Online Extra: Why Black Women Keep Rising

Despite huge barriers, their determination, education, and optimism are powering an impressive economic advance

By now, it's no secret that African-American women have climbed the ladder of achievement. They're driven by a kind of power Jones. With this determination and talent, they've become top advisers to the President of the United States, owners of businesses in communities across the nation, and presidents of elite companies in the S&P 500. They've become doctors and lawyers and accountants. Eleven percent of black women hold executive and managerial jobs today, more than the 9% of black men in those positions and ever closer to the 15% of white women in similar jobs. And all the while, let's not forget, they remain mothers, wives, and sisters.

From her trendy loft office in downtown Chicago, Cheryl Mayberry McKissack spends every day developing ways to bring purpose to this growing "sista" power. That's basically the mission of the company she founded three and a half years ago, Nia Enterprises (nia means purpose in Swahili). And that's why in early June, for the second year in a row, McKissack gathered 300 black women leaders at a Leadership Summit to teach each other and share common female experiences.

"African-American women are undoubtedly on the rise educationally and professionally," she says. "What we're exploring is how to bring positive purpose to the power that black women are gaining and create better lives for our families and ourselves."


  One key factor in their success is education. "Look at the difference in patterns of higher educational attainment in recent years between black men and women," says William Darity, a professor of economics at the University of North Carolina. "Women are now far more likely to go on to colleges and universities."

Indeed, black women leaped from just 10% of college students in 1990 to 12.5% by 1999. They still lag significantly behind white women, who made up 78% of the nation's 7.5 million female college students in 1990 and 68% in 1999. But African-American women have widened the gender gap considerably with black men in college participation. The 10-percentage-point gap in 2000, from the latest figures available, is the largest yet recorded, and it follows a period during which men had achieved significant progress.

Despite black women's gains in recent years, they still face huge obstacles. Succeeding as an executive in a predominantly white workplace is no easy task. In 2001, African-American women made up a tad more than 1% of the corporate officers at the nation's top 500 companies, according to Sharon Epperson, a correspondent with CNBC television, who moderated a Nia Summit panel on shattering the glass ceiling. So, how, in an increasingly cutthroat environment, do they survive? And more important, how do they thrive?


  Business leaders at the Nia Summit boiled the survival recipe down to steely determination, unwavering excellence, and sista-girl support. Yes, black women face a doubly difficult hurdle: The pressure of being African-American in a white business world, plus the weight of being a woman in a man's world. But that's no excuse, entrepreneur Deborah Sawyer told the women gathered for the Summit. "You learn early on that you have to be twice as smart to be thought of as half as smart," said Sawyer, CEO of engineering firm Environmental Design International in Chicago.

Paula Sneed, the only African-American member of Kraft Foods' (KFT ) 15-member management team, has excelled by developing a career plan and seeking mentors to help guide her. As a child, Sneed learned the importance of ambition. A mentor taught her to draw a word picture of what sort of life she wanted. She even got in the habit of telling executives during job interviews that one day she would like to run the company, and she asked if it was possible for a woman of color to assume such a leadership role.

"We have to see ourselves as trailblazers," Sneed said. Racism and sexism "are alive and well," she added, but even so, "they cannot become detractors."

Optimism, it appears, is part of the successful black woman's DNA. It doesn't matter that the economy remains sour or that amid continued layoffs, the unemployment rate for blacks is nearly 11% -- twice that of whites. Ask black women, and they'll tell you tomorrow will be a better day. For example, in an online survey of more than 500 mostly educated, black women conducted by Nia Enterprises, 44% said blacks overall will be no worse off economically in 2004. By 2005, 45% said the race will be better off.


  However, when it comes to themselves, these women are far more optimistic. Fifty-four percent say they'll be better off economically in 2004 than today, and 65% see their situations improving in 2005.

McKissack smiles at this sort of optimism. She relates to it well. Though she says women get less than 5% of the startup capital for business ventures, she found a way to launch her company. She landed institutional and corporate partners that stepped in to help when the banks wouldn't, and now she says Nia is profitable.

"We're more unlikely to go backwards than anyone else," she says while sipping tea in the conference room of her Chicago office. "It's because we've already been down, and we know how to persevere." After years of persevering, these women have also learned how to bring purpose to power.

By Roger O. Crockett in Chicago

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