“You’ve got to be twice as good to get half as far.”
“We’re all depending on you.”
“What do you need an MBA for? You have it good enough. I can teach you what you need to know about business, just keep selling for me.”
“Are you here to work in the warehouse?”
“Who is going to buy that from you—you don’t look nerdy, and you’re not white?”
I’ve heard statements like these throughout my entire career. But if not for those challenges, I may not be here today. It’s been a long road from humble beginnings to PRA, and I’m glad I’m here.
In today’s perpetually busy, Microsoft Teams, calendar fully booked, back-to-back meeting days, finding time for gratitude sometimes is at the back of my mind.
Doug Fulling, President of Symphony Health, recently published his thoughts on Yammer about the current climate of our country, with COVID-19 and social unrest. And for the first time, I felt like someone wanted to understand. I felt seen and compelled to respond to his message. I’d never felt empowered to do that before. Not anywhere. I’m grateful for that small step that opened our company up to a heartfelt dialogue.
I’ve been in sales-related positions my entire professional career. In the majority of those positions, I felt as if I had to do extraordinary things just to have basic opportunities. When I worked hard enough to land a position with a company, I was often the only person of color on my team or one of the few in the entire company. There is a sense of doubt that can creep into your mind about what contributions you may be able to add, or if you belong there. As a result, you don’t feel empowered to express ideas that may not be accepted. You are very careful about what you say and cautious about what others may consider small details, such as what you wear, as not to appear threatening in any way. You don’t want to rock the boat at all.
I remember my first sales position at the now-defunct Circuit City electronics chain vividly. I’d just been admitted into the University of Missouri (St Louis) on academic probation after testing in, and I needed a way to pay for school. I tested in because I hadn’t taken the ACT or SAT—nobody bothered with a guy not considered college-bound anyway. I was the first high school graduate in my immediate family, and in my hometown of St. Louis, most kids go right into the military or factory work after high school. Honestly, I only applied to one school and got in. I didn’t know a lot about colleges or universities, so I chose the University of Missouri because it sounded legit—it had “university” in its name instead of the word “college” or “community.” I chose my major based on what I’d read in African American marketed magazines. I was so happy to be a college student that I was promptly removed from academic probation that first year after my grades proved that I could survive.
I remember going to the thrift store to buy “interview clothes” for my sales position at Circuit City. I had a pair of blue Dockers slacks, a dress shirt made of denim, and a blue paisley tie that I’d scored (it was the 90s). I wanted to go into business, and sales was going to pave the way. That is until I arrived for my interview, resume and application in hand, and they assumed I was there to be a laborer in the warehouse. “I’m here to interview for the sales counselor position,” I replied, which garnered odd looks from the manager. I was told to come back later. Maybe they thought I wouldn’t come back. But I did— again and again.
The managers used to dispute which manager advocated for me, but one of them finally convinced the others to give me a chance on the sales floor. I ended up being their #1 Advanced Consumer Electronics Salesperson every month for three years in a row. I was awarded at a dinner at the Ritz Carlton, which I couldn’t fully appreciate at the time. But I always wonder what I might have become if I hadn’t been given the opportunity. Would it have been back to scrubbing toilets, like all my prior jobs? That sales position funded my way through college with my commission checks, and quite frankly, was the first step out of poverty.
Still, I knew there had to be more.
When home internet began to take steam and everyone started buying personal computers, I expressed interest in becoming a “SOHO” salesperson (small office, home office). Someone jokingly said to me, “Nobody is going to buy a computer from a black man. And even if they did, you aren’t the fat or nerdy kind, so who is going to trust you with several thousand dollars?” I ended up selling more than everyone in that department too. I was provided an opportunity to work on that team, but it was because I was so much better than everyone else in the advanced consumer electronics department—I had to be twice as good to be allowed the opportunity to sell there. After graduation, I continued selling computers in a B2B role at the now-defunct, cow-themed Gateway computer company. I led that team as well.
But I still knew there had to be more.
I’d heard that pharmaceutical sales representatives were the top-notch of salespeople. I saw one of our older successful sales counselors at Circuit City become one. When he would come by the store to visit, his hair was always perfect, his suit looked as if it had never been worn, and his shoes shined perfectly. All I knew was that he worked with doctors all day, dressed fancy, and made a lot of money doing so. I wanted in.
But those jobs were hard to come by, and I didn’t have any professional connections or family members to get me access to an interview. I’d had many doors closed in my face when I would try to attend networking events held by these companies. I would go to job fairs all over the city when I had the opportunity and happened upon one in Clayton, Missouri, the same area where the Ritz Carlton was located for my sales award dinner. I knew enough to have resumes in hand, a nice suit in my car to wear, and a story about how I worked my way through school and sold a lot in the meantime.
While there, the lead recruiters from Johnson & Johnson happened to be in town. After speaking with several other recruiters, they summoned the Field Sales Recruiting Manager to speak with me. There was a program for new hires out of college (less than one year), and I could compete for the position if I was interested. It was not in pharma, but a position unknown to me at the time—medical devices. It was an opportunity that someone cared enough to provide after seeing my hunger to succeed. I landed the job. After several good years and promotions, I moved out to the East coast where I still reside today, years away from St Louis, Missouri.
Over the years, I held several additional roles within the medical device sector, but I still knew there had to be more.
This is what led me to PRA, where leadership encourages each of us to be ourselves. PRA promotes an open-door environment where people are willing to learn and give you a safe space to speak. There are no “dumb ideas” here. All ideas are considered, and opinions are valued regardless of your level within the company.
Minorities often experience microaggressions, subtle interactions or behaviors that communicate some sort of bias toward historically marginalized groups, regularly in the workplace. At PRA, I see my colleagues working to change this. For example, my direct report Andrew Diefes allows each team member to play a song during team meetings and considers every employee’s personal food preferences and restrictions when ordering breakfast or lunch. These small yet deliberate “microinclusions” that Andrew takes to ensure his team members feel welcome and included go a long way.
I don’t tell this story for pity or admiration. I tell it to help others understand what people of color may be dealing with as a minority in a professional environment. There are hundreds of thousands of other young men and women out there who come from similar backgrounds and situations—and face similar challenges and uphill battles. What if they aren’t as lucky as I’ve been? What if they aren’t given the types of opportunities I was? I tell this story because everyone deserves a chance to succeed and remind others that no one can do it alone. Here are a few things we can all do to help people of color feel “seen” and embraced in the workplace:
Embrace our strengths and weaknesses.
As a person of color, we’ve been taught from our childhood that people will not see us or recognize us professionally unless we are twice as good. That’s hard for any human being to keep up with for everything, all of the time. There are things I know and do well, and plenty of things I don’t. Embrace me even when I’m not “twice as good.”
Recognize we have unseen pressures.
Understand that the few people of color that you encounter in the workplace may also feel that they stand on the shoulders of many family members who historically were not afforded the opportunities that minority professionals are allowed today. As a result, we don’t often get the benefit of just representing ourselves. Some feel that if we aren’t exemplary at all times, it may reflect on our ethnic group as a whole. That is a lot to carry for one person.
Support our pursuit of continued education.
We cannot depend on networks or forgo additional education and certifications, as sometimes it’s the only chance we have at networks and positions we’ve historically been shut out from.
We often feel pressured to look the part, for fear of ostracism. If you’re in a position of power and have minorities reporting to you, embrace the need for self-expression, and encourage cohesion. It will make a more rounded group.
Don’t ignore biases.
Understand that we all have biases and be willing to confront those biases to bring out the best in every member here. Our biases don’t just affect the person in front of us—they have a ripple effect. We’ve seen it happen on many fronts, whether it be doubts about a mother’s ability to do a job or be a leader because she has children, a person of color’s ability based on their background, lack of access to networks, or how they look, or the “social” aspect of a job due to a person’s disability. Our biases could hold back an entire family or group of people if we are not careful.
Understand those biases put increased pressure on us.
As people of color, we sometimes feel that biases lead to additional scrutiny that other team members may not face. That additional scrutiny leads to us taking fewer risks to enhance performance in exchange for job security. We don’t want to rock the boat.
Provide opportunities as often as you can.
Never underestimate the importance of giving someone an opportunity. You could change the trajectory of their lives and future generations. We all have been helped along the way by someone.
Let’s all examine ourselves to understand ways we can be more loving to our neighbors. Have lunch with someone different than you. Ask about their favorite song or hobby. Share funny stories about your family. Help someone when you can. Do not let the fear of the unknown stop you from building meaningful, lasting, and impactful relationships.
In memory of Roderick Charles Ellis and Kelly Wayne Wright, who both helped me get to where I am today.
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