Women of Color in the Workplace: Driving Professional Progress and DEI

Today’s business leaders have a unique opportunity and obligation to create new systems that help women of color reach their professional potential.


Air Date: March 4, 2022

Moderator: Desirée Cormier Smith, Senior Advisor, Bureau of International Organization Affairs, U.S. Department of State

Featured Guests: Allison Lawrence, President, Black & Decker, Stanley Black & Decker, Vanessa Okwuraiwe, Principal, Edward Jones, Kim Jenkins, Global Head of Diversity, Inclusion, Equity and Belonging, PayPal

Diversity and inclusion in the workplace have experienced an increase in significance and awareness over the last couple of years. And with this increased awareness comes the unique opportunity for businesses to address and correct some of the systemic inequities in the workplace, particularly concerning women and women of color.

As part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation’s 12th Annual International Women’s Day Forum, women leaders gathered to discuss how businesses can amplify women and women of color in the workplace. Here’s what they shared.

Leaders Should Encourage Employees to Bring Their Whole, Authentic Self to the Workplace

Vanessa Okwuraiwe, principal at Edward Jones, shared that for employees to feel truly comfortable in the workplace, it’s up to the business to create a safe, diverse and inclusive environment for their workforce.

“For authenticity to exist, [employees] need to be psychological safety, right?” said Okwuraiwe. “So, not everyone is going to bring their entire selves to work. I think it’s very nuanced, but we have got to ask ourselves about the environment that we’re creating. Are we creating a place where people do feel comfortable with sharing their thoughts and their perspectives, or do we have a situation where there’s a fear of failure?”

And, Okwuraiwe added that when employees are free to be themselves, they’re able to focus their creative energies on the business.

“When you have authenticity, people are more likely to be creative. You’re going to have that great tension and friction that really encourages us to go deeper, you know, in ourselves and come up with all these creative ways of doing things. And that’s good for business. It can only be great for business.”

Kim Jenkins, global head of diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging at PayPal, shared that she can bring the most value to the workplace when she’s allowed to be her true, authentic self.

“For me personally, the value that I bring is only evident when I don’t have to pretend or perform,” she said. “When I can be my true authentic self, I can be the best version of me that I can be. That’s the true value of inclusion.”

To create a truly diverse and inclusive culture that values employee authenticity, Jenkins explained that leaders should set a precedent and become an example for employees to follow.

“Let’s see your leadership authentically and genuinely model [these] behaviors,” she said. “It is important that leadership creates a culture and an environment where everyone can be their authentic self and purposefully add to the business of the organization.”

The Importance of Sponsorship, Mentorship, and Allyship for Women of Color

In addition to encouraging employee authenticity, promoting sponsorship, mentorship and allyship throughout the organization can add to a company’s diverse and inclusive culture.

Allison Lawrence, president of Stanley Black & Decker, challenges companies to be intentional in developing their mentorship programs. “Who are you mentoring? Who are you bringing up now? [The mentorship programs at Black & Decker] are open to everyone across our organization, but the group that manages it is very careful to make sure there’s equal if not greater representation amongst our diverse population.”

While most would assume it’s up to leaders to act as mentors, Okwuriawe encourages women from all professional levels to use their voices to advocate for their colleagues.

“Amplify someone else’s potential because that makes a difference. That makes a difference to society. That makes a difference to organizations, and that’s where you can start to see the pipeline continuing to develop to bring new people in,” she said.

“But you’re also making sure that the people who are already at the organization are having the right advancement opportunities and [that] internal mobility continues to improve. And I do believe that does wonders for retention, especially in the environment that we’re in now.”

Advice for Women of Color Who Feel Like Outliers in the Workplace

Even with diversity and inclusion at the forefront of the workplace culture evolution, women — women of color especially — are often faced with the unique position of being the only woman in the room, which can be an isolating experience.

In these instances, Okwuraiwe emphasizes the importance of women creating a diverse support system at work.

“It was important for me to build relationships and build a support system for navigating through this experience,” she explained. “And making sure that my network, my support system, is diverse where not everyone looks or thinks like me. And that’s helped to enable me to grow in different ways.”