goldman sachs


The other day I was standing in line at a swank beauty spa to pay for a service when a total stranger walked up to me and commented, “What a nice tan you have!”

I didn’t know what to say. I’m not tanned. This is my color. I am a brown, dark featured Mexican American woman.

I looked around me in line and realized that I was the only brown-skinned person in the establishment. Still, why did she assume I was tanned? Is it because I dress nicely?

“Okay, Alicia,” I said to myself. “Don’t be so sensitive.” Maybe she wanted to make conversation, forge a connection. But why then comment on what a “nice tan” I have? Why not say, “What nice skin you have”? Besides, I find the whole idea a bit strange.

I have to wonder, though, is color, coloring the issue?

I recently dated a man who insisted to me I was Caucasian; a classification that the 2010 Census also endorses. Check the form – it asks you to distinguish your origin if of Hispanic descent but then right below leaves Hispanic off as a racial classification. One has to either check Caucasian or write in Hispanic under Other.

Though Hispanic is apparently not a race, I told my date, “No. I’m Mexican American.” He replied, “But I don’t see you as not White.” Poor English aside, I recognized the quagmire: color and race. Even in his response he confused the two.

I asked him if the people that worked on his ranch in Texas were Caucasian. I knew that he employed many Mexican Americans. “But you’re not like them,” he blurted. Then he paused, unsure of what to say. Finally, he continued, “So you mean, that when you’re in a room full of white people, you feel different?” He’s a Harvard Business School graduate.

Actually, when I enter a room I don’t immediately assess the color profile of the room. It usually doesn’t even occur to me. It’s the same sort of blur I experience when I’m in a room full of men at a business conference. It generally doesn’t matter for my purposes. But I would be lying if I said that it never occurs to me, because it does and sometimes it’s conveniently pointed out.

Because I have dark skin, I realize that I am often conspicuous among my fairer brethren. I’ve been taught that I am by women in tony shops asking me to hold their bags. Oh yes, I have all manner of stories like that – being asked at a charity event if I was So and So’s nanny, mistaken for the maid at a hotel, questioned for sitting in first class on a plane and forced to produce my ticket stub to prove I had purchased the ticket – I could go on.

I tend to think that the reason I encounter some of these experiences is because I operate in environments that are decidedly not diverse. Let’s face it; private equity and venture capital are not the normal stomping grounds of U.S. Hispanics.

Or are they? Here’s where it gets tricky for Hispanics. We’re not all brown. I once worked with a fair-skinned, hazel-eyed woman at Goldman Sachs & Co. in New York who confessed to me at lunch one day that she was “half-Mexican.” Her father was German and her mother Mexican American. She urged me to never tell a soul.

Sometimes I think the Census should give up race classification altogether and ask people to mark the shade of color they are. But it’s so much more than color, isn’t it?

Why do U.S. Hispanics have the highest high school dropout rates and second highest representation in state prisons? Those drop outs and jailbirds are not all brown-skinned. I can only speculate that the reason I have to ask these questions is the same reason people assume I am tanned.

The lady in the spa? I believe that not only did it not occur to her that my skin is actually brown and not merely tanned, but also that I could be a Mexican American. To me, to assume brown skin is tanned skin is the same thing as calling a Mexican American a Caucasian. It subsumes a whole swath of people - a race, if you will. A race, subsumed, I fear, keeps that race invisible and therefore powerless.

Hispanics are the fastest growing segment of the U.S. population. Yet, from the attention we’re paid – from representation on television (no, we don’t all watch Univision – who by the way doesn’t do much to dispel the skin color issue) to the percentage of advertising dollars spent on the market, you’d be hard-pressed to guess that.

A subsumed race is also a denied race – its rich history, struggles, achievements and even its place are lost. Our place? Well, we can be found across conference room tables, at podiums, and even at ritzy spas. Just not as a racial classification on the U.S. Census form.

Oh, it happened again yesterday. A woman told me I had a nice tan. This time I said, “Thanks, I was born with it.”

How to Brand Yourself

Course: The Art of Personal Branding

Institution: offices of Goldman Sachs

Instructor: Ellen Looyen

Location: San Francisco

And I don't mean with a branding iron! I was fortunate to be invited by my friend and fan, Beth, to a one hour talk on how to create your personal brand. The class was taught by Ellen Looyen, a six foot woman (literally) who looks much younger than her almost 60 years (she turns 60 in August - interesting that I remember this from her talk). She is a former New Yorker who is energetic, informal and like you might expect from a branding expert, slips in promotional tidbits about her clients or website every few sentences.

Ms. Looyen started her talk by asking the room if anyone had a personal brand, and being the eager student, I raised my hand. I was the only one. Which was exactly Ms. Looyen's point. All the hands in the room should have shot up, because everyone has a brand, whether they know it or not. She set the context with this statement, "in business and in life there is no such thing as objective reality; all that exists is perception." Which is to say, how you are perceived or how people experience you and how people experience themselves in relation to you is your brand.

The good news is that perceptions and therefore your brand can be managed. The first step is to understand what are the attributes for which you want to be known. To get us going she had the room, mainly full of high performing finance women, turn to a neighbor and tell each other three things that are unique and valuable about ourselves.

The assignment gave me pause. As a twin, I sometimes struggle with the notion that I'm unique at all, but admittedly I so want to be! Still, I understood the benefit of the exercise. Like knowing your strengths and weaknesses, understanding your value and point of differentiation helps you to clear away the clutter of "shoulds" and "coulds" and focuses you on exactly where you fit. It makes your path clearer.

Next Ms. Looyen turned to charisma - in her words, the "secret sauce" of branding. She asked the room to name charismatic women leaders. Silence. While it was a fairly reticent group overall, it was interesting to note how difficult it was to think of names. Why is that? We pondered it a bit, but spent more time on what characteristics make up charisma. We came up with sense of humor, confidence, compassion, empathy, connection, and authenticity, to name a few.

Charisma and the characteristics that comprise it all work to create a mood, environment or attitude of doing business with you. And I thought this was one of the most important points of her talk. Most of your personal branding is done without words, as 80% of the impression we leave on others is non-verbal. To wit, you broadcast how you are feeling when you talk with people. So most of the personal branding work has to be done by...drum roll please...looking within - getting to know yourself.

There was, of course, more packed into her talk. In fact, I believe she could have benefited from focusing her talk more. Still, I enjoyed the opportunity to take time out and reflect on the concept of branding. Marketing-speak aside, it's important to understand how you are perceived, figure out how you want to be perceived, and manage any disconnects. At the end of the day, though, successfully branding yourself comes down to just being yourself.