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Inspiring Women Of Color with Minda Harts, Founder and CEO at The Memo

Inspiring Women Of Color with Minda Harts, Founder and CEO at The Memo

Be More is a weekly one-on-one podcast focussed on enabling everyone to thrive in the new and constantly evolving world of work. This week, our host and Peakon’s Chief Evangelist, Patrick Cournoyer, is joined by Minda Harts, Founder and CEO at The Memo.

Minda Harts is the CEO of The Memo and an award-winning and best-selling author of The Memo: What Women of Color Need To Know To Secure A Seat At The Table. Minda is a Professor at NYU Wagner and hosts a live, weekly podcast called Secure The Seat. 

In 2020, Minda was named the #1 Top Voice for Equity in the workplace by Linkedin. She is an Aspen Ideas Festival Scholar and has been featured on MSNBC’s Morning Joe, Fast Company, The NY Times, and Time Magazine. 

Minda frequently speaks at companies such as Microsoft, Amazon, Nike, and Bloomberg on topics including managing diverse teams, courageous leadership, and advancing women of color in the workplace.

If you want to learn more about having the courage to make the workplace better for everyone, bridging relationship gaps, and inspiring others, then check out the full episode above, key takeaways, or transcript below.

We all have a voice. We just have to decide how we want to use it.

Minda Harts

Key takeaways:

  • Minda is a first-generation college student and the first person in her family to have a role in corporate. At times, Minda felt suffocated by the lack of support. However, as she began to build her thoughts on leadership internally, she became more comfortable talking about the topic externally 

  • Inspiring people is what drives passion. Revealing her thoughts about women, Minda discovered people with the same ideas but lacked the courage to speak up. She thought that she could be the voice of these people, inspiring them along the way

  • Minda describes her book: The Memo as a love letter. She wanted to make women of color acknowledge that there are currently barriers in the workplace, but there are also great opportunities ahead

  • An ugly truth. In the workplace, women of color try to make everybody more comfortable engaging with them. One example of this is changing or abbreviating their name to make it more agreeable for others in their team

  • Overcoming the relationship gap. Whilst Minda was working in the corporate world, she was supported by two white men: Chuck and Steve. Minda only got to know these mentors as she started a conversation with them, regardless of the fact that she didn’t think they had anything in common. This is a lesson for other women of colour

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Transcript:

Patrick: I have mentioned a few times in past episodes how inspired I am by people who disrupt the status quo. Not only does it take a lot of courage to raise your voice to inspire, it also takes a true commitment to continue to navigate the waters which can quickly turn into rapids. Minda Harts is a true representation of this courage, commitment, and inspiration. She’s been a guiding voice for women in the workplace and is blazing a trail of thought leadership with a direct and honest approach, which is so refreshing. She is an award-winning author of the bestselling book titled The Memo and is the CEO of an organization with the same title, which directly supports the career development for women of color.

Beyond that, she drives meaningful thought about racial equality, leadership, and the advancement of women of color at so many organizations around the world. We’re going to talk about a lot today, so we’re going to jump right in. Minda, thank you so much for joining the conversation today.

Minda: Happy to be here, Patrick, thank you.

Patrick: Excellent. I think a great place to start, Minda, is to understand and learn a little bit more about you. Let’s start out with a quick whistle-stop tour of your career. In a couple of minutes, can you tell us how your career has unfolded? What’s your career journey been like?

Minda: Yes, it’s crazy to think about it because some days I’m like, “How did I get here?” I didn’t quite plan this career journey but I’m so glad that I’m on it. I am a first-generation college student, the first person in my family to graduate from college. I always felt a lot of happiness in that, knowing that I could be someone that my brothers could also look up to as they both went on to complete college as well.

I entered the workplace because I had seen it, it might be taboo to talk about it now, but I think it’s important. Shows like The Cosby Show I saw black professionals, they went to college, they had a great brownstone. They have this really great life and I thought if I can just get to college I could also create that for myself. It really just gave me a picture of what was possible and I just always kept that as a tenet in my little knapsack along the way of what could be possible for someone like me.

I went into corporate America, the first person in my family to ever have a corporate America role, and often the advice that we get, regardless probably in gender or race, is just work hard and keep your head down. That’s exactly what I did, but what I realized as I worked in my corporate life for 15 years is I was always the only one, the only black woman, the only woman of color in a professional setting, and it does get isolating. There were certain situations along my career, Patrick, where I felt like I didn’t have a voice. I felt like there was no sense of agency to talk about some of the differences that even women face, dominant majority women versus those in the minority.

I just felt so suffocated at times and I really started to think, “What am I doing to make the workplace better than I found it? Specifically, how am I making it better for women who look like me?” That’s how I started to just interrogate what does it look like to talk about, yes, women in the workplace, but women of color in the workplace? As I began to build my thoughts leadership internally, then I became comfortable being a little courageous and talking about it externally. I think you set it up really properly is the courage. We all have the courage to make the workplace better than we found it. That’s how we get here with the books and the podcast and the company.

Patrick: That’s a great synopsis of how you got to where you are today. I love that idea of building your own internal thought leadership and just thoughts really to start out and to find that courage. I think it’s important that we all think about that and how important our voices are.

That leads me to this next chapter of your career. You left corporate, well, kind of left corporate America, and obviously, I mean, you have an organization, but it’s probably very different than corporate America as far as the way you approach operating as a business, and I know that you work very closely with empowering women of color through their career journeys. I’m sure that’s part of this answer, but when you think about getting up every day, continuing to do the work that you do, continuing to have this meaningful, impactful voice, what drives your passion for this, and what do you want to accomplish? What drives your passion?

Minda: I love that question. Every day I wake up, Patrick, I ask myself, “My why.” I also ask myself another question, “What if?” What if I actually lean into my courage and push aside my caution today? What if I don’t? How many people won’t benefit if I’m not courageous today? If I don’t talk about some of the things that are going on around the world and specifically in the United States.

It’s one of those things where at first I used to say I didn’t have a voice. I thought that I didn’t have a voice, and then as I was doing those internal thought processes, I said, “You know what? We all have a voice. We just have to decide how we want to use it.” Once I realized that there were a lot of people who were talking about women, but not really drilling down to the intersections of women because everyone doesn’t experience the workplace the same. For so long I thought that I couldn’t talk about those things. I thought that they were taboo. Once I started to talk about them, I realized that there were other people who were waiting on me to activate my courage so that they could activate theirs.

When I think about it as a domino effect, it’s not about me having the loudest voice or having the largest thought leadership, it’s about inspiring somebody else to say, “Hey, I have a voice too and I actually have a perspective. This has maybe happened to me and let’s figure out how we all can rise up together.” I think that’s the part of the magic that we all can have in the workplace when we are aware that other people are having different experiences, even if you’re at the same place.

You think about as children, I’m one of three kids, me and my brothers even though we grew up in the same house with the same parents, we had very different experiences with our parents at different times. I think that once we realize that, yes, we could all be at the same workplace and still experience it differently, let me hear people out. Let me see what their experience is so that I can maybe make it better.

That’s what helps me to know that, yes, I don’t work in corporate America in the traditional sense as I did in my former life, but I still have that ability to make it impactful and be the voice for some of those people who haven’t yet tapped into their courage yet. That keeps me going and that even on the days where I’m like, “Am I really moving the needle?” It’s knowing that, “Hey, every day we’re working on this.”

Even the people listening to this podcast maybe they’ll think about, “How am I contributing? How can I help advance making the workplace better than I found it?” If you make it good for women of color, you’re making it better for everybody. That’s where equity is really important, and that keeps me fueled up.

Patrick: I really love this idea and I thank you for this idea and not just for the idea, but for making this happen. This feeling of having a voice and having different intersections within an organization, gain comfort around just talking about things. I think that there are people of different intersections or different parts of a business, men, maybe women that are not of color, that maybe feel uncomfortable about just having a conversation about other aspects of the people that they work with.

I think sometimes that uncomfort or that fear of saying the wrong thing or just not being able to communicate in the most effective way, I think if we start communicating, start talking, that is going to put us in a much better place to have the more meaningful conversations that need to be had because I think that there’s fear from people just to have an open conversation and to feel comfortable about it.

The more that we can have confidence in speaking to people that are different than we are, that experience things in different ways, gender, sexual orientation, whatever it may be, race within a workplace, then that is a very good place to be that we can just have meaningful conversations with each other in a safe way. I’m sure you probably experienced that is just a barrier and it’s a barrier that we all have to work on together to bring down.

Minda: Absolutely. I think that’s part of the problem and there’s lots of solutions. Many of us are afraid to say it. I was in corporate America for 15 years, I’d say about 13 of those years I was afraid to say anything. Saying, “Hey, actually, this has been my experience,” or, “What you said to me, I know you might not have meant any harm, but it did cause harm. Can we talk about that?” Having the agency to even bring it up, I was nervous. Maybe the person on the other side of that conversation, maybe they saw something inequitable take place but they’re like, “Well, maybe it’s not my place. I don’t want to say the wrong thing”.

Look at it. We’re both being cautious and we both know there’s a problem [laughs] but we don’t know how to address it and I think so much of it is getting to know each other because the one thing that people say after they’ve read The Memo is like, “Wow. I didn’t know that those were some of the things going on inside the workplace and now that I’m aware of it I can engage differently with people in the workplace.

I can educate myself in a way. Now, I am humanizing the workplace not just through my own eyes but through maybe my colleague’s eyes as well. I think those are the really aha moments where we start to say, “Oh that’s not just that black woman over there that’s experiencing. No, I actually heard Minda’s pain. I read her story and now I know that I can bring that to my workplace. I can make it better and I think the more we get to know each other and hear each other out that’s where the real goodness is, that’s where the sweet spot is.”

Patrick: Yes. That’s a perfect segue into talking a bit about The Memo. You authored this book. First off, I have to say I love that you call it a love letter because that’s just a very meaningful way of talking about it but can you tell us a bit about The Memo and we’ll talk a bit about the book. We could spend the two hours just talking about the book but I promise I’ll stay concise and we’ll talk about a couple of elements of it, but could you tell us about the book and how you talk about it?

Minda: It really is a love letter because for so long in my career I just felt invisible. I felt, does anybody notice that maybe I’m experiencing the workplace differently? I know that there are so many other women who identify the same way as I do where you just feel so isolated and feel invisible in some regards. If you do bring something up then you are the problem because no one else is experiencing that. You’re making these things up in your mind, so you’re always questioning yourself in the workplace. I wanted to let all those black women, women of color, know that your experiences matter. Your careers matter.

I know that you may not have ever read a career book that talked about your situation the way that The Memo will and I just want to let you know that you’re not alone. It was really important for me to write a book to acknowledge that yes, there are those barriers in the workplace, but guess what? There’s also some really great opportunities ahead, so let’s talk about it all. The Memo is one of the first career books and business books by a major publisher about women of color. There are so many just about careers in general but it doesn’t break it down into the intersections.

I didn’t know that the book would end up doing as well as it did and becoming a bestseller. I’m thankful and humbled but most importantly, I’m just so happy that current and future generations now have something and I hope because of the success of this book it’ll be more books and more stories to be told but just to let them know that I see you, I feel you and your careers matter, so I wanted it to be a love letter.

Some of the language and the vernacular that I use is speaking to our culture. I want other people to read it because I think they would find value in it too but I also wanted to speak to us because we often don’t get a chance to read about our stories in print.

Patrick: I love it and I love the fact that the core of the book is talking about the odds stacked against women of color in professional settings. It’s very direct, and I love that [chuckles], the way how you talk about the challenges. We talk about these ugly truths in the book. Again, I love this concept because this is almost like radical transparency and this idea around pushing against the status quo changing the way we look at things and I think radical transparency does come in there.

I think it’s a wonderful thing quite frankly. You see change happening because people push. It doesn’t happen overnight, and it’s this consistent constant courage and commitment to the work that you do. Let’s talk about these ugly truths. In the book, you talk about these barriers that women of color face and some of these ugly truths. What are a few that stand out to you that you can share?

Minda: I really like how you said radical transformation. I’ll add that radical candor because we haven’t really talked to each other about our experiences in many cases even women of color to each other to admit like, “Hey, I’m actually going through this stuff just to be honest”. Sometimes in the workplace, for many of us will walk on eggshells our entire career [chuckles] never being able to bring our authentic pieces of ourselves to the workplace. I felt like, for so long we haven’t said what needed to be said.

If I had the opportunity to be candid, I was going to do it [chuckles] with love but I felt like that was important because white men and women read the book too and I needed them to know that these are issues. One of the things that I think about in the book is our names. If you have a more ethnic name, my government name is Yasminda, but throughout my career, my colleagues would never call me Yasminda. They felt like it was too hard so I would just say, “Well, just call me Minda”.

I was always trying to make everybody comfortable engaging with me and we do that from our resumes because we know that if somebody sees that long name back in the day you actually had to call somebody in the phone and set up an interview [chuckles] so if that person did not feel comfortable saying Yasminda, they probably weren’t going to call me [laughs].

We just have to be honest with some of those unconscious and conscious biases. Those are some of the ugly truths that women of color are up against and then the other one that I think we’re talking about it more is pay transparency. Women of color tend to get paid less than other women in the workplace or white women for doing the same exact work. If we’re going to get to an equitable workplace, then we have to talk about the ugly truth so we can get to some great solutions.

Patrick: There’s so much in this book and that radical candor, I agree with you. That is something that we can all take a bit of direction on because that’s just how people understand and start seeing things differently. Luckily, I think, we’re going through a phase in the workplace where seeing things from a different perspective is becoming a bit easier. It’s becoming a bit more consistent because of the past year. I think everybody’s a bit more open to change. If one thing has been consistent over the past year it’s changed and I do think that is going to help with how we all just look at the world, particularly the world of work.

Another area that you’ve talked about which really resonated with me is this idea of a gap with women of color, a gap in meaningful relationships in the workplace and specifically how they develop or how a success partnership either develops from it or is part of that meaningful relationship. Can you tell us a bit about your thoughts on that and why you think it is that there is this gap with these relationships and these partnerships?

Minda: I thought about my career, Patrick. I thought what were some of the things that really helped catapult me to the table to leadership. Yes, I had a great work ethic and I did a great job, hit my numbers but you can do all those things and still not get ahead in the workplace. What I realized was for many of those who I talked to outside of the company I worked for is the relationships. I had two white men in leadership who invested in my success. They were success partners. They already were at the table. They were in leadership positions. They didn’t take anything away from their leadership by bringing me along with them [chuckles].

They saw something in me, spoke my name in the rooms that I wasn’t in. When opportunities arose, they would say, “Well, what about Minda?” Have you considered Minda?” When people are like, “Oh, she doesn’t have enough experience or this, that and the other. We don’t know her”. They vouched for me and that’s all it took for them to do that. Again, I think a lot of time we think that when we vouch for people or get to know people that it takes away our seat or it takes away our leadership and it only enhances it.

I’m so thankful for Chuck and Steve who were right there in different areas and different times in my career where they spoke my names in the room that I wasn’t in, and they helped amplify my work and I’m forever grateful for that because success is not a solo sport often times. I often think about this. What if, Chuck for example, would have only helped elevate other men or women that he saw himself in because sometimes we don’t see ourselves in people who look different than us.

It’s very comfortable for us to get to know people that look like us or went to the same church or grew up in the same town and they allow themselves to see past that. No, I didn’t necessarily look like their daughter or reminded them of their they found ways for us to get to know each other. Once we did, I established a relationship. It was mutually beneficial in many cases, and so I think that we have to decide who we can invest in.

I think that everybody has a sphere of leadership. If you have a sphere of leadership, how can you partner with someone? Again, it’s not asking you to step aside and not advance your career as well, but how can you be helpful to somebody else who might need it? I think that when we look at the workplace, oftentimes because you may not see yourself in a woman of color, that you discount getting to know her. Your unconscious bias might say you have nothing in common with me, but the more you start to talk, when you get to know someone, you would find that you probably have more in common than you think.

Chuck, for example, was like 30 years older than me. If you had seen us, we couldn’t have been side by side more odd, but we had so much more in common, but it takes relationship building. A lot of our issues in the workplace, if we get to know people, when someone says something inappropriate, we’ll say, “You know what, that’s not who Minda is,” or we’ll step up when we need to or offer opportunities, but I really hope that we will if the last year has taught us nothing is getting to know people, and hearing their stories. Once we hear people’s stories, I think we’ll find that we have more in common than not.

Patrick: I feel that the most successful leaders are the ones that dedicate their leadership responsibility to having other people succeed. I think it is a good thing for people to hear what you’re saying, which is around, take a minute to think about people outside of maybe the immediate people that you work with or the people that you’re maybe naturally gravitating to. Look outside of just what you’re seeing in front of you and how good it feels to have somebody else succeed and to help with somebody else succeeding because honestly, I don’t think that there’s any more rewarding feeling than to see somebody else succeed.

I can understand that there’s definitely a gap there, and this idea of success partnerships is I would guess, and I guess this is a question for you, but I think that goes two ways as well. People that are looking for leadership also have to be willing to raise their voice and say, “I need a strong and a supportive leader, and I need this to– what can I do as well to make this partnership successful?” I think it definitely goes both ways.

Minda: Absolutely, and that’s something that I talk a lot about in the book. Yes, there are these odds stacked against us, but there’s also pieces of the equation that we can solve, any of us. It’s like Chuck could have never helped me if I never articulated what I needed help with, and building a relationship. He would have never known what I was working on if I didn’t tell him in those moments when we were in the hallway or in the elevator.

It does take to build a relationship, and so betting on yourself, I found, I’ve never been disappointed in doing it. You may not always get the result that you want, but the part of the equation that you can solve is building more relationships and helping other people and yourself succeed.

Patrick: Yes, agreed. As I said at the start of the session, you are trailblazing thought leadership in so many ways and working with significant organizations to help them really look at thought leadership in a different way. Who do you look to for thought leadership?

Minda: Great question, and I could talk to you all day. You make it so easy, Patrick, but I would say there’s a woman here in the United States, Kimberly Crenshaw, they call her the mother of intersectionality, and I’m always reading everything that she puts out because she, a long time ago realized that we don’t talk about the intersections of race and gender, and I’m really thankful for her past and present work.

Patrick: Excellent. Along those lines, you were saying that you’re reading her work, what’s your go-to book right now?

Minda: Yes. Actually, I just got done reading a book called Begin Again by Eddie Glaude Jr, and it’s about James Baldwin, and kind of in a context of if James were around today and just using some of his past books into a current context, so Begin Again by Eddie Glaude Jr.

Patrick: Excellent. Obviously his podcast, you have a podcast as well. What podcasts do you currently listen to today?

Minda: Two that I listened to religiously, is Trailblazers by Stephen A. Her, and another one, How I Built This and I believe that’s on NPR.

Patrick: Yes, both great. Trailblazers definitely resonate with the conversation today. This is the last question. Please tell us that you’re going to write some more books. Did I hear correctly that there might be some more books on the horizon for you?

Minda: You are correct. I’m actually in edits right now of two additional books. One will be out in October of this year, 2021, and then March 2022, so, unfortunately, you’re not done with me just yet. [laughs]

Patrick: That’s amazing. Two years of books to look forward to. Any hint on what they may be about, or can you say or no?

Minda: Yes. No, actually, I can talk about it. The book that’s coming out in October is called Right Within: How To Heal From Racial Workplace Trauma, and so there’s a lot to unpack there. Then the book in the 2022 is You Are More Than Magic, and it’s a young adult version of the memo for young girls of color.

Patrick: That’s amazing. So good. That’s so good. Well, Minda, I just can’t thank you enough for this. Your energy, your passion, your commitment, your inspiration that you bring to people, it’s very evident. This is our first conversation that we have been able to have, but I really hope that we’ll have many more, and just a very heartfelt thank you for the work that you’re doing. I just very much appreciate you being on the episode today. I know the audience will very much enjoy your perspective, and yes, just thank you for being you.

Minda: Thank you.

Del

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