I enjoy reading books that examine how public figures juxtapose personal goals against societal concerns in their behavior. One of my favorites is “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Black Man” by Henry Louis Gates. Its chapters contain separate stories about black men and the personal tolls of leadership; from Colin Powell’s decision not to run for the presidency to the strained relationship between Sidney Poitier and Harry Belafonte regarding early acting roles for African-Americans.
I have not seen a book since that struck me with the same feeling until I came across a photo essay one of my sisters received while I was home for a family visit. Jewels: 50 Phenomenal Black Women Over 50  profiles African-American women – book publishers, judges, activists and business owners, to name a few – who have risen to the pinnacle of their careers. Co-creator Connie Briscoe, a New York Times bestselling novelist, also participates among the chosen 50. Each lady receives two or three pages to share her ruminations, along with a black and white photo. The brief passages remind readers who are at the forefront of their organizations that they are not alone in their personal points of view.
The ladies range from legendary actress and activist legend Ruby Dee to leaders outside of public attention such as Joanne Harrell, a hearing-impaired Microsoft general services manager. All share analogous origins, captured best in the words of Victoria Roberts, U.S. District Court Judge for the Eastern District of Michigan and the only African-American woman to head the state bar of Michigan:
“I came from humble origins, but I have always had high expectations for myself. I believe strongly in the power of potential, in figuring out potential and exploiting it.”
Some women elaborate on personal trials, from Roberts’ caring for her son with Downs syndrome to financial consultant Deborah Nedab’s dealing with the loss of two brothers within the span of a year. From these words you get a sense of the personal support systems essential for success.
The quotes, while probably familiar refrains to some, never fail to strikingly detail how the emotional fortitude of these ladies came to be. For example, Ruby Dee says of her activism:
“I don’t know what it is to live in an environment that is not tense…I remember fighting to get into Hunter College High School. I remember being arrested for protesting. I didn’t become an activist. I just was one.”
Joanne Harrell explains how her “resourcefulness and sense of calm in moments” from her hearing impairment translated to managing stressful moments in the workplace. It is a wonderful reminder for upcoming leaders in managing life’s encounters and leveraging personal attributes to the best advantage.
50 women definitely equates to many views of women in organizations. There are the pragmatic thoughts of Verratta Garrison, former manufacturer and retailer of women’s clothing and marketing consultant:
“Women are programmed to be kind, helpful, supportive and giving. I suggest those words be left out of girls’ vocabulary. Those are things you can’t be in business if you want to succeed. They don’t work in the corporate world.”
Linda Chastang, executive vice president and general counsel for the National Association for Equal Opportunity in High Education, changed her self perceptions after Georgia Congressman John Lewis complimented her persistence in securing a federal building in downtown Atlanta:
“It used to bother me when people called me persistent. I didn’t think the term described a lady favorably. I know differently know. It just means that I keep at something until it gets done.”
Missing in Jewels are women from highly skilled professions such as finance or engineering. The cause is understandable; a recent New York Times article on women on Wall Street, for example, commented on business school graduates: “Of those female graduates, 21.1 percent were pursuing finance or accounting in 2009, down 6.6 percent from 2005, according to the Graduate Management Admission Council.” But the comments from Jewels ring true regardless of industry.
The ladies clearly infuse African American historical concerns into their leadership, and show how cultural outlook can be a natural part of running organizations well and achieving results. Loretta Argett, former assistant attorney general who was the first African-American woman to be appointed for the Tax Division of the U.S. Department of Justice, was very proud of how she created training programs and revised workflow that led to more blacks and women holding senior positions in a division that “had been known as a white male bastion.” Former vice president and associate publisher of One World/Ballantine Books Cheryl Woodruff, who was once the highest-ranking African-American in publishing, offers a sense of duty regarding cultural representation in published writing:
“Today people are lamenting the commercialization of black books and the difficulty of producing and selling quality writing….It’s our duty to harness the extraordinary new tools available so we can give black readers the very best that black writers have to offer. It’s up to us.”
The words of each woman exude confidence, as well as keen self-awareness of their professional ascendancy. Linda White, national president of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, “learned from people in different walks of life…when you are elected to a position, people are watching you all the time and may have expectations that they didn’t have before. You have to be conscious of the people around you.”
What Readers Will Gain From Jewels
The perspectives in Jewels share a thread of seeking professional impact and satisfaction with no regrets, be it the subject of career choice or family responsibilities. The thoughtful reflections and larger-than-myself musings offer confidence which young women, in any leadership position and any culture, would want to keep alongside organizational how-to books or musings from the latest former-CEO-turned-author. The book makes a solid gift for any woman starting a professional journey. Connie Briscoe summarizes the tone of Jewels best in the preface:
“Could it be that we’ve come far enough that black women can be lawyers, doctors, businesswomen, performers, artists and mothers first, without race, gender or handicap intruding constantly upon our progress? There can be little doubt these women and countless others like them have made it much more likely for our children and grandchildren.”