Women account for a little over 11% of CFO positions in the U.S.
That percentage becomes much smaller when you account for the amount of those CFO’s that are Black (and then the percentage decreases once again when analyzing the number that are Black AND female).
While this percentage isn’t ideal, it’s definitely an improvement. However, the racial and gender gap for leaders in the C-Suite is still too wide to ignore.
As you can imagine because of this disparity, we’re always so inspired when we see women of color defying gender roles, shattering the glass ceiling, and serving up Black girl magic at some of the world’s leading companies.
One of the game-changing companies that’s known for its diverse team is The Wing. If you’re unfamiliar, The Wing is a $117.5 million, venture-backed co-working and community space – and guess what – the woman behind the money is Black and female.
Diedra Nelson became the CFO (Chief Financial Officer) of The Wing in January of 2018. Prior to joining The Wing, Diedra graduated from Syracuse University and majored in Finance and Marketing. After graduating, Diedra worked for some of the leading corporations including General Electric and Goldman Sachs.
She started her career journey in the startup space once she joined Soul Cycle in 2012, and 5 years later joined GLAMSQUAD as their CFO.
Now Diedra is leading the financial strategy for The Wing, and is one of the most promising Black female executives of this decade.
Recently, we had the pleasure of catching up with Diedra and she gave us insight on her career journey, actionable tips for aspiring CFO women of color, and last but not least, the most important things that early-stage startups should consider from a financial perspective when launching and scaling their business.
Looking at your life, how has your upbringing and education influenced where you are now professionally?
Much of my family is in the medical field, so a medical career was actually what I always envisioned as my part of my career path. I thought I was going to major in biology, but knew immediately when I started classes that it wasn’t for me and changed my focus to marketing and finance. My parents always encouraged me to make my own decisions so I was fortunate to be able to make this shift.
In each role that you’ve had from being an intern at General Electric to now being the CFO at The Wing, what are some of the biggest lessons that you’ve learned that has helped you be successful and make an impact?
Trust your gut — for me it was a gut feeling that medicine wasn’t the right path for me. Switching gears is scary because you never know if it’s going to be another dead end but there is no way to find out unless you are willing to make that change. I was interested in how businesses communicate with their consumers and how they operate from a financial perspective — I followed this interest and it led me to where I am today.
As a Black woman who has been at the executive level for several companies, what has been your experience with being a minority woman and how have you pushed through despite the barriers that exist?
As a Black woman at the executive level, I know there is so much work to do in making sure more women of color are able to rise to the top. Women of color represent less than 2% of corporate officers at some of the country’s leading companies, so there is a distinct responsibility, privilege, and honor to be able to serve as an example for so many black and brown women who are thinking about careers in finance or want to be in the C-suite of a successful company.
The barriers exist but I know that by being in this role, I am making room for more women who look like me to be where I am one day. When I walk into a room and introduce myself as the CFO of The Wing, I can see the moment of disbelief in the eyes of other business leaders and executives followed by a realization of their own implicit bias — it’s in this moment that space is made for others.
What tips do you have for aspiring Black women on joining a startup as a CFO? What are some things they should prepare for, and how should they prepare?
Less than 35 Black women have raised more than a million dollars in venture capital, and that number is extremely dismal given Black women are starting more businesses every day than any other demographic. The reason why I feel hopeful is because of places like The Wing, where we’re trying to create more opportunity, visibility, connections, and resources for our members, many of whom are Black women founders, to have more seats at the table. We have a long way to go, but we have to lift each other up and also call on white allies in the room to support, acknowledge and hire us as well.
If you’re joining a startup in a finance role, just know that there aren’t a lot of us in the field at the moment and we are held to a different standard, period. It’s really important to know your worth, come prepared to every aspect of your job, and be ready to work harder than others. Come to the table with an opinion and make sure that the recommendation is supported by numbers, research, and facts.
As Black women, we have to work twice as hard, which is fundamentally unfair, but in the end, it makes us stronger. Know that you can get to where you want to be, but it will take a tremendous amount of work to get there.
I also recommend building a personal board of directors. I have been so fortunate to have an incredible tribe who have supported, encouraged, and helped me see that I could be in a role like this, because they knew I was capable and went to bat for me.
What are the common financial mistakes that startups make?
Welcome the competition: if others are copying what you are doing, don’t let it make you sweat — it just means you’re doing something right.
Also, scale responsibly and ensure that your company’s employees have a clear understanding of the business goals.
How can early-stage founders avoid the aforementioned mistakes?
Build a strong operating model that allows you transparency into the business, how it is performing, how you are spending and what your business projections look like.
At The Wing, I’ve ensured that our employees have a very transparent view into how the business is doing, and in turn, it’s resulted in responsible spending, smart investments, and given the women who work for us hard skills they need to be successful in their own right.
After someone has launched their business, what are some things from a financial perspective that a founder should be mindful of while scaling their business?
I’m extremely proud of my team and the financial infrastructure we have built. It has allowed us to keep up with the enormous interest and demand of our growing Wing community.
I’m also especially proud of the financial acumen we are instilling in our company’s culture: we are extremely transparent with our staff about the financial health and goals of the company, so they feel invested in the process and know where their department fits into the overall financial goals of the organization.
Lastly, what is one thing that you would tell “college student” Diedra on having a career and being successful?
Stick with it -it will get hard, and times will be tough, but it will pay off in the end! Also, lift as you climb — it’s so important we as Black women support each other in our ambitions and breaking glass ceilings.