For many women of color, getting into professional settings is only half of the battle. From wage gaps to lack of opportunities for advancement, many women continue to experience combinations of racism and sexism.
Although the tech industry is often thought of as a new haven, those same issues can be found here as well. A report by Reveal found that ten large Silicon Valley companies failed to hire any Black women in the year of 2016. It went on to refer to gender and racial disparities as “grave.” Meanwhile, Google’s 2019 Diversity Annual Report found that Black women “were not experiencing Google as positively as other groups.”
Often, the advice given to women navigating professional settings ignores how the intersection of race impacts people’s experiences. With her new book, The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table, Minda Harts sets out to end the one-size-fits-all approach to business books.
Harts brings her experiences as the founder and CEO of The Memo — a career development company for women of color — into her writing. She gives women advice on how to navigate some of the “ugly truths” in corporate America, including micro-aggressions, systemic racism, white privilege, and more.
Published by Seal Press, The Memo is on sale now. If you’re a woman of color trying to make your way through corporate America, this book may be right for you. Below, you can read a small excerpt from The Memo.
Adapted from The Memo: What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure A Seat at the Table by Minda Harts. Copyright © 2019. Available from Seal Press, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
In 2012, I was living in Los Angeles and trying to cope with the death of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin. I worked in a predominantly white environment, and no one in the office was talking about his death. Up until that point, I had never seen myself as an activist. Not in a Rosa Parks type of way. I guess you could say I had been going through life with my head down; black women are often told to do just that, especially in the workplace. Even though I saw bias all around me, I knew I could never rock the boat and speak out on it. I mean, who would care or do anything about it? But something about Trayvon’s death touched me at my core. Maybe it’s because I have two younger brothers and plenty of black male cousins, and I know how easily one of them could be in this same situation. I am sure his death caused many of us to question how we could help.
Fast forward a year and some change, and I was working on the East Coast. The verdict was out: George Zimmerman was not guilty. I cried that night as if I could feel the pain of Trayvon’s parents. And mixed in with those emotions, I was going through my own personal hell of working in an environment that was less than equitable. It was on that night that I realized I had to do something. My advocacy wouldn’t be on the front lines with the Black Lives Matter movement; my advocacy would be inside the workplace advocating for women that looked like me. I had to fight systemic racism in a way that was authentic to me and that would allow me to use my expertise.
Mellody Hobson would later use the term “corporate Kaepernick,” and I felt like I was something like a Kaepernick; addressing the inequalities that we often are scared to address. I had no idea what I would do or what it would look like, but I knew I had to do something!
Around the same time, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg came out. I was heavily into professional development and consuming every business and self-help book I could get my hands on. After reading countless books, I realized that race or intersectionality was rarely—if ever—a topic of conversation. And the books I was reading and the content I was consuming were being produced by white women. It started to become very problematic for me to never read about the experiences of women of color at work. We were completely left out of most narratives. So I decided my form of advocacy would be to create a platform that served our needs and highlighted the challenges women of color face in the workplace. Again, I had no idea how that would look and wouldn’t until 2015, when I was forced to write a business plan for my unnamed company.
All I could think about was Shirley Chisholm’s quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” And on a train ride from Washington, D.C., to New York City while listening to a Drake song called “Trophies,” through my earbuds came the lyrics “Did y’all boys not get the memo?”
And that line hit me like a ton of bricks—the workplace has not gotten The Memo: women of color deserve a seat at the table, and we are coming for those seats!
It took time to build, but in the fall of 2015, I launched The Memo newsletter, and from there my business grew to include career boot camps, a speaker’s series, and an annual awards event. My activism was kicked off by Trayvon Martin—his death showed me that there was advocacy inside me waiting to come out. I went from someone who was fairly shy at times to someone speaking about the inequalities women of color face and challenging the “lean-in” doctrine. And in those days, Sheryl Sandberg could do no wrong, so most white women just looked at me sideways, but my message was resonating with women of color all over the country.
I have to admit that I was scared to launch The Memo. Imposter syndrome reared its ugly head. I wasn’t sure if I was the one to continue carrying this mantle of those who came before me like Ida B. Wells, Essie Robeson, Addie Hunton, and Maggie Walker. But as my friend Lolly Lynette said one day during a text conversation, “They would be proud.” The funny thing about advocacy is that people will try to tell you what you’re doing won’t work, and they won’t see your vision. I had countless people tell me that I shouldn’t start my company because there already were career platforms for women. I was most discouraged by white men, who pointed me to companies like Levo League, The Muse, and countless other platforms run by white women, at least in part because they were investors in those companies. They couldn’t see that our missions were very different at the core! It made it hard to raise money because no one wanted to invest in women of color in this way. There were days I would be on the phone with my cofounder, Lauren, and we had twenty dollars in our business bank account. And even though we continued to bootstrap our company, we knew we had to get the word out to more women of color so they wouldn’t lean out of the workforce due to isolation, lack of opportunity, and bias.
My curiosity was larger than my fear, and I didn’t want to see another woman of color crawl through her disappointments in the workplace and have no one ever acknowledge them! I was tired of the workplace being separate and far from equal. I was exhausted from the labels and the BS. And, I know we need to make more people aware of how difficult securing our seat at the table can be—I had to write my story and tell the stories of other women of color. And even though most people don’t want to admit it, we can’t talk about advancing women of color, or the future of work for that matter, and not address race and the history of this country.
When I looked back, I realized I have been writing poetry since I was in grade school, yet I never saw myself as a writer. Some people have daydreamed their entire lives about writing a book. But I had never considered it; I wasn’t dreaming big enough! Then I realized I wanted to write a love letter to women of color. I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to tell our stories and shine a light on the fact that not all women experience the workplace in the same way. And I wanted to write a book that would give white people insight into how they have played a role in our barriers to entry.
The current system is broken, and it will take all hands on deck to reassemble a table that did not originally have a seat for us. But the good news is that this is our story, told by us! Time to secure our seat at the table and give everybody The Memo.