Uncensored: Stories of Black professionals at Deloitte

Aleshia's Story

In the early years of my childhood, I grew up in a predominantly white neighborhood in Chesterfield, Virginia, where I was one of only four Black students in my entire elementary school. Often disconnected from many students, the four of us somewhat banded together. Our parents became friends, and we often looked out for one another. We established relationships outside of our banded friendship, but we found each other more relatable because of the color of our skin and common experiences of exclusion.

Even though my family and I did our best to entrench ourselves in the community, I had to develop a thick skin early on—probably starting at the age of five—when it came to dealing with racism.

I was in the second grade when a teacher decided to separate me from the rest of the students in class and put me in the far back of the room. I was always an active participant in class, a straight-A student, but never got called on. I even asked to be seated toward the front of the room to no avail. That was a defining moment for me in understanding that you must make yourself seen even when others try to make you invisible.

The school eventually fired that teacher after my parents went to the principal and reported her behavior. I remember being very confused at the time about why I wasn’t given the same treatment and level of support as the other students. Looking back on this now, it’s baffling that this happened in the 1990s, not the 1950s. But it wasn’t the last of my encounters with racism over the course of my life.

In high school, I didn’t have the same experience of friendship after my parents relocated to a rural and primarily Black neighborhood. There was limited connection with my “community” because I came from a more economically and socially advanced area. I often struggled to connect because I was categorized as speaking “too white” and seen as an outsider of sorts. My immediate inclination was to build friendships and “be seen.” I got involved in almost every club or activity I could to try and find commonalities with other students at the school. My parents were heavily active in the community and PTA. Their investment in me showed my teachers that there was a standard and expectation of how my brother and I should be nurtured and supported throughout our educational experience.

Going to a much more diverse school didn’t eliminate some of the challenges I experienced before, and it made me realize how drastically different the level of education varied in different communities. My new school system was well behind my previous schools. The hands-on teaching was sparse, textbooks were outdated, and I was learning material I had already been taught in previous grades.

Because I was ahead of my peers, I was perceived to be a know-it-all and was teased for always raising my hand in class. I felt like an outcast. But I realized I didn’t have to be “popular.” I just had to be liked on some level. Joining clubs, becoming an athlete, working with my mom at the medical center part-time—those were ways that I could expand relationships. I think, like most people, high school was a difficult time, but for me it magnified the challenges that are faced in various communities. It pinpointed systemic injustices, which was life-changing.

Being somewhat of an overachiever, I found an interest in some of the business and technology classes that were newly established at my high school. I took CISCO networking, C++ programming, which provided an opportunity for advancement in a career after high school. My interest in building technology and the business behind it sparked something in me—and has stayed with me to this day. I went on to graduate high school with more tech and business credits needed to graduate. I spent undergrad at West Virginia University where I graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Business Management and Marketing. Post college, I would start my first consulting experience on Capitol Hill.

After owning my own PR firm and spending 12 years in consulting, I eventually found my way to Deloitte. Shortly after joining the organization, I worked on federal government accounts for several years, then I felt that I’d hit a plateau. I became intrigued with a new robotics automation intelligence offering that was gaining traction, and I couldn’t have been more excited to help jump-start it.

Assisting with the development of the robotics market offering was unlike anything I’d experienced at this organization, and I was on the ground helping to build something great. I felt like I had free range to create strategy, problem solve, develop marketing plans, and the list goes on. It was a dream for a creative thinker like me.

But a series of events during that time really knocked my confidence down and made me feel deserted. I don’t think any of what I experienced came from malicious intent, but it highlights the importance of allyship.

I had directly experienced racism and bias from a candidate our team was interviewing, and I raised concerns to my leaders about possible challenges we may experience with this individual. That person was eventually hired, and my concerns held true. I experienced something I hadn’t had to deal with since I was a child: I was called a derogatory and racist word—and in a professional setting no less.

Having experienced that for the first time at a young age, I knew it was something that needed to be escalated. In my reporting process, some people handled that situation better than others. And some didn’t know how to respond at all.

The response to my experience made me feel exiled. For about a year, I struggled to regain my confidence and needed to find ways to somehow reconnect with the people with whom I’d been in the trenches. Some relationships were rebuilt, some apologies were provided, but a small ounce of pain remained. How did someone like that manage to enter our organization and provide a verbal attack on a diverse practitioner? That question drove me to figure out how I would prevent something like that from happening ever again. I currently serve as the DEI Southern California (SoCal) leader, I am one of the Strategy & Analytics DEI Goal advisors for our Recruitment, Retention, Sponsorship, & Performance team, and I am a SoCal advisor for DLAMP (Diverse Leadership & Allyship Mentoring Program). My objective is to change the landscape of how diverse practitioners experience Deloitte so that they can thrive as individuals and professionals.

When a minority experiences a verbal attack or is slighted based on their ethnicity, and they don’t get the expected response from leadership or peers, it can leave you feeling alone and like you’ve done something wrong—even though you’re the one who was wronged.

Within Deloitte, we talk a lot about mental health. And being able to truly understand the life of a Black professional before they begin their workday is a crucial part of that. As a Black woman, I need at least an hour or two to prepare myself to be on a video call. There is a balance of wearing two, sometimes three, faces so that you can bring the person that is most acceptable based on those with whom you’re speaking, and it can be exhausting.

I work with military clients, which means I am predominantly working with white males in their mid-to-late 40s, or older. There is an expected order depending on the rank of the individual you are speaking with and your level of rapport. I actively try to limit my overly southern accent or slang. One might think this is exhausting, and it is. Historically, Black people believed they had to readjust to fit the norm. Now, there is the ask of bringing your authentic self to work. Personally, there is an internal struggle on how authentic can I really be? And will that make someone else uncomfortable or see me as less qualified or professional? This is a constant mental battle that I face when trying to be authentic.

How did someone like that manage to enter our organization and provide a verbal attack on a diverse practitioner? That question drove me to figure out how I would prevent something like that from happening ever again.

Like many professionals today, I’m also a caretaker for my parents. Last year, my life was a bit chaotic, and I found myself trying to hide that part of my life from my leaders and teammates.

My family learned that my dad needed a heart transplant. I lost a lot of sleep about whether I should say something to my leaders about it. I didn’t want to give the perception that I was asking for more help than someone was willing to give me. But I also didn’t want people to think that I was blowing off meetings or choosing not to be fully engaged.

I received a call from a partner on my project to discuss my engagement. He shared that he heard I was a rock star but that I seemed preoccupied with something else. He said it was very clear that I needed to go take care of my father—because we don’t know what the future holds, and I should take the time that I needed.

That was probably the best advice I could have gotten. When I shared what was going on with my project team, my colleagues, and leaders, I received an overwhelming amount of empathy and support. It was a relief to have people in my corner to help me figure out how to manage everything and check in to make sure I was OK.

To prioritize my own well-being and mental health, I’m trying to relearn the meaning of the word “no.” A lot of us working at organizations like Deloitte tend to be workaholics. But I think it’s important to draw the line somewhere and learn to say no to things that aren’t going to bring you joy or create longevity. Some of the things that I’ve taken on are out of dedication to my personal values and the need to just do good by people. And the other things I’ve taken on I know will benefit me in the long run.

It’s important being OK with saying no to things that won’t help you realize your goals—at work and in life.

I’m currently working on my Master’s in Engineering at Brown University, with a focus on technology executive leadership. Understanding the landscape of diverse practitioners in the technology space, it’s important that I show up and ensure there are clear examples for my community of what success can look like. My critical challenge project focuses on the need for a DEI road map providing perspectives around hiring, retention, and sponsorship for diverse individuals.

I highlight Deloitte as a frontrunner in diversity, equity, and inclusion, given the internal and external work it has done to date. My project also speaks to potential corporate organizational improvements that organizations can make, specifically how companies can build on hiring and retention programs to increase equity and sponsorship.

One area that I’m especially passionate about is finding ways to bring people from underserved communities into organizations like Deloitte. I’m actively involved in Deloitte’s Leadership, Allyship, and Mentorship Program to help diversify our recruiting efforts and increase inclusivity within our organization. As a lifelong member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Inc., I also try to stay actively connected to my community through the sorority’s initiatives. And hopefully I can help make a difference both inside and outside the walls of Deloitte.

There are a lot of extremely smart and talented individuals in rural and urban areas who just don’t have the same level of access to opportunities. I would challenge corporations like Deloitte to continue to take a closer look at that opportunity gap and find ways to establish apprenticeship or sponsorship programs to open a pipeline of providing professional experiences for underserved populations.

Having witnessed firsthand the disproportion in opportunities available at various socioeconomic levels, I hope to be part of that shift by sharing my story and showing that giving any person opportunity and a little bit of encouragement, barriers can be broken. When I look around our organization, I want to continue to see more people who look like me. Not just Black women who are breaking down barriers and demystifying stereotypes, but people who are resilient regardless of their life experiences.
 

The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely Aleshia’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel.

Photos by Brandon Wyche

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