Having a seat at the table hasn’t always been easy for Black women. Today, we only make up less than 4% of C-suite level positions. I recently attended the Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit, a professional leadership conference designed especially for executive women of color. I was in awe of how many Black female executives there were in one room. Some of the biggest companies gathered together for a two-day conference of panels, workshops, and networking. Issa Rae, Tia Mowry, and Loretta Devine, were some of the few women honored.
While attending, I had the opportunity to sit down with Black Enterprise’s Chief Content Officer, Alisa Gumbs, Executive Prep Chief Bridge Architect, Dethra Giles, and CEO of SoulWork & Six Figures, Stephanie Heath. We spoke about what it looks like to be a leader, having other women support you, and how they’ve maintained their seat at the table.
Unbothered: What does female support look like, externally and internally?
Alisa Gumbs: That's a good question. I will say that I have been incredibly blessed to have great female support. I'm an only child and I don't have any biological sisters,but I've been blessed to have a great extended family. I'm a Delta, so I have 19 line sisters. I pledged more than 25 years ago, but I'm still in constant contact with them. These are women that show up for births, deaths, marriages, and everything in between. I also have two best friends who have been my best friends since junior high school.
Sometimes female support is acknowledging that men don't have a monopoly on assholery.
This is my biggest work event of the year, and these women are reaching out saying, “You're going to do amazing, you're ready for this, we’re proud of you.” But they have also been there to be an ear every day, a support every day to get a different perspective, to help me make connections, open doors, and whatever it is. The women of power within Black Enterprise have been so kind to me, and I had a woman who served as a mentor and a sponsor who really prepared me for this role. I hate the narrative that Black women can’t work together because I see examples every single day of Black women who work together. This conference is for Black executive women. And I talk to Black women all the time, whether they have their own businesses or they're climbing the ladder in corporate America, who all have their own advisory board of Black women, who all can point to a Black woman who opened the door. So that narrative is so false.
Dethra Giles: Female support is a dichotomy of things. I think we often think it means that I always back you, I always bring you in, I always am your cheerleader, and that's not always the case; sometimes female support is acknowledging that men don't have a monopoly on assholery. It's allowing women to have their moment, too. It's allowing the space to say, “You know what, there's a time and a place to be a bitch, so let's stop running from it all the time.” But it is also saying, “I support you, there's no one in the room like us. When I get in there, I'm going to make elbow room for you.” Also, the support has to be reciprocal. So when I open the door for you, you get in there, you act a fool! When I bring you to a speaking engagement and they've never had a Black woman speak, you get on that stage and you shut it down. That's what support looks like. When you support me, I'm going to support you, but I'm going to be giving you the space to be who you are in that moment.
Stephanie Heath: As a business owner, I get a lot of support from all women. I've had business coaches, mentors, and folks that are also business owners, but they’ve been in it a little bit longer, so I can go to them and ask questions. In terms of my clients, I make sure to get buy-in from a senior woman that's been there longer. Someone who can introduce them to places and set the tone for their success. Also my sister owns two companies. So whenever I have issues with clients, contracts and stuff, she can get me right.
What does that female boss character look like? Is she the Villain or Ms. Nice Guy?
AG: I think that is not a character. I'll start with that. We really try to drill home the idea of authenticity here. There are so many different ways to lead that women shouldn't feel like they have to fit into one or the other. I came up through the magazine. I started as a copy editor, and so when I was the managing editor, I was responsible for enforcing deadlines. So yes, sometimes you have “the villain” because you have to get things done. But I never did it in a way that was villainous, because that's not who I am. I believe in a softer style of leadership. Someone once described it as like a velvet hammer. You gotta put it down, but you put it down soft. I believe in building diplomacy. I believe in finding individual ways to connect with the people that you work with to motivate the people that you work with. What incentivizes this person isn't going to incentivize the next person. And I believe that a good leader spends the time to figure that out and to put that into practice. I don't think there's any one way to lead, I think that you are most effective when you're leading in a way that is authentic to you.
DG: I think it's all of those things. It depends on who you ask in Batman in film. Is Batman the villain or the hero, or is Joker the villain or the hero? So while I would like to think I am the hero, I am absolutely the villain in someone else's story. I embrace that. I am who you need me to be for your story to be okay with you. And I am who I am and I'm comfortable with that. You can't be everyone's hero and you're not always going to be the villain. But you can be authentically you and whatever they decide you are in their story, it is what it is and it's not your business.
SH: For me and my business, I don't like to lead by telling people what to do. I had to learn that for my employees to be happy, for my business to succeed, I just have to be direct. The people that I work with now, my team, they're entrepreneurs, they're very autonomous, we get things done. And so it was kind of a struggle just to say things directly. Initially that felt like I was being the villain, but I knew it was helping the health of my work.
How do you stay unbothered?
AG: Over the last couple of years, and especially during the pandemic, I hope that people have figured out ways to take better care of themselves. I certainly did. I started walking daily. I walk for almost an hour every day and it is just really, really good for me. Because I get fresh air, I get to be out in the sunshine, which always makes me happy. My body gets the movement it needs and my mind has free time to wander. It is when I do a lot of my thinking, a lot of my processing of things that are sort of bothering me. And when some of my best ideas bubble up. My mind can shut off for a while and I don't have to deal with the phone calls, texts, or what anybody else wants. I found a way to put some good healthy boundaries around myself to prioritize taking good care of myself. And you know, drink water and mind my business.
DG: I put the things that matter the most to me first, and everything else is irrelevant. Before I am the CEO, the international, and 4x TEDx speaker, I am somebody's mama, and kids will humble you quickly. My daughter called me last night and was like, “So spring break is next week you're gonna send me some money or nah?” I’m like, girl! I'm at Black Enterprise speaking. And that's what matters to me. When I get up high and mighty, my kids remind me. My sons like, “What's for dinner?” So just having the thing that matters the most be the first thing in your life keeps you humble and unbothered.
SH: I get very much bothered. But I kind of nip it in the bud in my company and in my life. I know that any challenge, even if it hurts in the moment, it's not stopping where we’re going. This is just a challenge that every business owner goes through. So even if I'm crying in this airport right now, please believe tomorrow I'm putting things in place and I'm keeping going.