Throughout my short working life, I’ve learnt a lot about what it’s like to be a young black woman trying to make it in the business world. It’s been difficult at times, to say the least, but for the most part, it’s been rewarding. As with most people, I was pretty much thrown in the deep end with no guidance or idea of what I was doing, so I’ve decided to share what I’ve learnt so far.
1) Corporate culture is pretty stiff.
Brace yourself. It’s pretty black and white, there’s a language, a code of conduct that is universally used no matter the sector, no matter the industry. It’s not scary or menacing (most times) but it can be a stark difference from the lawlessness that is student life. There is a universal corporate culture that you will be thrown in to and expected to adhere to when you begin your working life. It can be pretty unforgiving, but if it’s where you want to be, the earlier you learn to adjust to it, the better.
2) It’s okay to be you.
As a young black woman, I used to find it really awkward explaining to my colleagues, why my hair was long and silky this week, compared to it being slicked up in an afro puff last week. It’s part of being a black woman, we wear extensions and protective hairstyles to find different ways of protecting our hair from damage. It’s what we’ve done for years, and what we will probably continue to do for many years to come. I’ve had comments like “I like your hair like this, you look so…professional” when I’ve changed my hair to a weave, and comments like “I like this style, it makes you look young” when I’ve had braids.
These types of comments are intended as compliments on the surface, but are a result of the fact that mainstream society has been subliminally conditioned to believe that straight/European looking hair is professional and braided/afro hair is not. Needless to say, there is much education needed on redefining the perceptions and breaking the stereotypes when it comes to black women and their hair. What we as a working community also need to understand, is that corporate culture does NOT equate ethnic cleansing. There’s no one way to look ‘smart’. It’s okay to embrace the quirks and differences that come from people of minority backgrounds. Concerning appearance, the golden rules are simple: be well groomed, well dressed and have appropriate attire for the role.
3) It’s okay to walk away.
As the upcoming generation, we owe it to ourselves to dream big, aim high, push the boundaries and work hard. Dream jobs with even dreamier salaries don’t come over night and they definitely don’t come to those who wait for opportunities to come to them. We are forewarned that our early careers consist of being underappreciated, overworked and underpaid. For many of us, this is true. We need to get our hands dirty, gain experience in some of the more ‘gritty’, entry level jobs, before we can really move on and progress in roles that we prefer. This is not a bad thing, in fact, I’m sure a lot of people can testify that their first jobs out of uni, albeit ones that they’ve hated, are ones that have given them tremendous amounts of exposure and experience.
Don’t be afraid to start small- begin with the end goal in mind, work your butt off and you will get there! The trick is, learn as much as you can from these types of roles and when you’ve gained enough experience, move on.
4) Learning doesn’t stop at university.
The workforce is saturated with graduates- having a degree is simply not enough to differentiate you from the next candidate. If you’re looking for a role, or even if you’re currently in one, the best thing you can do to enhance your career is to further educate yourself on a particular subject or speciality area. This does not have to be by means of formal education, simply doing further reading and research is a good start. I remember when I first became obsessed with marketing. I read and subscribed to so many blogs, watched webinars on my lunch breaks, bought books (some good and some not so good) until eventually I got to a point where I’d learned all I could from free sources on the internet and wanted to take it to the next level, so I signed up for a Chartered Institute of Marketing professional course. Employers love to see people who are self-starters, who are passionate and who work hard to better educate themselves on their topics of interest. I can personally testify that hunger for learning and personal development has directly helped me get where I am today.
Another powerful personal tool is networking. Again, this does not need to be in a formal way, at an event or organised meeting. Simply having conversations with people at social settings, or even on social media sites such as Twitter, Facebook & LinkedIn, could get you connected to so many people whom you’d probably not have crossed paths with in other circumstances. You’ll be surprised by how much you can learn from the experience of your peers, use networking opportunities to rub shoulders with people, share ideas and learn from about other industries.
5) Success does not come overnight.
Modern society can be so fickle. As young people, we are susceptible to be misled into thinking we should have it all together in our 20’s. There is an enormous amount of pressure from social media, our peers and sometimes even our parents to live up to what society deems as success. There seems to be an unwritten rule that states, the more online followers you have, the better you must be doing; even though we know this is not necessarily true, let’s not lie, we still all buy into it to some extent. We need to remind ourselves of a few things: everyone’s career and personal progress is different, people aren’t always as “successful” as they seem online and most importantly, once you accept that you’re running your own race, you’ll realise you can’t be overtaken.
The bottom line is this, we are in an exciting era where we will begin to see more women, more people of colour and people from more diverse walks of life creating success stories for themselves in their careers. We’ve been working harder, faster, smarter, and are only now beginning to get the credit and recognition for it. I’ve heard so many times already that 2018 is the year of the woman- it’s time we claim it in every part of our lives… including our careers!
Written by Francesca Kuhanuka