Why hiding won’t cut it for black women in the workplace by Cheryl Jackson

Why hiding won’t cut it for black women in the workplace by Cheryl Jackson

Women of color can be particularly susceptible to putting in hard work while letting others take all the shine.

But it’s important for women to speak up and promote themselves, said Sandee Kastrul ⇒, president and co-founder of i.c. stars, a technology-based leadership and workforce development program for inner-city adults.

Visibility was among the topics during the How to Close the Gap, a Chicago Ideas Week panel discussion Monday at Blue1647, addressing the underrepresentation of African-American women in tech and executive suites.

“We’re really good with setting the table for other people to eat, and then eating in the kitchen or over the sink and being invisible,” Kastrul said. “Step into the light and find that visibility.”

A former math and science teacher, she has preached that concept since a woman lambasted her for keeping a behind-the-scenes presence as co-founder of Chicago-based i.c. stars, which began training students in IT in 2000. It now has more than 350 alumni and is expanding to Columbus.

Kastrul worked with students and interns while her co-founder was the public face of the not-for-profit, dealing with donors and employers.

At an event, a black woman approached Kastrul and told her she needed to step up and be seen in the community to inspire youth and other leaders seeking to do similar work within black communities. Kastrul also later shared the story at a Chicago Ideas event on “My Biggest Mistake.”

“She said, ‘All this time, I thought that i.c. stars was a white lady with really great shoes. … How dare you be invisible to all of us striving to do something within the community, to all the leaders in the community who think that the only way you can have a downtown not-for-profit is to be a white lady with great shoes,'” Kastrul said.

After her co-founder resigned from the organization, Kastrul watched as board members overlooked her in talk of a search for a successor.

“My own board could not see that I was the next president of my company,” she said. “I had to claim it and make myself visible. I had to stand up and take my job — a job that I had in my head, but there was a whole cast of stakeholders who couldn’t see it.”

The conversation was moderated by Shayna Atkins, founder of Chicago-based AtkCo and leader of the Queens Brunch event series for women of color in business. She said she started the events after not encountering many black women at tech events.

Monica Haslip, another speaker, said from the time she founded Little Black Pearl Art and Design Center in North Kenwood, Monica Haslip she knew she needed to be visible in the community.

The center provides art, culture and entrepreneurship opportunities to youth and families and houses the Little Black Pearl Art and Design Academy.

She lived on the North Side and traveled to a South Side church at the time she decided to open an arts center in 1990. Later she moved to the neighborhood herself.

“I grew up in Alabama. I wanted to do something in a neighborhood that reminded me of the neighborhood I grew up in,” she said. “I realized it was so important for the children in the neighborhood to see me and know that I was a part of the community.

“It helps to inform my work. It helps me to make decisions about what we do.”

In corporate settings, black women need to dismiss the tendency to stay silent as a means of trying to blend in, said Tanisha Parrish, a director at Marriott International working on the integrating the Marriott and Starwood hotel brands.

She said she’s often been the sole woman in a room of executives and, early in her career, would write ideas on notes and pass them to her manager to present rather than speak up herself.

“I noticed that my peers — oftentimes white males — would step up and say things that made no sense at all, and they would at least get credit for being vocal,” Parrish said. “I had to realize that, as a black woman, I was going to be noticed anyway, whether I said something or I didn’t. So I might as well go ahead and say something.

“My rule of thumb is you never leave a meeting without saying something, whether it’s a question, whether it’s a comment,” said Parrish, who also leads the Life Under Innovation coaching and personal development business. “And don’t piggyback on someone else’s. Come up with something. At least you’ve contributed to the meeting, made your voice heard.”

Myleik Teele, myTaughtYou podcaster and founder and CEO of CurlBox natural haircare subscription box delivery, is doing that to help other black women entrepreneurs with lessons she’s learned. There’s not enough sharing, she said.

“You knowing what I know takes nothing from me,” said Teele, who lives in Atlanta. “I’m going to try to help you get to where I got a lot faster than I got there.”

Tech entrepreneur Maci Peterson said investors often look past her and default to asking questions about her business to her male co-founder or co-workers.

“A lot of that is because of the lack of black women in tech,” said Peterson, CEO of On Second Thought, a messaging app that allows a sender to delete SMS and MMS messages after they’re sent, but before they’re delivered.

The company, which won first place in a 2014 South by Southwest startup competition, is starting to license to wireless carriers and will be deployed on a network in the UK by the end of the year, she said.

Peterson, an Oak Park native, said she hopes the success of her company will help make it easier for other black women through inspiration or funding.

“They will be able to say ‘Maci did it; I can do it too!,'” she said. “Or they won’t have to have as many problems raising money because my friends and I can invest, and we know their struggles.”

Cheryl V. Jackson is a freelance writer.
Twitter @cherylvjackson


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