Great ResignationCompensationReturn to WorkCareersLabor UnionsSuccess Stories

How a millennial woman earned a $50K raise while switching careers and is using her experience to help close the Black pay gap

August 8, 2022, 1:51 PM UTC
Career coach Esther Leonard
Career coach Esther Leonard increased her salary by $50,000 by pivoting to tech, and she's focused on teaching women of color to negotiate like she did.

“I meet so many women who’ve never negotiated their salary,” says Esther Leonard, a career coach whose self-decreed mission is to help women of color earn more and set themselves up for career and financial success.

Leonard, a 2010 graduate of Loyola University Chicago, knows the difference a salary bump can make. After spending most of her career in nonprofits and education, Leonard moved into the tech space after relocating to Boston from Chicago roughly seven years ago. There she became enraptured by the tech industry—as well as the lack of pay equity. The experience motivated her to switch careers, negotiating for a $50,000 salary increase in the process.

“I got really fascinated with Cambridge. It’s like the Silicon Valley of the east,” Leonard tells Fortune. She worked at Roxbury Community College when first moving to Boston, leading the career development and internship programs.

“One of the things that really interested me was the idea of digital literacy as well as the wealth gap,” Leonard says. “And of course there’s a wealth gap, but it’s also a race gap…Right away I was like, ‘this is something I’m really passionate about.'”

During a stint at Boston University as assistant director of career education—planning diversity, equity, and inclusion events, and coaching students and alumni on job searching skills—Leonard set out to start her own practice: Esther the Career Coach. She began advising first-generation college students who were graduating with “so much student debt…I would see them and think, ‘Okay, their first job they’re probably going to make just the bare minimum salary,’ ” she says.

Meanwhile, she saw students graduating from the business or engineering schools who would go on to jobs with salaries that were much higher.

She found herself navigating that world too. The more Leonard learned about the tech landscape and networked with people in the industry she felt she too could be earning more.

Leonard was making somewhere between $60,000 and $70,000 when she worked at Boston University. She wanted a pay hike and says she saw the tech industry as her best option for that. She wasn’t particularly familiar with the landscape and what she’d need to do, but then she was introduced to Colorwave, a nonprofit focused on closing the wealth gap by helping people of color develop skills and connect them with leadership roles at VC-backed startups.

Through a fellowship program at Colorwave, Leonard garnered a job opportunity as a sourcer at Faire, an online wholesale marketplace. The company initially gave her a salary range of $75,000 to $80,000—but that wasn’t the bump she was looking for.

“So I did a lot of research—always do your research,” Leonard says. “One of the salaries I saw on Glassdoor was for $100,000.”

So she asked for $120,000. They landed on a number just below that.

A commitment to helping women of color negotiate that raise

In addition to working at Faire, Leonard still acts as a career coach. Negotiating her own salary has inspired her to teach women, especially women of color who just weren’t taught from a young age the value they have and the importance of negotiating. It builds confidence, she says, even if the first time around is a no.

Black women’s median weekly earnings for the second quarter of 2022 were $840, or roughly 72% of earnings for white men ($1,161), 88% of earnings for white women ($956), and 88% of earnings for Black men ($953), according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Weekly earnings for Hispanic women were $752.

That gap in pay starts as early as 16 years old, according to data from Lean In, and it only grows from there.

Leonard encourages the women of color she works with to do the research, to take into account their budget and cost of living, and to know when they’re willing to say no and walk away.

“We need to destigmatize the salary negotiation,” Leonard says. “Usually when I start talking to women about interviews and salary I ask, ‘How much do you want?'”

She wants to help end the culture of just being happy to get in the door; get the offer and rid women of color of the fear of being seen as ungrateful for asking for more.

Sign up for the Fortune Features email list so you don’t miss our biggest features, exclusive interviews, and investigations.