One Leader’s Unconventional Path In The Service Of Equity And Access In Corporate America

Jessica Pliska
Written by Jessica Pliska

A passion for social justice does not typically lead one to a career in corporate America, but this was precisely the path for the multi-talented Chanda Gibson, executive director at Council of Urban Professionals.

From law on the West Coast to a political campaign to finding unexpected meaning at Goldman Sachs, her search for purpose has led to a series of bold career moves.

We discuss her nontraditional journey, her advice to corporations and professionals of color on creating equitable and inclusive spaces, and the great career advice she got from Sen. Cory Booker.

Jessica Pliska: Who or what were early influences that shaped your career?

Chanda Gibson: I grew up in a small river town in northern California, the child of a white mother and black father who divorced when I was young. My sister and I were raised by my mother and stepfather. They were blue-collar and owned a bar. My mother was a very liberal, social activist, and set the bar high for me—she used to tell me I would be my own version of the activist Angela Davis and change the world. I always had a boiling outrage around social injustice, and that outrage has driven many of my career decisions. For me, the north star was always how to make a difference—while also searching for my own identity in the process.

Pliska: Did you know what you wanted to do after college?

Gibson: I went to Stanford for undergrad. I won a Rotary Club Ambassadorial Scholarship to travel to any country of my choice to study for nine months. I chose Zimbabwe and took a gap year between my junior and senior years to travel and live there. I spent a lot of time in orphanages and when I returned to Stanford, I wrote my thesis on the AIDS orphan crisis. I thought I was bound for a career at the intersection of politics and child welfare.

After college, I moved to Los Angeles to build the office of international projects at the Child Welfare League of America. After meeting a woman who had earned a JD/MSW, I sought out a similar program and ended up at USC for law school. While there, I was still considering social work. I had an opportunity to do pro bono representation and counseled two clients to whom I became personally connected and committed. I realized in that experience that I could not do social work. It took too much out of me, emotionally, and I became too involved. It was disconcerting because for so long I had thought that was the work I would do.

Pliska: Have you taken any big career risks?

Gibson: I feel like every one of my career moves was a risk!

I had a of lot debt from college and law school and felt an inordinate amount of pressure to take a traditional career route.  I took a job as an associate at a law firm, where I found myself having to do some things I really was not comfortable with given my background and beliefs. I felt very lost.

Around that time my sister introduced me to Sen. Cory Booker, who was getting ready to run for Newark mayor. Cory became a kind of spiritual adviser on those days when I would say “What am I doing with my life?” One day, he said: “If you want to do something you believe in, quit your job and come help me run for mayor.” Talk about a risk: Within eight days, I had quit my job and found myself sleeping on an apartment floor in Newark. I had never been to Newark. I had never been to the East Coast! But I believed in Cory. I believed in what he was trying to do. It felt great being part of this amazing experience.

Pliska: You eventually found your way to Goldman Sachs, where you spent 14 years. How did that come about?

Gibson: Talk about another massive risk—right as I was preparing to move back to the West Coast, I got a call about a job at Goldman Sachs. They were seeking someone who could advance their commitment to corporate citizenship, and I was to act as a liaison between the bank and the Jersey City, NJ community.  It sounded great, but my first question after hanging up was ‘What is Goldman Sachs?!’ Given my upbringing and interests, I knew nothing about them and I knew nothing about Jersey City. But after learning more about the company, I thought, “Imagine how meaningful it would be if I were to build bridges between this bank and the communities it serves—how powerful would that be?” It felt like a different approach to social justice.

At Goldman, I found my voice as a professional of color. I spent six years as the COO of the Employee Resource Group for black professionals. It was there I realized I had a passion for diversity and inclusion work, and an opportunity to make meaningful impact by building authentic opportunities for connection and learning.

Pliska: What’s your mission in your current job as executive director of the Council for Urban Professionals?

Gibson: At CUP, we work with people of color in corporate jobs, who the outside world may see as people who have already made it, and think, “Why do I want to help that top 5 percent?” The real issue is because it’s still only 5 percent!  We can’t stop our work when someone gets a job. As a social justice issue, it’s about equity and inclusion.  With women of color representing just 1 percent of executives and senior level managers in S&P 500 companies, there is clearly much more to be done in order to ensure we are creating spaces and opportunities for people to feel they can realize their full potential.

As with my experience at Goldman, I want CUP to be a place to find your voice. For professionals of color, to prove you’re worthy day to day is exhausting and depleting and frustrating. It can make you feel so much smaller than you really are, and it can grind you down. So often, the company policies meant to support us get done to us and not with or by us. They aren’t informed by or responsive to our perspectives or experiences.

But it’s also important that we continue to challenge those norms. Professionals of color have to stay in corporate settings and do the work with our colleagues and partners, so we have a voice in how equity is made real.

Pliska: For college graduates of color considering jobs in corporate environments, what would you tell them?

Gibson: First, we need you. You are welcome and needed in this space.

Second, it won’t be easy, but you will be able to take advantage of the opportunity to grow and make your mark. Focus on the opportunity to access the robust networks at these corporations, even if this isn’t where you’re going to stay long-term. Be strategic about getting from these experiences what you need to advance your own goals.

Third, know that you have to have the resilience to test boundaries. To be a leader, you have to be willing to be uncomfortable and to raise ideas, which requires you to build your credibility and to deploy that idea effectively at the right time. At Goldman, my most valued mentor was Dane Holmes, who was recently named global head of human capital management. He felt the power of my commitment to equity and advocacy, but told me that sometimes my passion wasn’t practical. But instead of telling me there was no space at Goldman for the work I was passionate about, he was helpful to me in building practical solutions. If you share what you’re about and what is meaningful to you in your work, you can invite people in to support you.  Ultimately, though, if you’re miserable or feel the space you are in requires you to compromise your beliefs and values, it’s OK to step away, and toward an opportunity that allows you to maximize your potential.

Pliska: Where is the work of diversity, equity and inclusion in corporate settings headed?

Gibson: We see lots of attention and focus on talent pipeline programs, which you need. But if you’re bleeding that talent quickly, and you’re not focused on the thornier issues of retention, recruitment efforts are for naught. If companies want to make equitable and inclusive work spaces, they need to focus on cultivating the feeling of belonging among current employees. For instance, making sure there are bridges to role models and mentors for professionals of color is critical. We must also consider time to promotion, and access to senior management and leadership roles. These efforts require more than just resource allocation, but cultural and structural change to ensure equity.

What’s “practical” – doesn’t mean it’s what’s right and the data clearly shows that corporate cultures need to change if they want professionals of color to stay. It’s not always about what we, as professionals of color, need to learn to navigate the culture, but what you need to do to change the culture so we are advancing at the same rate, feel like we belong, and are seeing enough progress to want to stay and keep fighting the good fight with you.

This is how we can start to think about corporations as activists.

Pliska: Who have been your heroes, mentors, and inspirations?

Gibson: Nina Wells, who was Secretary of State under Gov. John Corzine of New Jersey, is a longtime mentor who is always my go-to when I’m thinking about what I might want to do next. She listens, but also has been willing to sponsor me. Darren Walker of the Ford Foundation is a hero of mine, who I am now fortunate to call a mentor, thanks to Nina.  And for inspiration, I am sourced every day by the incredible professionals in CUP’s network, memories of my incredibly supportive mom, and selfless, courageous, bridge-building leaders like Nelson Mandela and the Obamas.

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About Jessica Pliska
I help young people build the knowledge and networks to launch brilliant careers. When I graduated from Yale in 1996, I dreamed of using my degree to create real change. After eight years of working in corporate marketing and PR, I quit my job and did just that. I am the founder and CEO of The Opportunity Network, a nonprofit I started in my living room, which now reaches thousands of hard-working, ambitious young people each year. I help them meet high-powered professionals, explore careers and develop skills for success. I am honored to count leaders in business, entertainment and public policy as supporters and friends, and I’ll be bringing you their best career advice. I’ve been featured in national media and speak frequently about expanding professional networks, giving back to networks and the importance of leveling the playing field for young people from all backgrounds.

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