When I was growing up, change was a constant. My dad was in international business, and he took us all over the United States and around the world to pursue his career.
Like so many kids who move around a lot, I learned how to assimilate and blend into the environment. We almost always lived in predominantly White neighborhoods, and I was very aware of being the “other.”
And sometimes it was overtly called to my attention. I remember being called the N word as a child. Finding out there was suddenly “no more room” for me at a White friend’s sleepover and later finding out that it was really because I was Black. Being told that I should feel “lucky” that slavery had ended. I learned to live with it. And I persevered.
But then I had a son.
When my son was born, my concerns about racism resurfaced. I worried about the discrimination that he might face at school. The unconscious bias by teachers who might unwittingly take a harsher, more punitive approach to discipline versus the White students just because he’s Black. I worried about the first time he might come home and say that a friend wasn’t allowed to play with him. For a friend of mine, that day came early, when her son was only four years old.
I have tremendous concern and fear about the safety of my son as he grows older and the encounters he might have as he transitions from a cute little boy to a strong Black teenager. At what age will he be stopped for “fitting the description of …”? For my cousin, that started when he was only 10 years old. He was out riding his bike, and police thought he matched the description of someone who had just stolen a bike in his affluent neighborhood. That was the first of what has become an all-too-frequent experience for him.
Try doing an internet search for “Black teenager” and see what comes up. Your first five results may likely be stories about Black teenagers being shot “mistakenly” for one reason or another.
As the mom of, now, two young children, that’s how being Black impacts me every day.
Fortunately, the racism I personally face as an adult is much more subtle than what I experienced as a kid. But I am still very conscious of when no one else in the room looks like me—and am still impacted by the conscious and unconscious bias that permeates our society.
Despite our efforts to date, Deloitte can feel very homogenous. I’ve walked into meetings with hundreds of people where very few, if any, people look like me. When you don’t fit that predominant profile, it can make you question whether you belong. And that feeling doesn’t go away as you move up in the organization. If anything, that questioning of belonging can be exacerbated at the partner level because of the lack of diversity among the PPMD (Partners/Principals/Managing Directors) ranks.
A few years ago, I was at a meeting with hundreds of colleagues. Most were partners, and I don’t recall seeing any other Black people at the event. During a break, I went up to the snack table in the back of the room. At the front of the line, a White man and I both walked up at the same time. He stepped aside and said, “Oh, please—go ahead, girl!”
Girl? Clearly, I was not a “girl.” I was his fellow PPMD. I was in my early 40s, and I was in business attire. I was taken aback, and it struck me that he must not see me that way. Of course, the wheels turned—was it because I’m a woman? Was it because I’m Black? Was it because I’m a Black woman? I certainly would never have called a fellow male colleague a “boy,” because it’s diminutive. I’m sure he was just trying to be polite, but it ruined my day. It’s one of the only things I remember about that event.
It is not lost on me that some people don’t think that I “look like” a Deloitte partner. People may say it’s no big deal, but when someone makes a comment that cuts at one of your greatest vulnerabilities, it stays with you, especially when it’s not an isolated incident. And it makes me wonder if I need to do more to be taken seriously upon a first impression.
Many years ago, when I was participating in a developmental program for top-rated senior managers, I was thrilled to be assigned an external coach that Deloitte hired to work with me on my career goals. I wasn’t sure that being a PPMD at Deloitte aligned with my aspirations, and I welcomed the opportunity to explore that. During one session, I told her that I didn’t know if I should pursue the PPMD path. I’ll never forget her response: “Well, that makes sense. You don’t look like a Deloitte partner.”
Yes, she said that.
Yet I said to myself: She’s right.
But here I am 12 years later. With strong encouragement from key leaders, I pursued the opportunity and was promoted to managing director in 2011, and in 2019, I was admitted into the partnership as a principal. Over my 20+ years with Deloitte, I’ve had an overall fantastic experience and amazing opportunities. I’ve worked with incredibly supportive leaders who have continually mentored and sponsored me throughout my career. I’ve had the privilege of serving in two functions and have had a wide variety of interesting roles working with leading clients. I’ve sat in five US offices and spent two years overseas in Hyderabad, India.
When it comes to racial justice, there’s a lot of doubt out there about the experiences that people have because it’s not their own personal experience. Just because something hasn’t happened to you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. When people are sharing their experiences about being marginalized, believe them.
Through it all, my race and ethnicity have influenced a lot of the career choices that I’ve made. Both of my parents grew up poor and instilled the need for a strong work ethic to get ahead. My dad grew up in Haiti and immigrated to the United States when he was 18. He became an incredibly successful businessman, ultimately owning and running one of the largest Black-owned businesses in the United States before he retired.
He instilled in me a phenomenal focus on excellence and drive and a real sense of resilience. I’m known in my family as a tireless worker bee—my dad is definitely an influencer of that. But it’s also because I’m a minority woman working in a White male-dominated profession where leaders who look like me are few and far between. Like so many Black people in our industry, I’ve felt like I needed to work harder to progress.
I’m also attracted to challenges, so when I see a group that lacks diversity, I want to try to break through and pave the way for others.
As a managing director, I was one of three Black female MDs, and when I was admitted to the partnership, I was (and remain) the only Black female partner/principal in the Tax practice of almost 8,000 US professionals. After the partnership announcement, I received so many notes from Black professionals, especially Black female senior managers and managers aspiring to be partners. My admission was a signal that they could do it too.
That’s what motivates me to do what I do. There are always people watching the small number of Black PPMDs, trying to figure out if and how they can make it to the next level. Even if it’s only in my small way, I want to help pave that path and be in a position to impact other people’s careers. I want to show the same sponsorship that I’ve been fortunate to benefit from.
Through it all, it’s been a fine balancing act between the desire to show up as a strong, proud Black woman who doesn’t need to “cover” who she is and feeding that need to assimilate.
I’ve gotten feedback throughout my career that I can come across as guarded. I wish I didn’t have to be, but there’s a reason for that. I think a lot of us go out of our way to avoid talking about being Black while we’re at work. It’s been ingrained in me and many others to focus on integrating, to avoid bringing attention to the “other” part of myself. To not be seen or heard as “that Black person” who makes people uncomfortable talking about the struggles of being Black.
Despite having held diversity leadership roles at Deloitte, where I’ve lobbied for the importance of equity, I’ve usually made a concerted effort to avoid discussing my own personal challenges of race because people often don’t know how to respond—and often seem visibly uneasy.
I saw this especially in 2017, when racial dynamics came to the fore in our country. When I raised my concerns around the firm tolerating intolerance, I was counseled by several peers to keep my views to myself so as not to be viewed as political. I started to ask myself hypotheticals like: “If this was apartheid South Africa, would Deloitte take a stand, or would that be viewed as political?” I thought about leaving the firm. But I reflected on my overall journey with Deloitte and knew there was a long history of goodness here, with all the people, leaders, and clients that I love working with. So I stayed. And focused on making Deloitte a better place.
Now, for the first time in my career, people at Deloitte—and around the country—are talking openly about race and asking questions. I’m starting to feel more like I can bring more of my authentic self to work.
I’ve been really encouraged by the shift that’s taken place in our country and our organization over the past few months and the tone being set at the top. As we discuss racial justice, there is less conflation with “politics” and more courage to see this as a civil rights and equal rights issue rather than a red or blue issue. Today, I feel like Deloitte is more aligned with my values than at any other point in my 23 years here. And it’s important that we don’t regress.
So now that we’re finally here, let me share three parting thoughts:
First, when it comes to racial justice, there’s a lot of doubt about the experiences that people have because it’s not their own personal experience. Just because something hasn’t happened to you, doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. When people are sharing their experiences about being marginalized, believe them. We’ve grown up with racism and bias our entire lives. We know what it looks like. Questioning those interactions by saying things like “are you sure [fill in the blank] happened or didn’t happen because you are Black?” only further marginalizes and devalues someone’s truth.
Second, we need everyone across the organization to own DEI. When I’ve joined recent sessions on diversity, equity, and inclusion, I see predominately women and people of color on the attendee list. While many of my White colleagues have already stepped up and are engaged, we really need more White men to lean in, speak up, and embrace the discomfort. Because in these times, the silence is deafening.
And finally, we need to more actively address incidents in the moment. Admittedly, I didn’t officially report any of the events that I described above. It took me a while to process what actually happened. It can be challenging sometimes when the comments or behaviors are not blatantly discriminatory … what are you actually reporting, and to whom? They are unfortunate examples of microaggressions, and they can be hard to talk about without being worried about being perceived as “overly sensitive.” At the time, they were unsettling. And years later, moments like these add up and continue to bother me.
As we continue to see a cultural shift happening—both in our organization and our country— I would encourage everyone reading this to keep your eyes out for, and speak up about, these types of incidents. But that takes courage, whether you experience them first-hand or witness them. Speaking up allows our professionals and leaders to address the issue, educates us on taking a more anti-racist approach, and helps us prevent these types of comments and behaviors from happening again.
And while we need people to speak up when they encounter bias or discrimination in our organization, we also need our leaders to look in the mirror and educate themselves on what true inclusion looks like. In order to make this evolution in racial awareness more than a moment, we must all open our minds, review our actions, modify our tone, and be active in creating a culture that educates all on the insidiousness of learned bias and empowers our people to act in opposition where it may show up.
But I am hopeful, and I look forward to the additional education, training, and policies around this that Deloitte will roll out this year. We need shared ownership so that we can move forward together as one Deloitte.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are solely Nicole’s own and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of Deloitte or its personnel.
Photos by Kirth Bobb
“For me, remaining passive is not an option. Fighting for justice must be my way of life.”Read her story
"I hope to continue to be a leader that stands up for what he believes in and show, through my own story, that the Black experience isn’t the same for everyone, but instead an intricate tapestry of stories waiting to be told."Read his story