The Memo

What Women of Color Need to Know to Secure a Seat at the Table


By Minda Harts

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From microaggressions to the wage gap, The Memo empowers women of color with actionable advice on challenges and offers a clear path to success.

Most business books provide a one-size-fits-all approach to career advice that overlooks the unique barriers that women of color face. In The Memo, Minda Harts offers a much-needed career guide tailored specifically for women of color.

Drawing on knowledge gained from her past career as a fundraising consultant to top colleges across the country, Harts now brings her powerhouse entrepreneurial experience as CEO of The Memo to the page. With wit and candor, she acknowledges “ugly truths” that keep women of color from having a seat at the table in corporate America. Providing straight talk on how to navigate networking, office politics, and money, while showing how to make real change to the system, The Memo offers support and long-overdue advice on how women of color can succeed in their careers.


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IN 2012, I was living in Los Angeles and trying to cope with the death of an unarmed black teenager named Trayvon Martin. I worked in a predominantly white environment, and no one in the office was talking about his death. Up until that point, I had never seen myself as an activist. Not in a Rosa Parks type of way. I did launch a grassroots campaign called “Broke or Vote” to get more middle-class and working-class people to the polls during President Barack Obama’s second campaign, but that was the extent of my activism. I guess you could say I had been going through life with my head down; black women are often told to do just that, especially in the workplace. Even though I saw bias all around me, I knew I could never rock the boat and speak out on it. I mean, who would care or do anything about it? But something about Trayvon’s death touched me at my core. Maybe it’s because I have two younger brothers and plenty of black male cousins, and I know how easily one of them could be in this same situation. I am sure his death caused many of us to question how we could help. Then out of the blue, one of our administrative assistants asked me to join her for a march that was taking place in honor of Trayvon. She also asked if I wanted to buy an oversized hoodie that had Trayvon’s face on it, and as she walked away, she said, “I figured you were the only one I could ask.” Now I can only speculate on what she meant, and I joked around later with friends about this white woman giving me a Trayvon Martin hoodie—did she do that because I was the only black woman in the office? We (people of color) always question why “others” do some of the things they do. But I know she meant well!

Now you’re probably wondering what this story has to do with The Memo, but it has everything to do with how I came to find my voice in advocating for women of color. I ended up going to that march and there were tons of white men and women marching, and it hit me. We need to be on the front lines of our own issues. I still wasn’t sure what that meant for me, but I was constantly questioning where I fit into this advocacy equation. Fast forward a year and some change, and I was working on the East Coast. The verdict was out: George Zimmerman was not guilty. I cried that night as if I could feel the pain of Trayvon’s parents. And mixed in with those emotions, I was going through my own personal hell of working in an environment that was less than equitable. It was on that night that I realized I had to do something. My advocacy wouldn’t be on the front lines with the Black Lives Matter movement; my advocacy would be inside the workplace advocating for women that looked like me. I had to fight systemic racism in a way that was authentic to me and that would allow me to use my expertise. Mellody Hobson would later use the term “corporate Kaepernick,” and I felt like I was something like a Kaepernick; addressing the inequalities that we often are scared to address. I had no idea what I would do or what it would look like, but I knew I had to do something!

Around the same time, Lean In by Sheryl Sandberg came out. I was heavily into professional development and consuming every business and self-help book I could get my hands on. After reading countless books, I realized that race or intersectionality was rarely—if ever—a topic of conversation. And the books I was reading and the content I was consuming were being produced by white women. It started to become very problematic for me to never read about the experiences of women of color at work. We were completely left out of most narratives. So I decided my form of advocacy would be to create a platform that served our needs and highlighted the challenges women of color face in the workplace. Again, I had no idea how that would look and wouldn’t until 2015, when I was forced to write a business plan for my unnamed company. All I could think about was Shirley Chisholm’s quote, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.” And on a train ride from Washington, D.C., to New York City while listening to a Drake song called “Trophies,” through my earbuds came the lyrics “Did y’all boys not get the memo?” And that line hit me like a ton of bricks—the workplace has not gotten The Memo: women of color deserve a seat at the table, and we are coming for those seats! It took time to build, but in the fall of 2015, I launched The Memo newsletter, and from there my business grew to include career boot camps, a speaker’s series, and an annual awards event. My activism was kicked off by Trayvon Martin—his death showed me that there was advocacy inside me waiting to come out. I went from someone who was fairly shy at times to someone speaking about the inequalities women of color face and challenging the “lean-in” doctrine. And in those days, Sheryl Sandberg could do no wrong, so most white women just looked at me sideways, but my message was resonating with women of color all over the country.

I have to admit that I was scared to launch The Memo. Imposter syndrome reared its ugly head. I wasn’t sure if I was the one to continue carrying this mantle of those who came before me like Ida B. Wells, Essie Robeson, Addie Hunton, and Maggie Walker. But as my friend Lolly Lynette said one day during a text conversation, “They would be proud.” The funny thing about advocacy is that people will try to tell you what you’re doing won’t work, and they won’t see your vision. I had countless people tell me that I shouldn’t start my company because there already were career platforms for women. I was most discouraged by white men, who pointed me to companies like Levo League, The Muse, and countless other platforms run by white women, at least in part because they were investors in those companies. They couldn’t see that our missions were very different at the core! It made it hard to raise money because no one wanted to invest in women of color in this way. There were days I would be on the phone with my cofounder, Lauren, and we had twenty dollars in our business bank account. And even though we continued to bootstrap our company, we knew we had to get the word out to more women of color so they wouldn’t lean out of the workforce due to isolation, lack of opportunity, and bias. I am so happy that Lauren never gave up on me and the vision. I know our journey hasn’t been easy, but it has been worth it.

Now, I bet you’re curious how The Memo went from a Drake song to this book you are reading or listening to. I’m glad you asked! Let’s go on a mini-journey to how we arrived at this point. Sometimes I laugh and wonder if God had this in his plans the entire time, and he chose not to show me the road because he knew I might have turned back around. I was not the person I am today or half as vocal five years ago—I can honestly say it’s been a metamorphosis. My curiosity was larger than my fear, and I didn’t want to see another woman of color crawl through her disappointments in the workplace and have no one ever acknowledge them! I was tired of the workplace being separate and far from equal. I was exhausted from the labels and the BS. And, I know we need to make more people aware of how difficult securing our seat at the table can be—I had to write my story and tell the stories of other women of color. And even though most people don’t want to admit it, we can’t talk about advancing women of color, or the future of work for that matter, and not address race and the history of this country.

When I looked back, I realized I have been writing poetry since I was in grade school, yet I never saw myself as a writer. I won a Martin Luther King Jr. Award at Macedonia Baptist Church during black history month for a poem I wrote. And after college, I wrote a Christmas play that was inspired by Beyoncé in the movie Fighting Temptations. (Let me warn you now, I am a huge Beyoncé fan, and this book will have you swimming in all things Yoncé.) And even after writing tons of content for our Monday newsletter, I still never called myself a writer. Some people have daydreamed their entire lives about writing a book. But I had never considered it; I wasn’t dreaming big enough! Then I realized I wanted to write a love letter to women of color. I needed to take advantage of this opportunity to tell our stories and shine a light on the fact that not all women experience the workplace in the same way. And I wanted to write a book that would give white people insight into how they have played a role in our barriers to entry.

I don’t have all the answers, and I feel honored that you would go on this journey with me to address the issues that many of us have faced or will face in the workplace. Let The Memo sound all the alarms and break any glass that has held us back. At times you might laugh and at other times you might cry because our road traveled has not always been easy. The current system is broken, and it will take all hands on deck to reassemble a table that did not originally have a seat for us. But the good news is that this is our story, told by us! Time to Secure Our Seat at the table and give everybody The Memo… let’s go!



IN 2013, I read this book that I had heard so much about. There was finally a book for women that would address what it’s like for us in the workplace. It was a huge topic of conversation at the water cooler and at dinner with friends. I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about Lean In. Companies across the country even started lean-in circles—groups of women who would come together to discuss goals, challenges, anything of the sort. It is safe to say that it was something like a revolution, and I wanted a piece of the action. I had never seen anything like it! Lean In sparked a national conversation. Who the heck is this Sheryl Sandberg lady? I thought. I wanted to shake her hand, and I hadn’t even read her book yet. As an avid reader of everything from Real Housewives memoirs to James Baldwin, I went to get my copy and started plowing through it.

But after reading, I felt confused. And I didn’t feel the way many of my white counterparts did. They felt inspired and empowered, you know how white people do, that Hell Yeah! type of energy. Something was missing for me. This new manifesto was encouraging women to speak up. But black women and many working-class women were already doing this, oftentimes in the face of opposition and where there was no room for advancement. I remember wanting to shake the book in the hope that some advice would fall out that addressed the differences faced by women of color in the workplace and how leaning in isn’t a wash, rinse, repeat equation for us. If I leaned in any more, my face would be on the damn table. Listen, many of the book’s basics like networking and advocating for yourself—all great advice. But networking and advocating for yourself look very different at work for women of color, especially if you are the only person of color in the office. And not to mention, if you didn’t graduate from an Ivy League school like Sandberg, your network might look different. What does this white lady know about struggling at work? She wrote a career book from a place of privilege, and she already had a seat at the table, so leaning in was easier. Her feelings were valid, to be clear, and I don’t want to take that away from her. But while she was pissed about not having a prime parking spot during her pregnancy, black and brown women were dealing with systemic racism that prevents us from using our voice to speak on subject matters like support for working mothers or the wage gap, because we often aren’t yet at “the table.” Imagine me busting down Sergey Brin’s door at Google and demanding new workplace policies. He would probably call security. Who is this crazy black woman leaning in!

And equally as disappointing was the fact that most white women didn’t even have enough emotional intelligence to realize that this book didn’t touch on race and the inequalities that women who look like me face, yet they wanted everyone to read it in the women’s book club! Lorraine Hansberry said it best, “The whole realm of morality and ethics is something that has escaped the attention of women, by and large. And it needs the attention of intellectual women most desperately.” The fact that Sandberg’s entire book was written from a place of privilege absolutely floored me. Call me cynical, but I would have liked to face some of the problems she wrote about! Instead, I was battling two white colleagues who were making work less than bearable for me, and I was the only black woman on our team. Let me tell you another part of the struggle: never reading about women in business who look like you or reading statistics that include you. So yes, you have no idea how disappointed I was after reading Lean In. I was hoping this career book would be different from the others, that I would finally feel seen. It was just another career book by a white woman that hit the bestsellers list, talking about white women sh––! I placed this book next to the countless career books written by white women like Girl Boss by Sophia Amoruso and Nice Girls Don’t Get the Corner Office by Lois P. Frankel that ignore my experiences in the workplace, give no thought to race and access, or add little side notes so they don’t forget about the black girls (an afterthought).

I know I might get some flack for stating what is already obvious to women of color, but here is some breaking news: we are no longer satisfied with reading your white women tales from the career crypt. Our experiences are different, and it’s time we discuss them. All women don’t have the same experiences in the workplace; yep, I said it! And even though we have hit movies like Hidden Figures, it doesn’t feel good to get treated like a hidden figure at work. Just because white people might not see us doesn’t mean we don’t add value to the bottom line each day. And just because we don’t hold many leadership positions like our white counterparts doesn’t mean we don’t have the capacity to lead. Women of color are like the heart and kidneys of the workplace—you can’t function without us! We don’t need more career advice from white women telling us what we need to do to advance our careers if we just work a little harder or how it’s the white man’s fault. Those are just more sad love songs that I can’t take hearing any more. Well, as far as I’m concerned, Time’s Up on the narrative that all women experience the same sh—at work. Yes, “women” as a whole do not have parity, but often when we discuss women in the workplace, it’s white women most folks are referring to. It’s a sad fact that women of color are supposed to always buy these career books and pretend it’s all good! I want to know when was the last time Sheryl, Sophia, or Lois read a career book about a woman of color and her experience at work? In the famous words of comedian Katt Williams, “Don’t worry, I’ll wait!”

I had to finally come to terms with my bitterness and make it better—that’s what I’m doing with this book. Career solutions for black and brown women are not one size fits all, and I would like for people to stop acting like they are. I think it’s safe to say that we are fed up as a whole and tired of fitting into your box; it’s time you heard about what “leaning in” is like for women of color. We want to read about our workplace experiences and nod our heads up and down. And we sure as hell ain’t taking any more advice from a white woman who claims to empower women when women of color make up less than 5 percent of the workforce at her company and then publicly states how she is struggling to find black and brown women to put in leadership positions and hopes to do better next time. Do better now! I guess I’ve proved my point: Leaning in doesn’t work the same for us, and we don’t need Sheryl speaking for us anymore; we will take it from here, sis!

Now I know what you’re thinking: sounds like another angry black woman. Well, the National Center for Educational Studies says that I am part of the most educated group in the United States, and yet there seem to be permanent barriers in place to prevent women like me from advancing in our careers. You would be angry too, boo. Our good friends at put out a report in 2018 stating that women of color hold less than 11 percent of management roles, less than 8 percent of senior management roles, and less than 4 percent of executive roles in US Fortune 500 companies. How would you feel obtaining all of this education and still not having access to more leadership opportunities—and sometimes we aren’t even part of the interview process! How would you feel if you never read or saw your stories told in the workplace? Not in The Help and mammy type of ways; we’ve seen enough of those stereotypes!

It is time to dispel the myths that all things are created equal at work, that if you just work harder, you can get your seat at the table. Well, black and brown women have worked hard since we stepped foot on American soil, and some are the hardest-working women I know, but “hard work” has not done us any favors! Only a select few, and I mean select (less than 4 percent), have reached the leadership level of a Fortune 500 company. And that’s just one of the ugly truths. We have checked all of the boxes that we were told would get us ahead, and guess what? Not much has changed! There is no shortage of black and brown talent that could fill those leadership positions. Women of color make up almost 14 percent of the population, and companies can’t seem to find one or two women to recruit, retain, or advance? The lack of representation in the working world at the highest levels is unacceptable. And, let’s be clear, it’s not because there aren’t any successful black and brown women in business. We just aren’t being elevated to the top, and our experiences are not being amplified so that we know we’re not alone. We want to read about the experiences of women like us. It’s one of the main reasons writing The Memo was important to me: for us, by us!

And to add insult to injury, most of the successful businesswomen that we read about are white. How can you be what you can’t see? As much as we know about Sheryl Sandberg and Marissa Mayer, we should also know about the Stacy Brown-Philpots and Ursula Burnses of the business world. Ask five white women to name five successful women of color in business and I guarantee they couldn’t, but ask five women of color to name five successful white women in business and they could even add one for extra credit. Thank God many of us had Mary Jane Paul, Annalise Keating, and Joan Clayton, fictitious black women to look up to on television, or we might not know what a professional working woman of color who wasn’t a reality TV star looks like. I believe one of the main reasons the movie Black Panther was a hit is that people of color finally had something for us, by us! And the ripple effect this movie will have on young girls who saw the character Shuri will catapult hundreds of black and brown girls into science, technology, engineering, and mathematics careers. There is power and beauty in seeing what you can become!

I spent much of my career in corporate America and the nonprofit sector as the only black woman or one of a few women of color in the companies and organizations I worked for. And I had no mentors or sponsors that looked like me. For years, I started to question if women of color even wanted more out of their careers because I never saw any in my industry. And my experiences of being the “only one” were happening in even more isolation because I had no one to talk to about them. I spent many years of my career wondering if my coworkers were being racist and preventing me from moving forward or if I was making this up in my head. If someone said something inappropriate to me, then it was up to me to be strong and not take what they said out of context. “Oh Minda, you know I didn’t mean any harm!” The last time I checked, no one was cutting me an extra check to be “strong” at work! My white counterparts would never understand the isolation I was experiencing. This is just one of the many forms of mental gymnastics that women of color go through at work because no one ever bothers to address our experiences. Showing up every day as the minority has never been easy, but as women of color we keep pushing forward and believing that if we work harder, maybe a seat will open up for us. As I said before, we can no longer subscribe to this outdated mindset; we are ready to build our own tables, sit at yours, and create our own place settings if need be. The bottom line is, we are coming for those seats, like it or nah!

What They Won’t Tell You

There’s so much I wish I would have known before I entered the workforce and worked day to day for companies that weren’t always thinking about ways to include me at the table. Maybe if I had career advice geared toward women like myself, I would have handled hard situations much differently. It’s not just about being the only one, it’s about owning our own narratives, calling out the bad sh––, and thriving at work, not just surviving! You know, stuff like office politics. Those unwritten rules that no one tells us about. Being a woman of color in predominantly white spaces is not an easy feat. I often had to replay the old skool song by Mya and hum, “I can’t / let you / get the best of me!” because each day was a struggle.

For so long, I tried to fight the fact that there are rules to this getting ahead thing. No one sat down with me and said, “Hey, girl, this is how you play the game. This is how they do it, and this is how they win.” Nor did anyone tell me, “Hey, girl, hey; you will work side by side with them for over ten years, people you thought were friends; one day they will throw you under the bus to save themselves, and you will be left to fight back alone.” I graduated from college, naively thinking, I have my degree, I will make a crap ton of money, have a corner office, and buy those Gucci loafers I’ve been eyeing. What I found out is, I should have negotiated my first salary because I could barely afford to buy shoes at Payless. I didn’t even know there was something called “office politics.” Lastly, I didn’t know I would need someone in my corner to help me along the way. Some call those people mentors or sponsors—I like to refer to them as work-wives or work-husbands.

Oh and the workplace labels! I wasn’t aware that some of my future coworkers would label folks that look like me as the angry black woman, feisty Latina, and docile Asian. Who came up with these ugly—not to mention racist—terms, because I sure as hell didn’t sign off on this company memo. Attention, Human Resources: please send out a memo on day one informing us about all the workplace BS we could potentially be up against as people of color. I definitely could have used a heads up! And, to be honest, I kind of blame the colleges and universities because they didn’t prepare us for overcoming microaggressions, imposter syndrome, or biases. I guess they wanted the inequalities we’d face at work to be a surprise!

Ask About Me

I graduated from high school early and spent almost two years at junior college because my high school advisor said I should. He steered many of us students of color to the community college and military routes, yet encouraged the white students to apply to four-year colleges and universities. Being a first-generation college student, I didn’t know my options. I wanted to attend New York University, the University of California at Berkeley, and Fisk University, but was told I wasn’t ready. I came from a low-income family, and I didn’t know what resources were available to me. I found out that no one is going to save you and tell you what you need to hear. Eventually, I realized I was my best advocate, and after my short stint at junior college, I applied to a four-year university. I learned that I had options just like the white kids do, even if I had to discover them on my own. Don’t get me wrong; there is nothing shameful about a two-year college. My point is that there are paths we can take if we just know they exist. What if my high school advisor had helped me with my college applications? What if he had told me that if I want to be somebody, if I want to go somewhere.… Bottom line is, he didn’t. Good thing I figured it out on my own! And the last time I checked, too many students of color are still being farmed out to the local community college.

Racial Growing Pains


  • "For black women navigating corporate careers, this book is a must-read."—Essence
  • "Packed with strategic and tactical wisdom for women of color in the workplace."—
  • "In this eye-opening and timely book, Minda Harts puts words to our discomfort and our at-work slights, and gives us solutions and action steps to help secure our professional development and well-being."—Natashia Deón, NAACP Image Award Nominee and author of Grace
  • "This much-needed career advice guide fills the gap created by other books that lump together women of all races and overlook the unique barriers to access and success that exist for women of color, with chapters on networking, office politics, money and negotiation."—B.L.A.C. Magazine
  • "An essential and honest guide to taking our rightful place in the C-Suite with tangible solutions about how to break barriers and pave a new path for ourselves -- and the next generation."—Jamia Wilson, director and publisher of the Feminist Press
  • "For any woman, at any company -- even her own. To secure a seat at the table, securing this book comes first."—Danyel Smith, culture journalist and former editor of Billboard and Vibe

On Sale
Sep 15, 2020
Page Count
256 pages
Seal Press

Minda Harts

About the Author

Minda Harts is the CEO of The Memo LLC, a career development platform for women of color, a Professor of Public Service at NYU Wagner, and the author of The Memo. She has been featured on MSNBC's Morning Joe and Fast Company, and speaks at Fortune 500 companies including Microsoft, Levi's, and Google. In 2020 she was named a LinkedIn Top Voice, and in 2018, she was named one of 25 Emerging Innovators by American Express. She hosts the podcast Secure the Seat, and lives in Los Angeles.

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