Sophie Williams on Millennial Black
We meet the writer behind the new wave business manifesto that puts Black women firstRead more
Writer Sophie Williams is filling in the gaps too often neglected with Millennial Black, a new business manifesto that centres Black women. Her fresh approach serves as an engaging and practical resource, aiming to provide readers with all the tools to navigate and succeed in the business world – in spite of institutional obstacles that stand in the way. Highlighting just why intersectional identities should be integral to workplace practice, she takes us inside the book and the multilayered experience that brought it into existence…
How did Millennial Black come about?
I was a COO of an ad agency, and I realised that when external people came in for meetings, they didn’t quite know what to do with me – advertising is usually very white and male, and I was neither. So, despite being the most senior person in the room, visitors would assume I was the person who was there to make notes or coffees – which are really valid roles, but not my role at that point. I thought maybe I needed to change some of the ways I was behaving, so I started looking for books about Black women in businesses leadership – and I just couldn’t find any. At all. And so, I thought, ‘I guess if I can’t find it, I’m going to have to write it.’
Why did now seem like the right time to release the book?
Once I realised, in 2017, I was going to need to write the book about Black women in business that I couldn't find, I set to work right away – building a really in depth, researched, designed up presentation of a book proposal; I later found out I could have done a lot less, but I’m glad I did it because it gave me a great bank of research when it came time to start writing the full book. I pitched it at the end of 2019 and decided to go with my publisher – HQ, part of Harper Collins – in December of that year. And so, in 2020, with lockdown, and everything else we all know about that year – I sat down and wrote Millennial Black, and Anti-Racist Ally. I guess all of that is to say – I started this almost four years ago, but the wheels of publishing move quite slowly!
We accept that race plays a part in how we move through the world, and to imagine that would end when we step into our workplaces just didn’t make sense to me
What was most lacking for you about existing resources you came across?
I simply couldn’t find a single book that talked about both race and gender in the workplace. Let alone one that focused on Black women, and changes in generational expectations of work. There are so many books about women in business, but they’re almost all by (and implicitly about) white women, and don’t mention the impact that race plays in our lived experiences in all aspects of our lives. We accept that race plays a part in how we move through the world, and to imagine that that would end when we step into the doors of our workplaces just didn’t make sense to me.
How has your personal experience shaped your manifesto?
I draw a lot on my experiences and the places I’ve worked in Millennial Black, but I really wanted to make sure to bring in and amplify other voices too. Although I’m a Black woman, I’m mixed race, have very light skin, and a high proximity to whiteness. I didn’t want to position myself as the authority on all Black women’s experiences, knowing that we’re not a monolith, and that Black women with different intersections to myself go through things I can’t even imagine. And so, I made sure to interview a whole range of other Black female voices for the book – queer women, trans women, dark skinned women, women in different industries. Naomi Ackie talks about what it was like to be cast in Star Wars, while Munroe Bergdorf talks about navigating the working world as a trans woman, and June Angelides MBE talks about being the only Black female Venture Capitalist in her company, for instance.
Is there anyone in particular who has proved influential to you and your writing?
I found it really hard to read while writing, partially because I was scared of accidentally plagiarising anything! But I’ve always loved the writing of Maya Angelou, Audre Lorde and Toni Morrison - they can all do something with words that’s just... magic.
Why do you think understanding of intersectionality falls down in business as we know it?
I think when businesses first started thinking about inclusion and diversity, those terms were a kind of shorthand for ‘women’, which all too often means ‘white women’, when we dig into it. We can see that in pushes for female board members and CEOs, and in the requirement for businesses to publish their gender pay gaps. But we don’t do the same for more nuanced intersectional groups. If we’re only allowing one type of woman to progress and succeed, we’re doing everyone a disservice: both marginalised groups, and the businesses that could benefit from their brilliance.
If we’re only allowing one type of woman to progress and succeed, we’re doing everyone a disservice
Have you noted any recent positive progress in support for black women in business?
I’d love to say yes, but...
Are there any resources or platforms you would recommend for black women starting out in the business world?
I really recommend building informal networks – not linked to or controlled by the businesses you work for. In Millennial Black, I call that my Lady Gang (though it should be made up of people of all kinds of gender identities). Having a group of people who you are invested in, and who are invested right back in you is amazing and a real game changer. Once you build up a group of people who feel your successes as much as their own, and who say good things about you behind your back and mention your name in rooms of opportunity, things start to get easier.
What’s the most vital change businesses must make to better support black women?
Think beyond recruitment. It’s no good welcoming marginalised people into spaces which are hostile, or where they will be overlooked or undervalued. Make sure your routes to progression are clear, equal and usually accessible to all. At the moment, what we see too often is underrepresented talent being clustered in low status, low pay positions, without the opportunity to develop – both for themselves, and to give the best they can to the businesses they work for.