How did we get here? I looked around at the faces that filled the hotel's grand ballroom. Over 200 people from across the country were gathered together for a company event. In my three years of working international and c-level industry engagements, I hadn’t been in rooms like this before. There was a huge difference here in Atlanta. All of the faces around me resembled mine.
The night before the event I sat at a table of senior executives and young associates who all were Black. Beside me sat my company's chief financial officer (CFO) and at the opposite end sat our chief diversity officer (CDO). They were the official hosts of our company's first ever Black Employee Forum. Even better, they had agreed to attend a dinner hosted by myself and two colleagues.
Because of my seat at the dinner table, I had the chance to ask our CFO the question that was on all of our minds, “How did we get here?” He shared that for some time the idea came in response to the company's high turnover rate among African American employees. It was an idea that had successful results at his previous organization. And our company was taking a chance on it with the shepherdship of our CDO.
The pillars of diversity and inclusion at my company are visibility, access and opportunity. At the Black Employee Forum, we saw each other. And were pleasantly surprised by how many of us there actually were. We spoke with a diverse set of executives for the first time. We networked and opened new doors. I myself was given the opportunity to co-lead a community service event that connected my personal and professional networks while leveraging my skills and passions for the spoken word. For someone who breaks into a sweaty, heart-racing panic every time she decides to speak up in a meeting, being given a floor and a mic was momentous.
Diversity is having a seat at the table. Inclusion is having a voice and having that voice be heard. In Atlanta, a large table had been set, and we were saved a seat to share our experiences and expertise. As Black employees, we entered a space where we could but only bring our authentic selves to the table. I was reminded that having a seat means having a chance to change conversations. And conversations can change culture.
In less than two days, I met and learned from so many impressive people within and outside of my organization. From world class speakers, business leaders and executive coaches to HBCU scholarship awardees, incredible teachers and tiny yet powerful step performers. I experienced history, art and culture seamlessly intertwined with professional training and advice around career growth. And of course, I can't forget the soulful music and mouthwatering soul food.
The last day of the forum ended at 3:00 p.m. and I walked out of the ballroom feeling enlightened, empowered, and full of energy. By the time 9:00 p.m. rolled around, the hotel had returned to its regular programming except now with a shadow of a family reunion. All of the familiar (and familial) faces were gone. No one in the lobby looked like me. Yet still, I didn’t feel like an anomaly. I didn't feel alone. I felt powerful. Like the tables were turning, and I had the best seat in the house.