It all started with lunch and the question, “What do you need?”
Lauren Wesley Wilson was 25 and working at the junior level in a communications firm in Washington, D.C. in 2011 when she decided to launch a luncheon series. The goal was a grassroots effort to gather “open and honest” women of color in marketing and communications to help each other with whatever they needed.
“If they need a new job, are looking to hire, speak on more panels,” or whatever, Wilson says, the luncheon group represented women of color from early career to executive level in the DC area.
Her idea has transformed into ColorComm, the annual conference Wilson founded and created in 2014, that recently had a capacity attendance of 430 participants in marketing and branding for its fourth conference year. Whoopi Goldberg, award-winning actress, author, comedienne and host of ABC’s “The View,” was the final keynote speaker.
The impetus for ColorComm, Wilson says, was, “Over time I realized not seeing people of color in leadership made me wonder, ‘How will I ever rise up?’”#ColorComm was founded for WOC in communications to experience action & change Click To Tweet
Wilson, who is a member of the Cannes Lions Festival of Creativity Glass Lions jury and was also recently named one of the “Most Powerful in PR” by PR week, says she made Color Comm her full-time work when she saw what was needed.
The ColorComm three-day conference recently held in Miami brought together women leaders of color from large advertising agencies, communications firms, financial firms, publishing houses, broadcast companies and brands. C-suite executives from firms including CocaCola North America, Morgan Stanley, CNN, Wells Fargo, Univision, UNICEF, Olgivy, FleishmanHillard, Ketchum, IPG and The Ad Council were featured speakers.
It was not always this grand a vision. At first, Wilson admits, she thought rather “narrowly.” She adds, “I thought we could connect this day, we could do this lunch. The members asked how do we formalize this community?”
In 2012, ColorComm launched with 40 charter members, and now has the annual conference as well as monthly programs in seven cities, including Washington, D.C., New York, Chicago, Atlanta, San Francisco and Miami.
At a session of ColorComm this year, one of the ColorComm Circle Award honorees, Kathy Baird, Managing Director of Content and Social, Ogilvy said, “Brands are starting to look into their own communities for influencers…they’re equally as valuable because of their passion.”
Women leaders of color are integral to the creation of branding campaigns, Wilson says. This will help to get the messaging more attuned to the audience and will perhaps help avoid costly mistakes like the Pepsi campaign criticized earlier this year and starring Kylie Jenner.
“We need to be a part of decision making,” Wilson says. “There were people of color in the room who did not have the power or comfort to say something.”
The statistics bear this out not just in this one instance, but as an historic and continued trend.
In 2016, ColorComm published a study of women of color in communications with the PR Council and some of the findings were surprising, according to PR Week. Advancement is stalled or stopped for Africa-American women in public relations and communications.#Advancement is stalled for African-American women in public relations & communications Click To Tweet
“Nearly 80 percent of Latino or Hispanic pubic relations pros said they believe employment prospects have progressively improved in their field in the past decade. Only 53.8 percent of black or African-American respondents agreed,” the study shows.
“Twenty-one percent of Latino or Hispanic respondents said PR pros of the same background are making great progress as key decision-makers within agencies, more than double the percentage of black and African-American respondents (8.5 percent).”
Christopher Graves, chairman of the PR Council and global chairman of Ogilvy Public Relations, told PR Week that “retaining PR pros from both groups is a ‘huge challenge’ for the industry, and this study is ‘just the beginning.’”
Wilson adds, “Feedback I have gotten from white male CEO’s is this is an eye-opener because they don’t live it everyday. They don’t have any idea because no one is sharing this.”
Action steps to change retention and hiring levels include “actively recruiting more employees from diverse backgrounds, promoting more often from within, and increasing the capacity of senior staffers to become more open to diverse ideas and cultures,” PR Week reported.
Wilson says while the ColorComm conference has been a success and impetus for change, women of color can be their own agents of change when connected with skills and networks.#WomenOfColor can be their own agents of change when connected with skills and networks Click To Tweet
She adds, “If you don’t ask, you will be left behind.”
Wilson says she is spurred on and supported by her mother, Valerie Wilson, a veteran communications executive in Chicago with a direct marketing firm where she was co-owner and CEO in the 90s.
“She works in operations and I have this backbone of trust,” Wilson says of her mother, who will help ColorComm in its international expansion, likely to London and Montreal.
While the plan is for ColorComm to be in 10-25 cities domestically with new chapters, Wilson says she is not going to rush it. “I’m about consistency.”
The growth of the conference has been steady from 180 attendees in the first year to 350 participants in year two, 400 in year three and 430 this year. The reason is simple, she explains.
“It is not a typical boring conference in a cold room eating nasty food,” Wilson says. “People are developing ideas at this conference, it is a more of a retreat. We are all participating in this together. They come on their own and they leave with friends.”
She adds, “This industry is dominated by women, yet at the top are white males and white women,” says Wilson. “We need more access and we need to learn how to get that access. Advancement is our mission,” she says.
This is necessary for women of color in communications, others agree.
According to Charlene Collier, founder and senior consultant of Capitol Consulting Group. Collier writes recently in Blavity about the stigma and stereotypes of ambitious women of color.
“Some feel the reason for the barrier that black women face climbing the corporate ladder is due to lack of mentors/executive sponsors to advocate on their behalf, as well as the view that some of the achievements that black women make in the workplace go unnoticed,” Collier writes.
“Often times black women don’t feel comfortable enough to speak up or ‘toot their own horn’ out of fear of being labeled as being afflicted with ABWS, also known as ‘Angry Black Woman Syndrome.’”
Collier continues, “In the past, the advice black women have been given to combat ABWS is to be ‘more agreeable’ and to ‘put your head down and let your work do the talking.’ However, this type of behavior tends to be more detrimental than helpful in the long run, as it reinforces the false narrative that something is ‘wrong’ with black women being their true self, and that they must dim their light to get ahead.”
Women of color who make it to the top of the ladder may agree.
Bozoma Saint John, Chief Brand Officer of Uber, recently told Essence: “As Black women, [we] feel like [we’re] on stage anyway in our corporate environment; you’re on stage because people are always watching or we feel like people are always judging. We think that’s in our head but it’s not. It’s not in our heads, it’s a real thing. For me, all of that has helped because it is my baseline….since that has been experience my whole life, I just live it. I don’t try to temper it.”
Wilson is pleased with the growth of ColorComm and is focusing on domestic and international chapters of the movement that grew from her simple idea of a productive, networking lunch for women of color working in the same city.
“Honestly I always think there is more to be done,” Wilson says. “There is so much more that we could create. We are not just talking the talk. We are a community that cares. We are about action and change.”