Throughout last month, we had the wonderful opportunity to celebrate Black History in its fullness. Maybe in February, you took the chance and joined a discussion group, read a book specific to the Black experience or attended an event (most likely a virtual one) that celebrated Black culture, but we should remind ourselves that the Black experience continues beyond this important moment of recognition.
As a proud veteran of the United States Navy and the first Black CEO of a Utah-based tech unicorn, I know the importance of fostering an organization of inclusivity and tolerance. I can’t let this month pass by without drawing from my own experience as a young Black male making my way in corporate America. As a country, we’re making strides in creating an equitable landscape of opportunity, but there is still much work to be done, especially in the tech industry, which has a high volume of disparities. According to a 2021 report on diversity in tech, 68% of U.S. business leaders identify a lack of diversity in their workforces, while the same percentage of young tech workers have felt uncomfortable in a job because of their gender, ethnicity, socioeconomic background or neurodevelopmental condition. When looking at women of color, this number increases to 77%.
My path to executive leadership was flooded from the start with questions driven by stereotypes. When networking and meeting other CEOs and executives, I often watch as my white colleagues and friends are asked, “Where did you get your MBA?” When they get to me, the first question is most often, “Did you play professional or collegiate football?” While these questions are innocent in nature, they demonstrate the way that executives often think about Black leaders and professionals—that we don’t rise to high levels of achievement through educational accolades but through physical excellence. It’s rare for me to be in a room of executives where I am not the only person of color.
When reflecting on those moments, I always remember the story of Doris “Dorie” Miller, the now-famous U.S. Navy mess attendant third class who became the first Black American to be awarded the Navy Cross. In World War II, Black men serving in the Navy were not only ineligible for promotion but they were consigned to the Messman branch, tasked with making beds and shining shoes. However, on December 7, 1941, aboard the U.S.S West Virginia, Dorie saw his country under attack and proved that bravery is race agnostic, taking control of an abandoned Browning machine gun and fighting back to save the lives of countless fellow Navy officers. He fired until he ran out of ammunition and was one of the last three men to jump ship that day.
Doris Miller’s heroic actions at Pearl Harbor, despite racial segregation, are a mighty symbol for Black Americans in their struggle for equal opportunity—not only in the armed forces but throughout the breadth of American society. Heroism knows no color, and many companies miss out on the contributions people of color can make by not seeking out their perspective and educating themselves on their experience.
I encourage you to find opportunities for reflection, celebration and education around the historical struggles of my community every month. Learning about Black History is not only about accepting our differences but embracing common humanity and tolerance. The color red is associated with Juneteenth as a symbol of “ingenuity and resilience in bondage,” and I’d be remiss if I didn’t pause and acknowledge the significance of this color’s presence on our nation’s flag, which to me, represents that Black History is American history.