Leading in the B-Suite™
Race and Racism and How to Stand Up to It | Alix Guerrier | Leading in the B-Suite
October 31, 2023
Alix Guerrier, CEO of DonorsChoose, shares powerful lessons with Adam Bryant and Rhonda Morris on discussing race and racism, facing headwinds due to race, and considering the costs of speaking out in this Leading in the B-Suite interview.
Morris: What were important early influences that helped shape who you are today?
Guerrier: To some extent, the folks who raised you are a large influence on everybody’s life. I’ll start with my parents. Each of them was born and raised in a poor country—Haiti, in the case of my dad; and rural Brazil for my mom. Each of them pursued a path of prioritizing education, which came from their own families and parents, and led them on a global journey. My dad obtained a medical doctorate and is a doctor.
My mom earned a PhD in molecular biology. She didn’t have a path within Brazil to continue her education, so she left the country and found a program in Brussels, Belgium. A lot of immigrant families in the United States place a priority on education which is really a strong driver. Their journey has been quite instrumental in my focus on education.
Another person who would play an important role for me in my life was a teacher, Mr. Moore, whom I met when I attended New Haven Public Schools. The majority of my classmates throughout my K-12 education were Black or Latino. Yet among all the teachers at the school, there were only four or five Black teachers, and only two of them taught core subjects.
I had the benefit of having Mr. Moore as a teacher for several years because he taught in the Gifted and Talented program. There was something really special about having a Black teacher at the front of a Gifted and Talented class. He was very cool. He made a lot of jokes and got us laughing. He was one of the few teachers who my parents could connect with. So he stands out in my mind.
Another mentor, Byron Auguste, was the first Black director at McKinsey. He was a mentor by explicitly creating opportunities for me to develop within the firm and by just modeling a way of being excellent and demonstrating a way to do the work and be professional and be a leader in the organization. I learned so much just trying to copy him.
Bryant: You’ve had an unusual career path, including everything from teaching to working at McKinsey as a consultant. What was your guiding principle as you made those career moves?
Guerrier: The guiding principle has mostly been wanting to learn, often from a very naïve perspective, but in some ways that’s when it’s paid off the most. I remember how I landed on consulting. I was in graduate school and took some classes on strategy. I remember being blown away by the answers that some of my classmates could give to questions that I could barely even understand. I thought, “I should learn how to do that.” One of the students who impressed me the most had worked at McKinsey, so I said, “That’s where I’m going to go,” so I could learn how to do that.
I was also guided by deliberately wanting to acquire signifiers of excellence and authority. I focused only on the highest ranked schools, and I was happy that I was able to get into Harvard. I felt relatively insecure about the fact that I did not come from an American family.
Nothing about my family felt or feels American to this day. It’s mostly a Haitian family. That’s where I grew up. My first language is Haitian Creole. I remember going to school and not knowing English. I felt insecure about that, and so I wanted to go about acquiring some of these badges. And I was motivated by a sense that, if others can do this, I want to be able to do it, too. I wanted to have a place at the table.
When there has been a chance to come back to education, I’ve usually taken it. I tried to build out a well-rounded experience base. I learned about finance, consulting, and leadership. Then I switched to the non-profit world with Global Giving and had a chance to work on global issues. Each move filled a gap in my experiences and also a narrative interest, but also came back to education.
Morris: Out of the all the roles you’ve held, which has been the most challenging?
Guerrier: Across my entire career, by far the most difficult job I had was teaching, which I did after investment banking. And I learned a fair amount from teaching that I then explicitly applied in other venues. There’s a specific idea in the classroom that the success is the kids’ success. The best feeling for you as a teacher is when your kids are working hard, and then they achieve success. Nothing beats that feeling. I found teaching to be the toughest, but in a way that I loved.
That approach lends itself naturally to being a consultant with your client—“What’s going to make them successful?” I also learned a lot because I didn’t grow up in an American family, even though I was born here and grew up in America.
There was a lot of explicit studying that I was doing about other groups of people—how they behaved, how they operated, how they interacted with each other, how they spoke. When I went to Harvard, I had to figure out how the school dynamics work. It’s code switching. You have to learn the specific languages of how people interact with each other in different contexts.
Bryant: Can you talk about some of the headwinds you’ve encountered in your career because of your race, and what were the tailwinds that helped you navigate those?
Guerrier: One set of headwinds was internal—feeling hesitant, insecure, unconfident— because I was different in so many ways, in terms of race, language, and cultural background. But there also were external headwinds. For example, my cofounder and good friend at LearnZillion, is Eric Westendorf, a handsome White guy. I loved working with him, and we were great partners.
We were a VC-backed startup, operating in a world that has some very set assumptions for making decisions about who to invest in. We learned relatively early on that even though I was a physics major who knew how to program, and was the more technical of the two of us, there were some things that he would say in a meeting, not me. It was because of race.
There were many times when we would decide who would say certain things about the company for credibility. It’s not that I would defer. It was something we did because I had a White co-founder. If I hadn’t had that White co-founder, then I would have been part of a team with less credibility. We wanted to get it across the finish line to grow our company. Those moments represent tough decisions. Sometimes it’s important to push against them. But sometimes you also have to pick your fights.
Morris: What’s your framework for deciding whether to engage people on discussions about race?
Guerrier: One dimension that has influenced my decisions is the degree of seniority, power, or sort of status I’ve had in different contexts. When I was in business school, there was a point when I made an explicit decision that I was going to spend zero minutes educating White people about racism when they would say things like, “Well, I’m actually hurt by affirmative action to get into a good college because it’s actually harder to come from a private school than it is from a lower performing public school. There’s more competition, so it’s harder.”
Deciding to stop educating White people about racism was incredibly liberating, and it felt like I was taking off this big burden. I could just say, “This is not my problem. Just go figure it out yourself.”
That approach changed after the murder of George Floyd, and other instances that year that made race part of the national discussion. Again, my first instinct was, “Well, this is not my job.” But then I realized it was my job. The folks within my organization are looking to me as their Black CEO to say something about this, do something and share more personally. So I felt like it was important to step back into the ring. A person has to make a decision that feels right to them.
Bryant: So how do we have constructive discussions about race and racism?
Guerrier: There’s a lot of power in taking a learning mentality, leading with curiosity, and being willing to make statements like, “I don’t know much about blank, but I’m curious to learn more.” That was the approach I decided to take that made it easier for me to have these conversations, rather than holding myself up to some standard of speaking with expertise carved in stone about the experience of Black leaders.
After all, I am from an immigrant family. I don’t know as much about the experience of Black Americans whose families have been in the United States for generations. I’m curious to learn more. I’m sure there are some similarities and some things that would be new to me, coming from a mostly Caribbean experience. That approach can be disarming and make tough conversations a bit easier if people lead with curiosity and openness about what they’d like to learn more about.
Morris: What is the best career and life advice you give to young Black professionals?
Guerrier: There are different strands of research that all point at the same thing, which is the underlying understanding that each of us are mostly just trying to do our best, and we’re making up a lot of what we’re doing as we go along. There is research, for example, that talks about the difference between how men and women approach leadership, and how sometimes women can be more hesitant to take on a role—even when they have the same capabilities and knowledge and maybe even more than a male counterpart—but actually the male is more willing to just make it up as they go along, trying to do their best.
If you want to try something, you can just try.
And that informs my advice for young person, which is to know that all of us are just trying our best and making up a lot. If you want to try something, you can just try.
More specifically, I would tell them that even early on in their career, they can be a mentor. Yes, you should find mentors for yourself, but even when you don’t think you know that much, you can be a mentor to somebody who is a year younger than you, who is newer to the company than you. Not just other Black professionals, although certainly inclusive of other Black professionals.
Bryant: And what would you say to that same audience of young Black professionals about what we discussed earlier—whether, when and how to engage with others if they see or experience moments of racism?
Guerrier: That’s a big question. I don’t think it would be productive to ignore the fact that there might be a cost either way. So I certainly wouldn’t say to universally stand up for what’s right and fight every injustice, because that may result in too much cost to the person who is trying to create a career for themselves. But you may also feel a personal cost of absorbing some of those experiences and not speaking out. It goes back to do what feels right in the moment, and realize that the problem is not your doing. It’s not your fault.
Morris: Did you feel there was a cost for you when you decided in college not engage on those things, as you described earlier?
Guerrier: Yes, there was some personal cost. When you hear somebody speaking confidently about affirmative action in a way that’s fundamentally inaccurate, it weighs on you personally. And as has been demonstrated in this country, these misunderstandings can really harm a lot of people in direct ways, such as this movement to disallow race-based considerations, when we live in a country where systems of oppression are in part based on race. It leads to real harm.
But that’s why I often come back to the idea of, what’s going to be effective here. What’s going to give you the result that you want? That way, it becomes like a lot of other decisions. The situation is what the situation is. Nothing is perfect in terms of context.
This interview with Alix Guerrier on discussing race and racism is part of our Leading in the B-Suite interview series featuring powerful conversations about life, race and racism, and leadership. Join the conversation on LinkedIn.