her book to help us grow in our professional journey, which I found to be useful!   

I RECOMMEND THE MEMO 
For years now, some of the barriers I’ve faced, I thought were made up stories in my head. But The Memo gave me confirmation that I’m not making this up, and that my experiences in the workplace as a Black woman are different from others. Minda writes the book in a very casual “down-to-earth” way with numerous Beyonce’ references!  I feel like she is telling it like it is, and I’m here for it! I would recommend this book for Black women who are seniors in college, young professionals, or already well into their careers (Hey, It’s never too late to learn the tricks of the trade. 😉

I would also recommend this book for White women who want to support Black women in the office. In fact, Minda writes a chapter dedicated to you called “For my white readers” on how you can change, listen to us, and be comfortable unlearning what’s been comfortable.

Thanks for reading!

4 thoughts on “The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table — My Top Five Lessons Learned by Kristen Cowart

  1. Thanks, Kristen…great synopsis and I will purchase a couple of copies of this book for my mentees!

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