Roger Ferguson, the CEO of TIAA who oversees $1.1 trillion in assets, once visited a country club for dinner with other CEOs when he was mistaken for a waiter. He was the only Black guest in the room.
The incident amplified Ferguson’s feeling of “onlyness,” or being the only person of color in the room. It’s a feeling he’s had to get used to as a leader in corporate America.
“One has to always remind oneself that there is a reason why you’re in that room. Even if you look different from the other people, it doesn’t mean that you have any less right to be there,” the CEO told Insider.
Ferguson grew up in a segregated area of Washington, DC. He earned a bachelor’s degree, law degree, and a doctorate in economics, all from Harvard University, and he worked as a lawyer, consultant, executive, and chair of the Federal Reserve. In 2008, he became the CEO of TIAA.
During his time at the prestigious university, during his years spent as a lawyer and an economist, and for the better part of his time in corporate America, Ferguson has sat in gatherings as the single Black voice.
Many Black Americans and people of color experience onlyness in corporate jobs. It’s a burden that affects employee engagement and happiness, research shows. It’s intensified by unconscious bias and racist microaggressions.
Kay Gravesande, a Cincinnati-based HR consultant and career coach, recently left corporate America to start her own consulting firm, in part because she was struggling with onlyness after last summer’s protests following the death of George Floyd.
“I felt a lot of turmoil because of the Black Lives Matter movement and how my previous employer had responded to it,” she said. “People were going to work like nothing happened, like you didn’t just witness a man die on your phone.”
As the only Black woman in “the entire corporate building” of some 200 people, she felt she had to hide her anger and grief.
“It’s overwhelming. It’s disheartening,” she said. “You have to learn to get comfortable with being on your own.”
Gravesande is not surprised that Ferguson experienced onlyness throughout his career because he’s ascended to high-ranking positions.
“It’s really unfortunate,” she said.
Kelley Bonner, a licensed therapist and burnout expert based in Washington, DC, said onlyness can have a range of consequences.
“It increases mental distress. There’s increased feelings of anxiety that’s just related to being the only person, of being isolated,” Bonner told Insider. “Then there’s the added weight of microaggressions, of being excluded, of being tokenized.”
Tokenism is the practics of singling a person for their differences and asking them to speak out on or act on behalf of the underrepresented population they represent.
“Being set as the go-to person on diversity initiatives because you’re Black, is a racial burden. There’s emotional labor,” she said.
She recommended that people be mindful of not tokenizing others or calling out differences through microaggressions. In addition, leaders need to have regular check-ins with all of their employees to make sure they feel seen and heard in the workplace, she said.
For Ferguson, dealing with onlyness meant remembering his mother’s words to him when he was a child.
“Education is one thing that they can’t take away from you,” his mother, a former teacher, told him repeatedly. And while she never explicitly said who “they” were, Ferguson said he knew there was a racial undertone to her advice.
“‘They’ in that sentence could have been folks who wanted to hold Black people back,” Ferguson told Insider.
Whenever he was the only Black person or person of color in a room, he would remember that he not only had the right to be there, but he also had the skills and experience that warranted it.
On April 30, Ferguson will step down from his 13-year-career as TIAA’s CEO to focus on a few social-justice initiatives and serve on the board of multiple companies. He will be handing the company over to Thasunda Brown Duckett, the current CEO of Chase consumer banking.
“I don’t let the ignorance, the stupidity, the unfairness on the part of somebody else in the room belittle me. I don’t let someone else’s difficulty around race become a problem for me.”