“THE ONE”: THE MYTH OF THE CORPORATE UNICORN

Last year, while on a panel at AWS re: Invent, I got one of the most honest and troubling questions I have ever received. A young woman asked, “How can I capitalize on being different and being the only woman on my team?” She admitted that while more diversity was needed, there were definite perks to being the “only one”.

She’s not alone. I’ve also been guilty of basking in the joys of being “The One”. At one point or another, I’ve been the only black, the only woman, only Muslim, first generation American, and most recently, one of the only black women to raise $1 million or more in VC. Friends, family, colleagues and the media touted these firsts as badges of honor that set me apart from others; and with enough repetition, I believed them.

Mind you, the accolades and lifetime opportunities are generally well-served and oftentimes hard won. Most of us have been through the gauntlet and paid more than our share of dues. So, it’s understandable to be proud, perhaps even protective, of our coveted places in the sun. The challenge, though, is that in the midst of reaching those top slots, we often fail to consider the other 99% who remain unrepresented.

One of the many downsides to being a “Corporate Unicorn” is that many of us may feel threatened when another person within our minority group is on board. Since the coveted “diversity seat” at the next level is usually reserved for only one of us, we become painfully aware that we are being compared to and pitted against one another. Even with the best intentioned people, the pressure to vie for space in this rarified air is real.

But, imagine if there was a more empowered alternative to “The One” experience.

I was reminded recently, as I watched the runaway hit movie Black Panther, that success increases exponentially when it is approached as a shared experience of group excellence. As I sat in a crowded theater, I was delighted to watch powerful black and female characters “killing it” in a technologically advanced society. While this may have appeared unusual to mainstream western audiences, it was quite natural, as a Nigerian, to see women and men who looked like me portraying captains of industry in the sciences, academia, law and government. I’ve always known professional excellence to be a cultural norm; not an exception.

So, it was a reminder that the perspective of “success scarcity” is not a given. This limited belief is a learned behavior. When a few are elevated at the expense of the many, it has detrimental effects for the chosen and the forgotten. It subconsciously puts people in one of two camps. They are marginalized and undervalued or accepted but alienated.

What was so powerful about Black Panther is the important subtext of collective elevation. It modeled both the antagonist’s experience of an aspiration born out of alienation and the protagonist’s strength in leading from a place of tribal inclusion. While, practically-speaking, we are far from the fantasy of a utopian society, we can borrow from this idea of an inclusive leadership style that has both collective value and personal benefits.

As Unicorns, we will always be faced with having to educate others. Our very presence represents a departure from the norm in many environments. So, there is value in fully owning our positions and letting others see that our presence isn’t just an anomaly. We are representatives of a “new normal”. But in addition to representing our own empowered positions, we can also serve as change agents within our spheres of influence. The best way to diffuse unhealthy competitive environments is to change them, hire more diverse teams. In spaces where there are only two of us, we’re likely to feel more competitive. It’s human nature. At higher numbers, however, we are apt to feel happier and are more collaborative in welcoming and inclusive spaces.

Workplaces that are diverse by design allow us to be our authentic selves. This might sound like nothing more than a popular buzz phrase; but authenticity matters! Personally, my authentic self is my most liberated self. It means not thinking twice about wearing a hijab or my natural hair to work. It’s bringing a different perspective that may shake things up a little or a lot. It’s about a safe space in which all the ills of society may not be resolved, but they are acknowledged. It’s a far more creative, innovative and progressive professional space.

When people’s authenticity is valued and they are surrounded by others of the same gender, race, cultural background, religion, sexual orientation, etc., workplaces are healthier and more productive. Inclusivity makes good business sense. It leads to increased productivity. Studies show that racially diverse teams outperform non-diverse ones by 35. A cognitive intelligence study done by MIT engineers showed that successful teams had three things in common: they gave one another roughly equal time to talk, they were sensitive towards each other (even in awkward situations), and they included more women — making them the most diverse.

Given these insights about the downsides of being the “The One”, my response to the young lady’s question was perhaps not what she expected; but hopefully it provided food for thought. I encouraged her not to fall into the Unicorn mind trap. None of us, alone, is enough of a representation of an entire group of people. The view from the top is beautiful, but it doesn’t last long if there’s no one there but you. The attention we receive for being “The One” is exciting in the short run. But long term, our careers, our successes and our everyday experiences at work are so much richer and more fulfilling when we cultivate a diverse, supportive and collectively empowered tribe. I encouraged her to try it.