The links in the chain
This post is a reflection on Michael Lints’s article What can I do?, and explains why I got involved in one of my most important projects to date.
There’s a story I often tell close friends about my sister — Monique. Monique and I have an uncanny bond; she and I are separated by 8 years but she’s the sibling closest in age to me, and our lives have mirrored one another in interesting ways. She was the first in the family to graduate from a 4-year college, I then followed her lead a few years later. She majored in the sciences (molecular, cellular & developmental biology), I did the same (psychology and neuroscience). She decided to become an entrepreneur, building a small business in the maternity apparel space, and I’m now building Asavi, a fusion of my interests in strategy, talent, and leadership.
But the story that I believe set my life on a different trajectory happened long ago and revolves around a chalkboard desk. When I was around four years old, Monique was a middle schooler and took it upon herself to — rather than hanging out in the mall or the movie theater with her girlfriends — become my stand-in summer school teacher. She even went so far as to purchase a desk from a garage sale so that she could create the proper learning environment for me, her young pupil. From that little desk, I learned my ABCs and basic math well before my peers, and that led to opportunities to take gifted & talented classes once I reached elementary school, skip fourth grade, and eventually go to Duke University and UC Berkeley. If she hadn’t put her faith in me at a young age, I’m not sure I would’ve been able to get to where I am today, holding an MBA, with experience working as a management consultant and product manager, and most recently becoming a startup founder.
The paths we take in life are so often defined by the paths that we can see. We don’t know what we don’t know, and in the shadows it’s hard to tell whether we’re on the right track or we’re walking right off a cliff.
There came a point in my life when Monique could no longer teach me every lesson. As the first in my family to pursue an advanced degree, I had to ask my mentors from undergrad and the senior managers at my first job to share their wisdom and point me in the right direction. I’m also the only person in my family to build a career in tech, which meant navigating similarly unfamiliar terrain.
I’ve come to realize that opportunity is deeply connected to networks, and that achievement gaps are quite often correlated with access gaps.
It therefore comes as no surprise to me that only 1% of all Fortune 500 CEOs in the entire history of the list have been black (19 out of 1,800), or that the UK has zero black chairmen, CEOs or CFOs in any of its 100 largest companies. Or that black founders receive less than 1% of venture capital investment. Or that in the $69 trillion U.S. asset management industry, 98.7% of those assets are managed by white men.
This discrepancy isn’t a question of talent or motivation, it is based on the feeling that at a certain point the rules of meritocracy don’t apply; Nearly one in five (19%) black professionals feel that someone of their race/ethnicity would never achieve a top position at their companies, compared to only 3% of white professionals who feel that way. For many people of color who are rising the corporate ladder, working on Wall Street, or founding a business, our networks are simply less filled with influential contacts, which creates a vicious cycle of being shut out of boardrooms and excluded from corner offices. We never get the equivalent of someone sitting us down at the chalkboard desk to show us how the world works. Or giving us the opportunity to lead that key client presentation. Or making sure our contributions and accomplishments are noticed by senior leaders within the organization. No one is there to light the path, so our careers stagnate in the middle of the road.
In 2019, Boston Consulting Group looked inward and analyzed why, despite having a strong diverse recruiting pipeline at the junior levels, a proportional number of underrepresented minorities weren’t making it past subsequent promotion cycles. They found that while there were five root causes that underlay barriers to promotion, only two were overly represented in ethnically diverse consultants; those two were: a weak sense of belonging and difficulty navigating professional environments. In other words, they had no one to buy the chalkboard desk and invest in their success.
The documentary I’m working on with Michael and our talented and multifaceted team is intended to examine what comprises the barriers on the path to reaching levels of influence from a financial and career perspective. There are of course many underlying factors to this complicated problem, such as issues relating to education, public policy, media portrayals of people of color, and access to capital — but it is that idea around networks and social capital that I have seen most directly participate in several positive and negative ways in my own life.
My hope is that the tapestry of stories we show through the documentary fosters empathy, encourages allyship, and inspires more of those who are currently in positions of influence to consider the actions they can take to light the paths of others.
Special thanks to Michael H. Lints and Aziza Sheerin for their feedback on early drafts of this article.