Nicole Cyrus | Longreads | December 2019 | 10 minutes (2,713 words)
In the ’80s, I was a scrappy black teenage girl determined to solve for x in this equation:
buppie = a young upwardly mobile black professional
buppie + ambition = a black professional hungry for opportunity
buppie + ambition + x = a black female CEO of a Fortune 500 company
A week after I turned 16, I called my mother into the kitchen for a meeting. I was running a personal campaign to become an international business tycoon from my family’s ranch home near Washington, D.C. My mother, a registered nurse, had volunteered to be my assistant. She sat with her hands folded on the wooden table, awaiting instructions.
“Do you know any businesspeople who can hire me for an office job?” I asked.
“One, maybe two,” my mother said. “I’ll call them and see if they will speak with you.” She squeezed my hand in support, but she wanted me to calm down.
No words could aptly describe the extreme pressure I put on myself to make the covers of Forbes and Black Enterprise magazines before I hit the age of 30. I couldn’t find the source of my fierce drive. My parents had high expectations for me, especially my father — a hardworking mechanic originally from Costa Rica — but I aimed for the upper echelons of business because I yearned to be a trailblazer. Finding a black female chief executive in America was like searching for a unicorn. I figured if I couldn’t find one, I’d have to become one.
Sheryl Sandberg, with whom I share a birth year, wouldn’t write Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead for another 30 years. But I understood I needed an accountability partner to motivate me, to push me forward. I had diverse, ambitious friends who inspired me, but one person seemed to understand me best: Alex P. Keaton (played by Michael J. Fox) on the ’80s sitcom Family Ties.
Alex was a fictitious white guy from Columbus, Ohio. I was a black girl from suburban Maryland. He talked back to his parents. I valued my car privileges. He was a Republican. I was an independent. But Alex was my spirit animal. We shared a preppy fashion sense, type A personalities, and an obsession with business. We both planned to rule the world.
Everywhere Alex went, he dressed like a boss. He put together a wardrobe that commanded respect: suits, ties, argyle sweaters. I combed the racks of Loehmann’s and Bloomingdale’s and assembled a power wardrobe from clearance items. I paired blazers with dress slacks, jeans with hoop earrings. He carried a leather briefcase. I toted around the finest leather shoulder bag I could afford.
Alex was 100 percent business, and he sometimes appeared callous. I was 80 percent business and 20 percent playful, a mix that made me human but restless. One afternoon while my high school friends and I watched Pretty in Pink in a movie theater, I invented names for my future multi-billion-dollar empire. I was business, business, business, and no matter how much I tried, I couldn’t turn off the fixation. My mother said it started after I spotted a black female executive in Ebony magazine when I was a child.
A month after I held my meeting with Mom in our kitchen, I landed a job as an accounting clerk for a hotel management company, thanks to a woman at my family’s church. At the end of that summer, my parents asked me to quit and focus on being a kid. They noticed the emerging workaholic monster growing inside me and feared I would burn out before I turned 18. After a few days of begging, I persuaded them to let me work after school three days a week and during the summers. At the office, my manager promoted me twice before I graduated from high school.
Finding a black female chief executive in America was like searching for a unicorn. I figured if I couldn’t find one, I’d have to become one.
Because of the job, my grades suffered slightly. I was an A/B student instead of a straight-A geek like Alex. He was headed to the Ivy Leagues, until an incident with his sister Mallory cost him admission to Princeton (see: season 2, episode 12). I chose to attend a state school as an out-of-state student, the alma mater of my mother’s sister Deborah, an up-and-coming marketing executive herself. Aunt Deb was tall and chic and had a penchant for cat’s-eye glasses. She lived in the Midwest and was the only black female business leader I knew at the time. She was inspirational to be sure, but Alex pulled me in with his charisma. He had my full attention.
* * *
Friends and family laughed at me whenever I mentioned my fascination with Alex. They rolled their eyes. Shook their heads in disbelief and exhaled before giving me the inevitable lecture.
“You know Alex is white, right?” they would say.
“And he is a man.”
“So why are you trying to be like him?”
Because Alex and I share the same American Dream, I would say in my head. This defense sounded absurd, even to me. Alex and I were not equals. Not on a fictional TV show, not in real life, not in Ohio, not in Maryland, not on our respective college campuses, not at our first jobs after graduation. We had gender and racial differences, which were impossible to ignore. At birth, men who looked like Alex entered an exclusive club granting them access to job opportunities, career counseling, and professional relationships available only to insiders.
I stopped talking about Alex. I became an accountant, earned an MBA, then bounced from job to job across the country — stalling in corporate finance management roles at several Fortune 500 companies. Two of my proudest accomplishments included creating a $2 billion budget for land, building, and equipment purchases, and calculating the selling price for a dying brand spun off for a huge profit. Maybe I was naïve, but I expected more than a few pats on the back for my efforts. I wanted a sponsor, an executive to view me as an asset and offer me promotions. I longed for rewards for my contributions.
After years of drifting, I was losing my fire. What was I doing wrong? I talked sports, overlooked insensitive political jokes, ignored lecherous comments. I read business magazines and national papers to take part in shoptalk. Nothing worked. I was leaning in but still stumbling. I tried to find my footing, tried to belong, but few executives (in most cases, white men) offered to help further my career.
One night while stewing over my frustrations about work, I blacked out and fell off the toilet in my bathroom. I woke up with a nasty bump on my forehead, and after visiting an emergency room, I saw a cardiologist who hooked a heart monitor on me for 24 hours.
“You had a panic attack,” the doctor said during my follow-up appointment. “What is causing you stress?” His voice was soothing, gentle. He pulled the electrodes off my chest and handed me a sheet of paper with scribbly lines detailing the wild racing of my heart.
The chart spooked me. I was in my early 30s, healthy. I lifted weights and rode a stationary bicycle four days a week. I was too young to be worried about preventing a heart attack.
The doctor stared at me, waiting for my answer, as I squirmed on the examining table. “My job is killing me,” I finally said to him. It hurt to acknowledge the truth. I was a workhorse, but I was invisible when promotions came up. I received confusing feedback from managers: “You’re too nice.” “A few people say you’re mean.” “Speak up more at meetings.” “Sit back and take notes.” “Your work is impeccable.” “Try harder.” “You have a good job. Be grateful.”
The doctor continued to stare at me in silence. I glanced away, avoiding the pity in his eyes. I blinked back tears. I was angry. Angry with myself for giving so much of myself to corporate entities, angry with myself for believing I could rise to the heights I had imagined as a kid. Angry with myself for modeling my actions after a TV character who made sailing through life look effortless. I had found it easier to lean in with a fictional white man than to nail down real mentors. “Get rid of the stress.” The doctor squeezed my shoulder. “Find a new career, and do it soon.”
* * *
I didn’t have a plan B, so I stayed at my job. Day by day, I slowly recovered from my anger and disappointment. I showed up for work with more realistic expectations about the advancement of women and people of color in the corporate world. I gave up on leaning in as a businesswoman, after a decade of scrambling for a seat at the table.
Few black women at my office were breaking through. During our hectic days, we would bump into each other in break rooms, hallways, and restrooms and give each other pep talks and sometimes hugs. We became sister-friends. In most cases, we were the only black women in our respective departments, catalysts for change in a small way, and we leaned on each other to cope with our loneliness and hurt. “Stay strong,” we would say in passing before rushing off to our desks. We kept our heads down and continued working, like good employees.
Three years after my conversation with the cardiologist, I finally prioritized my health and well-being. I was in a new city, after moving to Dallas from Washington, D.C., to set up a finance office for my then-employer, a tech company. The assignment gave me another talking point to add to my résumé, but it was time to say goodbye to the fantasy world that had shaped my teenage and young adult life. With my resignation, my career in finance and my quest to become a trailblazer at a Fortune 500 company officially ended.
On my last day, my hands trembled as I lugged a box of my belongings and a bouquet of yellow roses to my Honda. I took one last glance at the shiny office building standing tall in the oppressive Southern sun. I was apprehensive about my future. A heavy sense of uncertainty trailed me as I sped north on Dallas Parkway to my apartment.
I wasn’t alone. Other black women were exiting corporate America. We had tired of striving and striving while waiting for mentors and promotions that never came. Out of frustration and a need for fulfillment, some black women were walking away from secure lifestyles to explore new careers or start their own businesses, adjusting their American dreams.
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Black women are ambitious. Maybe because we are finally able to explore career options that were previously out of our reach. For generations, our possibilities were limited. White-collar jobs, especially executive roles, were out of the question. TV shows and movies depicted us toiling as slaves, maids, or nannies: The Help, Gone with the Wind, Gimme a Break, 12 Years a Slave, and The Long Walk Home. Is it any wonder we want more? Contemporary black women want to see how far we can go without barriers. After I realized this, my eyes opened to the complexities of our pain. I became enraptured by the idea of becoming a career coach for women of color, a pursuit that allowed me to use my experiences to encourage black women in corporate America from the sidelines.
* * *
As of 2019, only 33 women lead Fortune 500 companies. The numbers are especially distressing for women of color. The sole Latina CEO, Geisha J. Williams of Pacific Gas and Electric Company, stepped down in 2019. Indra Nooyi, a female CEO of South Asian descent, left PepsiCo in October 2018. Two women executives of Asian descent made the Fortune 500 list as of June 2019: Lisa Su of Advanced Micro Devices and Joey Wat of Yum China. There are zero Native American CEOs.
Number of black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 1980-1999: 0
Number of black female CEOs of Fortune 500 companies, 2000-2019: 2*
* Mary Winston served as Interim CEO of Bed Bath & Beyond for a brief time in 2019. The first black female CEO of a Fortune 500 firm, Ursula Burns, stepped down from the top job at Xerox in 2016. Today zero black women run a Fortune 500 company. A few months after Ms. Burns’ departure, she gave an interview with CNN, and she was quoted saying, “Structurally, business is still made for men.”
As part of their American Dream series, CNN created a video about Ursula Burns, chronicling her ascent from a New York City housing project to the CEO corner office. She discusses her personal and professional experiences in a matter-of-fact tone, cracking jokes at times, but near the end of the video, she states that the business world holds women to a different standard than men. The conflicted look on Burns’s face saddened me. She wore the same wounded expression I had seen on the faces of my sister-friends. There was anguish in her eyes, isolation in her words. Words she articulated with caution as if she was editing herself, but I wanted to hear more. It is lonely at the top, lonely as the first and lonely as the only one. At the CEO level, who was there to lean in with Burns?
I wasn’t alone. Other black women were exiting corporate America. We had tired of striving and striving while waiting for mentors and promotions that never came.
Across America, black girls interested in business are dreaming about taking their place in CEO corner offices. If they reach their goal, will they have support? Prominent black female business leaders are now laying the groundwork for progress: Oprah Winfrey, Cynthia Marshall, Arlan Hamilton, Mellody Hobson, Ann-Marie Campbell, Thasunda Duckett, Carla Harris, and former first lady Michelle Obama, to name a few.
On December 1, 2018, Obama weighed in on the Lean In movement while promoting her memoir, Becoming, in Brooklyn: “That whole ‘so you can have it all.’ Nope, not at the same time. That’s a lie. And it’s not always enough to lean in, because that shit doesn’t work all the time.”
Leaning in is a two-way street. You can’t lean in alone. In most cases, white men lean into each other.
* * *
In 2015, my friend Denise called me to discuss her career. She was a finance director at a French company, overseeing operations for North and South America. Denise was the highest-ranked black female in her office. Her immediate goal was to become a global director, one level up from her current job. The opportunity would take her to Europe full-time.
“My boss postponed the conversation about my promotion again,” she said in a weary voice. “I’m not sure it will happen.”
I sat in my kitchen, quietly agreeing. Denise had entered the company like a tornado, fixing broken finance systems and rebuilding employee morale. She had toured the locations under her purview to rally excitement about the company. She had received numerous awards and accolades, but she wanted more responsibility.
“Did I ever tell you how I became interested in finance?” she asked. “Alex P. Keaton from Family Ties inspired me.”
I straightened up. “No way! Me too!”
We were silent for a long moment, then she chuckled, which caused me to chuckle, then our tee-hees turned into roaring laughter. The mood between us was full of many emotions — embarrassment, relief, disappointment, comfort. We laughed and laughed until we reflected on our shared experience: We were two black women naïve enough to mirror the actions of a white male TV character, thinking we would reap the same rewards.
“I’m staying in finance,” she said.
“Good,” I said. “We need you there.” Seeing a black woman at any level of power gives another black woman hope.
In 2016, Denise left the French company and accepted a job with a large U.S. organization. She phoned me to share her news. “I feel good about this opportunity,” she said. “Maybe this time an executive will mentor me.” Denise was excited, hoping a sponsor would boost her career.
Three years later, she is still waiting.
Nicole Cyrus is an essayist and career coach. She is working on a book about race and gender bias in everyday life. Her nonfiction has appeared in Brevity and Lunch Ticket, and will be featured in the upcoming anthology The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). She lives in the Washington, D.C. area.