On Being Black in Corporate America
Salesforce’s Chief Philanthropy Officer Ebony Beckwith tackles necessary and poignant topics on the latest episode of #BossTalks.
Last year, our society came face-to-face with the systemic racism, violence, and inequality that Black people experience in America. From the disproportionate impact the COVID-19 pandemic has had on Black Americans to the murder of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, these events ignited important conversations about how we must take action toward racial equity in our communities. That includes a vital part of our communities and everyday lives — the workplace.
“It seems not that long ago this conversation would have been taboo or simply just not talked about at work. But today, the conversations around equality and justice are not only present in the workplace, but they’re urgent, necessary, and in many ways, they are long overdue,” said Salesforce Chief Philanthropy Officer Ebony Beckwith in the sixth episode of her LinkedIn Live show #BossTalks.
However, to create equality in the workplace, we need representation at all levels, especially in the C-suite where key decisions are made. According to recent data, only 1% of CEOs in charge of Fortune 500 companies are Black – that’s only four people.
Beckwith had a candid conversation with Salesforce Executive Vice President and General Manager of Health and Life Sciences DP Brightful, and Salesforce Chief of Safety and Security Keith White, on what it means to navigate the predominately white spaces of corporate America while still showing up as your full, authentic self each and every day. Read on for lessons on how to make your voice heard, and redefine company values in the process.
Here’s a helpful table of contents:
- Embracing your background
- Betting on yourself
- Building bridges for Black people in tech
- Investing in young people everywhere
- Being open to feedback
- Driving change from within
Scroll down to the bottom to read the full transcript and watch the full episode.
Embracing your background
To make it in corporate America, Black employees might face pressure to flatten themselves, to code-switch, to hide the parts of their experience that make them uniquely them. White believes one’s past can be a source of power. He leans on his experience at Chicago State University, one of the historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs), and how these schools provided a place for Black people to learn and thrive, and become the country’s first Black doctors, lawyers, engineers, and more.
“I learned, in that environment, the value of diversity and the value of all the different cultures that make us who we are,” White said. “And I learned it extremely well by attending an HBCU.”
Brightful grew up in Baltimore, where he had friends die from violence before they turned 18. He reflected on how fortunate he was to have two parents who instilled in him and his brothers — strength, pride, and purpose. He carries a particular memory from grade school that keeps pushing him forward.
“I came home, I had gotten a B on a test and I was so proud and I said, ‘Hey, mom, I got a B on a test,’” Brightful recalled. “My mom looked at me and said, ‘Oh son, I’m so proud you got a B on the test.’ And she stopped and looked at me and said, ‘But, you do realize you can get As, right?’” That moment, where he realized he had parents who loved and believed in him, helped shape the foundation of the rest of his life.
Betting on yourself
Prior to joining Salesforce, White had roles in retail companies including Gap. Brightful gained experience at companies such as Microsoft. They realized that to get ahead, they needed to look in the mirror, see where they wanted to go, and make decisions that put their best interests first. For both, it was about knowing their worth, but also taking risks. And realizing that, yes, you can get As.
“I always say every single day, every year, every week, you have to reinvent yourself in order to bring value to what you do,” White said. “I felt like this move into technology was something personally challenging me to take a risk I thought I could actually obtain in a very positive way. And as a result, it’s worked out well.”
Brightful said it’s easy to get entrenched in your current place of employment and not take the opportunity to reinvent yourself or take new risks to get ahead in your career. We often listen to that voice inside that tells us we’re not ready to excel — when we know we are. Imposter syndrome, discussed in a previous #BossTalks, can lead us to question our capabilities and doubt our worth.
“Don’t be afraid to place a bet on yourself,” Brightful said. “You know you’re ready. Do not let fear hold you back. Be willing to take a calculated risk.”
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Building bridges for Black people in tech
White compared San Francisco, with its many bridges and its small and shrinking Black population, to the tech world. Both are like an island that’s difficult to access, especially for people of color. He said tech companies continue to struggle to reach out and build bridges that welcome Black people. He wants to change that. The low representation of Black employees in tech is often blamed on a pipeline problem. However, we know that talent is everywhere but opportunity is not. That’s why it’s important for companies to help close the opportunity gap by creating access and workforce development programs.
“It’s about granting access, so that people know they belong and they can follow whatever path they choose,” White said. “It’s high time for tech not only to build bridges, but for people like myself to cross them, to go and show the value and the diversity that we bring to the business.”
Brightful also said there should be better messaging to reflect that working in tech doesn’t mean you have to work within one of the STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) categories. There are many areas within tech companies — legal, marketing, accounting, and finance — where one can work without having a technical background.
“There are so many disciplines and so many opportunities inside of tech,” Brightful said. “We’ve got to broaden our view of what it means to be part of a tech company.”
Investing in young people everywhere
In the competitive pursuit for the brightest young minds, companies will often limit their search to college campuses, and only certain college campuses like the Ivy League. But White feels that to find diverse populations that can add new perspectives to their team, recruiters need to think about diversifying their talent pool. That’s why White works with Year Up, an organization with a mission to close the opportunity divide, and is committed to ensuring equitable access to economic opportunity, education, and justice for all young adults — no matter their background, income, or zip code.
“Organizations like Year Up spend six months training these youth and then another six months they intern them at great companies like Salesforce and other tech companies before they even have a college degree,” White said.
“Several years ago that would have been unheard of. Who would recruit someone in a technology company that hasn’t graduated from MIT or some top brand school? What they’re finding is these young people and this target youth population coming into their companies not only add value, perspective, and diversity, but they move the needle in the environment. We want them in our organization now, and we want to teach them. That’s the focus I’ve participated in and it’s really been beneficial.”
Being open to feedback
You don’t experience personal growth without radical honesty. No matter what your achievements may be, there’s always room to be better, and listening to feedback from those you trust and respect can help. In another episode of #BossTalks, Beckwith talked about the importance of creating a “personal board of directors” to help guide your path.
Brightful said we need people in our corner to help us pause and assess if we’re truly as excellent as we think we are — or if we need to step back and be open to honest feedback and self-reflection.
“You need people in your life to say, ‘Whoa, slow it down. Let’s look at your performance. Are you really as excellent in all of these areas as you think you are? Might you need to develop? Are you listening to [feedback] critically and being self-aware so you can progress?’” Brightful said. “Everybody knows, all of us — let me lift my own hand — have issues that we need to work on.”
Driving change from within
Having the right network can sometimes be what makes a career. For Black employees especially, a network can not only be a catapult into great opportunities but also a form of reprieve and reassurance when faced with difficult career moments. So cast a wide net. Don’t shortchange yourself by only looking up the ladder, White said. Yes, you’ll want to gain support and mentorship from people who have more power and experience, but don’t discount people who are closer to you to add to your network.
“Start seeing networks as horizontal,” White said. “People you work with, people you know, people who are at your level have an incredible network themselves and they have a wealth of advice and support they can provide. When [people] start to realize the full breadth and depth of the connectivity they have, they will experience and unlock resources they had been overlooking every day.”
Once you have that network — and continue to grow it — you have the ability to discuss ideas with peers and mentors to create change from within. And with the ongoing racial reckoning that arose from the murder of George Floyd, Brightful said, the time to act is now.
“Be unafraid. Get some sponsorship behind you now to put those ideas up high in the organization,” Brightful said. “I think we can advance ourselves in ways that in years prior I don’t know that organizations would have been quite ready for.”
Ari Bendersky originally wrote this piece as part of an ongoing #BossTalks content series. Anita Little updated it for tone and perspective in July 2021.
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Watch the full episode and read the entire transcript:
Hello, everyone, and welcome back to Boss Talks, a new series featuring candid career conversations with people I admire and trust to keep it real. Today, we’re going to talk about an issue that’s incredibly timely and maybe even a little uncomfortable for some, and that’s the experience of black leaders in corporate America. It seems like not that long ago this conversation would have been taboo or simply just not talked about at work, but today, and especially in light of current events, the conversations around equality and justice, they’re not only present in the workplace, but they’re urgent, they’re necessary, and in many ways they are long overdue. And, that’s what I’ve invited our guests to talk about today. I am so excited to welcome two unstoppable forces. Salesforce’s chief of safety and security, Keith White and Salesforce’s EVP and GM of health and life sciences DP Brightful.
Keith and DP, welcome to Boss Talks. Thank you so much for joining us today.
Ebony, thanks for having me.
A pleasure to be here.
So, we are just going to jump right into the first question. And for that, I really want to set the stage for today’s conversation by digging into your backgrounds just a little bit. The number one thing I get asked, and the number one thing I try to be as open and transparent about is how I got here. So, let’s take it back to the young Keith and young DP and talk about the early days. Keith, let’s start with you. You went to Chicago State University, which is an HBCU. Tell us about that experience and share just the importance of HBCUs.
For those of you who don’t know, these are the universities that Black Americans first… They were the first opportunity they had to go to college, and in many instances, the only opportunity and they produced nation-leading doctors, lawyers, engineers, and all types of professionals. So, they have served our history in an extremely important way and they continue to do so today. So, I feel really honored to be a graduate of Chicago State University. And, I learned in that environment in particular, the value of diversity and the value of all the different cultures that make us who we are, and I learned it extremely well by attending an HBCU.
Thanks, Keith. DP, what about you? Can you share an early experience that was influential in shaping who you are today?
First of all, I grew up in Baltimore, Maryland. I’m proud of my city, Charm City as it were, but it might not be the easiest of places to grow up, and I’m actually quite proud of where I grew up, but what I tell people all the time is the impact of my mom and dad in that environment… If I keep talking about it too much I’ll get emotional because I was blessed with two parents that in an environment where quite literally, all hyperbole to the side, I have friends that didn’t even live to see 18. They didn’t live to see 18, but me and my brothers were able to make it out, and the memory that I have that I would share with you, Ebony and Keith, is one day, I think I was second, third grade, somewhere around there.
I came home, I had gotten a B on a test and I was so proud and I said, “Hey, mom. Look, I got a B on a test.” My mom looked at me and said, “Oh son, I’m so I’m so proud of you got a B on the test.” And, she stopped me and she looked at me and she said, “But, you do realize you can get A’s, right?” And, it struck me that she said that, and the confidence that my mom and dad put inside of me to say, son, you can be whoever you bleeping want to be and I just believed them. I just believed them, and so when I think about that shaping force in my life, having two parents that not only loved me, but put a belief inside of me that I could achieve a more is probably the strongest thing that I think shaped, that would really become kind of foundational for me.
That’s great. Now prior to Salesforce, you both spent over 20 years working for other big companies. Keith, you just mentioned retail. You were at the GAP. DP, you were at Microsoft. I know there are a lot of people listening who are thinking about making changes in their careers. So, can you talk to us about your decision to take a risk and transition to something new?
I always say that every single day, every year, every week, you have to reinvent yourself in order to bring value to what you do and the organization that you do, you just can’t stay and be in the same place and every time I had a point of improvement or a point of major turn, it was because I was able to start with the beginner’s mindset and say, “You know what, I know I’ve accomplished this, but how much more could I accomplish?” Just like DP said about his parents, B’s are okay, but you know you can get A’s? And, I felt like this move into the technology realm was really something that was personally challenging me to take a risk that I thought I could actually obtain and realize in a very positive way. And as a result, it’s worked out well.
I’m going to feed off of what Keith said. Don’t be afraid to place a bet on yourself. Sometimes you can get so caught up in your current employer and what’s in front of you that you don’t do what Keith said, you don’t look to reinvent yourself and you don’t look to challenge yourself or stretch yourself, or you see some other opportunity, and then there’s that little thing in your mind that says, “Well, I don’t know. I don’t know if I’m ready. I don’t know if I could.” All of that. You got to kill that, shut all of that stuff off.
When you know that you’ve done the homework, you’ve put in the time, you’ve had the experience, you don’t do it foolishly. You let wisdom guide you, but when you know that you talk to those voices in your life, those mentors and those people that you trust, your personal board of directors, if you will, that you allow to speak into your life and they will guide you, and you know that you’re ready,, do not let fear hold you back. Be willing to take a calculated risk and place a bet on yourself.
So, we’ve often talked about the 2% issue in tech, really the fact that black workers make up only two to 6% of the workforce at prominent tech companies. So, we know that some try to point to a pipeline issue, which we know is an excuse given the incredible black talent all around us, including ourselves. So, I want to hear from you. Why do you think there are so few black people and people of color in our industry?
I think what happens, Ebony and Keith, is a lot of times when our people hear tech, they instantly think computer science or engineering and well, I’m not interested in… I’m not a geek. I don’t want to go become a computer scientist. I think what’s missed a lot of times is all of the other disciplines that exist within the world of business and therefore the world of technology. If you look at STEM and anybody that’s out there, if you’re interested in any of those disciplines, God bless you, go for it my brother, my sister, so please do that, but understand that there are opportunities in technology that’s outside of STEM. You can be a lawyer and still be in tech. You can be a salesperson like me and still be in tech, finance, accounting, all of those things are needed in tech. There are so many disciplines and so many opportunities inside of tech and I think we’ve got to broaden our view of what it means to be part of a tech company.
Ebony, I’m going to take a little bit of a different tag. Here I am in San Francisco and you know very well that you cannot get into the city without being on a bridge. And, I think the tech world has operated on an island for years and they have not been held accountable. They haven’t built bridges out to our community and it’s not about the pipeline, it’s about bridges. It’s about granting access, so that people know that they belong and that they follow whatever path they choose, including the one DP just outlined.
And I think as a result, people have stayed away from the island and they have allowed tech to operate on its own and I think it’s high time for tech not only to build bridges, but for people like myself to cross them, to go and show the value and the diversity that we bring to the business. And, I said to a young group yesterday that I was mentoring, I bring my entire self to work. I don’t just bring part of me and as a result, I’m able to transform everything that I’m involved in, and I amaze people by doing it and I think the tech world would benefit from the bridges that they have yet to build. They’re not completed.
I love that concept of the bridge building. And, I love that you just talked about mentoring because I know that both of you are so passionate about mentoring and the idea of lifting as you climb, which is something we’ve talked a bit about here on Boss Talks. DP, you and I have talked about this at length, and I know you are very intentional with your teams about how to bring more people of color into your teams and building that next gen sales team that’s diverse and more inclusive. Can you share more about your perspective on this?
Right, coming from where I came from, being the ethnicity that I am, I feel like I have to go out and when those opportunities are presented inside of Salesforce, I have to tap into my network. If I’m not tapping into my network and bringing forth talent, it’s pretty hard for me to point to other people and sit back and say, “Well, hey, what about you guys?” I think you have to be a participant in your own rescue and we have to make… Now to Keith’s point, we got to hold everybody accountable, don’t get me wrong. Yes, yes because there are some systemic things that need to be addressed. Amen to that, so I’m not dismissing that, but I do think that I feel personal responsibility and accountability. And yes, Ebony, I’m very deeply committed to that, not just in my piece of Salesforce, but Salesforce at large.
That’s great. And Keith, I know you’ve been a tremendous advocate for bringing in talent from non-traditional backgrounds and leveraging our internship programs through our partnerships with organizations like Year Up and others. Will you talk more about why this is so important?
Well first of all, I think that the traditional answer to the question of how do we get more African-Americans into tech is let’s go to college recruiting, let’s check the pipeline, let’s recruit, or what have you, rather than doing things that are non-traditional as you said, by working with groups that are focused on target youth who are just across that bridge that I talked about, sitting in cities like Oakland, and inserting them into the workforce immediately.
And, organizations like Year Up spend six months training these youth and then another six months they intern them at great companies like Salesforce and other tech companies before they even have a college degree and I think several years ago that would have been unheard of. Who would recruit someone in a technology company that hasn’t graduated from MIT or some top brand school? And, what they’re finding is that these young people and this target youth population coming into their companies not only add value and perspective and diversity, but they are awesome and they help and they move the needle in the environment. And what I would say being a little contemporary here is that they are the vaccine. They are the vaccine that we need. Not only are we helping them and transforming their life. They’re not just sitting there with their cell phone wondering how do I click like or what have you. They’re actually in the company that’s developing these platforms that they use so often. And I think that’s really the key is that we want to import these people now, not when it’s convenient for us, not when they meet all of our criteria, we want them in our organization now and what they don’t know, we want to teach them and I think that’s the focus that I’ve participated in and it’s really been beneficial.
That’s so great. I hope you all are getting this. This is so good. Thank you both. So, we just mentioned that topics around racial equality and justice used to be taboo at work, but now they are absolutely front and center. Part of me is so excited about this. Who would ever have thought that we’d be having this conversation and that it’d be aired live? But, I also know that a lot of people are struggling with these issues at work. Keith, talk to us about how you’ve personally navigated these issues and what advice would you give to people who are struggling with this at work?
Wow, this is really tough because the traditional approach before we were able to have this conversation would have been just tough it out, there isn’t really any racism, it’s all about you and your performance. But, what I want people to acknowledge is that there are challenges that are systemic. There are challenges that are out there, but what’s more important is how you manage yourself through them and I always say everything starts with performance and really understanding what your responsibilities are and how do you perform. And for me, when I’ve encountered obstacles that I felt I had no control over, I was able to go over, around, or through them because of the value ultimately that I was able to bring to the role.
That always rescued me in and allowed me to persevere and I would also say that building a network of support, reaching out to people and not just people who look like you, but people who are out there who care and who are invested in you and who want to sponsor you from a career perspective, allows you to lean on them when you’re in a system and you’re reporting to a boss who may be blocking or not supporting you and that’s ultimately, I think, what’s helped me persevere in tough times because there’s also been great times when it was only about performance, and then there’s been times when it was about I’ll just stop and then my support system carried me through those times.
I love building that social capital, if you will. DP, what are some things that have worked for you? And, maybe tell the audience what you would recommend for them.
All of us need somebody in our life that can check us down because sometimes it is the case that we’re being held down for things that we can’t control and it absolutely is that. And, then sometimes you need people inside of your life to sit back and say, “Whoa, slow it down. Let’s look at your performance. Are you really as excellent in all of these areas as you think you are? Might you need to develop? Might some of the feedback that’s coming to you, are you at least listening to it critically and being self-aware, so that you can progress?” I 1,000% agree with everything Keith just said, having those supporters and give those supporters free license to be truly honest with you.
You don’t want just everybody that’s going to be a fan. Oh man, you’re great, you’re wonderful, you’re the best. And everybody knows, all of us, let me lift my own hand, have issues that we need to work on, and so I would say that. And, then I would say the other piece of the networking is at some point in time, if you know that you’re in a bad environment, in a bad situation, having a broader network outside of just your company can allow you to… Maybe you need to make a switch, maybe it is a time to make a change and having that other network will give you that platform to go in and if you have to make that decision, you can make that change.
So speaking of our networks, what advice do you all have for both people of color and our allies tuning in right now on what they can do to make change within their organizations?
Well first of all, people typically see networks as vertical. You see a guy like DP, you see Ebony, I want to be connected in their network because I know they are powerful and they can help me. They need to start seeing networks as horizontal, people who you work with, people you know, people who are at your level or what have you have an incredible network themselves and they have a wealth of advice and support that they can give you and provide and I think when they start to realize the full breadth and depth of the connectivity that they have, and they don’t just cheek to people that they think are powerful, they will experience an unlock in terms of networking and developing resources that they had been overlooking every day. So, I think that would be pretty key in that.
I think right now we find ourselves at a moment in time where if we come together and we have smart, aligned, well-thought through ideas that we bring to senior most leaders in our organization, I think we’re in a moment in time where they will consider it and they are willing to make investments and willing to do things that prior to our dear brother George Floyd they might not have been as open to doing. And so, I would encourage everybody, if you’ve got ideas, take the next step in formulating and working within your organization, and then here’s the last thing I would say, be unafraid, get some sponsorship behind you now to put those ideas up high in the organization and I think that we can advance ourselves in ways that years prior I don’t know that organizations would have been quite ready for.
Well, it’s clear to me that you both have so many super powers, but I’m asking everyone what they think their super power is. So Keith, I will put you on the hot seat first.
Wow, I would say my superpower for sure is emotional intelligence and it was formed on the hard streets of the South Side of Chicago where at an early age, before you got to the corner, you had to be extremely perceptive and know what dangers awaited you and what adjustments you had to make and whether or not in some cases you had to turn and go the other way and just your awareness level had to be super keen. It was a matter of personal safety and as I transformed that skillset that I never really knew was valuable, except for on the South Side of Chicago, it’s extremely valuable in corporate America, your ability to read situations, read climates, understand how you’re coming off, know when to use the gas pedal, and when you use the brake.
How many times have you been in presentations or situations where you’re saying, oh this is going bad. If I was you, I wouldn’t say that right now, they’re not ready to receive that? Yet, the person plows on and it’s so important for me to capitalize on that super power because it just allows me to maneuver and move much quicker, much lighter, much faster to get things done when it’s right to get them done and to know when to set something aside that’s just not going to gain the right amount of support.
I love that, Keith. It sounds like you turned street smarts at an early age into… That kind of flourished into high EQ and that emotional intelligence that you’re talking about. That’s great. DP, what about you?
I’m kind of known for energy and inspiration, vision, energy, inspiration. I see the big picture. I can see around corners and I can kind of see where things are going and then for getting my tentacles inside of people’s hearts and heads and minds a little bit. I’d say it like this, I just genuinely, for real, I love people and I love getting a group of people together to go for something and to reach for something that they thought maybe they couldn’t… Could somebody from the South Side of Chicago, could a kid from Baltimore, from those backgrounds get there? Heck yeah they can and I love creating that vision with folks and inspiring people to achieve things that they might not have thought was possible.
That is so great, DP, and I think we’ve all seen that in you. Wow, Keith and DP, your words of wisdom today were so helpful, so timely, so heartfelt and genuine. I cannot thank you enough for joining us on Boss Talks today and for being so honest and transparent about your experiences.
I know you’ve got questions on this topic, so let’s hear them. Hey, Marcus. I’m so glad you asked this question. I think of equality as our destination and equity as how we make sure that everyone can get there. It’s about meeting people where they are and giving them what they need to be successful and that really looks different for everyone. We talk about both at Salesforce and that’s because we’re focused on both. Really they go hand in hand and I’d encourage any company focused on this work to take a similar approach.
Thank you so much for sending us your questions. As a reminder, you can comment on our LinkedIn page or send me a tweet at at EbonyBeckwith using #BossTalks. I really hope you all enjoyed today’s conversation. To continue building valuable skills for your career, head on over to Trailhead, Salesforce’s free online learning platform that helps anyone skill up for in demand jobs in the Salesforce ecosystem. With that, I’m Ebony Beckwith, thank you for tuning in to Boss Talks.