Receiving an unsolicited invitation to speak at the University of Pennsylvania would be on my bucket list if I had one. If you haven’t heard about the term “bucket list,” it is a list of all the goals you want to achieve, dreams you want to fulfill and life experiences you desire before you die. I always felt like bucket lists were for things that were probable. So, what’s the point of a bucket list when your entire life seems like a series of improbabilities?
Here I was being flown over 1,000 miles from Memphis to Philadelphia to join Ivy League executives in a panel discussion about the role of career vision, personal accountability, and individual power in achieving diversity in the workplace.
The panel would take place at The University of Pennsylvania’s Arts, Research and Culture House, also known as the ARCH: “In 2014, The University of Pennsylvania completed a $24.5 million renovation of its Arts, Research and Culture House, transforming the historic building into a center for campus life that builds on the cultural diversity of Penn students and offers an intellectual and social experience for the entire University community.”
I opened the doors of the ARCH in awe, taking in every bit of a moment I never considered possible. It was hard to believe - was I really speaking in the same auditorium where the 47th Vice President of the United States, Joe Biden, was greeting students. He is the driving force behind the new Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and professor of management in the Wharton School.
As I watched the students pour through the auditorium doors, I recalled reading reports that said the University of Pennsylvania has produced 25 billionaires. I imagined which of these students would be the 26th, 27th or 28th billionaire produced by the institution founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1780. I thought about other alum that included some of the most distinguished business people, politicians, celebrities, such as:
Business magnate, Warren Buffet
Civil rights attorney, Gloria Allred
Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Jennifer Egan
Soulful crooner and nine-time Grammy winner, John Legend
Actress and film producer, Sharon Stone
Engineer, Elon Musk
The 45th, and current, President of the United States of America, Donald J. Trump
On a, mostly, unpredictable and unplanned 41-year journey from an impoverished Memphis community, I have often asked myself, “How did I get here?” For a number of years, I had set lofty goals.
My first goal was not to be lost in spaces between the words and numbers of our nation’s entitlement dependent. I had set the goal to graduate high school by 16 years old and complete both an undergraduate and master’s program at the local university. I set the goal to lead an organization whose mission was gender and minority balance across the male-dominated transportation industry. I had even set personal goals to reach a six-figure salary by the time I was 30 years old and to become the first black president of the region’s largest international trade association. However, I never considered I would be called to contribute to a space with such a strong tradition for educational innovation.
I hadn’t learned about diversity in the same manner as my co-panelist who were both Penn alumni and distinguished human resource leaders. My insight on diversity had come from experience as the diverse candidate or double minority. My experience had come as a benefactor of diverse hiring initiatives that opened doors that would have otherwise been closed to someone like me. Other insights were learned when spaces created without me in mind, failed to measure my value in the same way as they did men who have dominated the industry for hundreds of years. I would not have assumed my perspective qualified me to the jump in the ring with the heavy weights.
I sat on the ARCH stage with my co-panelists as they offered an instructive discussion on “mentoring” and “sponsorship.” My notes included ways I believe career vision, personal accountability, and individual power help create diverse workplaces. But, I found myself talking about something I never intended to discuss in this forum.
When a young man in the audience asked, “How do you keep your mental health when your entire future is in the hands of someone you don’t know whether you can trust?” It wasn’t the question itself that took me off script, but the sure intensity in which he asked it. His pain was palatable. The entire audience could feel it. When I opened my mouth, the words that came out were ones I had only said aloud in mental wellness forums, “I tried to commit suicide when I was a junior in college.”
(Read more on this experience in Nov 15th article published by Baptist Memorial Hospital Systems “How to Recognize and Prevent Suicide” https://bpt.st/2Fmgbpa)
I proceeded to share my story of a sponsor I had early in my career who was convinced only he could usher me to senior management. I told that young man in the audience that NO ONE, even the most well-meaning person has your future in their hands. And, under no circumstances, do you negotiate with your mental wellness or dignity.
In this building noted for its carved stone ornamental detail on the exterior, it became clear to me why I had deviated from my planned talking points to discuss the importance of mental health and personal power. It is the same reason I don’t have a bucket list. At some point in my life it became clear to me that I didn’t need a list to thrive. What I needed was a willingness to show up authentically and compassionately at all times. In being obedient to that moment, I walked the same halls as Penn alum, Beverly Robertson, former president of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Beverly recently vacated that position for an appointment as interim president of the Greater Memphis Chamber; making her the first African American president of the city’s economic development engine. I had the chance to speak to students seated in the same seats as my favorite designer, Tory Burch. Even more important, that day, I gave students and faculty encouragement not to hold on so tight to a plan that it robs them of their health. I reminded them that everything designed for them would be for them and you never have to compromise your dignity to get it.
I believe diversity has been treated, at times, like a goal on a bucket list. You draw the picture of the big organizational dream you want to achieve, and you put a plan together to make that dream a reality. And when challenges are raised that take you outside of that plan, you avoid them and focus on the flurry of goal-oriented activities. Diversity needs to be viewed more like a grand plan where we can choose every day to show up as our authentic and compassionate selves. When we do that, we will create spaces where a black woman from the poorest Memphis community can stand on the same stage and pour into the life of the 26th billionaire or the 50th president of the United States.
Roquita Coleman-Williams is a Inclusion Strategist, Leader, Philanthropist, and Author who specializes in executive coaching and in the design and delivery of leadership programs and keynotes that inspires vision and leadership at every level of the organization.
Roquita governs policy for Tennessee’s largest metropolitan transit agency, Memphis Area Transit Authority, with a $65 mil operating budget serving 11.7 million ridership annually. Her leadership responsibilities include executive oversight, strategic planning, oversight of systems performance, legal and fiduciary responsibility including lobbying federal, state and local funding; and collaborating with senior staff for the Department of Transportation and Federal Transportation Administration.
Roquita has permanently changed the landscape in these male dominated industries. In 2011, Roquita became the 63rd president, and first African American, of the Memphis World Trade Club. One would think thriving in an industry dominated by men would be enough but it wasn’t! In 2016, she became one of few women certified in the management of railroad conductors.
Roquita’s grit, boots on the ground experience, saavy business and leadership acumen offers audiences a rare perspective on what it takes to build inclusive work cultures.
She has been called on as an expert in diversity and inclusion by International Paper, USDOT, Fedex, Hilton Worldwide, City of Memphis, Urban League, League of Railway Women, Journal of Commerce, Cargo Logistics Canada and many others.
Roquita has been recognized nationally and internationally - Top 40 under 40, MBJ Super Women in Business, Rising Stars of North American Railroads, and NAACP Distinguished Service Honoree – while advocating for gender and minority balance across Transit and Transportation industries. She currently serves on Memphis Chamber board of advisors and the Women’s Foundation of Greater Memphis Board of Directors. And, she is the author of Storealities, an empowering book series, featuring inspiring stories from 22 women across our nation.