On January 28, 2021, the world mourned the loss of fashion model and renowned actress, Cicely Tyson. I recall seeing her for the first time in the movie, Sounder, as Rebecca Morgan in 1972. There weren't many occasions to see a Black actress at that time, and being eight years old then, I was mesmerized.
Being a dark-skinned girl, I felt empowered to see someone like me on the screen. Roles played by Black actresses at that time tended to be full of strife and struggle, but she demonstrated a strength that I saw in my own family. It was familiar and authentic.
Two years later, she gave a stellar performance in the TV movie The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman, for which she won two Emmys. My heart was in my stomach as I watched Miss Pittman take that brave walk to the "whites only" water fountain and take a drink. I never had the opportunity to meet Ms. Tyson in person, but as I think about moments that have touched my life, I count her performances as meaningful points that helped to shape my view of myself.
She represented Black women in a brave, thoughtful manner that exhibited all that we are: wives, mothers, grandmothers, sisters, daughters and friends. Her career in fashion and film spanned eight decades and she remained active and relevant until her death at age 96. She portrayed the lives of women ranging from fictional slave-turned-activist Jane Pittman and educator Marva Collins to activist Coretta Scott King and abolitionist Harriet Tubman.
The esteemed Cicely Tyson was Black history in her life and will forever be in death. She led an admirable life, full of successes and struggles. Just two days before her death, her memoir Just as I Am was published.
As we celebrate the many African Americans who contribute so richly to our daily lives, I invite you to watch one of Ms. Tyson's movies (they're all good) or read her book. It may give you a glimpse into a life that touched so many with love and generosity. She was not a screenwriter or a movie producer, but she accepted only roles that spoke to her in a way that was elevating and in doing so, she elevated us all.
And, while this icon is certainly special, let me point out that our country was built on the backs of Black people. Our blood, sweat and tears are everywhere you step and in everything you touch.
A quick search of Black inventions will yield many products we use every day, like the ironing board, shoes, the propeller, the elevator, the home security system, the traffic light and so on.
I am reminded of my soleness (and soul-ness) as a Black, female CEO every time I participate in a meeting of other executives. Today, there are still only four Fortune 500 Black CEOs with the fifth (a woman) joining the ranks in March. Still today, "only 9% of businesses are Black owned and roughly 1% of Black-owned businesses have received venture capital funding" according to a recent For(bes) The Culture feature.
So, how do we change this? It starts with you. Every single person reading this article has a circle of influence, and I urge you to use your influence to invite Black people to the table.
For example, if you need a new VP of sales, a COO or a CFO, go to your local Black Chamber of Commerce, Urban League or NAACP, and have a conversation about building a diverse pipeline of excellence. Here are seven steps that you can take to foster a more diverse and inclusive work environment:
1. Unpack whatever biases you may have about Black people. Conduct a listening session with your Black staff, individually and/or collectively, to learn more about what you can do to support them professionally.
2. Reach out to Black people you may or may not know, and have a conversation about your desire to engage with people of color. Be open and honest with your intentions. Remember, it's about building relationships, not checking off a box.
3. Be transparent in your job postings of what the salary or salary range is for the position, and pay an equitable wage. You will want to conduct a salary review first to ensure that your wages are equitable across the board.
4. Maintain an open-door policy so that staff feel comfortable speaking with you about any issues that may arise. Communicate that the open door is not just for issues, but also for development. Those who have access to the CEO and executive team feel more supported and connected, and they tend to contribute more.
5. Establish a mentoring program and/or an affinity group to help individuals connect with other staff who have a skill or knowledge that would be helpful to that person's professional development.
6. If you're in an area where there truly is a dearth of Black people in a particular field, then start an apprenticeship or paid internship program to attract and train individuals. If advanced degrees are required for the field, partner with a local HBCU (Historically Black College/University) or the Black student union at your local college.
7. Review your vendor lists. Make it a point to solicit quotes from Black-owned businesses.
Finally, don't be afraid to be intentional. Leaders lead, and this is an area where we need leaders to stand with us so that we all rise together.