A few years ago, Shane Ogunnaike, a Nigerian friend of mine was breaking into tech. He was an incredibly sharp, funny account manager at my startup and I kept thinking I should connect him to Marlon Cumberbatch, a sales director at my husband's consultancy. Marlon was from Barbados. They were both part of the tiny, tiny population of smart, funny, Black sales guys in tech. I wanted to connect them but I never did.
Here's what went on in my head:
What if Shane thinks I only think of him as a Black guy?
What if Shane thinks I'm an idiot and that I believe all Black guys should be friends?
What if I make Shane feel tokenized?
What if Shane feels even more singled out than he already feels because I call out his race?
The same thing happened to me last weekend. I gave a talk at BU and I wanted to connect two Black women-one an intern at Facebook, and the other an Insights Lead there. I sent the email and felt incredibly awkward immediately after. Did I just screw up my relationship with both of them?
Ridden with guilt and terror, I reached out to HubSpot's #pocah group on Slack (POCaH stands for People of Color at HubSpot. It's an employee resource group that was started in 2016 to give employees of color a space to share, learn, and grow at this company).
Here's what folks had to say:
My mind rushed back to my email-scanning through my words. Did include these elements?
My email read,
Loe here, Anna Lee's little sister. Hope all's well! I'm in Boston doing Product Design for HubSpot. Had a kid. Life is a little crazy but also wonderful.
Reaching out because I gave a design talk at BU recently and there was a gal there who's interning at Facebook this summer. She's a Black, Business Law major who's interested in diversity and inclusion in tech. I remembered you're at Facebook and mentioned you to her-thinking you might have some interesting insights.
Would you be down to chat with her? Let me know and I'll do an email intro. She seems awesome.
I reflected back on the Slack conversation in the #pocah channel. Similar to David, Melissa, Ashley, and Carina, it seemed like Bru would value connecting with another Black woman in tech since there are so few Black women in tech and since there's a special camaraderie within those groups. Did I, as Ashley said, call out the elephant in the room and mention they're both Black/Latina/Cambodian/Arab/Queer instead of beat around the bush? Did I, to Valentina's point, give more context around why they should connect that goes beyond the fact that they're both the same race?
When I review these needs as a checklist, I did cover everything that was mentioned. I still feel awkward. Was I direct enough with calling out the fact that they're both Black? Was I too direct? Should I have said African American?
It seems like being different means different things to everyone. While there'll always be room for error due to the complexity of race and queer identity, it's extremely important we keep trying. Fall on your face trying to help others or glide there gracefully. No matter what path you take, you'll reach the same goal. That's what matters.
Thank you HubSpot's POCaH group and in particular, Ashley Jeffress, David Ly Khim, Valentina Mendoza, Melissa Obleada, and Carina Kurban, and Quintin Marcus for giving me constructive advice and for being open to discussion. You're wonderful humans.
Also thank you to Shane Ogunnaike for letting me share this story. His response:
"Go for it! Honored! And also like, you knew another Black dude in tech sales and didn't tell me?!"