My entrance into the ad industry was somewhat accidental, but even now, I’d call it fated. Having graduated from Parsons after spending time in both New York and Paris, I was looking for a creative gig. Then a fellow student called with me in mind, saying there was a position at Donna Karan for which I might be well-suited.
She was right.
I was eager, passionate, dedicated and dove headfirst into my new role. The brand was as multicultural as it was inclusive, celebrating gender, race and orientation. My skin and sexual preference weren’t factors, not inside those walls. Not at that moment, and not there, at least.
Over the next several years, I’d show up to a city high-rise only to have reps at the front desk assume I was the messenger. It never occurred to them that I was there to lead a meeting or share my creative vision. Almost daily, there were visible reminders of the fact that I didn’t look like the others in those decision rooms. At that time, it was very rare that you would see a black model on the runway. I was constantly grappling with the fact that I was in an industry that was inclusive in one way but actually completely exclusive in another way.
I didn’t see myself anywhere. When I looked outside and saw what was being produced, in terms of imagery and messaging and all of that, I wondered why I wasn’t included. Why didn’t I see myself in these messages? It became clear that there wasn’t anyone able to champion that inclusive message because the people who were holding the reigns and were making the decisions were not people like me.
To be frank, I had to adjust to this new normal. The black experience in Canada where I grew up is markedly different than the black experience in the U.S. I always felt included and always felt like I had a place at the table. I never questioned that I could go somewhere or that if I worked hard, I could get what I wanted. When I arrived at Parsons, I realized very quickly that there aren’t actually many people like me here, and yet I didn’t understand why.
It’s a question I’ve asked myself dozens of times over the last several decades. Is it because there aren’t enough role models? Is it because people are choosing not to see the value in those that look and behave differently than them? Is it because there aren’t enough people of diversity in leadership in regards to the men and women driving hiring decisions? Why is it that people of color, specifically, can’t make it to the table?
I don’t know the reason, but I suspect it’s all of the above.
What’s being done about it is another matter. There’s always that whole thing of companies “ticking the boxes of inclusivity,” which doesn’t necessarily mean that they don’t believe in it, but they also don’t necessarily live it. And when you don’t live it from the inside and really look at the body of employees that you have, it’s hard to see if who you are hiring actually represents the world outside.
That’s why I feel it’s so important to groom the next generation of creatives, to make sure their origin experience is gentler—with less friction, even. It’s our responsibility to defend, nurture and raise up talent, to encourage them to participate.
So if you’re in a creative position of power, use it. Embrace talent that looks different than those sitting next to you or yourself. And if you’re a creative minority, use that to your advantage. Simply put, you have something different than the other people around you, and you’re used to seeing and analyzing those differences; you’re used to finding empathy and employing it.