The Sunday Story: What Do We Need? : Up First How can Black women face workplace challenges without losing faith—or losing themselves—in the process? Today on The Sunday Story, host Ayesha Rascoe sits down with Lauren Wesley Wilson, author of the new book, What Do You Need?

Lauren has dedicated her career to helping women of color thrive in the workplace as the founder and CEO of ColorComm, a networking community for women of color in communications and media. In this episode, she reflects on big moments in her career, and shares advice for women who may still be searching for a workplace where they can belong.

The Sunday Story: What Do We Need?

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AYESHA RASCOE, HOST:

I'm Ayesha Rascoe, and this is the Sunday Story. So story time. I've been reporting and hosting at NPR a few years now. Before that, I didn't really have any broadcast experience, and when I got to NPR, I was told they wanted me to sound like myself on the radio. Now, I'm a Black woman from the South, and I sound like it. Eventually, some listeners would let me know that I did not sound like they expected.

I've been called lazy and unprofessional, and my intelligence has been questioned. I have to say this is not the majority of the audience. Most of the audience has been really supportive, and so have my colleagues. And standing out, in some ways, has been really great for me, but I've been thinking a lot about what it means to be a Black woman at work. Especially in light of all the well-reported attacks on diversity, equity and inclusion programs, or DEI.

I just feel like this is a moment when a lot of Black women, whether in academia or the corporate world or the government, are carrying the weight of being hyper visible but often devalued. So today, I'm having a conversation about a topic that matters a lot to me. How do you show up to work when your identity sets you apart from most of your coworkers?

I sat down with Lauren Wesley Wilson, the author of a new book called "What Do You Need?" It's aimed at helping women of color thrive in the workplace, something Lauren has dedicated her career to doing as the founder of ColorComm, a networking community for women of color in communications and media. We get into what it means to have your accomplishments questioned based solely on who you are. And Lauren shares some advice from her own experiences on how to face workplace challenges without losing faith or losing yourself in the process. My conversation with Lauren after the break.

Well, Lauren, welcome to the show.

LAUREN WESLEY WILSON: Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: Yes. And thank you for talking about this issue, which I know your book is aimed at women of color, so it's not just Black women.

WILSON: Correct.

RASCOE: But at the same time, we are both Black women...

WILSON: Absolutely.

RASCOE: ...And so I want to talk about Black women in particular. I want to start off with, like, this example in your book. You start off talking about the fact that as a new hire straight out of grad school, you heard these complaints that your coworkers didn't really know you. They don't really know the real Lauren.

WILSON: Gosh, many, many, many years ago, back in, I would say, the 2009 era right out of grad school, we entered into a recession at the time, and I needed a job. And so what happened, I got a job, which was great, but I entered into this job without really knowing who I was going to work for, what their values were. So back then, I did my job, and I went home. So I would get into work around 9 a.m., I would leave around 6 p.m., and in part because I had about a three-hour commute, 90 minutes one way, 90 minutes another way.

And in my mind at that time, I thought that I couldn't afford to really get to know my colleagues because I needed to go home. You know, I was - I mean, just there are so many things that I could have done differently. But when I got fired from this job, so fast-forward, I'll cut to the punchline. I got let go from this job and one of the feedback points was we don't really know you. And also, one of the pieces of feedback I received was you're not a good culture fit. By the way, this all happened on MLK weekend.

RASCOE: My goodness.

WILSON: I'm driving home, you know, my long commute and crying. And I'm embarrassed. I'm ashamed. And years later, I asked myself, did I participate in the culture?

RASCOE: Were you one of the only...

WILSON: I was one of the only people of color.

RASCOE: Color in that environment.

WILSON: There was only two Black women in that environment. One of the other Black women was the receptionist.

RASCOE: Were you filtering yourself?

WILSON: I was definitely filtering myself.

RASCOE: OK.

WILSON: I wasn't going to bring my full self to work. But I didn't bring any of myself. I mean, when they had shared to me, Lauren, we don't - it's not about your work, but it's about culture. They want - people want people in the office that want to be there, that show up with a smile, that are excited, that are proactive, that are thinking about new ideas, that get involved. And I wasn't doing that. I wasn't playing the game. I didn't know that there was a game to play. I remember there was a moment at this particular job where they had invited me to - a group of them said, we have a box at this ice hockey game, and would you like to join? And I said, no, in my mind said, no, I don't really like ice hockey. So...

RASCOE: Yeah. 'Cause, I mean, that's what I would think. Ice hockey?

WILSON: What I realized is it's not about you liking a particular sporting event. It's about you being able to connect with your colleagues in a personal way outside of work that allows them to get to know you better, and you get to know them better so that ultimately we could do better work together.

RASCOE: Well, let me ask you, though, because I think that sometimes, as a Black woman or as someone who stands out, you may go, everybody else is talking about, you know, Canadian rock bands. And you're like, I don't listen to no Canadian rock. I don't know who Rush is. I remember I went out for, like, drinks with some coworkers, and they were talking about hipsters. I had never heard of a hipster before. This is me, like, a year, not - probably not even a year out of Howard University. So I'm sitting here like, a hipster? Is that, like, a hippie? What is this? What do you do when you feel like, I don't know, I don't even know this language?

WILSON: First, you have to decide if this is the environment you want to be in.

RASCOE: OK.

WILSON: Because if you choose, it's a choice. If you choose to say, I'm going to work here, then you have to decide that you're going to participate, you're going to give effort. Because if you don't, if you check out, you're going to be labeled as someone who we don't really want to invest in. We don't really want to get to know.

RASCOE: Can I ask you, when it comes to your growing pains from early on, how much of that do you feel like was just natural growing pains that anyone just starting out would have versus things that were specific to your identity as a Black woman, as a woman of color, or just as a woman?

WILSON: I think it's a mix, right? I think that there are some growing pains that I had as a young woman being in early career, not having experience. But then I - there was also some growing pains of being a Black woman in the workplace where you are the only one and how you have to operate differently. And early on, I didn't. And what I mean by operate differently is you need to have a strategic plan on how you plan to advance because statistics will show that, more often than not, people of color are the first to get let go and fired from their positions. And so, realistically, chances are many people of color will have the experience of getting fired or let go, laid off at some point in their professional life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: You know, we're kind of going on a journey through your career. So you start off. You're in the beginning. You hit some bumps. But I want to get into this other example in the book where you're at a point now where you're hitting your stride, you've started ColorComm, and you get on "PRWeek's" 40 Under 40 list. But then you are confronted by a white coworker who basically says you stole someone else's spot.

WILSON: No. He said I stole his spot.

RASCOE: You stole his spot. Tell me this story. What happened with this?

WILSON: Sure. So I was 28 years old at the time when I won "PRWeek's" 40 Under 40 award, and it was such an honor and game changer for my career at the time. And when I did, they called the CEO to let them know, and the CEO said, who is Lauren Wilson? They didn't know who I was.

(LAUGHTER)

WILSON: And they were, like, going through the database, like, OK.

RASCOE: Oh, OK.

WILSON: Their company's headquartered in New York. I'm working out of the D.C. office at the time. They had to go find me. They found me. They called me up. They congratulated me, and it was a fantastic moment. So I come up to New York for, like, the festivities of the award. And I'm working out of the New York office, and I'm in the lobby about to head to my desk. And this white man comes up to me. And now, listen, he's about 10 years older than me, and he's a senior vice president. And this award is something he was gunning for.

He comes up to me, no pleasantries, just beelined to me. He had been waiting for me. I'm getting ready to go to my desk. I'm caught off guard. And he says, do you even know how important that award was that you just got? Do you even know how important that award was? My heart is just racing. I am - I'm thinking all these thoughts. And he says, I was up for that award. You took that award from me. It should have been me. And I looked at him, and my mouth was open, and it took every bone in my body not to cry.

RASCOE: Wow.

WILSON: I was holding back, fighting back, squeezing back tears. I was like, do not cry. Do not cry. Do not cry. Do not cry. And I just said, you know, I earned this award, and that magazine made the selection. And so I walked away.

RASCOE: You know, being in a position where you stand out, a woman of color in an industry, there's this hyper visibility, but then there's also this thing where people will look at you and say, well, maybe. How did you get here?

WILSON: I was killing it at this company. I was working in the client service business. We were doing media relations. I was getting our clients on television and full-spread articles at The New York Times and all these major things. And on top of that, I was building ColorComm, and I was providing a platform for women of color to be able to get to know each other, for mentorship, for business opportunities, and ultimately, to help women of color advance in their fields. And so I was doing something that was groundbreaking and something that was different at the time.

RASCOE: How do you stand in that, though? Like, how do you stand in that?

WILSON: You have to hold your head high.

RASCOE: How do you stand in that? Because there's some people who that might have overshadowed even the win because they're like, I do all this work and here this person's still coming to me, talking to me like this. Like, that can really weigh on people.

WILSON: It can. You have to know in your heart, in your mind, that you deserve to be there. You earned this. There's always going to be detractors. And as you climb, more detractors are going to come out of the woodwork. But you have to know. You have to have confidence in yourself that you are meant to be there.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

RASCOE: Can you talk about the obstacles and the challenges of being the first? Being the only? That's a very specific weight to carry.

WILSON: It's too much weight to carry, the first and the only, because you don't see other people who are doing what you're doing. There isn't this path and this roadmap of saying, well, this Black woman did it this way, and she was successful, so now I'm going to kind of repeat her strategies. You have to enter a lane on your own and hope that you have the people around you and the resources that you need to be able to grow whatever you're trying to grow.

But it is a huge burden, and oftentimes, there's too much weight put on us. Sometimes we're set up for success. Sometimes we're set up to fail. And so you have to know going in, is this a check-the-box effort, or is this really the plans and goals that this company has to be able to drive change?

RASCOE: Are they putting their money where their mouth is, essentially?

WILSON: Absolutely.

RASCOE: Are they giving you the...

WILSON: Yes.

RASCOE: ...Resources, the help you need or whatever?

WILSON: If you don't have staff and you don't have budget, run from that role. Run from that role. Do not take that role because the money, the shiny object of the dollar. 'Cause what I see so often is women say, yes, I'm going to take that role.

RASCOE: Yeah.

WILSON: But what I see is those people aren't lasting in those jobs for very long.

RASCOE: And then when a Black woman fails, it's harder for you to climb back up?

WILSON: Absolutely.

RASCOE: OK. I think this is something I see with a lot of, with myself, with a lot of friends that I have. All very high performers, you know, Black women. But there's this feeling like I can never make a mistake 'cause if I make a mistake, they're going to kick me out, and I ain't going to have no place - but that is like, I mean, that's why there's stress. That's why, you know, you're in therapy. That's why you can't - there's this feeling like I have to be careful 'cause I need this job, and if I lose this job, I don't know what I'm going to do. And, you know, they don't let us make mistakes.

WILSON: Right. I would say this. You want to be in a position where you are in control of your career. You put your success in your own hands and not in the hands of anybody else. So if you do make mistakes, if something happens to you and your company is impatient, they can't allow you to see through that mistake, they just say, you know what, you're not a good fit, we're going to let you go, you have a safety net to fall on because you've done the homework of building relationships outside of your company. You've joined organizations. You've joined groups.

There's a lot of groups out there that allow you to participate, join committees, be on boards, volunteer, get a strong industry network together, get your own safety net together so that no matter what happens to you, you're OK. Because it's a huge burden. We don't need that burden placed on ourselves day in and day out. This fear of making common, small mistakes, or this fear of carrying this whole race and gender on our shoulders. That's too much to bear.

RASCOE: You can be in the workplace and feel like you're doing the best that you can do. You're dealing with people who may look - some people who may look down on you, you're taking on other kind of projects that just kind of fall to you. Maybe it's mentoring this person who's another young person of color. There's unpaid work that you're doing. But a lot of this can come at a cost - right? - an emotional cost, a burden. How do you decide when you're actually feeling like this is too much for me, I'm burnt out? Like, how do you decide when enough is enough?

WILSON: (Laughter) I don't ever want people to make decisions when they're burnt out. So some - a lot of times when we're burnt out, we're like, this is time - it's time for us to leave this job. It's time for us to quit. It's time for us to move on. We need to be able to understand the principles of burnout and help ourselves not get there in the first place. And that really comes with enforcing our own boundaries, boundaries that we keep to ourselves. Not that we announce because it's not everyone's job and responsibility to manage our boundaries, but there are boundaries that we keep to ourselves.

We have control over our workload. Yes, we get it assigned by our employer, but we can always say we have five of these projects on our plate, we're unable to take on another project, or these are the things that we need to prioritize. How would you like me to do - prioritize some of this work? So that you're not in a place of burnout, overwhelmed, trying to catch up, hamster on a wheel.

RASCOE: But what if you're scared that you're going to get fired if you don't say yes to everything?

WILSON: It's going to come - but listen...

RASCOE: (Laughter).

WILSON: ...It's going to either - you're going to fire yourself because you can't do it all.

RASCOE: Because you can't do it.

WILSON: If you say...

RASCOE: Yeah.

WILSON: ...Yes to everything you're still going to - you're still - guess what's going to happen? You're going to miss deadlines.

RASCOE: Yeah.

WILSON: You're going to be late on assignments. Now you're starting to look like a bad performer. You're not. You're not a bad performer. You just have too much work on your plate. You have to say no.

RASCOE: When is it worth it, though, to leave? Like, when do you look at a culture and say, look, I've given my all. They're not appreciating it. They are devaluing my work. Or I've tried to fit into the culture - I've got to go someplace else. This is not working for me.

WILSON: So I think it's time to leave when you're no longer learning...

RASCOE: OK.

WILSON: ...And you're no longer growing. And this is when you might be doing the same type of assignments. You might be raising your hand for more, and more is not coming to you. There are no growth opportunities coming to you. When companies say there are no growth opportunities here, they mean there are no growth opportunities for you.

RASCOE: There's a lot of talk now about going where you're wanted and not just where you're, like, tolerated. You know, where is that place for Black women? Where are we wanted, going where we're wanted? Do you think about that?

WILSON: It depends. So when people tell you you're not supposed to be in that environment, they don't want you there. But you want to be there - you've worked really hard. You have the experience. You have the brain. You can deliver - don't listen to that. So if someone were to tell me, you're not supposed to be here. You're not supposed to get the PRWeek 40 Under 40 award. Am I supposed to just not show up to the dinner? Because that guy - was I not supposed to participate in the occasion? I felt low. I felt, you know, not good enough in that moment. I felt sad, and I felt unseen.

So don't listen to what other people say. Because in some environments, some people want you there. Some people don't want you there. You've got to ask yourself, do you want to be there? Is this an environment where I can grow, and I can learn a lot? Let's get out of our own way. Racism in the workplace, microaggressions in the workplace - they exist in almost every workplace. They do. Let's face it. It's a hodgepodge of all of us in the workplace to begin with - from different backgrounds, from different experiences, different upbringings, different sides of the country. Some grew up poor. Some grew up wealthy. Some grew up going to Ivy League school. Some went to community college. Nobody is perfect.

We are going to put our foot in our mouths. There are going to be missteps in the workplace. But what we want to see is the intention to do better is there. And if the intention to do better is there, that's an environment where we can grow.

I wrote this book because I wanted women of color to stop searching for the perfect environment. We can be hopping around from company to company, company to company, company to company looking for a perfect environment. And I want us to sit somewhere, park it, find a place that is good enough for us to be able to learn, to grow, to thrive, to do good work, to be celebrated and appreciated, but to understand the realities of the workplace are not going to be perfect.

RASCOE: It sounds like what you're saying is the institution will not love you - that's what Tressie McMillan Cottom often says - so look out for yourself. Now, that is what I tell everybody.

WILSON: I say not only look out for yourself but worry about yourself.

RASCOE: Make sure your self is taken care of. Of course, be kind to others. But look out for yourself because these institutions will always look out for themselves.

WILSON: For sure.

RASCOE: Obviously, you're the head of ColorComm. How important is it for women of color, for, you know, Black women, to find that community?

WILSON: Community building is so, so important. When we got started over a lunch 13 years ago in Washington, D.C., we asked the women in the room, what do you need? What do you need? A simple, simple question, and I ask this question because so often, we are in spaces where we don't even know who the people in the room are. We're so laser-focused, we don't ask the person to our right, to their left what their name is, and we certainly don't know their needs. And so by asking, what do you need, allows us to give and take. I believe everyone in the room has something to give and something to receive. And that's how communities are built, are by having conversations.

RASCOE: Lauren, thank you so much. I really have enjoyed this conversation. It's great to be able to talk with you about all of this.

WILSON: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

RASCOE: That was Lauren Wesley Wilson, author of "What Do You Need?" and the founder of ColorComm. This episode of The Sunday Story was produced by Justine Yan. Our audio engineer was James Willetts. The Sunday Story team includes Abby Wendle, our editor Jenny Schmidt and our supervising producer, Liana Simstrom. Irene Noguchi is our executive producer. I'm Ayesha Rascoe. UP FIRST is back tomorrow with all the news you need to start your week. Until then, have a great rest of your weekend.

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