Business as usual: I’m a CEO and ‘the only Black person in the room’

There is a storyline in season two of the HBO series Insecure where Issa’s ex-boyfriend, Lawrence, leaves his entrepreneurial struggle behind to grow his career at a corporate technology company. In the ensuing scenes, director Melina Matsoukas makes it clear that Lawrence is “the only Black person in the room.”

It’s a compelling narrative, because being “the only Black person in the room” is a nuanced experience for Black people working in a corporate environment. Even if you’ve never seen the show, Lawrence’s consciousness of being the only Black person at work is perhaps something you’ve experienced in your career. I know I have.

It was in my first job at an agency. We were in an “all-agency” meeting, attended by every person with a corporate title. The people noticeably not in attendance were members of the support team, such as administrative staff and assistants—the people who help corporate leaders move towards achieving their strategic goals. Without the support staff in the room, it dawned on me how homogenous the agency was. I was undoubtedly “the only Black person in the room.”

Today, I am the CEO of a Canadian media agency, and my attitudes towards being “the only Black person in the room” have broadened with my leadership. In my experience, there are two sides to this coin:

On the positive side, I appreciate being unique. I like being different and I think there is both a power and a benefit to standing out in a crowd. On the flip side, there are times when I feel alone.

When I do see somebody who looks like me, I find myself gravitating towards them for a conversation. It’s human instinct, but my consciousness of the “only-ness” factor is one of the reasons I would like to see a lot more people who look like me at work.

Today, I think I could start a career in the media and advertising industry and say, “I’m Black and I’m different and I’m really good at what I do.” In 2020, I don’t need to fit in. I celebrate where my family is from—Jamaica and Rexdale—and am proud of being really good at what I do professionally.

When I was working at that first agency job, I would not tell anybody where I was from—I said I grew up in Etobicoke instead of Rexdale. Twenty years ago, there were connotations that came with my neighbourhood that are still prevalent today. I attempted to hide the socioeconomics of my upbringing because of the racist and classist assumptions that would accompany it.

My success is just one of many examples proving that stereotypes are not reality, and labels can be overcome. Ultimately, I navigated my way to the top with consistent hard work and a focus on nurturing good relationships. But I do believe that my journey could have been smoother if somebody had taught me how to transform my “only Black person in the room” feelings into positive action earlier on.

I don’t want to be the “only Black person in the room,” and it’s absurd for me to be. This is why my personal mission is to mentor intelligent and ambitious Black people on their path to professional success. Today, I support a group called Trust15 in Rexdale. The programs are designed to help youth develop their professional and social skills with a reliable presence of leaders and conversation. They are coaching youth to navigate “the only Black person in the room” feelings by:

  • Developing a strong and confident inner voice;
  • Being vocal to counter racial bias and ignorance with education; and
  • Cultivating a solid community of people to share painful emotions.

My career is endlessly fulfilling, and I want to help more young Black people experience the same professional success that I have.

If you feel that you are not currently receiving the mentorship you need, send me a connection request and a message. I can point you in the right direction so you can stand proud, celebrate doing what you’re best at professionally, and reach your full potential at the leadership level.

You can do it too.

Kevin Johnson is the CEO of MediaCom Canada. He originally posted this column on LinkedIn.