“Don’t try this at home,” said a senior executive who, infuriated with the way her boss was handling a work issue, stormed out of his office, turning off his lights and closing his door behind her. The audience roared with laughter as she relayed her tale. In hindsight, the executive could also sheepishly chuckle. But more than offering some levity during one of the executive leadership workshops at the 2nd annual Black Enterprise Women of Power Summit, hosted by State Farm, the story resonated with many women in attendance who often feel stuck, challenged, and–in many cases– alone in pursuit of their career goals.
“African American women are sometimes [as] isolated in our day-to-day businesses as anybody in corporate America,” remarks Paula Madison. A WPS Advisory Board member, Madison is KNBC president and general manager, regional general manager for NBC/Telemundo in Los Angeles, and NBC Universal executive vice president for diversity. “The difference for us is that we don’t always have a place we can go–a sort of safe haven–ask questions, share thoughts, talk about experiences, and seek guidance.”
In fact, as 700 women packed the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa this February, more than 50 moderators and panelists, who hold a variety of senior positions in numerous industries, offered them professional, strategic advice for advancing their careers. “For me, it’s been an opportunity to be supported and held up by other beautiful black women who are letting me know that they understand my struggle and where I’ve been to get where I am today,” says session panelist Gwendolyn Sykes, CFO for NASA. “I experienced so much personal joy from being a part of Women of Power [in 2005] that I made it a priority to bring my sister from Alaska here with me [this time] so she could experience this also. Now she’s more motivated, more inclined [to pursue her goals,] and I think this opportunity has given her the strength and tenacity to go forward.” Sessions included tactics on how to raise your personal profile, how to leverage your status as a woman of color, how to negotiate effectively, how to develop a mutually productive relationship with your boss, and how to play and win at the corporate game.
“We’ve been learning how to play games since we were kids,” offers Jenny Alonzo, a session moderator and senior vice president of multicultural strategies and initiatives for Lifetime Entertainment Services. Alonzo is also a WPS Advisory Board member. “It’s just that the games get a lot more sophisticated. The rules of the game are constantly changing, so we need to be vigilant of those changes.” Other expert voices included Adriane M. Brown, president & CEO of Honeywell Transportation Systems; Olivia Smashum, executive vice president, affiliate marketing for Home Box Office; Candace Matthews, president of the consumer products division for Soft Sheen-Carson; Claudette D. Hunter, senior director of quality assurance for Abercrombie & Fitch; Joi Gordon, CEO of Dress for Success Worldwide; Adrian E. Bracy, vice president of finance for the St.