The Professional

Embrace the Power of Wakanda: Professional Lessons Learned

February 27, 2018

Minorities are often trained to be intentionally inauthentic, private and/or mistrusting of others (this is at least true of my generation with the assumption here being that our differences are a liability; I’ve noticed a shift away from this overtime but for some it can be a journey to get there based on personal experiences that create a frame of reference) . . . to be one person at home and another at work. I often refer to this as our version of the “separation of church and state.” Two entities that are not meant to meet, connect or intermingle but rather to co-exist with a clear dividing line so as not to influence or control each other. It is equivalent to the hidden city of Wakanda, overflowing with the most incredible resources yet closed off from the rest of the world. It’s simple to see how one would want to hide . . . for fear of being pillaged for your most precious gifts/resources . . . for desire to protect your culture and way of life . . . for knowledge of the woes that vulnerability can yield.

I embodied the protectionist tactics of Wakanda for the vast majority of my professional career . . . Unwilling to reveal “the real me” for fear of being judged and/or excluded . . . Adapting my thinking (if not, then choice of words) to align with those around me so as not to be the sole voice of difference . . . Dimming my light so that others can shine bright . . .

**I thought this was the way, I thought it was easier to sneak in through the window than to walk boldly through the door.**

What is the Minority Playbook?

I was trained on how to play the game with the minority playbook.  Two keys to professional success meant that you must look the part (dress for the job you want; this does not mean that you cannot also be true to who you are) and you must not share anything that clearly indicates that you are different (I interpreted this to mean that I was not them and they won’t understand the real you, nor seek to). Therefore, several topics were off the table including weekend plans, my faith, my choice of music, my political views etc.  Over time, however, I realized that the world did not understand nor operate by my Wakanda rules.

How Do You Look the Part?

Looking the part was not just about my wardrobe (I couldn’t wear what the other girls wore; I did have unique assets to consider after all) but also for my hair.  Much like Okoye, I grew tired and uncomfortable with archaic views of “corporate appropriate hair.”  It took 7+ YEARS to build the courage to fully embrace my natural hair (my equivalent to Okoye’s wig snatch in the clip below).

I started with a bun (me + my banana clip were absolute besties) which transitioned into braid outs and eventually Wash & Gos but then it happened . . . the meeting with the big boss (i.e. EVP) was scheduled.  I flashed back to conversations from the past . . . “natural hair is cute but I can’t wear it that way to meet with the CFO” . . . “why does she change her hair all the time?” . . . “can I wear braids to work or would that be unprofessional?” . . . to share a few examples.  Over time, I noticed a pattern.  When I wore my hair straight I overwhelming heard “I Love Your Hair” when natural I got a few “oh, hi.  I didn’t recognize you” (I can’t for certain say this was due to my hair but my subconscious believed it to be so).

**So there I was at a cross-roads, be me or be the me I think they expect me to be . . .**

Last year, I finally embraced my natural hair 100% of the time and I haven’t looked back.  I’m happier, more confident and most importantly I am uniquely and authentically me.  I was shocked by the level of support I received from all ages, genders, rank and races.  I was even fortunate to have a conversation with my CFO about the struggle of embracing your natural hair after she decided to go grey!!!

How Do You Trust What You Cannot See? 

It became a disadvantage to hold back, my co-workers and leaders chose not to invest in what they could not understand. I recall receiving conflicting feedback early in my career . . . the leaders that looked like me told me to never let my guard down . . . the leaders that didn’t look like me communicated the importance of allowing people to get to know the real me.  This brought to question everything I thought I knew about succeeding in the corporate world. I went through an identity crisis because I didn’t know how to remove the mask I’d worn so well for so long.

A pivotal moment occurred when I attended the Middle-Level Manager’s Symposium sponsored by the Executive Leadership Council, at that point I experienced what I’d imagine it is like to embrace the power of Wakanda. I was surrounded by over a thousand successful professionals that looked like me. The agenda included minority titans of industry (most I didn’t know existed) . . . Bernard Tyson, CEO of Kaiser Permanente, Theodore Colbert, CIO, The Boeing Company, and Jacky Wright, Vice President – IT, Microsoft, to name a few.  Several mentioned that their accomplishments and authenticity were intertwined.  They stressed that everyone should bring their authentic self to the table and that starts by finding the right environment where it is beneficial to do so. It was exactly what I needed to hear at that pivotal point in my career.  I was also able to experience firsthand the impact of being in the right environment . . . everyone spoke my language . . . we laughed, we danced, we engaged intellectually . . . this experience created another shift in me.

**A flower planted in the wrong soil will not bloom**

How Do You Embrace the Shift?  

A shift toward releasing my true authentic self.  Much like the ritual of receiving the heart shaped herb which is the source of the Black Panther’s power, I must be reborn into my true self. I’ve been buried under the unauthentic sands for far too long, it’s time to emerge truer, wiser, stronger and braver than ever before.  I’m committed to sharing my real life experiences from music to food to political views to  God, the source!  I’m speaking for those that don’t know how.  I’m breaking down barriers and biases one meeting at a time! I’m telling them my story which is wrapped in our story and resiliency is the cord that connects us all.

**You don’t look like what you’ve been through, share your stories so others can grow**

When they find out that . . . I’m a product of inner city schools . . . I’ve attended schools that had no books for core classes like Math or Social Studies . . . I was raised by a high-school educated single mom . . . I didn’t have health insurance from 1993 until my first job in 2005 . . . I’m the first in my family to obtain a college degree . . . I’ve had to work for all that I have, starting with my first cellphone to my college education to my first car to my first apartment . . . they are shocked, I’m sure also curious about how I made it to this level in my career but hopefully also enlightened.

**This power extends beyond the workplace . . . “

This journey has born incredible fruit: character, unshakable faith, fearlessness and vulnerability. Like the people of Wakanda, we are an incredible people, a force that can ignite the change we want to see in the world but it must start with allowing the world to see us as we are.  When they ponder what we can do for them, know that we’ve already been given the tools needed to show them who we are, thereby embracing the power of Wakanda!!!

“Your authentic self is a competitive advantage that no one can reverse engineer” – Z’Marie

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  • Reply Monica February 27, 2018 at 3:50 PM

    Hi Zenna! Very nice post and I can attest to being taught how to code switch. I think in the past 2-3 years, I’ve definitely relaxed on that a lot more; mostly because as I get older, I care less about what “they” may think of me.

  • Reply Tresha February 27, 2018 at 6:30 PM

    I am so proud of you Baby love and so honored to see you blossom into such a beautiful Rose. Yes you have come a long way and I can’t wait to see how much further you will grow. So glad that you are finally embracing your beautiful crown (hair).

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