[Amplifying Black Voices] Stepping Out of the Metaphorical Box
Published Jun 30 2021 04:16 PM 6,770 Views

This blog was written by Product Marketing Manager, Power Platform, LaTresha (LC) Howland as part of the Amplifying Black Voices blog series. LC reflects on her experiences as an African-American woman navigating Corporate America and how that has emboldened her passion to advocate for underrepresented minorities and their representation in the technology arena.


My name is LaTresha (LC) Howland, and I’m a Product Marketing Manager at Microsoft, as well as the Co-Founder and CMO of Breadless. I’m passionate about representation in the technology sector, opportunities in the start-up arena, and all forms of advocacy for underrepresented minorities.


Growing up, my family always told me that I was capable of anything. Whatever it was that I wanted to focus on, I was fully encouraged and provided with the means to do so.


This is not to say that I grew up wealthy by any means – but I had a wealth of experience, love, support, and esteem that so many young girls from inner-cities are not afforded. For that reason, I have always felt extremely privileged. However, I did not always know how important my upbringing would be in equipping me to face a world as an adult in environments that just seemed to not want me to win. 


Let me give you some background context. I’m a proud Black woman from Detroit: a city infamous for its music, automotive industry, arts scene, sports, crime, poverty, and socio-economic segregation.


Though I loved my hometown and all its dichotomous elements, I sought to challenge myself and explore a new environment for my undergraduate experience and ventured to Boston University to obtain an advertising degree from the #1 program in the country at the time. I received a merit-based scholarship given my college-preparatory school grades and SAT/ACT scores. Though I had a beautiful experience at BU overall, I cannot count how many times my non-Black peers made assumptions about how I got there:


“Wait, you’re not taking that class? They always let Black people skip out on things. Some of us work hard and actually deserve to be here.” (actually, I tested out of them)


“Aren’t you from Detroit? I was wondering how you could afford to go here, then I remembered affirmative action.” (which I did not receive, and white women benefit most from affirmative action by the way)


This is something that African-Americans are used to experiencing in predominantly white educational institutions (from multiple races and ethnicities, by the way). Luckily for me, being constantly overlooked, minimized, and undervalued molded me into who I am today.


Despite microaggressions from still-in-progress young adults, BU remained a dream come to life and I did everything to maximize my experience there by taking full advantage of all the resources available at my school. I studied abroad in London where I took classes and worked at a marketing agency in Oxford Circus. I joined Adlab, the school’s student-run advertising agency board, and excelled in my collegiate program. I was an athlete and a student leader on campus, and served my community as a member of the first Black Greek sorority: Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated. 


When I graduated from BU, I embarked upon my next dream: working in creative marketing in the Big Apple. I absolutely LOVED working in New York City and would not give the experience away for the world. I got to work at ad agencies like Grey, Publicis, 360i, and even brand-side at Verizon. I worked on cool accounts like Darden restaurants, Pernod Ricard, Planned Parenthood, and many more! I built wonderful relationships, refined my marketing skills, and fully embraced the “hustle and bustle” lifestyle. Creative marketing in NYC gave me all the necessary professional and personal life lessons that I needed to truly come into adulthood.


But, working in Corporate America in general is not a walk in the park for Black women. From Day 1, I was yet again the token Black person in an otherwise non-diverse industry. Most other Black people that I met were not in client-facing roles, and I was often met with the “What program got you into this role” question from my non-Black peers (I simply interviewed after an on-campus recruiting event and got the job).


Despite my qualifications and instead of acting upon the responsibilities associated with my “Account Executive" title, I was expected to perform administrative duties (although we had an Admin). I had managers that actually told me to not speak in client meetings (which is the direct opposite of what client-facing AE’s should do) and just take notes/agree with whatever the brand team wanted. Not to mention, other AE’s were not subjected to these directives. As such, I did what the job title that I signed an offer for called for and always exceeded expectations with my cross-functional teams and clients on a 1:1. Despite my top performance-based ratings, I received more rolled eyes than recognition or supportive praise from certain managers. It was as if my own team didn’t want me to be successful. I was excluded, not invited to the informal team lunches, and the only one that stayed late hours after my team left at 4:30PM for more exclusive, informal group activities. Good thing I had my own life!


Over time, I had to learn to unpack code words that colleagues tried to label me with: “extra”, “opinionated”, “aggressive”. I’m sure that this will sound familiar to all high-performing Black women. As I said before, my family instilled me with confidence and a keen sense of justice versus injustice. So I knew that when I voiced an opinion in a meeting in an assertive tone, I wasn’t doing anything different than my White male peers. When I mentioned the lack of diverse perspectives in a focus group or commercial advertisement, I was trying to help our business, not “playing the Black card”. When I advocated for myself to be promoted or to gain a raise, I was requesting what I deserved based on my performance and work results, not being “greedy” or looking for a “handout”. No matter what my level was, I was not going to be gaslighted or mocked. The tale of majority cultures attempting to put underrepresented minorities and women in a stereotypical box that they felt most comfortable with is as old as time. So, long story short, I simply stepped out of said box and metaphorically graffitied a big “F U” on my way out of each of those experiences. Eat. My. Dust.


As the years passed, I gained incredible managers and teammates, became comfortable with advocating for myself, and the tables turned. I had the experience and expertise to walk the walk, and tangible success stories for marketing campaigns to reference. I no longer had to send my resume around to be demanded.


In the early 2010s as the first wave of “Black Lives Matter” rumbled through the streets of New York City and across the nation, the ground beneath my feet was changing. For the first time for many in Corporate America, when they saw Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, Sandra Bland, and countless others on the TV screen, they were forced to look at themselves. In doing so, the people open to personal growth finally “saw” their effect on the everyday lives of people like me. While I loved that evolution for them, I wasn’t at a point in my own development journey where I could forgive and push my PTSD from repeated prejudices throughout my life to the side. Say what you will about that, but I’m only human. The acceptance that people are fallible and can be changed, even if they were previously perpetuating a systemically racist society, would come later.  Instead, I was dealing with my own awakening at the time that was propelling me towards wearing my hair in a natural afro at work when I felt like it, and ultimately exploring opportunities that were FOR me, versus those that I had to fit myself into. As someone with a continuous growth mindset and several years of experience in creative marketing, I began looking for something more. I needed a new work challenge, and a long-term career that I could build a fulfilling life with. I kept my eyes on the tech industry as my next chapter. I followed Satya Nadella’s journey as a CEO, read the 10Ks, and started noticing that tech in general was at least outwardly expressing commitments to evolving their approach to diversity, equity, and inclusion in an otherwise non-Black, male-dominated corporate tech world. In 2018, I thought I’d give it a go and obtain my MBA at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business to dive deeper into the product world and explore entrepreneurship at the same time (because again, I don’t believe in boxes or limits).


Moving forward, I knew that I had to be explicit and intentional about what I wanted from my post-MBA career. I wasn’t about to repeat experiences from the past, reinvent who I was to fit in, or go to a company that simply did not care about its effect on the rest of the world. Here were my list of demands:


  1. MUST be a place that takes diversity, equity, and inclusion seriously – not just an external, performative measure to look good in the press
  2. MUST not only believe in growth mindset, but also invest in its talent in terms of career development, skills-building, people management, higher education, and otherwise
  3. MUST help me do work that empowers others: building on solutions and products that matter to people in frontline industries, retail, health, small businesses, enterprise, partners, citizen developers, and everything in-between
  4. MUST be future-oriented: believing in actionable ways to positively influence sustainability policies, tackle climate change, and be thoughtful and responsible about how to help build new and emerging markets
  5. MUST be a tech firm with exceptional leadership that trickles down to every employee

In 2020, at the height of the resurgence of “Black Lives Matter” movement where the United States and world were repeatedly traumatized by the endless racist and inhumane acts of law enforcement against Black and Brown bodies, I began my full-time role at Microsoft. I had become too comfortable with the world over the past two years in my immensely progressive and diverse friend group bubble. I was once again forced to reconcile with the reality that in the eyes of many, my life STILL did not matter.


This movement was different for me than in years’ past because I was no longer a naïve, young woman unaware of the ways in which I was being tokenized at work or in school environments. This time, I was not about to turn my cheek or let any sly, prejudiced comments, corporate performative allyship, gaslighting, or profiteering from Black pain slide. EVERYONE was going to have to hear my truth whether they liked it or not. I, and many across the world, simply had enough…and there was no turning back.


In the weeks after my graduation and before starting my first day in the post-MBA OnRamp rotational program at Microsoft, my day-to-day “work” was all activism. I started an IG page as an educational tool housing resources for people that wanted to learn more about systemic racism in the USA. I wrote to podcasts and professional e-newsletter companies urging them to cover the abuse of Black bodies happening around the world when it didn’t seem to be getting much initial attention. I challenged peers at my business school to speak to their families and friends so that these messages of equality and equity were not in an echo chamber and really reached non-Black ears. I pushed myself to the brink calling local politicians and police departments, marching in the streets, raising donations for Black victims to police brutality, and covering footage in social media…all the way up until July 6th, my first day at Microsoft.


I had the pleasure of interning there in 2019, and I accepted the full-time offer because it was a place that met all of my “MUSTs”; yet, I was still nervous about what to expect in such an emotionally heightened, pandemic-stricken, *unprecedented time*.


Would things be the same? My anxieties were high with excitement and fear, but I ultimately had to trust that I made the right decision to begin a lifelong career here. Once the dust settled, one of the first emails I received was about a bookclub series established to highlight the violence against African-Americans. It was a way that Microsoft invested in its own inclusion journey by reading and creating discussions related to racism. There were guidelines on how to conduct these conversations respectfully and inclusively. There was also a range of really great books that employees could expense, some that I had even suggested to peers and corporations including “Just Mercy”, “So You Want to Talk About Race”, “White Fragility”, and “The New Jim Crow”.


Was this a dream? My whole spirit began to exhale. I was finally at a place that cared about what was most important to me. It invested resources to aid in its own journey and empower its employees to do the same. And, it wasn’t just one conversation or topic. I am constantly learning about ways I can lean in, be more inclusive, and educate myself on the plight of others. Everyday, I am I still be in awe at Microsoft’s commitment to DEI, educating its employees and fostering conversations on matters like racial equity, gender equality, LGBTQIA+ pride, mental and physical (dis)ability awareness, and more. At last, I feel like I’m at a place where I can bring my full self to work, enjoy my job, connect meaningfully with my teams, and be encouraged to be successful within Microsoft and outside of it with my personal entrepreneurial endeavors. I am finally welcomed, included, and respected for my perspectives. I have coaches, mentors, and champions across organizations, and I have only been here in a full-time capacity less than a year. My work experience is valued, both figuratively and monetarily. Here, I am more than the sum of my parts.


All this to say, you must go where you’re not boxed in – whether at Microsoft or any other company. I’m not saying that everything will be perfect or honkey-dorey, but as a double-minority, it took me a long time to figure out the work environment I needed to be in to thrive. I’ve finally found it, but this is just the beginning. As I grow in my career, there is much work to be done. I’m responsible for helping to create opportunities for people that are underrepresented. I have to dive deep into my craft, share my voice, and be highly visible. I also feel the need to hold Microsoft accountable, whether that is in its efforts to attract and retain diverse talent, reward said individuals, and/or create meaningful leadership that is representative. 


This is where the story of my career begins, and I hope I am just one of many voices representing Black womanhood in tech. To those reading today…you are not alone, Sis. We are capable of anything.

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