Nerissa is the Founder and President of One Epiphany LLC, a digital marketing solutions company.
“I’m being assertive and standing my ground for what I know is right, what I know is just, and what I know should be happening.”
If you had to describe your time spent at PWIs in 3-5 words, what would they be? Frustrating, tiring, enlightening, chameleon, and eye-opening. [Amber: Can you tell me how you landed on those words?] Tiring because I mastered a poker face working in corporate America and working around other people. I pride myself in my poker face. The testament of how good it was showed itself when I was working at [a previous employer]. I did work that benefited two VPs. One VP was fabulous and he saw the value in my work. The other VP was like, “Oh, no, no, no. You’re not telling me what to do.” I would have to feed him things and breadcrumb things so he thought my recommendations were his idea. It’s tiring to have to appease people to make them feel better as if they’re the smartest person in the room. And you have to do that repeatedly.
I can be blunt. I can tell people exactly what they might not want to hear. When I have an opinion, I’m going to share it. What you do with the information is on you. I’m being hired for my knowledge and expertise. Over the years, I’ve been told I’m abrasive. From my side of things, I’m being assertive and standing my ground for what I know is right, what I know is just, and what I know should be happening. If you cannot explain to me why I should think differently, then this is going to be my take, because you’re not telling me anything that’s changing my mind.
[Amber: What was “enlightening”?] When I started wearing my hair natural, my company couldn’t have cared less, it was all about the work product. My company ended up merging with another company and the other company did care. Once the merger happened, my career progression stopped, and I didn’t get promoted. Some people informed me confidentially, “it’s because of your hair.” This was in the 90s. I’m wondering what my hair has to do with the knowledge and the value I bring to the table. I worked on international projects. I’ve spoken to C-level people. I’ve given advice, reports, and trainings. But now all of a sudden, my hair is hindering. It was a good learning experience. From that point on, I said to myself that anybody who’s going to have an issue with my hair was not a company I needed to work for. It may have cost me some dollars, but it did not cost me my integrity.
As far as being a chameleon, it’s the need to have your “representative” in the office. Having to smile, be friendly, but not too friendly. Be assertive, yet flexible and still get your point across. Be knowledgeable, yet careful to not make anyone feel you’re smarter and still demonstrate your value.
What is the most impactful microaggression or discriminatory act that you can remember experiencing in the workplace? At one employer, the guys on the project would go out and get drunk. They’d come into the office the next day late because they had a hangover. Whenever we went out, I never drank alcohol because it wasn’t important to me. I also didn’t drink because I was the Black woman on the project. I was cognizant of the fact that if I do or say something inappropriate, I’m probably going to be held at a higher standard than other people. One day, I ended up getting horribly sick. Sick to the point that a doctor came to my hotel. I sent a message telling the team, “I’m sick. I won’t be able to come in.” And the response was, “are you really sick?” What do you mean am I really sick? During this multi-month project I’d been in the office without fail how many times where how many people were late or didn’t show up because of a hangover, and we all knew it was because of a hangover. And then the first time ever, I’m being questioned. So yes, I saw that as a microaggression.
How do you think the culmination of microaggressions over time and spaces impacted the trajectory of your career? It definitely made me a stronger person. It made me someone who would speak up and fight for myself. I guess for some people, it may make them retreat into themselves, but it made me become more bold, to be more vocal, to state my opinion, whether people wanted to hear it or not, because I saw peers in the room doing it. So, don’t think just because I’m the small Black chick in the room that all of a sudden I’m going to do anything differently. It taught me how to bring to people’s attention, “Excuse me, I’m speaking.” Kamala Harris had to do that. I’ve had to do that numerous times in meetings. Give me my time as well. Short answer is it made me stronger. It made me more vocal in standing up for myself because there was nobody else to do it for me. And so, I had to do it on my own.
Are there any additional comments you want to share about working in a PWI? On one hand, there’s working as an employee, a W-2 for a PWI. On the other hand, there’s being a vendor or a contractor to a PWI and being a business owner, which I am now. Whether you’re a W-2 versus a 1099 versus a business owner, just make certain to own your space, to take pride in what you have to offer, and to know your worth. And if you’re not sure about your worth, fake it. Fake it until you’re able to figure it out. Fake it until you find the right people and support circles around you who build your confidence up. With time, you will have self-confidence and be able to replenish it on your own.