I don’t remember much from my collegiate graduation ceremony, but I do remember this highlight from our commencement speaker, the Oprah Winfrey:
Growing up, my grandmother told me that if I worked really hard, I could find some good white people to work for. And I’m proud to say that today … I’ve got some good white people working for me.
The HBCU crowd went wild. Who doesn’t love a feel-good story about black entrepreneurship and ownership, a story about being the employer, not the employee? For most of black-American history, we have created businesses, championed innovation and carved out spaces for ourselves like the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Black Wall Street and historically black universities.
This trend continues as today, my Instagram feed, Facebook timeline and inbox are crammed with Everest College-style pitches to start my own business and stop working for the Man at a “corporate plantation.” Whether I have the skills, interest or even a business idea is irrelevant. What matters most is that I take part in a seminar, enroll in their workshop and work for “myself.”
On the face of it, this is great. A good chunk of the top 1 percent earn their income by owning businesses. But is that the only way? Is that the singularly best way for black Americans to truly succeed? Is a focus on business ownership the silver bullet that will solve our community’s ills once and for all?
Last weekend’s Dove Facebook ad suggests otherwise. The now-infamous ad is the most recent in a long line of advertisements that has people wondering, “Who was in the room when this ad was given the green light?”
Like Dre Johnson of Black-ish, I’m an ad executive who knows that my career is beyond what my great-great-great-grandparents could foresee. Just this past Friday, I presented alongside several white men, conscious that I was the only woman and the only person of color in the room. This, to me, isn’t success, because my voice shouldn’t be the solitary one expected to represent billions of women and people of color.
Dove, Shea Moisture, Pepsi and countless other global brands provide us with a steady stream of examples that highlight the necessity of a choir of black and brown voices in their boardrooms versus mere tokenism. But my voice matters, and my presence at that table serves not only my employer but all the people who will see the advertising and marketing that I help develop.
I know hundreds of people who work at corporations, but not a single one of them works for the corporation. Black people don’t work for “the Man.” The majority of them are working for their families, their communities and, of course, for the opportunity to take dope vacation pics for the ’gram.
My advertising colleagues are helping to shape an inclusive voice for brands. My friends in government are using their power to encourage legislation and policies that help the cause. Many of the corporate professionals I know are developing financial portfolios that they use to support black churches, nonprofits and organizations. A good friend of mine even parlayed his writing hobby into a career that affords him the opportunity to host black voices like myself on a platform with hundreds of thousands of monthly viewers. (Spoiler alert: You’re reading on that platform now.)
We don’t need to work for Dove because of the impressive benefits package and generous bonuses (although there’s nothing wrong with that—kids gotta eat, braces are expensive and good health care is clutch). Some of us need to work for Dove and the like because our community deserves to be better-represented. (Ironically, everyone knows that black people are the thought leaders and experts on lotion; I’m not even sure a nonblack person was needed to develop the Dove campaign. But I digress.)
Just as we need an OWN channel, we need Shonda Rhimes doing her thing at ABC. Just as we need Ebony magazine, we need a champion at Teen Vogue making sure the masses get some of this wokeness, too. So go ahead—own a business. Or work at one. There’s enough of us to do both. What you do for that business just may be in your ancestors’ wildest dreams. (Unless you’re Herman Cain and you turn your business into an unsuccessful, embarrassing run for the Republican candidacy featuring a $9.99 pizza deal-turned-tax plan. In that case, your ancestors are not pleased.)