Seeing that women of color are too often left out of diversity conversations, Cynthia Owyung, the former Head of Talent Development, Employee Engagement and Inclusion at GitHub, put together the inaugural Women of Color Leadership Conference. The sold-out conference of 200 convened this past Tuesday, and the day began with a fireside chat featuring Shellye Archambeau, CEO of Metric Stream. A board member of Verizon and Nordstrom, Archambeau was also named the #2 Most Influential African American in Technology by Business Insider.
During her talk, Archambeau emphasized the importance of being strategic and intentional when planning your career, and encouraged the audience to “take risks, take risks, take risks.” She also told attendees to find mentors – “hundreds of them” – and cultivate a strong network of peers to provide both encouragement and support.
Participants had the opportunity to follow Shellye’s advice and begin building peer connections right away in an Everwise-led workshop, “Beyond Networking: How to Build High Quality Connections to Fuel Your Career.” In the interactive session, we trained participants to use empathy to build meaningful professional relationships and facilitated small peer group meetings, similar to the sessions we use throughout our EverwiseWomen program, to put this learning into action. Here’s a quick recap of our workshop:
Relationship capital is incredibly important to career advancement, and there are different kinds of workplace relationships that are important to cultivate: mentor-to-protégé, sponsor-to-protégé, and peer-to-peer. Mentors offer guidance to help their protégés navigate workplace challenges and plan their careers. Sponsors provide advocacy and visibility to help their protégés access high-profile assignments and opportunities within their organization. Peers help one another by engaging in real-world problem-solving around current issues and supporting each other during challenges.
But when it comes to developing these relationships, women are at a disadvantage, and women of color are at a double disadvantage. Men are 42% more likely than women to have a sponsor, and only 8% of people of color have a sponsor.
To address this gap, we shared more about empathy, the “secret ingredient” for building high-quality relationships.
The peer group model for building deep empathic connections
First, to build trust, each group did a short bonding activity where participants shared a great joy and great pain with one another. Although this exercise can seem nerve wracking, we’ve found it to be very effective at building rapport among groups quickly.
Once the group established trust, we moved into the second step, a “case study”: one participant in each group shared a professional challenge that she is currently facing, and the other participants shared personal experiences that might provide insight on the presenter’s challenge. One woman shared that she is not sure about her next career step; another presented that she has been held back at work due to unconscious bias about race and gender. By the end of the meeting, each presenter had a list of action steps and takeaways to apply to her challenge and a new network of peers.
As conference organizer Cynthia Owyung noted, there’s a strong desire and need for these kinds of meaningful peer connections among women of color. The biggest sign of success was the laugher, high-fiving, and group pictures that took place throughout our workshop. At the session’s close, participants at each table voluntarily exchanged contact information with one another, laying the foundation for strong relationships that will continue long after the conference close.