Community for women of color in sales and business
A: It is interesting because I believe that there is always an aspect of sales in our jobs whether directly or indirectly. In my case, I started early in my career with roles that sat ancillary to the sales function, but weren’t directly sales jobs. Early on, I had two roles (one individual contributor and one manager) in sales compensation with a legal publishing company, which helped me understand the compensation structure of sales. After that I went to business school, and upon graduating went on to work for AMEX for 12yrs. For the last eight years there, I was in unique sales roles because they were a hybrid of Business Development, Sales and Marketing. It wasn’t a traditional sales role that was tied to quota but rather a partnerships role where I was selling AMEX Marketing Assets as well as AMEX Data & Insights to travel, restaurant and hotel partners. In 2014, I was displaced as a part of a larger reorganization. Since I had been there for 12 years, I was ready to look for something else. Honestly, I had been ready to move on for a couple years, but it was hard to look for a job while having a job and with my son being young. I decided to take the severance package in order to use that time to really be thoughtful about what I wanted to do next. I knew I didn’t want to do financial services anymore because I didn’t want to be pigeon-holed as a “financial services person,” but wanted to be in an industry that showcased my breath of ability to flex in different places. I viewed this an an opportunity to change the trajectory of my career.
I then began communicating with an ex-colleague at Linkedin, a guy that used to work with me at AMEX who was a mentee of mine when I was there. My goal in speaking to him was to gain insight on which companies were hiring, not even thinking of Linkedin as an option at the time. I was no longer interested in a larger organization, but wasn’t sure if I could make the switch to a start-up. My conversations with him were part of my fact finding mission as I plotted out my next steps. He asked me if I would be interested in working at Linkedin, I thought about it and agreed to have a conversation having little understanding of what LinkedIn actually sold. He put me in touch with the executive recruiter, and it was really an interesting process because there wasn’t a role open for me initially. The recruiter was more interested in getting to know me as a leader and a person, based on my experience and what I brought to the table. Over the course of a couple of months, a few roles opened up and I began the interview process for those roles. It was a really tricky but interesting experience because it wasn’t like they were analyzing my direct experience, rather ‘tell me who you are.’ They were looking for leadership from different companies, given that Linkedin was in hyper growth mode. They were looking for someone who had the business acumen to come into an organization and understand what it’s going to be like when the organization is more mature, versus a lot of people who had grown up there with incredible industry and internal knowledge, but maybe not the outside expertise of leadership that I was hoping to bring over.
Being that Lisa has been at Linkedin for almost 5 years now, I think it is safe to say that she definitely had and still has what the company was looking for! I love the fact that she mentioned how sales is part of any job a person takes on in their lives, no matter what industry you are in, and I also appreciate how self aware she is. Lisa was at a well known company for over a decade but still decided to remain true to herself and what she knows stimulates her mind, and made the decision to take a severance package in order to re-calibrate and align her sales profession with what she truly believes in; selling with integrity and conviction. Lisa elaborates on this more in the next question, but I must point out how this is now the second time this theme has risen during my SIS interviews. Sidney Garcia has built a whole business around the same concept, it is the only way I have ever chosen to sell, and this proves how important it is to the sales process and industry.
A: It is a couple of things. I think the first piece is when I believe in something, whether it is the type of bread that makes the best toast, the kind of car I drive, or the kind of sneakers I wear, I am incredibly convincing at explaining to someone else why they really need it in their lives. I can be in the grocery store and I will talk to someone about an item I am purchasing, then I begin to notice other people around me picking up the item I am discussing because they hear how convincing I am about how much they are going to love it!
So, I think that part of it was the reason I would be interested in sales, because I think I have the skills, passion, and aptitude for it, but it would need to be something that I absolutely believed in and could have 100% conviction. I never thought I could sell if it were something I did not believe in or I did not really care about, and that can be kind of tough because that limits me and puts me in a position where I won’t have endless opportunities for future sales roles. I have to care, and I think when I do, people believe me, I can be trustworthy, and ultimately I could build those emotional connections.
All of that is part of it, and I think that there is something about the education process of sales. You have someone that may not know everything, you are helping them understand why it is important, you are understanding them and what they care about, then you are coming up with matches of what you have to sell based off what they need; kind of reminds me of the dating matching sites because you are constantly having to be curious, and eager to learn about all the different customers I am speaking to and what is important to them. It is not one size fits all and based off of that, give them the best that will work for them, and that process, from beginning to end is something I find a lot of excitement and joy in, I enjoy it, and hopefully it works out and they say yes at the end of it; my mind is always stimulated in the whole sales process.
Key takeaway from Lisa’s response, is to remain true to you, believe in what you sell, and it will make the sales process easier due to your conviction in the product. Like Lisa, I am extremely convincing in getting people around me to do or buy things that I believe in based on my passion behind it. I always say, if you cannot see yourself buying the product or service that you are selling, then how can you convince others to do the same? It is the very best way to sell that will keep your conscious in check, and truly fulfills you because you have sold with compassion and understanding that you have truly helped someone.
A: While at AMEX, I closed a very difficult partnership deal with a well known multi-billion dollar hotel chain whose name I cannot mention, but was our biggest client at the time. We had the most aggressive sales goals with them, and we were working with a partnership where they had another competitor they were working with, so it was a delicate relationship. The person whom we were working with, is a really smart and good person that was very skeptical about the partnership, and had a tough personality. What I noticed internally, in large rooms, in large settings, the client I was working with, based off of their strong personality, a lot of the people within my company didn’t know how to manage it. I think at times you lose control when it is too big of a room, and sometimes you just need to have a one on one conversation to understand what is important; therefore, I asked the client out for lunch. We went to lunch at one of my old restaurant accounts that I have maintained a great relationship with, we got all the special treatment, which the client loved, and we did not have any alcoholic beverages (I say that because I was asked later if she was drunk when the deal closed, haha). I began asking tons of questions of what they were goaled with for that year, and was told all the things that needed to get done in the first quarter of that year, and literally out of nowhere, the client started mentally allocating dollars to initiatives of where they could be working with AMEX as we were talking!
I asked the client if they were ok with me writing all of this down, and once agreed, I asked the waiter for a napkin, and on the napkin, we started allocating out the million dollar deal towards different initiatives. The amazing thing about this, is that it wasn’t me pushing, it was me asking tons of questions on what was important to them, how are they going to be goaled, what does success look like at the end of the year, and the client began allocating thousands of dollars across buckets of where we wanted to spend money. I provided insight, guidance, and education on how we can help but I was not selling. I was just being a good partner and because of it, I essentially hit my annual target with this account in January of that year due to this conversation!
They agreed to this contract upfront because I believe the key to it was that it was all about the person managing that account, the client as a whole, all about understanding them, and I didn’t speak my internal lingo; I was just there to understand the client. I went back to work in shock that I was able to do this, I was on cloud nine because this has never been done before. This deal made me realize sometimes we create all this structure and formalities in presentations, and think we have to have all of this in place in order to sell big, but often it comes down to that human to human relation. After this deal was closed, the client became my biggest ally at that account, and everyone at work began calling me, ‘The Whisperer,’ for that specific client since I was one of the only people at the company that was able to talk to them. They had an expectation of directness, trust, and clarity that they have gotten with our relationship which was sometimes hard to replicate. I believe my colleagues were all coming from a well-intentioned, informed place, however at times were more focused on the internal ways of doing things versus us being two people that need to talk this out.
The global lodging company became one of the most important clients to AMEX from a partnership perspective. A lot of which was rooted in that initial trust building upfront. This deal closed when I was about 3 years into the sales role at AMEX, and in year 7 of working for the company.
What an amazing story!!! Lisa proved that less is more, simple human relationships are important, and it is vital that we make our clients feel important by asking the right questions, and ensuring that what we are selling them will actually assist with them reaching their goals. Another important key takeaway is emotional intelligence, that I personally believe is lacking within the sales industry. It is very essential for us to be mindful that even though we are sales professionals, not everyone would like to feel like they are being sold to. Creating a connection and building upon that relationship is extremely important in closing any deal whether you believe it or not. So, take a page out of Lisa’s book and maybe you too can close a million dollar deal that gets you to target for the year and get you promoted as well!
A: My dad is from Puerto Rico, and my mom is Indian, she’s from Zanzibar in East Africa. As far as the challenges with being a WOC in sales, for me, it can sometimes be hard because I end up retreating in myself, not saying how I feel, and being mindful of what I say or do because I am very aware that I am one of the only ones. I put a lot of pressure on myself to not make mistakes. My feeling can sometimes be ,‘if I make a mistake, everyone’s going to remember, because I am the only one that looks like me.’ I do push myself out of this and am very aware that this is a mindset that I can sometimes fall into, so I challenge myself to get out of it. But I still think to this day that it is not always easy because part of feeling comfortable is feeling that there are other people similar to you there. It’s not only about your ethnic/racial background, but it’s certainly the most easily identified.
Another challenge is because I have learned how to assimilate and have done this so well, people often don’t even know that I am a minority or am a person of color. When I bring it up, I have been told, “you shouldn’t really focus on it because we don’t see you that way.” This is an interesting statement to make to a person of color and I recently challenged a white male colleague that has said that to me. He essentially told me that shouldn’t feel out of place or pay attention to being a minority because no one “sees me that way.” While I was annoyed in the moment, and didn’t say anything to him right away, I looked at this as a learning moment for him and a moment of bravery for me.. The next day I went back to him and reminded him of the conversation. I explained that while he may have perceived what he said as a compliment to me, in fact I found it offensive. To imply that I wasn’t seen “that way” felt like he was saying being perceived as a minority was actually negative, so I should be happy that I wasn’t perceived that way. “I want you to understand something, there is nothing wrong with being a person of color, and I am proud of who I am. What I want is for people to see it, embrace it, and not judge it or associate negative stereotypes with it.” The concept of people stating that they do not see color is illogical and implies that something is in fact wrong with color. I don’t know how much of this concept is their fault, I think many people are raised with this idea of color-blindness being what makes them not biased and think that is what they are supposed to say. However, it would be more helpful to actually have a conversation with people on the other end to understand how they feel and how they would like to be made to feel included; that is the missing piece. Just like with customers, we would not be successful if we went in with a solution not knowing what they need or how they felt. We need to spend time understanding their business needs and pains to then truly provide them with value. I think people do not ask enough people about who they are and go off of assumptions about them instead.
I struggle with this sometimes as being the few people of color in the room, you are either put in the position of spokesperson of all people of color, which I am not qualified to be and cannot speak for everyone. Or sometimes you end up being silent because you don’t want to be the only person bringing certain issues up and if you are silent, then you end up being upset with yourself for doing so. It is a an extra burden that I am having to navigate until this day. I think what has changed in me is that I am braver, more vocal, and I try to do lots of things within my community at work specifically, but I am trying to do even more outside of that to have an impact; this is an ongoing challenge. I do not want anyone to think that if they hire me that I am going to be “more work” to manage because I am a person of color. I want them to know that their team will be better due to the unique experience, perspectives and qualifications I bring to the table. If a leader focuses on always creating an inclusive team environment, I will naturally fit in because you have created that from the start. This isn’t a “Lisa thing” but the way you should do it which is really important. I do believe at times that some leaders may worry that they will have to do special things and they can’t speak the way they want to speak, and if all those changes need to be made, then I am forced to question what you been doing from the beginning?
A: Find allies, mentors, coaches, and people that want to help you & have your best interest at heart, very early on in your career. You want people that give you feedback and hold you accountable as well. Be self reflective and ask yourself these types of questions:
What are the stories you are telling yourself that may hinder you from being successful?
How do you position your questions in order for you to get what you need?
Where are we being our actual worse enemies?
How do you make sure you are comfortable, being authentic, and make sure your soul is being nourished?
I believe that ERG’s are very important because it gives you a sense of camaraderie, community, but you cannot be perceived as a person that only navigates those spaces. You have to balance the comfort that you can gain from your ERG communities with the need to spend time building relationships with everyone else, even if it’s uncomfortable sometimes. You cannot be perceived as a person that only hangs out with people like yourself. It may feel unfair because your white colleagues do this often just due to the racial makeup of the workplace and are often not called if for it, but it is the reality of the situation. Make sure you take advantage of all the opportunities being presented and not assuming that things are not for you. Control what you can versus expecting others to fix it for you, really be thoughtful of this. If provided feedback that you may not agree with our feel comfortable with, address the feedback in three buckets, #1- feedback that you understand, appreciate and welcome, #2- feedback that you find unclear/ambiguous and need clarification, and #3- feedback that you do not agree with or potentially find inconsistent when compared to your peers. This is important in weeding out the things you can control in order for you to be more successful. Lastly, communicate with purpose and intention while educating others.
A: It is so refreshing to be around other people with a similar experience or background. Even when you are succeeding at work, it is very rare for us to have that experience at work or go somewhere you can let your guard down and be real to share what is really going on and not have to worry about how you phrase every little thing to make everyone else comfortable. You need it for your soul.
SIS is important in order for you to nourish your soul, feel included, and knowing that there are women that look like me that work in sales! It is also great for networking and knowledge sharing that is specific for WOC. In terms of other orgs, the ERG’s is a great place, but I tend to rely on social circles that knew me from the beginning and knows how far I have come in order to help me celebrate all of my accomplishments regardless of the industries you we work in; this encourages me to keep on going.
Lisa reminded me that, no matter what, it is important for you to remember who you are and that we have a responsibility to help educate others about what they do not know about us in order for us to be the change we want to see not only in the world but within the sales industry, specifically for WOC’s. It is unfortunate that these things are still occurring, but thank God for a community such as SIS that allows us to share our pains and provide insight on how we can deal with all these situations in a better and sometimes unique way.
Connect with Lisa on LinkedIn here, and join her at our upcoming Power Breakfast Panel. RSVP below: