Receiving affirmation has long been a challenge for me. In third grade, I received my first award for drawing a picture on the theme of unity from the Cumberland County Human Relations Advisory Commission, who deemed my poster worthy of first place. My memories of that day include walking up to an antiseptic government building with fluorescent lights and rows of metal folding chairs to receive polite applause, a blue ribbon and a 12-inch trophy. Of course, my parents beamed with pride, as they later showed my picture to their friends. But what I remember most about that occasion is not a sense of joy or accomplishment, but one of shame and embarrassment. You see, what I remember most is a girl two years my senior within my family friend group who told me what I thought was the truth: My picture wasn’t that good. The way I drew people’s eyes and faces was not as good as hers. The judges must have poor taste. There must have been a mistake. And that memory stings to this day. I cringed when my parents showed my picture to their friends. If I could have ripped that picture up, I would have.
Most recently, at ColorComm 2019, as part of our Fearless Dialogues workshop, our facilitator Dr. Georgette Ledgister asked attendees to form pairs and share a brief story of a time when we were proud of ourselves. My partner Erica Smith quickly recalled a beautiful story of winning the spelling bee and the feeling of accomplishment as her community celebrated her. And I was so happy for her, too. When it was my turn to share a story, I struggled to come up with anything at all. It was telling.
Don’t get me wrong. I don’t suffer from a lack of confidence. I know what I know and what I don’t. I hope this doesn’t sound pompous, but I don’t need external validation to know that God made me to be pretty awesome. And this story isn’t about good work. I’m incredibly proud of the work I and my team do and what we’ve been able to achieve. No, this is the curse of collectivism that is prevalent in Eastern cultures and a selflessness that isn’t quite right and can hold us back from advancing in the workplace or receiving recognition. But that’s another subject for another time.
In my role as a senior leader, I’m able to do my job effectively because each time I stand in front of a crowd, give a speech or lead a workshop, it’s never about me. Called to what I do, I put on my version of Beyonce’s Sasha Fierce to tell the truth, to advocate for others and that has always been more than enough to fuel me. But, counterintuitively, there are times when I need to give by wholly accepting and receiving gifts of affirmation from others. And that’s a lesson I, and I suspect many of us, must continue to learn.
This year, I was recognized with a ColorComm Circle Award along with seven women I greatly respect and admire:
- Rosanna Fiske, SVP Corporate Communications, Wells Fargo
- Judith Harrison, SVP Diversity & Inclusion, Weber Shandwick
- Michelle Lee, Editor-in-Chief, ALLURE Magazine
- Kim Paige, Chief Operating and Branding Officer, Sundial Brands
- April Ryan, White House Correspondent, American Urban Radio Networks
- Dia Simms, President, Combs Enterprises
- Michelle Wong, President, Dailey
To quote ColorComm founder Lauren Wesley Wilson, “Our honorees are more than their titles as they do the daily work to help strengthen the voices of those who are often underrepresented in the overall business and political discourse. Our honorees have made instrumental advances in our industry and we are thrilled to honor their work and share their stories.” I’m honored to stand among them.
During my acceptance speech, I spoke of “rare air” — that feeling when you breathe in cavernously and exhale cleansingly, the assurance of being in a space where you can be your authentic self, your best self. That is rare air. After I shared that language, strangers and friends alike spoke to me of a spirit that inhabited them in that moment. I felt it, too. That generous spirit lingered throughout the conference and it allowed me to receive fully from the ColorComm community. Together, we expressed kindness and gratitude. We lifted each other up instead of tearing each other down. I gave and I received.
At ColorComm, I had several gratifying experiences of rare air:
- Allie Gonzalez sharing how it meant everything to see another Latina, Rosana Fiske of Wells Fargo, recognized for her contributions, and the sense that she could do it too.
- Daisy Nguyen connecting with Michelle Lee and Michelle Wong, to learn from their experiences as Asian American leaders in their fields.
- Watching ColorComm first-timers, Yamini Coen, Andrea List, Alejandra Lucero, Aerolyn Shaw and Erica Smith, learning, making connections and soaking in the experience of being among so many women of color in our industry.
- Seeing ColorComm veterans Suzy An and Dwayna Haley deftly navigating spaces to speak truth, build partnerships, and lead the way.
- Praying over every single chair before our Fearless Dialogues session with Georgette Ledgister and team, and experiencing the transformation in the room with our client Kerry-Ann Hamilton and PR Week Managing Editor Gideon Fidelzeid among many others.
- Feeling a strong sense of sisterhood with my fellow honorees and attendees.
- Expressing my undying love and devotion to Ann Curry and April Ryan (#goalscomplete).
- And, despite her busyness of preparing for AdColor, having Omnicom Chief Diversity Officer Tiffany Warren making her way to Miami to support me!
I could go on and on but the mantra “If you can see it, you can be it” took on a special meaning to our team by simply seeing other women of color rise and be recognized. It also took on special meaning to BE a woman of color rising and be recognized. Thinking back on what it was like to receive an award as a third grader, I wish I had experienced rare air then.
I realize now that truths are expressed all the time – in our formative years and in our formed years. It’s up to us to distinguish the truths and extinguish the lies for ourselves and for others. It’s time to aspire to new heights and expire old weights. It’s time to inhale love and expel hate. Because once you breathe in that air of truth and possibility and affirmation, you want it all the time.
Thank you to ColorComm Founder Lauren Wesley Wilson, all the staff and volunteers, for creating a space for rare air. And thank you to the ColorComm community for breathing that into me and allowing me the bountiful safety to take it all in. I’m filled with pride and joy to be among you.
Now, as we return to our everyday spaces, let’s make sure we make that rare air common for all – including ourselves.
Soon Mee Kim is Executive Vice President, Global Diversity & Inclusion Leader for Porter Novelli.