Tamika's Story

I was born in July. Two months after my mother graduated from high school. Two months before she went off to college.

For my mother, and for me, education was always an equalizer. My mother held on to this belief fiercely, even though it meant she had to travel for hours by bus every weekend just to spend time with me, while my aunt and grandmother took care of me during the week. More than anything, it was critically important that she set the right example for me. My mother wanted more, and she knew education would provide her with the best opportunity to succeed.

Growing up, I was raised in a tight-knit family in a very small town in southern Maryland. I didn’t realize it then, but I lived a fairly sheltered existence. Although my town was small, it was relatively diverse because of its close proximity to the Naval Air Station. Even still, most people that grew up in “the County” stayed in “the County.” After all, it was a beautiful place surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay and the Patuxent River. Yet, I knew I wanted more.

Until the age of 14, I had always attended public schools. Always had a diverse group of friends. Never really felt singled out in class. This all changed when I decided to attend a private high school, where I was suddenly one of only two Black students in my entire class.

Not only did I look different, but I felt like I wore my inadequacies on my sleeve—sometimes quite literally. Because even though it was a private school, we didn’t have strict uniforms. This drew an obvious line between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” You could very easily tell who the more affluent students were purely based on the clothes they wore and the cars they drove. Looking back, this very well may have been my first real experience with imposter syndrome.

By day I was struggling to fit in, trying to be accepted by the students at my new school who weren’t always kind. By night, when I was back at home, I was trying to reassimilate with friends at my old school and in my community, who no longer felt they recognized me. I was often accused of “sounding white.” I was stuck in the middle of two worlds. Desperate to belong. Accepted by neither.

As challenging as it was, I didn’t realize that what seemed like a setback was truly a setup.

By high school, many Black children would have been given the “you have to work twice as hard to get half as much” speech by their parents—and my mother was no different. She always made it very clear that I was going to have to do much more just to be seen as comparable to my peers. And even then, there were no guarantees that I would be rewarded for my hard work. It wasn’t enough to be good. I needed to stand out, I needed to differentiate myself, I needed to be amazing—a mantra that still holds true in my life and one I share with my boys every single day.

However, I have come to realize over my 25-year career that when you feel like you’re not enough and that you don’t deserve a seat at the table, you overthink, you overprepare, and you overcompensate. You stay up all night to work or study. You overextend yourself to prove you are always on top of it. You do more than necessary, and you continue to do that as if it were in normal course. You know no other way.

For a good portion of my career, I have been fortunate enough to take risks that have paid off professionally. Prior to Deloitte, I was a partner at another firm leading a significant global practice. I had a great team and clients that trusted me and my capabilities. I was good at what I did, I had built my personal brand, and I was enjoying the journey. But I decided to pivot because Deloitte was a new and exciting challenge with global reach that gave me the opportunity to work with some of the best and brightest professionals in the world.

To do this, however, meant that I was starting all over again, at least in terms of proving myself. I was constantly worried that one day people were going to figure me out. That they’d realize I didn’t belong. That I wasn’t good enough. Thankfully, through the help of incredible partners like Ellen Stafford Sigg, among many others both male and female, I was introduced to other inspiring women. One of them was Joyce Roche, who, through her mentoring and authenticity, taught me that I was enough. That what I exhibited was actually quite normal and that it had a name: the imposter syndrome, something many high achievers experience regardless of race, gender, or ethnicity. Joyce taught me how to remove fear from the equation and to operate as my most authentic self.

It’s easy to look at people and think they have the perfect life and have everything together. But when you share your true story, when you show the whole of who you are and allow yourself to be vulnerable, you grant others permission to show up and to be their authentic selves as well. That is how connections are made. That is how trust is built.

If someone were to ask me now about the one thing I wish I knew earlier in my career, it would be realizing sooner than I did that I deserve to be here, and that by simply being here as my authentic self, I was, in fact, enough.

My husband, Greg, and I have been married for 25 years. Our two teenage sons are biracial, and identify as Black. Greg is white and a retired Special Agent (fun fact: he was featured on 60 Minutes for his courageous undercover operations). While my husband has offered many “teachable moments” throughout my career and has provided phenomenal lessons for our teenage sons, he recognizes his lived experience is different, and that being Black in America comes with unfair challenges—conscious and unconscious. I, however, know the harsh realities personally, as well as the phenomenal strength and resolve that being Black in our country demands.

Every Thanksgiving, I organize a client event where we make traditional southern Maryland stuffed hams, a big tradition in the area that became popular outside of this region when it was featured in the New York Times. Because the event was virtual this year, we had to deliver the country hams, along with the vegetables to stuff them, to our clients. While most of the hams were delivered via UPS or courier, one client (though they would not be home on the day we would be out) was close enough to deliver their ham personally. Keeping this in mind, I had my oldest son take the ham to the client’s home, as he was looking for any reason to get out of the house during COVID-19!

When discussing timing, my client asked if my son could just leave the ham on her back deck in the cooler. As she gave me the instructions for him to walk around to the back of their house, I repeated the directions aloud.

When I hung up, my husband instantly reacted: “He can’t do that! He can’t just drive into a neighborhood, walk around to the back of their house, and stick this ham into a cooler.”

Given the many debates to silence my fears, it was clear to me that although he experienced it differently, my husband shared my fear for our children. Someone else may have easily been able to walk around to the back of someone’s home in an unfamiliar neighborhood without it seeming odd. But not our 18-year-old son, who also happens to be a six-foot-tall lineman.

My children have tremendous respect for other people and authority, as they should, but it is also important for them to understand they might find themselves in very precarious situations in which unconscious bias may rear its ugly head.

You could feel it in the air, throughout the city, and within our office walls. It was almost overwhelming. I felt like we needed to find a way to ease the tension and to get back to what matters. Kindness could be that way forward.

I started my current role as managing principal about four years ago, right around the time when we had a change in administration. It was an incredibly challenging time, especially living in Washington, D.C.

You could feel it in the air, throughout the city, and within our office walls. It was almost overwhelming. I felt like we needed to find a way to ease the tension and to get back to what matters. Kindness could be that way forward. We don’t all have to agree on everything, but we do need to find a way to be respectful and kind.

To reinforce the need for kindness, not only throughout Deloitte, but also within our communities, we began working with the US Chamber of Commerce in 2018 to develop The Business of Kindness. The focus: building stronger workplaces that foster and cultivate compassion, where teams are more productive and employees feel valued and respected.

Because of that work, I was asked by Cynthia Germanotta—you may know her as Lady Gaga’s mother—to be on the board of the Born This Way Foundation. I was already on eight other boards at the time, but I didn’t think twice in bringing this mission of kindness and bravery to the world.

I’ve gotten more out of being on that board than I ever thought I would. I’ve learned so much about mental health and the importance of kindness and the impact that we can have on one another. It has become core to who I am.

Kindness has always been important throughout my life. But being managing principal, specifically a managing principal at Deloitte, where we are told to bring our authentic selves to work, I have the platform to encourage it. This has been a true privilege.

I must be transparent, however, and share that it can be incredibly lonely to be a Black woman in leadership in corporate America. There aren’t nearly enough of us. And I don’t think many people can appreciate the pressure and weight that many of us feel on a daily basis—not only as a Black leader in our organization, but as a Black woman in America.

This is my story. I have and will continue to travel my journey while creating space for others. To be honest, I was apprehensive to share my story for this series, but if I have been blessed enough to be given a seat at the table, I need to make sure that I am using my voice. Otherwise, as Michelle Obama has said, I need to give up my seat. And I have worked too hard for it to not use it to serve others.

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

Photos by Kirth Bobb

Stories of Black professionals at Deloitte