In a Peachtree Corners office park the other day, Fern Johnson showed me her safe place.
Rooms decorated with comfy sofas and chairs, pretty pillows and enough biblical affirmations to restock the entire Book of Proverbs.
She calls the space Career Sisters, created and designed for women of color in search of the personal and professional support she’d found so often lacking in the workforce, especially in the nation’s C-suite.
For years, Johnson pushed and shoved her way near the top, becoming the director of finance at one of Atlanta’s leading real estate agencies. As the only woman of color in the agency’s leadership, it was a lonely place.
Although women hold almost 52% of all management- and professional-level jobs, they lag substantially behind men in terms of their representation in leadership positions, according to the Center for American Progress.
Things are even worse for women of color like Johnson. They are only 4.7% of executive- or senior-level officials and managers in S&P 500 companies. And as recently as 2013, more than two-thirds of Fortune 500 companies had no women of color as board directors.
Johnson said: “There was no one who looked like me.”
You might know what that feels like.
If she couldn’t have that at work, she thought, maybe there was a way to create the support she needed.
In 2008, Johnson invited 25 women into her home to talk. She wanted to share her story and hear theirs. What specific experiences helped shape them? What trials? What triumphs?
The idea was to draw from those stories the inspiration and motivation they all needed to keep pushing.
For the longest time, Fern Johnson had encouraged herself, finding the strength to persevere in the faith her mother had passed on to her.
When you grow up with next to nothing, that’s what you do. Johnson’s father, a Vietnam veteran who suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder, abandoned the family when she was just 5, leaving her mother to fend for seven children. That meant sometimes living without lights to read by or heat to keep them warm. It meant moving 10 times before she made it to high school.
When her father suddenly died in 1993, Johnson dropped out of school her senior year, but quickly realized she was headed nowhere without an education.
She earned a GED, enrolled in college, got married, had a son and divorced in quick succession. How she could work full time while attending evening classes at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, often with her son Daniel in tow, is anyone’s guess, but she pulled it off, graduating in 2004 before earning a master of business administration.
By 2016, she’d moved from Florida to Atlanta, remarried and risen to vice president of finance at one of the largest private health care laboratories in the country.
Then just days away from her 41st birthday, Johnson was fired. The next day, she learned she was pregnant with her fourth child.
“It was a very humbling experience, but I hadn’t come from much,” she said. “I knew we’d figure it out.”
Johnson had made a lot of connections. It wasn’t long before she had some good news. Kaplan Education, a subsidiary of Graham Holdings, needed help posthaste.
“I got the job on the phone,” she said.
It was welcome news, but Johnson was starting to realize corporate life wasn’t her calling. Helping women who look like her discover theirs was, and so last year, after abandoning the roundtable discussions born in her living room, Johnson decided it was time to expand the conversations into a bigger and more permanent space.
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Opening social spaces for people of color to gather isn’t exactly a novel idea. They have been around at least since the 1800s, but they are rare, especially in these parts.
When she officially launched Career Sisters last year, Johnson simply wanted to live out her dream. She wanted to help other women do the same with no clear picture of what that might look like. That’s starting to change.
Come June 12, she will partner with IgniteHQ to launch SistersIgnite, a teaching platform that promises free advice from successful industry leaders and entrepreneurs. It’s a shark tank without the sharks.
To date, Career Sisters (careersisters.com), which offers three membership levels that cost between $30 and $200 a month for access to weekend and special events, coaching sessions and career workshops, has more than 35 members of varying ages and interests. One woman is a 25-year-old medical student. Another is a 40-something physician at WellStar. And another is a business owner and social media influencer.
They are all African American like Fern Johnson.
Unlike Johnson, they don’t have to make their journey alone, feeling like they don’t belong, don’t have enough degrees or the right pedigree.
“This space is about imperfect people seeking purpose,” she said. “It’s about coming in empty and leaving full, collaborating, connecting and sharing your stories so others will know they aren’t alone.”
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