I’m a Black female CEO. What makes me ‘different’?

August 14, 2020, 9:00 PM UTC
Helen Aboah-Urban Zen
Urban Zen CEO Helen Aboah
(Photo by Hans Neumann)

“The delicate balance of mentoring someone is not creating them in your own image but giving them the opportunity to create themselves.” —Steven Spielberg

As non-Black Americans and businesses are asked to reexamine themselves and the roles they play in the marginalization of Black people, I have been asked many questions by my well-meaning friends, colleagues, and professional network about how I succeeded and what makes me “different.” In other words: How did you reach the summit of the corporate world, where there are so few people who look like you?

While I am happy to answer them, my experience as a Black woman—and specifically in corporate America—does not make me a spokesperson for every Black person. My path does not guarantee that there is a one-size-fits-all recipe to success that one can point to and replicate. But hopefully I can highlight for others some of the key contributing factors.

As a female CEO of a luxury lifestyle and wellness brand (one founded by an iconic Caucasian woman, Donna Karan), my position would not be as notable if I were not Black. I am not sure who is more aware of my color—me, my employees, or my business network. I am used to being the only Black woman in the room, and as my skin color walks ahead of me, I find myself consistently disrupting stereotypes some may have about Black people.

So when I hear questions about my differences, a few thoughts come to mind.

What makes me different? I never believed any of the lies the media or history has told about me not measuring up, or any claim about what I can and cannot do because of the color of my skin. America has been built on the backs of African slaves who have contributed to its success. So, with that backdrop, why can’t I become anything I want to be? 

To some, I am the exception. To me, I am one that has succeeded. I attribute my success to natural-born gifts; educational opportunities; and mentorships by amazing, successful men and women of all colors who have supported my rise up the corporate ladder. However, none of it would have happened if I didn’t have the drive or perseverance. 

What makes me different? I refused to believe in the lie that I was accepted into a top university because of affirmative action. I earned my acceptance to Columbia University. I had been indoctrinated by my parents—immigrants from Eritrea, Africa, who believed in the American dream—with the belief that education and hard work were the only ways to succeed, and that the color of my skin would not be a limiting factor. My siblings and I were usually the first students at school in the morning and at the library until closing. Being an honors student and adored by teachers for my academic achievements was an important part of my future success.  

A note on affirmative action: Many people may not realize that acceptance into an elite university is actually more difficult for an accomplished Black applicant, because you are competing with top Black students across the country for a limited number of spots. Certainly nothing to be ashamed of!

What makes me different? I dreamt of something bigger than what surrounded me. As a teenager, I spent my Saturdays taking courses at a federally funded program called Upward Bound at Sonoma State University. Upward Bound emphasized the exposure of underprivileged children to educational tools and social events to motivate them to attend college and seek career development opportunities. I visited museums, attended musicals like Les Misérables, and ate at five-star restaurants. This program forever changed me. I understood for the first time that just because I was from a low-income family did not mean that I could not attain success, and that these experiences could be my norm and not just a one-off. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, until I was exposed to a world that I did not realize existed.

What makes me different? I learned as a Black woman that one must have mentors and allies who believe in you and are willing to lend a hand to take you with them, especially in the workplace. I have always accepted guidance and opportunities to learn from others to further myself. I sought out mentors to maximize my professional success. Again, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, so I found people who were willing to invest in me and bring me along. Every time I was promoted, I worked not only on doing a great job at my current position but on finding people who could help me reach the next level. 

On being an ally for Black professionals

From assistant to CEO, from icons to iconic companies, my mentors, allies, and supporters were instrumental in creating opportunities for growth and influence. My ability to lead and exponentially grow businesses speaks volumes about the power of investing in Black individuals where access does not come easy, if at all.

And, for those from outside the Black community who have asked how I did it and what can they do to become an ally, here are a couple of recommendations I’ve offered that I hope may be useful to others: 

Examine yourself and your perception of Black people. Your ignorance is the first block that must be removed. Is what you think of Black people based on what you’ve learned from the media or on personal experience? 

Equality begins with equal opportunity for everyone. I have held leadership roles within television and film, luxury retail, health care, and philanthropy, and I firmly believe it is imperative that leaders open the door for Black candidates during the hiring process and make diversity and inclusion a priority, not a line item. 

It is not just about having a seat at the table, but a voice. Black voices need to be heard, and Black coworkers need to feel confident showing up as their true self, without worrying their every move is being perceived through the lens of their color. 

Support your talent. Provide mentorship and career progression opportunities at different levels of management throughout the company. Hold one-on-one meetings to discuss the employee’s short- and long-term goals, share company strategies and ask for their input, invite them to sit in on decision-making meetings, etc.

Invest in youth. I encourage leaders in both the public and private sector to invest in programs and businesses that support the educational advancement of underprivileged children. Expand their horizons by creating opportunities for exposure to success and environments outside of what they see and know.

Helen Aboah is the CEO of Urban Zen.

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