Claiming a Seat at the Table: Takeaways from ColorComm 2017

August 23, 2017

by Ashlei Rodgers

When I was asked to write a blog post about the ColorComm Conference (C2) and my experience as an African American woman working in PR, I immediately thought of my favorite quote by Shirley Chisholm, who said “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” Attending ColorComm was the epitome of this quote coming to life and having the opportunity to network and learn from top executive women of color who have been bringing their own chairs to boardrooms since the 1980s.

As women of color, we are constantly fighting to not only be heard but to be in the room. This statement rings true among all women of color who are working in companies where they have to constantly deal with unconscious bias, micro aggression, and a gamut of other issues because their company doesn’t see the value of diversity and inclusion.

With that being said, I sincerely appreciate FleishmanHillard (FH) investing in women of color and finding it important for us to be at the table. It was very encouraging to see our president and CEO John Saunders at the conference and it emphasized FH’s commitment to improving the agency’s diversity from the top down.

(L-R) Della Sweetman, Patricia Alvarado, Adriana Huerta, Tala Chmiel, Symone Lenoir, Mil Galvin, John Saunders, Dawn Gipson, Lorren Thomas, Ashlei Rodgers, Rachel Coleman and Ashley Simms

Learning about corporate initiatives to recruit and retain diverse talent and their future plans to help close the diversity gap was also very insightful. We had a big presence at the conference, and trust me it was noticed by the other attendees. It definitely says a lot about an agency that supports women of color and wants us to thrive in an industry that has overlooked our potential for decades.

It’s surprising that in 2017 diversity and inclusion is still be BIG problem for top agencies. To be honest, as a person that embraces other cultures, travels the world, speaks other languages and has lived abroad multiple times, it was a very eye-opening experience when I joined the industry. I’ve never been reminded that I was Black every day until I started working at a PR agency. Prior to joining FH, I worked at another global PR firm that for some reason did not hire many people of color that were outside of administrative roles. Since it was my first time working at an agency, I was oblivious to the underlying problem of diversity. With that being said, it didn’t take long to notice that I was the only one who was raising their hand to make sure people of color were represented in pitches, strategic plans and media lists.

When you are the only person of color in the room, you slowly come to the realization that if you were not in the meeting, the topic of diversity would most likely be an afterthought or no thought at all. Sadly for a majority of agencies, if a client does not request a multicultural angle, diversity is not included in the pitch. Which is a real disservice to the client particularly since the world is so multicultural. Today, in the United States over half of all millennials are of color but we are still being excluded from strategic communications plans that are focusing on “general audience.” Why does this continue to be the status quo? Agencies are slowly learning the hard way that diversity in the workplace is not only an asset but can also prevent companies from creating insensitive or offensive content.

These are just some of the many topics that were discussed at the ColorComm conference. The C2 experience is like no other, consider it like a safe space for women of color to have instant fellowship, access to industry leaders who look like them, raw and inspiring discussions, and advice on how to overcome personal challenges that are rooted in cultural and racial isolation, misunderstandings and prejudice.

The conference was a life changing experience and I am very thankful I had the opportunity to represent FH and network with so many incredibly successful women. Some of the women included, Carla Harris (Vice Chairman, Morgan Stanley), Symone Sanders (Political Commentator, CNN), Karen Comas (US Talent Partnerships, Facebook & Instagram), and Claudia Gonzales Romo (Special Advisor, UNICEF’S Global Chief of Public Advocacy), Tiffany Smith-Anoa’i (EVP, CBS Entertainment) just to name a few.

Overall the ColorComm experience was amazing, educational, and inspiring. I personally look forward to sharing key learnings with our Chicago office and continuing the conversation on the importance of diversity and inclusion.