Misconceptions about Black women are stifling growth potential: Uncomfortable Conversations
This is part of a recurring series of Q&As called "Uncomfortable Conversations," taking on the sometimes tough, but always necessary, discussions about inclusion in advertising. This series will spotlight the many diverse voices that make up this industry—at all levels and in all disciplines—highlighting their personal experiences to illustrate the importance of inclusion and equity throughout the entire ecosystem.
Today we speak with Elise James-DeCruise, who joined the Cleveland-based agency Marcus Thomas earlier this month as its new chief diversity and inclusion officer. Prior to Marcus Thomas, she spent eight years at the ad tech firm MediaMath. James-DeCruise recently participated in Ad Age's first Town Hall on Racism in Advertising, which you can watch here.
This conversation has been edited lightly for length and clarity.
What have you learned about what it takes to be successful and climb the ranks as a Black woman in advertising?
You have to be curious, regardless if you're Black, Brown, white, because this industry moves so fast. In addition to staying curious, you also have to be vulnerable and not be afraid to jump into a conversation. You can’t wait for the perfect opportunity to be seen or heard. I’ve found being a Black person in advertising, especially, I spent a lot of time making sure the projects I was working on were perfect and in a beautiful state before sharing. Early on in my career I waited until the project was 99.9 percent done before sharing with the team. But the feedback I got was they wanted me to be a part of the process.
Why do you think you felt this need to be perfect?
You are usually the only person of color, or one of a few Black people, at company and there’s a lot on your shoulders to produce. There’s this thinking that if I don’t do it right the first time they won’t believe in me, they won’t trust me and give me opportunities down the road. Perfection inhibits you and prevents you from moving as quickly as other peers. You are head down trying to do your work and it can become debilitating in some instances. It makes it harder to build relationships and it takes more time because you have to create those safe spaces to have conversations with those outside of your comfort zone so they can get to know you.
Can you talk more about the challenges for Black people to form relationships in the industry with their peers?
There’s this tendency to look at Black people and think they are all the same. When you look at me, you don’t know my background is very diverse or that I play basketball. People think we all like rap music and live in a certain place. So creating those moments where you can build that trust is really important.
Black and Brown people in the space can be apprehensive to get engaged and get themselves out there. I’m fortunate to have a very diverse group of friends since growing up, but I see my colleagues who are Black say they don’t want to do the happy hour, because if they aren’t cared about as a person it doesn’t matter. So they just focus on what they need to do when they walk into the door. It is unfortunate because there’s a lot of missed opportunity on both sides to get to know one another.
Can you identify moments where you were treated differently because of your race?
How much time do you have? When it comes time for promotions, I haven’t been given the opportunity to have the conversation early enough to be able to prepare myself for the opportunities. I have a 14-year-old and 11-year-old and when I was starting my career in the ad space they were very young. If I didn’t have my family to support me I wouldn’t have been able to travel around the world. There are a lot of misconceptions around Black females and family dynamic to have the access to the experiences to help elevate their careers. If you have kids, there are the questions, ‘how will she travel?’ ‘where will the kids go?’ It can stifle the growth of a female within the space to have access to those opportunities.
Have you felt like you have been adequately supported as a Black woman in the industry?
The industry could certainly use a more structured framework for mentorship and sponsorship. The industry needs to recognize the difference between the two. Sponsorship is when there is someone in the room speaking on your behalf, validating you and your worth and experiences. Mentorship is one-on-one coaching. Sponsorship is so critical, especially for Black women. Only 3 percent to 5 percent of people in tech and advertising are Black, the rest is mostly white men. Being able to build those relationships with white men and women is important. You are not always going to have a seat at the table. I believe in the premise that if there isn’t a seat bring your own seat, but that takes time. You need to build trust with the people already at the table. There needs to be standardization within the ad world to create those experiences.
Do you feel like there are opportunities for growth for people of color in the ad world?
I definitely think there is opportunity for Blacks in advertising. A lot of the work over the last year or two has come from Black or Brown people finally recognizing they have a voice and not being afraid to identify where there are gaps in industry to create their own lanes. Prior to the murder of George Floyd, I didn’t see any intentional work by the industry, like mentorship programs and career plans, to help support us. Blacks were like, ‘It is what it is,’ and non-people of color were just like, ‘We will let them solve that.’
I spend quite a bit of time talking to senior leaders, and when you get them in a safe space, they say … ’I don’t know how to have a conversation with people of color.’ Rather than saying I can’t find candidates for a role, I’d rather they say: ‘I don’t feel comfortable; I don’t know what to ask; I don’t want to say the wrong thing.’ I’d rather they say that because I can help them navigate having those conversations.
A lot of it is uncomfortable; you have to be brave to move the needle. It’s going to take a lot to get people to a place where they can have those conversations. It is a personal and professional journey to talk about D&I. Everyone is in a different place in their journey and you need to meet people where they are and show some compassion.
Unfortunately, for me, I didn’t see a lot of Black people in senior leadership roles. I was usually the only Black person there. But what kept me going and motivated is the thought that I am helping the next generation of Black people and people that look like me. That’s the weight a lot of Black people have on their shoulders.
What do you hope to see from the ad community right now?
As it relates to representation, we need to be really intentional about who were are hiring, what programs can be created to help level up individuals within Black and Brown community that don’t have the experience in advertising but would be an amazing asset to an organization.
We need to amplify the amazing work that’s happening by Black and Brown people in advertising and lift them up. Before Black Lives Matter movement and the murder of George Floyd everyone was so timid to amplify Black people in the industry.
What these movements have taught me at the end of the day is that we all want to be seen or heard, no matter our color or sexual orientation. We all have a story we want to share and it is the responsibility of ad organizations and corporations to create safe spaces so we can have an ecosystem where people can bring their full selves.