This post originally appeared on The Well, Jopwell’s editorial hub.
Whether you’re the first one in your family pursuing an advanced degree, the only person of color at the boardroom table, or a history-making first on the level of President Obama and many of his appointees, going first can be exciting, lonely, and scary. We spoke with trailblazers in our community who are navigating the complexity of breaking new ground. Here are their tips.
Find teachable moments.
“Hearing racial slurs and experiencing online harassment when I became the first Black female student body president at Ole Miss was hurtful, but I tried to use those experiences as teachable moments. Instead of lashing out in anger, I’d respond, ‘You should get to know me beyond my skin color.’”
Know that you belong.
“I serve on a lot of boards and advisory groups where I am consistently the only Latino – or perhaps one of two – in the room. I feel a tremendous sense of responsibility to represent those who are not present. If you find yourself in a similar situation thinking, ‘Wow. Everyone else in here is White, or male, or wearing gray suits,’ don’t be shy. You are not lucky to be there. The world needs your perspective. They are lucky to have you.”
“My mom moved to the U.S. from Nigeria three years before I was born. She worked several jobs at a time to support our family, and she never seemed sad or angry about it. She proved to me and my brothers that taking on uncomfortable challenges and taking risks is not that dangerous. She showed us the power of staying positive.”
Focus on relationships.
“When I went to work as a labor relations specialist for a human resources consulting firm, I was the only person of color in management. I was also the only woman and the only Christian. People were curious to see what I was going to do and how I was going to do it. I realized that, in order to be successful, I would have to look past the people’s perception of me and push hard to develop relationships.”
View yourself as an agent of change.
“I had an internship at Pandora, where I was one of the first Black women in the IT department and, coming from a historically black college, I had my fears. I’d heard, ‘Don’t be surprised if you’re the only one.’ But that didn’t discourage me. I wanted to be a part of that change – part of that momentum. At a conference in November, I learned about all these different companies. I met the CEOs. But my takeaway wasn’t, ‘I want to work for company X or Y.’ It was, ‘I want to build something like this.’”
Acknowledge the hardships.
“When I was in high school, I was told that if I showed up, listened, got good grades, and graduated, then I’d be prepared for college. Yet when I got there, I still felt that I didn’t belong. Most of the smiles were welcoming on the surface, but I noticed that they were tinted with coldness. I think it’s important to remember that there are obstacles – spoken and unspoken. We have to take away the guilt associated with speaking up when we feel insecure.”
Listen, then speak up.
“As a Native American living in my rural reservation, I’ve often been the ‘first’ or ‘only’ in many environments where I’ve traveled and studied and, along the way, I’ve realized how crucial it is to listen. While I had normalized my upbringing, my experiences were foreign to many. But having conversations with other students and my teachers at UCLA and Columbia, I also realized that I was able to contribute a unique perspective because of my background. Now, I’m more aware of my surroundings. I try to absorb as many experiences as possible and then parlay that knowledge into progress. This influences how I see diversity in this country and gives me the confidence to speak up.”
Create your own community.
“Growing up in Elko, Nevada, I felt like an outsider. I was the only Latina in my honors classes, and while I lived in a very politically conservative town, my identity was really progressive. Going to college four hours away in Reno was a big deal. I was excited to meet progressives for the first time, but it was still a really White space. I didn’t feel I could be truly open about racial justice issues. In my second year, I found the only Latina professor on campus and told her that I wanted to start a Latino student advisory board. Years later, it’s still there – and thriving. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there. If you take the initiative to be present, people will see and recognize you. Showing up can be the hardest part, but it gets you a long way.’”
Don’t let headlines hold you back.
“When I first started working, about 15 years ago, I never thought, ‘What would it it be like to be a Black software engineer?’ I simply thought, ‘I have a computer science degree, and I’m going to work now.’ Lately, the media has been placing a lot of attention on underrepresentation and racial conflict at the office. When I field questions from high school seniors who have read the negative stories and are concerned (and sometimes frightened) about entering the workplace in fields where they may be in the vast minority, I try to speak to the reality: Regardless of your profession, when you’re a Black person living in America, you will come across racial conflict. But that shouldn’t deter you. As a graduate of a historically Black college myself, I feel my path has been largely influenced by people I’ve met who have connected me to great opportunities. Now that I’m more senior in my career, I have more confidence in navigating spaces where I feel isolated.”
Stop dwelling on differences.
“Today, we’re more culturally aware of the barriers that minorities face. We know that prejudice sometimes gets in the way of promising opportunities. And it can be easy to dwell on that – to look at the circumstances, imagine how you might have been seen through someone else’s eyes, and say, ‘Well, this is why I didn’t get it.’ But I don’t think that’s productive. If the right opportunity didn’t happen for that reason, then it wasn’t the right opportunity in the first place. It’s important to acknowledge the reality of discrimination, but don’t let it haunt you.’”
This post is part of The Well’s “Celebration Of Firsts” series, capturing perspectives and advice from barrier-breaking professionals in the Jopwell community. Join the conversation by sharing your tips and thoughts about going first on social, using the hashtag #CelebratingFirsts.
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