We’re Speaking: Women of Color Are Changing the Face of Leadership

It’s a new day for women of color in leadership.

It’s a day where phrases like “madame vice president” and “second gentleman” have entered the lexicon. And there’s a shifting narrative for women of color that will increasingly — beyond politics — reshape businesses around the world.

Vice President-elect Kamala Harris made history over the weekend becoming a slew of firsts when President-elect Joe Biden won the contentious race, concession or not: first female vice president, first Black vice president, first South Asian vice president. She made clear in her victory speech on Saturday that while she’s the first, she certainly won’t be the last. And she credited women of all colors for paving the path to where she stands.

In a nod to her mother, Harris said, “I am thinking about her and about the generations of women, Black women, Asian, white, Latina, Native American women, who throughout our nation’s history have paved the way for this moment tonight, women who fought and sacrificed so much for equality and liberty and justice for all. Including the Black women who are often, too often, overlooked but so often proved they are the backbone of our democracy.”

Black women helped fuel the win for the Biden-Harris ticket, with 90 percent voting in their favor, according to The New York Times exit polls. And women like political leader and New York Times best-selling author Stacey Abrams, through her Fair Fight voting rights initiative, helped register 800,000 voters in Georgia, which played no small role in apparently swinging a largely non-swing state from red to blue for the first time since 1992. More women of color ran for political office than ever before, and four women of color under age 50 — Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Rashida Tlaib of Michigan (known more familiarly as “the squad”) — reclaimed their seats in the U.S. House of Representatives.

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“I’m hoping that people everywhere realize that people of color and women came out to vote for Kamala Harris and, of course, Joe Biden, but to see a Black woman elected to the second-highest office in this nation — we did this,” said Aurora James, founder and creative director of the Brother Vellies brand.

James has become a high-profile figure in her own right this year, fueled largely by the launch of her 15 Percent Pledge, which calls on brands to dedicate 15 percent of their retail shelf space to Black-owned brands, an alignment with the percentage of the population Black people represent in the U.S. “The women in Georgia who came together and organized for voters to turn the state blue — that effort was led by Black women. I think we need to continue to celebrate these women and tell their stories. There have always been incredible women doing the work but the more support we can give them, the more change will be made to continue building that path for equality,” she said.

Women of color are increasingly making their way into key positions of leadership, though the pace of change remains slow going.

Across the Fortune 500, there are only 37 women chief executive officers — and just three are women of color. Among the 29 fashion companies in that cohort and the seven women ceos who lead them — just one, Gap Inc. ceo Sonia Syngal, is a woman of color.

But women of color are persisting despite often being firsts or onlys. And according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, their days as rarities are numbered: by 2028, the labor force of Latinx women will increase by nearly 29 percent; Asian women by nearly 25 percent, and there will be 10 percent more Black women in the workforce. Per 2019 U.S. Census Bureau data, women of color will be the majority of all women in the U.S. by 2060, if not before.

More and more, these women of color are teaming up to collectively shatter the figurative glass ceiling.

According to the Women of Color in Business: Cross Generational Survey 2019, 92 percent of Black women see “sisterhood” as important to their work, and 90 percent of Latinx women and 85 percent of Asian women said the same.

“Our Women of Color in Business: Cross Generational Survey 2019 found a near unanimous embrace (92 percent) of the concept of ‘sisterhood’ among our Gen Z Black female respondents, our youngest cohort, as they enter the workforce,” said Jacqueline Adams, coauthor of the new book “A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive,” which features results from the survey.

Adams is a communications strategist and an Emmy Award-winning former CBS News correspondent, where she was the first Black woman CBS assigned to cover the White House during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. “The finding reflects the embrace that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris received from her historically Black college and sorority sisters as well as from her colleagues in the Congressional Black Caucus along with a host of Black businesses and social organizations.”

It’s a concept Bonita C. Stewart, coauthor and vice president of global partnerships at Google, calls “Sisters as a Service.”

“It’s encouraging to see our concept of Sisters as a Service activated with such unapologetic vigor and grace. During this election, we witnessed the flywheel effect of sisterhood. It all began with a group of Black church ladies in South Carolina posing a provocative question to House Majority Whip James Clyburn as he contemplated his presidential primary endorsement, and Stacey Abrams unleashing her natural grit against voter suppression efforts,” said Stewart, who was the first Black woman to hold a vice president title at Google. “Women of color across the nation ‘teamed up,’ and their powerful force was unstoppable.”

That same force saw women of color leading the growth in female entrepreneurship, according to an American Express study released in September 2019. Between 2014 and 2019, the growth in side entrepreneurship among Black women grew 99 percent. It was 70 percent for Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander women, 63 percent among Asian women, 46 percent for Latinx women and Native American and Alaskan Native women saw a 36 percent growth in entrepreneurship.

“In almost every category, women of color are leading the women-owned business charge,” the Amex study found. “Women of color represent 39 percent of the total female population in the U.S. but account for 89 percent of the net new women-owned businesses per day (1,625) over the past year. While the number of women-owned businesses grew 21 percent from 2014 to 2019, firms owned by women of color grew an astounding 43 percent and African American women-owned firms grew even faster at 50 percent.”

As of last year, women of color-owned businesses employed nearly 2.4 million people and generated $422.5 billion in revenue, according to Amex. And when it comes to spending, Nielsen said in 2017 that by 2021, Black buying power in particular will reach $1.5 trillion and women will overwhelmingly be leading the charge.

As these studies — and the election results show — women of color are a rising force in the world, from spending to executive leadership, through politics and fashion, and Harris just helped to open even more doors.

And Harris’ high-profile role will spur both businesses and political offices to open even more doors.

“Women the world over who have been working for this moment, even in their own personal battles, are rejoicing. We are hopeful that this will mean more women of color are considered for executive roles and children everywhere — boys and girls — are finally seeing someone who looks like them in such an important role,” James said. “I don’t think it’s just fashion that needs to learn from this moment, it’s all industries that need to realize that this fight for equality is not going to slow down. They need to learn how to get past their inherent biases and make significant change within their own companies and it should start with the executive leadership.”

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