Micae Brown seemed to be on her way to greater things. As the national business development manager for a major city newspaper, she conceptualized and hosted a video series called “Minority Report” that showcased the city’s entrepreneurs and leaders of color. In short order, the five-minute video series became one of the two most watched for the daily paper, generating not only clicks but also much–needed advertising and sponsorship revenue.
So, two years into the project, she decided to pitch her managers and executives at the paper on a more expansive production. The response? They passed, citing a variety of expense issues. Frustrated, she left. “It was clear that I wasn’t going to grow and develop there,” says Brown.
But her story had only started. Inspired by the rise of the gig economy, Brown put together a bunch of side freelance hustles and turned them into her main hustle. She relaunched her series under a new name, “The Micae Brown Report,” began hosting an urban business roundtable talk show on a local radio station, and set up a sales agency. “I got one contracting assignment and then another, and then I was project managing,” says Brown. “And now I’ve been on my own for almost four years.”
At a time when the demand for diverse and inclusive leadership teams is greater than ever, a trend is emerging among high-potential African American leadership talent, who are choosing to opt out of corporate life for independent careers. Lack of representation in the C-suite and boardroom, conscious and unconscious biases, and lack of career support are increasing the risk among organizations that are recruiting and retaining future African American executives and leaders.
“If you were to ask an organization how many of their top African American leaders are thinking about leaving, the answer would likely be more than they realize,” says William F. Busch III, an associate client partner at Korn Ferry who specializes in organizational strategy and transformation.
It’s easy to see why. Today there are just three African American CEOs leading Fortune 500 companies, half the number of whom held that title in 2012. African Americans make up less than 5% of all executive positions in the private sector. Yet African Americans are getting advanced degrees at a higher rate than ever before. Two million African Americans age 25 or older currently have advanced degrees. Instead of converging (because more African Americans with advanced degrees should equate to more representation in executive positions), the numbers are diverging.
For their part, businesses know full well the trend is both highly unfortunate and highly unprofitable. Numerous studies show that a diverse and inclusive leadership team and labor force can mean everything from raising customer bases to greater innovations. And that, according to those studies, can improve financial performance by as much as 30%.
But the question remains the same: How can corporations create and engage a more diverse and inclusive work team? “The pressure is on for organizations to create cultures that make African American talent feel like the traditional corporate path is a compelling option to fulfill their leadership potential—before they opt out,” says Busch.