Faced with bias and sparse numbers in the C-Suite, women of color are banding together to rise the ranks.
One leading network is Walker’s Legacy, a national, Washington D.C.-based network for women of color in business, which is celebrating its 10th year. Founder Natalie Madeira Cofield chatted with Know Your Value on the power of community and the past decade where women of color saw some progress, but nowhere near enough.
“There are still discrepancies for leaning in,” said Cofield. “Women of color are the ones that people are leaning into in order to support [others] leaning in.”
Generational discrimination has contributed to these numbers, according to the Economic Policy Institute. Only 0.0006 percent of venture capital is granted to firms owned by black women, according to a 2018 study by digitalundivided, even though the number of businesses owned by black women increased by 164 percent between 2007 and 2018, according to an American Express study.
Cofield, 38, credits her entrepreneurial mother for building up her business confidence and know-how. Raised in Rochester, New York, Cofield has been a CEO three times over between Walker’s Legacy, a nonprofit consulting company called NMC Consulting Group and a coworking space called Urban Co-Lab.
“Between all of my experiences, I was either the youngest person in the room, the only woman in the room, or the only woman of color in the room,” said Cofield.
The importance of mentorship and representation in business is well-documented. Women and minorities in particular say that mentors helped them in their careers, and yet, only 27 percent of organizations offer formal mentorship programs, according to a study from Heidrick & Struggles. Most employees look at their direct supervisors as mentors, while minorities are more likely to find mentors on their own.
Cofield initially launched Walker’s Legacy in 2009 to meet her heroes, such as Morgan Stanley’s Vice Chairman, Carla Harris. When she saw the response to her programs — and the same questions about career advancement being asked all over the country by women of color — Cofield decided that Walker’s Legacy needed to go national.
“It was really just that basic,” said Cofield. “How do I get to hear Carla Harris talk about her story?...Then I knew I wanted to take it on the road and have it impact more women.”
Cofield named the group after Madam C.J. Walker, an African-American cosmetics and hair care mogul who was named the wealthiest self-made female millionaire in America by the time of her death in 1919.
In the past 10 years, Walker’s Legacy has gone national, garnering a $400,000 grant from the Minority Business Development Agency and corporate partners from Google to Paypal. Its nonprofit arm, Walker’s Legacy Foundation, provides financial and professional support for businesswomen of color. The network connects 5,000 women per year, according to Cofield, and has helped raise more than $40 million in investments and loans.
Through Walker’s Legacy, members network, meet successful women of color and learn the ins and outs of business online or at live events across the U.S. Cofield said members feel empowered within Walker’s Legacy to ask important questions about race and community, as well as standard business questions that they may feel nervous about asking elsewhere, such as how to form an LLC.
“It’s paralyzing to someone if you don’t have someone to ask,” said Cofield. “...Obvious questions remain which are constantly seeking community and constantly seeking examples of women who look like them who have succeeded. When you have not had a lot of representation across the board in media, it’s hard to find someone who has a story exactly like yours.”
Women of color may not have access to bank loans or venture capital due to inherent inequalities, said Cofield. They may not have millionaire connections, and banks might make them nervous.
“Women of color ask themselves, ‘Do I want to subject myself to the possibility of being declined or denied, of my life of being devalued?’” Cofield said. “‘Why would I put myself back into the space of being traumatized?’ A lot of women of color were not going after bank loans because they don’t trust the banking system.”
Members of Walker’s Legacy include everyone from students to executives, according to Cofield. Event speakers have included Carol’s Daughter founder Lisa Price, Black Girls Code founder Kimberly Bryant and model Beverly Johnson.
At one event, Harris spoke, too.
“There’s always a workaround to being able to have access,” said Cofield. “It may be more challenging, and may take more time. One thing I know about women of color, is that they’ve always made a way out of no way.”