Success Secrets of Black Executives

The success of President Barack Obama could be predicted by watching the manner in which African-American executives broke new ground in American business over the past 40 years.
About 20 years ago, a wave of corporate restructuring and product innovation created openings for blacks to rise to the top of publicly-traded companies.
One of the hotbeds was Santa Clara County, CA, popularly known as Silicon Valley.
In May 1987, I took a job as editor of the San Jose Business Journal, moving from a similar post at the Richmond, VA, Business Journal and a temporary assignment at Business First in Columbus, OH.
It was a big culture shift, leaving a majority black city where an African-American was on the verge of becoming governor of Virginia to a city where I waited more than a week to see another African-American.
There was an unexpected breakthrough when I was invited to a lunch with a dozen business leaders. Four of them were also African-American. They were just as surprised to see me as editor of the leading business publication in Siliicon Valley as I was to see my first corporate vice presidents.
I came to learn that many were military veterans who had joined technology companies at early stages when the Department of Defense was the major purchaser of equipment and software. In some cases, the company had sprouted under them. Some rose through the ranks at larger firms and were recruited by venture capitalists to enhance startup management teams.
We began having a monthly meeting called the Black Executive Forum, where the criteria was having a budget of not less than $10 million.
In that setting, they shared many anecdotes of the strategies to break through barriers, as well as some of the continuing indignities that their success did not protect them from.
From those discussions, we published a book, Success Secrets of Black Executives, which the Amsterdam News called a primer on dealing with corporate racism.
We quoted one participant, Ken Coleman, then of Silicon Graphics, as saying, “I never got an easy assignment.”
It was a common theme, that black executives were often tested in the most daunting, almost impossible circumstances.
However, their background, resilience and talent more often than not allowed them to pull off miraculous turnarounds.
That’s why a Citigroup would turn to Richard Parsons as chairman, after he righted the ship at Time Warner; why Oracle brought in Charles Phillips Jr. as president and how John W. Thompson has had a decade of success at Symantec.
All three are among the transition and ongoing advisors that President Obama is calling upon to guide the nation through its winter of discontent.
His sense of history extends into the business realm in the same way that he recognized the Tuskegee Airmen at the inaugural. Undoubtedly he appreciates that working for black CEOs hastened the day when voters across the country would elect an African-American as president.

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