When Jessica Pharm ’10 lost her job last year, jumping right back into the hunt for new employment was the last thing on her mind. As a Black woman, she found the corporate environment unwelcoming, and rather than reenter it, Pharm launched a project geared toward reinventing it: Blackness and the Workplace.
It wasn’t just losing a job and leaving an unhealthy work situation that sparked Pharm’s latest professional endeavor: years of frustrations across multiple jobs in which she often found herself the sole Black woman in her office suggested that factors beyond her performance were at play in the struggles she faced.
“I felt like I had put in all this time and effort into my career. I went above and beyond, and yet, I was still encountering these roadblocks, which I knew didn’t have anything to do with my skills and abilities,” Pharm says.
Roadblocks at Work
Upon finding the hashtag #BlackWomenAtWork on Twitter, Pharm quickly realized that her experience was not unique.
“It was women from [vice presidents] all the way down to entry-level positions, Black women from all walks of life who were talking literally about the same things that they were dealing with: tone-policing, people policing us about our hair and our appearances. It was very eye-opening,” Pharm says.
After a difficult manager and increasingly stressfulwork conditions cost her her job, Pharm decided it was time to “speak truth to power,” or at least speak truth to the internet, and make sure her story was one that people could learn from. She turned blog posts that had already garnered a following on both her personal website and on the professional networking platform Your Corporate Black Girl into articles geared toward advising Black professionals in their careers. Blackness and the Workplace was born.
“I created the platform because it was really something that I wish were around when I first started in my career, when I first went to college,” Pharm says. “[It] would have better prepared me for entering the spaces that I was going to enter after I had graduated, saying this is how you interview specifically as a Black woman, this is what can happen if you wear your natural hair at work, this is how you cultivate your work village, this is how you find sponsors and not just mentors, these are the resources that you need to be able to thrive.”
Gathering Place for Black Professionals
Blackness and the Workplace serves as both an educational resource and a gathering space for Black professionals seeking to find community and get expert advice on navigating corporate spaces. Posts cover topics ranging from dealing with performance improvement plans and managing work stress to analyzing diversity and inclusion efforts and having crucial conversations about race and racism in professional spaces.
“We have to talk about these things or they're never going to be addressed,” Pharm says. “I don’t want Black professionals to feel like they have to somehow segregate themselves and try to put themselves in silos, because that’s not how anyone is.”
While the career-networking website LinkedIn offered a possible place to start the conversation Pharm wanted to have, she says its notorious tone-policing, especially toward Black users, created the need for a new digital space in which to convene. On Blackness and the Workplace, Black professionals can speak freely in “The Tea Room” — a protected, members-only forum — about their experiences without fear of the professional retaliation.
“For a long time, we’ve been told that we can’t talk about our experiences. There was always this weird ideal that LinkedIn is professional. It’s not Facebook; it’s just a headshot with all your positions on there, and that’s it,” Pharm says. “Now, people like myself and other Black professionals are coming out saying, ‘No: the social, the political, the professional, all of these things are part of who we are. I don’t exist in a vacuum. I get treated based on how I look [and] on how people perceive me, even in the workplace.’ So, we have to talk about our experiences.”
Pharm's Platform Continues to Grow
What started for Pharm as a personal blog has since grown into a professional platform that includes informative articles, an open forum for networking and sharing experiences, and a podcast on which she continues the discussions started on her website. But more than that, it’s a community that she considers crucial to the collective success of Black professionals across industries.
“My voice on Blackness and the Workplace is always we. I never say I, because it’s not about me. This is our podcast. This is the work that we are doing,” Pharm says. “That’s what I see Blackness and the Workplace being: not just me on the podcast talking, but really just about uplifting and supporting Black professionals and letting them know somebody is here in your corner."
Today, Pharm is her own boss, and this mentality keeps readers hooked on what she has to say.
“I now see myself as a brand. My identity is not tied to a job,” she says. “I worked really hard to put myself in a place, professionally and financially, where I could walk away from a situation that’s not conducive to my well-being or to my growth and development. So, part of the mission of Blackness and the Workplace, too, is to build that in others and say, ‘Build your brand, build your identity, and put yourself in a position where you can always have options.’”
Her advice to others seeking to strike out on their own and turn their passion project into a reality: “Be open to pivot, to change, and to grow, and your brand will build itself.”