- UK and US data show Black people are severely underrepresented in senior, high-paying roles.
- Husband and wife duo Raphael and Opeyemi Sofoluke wrote “Twice as Hard” to help Black professionals succeed.
- We spoke to the couple for five practical takeaways.
Husband-and-wife entrepreneurs Raphael and Opeyemi Sofoluke have made it up the career ladder with a combination of hard work, resilience, and effective networking.
Raphael is the founder of networking events the UK Black Business Show and UK Black Business Week. Opeyemi is a diversity and inclusion lead at Facebook.
The British couple say that despite professional success, they encountered discrimination on the way up — an experience they say is common for Black professionals trying to progress in predominantly white workplaces.
In the US, just 7% of managers are Black, versus 66% white, 15% Asian, and 8% Latinx, according to McKinsey’s Race in the Workplace report for 2021. By contrast, Black employees are overrepresented in lower-paid, frontline roles.
In the UK, just 1.5% of leadership positions are held by Black people, according to 2019 data from Business in the Community, though Black groups make up more than 3% of the population.
Raphael and Opeyemi Sofoluke’s new book, “Twice as Hard”, was published by DK in June and aims to be a handbook for ambitious Black professionals.
The book brings in input from 40 successful Black figures, such as Mathew Knowles, Beyonce’s father and one-time manager.
“There wasn’t ever a guide for Black entrepreneurs and professionals that as young adults ourselves that we could turn to, to look for advice on how to navigate white spaces,” Raphael told Insider.
Here are the couple’s top five takeaways for ambitious young Black professionals:
1. Build your personal brand in the workplace early on in your career
There’s considerable evidence to suggest non-Black managers and employers hold stereotypes, intentionally or unintentionally, about their Black colleagues.
Raphael says it’s critical for Black employees to work on projecting their self-image.
“A lot of the problem is that, as Black professionals, a brand is already created for us in the workplace,” he told Insider. “So if you do not create your own brand, you will be given your own brand.”
Bianca Miller, entrepreneur and founder of the personal branding consultancy Be Group, is quoted in the book as saying: “For a Black person going into a new working environment, your task is not to come in and prove that you can do the job.
“The task is disproving any stereotypes your colleagues may have about you, and then follows the proving that you can do the job.”
Opeyemi told Insider that creating a personal brand is like “artwork.”
“You paint the portrait, the best portrait, and make sure you’re proud of that portrait. If someone else looks at that portrait and they see the greatness that you’ve created, that’s amazing.
“If someone looks at the portrait and they don’t really feel the picture, that’s down to them, as long as you’ve put your best into creating that self-portrait.”
2. Back yourself
With stereotypes of Black people persisting in and out of the workplace, the Sofolukes say it’s important to have confidence.
A 2019 paper published in the Journal of Human Rights and Social Work and cited in “Twice as Hard”, noted: “Being white is considered a characteristic of the prototypical business leader, and this commonly held belief may lead to biased evaluations of minority leaders, particularly African-Americans who are stereotyped as being lazy and incompetent.”
One lesson from “Twice as Hard” for Black professionals is to not just work hard but also vocalize the value of their work internally.
Although it can feel uncomfortable for an employee to advocate for themselves, especially in an environment where they are the minority, “blowing your own trumpet is something you have to learn to do.”
Kenneth Gibbs, a marketing executive who currently works at Spotify and previously at Amazon, is quoted in the book as saying: “Never assume that your work will speak for itself, especially in an environment where there is potential to be overlooked.”
3. Bring your best authentic self to work
Opeyemi encourages Black professionals to “bring their best self to work; their authentic best self.”
She wrote: “We each have multiple social identities and how we draw on these identities is dependent on the environment and situation in which we find ourselves.”
For Black people entering corporate settings, there can be an added layer of insecurity about how colleagues will perceive them and whether they will “look the part.”
This is particularly the case for Black women who, for example, experience pressure and scrutiny to change their natural hair. Research by the Halo Collective — an organization challenging hair discrimination — found that one in five Black women feel societal pressure to straighten their hair for work.
Trina Charles, an influencer who writes about empowerment, is quoted in the book: “The corporate world, for the most part, does not permit a lot of self-expression of Black women, or men and that’s just the reality, so it’s either you show up or you don’t. My advice is you show up, just take that step, take that leap to be yourself.
“So if that means showing up with your natural hair out, do it — deal with the questions, nip it in the bud, and set the precedent, because, if you don’t, then you’ll have to assimilate for the rest of your time there. If you don’t set the precedent, it will be set for you.”
You can read more about how Black professionals navigate “code-switching” at work here.
4. Invest in building your social capital
A strong work ethic alone won’t cut it, but hard work paired with social capital can take you further.
The book advises not simply being a hard worker, but a smart political player who can develop a work network, and build genuine relationships.
Opeyemi writes: “An individual can work hard and build a reputation as the go-to person, or the problem solver for their department, but if the individual is not considered a thought leader, or is not seen as someone who can drive organizational strategy, then an opportunity to progress can easily be missed.”
5. Don’t just find a mentor, find a sponsor too
Having a sponsor is an underrated professional relationship that can do wonders for a person’s progression.
Allyson Zimmerman, a director at research organization Catalyst, is quoted in the book as saying: “While mentors may be seen as career developers, sponsors are considered to be career accelerators.”
Some would consider having a sponsor as “more critical for success than mentors”, the Sofolukes write, because for Black professionals “having a sponsor or senior leader in your corner who is willing to clear away systematic roadblocks in order to propel your career forward, is invaluable.”
In order to attract a sponsor, “Twice as Hard” recommends the “three Ps” which stands for performance, potential, and passion.
Opeyemi writes: “When a sponsor decides to invest in you, they do so because of what they believe you can be, and not necessarily because of what you are today — they see a greatness in you and it’s that greatness that they want to nurture.”
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