10 Questions: A Q&A with Kimberly Lee Minor, CEO, Women of Color Retail Alliance, and host, Women of Color Empowered

Breaking Barriers: Can you share a pivotal moment when you felt you broke through a significant barrier as a woman of color?

Kimberly: Breaking through the entrenched “Old Boy” network at Foot Locker was a formidable journey where women, especially women of color, were conspicuously absent from leadership. Despite this backdrop of systemic exclusion, I found my answer not in seeking permission but in forging a path. I created a product design organization dedicated to apparel and accessories for the global market, which was a strategic move to carve out a space for diversity in thought, creativity, and leadership to flourish away from the oppressive norms of the status quo.

The journey was arduous, every step a battle against microaggressions, misogyny, and prejudice. However, the results spoke volumes. In less than two years, my fledgling endeavor under my stewardship blossomed into an almost $1 billion organization, demonstrating that diversity is not just a metric to be touted but a formidable force for innovation and growth. Despite this monumental achievement, recognition and respect remained just beyond reach, overshadowed by a culture unwilling to fully acknowledge the value and leadership of a woman of color.

In this moment of stark realization, I recognized my worth and the limits of the impact I could have within such confines. The decision to leave was not one of defeat but of empowerment. It was a declaration that my talent, vision, and leadership would find a home elsewhere, where they would be celebrated and leveraged to their fullest potential. This pivotal moment was more than a personal victory; it was a beacon for others who navigate similar paths. It was a testament to the power of resilience, innovation, and the courage to walk away when a space no longer serves us. It underscored a profound truth: sometimes, breaking through the most significant barriers involves recognizing when to take our talents to places where they will not only be acknowledged but will flourish.

Role Models and Representation: How has the presence (or absence) of role models and representation in your field impacted your journey?

Kimberly: The genesis of WOCRA was deeply rooted in my professional narrative—a narrative punctuated by being “the only” or one of the sparse few women of color in virtually every organization I’ve been a part of. Amidst this solitude, I was fortunate to cross paths with Andrea Blake, Carol Williams, and Michael Weiss. They were more than mentors; they were my north stars—sponsors, role models, and leaders whose footsteps I yearned to follow. At that juncture in my career, the terminology for such pivotal relationships was nebulous at best. Conversations around mentorship and sponsorship were not as pronounced as they are today.

I have encountered leaders who embody the same blend of unwavering confidence, inclusive leadership, and a relentless pursuit of excellence as Andrea, Carol, and Michael have been rare. Their influence was profound, instilling in me the skills and knowledge to navigate my professional landscape and the ethos of leadership that prioritizes lifting others as we climb.

As I’ve navigated my leadership journey, I aspired to mirror their exemplary qualities. Creating WOCRA was a step towards cementing this legacy—a platform through which I could extend the same sponsorship, mentorship, and inspiration to others that Andrea, Carol, and Michael generously offered me. I aim to foster an environment where the next generation of leaders, particularly women of color, need not feel ‘the only’ but part of a thriving community of excellence, support, and mutual growth.

Cultural Heritage and Identity: How has your cultural presentation influenced your approach to professional challenges and opportunities?

Kimberly: I have always known I did not have the luxury of “identifying” to fit in or stand out. I was always going to stand out.  My approach has always been to overcome professional challenges posed by my identity (aka prejudice) to be undeniably excellent, and open to new opportunities outside of my comfort zone to stretch beyond what others expected of me, or even I expected of myself.

Intersectionality in Action: How do you manage the intersectionality of your identity in work spaces dominated by the majority?

Kimberly: To be a woman and African American is to be doubly questioned, at most turns. For good or ill, you grow accustomed to it – until your body of work precedes you, and professionally, you can be seen first for what you do rather than who you are.  And yet, I believe that who I am is linked to what I do, but not a total definition of me.  I choose to lean into the value of my blackness and woman-ness as the true power of diversity to bring all the cultural experiences that no one else can.  If we’re going to tell the whole story, I have to say that some of my worst mistreatment has not come from sexist men but from other women. There’s a lot to unpack here!

Challenges and Triumphs: Share a challenging experience in your career and how you turned it into a triumph or learning opportunity (no failure).

Kimberly: BBW’s refusal to see my value, which I first saw as a rejection preventing me from an opportunity to make, actually became the transformative realization of a life calling that has become bigger than anything I could have done, any example I could have been, any employment I could have created.  I tried to start WOCRA 15 years ago but let it fall. But today, the need has been undeniable. I learned to listen to myself and believe the inner voice when it told me to bet on myself. Just ensure you’ve put in the work before you roll those dice. Long odds are not bad bets, but bad odds rarely make good bets.

Personal Growth: Can you share a moment of self-doubt and how you overcame it?

Kimberly: I don’t know if self-doubt and gaslit are the same, but I have definitely allowed constant second-guessing of my work and decisions to make me question my positions and sometimes be dragged into normalizing toxic work cultures until I was numb to my own mistreatment until my body told me I had had enough.  You need to be outside of the storm sometimes to appreciate the enormity of its destructive force.  While you can’t always tell that the environment is a tornado before you encounter it, you will be stronger and more confident from surviving the prior storm when the new one comes.  You can’t stay inside forever- grab a raincoat and Bumbershoot and have no fear of getting wet.

Mentorship and Support: How has mentorship impacted your career, and how do you pay it forward to support other women of color?

Kimberly: Mentorship has been an integral part of my career, providing me with guidance, knowledge, and a framework to navigate the complexities of the professional world. However, my journey has also highlighted a crucial distinction – the difference between mentorship and sponsorship. While mentorship involves offering guidance and advice, sponsorship involves advocacy and action. It requires someone to speak on your behalf when you’re not in the room, push your name forward for opportunities, and actively help you climb the ladder. This distinction is particularly vital for women and even more so for women of color.

We need champions who will guide us and fight for us. It’s time to dispel the myth that women, especially women of color, need only to seek out mentors. We require sponsors, individuals willing to leverage their influence for our advancement, recognizing that mentoring, while valuable, only goes so far without the active advocacy that sponsorship provides.

Founding WOCRA has exposed the dire need for mentorship and sponsorship within the retail industry. In this sector, women are significantly represented yet disproportionately absent from leadership roles. The statistics paint a stark picture – although women make up 60% of the corporate retail workforce and hold 37% of leadership positions, women of color represent only 6% of leadership. This disparity isn’t just a gap; it’s a chasm that speaks volumes about the industry’s need for structural change. In my interactions, the request for mentors is a recurring theme, with many women seeking guidance on the enigmatic path of professional development. However, they often need sponsors – executives willing to go beyond mentorship to advocate for their protégés in tangible, impactful ways. Unfortunately, the tendency among executives to sponsor individuals who mirror their younger selves or resemble familial connections perpetuates a cycle of exclusion for those who do not fit these molds, particularly women of color like myself. To truly commit to an inclusive workforce, organizations must go beyond mere statements of intent. They must invest in robust support systems that empower diverse employees to survive and thrive.

Through WOCRA, I strive to bridge this gap by offering mentorship for guidance and fostering environments where sponsorship can flourish. By doing so, I aim to advance the careers of women of color in retail and challenge and change industry norms to create a more inclusive and equitable professional landscape. Paying it forward becomes a personal mission and a necessary movement. It’s about creating spaces where women of color can find mentors and sponsors, dismantling the barriers that have historically hindered our advancement. It’s about ensuring that the next generation of women in retail and all industries have the support, advocacy, and opportunities they deserve. Together, we can create a future where mentorship and sponsorship are no longer a privilege but a right for all women of color.

Balancing Cultural Expectations: Do you feel the weight of expectations from your community, and if so, how do you manage the demands of those expectations inside and outside the pressures of modern professional life?

Kimberly: The weight of expectations from my community is a palpable presence in my personal and professional life. As a woman of color in leadership positions, I’m acutely aware of my role as an individual succeeding in her career and a beacon for my community. There’s an inherent responsibility to pave the way for others, to break down barriers, and to challenge the status quo. This dual identity—of a professional and a community member—means navigating a tightrope of expectations.

Managing these demands involves a delicate balance. Inside the pressures of modern professional life, I strive to lead with authenticity, ensuring that my actions reflect my values and the aspirations of those I represent. It’s about making intentional choices that align to foster diversity, equity, and inclusion, not just as buzzwords but as tangible outcomes.

Outside of work, it’s about grounding myself in the support and wisdom of my community. It involves engaging in conversations, mentorship, and advocacy that replenish my sense of purpose and remind me of the bigger picture. Self-care also plays a crucial role; recognizing the importance of setting boundaries and taking time to recharge is vital for sustaining the energy needed to meet these expectations.

Managing these expectations isn’t about carrying the weight alone but leveraging it as a collective force for change. It’s about inspiring and being inspired, advocating, and being advocated for. Through this symbiotic relationship, the demands of these expectations become manageable and a powerful catalyst for transformation, both within the spheres of professional life and beyond.”

This response acknowledges the pressures while highlighting the strategies and mindset that help navigate them, painting a picture of resilience, community engagement, and intentional leadership.

Empowering the Next Generation: What do you wish you knew at the beginning of your career that you know now?

Kimberly: If I could go back to the beginning of my career, there are a few nuggets of wisdom I’d definitely arm myself with. First, having only some of the answers on day one is okay. I used to think I needed to know everything right out of the gate, but that’s not realistic—or necessary, for that matter. Understanding the difference between school expectations and the professional world is critical.

What’s more important is to stay curious. Ask questions, dig deeper, and never stop learning. That thirst for knowledge is well-respected and is a sign of a great leader. Curiosity drives innovation and personal growth—the engine behind continuous improvement in your professional and personal life.

I’d also emphasize the power of networking. Your connections can lead to opportunities and collaborations you might never have imagined. It’s not just about what you know but also who you know and how you engage with them.

Another thing I’d tell myself is to embrace failure. Sounds counterintuitive, right? But failures are where some of the best lessons are hidden. They build resilience and teach you to adapt, which is priceless in the ever-changing business landscape.

And lastly, take into account the value of work and life prioritization and self-care. Taking time to recharge and pursue passions outside of work makes you a more well-rounded individual and, believe it or not, a better professional. It’s all about finding that sweet spot where your work and personal life coexist harmoniously.

So, to anyone just starting out, remember these points. Be kind to yourself, stay inquisitive, and know that each day is a chance to learn something new and make meaningful connections. This mindset will help you grow and empower those around you.

Mistakes: What is the biggest behavior you see young professionals make in the workplace, completely oblivious to the impression that they are making?

Kimberly: When it comes to the behaviors of young professionals in the workplace, one of the most common missteps I see is the inclination to treat every uncomfortable interaction as a conflict that needs to be won. It’s crucial to understand that not every challenge is a battle. We need to pick our battles wisely with the long game in mind. Having a strategic approach is what leads to sustainable success and career longevity.

Another behavior that often goes unnoticed is the reluctance to ask questions. There’s this misconception that asking questions may reveal a lack of knowledge, but it’s quite the opposite. Curiosity demonstrates engagement and intelligence. You don’t know what you don’t know; the only way to learn is to inquire.

Then, there’s the fear of making mistakes or encountering failure. I see too many talented individuals holding back because they fear getting it wrong. We learn the most from our mistakes and the tough situations we face. While mistakes shouldn’t be your only teacher, don’t shut the door on them. Embrace them because they’re vital to growth; avoiding them will only lead to stagnation.

Lastly, understanding a portion of the industry equates to knowing it all and breeds impatience for advancement and promotion. Just because you’ve landed the job doesn’t mean you’re immediately entitled to move up the ladder. It’s essential to recognize that growth and development take time, and patience is a virtue that will serve you well in any career.

Vision for the Future: What is your vision for the future of professional women of color, and what steps are you taking to make it a reality?

Kimberly: My vision for the future of professional women of color is one where equity isn’t just a buzzword but a tangible, everyday reality. We’re working towards a world where women of color are not just participating in industries across the board but leading them.

At the Women of Color Retail Alliance (WOCRA), we’re shaping this future by holding industries accountable for their advertising-inclusive visions. We’re not just watching from the sidelines but actively involved in the transformation process. Whether through challenging conversations, support, or celebrating successes, WOCRA is committed to being a catalyst for change.

We’re also deeply invested in nurturing the upcoming generation of leaders. Through education and promotion, we’re building a pipeline of talented women ready to take their place in the C-Suite and beyond.

I’m optimistic about what’s ahead. The potential is limitless, but it requires an unwavering dedication to progress. We’ll face critics and obstacles, but we’ll stay the course. Our determination is fueled by the belief that the future is bright and that our actions today will pave the way for tomorrow’s victories.

Don’t miss an episode of Women of Color Empowered!

Click here to learn all about the Women of Color Retail Alliance: wocretailalliance.org