Every day you walk into the job you love, knowing you made the right career move and excited for what the day will bring. Often times, however, entering meeting spaces with clients or colleagues, they don’t recognize you for the industry expert that you are. As hard as you’ve worked to be educated in your field of choice, and all your work experience, when colleagues or clients have conversations with you, you’re reminded that those things don’t always matter.
This is the reality for so many people of color in Corporate America daily.
PR executive and expert, Emily Graham, has experienced this reality but didn’t allow it to discourage her.
Emily is currently the only Black female partner and is also one of the youngest at her company FleishmanHillard, one of the top-three PR firms in the world. She has successfully become one of the leading PR executives while remaining true to herself and supporting other Black women along the way.
When did you determine that public relations was the career path you wanted to pursue or was it always a dream of yours?
I didn’t always know that public relations was the direction I was headed in. I was a natural campaigner, running for student body president every year from 6th to 12th grade and won. I realized I loved influencing, engaging multiple audiences and creating campaigns. I was always a writer and would write my own short stories. I also love reading media including newspapers and magazines.
I loved to talk and engage in dialogue and debate so I wanted to be an attorney when I went to college. I didn’t want to go past my four years of undergraduate education so I decided against the legal field. Next, I loved the idea of speaking and engaging related to broadcast journalism but once I discovered how much they made starting out and that you have to move at least five times over the first five years of your career to move up, I changed my mind again.
I wanted to figure out what career I could pursue to utilize my skills of writing and taking in information, persuading and promoting. My counselor recommended communications and I realized it was a great fit. I started taking my major classes during my sophomore year and eventually graduated with a degree in corporate communications and public affairs from Southern Methodist University. I’m thankful that I use the skills I’ve obtained every single day.
You are currently the only Black female partner (and one of the youngest) at one of the top three PR firms in the world, Fleishman Hillard. How do you create your own identity each day?
I had to find my voice and my path because I was the only Black woman and one of the youngest. Recently in a meeting, I was even asked how old I was by someone and I am an executive. I have not yet made it to the place in my career where I’ve been able to forget those two things. I feel it and remember that I am the only Black woman executive. It hasn’t been all bad but it’s sobering. It’s also humbling and I do have experiences all the time that make me extremely grateful too.
How do you build your confidence every day?
The truth is I’m constantly opting in. I lean into the fact that I am a Black millennial woman in corporate communications. When I tried not to make it a central part of who I was, it came off as inauthentic and impacted my confidence even more. When I decided to embrace who I was it was so freeing and empowering.
I also learned and tell others as well to be ok with being unapologetically Black. It’s ok to be different and unique because you are adding value and helping to educate others. There is a tactful way to help our workplaces become more inclusive and if we don’t do it, it won’t happen. It’s important to take on the mindset that you belong and you’re just as good as everybody else.
What are some challenges you face as a black woman in such a prominent role?
One challenge that’s common but not intentional is reminding people that everyone doesn’t have the same viewpoint and everyone doesn’t have the same perspective. It can be easy for people to make casual remarks without thinking but not being malicious.
I also face the challenge of being conscious that I’m not coming off as an angry Black woman and not making people feel that way. However, I am a very direct person and I’m pretty passionate about tactfully conveying my issues at that moment. No matter what though, I’m still going to have to demonstrate I’m intelligent, I have a viewpoint and I am comfortable having the difficult conversations because it must be done in the workplace.
What advice would you give black millennials as they pursue executive and leadership roles?
You have to be Teflon don! Put on the full armor of God and everything else you have because it’s going to be a tough road. You’re going to become more conditioned though. I would also encourage others to take as much content in and read lectures and interviews from other leaders you may admire. They don’t have to be people of color and should be those that are inspiring you as a leader.
Also, invest in yourself. I invested in an executive coach and a financial advisor because there are things I want to pursue as an executive. I even pay for my training and development if I have to. I want to make sure I can thrive in my career.
Don’t get discouraged by the setbacks because what’s intended for you will happen. Lastly, Black women should not feel like they have to be the only Black woman. Help each other grow and thrive. We are going to be stronger and do so much better together.
How do you keep a healthy work/life balance with such a demanding career?
I don’t! I have a rigorous work and travel schedule and I also sit on a board and volunteer with my church. I will say that the first step in being comfortable with finding balance is being honest with yourself and being in a place where others can be honest with you too. Keep it real with yourself, especially if you aren’t performing.
I did realize I needed to have a tough conversation with myself and I recognized I was burning the candle at both ends. My mother tasked me with cleaning my plate of two commitments before 2020 began so I can make more time for myself. So I started that process so I can be fully present this year.
I would also recommend that people invest in wellness, whatever that looks like for them. I’ve been consistent about massage and spa therapy as well as therapy for another voice and a positive outlet.
What’s next for Emily Graham?
I’m just getting started. I’m so eager and I’m anticipating what God has for me. I just believe He has big ambitions for me that He has yet to fulfill. I’m also interested in becoming a global communicator. I want to continue being a champion and advocate for diversity and inclusion. There isn’t anything that I want to do that I can’t.
Keep up with Emily on LinkedIn.