‘My white colleagues are looking to me for answers’: Confessions of a Black ad tech exec

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This article is part of our Confessions series, in which we trade anonymity for candor to get an unvarnished look at the people, processes and problems inside the industry. More from the series →

The most senior Black exec at a global ad tech firm is exhausted.

In the weeks since George Floyd’s killing triggered a reassessment of the ways in which racism is engrained in society, he’s been inundated with requests from white colleagues for advice. But the exec feels pressure to resolve these issues alone at his company. In the latest edition of our Confessions series, in which we exchange anonymity for candor, the exec discusses the stresses of inadvertently becoming his company’s unofficial diversity and inclusion advisor.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Sum up what it’s like being the most senior black exec where you work?

It’s tugging at me in different ways. I’m grateful for having an opportunity to influence how my company becomes more diverse and inclusive, but it sucks that it’s taken such a bad situation to create that interest. So many white people — both internally and across the industry — have reached out to me asking for advice on what they can do. That’s the really frustrating part. Black people didn’t create these systemic prejudices, so please don’t expect us to resolve them alone. It would be great if the white people I talk to come to me with their own ideas on how we all move forward after having done their own research. 

What sort of questions are you being asked by white people?

The questions vary but so far they focus on things that they should already be doing. I’ve been asked a few times about how to hire more Black people because they’re hard to find. That’s just not true. Others are asking me where to find Black execs to speak at their conferences. If those execs applied the same mindset they use to fix problems in ad tech then we wouldn’t be having these conversations. These are people building a global business on the back of data. We need to apply that same data-centric mindset to address racism as a company. Publishing diversity numbers would be a start, but not the complete answer. Those numbers, however, could create pressure that could help us to make better decisions when it comes to hiring.

Has being Black hindered career progression for you?

I can’t necessarily point to a concrete example and say I didn’t get a promotion because I’m Black. And yet, from an early point in my career, I knew I was going to have to work twice as hard as most of my colleagues and be on my game all the time if I wanted to get ahead. People tend to hire and promote people who make them feel comfortable. Go to the ‘About Us’ section on any site for an ad tech vendor and you will see a lack of diversity, particularly at the exec level.

If it’s that tough, how have you been able to get as far as you have?

There is no replacement for hard work. Regardless of your color or gender, if you want to progress in your career you have to work for it. With that said, there have been times throughout my career where I felt I definitely had to “play the game” and make sure other people felt comfortable with me in the room (because of the color of my skin) even if that meant sacrificing my own level of authenticity and comfort. This is often referred to as code-switching….which, unfortunately, is something that black people often do in a white-dominated industry. I’m happy to say though that as I’ve moved up in my career and have gotten older, I no longer feel the need to code-switch and truly bring my full self to work every day.

Do you not worry that as you become more senior, opportunities start to become fewer — have you seen this happen?

It’s definitely a concern. The higher you climb the ladder the tougher it gets because there are fewer opportunities available and more competition for those opportunities.

Do you experience unconscious bias through microaggressions within the ad-tech community on a regular basis? If so can you explain how?

Yes definitely and here are two examples:

There has been plenty of situations where I will be out with my white colleagues, and we will be joined by another white male … he will great my white colleagues with a “hi” or “how you doing?” … but when he greets me he will say “my man” with a bit of awkward slang to it.

Earlier this year I was at an industry conference that was being held at a fancy hotel. I was attending a client meeting in the lobby which included 4 white guys and me. During the meeting, a random hotel guest (older white gentlemen) came up to just me and asked “Is this the concierge desk?”


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