With many colleges recently holding their commencement ceremonies, thousands of bright-eyed Black graduates will soon head into Corporate America, looking to forge their careers. However, Stephen M. Graham, an Ivy-league-trained lawyer, has a warning for them. Be prepared for a hostile environment. Graham is a corporate partner at Fenwick and West, and founder and managing partner of the firm’s Seattle office.
Graham details his experience in a new ebook titled “Invisible Ink: Navigating Racism in Corporate America.” Graham graduated from Yale in the late 1970s and entered the corporate world in the early 1980s. Back then, he was often the only Black person in his office, and more than 30 years later things haven’t changed much. According to the book, only 1.8 percent of 50,000 law firms in the nation have Black partners.
“I had no idea it (progress) would be so slow,” said Graham in a phone interview. “My firm today only has two African American partners, and one of them is me.”
In his book, Graham details some of the challenges he faced working in corporate America such as being labeled an “affirmative action hire,” co-workers questioning his work or simply refusing to acknowledge he worked at the firm, even though he had been there several years.
“If you are White, your outstanding performance is applauded. If you are Black, it is deemed the result of affirmative action or luck. If you are White, your divergent opinion is deemed a different point of view. If you are Black, it is deemed to be wrong,” said Graham.
Graham said the hostile atmosphere is the reason why so many African Americans end up leaving the corporate world.
Even today, corporate America remains a good old boys club. According to Essence magazine, only 15 Black men have ever been CEOs of Fortune 500 companies and people tend to hire people who look like them. Graham said the corporate world still has implicit bias.
“The playing field is not level,” said Graham. “Some CEOs are not going to hire you.”
Even though Graham has been successful, graduated from an Ivy League college and has made six figures salaries, he said he succeeded in spite of the obstacles thrown in his way. He also points out that he could have been much more successful if he had not faced these problems.
According to Graham, the situation is much like Barack Obama’s presidency. Obama was a success and had numerous accomplishments, but he succeeded in spite of facing challenges and obstruction throughout his presidency.
Graham does offer some advice for Black people working in corporate America. His book suggests that Black corporate workers find a mentor to help them survive the corporate world. However, that mentor might not always look like them.
He also suggests they “create their own opportunities,” and overperform.
“You do have to be smarter than the next guy,” said Graham, who also challenges firms to be held accountable to their diversity goals.
“Invisible Ink” is available at Barnes and Noble and Amazon.