How Black Women Are Mastering Leadership in Business

by Anna Gibson Being a black woman in a management or leadership position can be challenging. Black women are often subject to discr...

by Anna Gibson

Being a black woman in a management or leadership position can be challenging. Black women are often subject to discrimination, workplace harassment, and being pigeon-holed into one of many harmful stereotypes.The statistics demonstrate a clear wage gap between black women and white men. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, while black women made up 33 percent of the workforce in 2013, only 6.9 percent attained management positions within their companies of employment. Furthermore, black women made up only 2.9 percent of chief executive positions within their respective companies.

The stereotypes black women have to endure can take many forms. While men in the workplace are often encouraged to be bold and assertive, these same qualities in black women are viewed as “aggressive” and often lead to us being labeled as Angry Black Women, effectively isolating us from our peers as a result. However, appearing too passive and acquiescent can make us appear too “soft,” and deter supervisors from thinking of us as veritable candidates for potential leadership positions.

It’s obvious that being a black women seeking upward mobility—whether in the corporate, non-profit, or entrepreneurial realms—requires a high level of finesse, resourcefulness, and interpersonal skills. But what else does it take to run a successful business, considering the unique social and economic challenges that Black women face? I had the opportunity to speak with two prominent business owners in the metro Detroit area: Chereise Wise, co-owner of the online beauty boutique Reises Piece’s, and Alicia George, creator and owner of the Motor City Java House and Artist Village Detroit, along with Tonya Murphy and Meagan Murphy. They gave me insights to their experiences and lessons learned as businesswomen and entrepreneurs.

Maintaining Balance and Professionalism

“Know your craft and do it well without arrogance.” —Chereise Wise

It’s no secret that many black women are overworked and underpaid. Because of this, they often don’t feel they can run a business while balancing the demands of family and a full-time job. But Chereise Wise is proof that it can be done.

At 28, Wise has over four years of experience in leadership. She’s responsible for the creation of Reises Piece’s Boutique with her business partner Tiffany Coleman, who is also the owner of a thriving hair stylist company. Wise recently married, and lives happily with her husband and two children. On top of owning a successful business and being committed to her family, she still manages to work as a manager at a major corporation. What’s her secret?

According to Wise, the “secret” ultimately lies in one of her biggest challenges: contending with “being strong-willed and independent, yet finding it difficult to ask for help.” As I’ve mentioned in a previous article, it is important for black women to let go of the Superwoman Myth. Black women in business often have a tendency to work overtime in order to be considered for leadership positions. Overworking oneself, however, can lead to burnout.

Too often, black women are often treated as the office pack mule, taking on the tasks that are ‘messy’ or considered too ‘emotionally taxing’ for others. By not allowing oneself to be pigeon-holed into such roles and asking for relief from some of these burdens, you can preserve your peace of mind and retain the energy required to pursue your goals.

Additionally, one must learn to keep your work and personal life separate. Wise commented on the importance of this several times. She says “Know that in business, it’s nothing personal. Personal feelings don’t always have a place in business… However my employees know that my door is always open. You have to be available to a certain extent, or you will be the last to know if something happens.”

Many aspiring black women business leaders struggle with not being taken seriously at work. This can often be traced back to the fact that these women are treated as ‘confidants’ in the workplace. People will come to women business leaders—who are seen as more compassionate—looking for advice, solutions to a number of problems, or even a shoulder to cry on. While it is important for a manager or owner to support their employees—especially if it will improve performance—more often than not, getting too personal with employees can blur the boundaries of professionalism and make it more difficult for people to respect you.

Finally, a key component of successful leadership is knowledge. According to Wise, knowing your craft inside and out is the key to success. She also adds, “Don’t just know your job, but also know the job of the person above you. That way if their position opens up, you already know how to do it. You may have to learn a few things, but you won’t be unprepared.”

Being Connected to Your Mission and Your Impact

“Be clear and precise about your mission when you want to have a business.” —Alicia George

Alicia George runs not one, but two successful businesses in the Detroit area. After meeting her husband John George—who is the owner of Motor City Blight Busters, an initiative dedicated to tearing down abandoned houses in Detroit—she decided to follow her vision of creating a coffee house. In partnership with him, Alicia created Artist Village Detroit, a place where artists, poets, and other patrons of the arts convene. Years later, she built and currently manages Motor City Java House, a cozy coffee shop nestled in the Old Redford area of Detroit.

For George, the key to maintaining a professional demeanor lies in gratitude and the connections she makes with others. She says, “Once you connect with others, everyone is there to help you in reaching the next level. Be graceful and be thankful.”

We’ve often heard that gratitude is a key component to living a happier life. The same can be said for a happy and successful business. Leadership isn’t always easy, so counting your blessings during the hard times can help you pull through when things are particularly challenging. Connection is also vital to success. As black women, we can be seen as cold or argumentative, once again playing into the stereotype of the Angry Black Woman. We can better offset this stereotype by cultivating relationships with potential mentors and coworkers. Having conversations and getting to know colleagues can help with building better relationships at work. Making these connections will also help others feel more invested in your plans and goals.

Every business leader should have a plan of action, and every entrepreneur should have a clear mission statement. According to George, it’s also be clear on what you want your destiny to be as well. The person who sees farthest into the future attains the greatest legacy. When writing a business plan, don’t just think about the immediate future, but also think about the lasting impact you hope your business will have. Is it something you want your children and grandchildren to benefit from as well? What will your legacy as a business owner be?

One of the best ways to have a positive impact as a business leader is by mentoring other emerging entrepreneurs. On mentorship, George has an amazing but often overlooked insight: “Find someone younger than you and teach them to carry on the legacy.”

In any business venture, mentorship is exceedingly important. Given the previously mentioned statistics of black women who hold executive positions, it’s clear that mentorship is an important key to grooming a new generation of black women leaders and entrepreneurs. As black women, we need to recognize our inherent interconnectedness. Our sisters are always a reflection of ourselves. We need to be invested in each other’s professional development and success. Only by doing this, can we raise up the next generation of young black women leaders.

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Visit to check out Chereise Wise and Tiffany Coleman’s clothing line. If you live in the Detroit area, contact Tiffany through her Instagram @HairbyTiffanyB for a quote on hairstyles.

You can visit the Motor City Java House on Grand River and Lasher, between the hours of 8:00am and 7:00pm on weekdays and chat with Alicia George, Tonya Murphy, and Meagan Murphy for any further inquiries.

Photo: Shutterstock

Anna Gibson is a regular contributor at For Harriet.

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