The Lack of Diversity in Retail: How Being an African-American in the Retail Industry Gave Me an Competitive Edge
I stopped being distracted by being the minority and started using the unique perspective it gave me.
My love for retail started early. I loved fashion, clothes and shopping. To this day, shopping is still one of my favorite past times.
When I was in high school, I was in a professional youth mentoring program called INROADS. It helped Black teens with business skills — interviewing, resume writing, planning a successful career — and focused on their strengths for a career path.
In this program, I found two things that I loved and was good at. Writing and shopping. I knew I could make money writing, but it didn't really light me up. Shopping and retail, on the other hand, did. My early love for retail shocked program mentors. I was the first, and only, person who wanted a career in retail. This program was designed for “traditional” professions like lawyers, engineers or general businessmen. This was my first realization of the lack of diversity in the retail industry. The mentors had a challenge on their hands.
My first experience
When one of the program sponsors, Boston Store, heard about my interest in being a buyer. I later found out the business had been wanting to participate in the program before but no one was interested in working with them. They were excited to finally have someone who wanted a career in retail. My mentor scheduled an interview for the internship.
I met with an assistant buyer of women’s fashion. As a fellow African-American, she was really excited that another young Black person was interested in this profession. We hit it off right away and I got the internship. She was nice, informative and real. She showed me the ins and outs of being a buyer and what her and her boss's job entailed.
During the internship, I would go to her office at the Boston Store corporate office. There I saw the reality again. There weren’t many African-Americans in the office. As a teenager, it really didn’t dawn on me what was going on. Yes, I noticed it, but really didn’t think anything of it at the time.
This internship started me on my retail path. I began to work as an associate for a women’s specialty chain called Jean Nicole. I really like helping people, selling and being around fashion all day. I worked other jobs while in high school, but nothing really gave me a rush like working at Jean Nicole. Senior year came and I had to apply to colleges and pick a major. I knew I wanted a career in retail, I just didn’t know how to get there.
My guidance counselor didn’t know what to do with me. “A career in retail? What does that look like?” she asked. I didn’t know, that was what she was there for, I thought. All I knew is that I wanted to be in the retail industry. So because I really couldn’t get help from her, I decided to go the “normal” route and major in business. I could get a business degree and use that to get into retail corporate.
A growing trend
I applied to a few reputable business schools and was accepted to Purdue University. Yeah! I was excited. Then, I read the entire package they sent me. I was accepted to the Consumer and Family Sciences (CFS) school.
Wait, what? What is that? I wanted to go to the business school. I don’t even know what Consumer and Family Sciences was. Turns out, when I filled out my application and indicated that I wanted a career in retail and what my interests were, they changed my school for me and placed me on the right path. CFS was the school that housed the Retail Management program and I was accepted to that. They informed me that Purdue was in the top third of Retail Management programs in the country and would be the best school for me to reach my career goals.
I couldn’t believe it — and neither could my parents. There was a school dedicated to people like me, people who loved retail and wanted to make it their career. Finally, someone got me. I found a place where I could fit in and be with people just like me.
Or so I thought.
My junior year rolled around and I was excited because I would be taking classes that were 100% for my major. I went to my retail math, buying, textiles, and project management classes and I noticed one key thing: I was the only Black person in every class! I mean in every class. Now to put this into perspective, Purdue is a predominantly White institution so the diversity ratio was low to begin with. However, my friends who were in engineering, accounting, social work, and business saw plenty of peers that looked like them.
It was staring me dead in the face again. Retail was not a very diverse industry. At least not at the level that Purdue was preparing me for.
When I graduated from Purdue and started my professional career, my first job was as an assistant manager for Express. I loved Express. I had been a customer, so to start my professional career there was incredible. When I walked in on my first day, I saw it. I was the only manager that was a person of color. When we had our first district meeting a few months later, I saw it again. I was one of two African-American managers in the entire district.
Well, this “trend” continued throughout the entire time I lived in Indiana. I was the only or one of only two or three African-Americans who were in management positions. I thought maybe it was because of where I lived. I moved to Chicago thinking things would be different. They weren’t.
I moved to Chicago to be the district visual manager for Forever 21. This was my dream job. I was bit by the visual merchandising bug mid-way through my career. I had a real talent for it and it helped me to succeed in my management career.
I noticed it again. I was the only African-American district manager in the entire company at the time. I was in the third-largest city in the country, working for a company based in the second-largest city (Los Angeles), yet I was the only Black mid-manager. It blew my mind.
When I was the regional visual manager for Sports Authority, I was one of two Blacks and one of three people of color in that role. The company only had one African-American district manager and one Latino district manager.
By the time I became a regional manager, this experience was the norm and almost expected. I stopped being distracted by it and started to use it to my advantage. I noticed that because I was the only or one of the few African-Americans in my career path, it gave me a unique perspective on the industry that I was in. I had to overcome challenges my peers did not face, learn various communication styles, and adapt to different cultures and environments to be successful.
I learned that because I was always overcoming cultural challenges and norms, I had a unique way of solving problems and creative ways to drive results. I had no choice. I had to prove everyday that I belonged there, regardless of what my resume said. Everyday was an interview and test of my authority. I saw things differently and that helped me to see solutions that did not fit the norm.
It goes without saying that I worked hard. I had no choice. But this helped me develop a work ethic that helped to catapult me to the top of my profession in every position that I held. I learned I could train anyone — and I mean anyone. I could teach anyone on any level everything they need to know to be successful in their role regardless of talent or experience. Communication and training became my superpowers!
Now I used all of these skills to help my clients face the many challenges and frustrations of running a retail business. I have a very unique and birds-eye view so I can see three steps ahead of their current stage. I can guide them to the next level because of my experiences. Now, there are more African-American executives and decision-makers in retail. More African-Americans are being exposed to the industry and are learning a new career avenue. With organizations like BRAG and Retail Boss, the look of the retail industry is more diverse than it has ever been. Which, to me, is a breath of fresh air.
Entrepreneur Leadership Network Writer