Being a Success Partner at Work: Interview with Minda Harts

By Kali Shulklapper

In her bestselling book The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, Minda Harts explores her experiences in a white-dominated workplace. She speaks with Chief about the challenges women of color face, and what effective allyship looks like.

Q. How does intersectionality manifest for women of color, and create barriers to success?

Minda Harts: When we talk about feminism or women's rights, we like to use a one-size-fits-all approach. For example, the fact is that not all women got the right to vote at the same time. There are always career and business books that imply women all experience the workplace in the same way. The reality is we don't. As women, there are hierarchies of oppression. The closer you are to the top, the more opportunities you get. But if you look at women of color or Black women, we tend to fall on the lower end of the scale.

Sometimes the language white men and women use can be well-intended, when they say things like “I don't see color.” That saying has become a way for you to signal to me that you're one of the good ones. But that really makes our skin crawl. Because it’s a dangerous slope when we don’t see each other for who we are. I need you to understand that our experiences in the United States are not the same, even though we are all women. Before we can talk about solutions, you have to see me and acknowledge me. It’s about tapping into emotional intelligence, and thinking “Maybe I haven’t seen color for so long, and that’s created some kind of unconscious bias. Maybe I haven’t fully seen the experience of someone in my office.” The only way we’re going to move the needle forward for all women in the workplace is by understanding our biases and humanizing each other.

Q. In your book, you talk about being a “success partner” when it comes to effective workplace allyship. Can you expand on what this means?

MH: Racism doesn't just kill people. It kills careers too. In the rooms where I was being micro and macro-aggressed, my colleagues and friends would never step up for me. They always leaned into their caution, never into their courage. I hear people say, “I'm an ally.” But what are you going to do to be an ally when it counts? The truth is we have not seen active allyship in the way that we need it. Success is not a solo sport. It takes people investing in you. Because I was the only person of color in the environments I worked in, success required white men and women using their privilege to bring me along with them. Every one of us has a sphere of influence, and to be a success partner, you have to figure out how to use it, even if it’s uncomfortable.

To make the workplace more equitable and create a system in which racism isn’t tolerated, we need more people to stand up. So next time that you’re in a meeting and there’s an awkward silence — you can use the chat to say, “Hey, Bob, Minda was actually talking. I'd love to hear her finish her thought.” If you don't say anything, then you may as well have said the inappropriate thing. If senior leadership only hears from Black people about the Black issues, they're going to dismiss them. But if they hear from white men and women, and Asian men and women, and Native Americans, then it becomes a humanity issue — not just a Black Lives Matter problem. It becomes not just a moment, but a movement. That's how we shift culture.

Q. How can we apply this success partner framework to drive change across entire organizations?

MH: For so long, race has been a scary topic of conversation. As Black people and people of color, we've been waiting to finally have this conversation with our counterparts. We were told “don’t play the race card. Don’t say anything.” And now companies are saying. “Tell us about this experience.” It feels like a breath of fresh air. The first step is listening to Black employees, and creating a seat at the table for voices you don’t typically hear. Sometimes, listening to the people of color means asking yourself and asking them, “What have I done that could have stunted your growth?” You need to be willing to hear the responses so you don’t continue causing harm. After listening, you have to invest in their career by providing opportunities and advocating for them. We talk a lot about hiring for diversity, but the focus should be on accelerating the careers of the people who are already there, and getting them into the C-suite.

Lastly, we need to lean into our courage and hold our leadership teams accountable. Because trauma is trauma, and racialized trauma has been pushed under the rug. It’s going to require a lot of success partners finally stepping up, because otherwise, we're going to have this conversation 10 years from now. My grandmother and I cried the same workplace tears. And I don't want the next generation to cry them too. I learned to settle into microaggressions and bias because I thought that was just part of work. But we all deserve the opportunity to thrive in the workplace.

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