The Burden of Breaking Barriers is Pushing Black Leaders to Breaking Point. This DEI Expert Reveals Where We Are Going Wrong.

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With each passing year, there’s always a “first” Black someone. The first Black mayor. The first Black billionaire. The first Black astronaut. No matter where we look, Black Americans are breaking barriers as the “firsts” in many major industries. Those who have broken barriers know firsthand how powerful one can feel in the arenas of business, education and science when they are the “first” to do something.

But there are burdens, too — some of which affect not just the individual making waves but many generations of entrepreneurs and leaders to come as well. Here are some of the perks and perils that come with being the first.

The power: you break barriers

One of the most renowned female entrepreneurs was Madam C.J. Walker. She was the first Black millionaire having earned her fortune as a beauty entrepreneur popularizing first-of-its-kind hair tools geared towards Black women. Today, the Black hair industry is a multi-billion dollar industry filled with Black entrepreneurs from every corner of the country selling everything from styling products to lace-front wigs. Those entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of Madam C.J. Walker, whose entrepreneurship employed more than 40,000 Black women at the time and left a lasting legacy in the haircare space. We all need a “first” to break barriers in an industry for the floodgates to open for the rest.

Related: 5 Qualities of Black Excellence Overlooked in the Workplace

The burden: they try to tear you down

The persistent challenge of being the first has come from adversity — within and outside of institutions. The latest Harvard University president, Claudine Gay, is a good example. Having served the shortest tenure as president in the history of the institution, Gay was ousted by conservative writer, filmmaker, and activist Christopher F. Rufo. Fueled by Rufo’s accusations of plagiarism plus controversial congressional testimony about whether Harvard’s free speech policies permitted or forbade speaking about harm to Jewish people, Gay was ousted. Flames of anger and protest about Gay being a Black woman president, as well as her controversial views, made her a target from the day she assumed the position. After much scrutiny and an investigation into plagiarism, Gay resigned on January 2, 2024. Being the first, especially in institutions that are used to being led by a certain gender, race, or class of people, can make some feel threatened and afraid of change. This is just one of the burdens individuals like Claudine Gay had to face.

Related: Managing a Black Woman? Here’s How to Become Her Success Partner and Ally.

The power: you influence change

Considered one of the top abolitionists of his day, Frederick Douglass is a powerful example of how being the first can lead to lasting change. After escaping slavery in Maryland in the 19th century, Douglass used his impressive ability to read, write, and speak to influence and organize the abolition of slavery in Massachusetts and New York. At the time, not every current or freed slave was so articulate. The abolitionist movement needed a leader who was well-spoken, highly intelligent and could communicate the future of the abolitionist movement to those who wanted to take part. Frederick Douglass was that individual. His first autobiography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, published in 1845, became an instant bestseller and afforded him the financial means to legally buy back his freedom. Because of Douglass’ galvanizing words and ideas, the North became a crucial region for thought leadership around the abolition of slavery. Being the first to open a conversation about change and using one’s voice to catalyze that change is a power that firsts, like Douglass, get to enjoy.

The burden: you become the “exception”

While many entrepreneurs stand on the shoulders of others, not every entrepreneur can rise to the same level as Jay-Z. Known for his iconic rap music and later for his entrepreneurial endeavors, Jay-Z has garnered an impressive net worth of $2.5 billion. While Jay-Z has used his fame and fortune to give back, open doors for other Black artists and entrepreneurs, and contribute significantly to the music industry, he has the burden of being the “exception.” Many Black entrepreneurs struggle to make ends meet while working towards their dreams. They still experience uphill battles with racial stereotypes, glass ceilings and funding challenges. While other entrepreneurs struggle, the mainstream can say, “Well, Jay-Z made it; why can’t you?” Being the first and the “exception” can make the journey to entrepreneurial success seem hard to reach for others. It can also give rise to a toxic narrative riddled with stereotypes and perceptions about race, ability and success. Sometimes, being the “first” raises the bar to a level that others struggle to achieve.

Related: 6 Ways to Offer Allyship to Black Entrepreneurs

Final thoughts

For Black Americans, the battle to become free and to be seen as fully human and worthy of respect and success has been one that history has told well. We have many examples of excellence and perseverance to reflect on, from owning a record label to helping abolish slavery. The power the firsts have enjoyed is contagious and has inspired many Black entrepreneurs and changemakers to do something great. But adversity, barriers to entry, exclusion, fear of change and other issues have burdened even those who have experienced great success. Black Americans should keep fighting for greatness even at the risk of being torn down and being labeled the “exception.” But institutions that put forth the first Black president or a diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officer in positions of power should have the awareness and courage to protect and stand by those firsts — even when calls for their resignation or departure are being echoed from every corner of the institution. Only through the perseverance of the firsts and the protection and courage of the institutions in which they serve can meaningful breakthroughs be maintained and preserved for generations to come.

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