Women of color leaders reflect on their achievement

What could be more powerful than a strong woman of color in a position of leadership? How about four women of color in leadership roles of Fortune 500 companies discussing their perspectives from personal and professional life while being led by a fifth woman also in a leadership position?

Sondra Samuels
Sondra Samuels

On May 6 a small crowd gathered at General Mills headquarters, in Golden Valley for the National Black MBA Association’s #LeanInTogether: Women in Leadership Panel Discussion.

The panel consisted of Dr. Kathryn Johnson Coleman (global leader in talent acquisition and onboarding for 3M), Michelle Miller (vice president and chief counsel in employment law for Medtronic), Sondra Samuels (president and CEO of Northside Achievement Zone), and Andrea Turner (vice president of North American logistics and customer service at General Mills). Kelly Baker, VP of human resources at General Mills, facilitated the panel discussion.

Dr. Kathryn Johnson
Dr. Kathryn Johnson

Following an introduction by Ken Charles, General Mills’ chief diversity officer, into General Mills’ efforts and recognition in areas of racial, cultural and gender diversity, attendees were introduced to the women they came to hear. Each began by explaining the importance of being able to separate themselves from the work they do and how they invest in the causes, issues and activities that they care about.

Many topics were discussed, from having and maintaining a family to the importance of expressing confidence. The panelists — most of whom shared southern roots — explained how their upbringing consisted of hard work and community. They also spoke about how their roles differ in the community from those at work.

“I think the first part that may be different is the assumption about what’s expected,” said Turner, answering a question pertaining to balancing motherhood with working. “One of the things I just never knew, I never knew women that didn’t work. The concept of women that just stayed home and took care of their kids I didn’t know.”

Michelle Miller
Michelle Miller

Samuels referenced how women have played influential roles, such as in the Civil Rights Movement, but were not encouraged to take on leadership publicly: “Etta Baker and Septima Clark told Martin Luther King and other southern Christian leadership — male leadership — that they [men] shouldn’t lead every march. That the rank and file and the women should kind of be promoted to do that as well. You know, ‘What if something happens to you?’ And there are stories about them being laughed out of the meeting, like ‘You can’t be serious. That’s not how you lead.’”

Their stories contained three common themes: Not making excuses when it’s necessary to take on more responsibility, the importance of having a supportive spouse, and the uphill battles as a result of being a woman and a person of color.

“I think you have to meet people where they are,” said Dr. Coleman. “I think you have to understand where they are, and then we have to be kind of savvy enough to modify our message so that it can be received.”

“Women are doing a lot of the work in…the nonprofit sector,” said Samuels. “[Yet] a lot of time you’ll see the men who are held up.”

The discussion also included comments on the social implications of gender roles, how women in leadership are expected to step down in the midst of scandal while men are not, and choosing the right company that aligns with what you believe.

“We look at possibilities and we will take risk — mitigated risk, sometimes measured risk,” said Miller. “We look at these possibilities and say, ‘Oh no, I can’t do that because they told me I can’t.’

“Don’t believe it. You may have to decide how you’re going to get there, but don’t believe [you can’t].”

 

Khymyle Mims welcomes reader responses to khymylewrites@gmail.com.