As graduation nears, I am posting excerpts from the message that I delivered at the JPJ Foundation Banquet on March 29 2016:
Tips for Navigating Career Challenges
Throughout my education and as my career has progressed, a majority of my experience has been as the only woman and the only black person in the room. Being the “only one” has been challenging at times. I have countless stories about sexist and/or racist incidents at school or at work. However, maintaining focus on my goals has helped me to thrive in a white male dominated industry.
I would like to share a few tips and strategies that I have incorporated throughout my career:
Tip #1: Claim your seat at the table.
- When you are in a class or on a team at work and you are the “only” person of color, the only woman, etc; Don’t ever feel like you should just be happy to have a seat at the table. You have earned your place. Never undercut your greatness.
Tip # 2: Be open to possibilities.
- When I attended Vanderbilt my intention was to be a pre-med major and attend medical school. However, I was met with a set of circumstances that changed the trajectory of my career. I was privileged to have two black male professors in the biomedical engineering department.
- Understand that having black faculty in engineering is rare. Those professors left the department in 1994/95. The department didn’t have another black faculty member until ~2010.
- Having someone that looked like me as an example had a profound effect on my career. I had no idea what a PhD was, but having them there helped me to see possibilities for myself that I didn’t know existed.
Tip #3: Build a support network
- Having people that you can lean on during your pursuit of a higher education is essential. As an undergraduate student, I had a study group that stuck together my entire college career.
- As a graduate student, organizations like the National Black Graduate Student Association and the university BGSA include people that I continue to lean on for career and life support today.
- Your friends and family are also great sources of support. Although they may not understand what you are working on, they are often best equipped to help you to put things in the proper perspective. • Whether you are religious or not, recognizing that there is a higher power is important to help provide a source of strength that will help you get through the many obstacles you will face.
Tip #4: Set clear goals
- The ability to articulate your goals will help to chart a course for your future.
- Develop SMART goals • Specific, Measureable, Actionable, Realistic and Time-bound.
- Consider developing a vision board. Your ability to visualize yourself in your ideal state helps to increase your chances of achieving your goals.
- Don’t be afraid to pivot from your plan. If something doesn’t work as you planned assess what went wrong and learn from the experience.
Tip #5: Develop a global mindset.
- I have worked with leading physicians and scientists in different parts of the world researching and developing new medical device technologies. Outside of the US, I have been deemed an expert based on my proven track record. However, in the US there is often a need to prove my competence.
- Global exposure early in my career helped me to bolster my confidence and to appreciate the unique talents that I bring to the table. These experiences have helped me to broaden my perspective.
- The marketplace is global. By gaining an understanding of other cultures you will be setting yourself up for greater success. Start preparing yourself now by taking advantage of study abroad programs, becoming fluent in other languages, and traveling as much as you can to gain knowledge about the way people live and work in other parts of the world.
Tip #6: Strive to live outside of your comfort zone.
- Growth and development comes from doing things that are outside your current experience. Over my career I have tackled opportunities that caused me to step out on faith. Each time I stretched myself outside of what was comfortable, I experienced significant growth that opened up many new doors.
- Fear and doubt can creep in and prevent you from taking steps outside of you comfort zone. One of the passages from the bible that I go to when confronted with that little ache at the pit of my stomach that indicates fear is as follows:
- 2 Timothy 1:7 (KJV). “For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.”
- Stepping outside of your comfort zone can be scary, but with God, the wonderful news is that you don’t have to be afraid. God is your shield and your stronghold. So, live out your purpose!
Tip #7: Be open to support no matter where it comes from.
- If you are waiting for someone who looks like you to take you under their wing and support your career and life’s goals you may still be waiting at your retirement celebration.
- It’s not that people of color don’t want to support each other, there are two common reasons why support is limited: 1) You may not be exposed to people that look like you in your chosen field and 2) Because of lack of representation, folks get bombarded with requests for help and support.
- Don’t be afraid to look outside of your ethnicity and/or gender for mentorship. My most ardent career advocates have been white males. Be open to seeking and accepting the counsel of anyone who has genuine interest in your success.
Tip #8: Learn to toot your own horn!
- One of the most difficult things for people to do is to talk about their accomplishments. In some cultures, self-promotion is frowned upon and it is deemed important to remain humble.
- You can promote yourself without bragging. Why is it important to understand the art of self-promotion? One of the biggest myths in the workplace is the following: “If I work hard, I will be rewarded”. The problem with the idea of keeping your head down and getting work done is that most organizations are built on relationships. I am not suggesting that hard work isn’t important. What I am suggesting is that people need to know who you are and what you do.
- You are the only person responsible for you career. So you should be the one to take responsibility for telling your story. One of the best books on proper self-promotion is: “Brag! The Art of Tooting Your Own Horn Without Blowing it” by Peggy Klaus. Your ability to sell yourself is an important skill for career advancement.
Tip #9: Bring your authentic self to all of your endeavors.
- You are at your best when you are being yourself. No one else has the unique strengths and characteristics that define you. Trying to operate in ways that others operate or how people expect you to operate is exhausting. Embrace yourself fully only then will you be able to be your best self.
- With respect to bringing your authentic self consider the following
- Know your values and never compromise them, even if doing so leads to short-term gain.
- Have fun. Life is too short and hard. Having a sense of humor helps to build community with the people you study with and/or work with.
- Don’t hide your so-called flaws. No one is perfect and no one expects you to be perfect. Understand yourself – talents and flaws—and bring it all to the table.
- Know what you want. Career trajectories are impossible to predict. But if you know who you are and what you want, you’ll save a lot of time and energy. If possible, only pursue opportunities that ignite your passion!
I hope that the tips that I have shared with you will help you to navigate the road that lies ahead. Congratulations on your accomplishments!