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A generation looks beyond acceptance in business.
By Cora Daniels
 

It's hard enough to disagree with your boss. What about the boss's boss? Or the company's ultimate boss? That's what happened when I sat down with Richard Parsons, CEO of Time Warner (parent of FORTUNE's publisher). I wouldn't ordinarily publicize a potentially career-killing moment, but the big boss and I were talking about race. And since race is that part of the workplace that everyone tries to ignore, rare moments like this are worth publicizing.

"When I was coming up my grandmother would say things like 'be a credit to your race,' " says Parsons. "Each and every one of us somehow carried the entire reputation of African Americans in America on our shoulders when we left the community and went out into the world."

"[Your] generation," he tells me, "doesn't have that burden." That's where we disagree.

Parsons is not just my boss's boss's boss but one of the most powerful black executives in corporate America. And I'm, well, notI'm just a black face too early in my career to be most powerful anything yet. But after months of interviews with young black executives across the country, I found I wasn't alonemy generation doesn't really agree either. Race is not that easy to shed. More important, it isn't something this young generation wants to shed. Instead they gladly carry the weight.

"I am a black woman; I never can leave that at the door," says Susan Chapman, 34, director of global real estate for Level 3, the telecom networking company. "You have to be true to who you are and be who you are."

I turned my race conversations into a book, which, honestly, is another reason to spread the news about that moment. Black Power Inc.: The New Voice of Success explores what race means for a generation of black professionals born long after the hoses of the civil rights movement were turned off. Instead of downplaying race as Parsons's generation did to climb the ladder, this generation of black executives walks through corporate hallways with clenched fists. They boldly embrace race and are driven by it, no matter what workplace etiquette suggests.

"Like it or not, race guides everything we do," says Wishart Edwards, 34, an investment banking partner at UBS, the Swiss bank. "Because at the end of the day you are always going to be a black person trying to get something that no one wants to give you."

What does talk like this mean for the FORTUNE 500? It means that this generation of black executives is not going to be as patient as the one before. Turnover rates are already 40% higher for black executives than for their counterparts. Replacing someone who leaves generally costs four times that person's salary when recruitment and training costs are factored in.

More startling, perhaps, is what people of this generation are doing with their alienation. Black men between 25 and 35 years old with some graduate school experience start their own businesses more frequently than any other group in the country, on a per capita basis. Overall, African Americans are 50% more likely than whites to start a business.

"I embrace being black," says Shawn Baldwin, 36, founder and CEO of Capital Management Group, a securities firm in Chicago. "It doesn't mean that I am anti-anyone else, but uplifting black people is my No. 1 concern. It is why I had to start my business."

It also means that goals have changed. The groundbreaking generation wanted to be let into corporate America. But for this generation, which was never denied access, the barriers that remain are not worth fighting over. "Black people have been holding on to this fairy tale bill of goods for too long," says Sean Hudson, 34, the head of HIV marketing for Pfizer. "Sure, we are making way more money than our folks ever made. But I don't want to wake up and be 45, overqualified, and underemployed, and have to think about how I got pimped."

No one does. But if we are to believe that diversity is valued by our most admired companies, then race has to be something we can talk about. And that is the biggest reason to publicize the moment I disagreed with the boss.


Black Power Inc.: The New Voice of Success (John Wiley & Sons) will be published in May.

From the May. 3, 2004 Issue of Fortune Magazine

Fortune Magazine