3 Things Every CEO Can Learn from Sheryl Sandberg, R. Kelly and Nancy Pelosi

Black Women in the Crosshairs

3 Things Every CEO Can Learn from Sheryl Sandberg, R. Kelly and Nancy Pelosi

By Anita Estell, Esq.

It is true.  A black or brown-skinned woman is the mother of all of humanity. Despite this indelible contribution to humankind, women of color and their children are the most oppressed and marginalized group of people on the planet.

Yes. It is also true that in the United States, women of color are making significant gains in education, entrepreneurship, law, medicine and politics.  In the U.S., women of color control more than 80 cents of every dollar spent by their families. The estimated buying power of this group exceeds $1 trillion.  Findings published in 2017 by Nielsen in “African American Women: Our Science, Her Magic” pointedly confirm the specific relevance of black women consumers. They are trendsetters, brand loyalists and early adopters, who play (according to Nielsen), “an increasingly vital role in how all women see themselves . . .” Even so, the group is not blindly loyal, and it increasingly is leveraging its collective power as educated consumers and leaders. Case in point: #MuteRKelly worked.

The relevance of this market segment often is not represented in the C-suite of major corporations profiting from black women consumers. In fact, quite the opposite is true, and the challenges unique to this group are particularly acute. Black women continuously push to open doors associated with historical and systematic oppression, but still  remain behind in many  sectors, compared to members of other groups. Those seeking to one day work at the senior executive levels of a major corporation, law firm, federal agency, and even in Congress face a daunting set of challenges.

CEOs and political leaders seeking to promote the advancement of black women to the executive levels of an organization should be mindful of three points as exemplified in research conducted by LeanIn.org and McKinsey Company, the Surviving R. Kelly documentary on Lifetime, and Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s appointment of Representative Barbara Lee (CA-13th) to the House Democratic Leadership team.

#1 Intersectionality is real.  As documented in the Women in the Workplace Reports for 2017 and 2018, published by Sheryl Sandberg (LeanIn.org) in collaboration with McKinsey Company, the issue of intersectionality presents a potpourri of complexity associated with ethnicity, gender and class.  Since 2015, 462 companies employing almost 20 million people have participated in the study.  The 2017 report’s authors found that black women are leaving corporate America’s executive ranks faster than any group.

In a video posted by McKinsey Company, they conclude, “Women of color systematically are less represented, less supported and given less opportunity.”  Black women particularly were found to be, “the most ambitious, but the least likely to succeed.”  The report advises that CEOs who are serious about creating inclusive enterprises must be intentional, acknowledge and address the intersectional issues of gender and race to ensure organizational targets are met.

#2 Brand accountability matters.  To protect brand integrity and credibility, those in charge must hold all those affiliated with the brand, as suppliers, contractors, celebrities, executives and non-executive employees, accountable when it comes to the engagement and treatment of black women and girls.  The Surviving R. Kelly documentary provides just a partial glimpse of pervasive systemic and structural forces working against women and girls – most specifically black women and girls.  The documentary provides a front row peek into the dark and disturbing lifestyle of a black male celebrity who has accumulated more than two decades of allegations related to the sexual abuse, assault and victimization of black and brown women and girls.  The film raises serious concerns about Kelly AND whether the corporate brand was complicit.

Kelly’s former record label (RCA) and the parent company, Sony Corporation of America and Sony Group, make billions of dollars a year from black women consumers – e.g. PlayStation, electronics, financial services, movies, music, etc. – as do many other corporations.  Even so, black women are not represented in the most senior executive ranks of Sony and other companies generating huge profits attributable to black women consumers.

The smart CEO understands that when you take care of black women as consumers and leaders, they will take care of you with brand loyalty. A smart CEO will be eager to harness the attention and energy of this community and will know to: reward black women and other women of color consumers for their loyalty by establishing hiring, retention and C-suite advancement goals, corporate social responsibility programs, advisory and board appointments, and other initiatives that provide a pathway for long-term and constructive engagement.

#3 Lead by example.  When the Democrats assumed power in the U.S. House of Representatives in early January 2019, they conducted leadership races. Lee and Representative Hakeem Jeffries (NY-8th) competed to lead the House Democratic Caucus. Lee lost. Mrs. Pelosi — recognizing the leadership qualities of Jeffries and Lee — took proactive and intentional steps to ensure that Lee had a seat at the Democratic leadership table.

When the system failed to promote a  member with seniority and proven competencies, the Speaker created a position for Lee.  Mrs. Pelosi understood Lee’s experience, perspective and passion were too important to be excluded and deserved to be recognized in the leadership ranks. She also knew the important role black women played in the Democrats return to power.  In politics, there is only one bottom line: victory at the polls. How ironic/imbalanced/ungrateful/disrespectful it would have been to leave a qualified representative from this group out of leadership ranks, when members of the group were critically instrumental in making it possible for Democrats to regain control.

Mrs. Pelosi’s leading by example did not end with Lee.  The Speaker has gone on to appoint two black women as the newest members of the House Appropriations committee, where a black woman also serves as the senior clerk, named a black woman as House Floor Assistant, added three women of color to the House Armed Services Committee, and much more. Pelosi embraces, understands and uses her power to be the example for others to follow.  Don’t have a position. Create one. When you are the leader — lead.

In the next installment of this series, we will take a look at Sony Group (and Sony Corporation of America) as a case study to assess whether it may have contributed to the debacle involving R. Kelly and what steps are needed to constructively engage black women and other women of color going forward.  Stay tuned.


About the author: Anita Estell is a history-making lobbyist and attorney at the national level. She owns a full-service government relations firm, the Estell Group, LLC.  In 2016, she founded CELIE (the Civic Engagement and Leadership Institute for Everyone), a nonprofit in Washington, DC, to develop multicultural leadership programs and the best in next practices related to civic engagement, women and girls, and diversity and inclusion. CELIE also supports an online news and public affairs platform for women of color, XXTRA Special & Free.