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Working While Black: For One Man, Corporate America Is About Competition, Not Race

Instead of focusing on race in the workplace, Gene R. Todd believes one’s energy is better spent on being better than the competition.
St. Louis Public Radio | Wendy Todd
Instead of focusing on race in the workplace, Gene R. Todd believes one’s energy is better spent on being better than the competition.";

This is the first of a three-part series of personal essays exploring the experiences of three African Americans in corporate America.

For many, being black in corporate America is akin to playing professional football in the mud ... with no helmet ... wearing Keds.

It can be a head-spinning experience, rife with racial and political pitfalls that center around one thing that cannot be changed: race. These racial issues can impact a person’s career trajectory, earning potential and overall security of one’s life.

I’ve experienced this personally. As a young African American woman who navigated the corporate labyrinth of New York for several years, I've had my share of racially based challenges. I’ve been stopped in the hallway by security because I didn’t “look like” I worked there. I once had a boss on a temp job at a notable New York realty company tell me his other partners in the firm thought the black secretaries were, “just a bunch of monkeys who type.” He said this with apparent pride, as if somehow sharing that with me made him stand apart from the ignorance. It did not.

Not all accounts of racism at work are as egregious. Mostly, they are often far more subtle, such as being excluded from meetings, projects or opportunities for advancement. In other instances the discrimination is coded, like being deemed “aggressive” when expressing opinions just as passionately as white counterparts.

Every black person I’ve talked to has had these kinds of experiences in corporate America. But then something interesting happened. I met Gene R. Todd, (no relation to me) managing director of Wealth Management at First Bank.  

Todd is a highly accomplished finance professional with more than 20 years of experience. He is also a black man who said he has not encountered racial challenges in the workplace — at least none he’s aware of. As I learned more about his professional journey, I became convinced I’d come face-to-face with an urban myth: a “black unicorn.”

Todd’s career really gained momentum in 1995, when he went to work on Wall Street at Morgan Stanley as a trader. I immediately envisioned a skyscraper filled with “seasoned” white men like the characters, Mortimer and Randolph Duke in “Trading Places,” sporting Brooks Brothers suits and  wing-tipped shoes. I thought, “Hmmm…how did Todd get in?’”

"I will honestly tell you five days a week, 10 hours a day, sometimes longer, race has no bearing on who I am. I put on my uniform, which is a suit, and it's game time. I'm focused on the game." — Gene Todd

“By the skin of my teeth,” he said. “It was very, very difficult. I think I had more rounds of interviews than anybody in the history of Wall Street.”

Morgan Stanley was known to be one of the elite “white shoe firms.” Todd said the percentage of people of color who worked there during that time was "very low. No more than 5 percent.” But he insisted the rigorous process of his getting into the company was not based on race. 

“They put me through the ringer, I believe, not because I was black, but because I didn’t go to a traditional Wall Street school," he said.

“I went to Michigan, which was ranked No. 5 in the country that year in terms of business schools. However, it was never a traditional hunting ground for Wall Street in general, Morgan Stanley in particular. Morgan Stanley liked Harvard; they liked Wharton; they liked Columbia. Those were the schools, the hunting grounds for them,” he said.

After a few years at Morgan Stanley, Todd continued moving up the ranks to management after he took a position with PNC Bank and then Key Bank. His professional experience transcended what many people of color have come to feel are the cultural norms in much of corporate America. Part of this, he insists, is due to his refusal to focus on race at work. “I will honestly tell you five days a week, 10 hours a day, sometimes longer, race has no bearing on who I am,” Todd said. “I put on my uniform, which is a suit, and it’s game time. I’m focused on the game.”

It’s tempting to believe that Todd is simply oblivious to racial inequities. But he insists that he doesn’t “live in a bubble.”

“I’m certainly aware that people are not getting jobs because of the color of their skin, or their sexuality. I’m aware that people are sometimes mistreated by law enforcement because of the way they look,” Todd said. “But I’ve been very fortunate and very blessed that I’ve had a life that’s had very little of that impact my personal situation,” he said.

Todd’s seemingly mystical ability to elude racial issues both professionally and personally has shaped his approach to his career.

“I pretty much have had an entire life, where I’ve had very little in the way of racial issues happen to me. And I realize I’m lucky. But that impacts how I think,” Todd explained. He cited another reason why he has apparently evaded race issues in his career: “Wall Street is one of the last true meritocracies in the world.” Todd explained that his industry is all about the bottom line.

“If the name of the game is to generate revenue and get paid millions and millions of dollars for your firm — and ultimately for yourself — you want the strongest, the smartest, the best, most creative people doing it. So, coming of age in business, in that sort of environment, you don’t think about race,” he said.

He explained that his priority is being better than the next person. But even with this perspective, Todd admits it’s harder for black men in corporate America than white men.

"You've got to have your big boy pants on if you want to be successful in business. You have to be tough. And I think that transcends sex and I think that transcends color." — Gene Todd

“Oh, I think it’s much harder. Of course it’s harder,” he said. “But everything is hard, and the fact that it’s 10 percent harder, 50 percent harder, 200 percent harder ... why spend time and energy worrying about that? You need to spend your time and energy trying to make yourself better.”

Todd may have managed to evade blatant racist instances, but what about veiled terms, like being called “aggressive?” Yes, he has.  And Todd, whom I perceived to be uber confident, believes that in business, “you have to not back down. You can’t be afraid to fight.”  So, he took being called aggressive as a compliment.

“Yeah, I can be aggressive, because I am. You've got to have your big boy pants on if you want to be successful in business. You have to be tough. And I think that transcends sex and I think that transcends color. And so in the board room, when you’re perceived as tough and aggressive for the right reasons, in the right moments, that’s an asset, that’s an attribute. That’s helped me,” Todd said.

So, he embraced what could have been a negative stereotype and turned it into an asset. He also feels he can be authentic at work and retain his identity as a black man.

“Yes. I always have and I always will. And it’s always served me well,” he said.

Even though Todd has been fortunate to experience a career that has not been hampered by racism, his feelings about companies that don’t value diversity are very clear.

“For companies that don’t get it, they’re not going to get my business. For companies that don’t get it, and I compete with them, I’m going to clean their clocks, and I’m going to focus on cleaning their clocks, and that’s how I’m going to spend my energy,” he said.  

Because Todd has been blessed to attain great success in this country, I wondered, overall, how he feels about being a black man in America.

He said with conviction, “I still think that this is the greatest country in the world to live in. I can live anywhere, and I chose to live here. ... Not that it’s utopia, but I don’t think there’s a better place on the planet for someone who is black and wants an opportunity to succeed.”