Episode 17: Race, Gender, and Success

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We hear a lot these days about “White Privilege” and “Gender Bias”.  If you can change the way you think about those things, you can increase your chances of success in business and life dramatically.

First of all, everyone who is not blind to reality knows that in the United States (and most of the world), it is extremely helpful to be a white male instead of black or Hispanic or Asian, or a female.  I would be lying if I did not say that in the United States today, it is a great advantage to be born white—and also an advantage to be born rich.  But there is a huge difference between an advantage and a privilege.

In this, as in life, words matter. If you are black or part of any other minority race and I say to you, “White Privilege”, your mind will immediately think of some special entitlement that is granted to white people that you cannot hope to have.  But if I change that phrase to “White Advantage”, notice how differently that makes you see the world.

Let’s take an example.  If you are on a basketball team and are only 5’10” tall, and an opposing player is 6’10”, he has an enormous “advantage”.  But does it give him the “privilege” of always winning?  No. If in your mind, instead of saying “advantage”, you think “privilege”, you will have missed a huge opportunity. Just having an advantage does not mean you win. That was proven dramatically in the basketball world a few years ago by a player named Muggsy Bogues.  Muggsy was 5’3” tall, but became a star player in the NBA, playing against 7-foot giants for 14 seasons in a league where even a 6-foot tall guard was considered too short.

His story is inspiring in its own right, but the point is that if he had considered being tall equal to the privilege of winning games, he would have stayed away, never tried, and never had the success he did.  Did he have to work harder than everyone else?  Yes.  But he considered his short height an obstacle to be overcome, not the lack of the “privilege” of being a basketball player.

By the way, the same is true of gender bias. The reality is this:  life is not fair, never has been and never will be, but, particularly for those living in the United States, there is almost always a way to overcome any obstacle of race or gender.  A black man was elected president of the US for two terms.  A black man was for many years the CEO of American Express, a company that most people consider almost of a symbol of white wealth. There are and have been female CEOs of several Fortune 500 companies.  And with the passage of time, as more and more women and racial minorities succeed in high profile jobs and in politics, the advantage will be less.  

But the key to success, whether you are in a minority or a white male, is to recognize that life is not fair, but never to consider someone else’s advantage to be a privilege; it is just an advantage that can be overcome. If you are part of a minority and see what others call privileges as just obstacles that can be overcome, you are very likely to succeed. By the way, if you are white and think that you are entitled to success as a “privilege” you will almost certainly fail and lose out to someone who worked harder and played the game of business and life better. 

As someone who has founded 10 successful companies, invested in many more and observed what happens in the real world of business, I am going to go a step further.  If you are in a minority, but take the trouble (and make the huge effort) to understand how the game is played, prepare yourself better and work harder, you can actually make your minority status into an advantage. How can that be?

Consider this, I am considering hiring or promoting two employees, one is a minority and the other a white male. They appear to have accomplished pretty much the same things, but both are young and have potentially long careers ahead of them. I am very likely, either consciously or unconsciously, to give preference to the minority person. Why?  For a very simple reason.  I care about who can add value to my company for the long term.  If at a young age I am presented with two candidates who seem to have accomplished the same amount, but I know that one had to overcome big obstacles to get where he or she is, who do you think I am going to believe is more likely to succeed when my business faces the obstacles that every business does?  I’m going to favor the one who has already proven that they can face tough odds and succeed anyway. 

It doesn’t always work that way.  There is still prejudice in the world, but particularly in business, hard work, acquired skills, and toughness of mind will prevail.  So please, never think of “privilege”; think only of obstacles to be conquered.