Alicia Wilson | Crain's Baltimore

In this ongoing series, we ask executives, entrepreneurs and business leaders about mistakes that have shaped their business philosophy.

Alicia Wilson

Background:  

Sagamore Development is a commercial real estate development company, majority-owned by Kevin Plank, the founder and CEO of Under Armour. Sagamore Development is the master developer for Port Covington, a large-scale urban mixed-use redevelopment project in South Baltimore, and is also the master developer for a variety of other local projects including City Garage, Sagamore Pendry Baltimore and the Sagamore Spirit Distillery. Alicia Wilson is the leader of Sagamore Development’s workforce development efforts, and also leads many of the company’s community initiatives.

The Mistake:

I’m a lawyer by trade, and when I first started practicing, many times I’d be in board rooms, in conversations, or in dialogues where I was the “only.” I would be the only woman, the only African-American, or the youngest person in the room.

That can sometimes make you feel like you should let the older person or the people in the majority take the lead, and not always fully utilize your voice. You might think that the good ideas are probably already sitting around the table. The mistake in that is not recognizing that you are at the table for a reason.

Early on in my career I represented labor unions, and I remember being on a negotiation team for the Baltimore city principals union. There was an older individual on the team, and I was the younger team member. I remember being in the room and feeling very overwhelmed. I was the youngest, I was the only African-American on the team, and I was the only woman on the team. My partner and I would meet outside of the negotiation room and I would bring up certain points, and he would say, “Why didn't you say that in the room?”

And I realized I was supposed to say that in the room. It doesn’t mean that you’re out of turn, or out of line, or any of those things. He told me, “I don’t have those same points in my head, I’m not thinking about things in that way. You, as a black woman who grew up in the city, who went to city schools, you will approach these things in a very different way than I approach them.”

That’s the value of diversity, and the value of having different viewpoints around the table — people see things with different perspectives.

Your voice is valuable, and maybe even more valuable when you are the “only” or the youngest demographic in a room.

The Lesson:

Because of that critical moment, I now take the responsibility to speak in the room very seriously, and raise issues that others may not raise. We all come into the room with our sense of experiences, our own biases, our own lens.

Your voice is valuable, and maybe even more valuable when you are the “only” or the youngest demographic in a room. It’s almost obligatory for you to utilize your voice in that setting to bring into the room those who are not at the table, and the ideas that are not at the table, and the raising of issues that wouldn’t be brought, but for you being at the table.

Thankfully I was able to learn that lesson early on in my career, which now helps me recognize that any time I’m at the table, it’s necessary for me to give my input.

It’s a valuable lesson in helping individuals find their voice, but it’s also a great lesson for us as leaders. When we’re in a room and we have people who are more junior than us, or individuals who are totally opposite from our demographic, we ought to make the environment accessible. My former law colleague invited me to offer my opinion. I was invited to give my viewpoint and I was invited to allow my voice to make a difference in that room. As leaders, we get to offer that opportunity to those who are in a junior position or who may be the “only” in the room.

And for those who find themselves in that situation, understand that your voice matters, your voice has impact, and you are in the room for a reason. Ultimately, if you find that you can’t be a valued voice in the room, you probably don’t want to be in that room anyway.

Alicia Wilson is on Twitter at @ALWilsonBmore and Sagamore Development is at @SagamoreDev.

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