Earlier this month I had the pleasure of hosting an event with my business partner and husband, Carlo White. He is the owner of WH Trucks, which is only one of the most recent of several entrepreneurial endeavors. We gathered to celebrate the collective impact of African American entrepreneurs, and the accomplishments of four companies in our area whose industries and personal stories are vastly different.
Although there remain serious challenges to diversity and inclusion in the business world, entrepreneurship has been one way for underrepresented groups to make gains. Yet, that kind of leadership takes courage. Starting a business is inherently risky, but for minority groups who have less access to personal wealth and institutional resources, the risks of failure can be extreme. In the face of adversity, it takes tremendous courage to move forward.
Riskier Business for Minorities
As is also the case for many minority communities, the impact of new and successful businesses reverberates throughout the community. Carlo noted that people are watching when entrepreneurs of color courageously strive and succeed, and they’re taking note when we give up. Even greater than the entrepreneur’s personal story is the signal whether wealth creation, economic access, and business accomplishment are available to minority communities – or not.
As my husband, Carlo, put it, “Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., said we need to build dikes of courage to hold back the flood of fear. So, it takes one, two, three, this room of all of us to build a dike of courage in our community to help us meet the challenge of the day,” so others can see it’s possible for them. He added that both courage and fear are contagious, with fear spreading much more easily that courage.
Leadership Lesson for Everyone
While the event focused on entrepreneurship among African Americans, Carlo had advice that applies to all of us in leadership roles. It’s not only business owners who are facing increased visibility and risk when they step up. All leaders constantly face problems that can shake our courage, so there are ways to reignite that courage in tough times.
First, appreciate your start through commemoration, pausing to consider the origin of our leadership journey. Challenging times are nothing less than an opportunity to revisit how you attained the leadership role you now have. I often say, “don’t compare your start to someone else’s middle.” Just recognize that where you are matters, to you and to the people who are watching.
Second, don’t go it alone: embrace struggles through collaboration. Carlo pointed out that the challenges of leadership usually are not unique. Other people have faced the same problems. What’s more, there are so many resources designed just to help us address these specific challenges. These can be business-specific like the federally-funded Small Business Development Center s, or more about leadership development, such as affinity groups within our organizations.
Third, we need to recognize success through celebration. He encouraged us to think of success not so much as a destination, but more as the goals accomplished along the way. These can be large or small, or even as simple as the fact that we showed up in our leadership role for yet another day.
Diversity in Leadership
From my standpoint as a D&I practitioner, another key lesson is the diversity of the leadership roles we can take on. Every type of business brings with it a different capacity for community impact. And within organizations, every type of person brings different leadership capabilities to pre-determine roles.
The types of businesses entrepreneurs undertake can vary widely, so they each have a unique impact on the community and different lessons to teach. The diversity among entrepreneurs allows different people to see themselves reflected and to be inspired. And, for all organizations, diversity among leaders means more and different capabilities are brought to existing roles, creating the ultimate environment for success.
I’m excited to announce that Carlo and I are personally investing in making that diversity bloom with the $5000 James E. White Sr. African American Business Accelerator Grant from White Holdings. Applications are now open here. We’re supporting fellow entrepreneurs, but also hope to set an example for successful business owners to contribute to others’ success. Let’s add more building blocks to that dike of courage.