Hot on the heels of the audiobook release for A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive, I chatted with authors Bonita C. Stewart and Jacqueline Adams about the need for diversity in our workplaces. If you’re looking for a perfect choice this Black History Month (and beyond), look no further than this well-researched and deeply personal call to action.
*This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. Listen in full to the complete interview by playing the video above!*
Audiobooks.com: Let’s start with the book’s title, which is a really powerful metaphor. Tell us about unicorns, blessings, and why you decided to write this book.
Bonita: So nice to be with you, Jemma, to discuss the exciting launch of our audiobook this week of A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive. In our careers, we have often been the only woman of color in a room. I was the first African-American female vice president at Google, and Jackie was the first African-American female correspondent whom CBS News assigned full-time to the White House. So given that we were first, we have often been considered “unicorns”: rare and valuable beings. Like a flock of geese, a group of unicorns, in fact, is called a blessing. And so we are. You are probably asking why write this book now? The social and racial protests of last summer have begun to drive some business and political changes, but Jackie and I began our project towards the end of 2018.
Jacqueline: When Bonita and I first conceptualized A Blessing: Women of Color Teaming Up to Lead, Empower and Thrive—no surprise, we teamed up. We had a vision to change the narrative for women of color to create a substantive and scalable rallying cry around this notion of teaming up. Our book is a mission-driven legacy project. We’ve crafted a thesis, but we’ve grounded it in data, and we illuminate a number of points with anecdotal examples, lived experiences of ourselves, as well as eight other Harvard Business School Black female alums. To amplify our work, we reached out to a good friend, Scott Siff. He’s a highly respected pollster, and at the end of 2019, we used his firm’s quadrant strategies to survey 4,005 American women, so-called desk workers across four races—Black, Latinx, Asian, and White, as well as four generations—Gen Z, Millennials, Gen X, and Boomers. Amongst our most significant findings are the components of what we’re calling “generational diversity.” We’ve coined this phrase to highlight nuances that we think are being overlooked in today’s diversity and inclusion conversations.
Bonita: In fact, we found that Black and Latinx women, especially our younger Gen Z and Millennials, are more innovative, more likely to be first adopters of new technology. In fact, our respondents said that their work contributes to the social good to a far greater degree than White or Asian women did. Overall, these women are confident that they will control their careers and can find new jobs easily if or when they want them. In fact, the demographics of the US are changing, and by 2027, people of color from ages 18 to 29—which are our Gen Zs and Millennials—will be in the majority according to the census. This will be a significant tipping point that will begin to shape the future of the U.S. as well as our global economy. I know from my firsthand experiences leading large teams that the most important investments you will make are the people within your companies. From our research, we found that these Gen Z and Millennial workers are demanding workplaces that provide the support they need to thrive and, in essence, demanding a greater sense of belonging than those of us who are Baby Boomers experienced or expected.
Audiobooks.com: It sounds like a ton of research went into this book and I’m wondering what the co-author experience is like for researching and writing.
Jacqueline: Actually, it was wonderful. Bonita is a great collaborator. She’s more organized than I am! I tend to throw ideas against a wall and I’m good at pattern recognition and following along. But I think our two styles work well together. As we said, we did not start out to write a memoir. We wanted to write a leadership book. Data matters—as Harvard Business School alums—metrics matter. So those factors were important to us.
Audiobooks.com: The third person when an audiobook listener is listening is, of course, the narrator. As mentioned, Janina Edwards is a fantastic, prolific narrator, and she’s the one reading A Blessing. I was wondering how you came to be a part of that process in choosing her and if you were fans of audiobooks before embarking on this process?
Bonita: I will jump in because I love audiobooks! In this new era of constant screen time, it’s actually nice to give your eyes a bit of a respite and focus on other senses. I will say, from an audio perspective, it was so heartwarming to me to hear Janina, in chapter one “Our Natural Grit”—I hear for the first time my father’s speech, which is entitled “The Trail to Success,” being recited to me. This was through the medium of audio, and to hear his choice words that were handwritten over 70 years ago, I’m hoping for the audience that this will bring joy to them and perhaps a bit of a teary eye to everyone when they hear his poem and life framework around what he called the four seeds of the trail to success, which includes character, concentration, culture, and courage.
Jacqueline: It was important to Bonita and me to team up with Black women and men in every aspect of the creation of our book, A Blessing. We specifically asked that a Black woman narrate the book. Just as we hoped, Janina Edwards is an absolute treasure. She reads with understanding. She gets our content and our context. Janina’s voice truly has become our voices.
Even more than that, Janina also did a wonderful job reading the words of former Black Entertainment Television CEO Debra Lee in our preface, and also the words in our foreword of former American Express CEO Kenneth Chenault. Janina has a wonderful ability to differentiate the voices of our various contributors to the book as well. As a former broadcast journalist, I’m no pushover! I always have had high standards and Janina more than exceeded my expectations.
Audiobooks.com: That’s so good to hear! A narrator really can make or break a book, and as audiophiles, we so love to hear a great narrator bring a book to life. We’re so excited for our listeners to get to hear Janina bring yours to life. Your book, as we sort of alluded to, is releasing at a really unique time in our shared history. Why is this book an important read for right now?
Bonita: I’ve studied leadership for a long time and our book is perfectly timed for leaders because we see this dawning of a new era of leadership that’s happening right now which encompasses IQ, which is intelligence, and bringing along EQ, emotional intelligence. Now, this new era includes CQ, which is cultural intelligence. The complexity of today’s workplace is creating this new blue ocean opportunity for companies that are really eager to activate diversity as a competitive advantage. So what we did in the book, which is resonating right now, is we assess that there are deficits in the C-suite on corporate boards and in the management ranks, as well as some of the meager VC funding for black entrepreneurs.
We compared this against the burgeoning assets that are really fueling the situation right now, the first one being the education trends. The census says that Black women are the most educated slice of the US population. Secondly, we looked at entrepreneurship. Studies say that Black women-owned businesses are growing astronomically and in fact, in 2019, have more than $422 billion in revenue. Lastly, consumer spending. Nielson reports $1.5 trillion in consumer spending by Black women, which is more than the GDP of Australia. We could be our own country! Clearly, this gap that we see between the assets and the deficits provides an opportunity for what we believe companies should be doing in terms of harnessing untapped talent, which indeed makes us hopeful.
Jacqueline: We found some evidence of women of color winning every single day. Just open any newspaper or magazine and consider that now we have a woman of color as Vice President of the United States. At the inauguration, a fabulous young black woman, Amanda Gorman, was given what we call the ultimate stretch assignment by Dr. Jill Biden. Miss Gorman just thrilled us with her poetry! More and more organizations, we find, are acting on the data that diversity in business does drive profitability. With societal and governance pressures growing alongside the changing demographics that Anita mentioned, as well as the unshackled ambition of women of color, imagine the return on investment for companies who approach this talent pool of color with a business model that creates the sense of belonging that we describe, a sense of well-being for underrepresented talent. We believe that adopting this model would drive top-line and bottom-line results, effectively creating a scalable model for revenue inclusion.
Audiobooks.com: What is something that we can all do starting today to set more unicorns up for success in our workplaces and to make our workplaces more diverse?
Bonita: Well, I would say we now have people that have been reading the book, so imagine listening to this book. It will become a playbook for the unicorns that are out there. Also, we have a living log. Within the book, they will have the opportunity to ask questions. We have eight contributors so we have anecdotal stories along the way, including lived experience. But more importantly, we have the data to actually back up why the playbook exists. We think it’s something that could be activated, and I would say stay tuned. We have our new research that will be coming out that we’ve completed for 2020, and they can visit our website and stay in touch with us at www.leadempowerthrive.com. That’s exactly what we want: for women of color, as well as the allies, to lead, empower, and thrive.
A Blessing presents a fresh, bold analysis of African American female leadership. An unapologetic look at our often-overlooked role in America’s social, political, psychological and economic history, it is armed with data that should be empowering for today’s ‘unicorns.’
The book offers a ‘playbook’ to help Black unicorns ‘team up’ and find innovative ways to support one another as they climb, what research shows, are lonely, stressful, jagged yet ultimately rewarding ladders of opportunity.
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