True Allyship as a generous and equitable ecosystem
“My foot was in the door, the burden of representation was on my back, and the ladder was in sight. I just didn’t have a clue how to climb it.”
Stan’ O’Neal, former CEO of Merrill Lynch
As someone who started a new company, Mavenly Consultants, in the middle of a pandemic and a recession, I need all the help I can get. The move is bold and scary in equal measures and is providing ample opportunities for me to grow my self-confidence, something I often lack. And, while I have done all the research, crunched the data, and listened to my gut, I know that business success is lots of hard work, and also part luck and network.
So, I have squished that small, shy voice within myself, “put on my big girl panties,” and made some outreaches that placed me way out of my network and comfort zone. For example, immediately sending a LinkedIn message to a recent speaker at a women’s conference whose presentation really resonated with me, to ask for some face time. Her positive response was both generous and affirming, with a quick offer to talk. Later on Zoom when I asked her how much time I had, she said, I have all the time you need. I will never forget this encounter and what it did for my sense of self. Having just barely met me she then invited me to be a part of a professional woman’s group she was in, sent an email introducing me to the president, clearing paths along the way.
Now it’s very likely that this experience was hurried along because we were both Black women, working largely in lonely professional spaces. Truth is, she owed me nothing, but chose to be generous.
I have never given much credence to the idea that success comes solely from pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps. Sure, we need to invest lots of sweat equity, but most of us, for much of our lives, were helped along the way - in our educational and career paths - by someone else as we did not have the necessary “bootstraps” for success. This is where allyship can bridge the gap for those lacking in capital, access to resources and networks.
Harvard Business Review, in a November article titled, “Be a Better Ally,” defined allyship as, “a strategic mechanism used by individuals to become collaborators, accomplices, and coconspirators who fight injustice and promote equity in the workplace through supportive personal relationships and public acts of sponsorship and advocacy. Allies endeavor to drive systemic improvements to workplace policies, practices, and culture.”
I like the expansive and strategic feel of the definition and would yet broaden true allyship to also include the use of social and political capital without expecting something in return, as the person receiving the favor might be incapable of doing a quid pro quo. In essence, offering a benefit that might cost you something without anything in return.
"The change starts with people who do not look like us. The change starts with a non-minority who is in a position of power. And quite frankly that would mean a white man who is in a position of power, conscious enough and also courageous enough."
Lauren Maillian, CEO digitalundivided
Petal Walker of the law firm WilmerHale, formerly a chief counsel at the Commodities Futures Trading Commission cited one major obstacle to more diversity as less about skill sets, and more about relationships. “People tend to hire (work with and advocate for) those with whom they golf or grab a drink," she told DealBook, "so it will take intentional action to break down established cliques.”
Without intentional action, the people without the networks who really lack access to capital, power and private clubs or even golf clubs will continue to be left behind. How will they break into the inner sanctum and gain the relationships to secure a job or a client lead? If we are to seize this moment, in this year of reckoning, I think it is incumbent on those with power, influence, access and wealth to proactively seek out and lift up disadvantaged members of society. Invite them into the networks rich with resources, power and intellectual capital, and provide stellar endorsements that help clear the obstacles that are part and parcel of their daily lives.
Black and Latino female founders received just $1.7 billion of the $276.7 billion spent by VC between 2018 and 2019.
Businesses owned by Black women, roughly 42% of all new women-owned businesses, grew a whopping 50% from 2014 to 2019, faster than any other group of female entrepreneurs, according to Census data. Yet, according to incubator and research center, digitalundivided, Black and Latino women are the least likely to secure funding with less than 1% receiving any kind of venture capital (VC) funding annually. Digitalundivided’s ProjectDiane 2020 report, which was released earlier this month, showed Black and Latino female founders received just $1.7 billion of the $276.7 billion spent by VC between 2018 and 2019. It’s not hard to see that having allies in business is a tremendous asset, with such a chronic lack of access to capital and networks.
Recently, friends of mine, a husband and wife, decided to be sponsors, persons who advocate for me. It started with the wife introducing me to a well-connected lawyer, among others, who in turn linked me with three influential professionals. Each person had power to decide on bold next steps and could pull levers that accelerated the pace at which my network and client prospects grew. All of this domino effect because one friend decided to open her network to me. Her husband, a private equity investment CEO and white male, with tremendous reach and power, added a level of validation that 'knocked my socks off.' "Here’s what I am proposing," he said, during a scheduled call. "I will take a summary of what your business does, put my company’s stamp and my name on it and send it with a personal note to my network.”
I left that call, went to my room and sobbed because, while I am aware that his proposal (or her connections) does not guarantee any new relationships or business, I was deeply moved by the lavish sharing of network and willingness to put credibility on the line to help accelerate my business growth. To me, that’s the crux of real allyship, and here I use the term with the broader definition beyond its diversity prescription, as generosity – by individuals or businesses with power – dressed up as I like to say, in evening wear.
What my friends recognized and signaled was the amount of privilege and power they had, and while we did not sit and have a conversation about “acts of sponsorship and advocacy,” that’s exactly what they did. Plus, they did not feel threatened by adding a seat at the table.
Guide to Allyship, an online resource guide, lists “transferring the benefits of your privilege to those who lack it” as a hallmark of true allyship. That is, it must extend beyond performative displays and platitudes and instead be offered sincerely and in actionable, tangible ways that are easy to act upon. In fact, it is a lot easier if the majority of the heavy lifting is done by the person with power and influence. So, for example, instead of a mere introduction, make it a recommendation or a testimonial on behalf of a BIPOC or other underrepresented person or group.
True allyship is generosity dressed in evening wear.
What the two cited examples underscored for me is this:
While we, the target recipients, need to have a strategy and goals that drive our success, that climb is much easier and more equitable if we are able to pull the same levers, have access to the same resources, be in the same conversations and allowed to fail, just like my white peers.
True allyship can significantly close the gaps that exist in access to capital, clients, networks, and financial success. However, there must be a genuine willingness to share, and not hoard resources.
Intentional action - not just intent - must happen at the institutional level, but individuals can also play a role, and without the Savior or Superhero complex.
Real allyship must emphasize acts of kindness, a willingness to be generous and supportive of others and include a broadening of your network to include not just those from whom you benefit or are comfortable with, but those you can open a door or create a seat for.
Those unwilling to sponsor and share access to power and wealth with BIPOCS and underrepresented groups must at least commit to not being a stumbling block. Too often, and for too long, those who do not suffer from a lack of access and historical or current forms of discrimination work overtime to protect the status quo.
The following quote, by Shauna Niequist in Bread and Wine: A Love Letter to Life Around the Table with Recipes, is in reference to nourishing the body, yet I love it so much because it aptly describes how allyship can create an equitable table for all.
“We don't come to the table to fight or to defend. We don't come to prove or to conquer, to draw lines in the sand or to stir up trouble....We come with a need, with fragility, with an admission of our humanity. The table is the great equalizer, the level playing field many of us have been looking everywhere for. The table is the place where the doing stops, the trying stops, the masks are removed...In a world that prides itself on …. powering through, the table is a place of safety and rest and humanity, where we are allowed to be as fragile as we feel.”
Institutions need to create actionable steps to remedy inequities, taking into account their role in preventing certain groups and individuals access to jobs, capital and networks. For example, asking prospective board members to be former CEOs or C-suite executives when you have never promoted any BIPOC to such levels is an unreasonable ask and in many ways signals that you are forming an exclusive club.
True allies must also look to see who is absent from the room and conversations and get them there. I say them because it is lonely being the only Black or woman or Latino. True allies help remove that burden and discomfort by inviting multiple BIPOCs.
Creating or expanding diversity supplier programs is one tool allies can use to help BIPOCs businesses. So is being aware and removing the hurdles and barriers to entry at whatever level necessary. Asking small businesses like mine to be certified, but not accepting certifications done by the SBA or individual states, when they are free, and just as thorough, suggests tone deafness re the financial challenges of small businesses, especially BIPOCs.
In this year of reckoning it is critical that we put to bed the idea that “real allyship is as rare as a desert oasis.” We must seize this moment to be revolutionaries and providers of seats at the table. Go big and bold and extravagant in our generosity.