American corporate strategy is failing.
If a business is not performing well in a certain area—such as not being able to penetrate a certain market—great attention and effort is paid to change that, and quickly. The leaders may drive that change, but everyone would own it and be on board. Yet when it comes to Black women leaders and their lack of representation within the corporate world, why isn’t the same energy, focus, and strategy employed? To say that this is an area where companies are not performing well would be an understatement, and because of that, companies are losing out.
It should not be surprising, then, that Black women are the fastest-growing group of entrepreneurs, with 17% in the process of starting or running new businesses (versus 10% of white women and 15% of white men), according to research published in Harvard Business Review. Why is that? In a nutshell, they’re exhausted. They’re exhausted mentally and emotionally from hitting their heads—not on a glass ceiling, but one as persistently impenetrable as concrete.
The truth is that Black women in corporate culture work 30% to 40% harder than their white male and female counterparts to get the same results—and that’s if they’re lucky. More often than not (as the research shows), the upward mobility that comes with experience, skill, and hard work is not granted to Black women. The so-called leadership pipeline for Black women takes them exactly nowhere. In fact, it practically buries them alive.
Black women who do succeed do so with a great sacrifice that has an ill effect on their personal and family lives, their self-esteem, and their health. This is why they are taking their skills and passion and going elsewhere.
When Black women leave corporate America to start their own businesses, they are able to create an environment where they can deliver the skills that were not harnessed or seen as valuable previously. They finally receive validation for who they are, what they have to say, and what they are doing because they are no longer confronted with the systemic barriers and obstacles that used to greet them every day. That’s not to say that those barriers and obstacles go away completely—but Black women entrepreneurs are the masters of their own destiny, not barred from being the creators, the drivers, and the leaders of success.
And Black women want to lead—don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. To underscore that fact, Lean In and McKinsey & Co.’s annual study of women in the workplace (the largest such study) found that Black women are the highest percentage of women who express a desire to lead, not just in 2021, but year after year. However, this desire doesn’t translate into reality. “For every 100 men promoted to manager, only 58 Black women are promoted, despite the fact that Black women ask for promotions at the same rate as men.” Tired of leaning in, Black women instead are tapping out.
This is a huge loss for companies seeking to compete in the global market because Black women, for a variety of reasons, bring a unique set of skills with them.
For one, Black women are connectors. The way they are oriented in their communities, through church and other advocacy organizations, gives them a keen sense of (and sensitivity to) community and the ability to find common ground with those vastly different from them—a much-needed skill in today’s diverse world. Additionally, Black women have a resilience, strength, and emotional intelligence that comes from working in environments where they are not only not represented but where they are forced to partner with and be managed by people who lack the cultural competency to understand their communication style, the way they perform, and what their motivational factors are.
My goal in leaving the corporate world to become an entrepreneur is to be a truth teller, a bridge builder, and a game changer. My intent is to give organizations the practical tools and tangible practices they need to drive progress systemically so that, simply put, Black women can stay and thrive. They stay because they are rewarded. They are supported, empowered, invested in, and seen—not as a risk (yes, I have heard this) but as the asset they are.
This is not a zero-sum game. When Black women win, we all win. However, the sad reality is that diversity initiatives centering on Black women are often kept quiet because of fear that white men will feel that something is being taken from them (and yes, I have heard this—many times—as well). This thinking needs to shift.
Organizations can start by honestly acknowledging where they are lacking in promoting Black women. This acknowledgment needs to come from the top. Diversity initiatives must change from being future-focused to now-focused. To borrow from Yoda, there is no try, so (borrowing again) just do it . . . and then continue doing it. Because it’s not a one-and-done endeavor. It’s creating continual engagement and support and partnering with experts in diversity so that black women leaders feel welcomed and seen for the value they are. For every Kamala Harris, there are a million Black women hitting their heads against a concrete ceiling.
But I am hopeful. The world is changing, and the dynamics of global organizations are changing. Black women are excelling as leaders in their own ventures and will continue to do so in increasing numbers. Businesses would be wise to take seriously the talent and skills that Black women have to offer. It’s part of an effective strategy to innovate, to integrate, and to win for any organization.
Wema Hoover is a global DEI thought leader, culture curator, and author.