Most people who are first at something usually don’t set out to be first.
But their success can help set the stage for others who follow.
This was one of many insights shared with Regions Bank associates by the 66th Secretary of State, Dr. Condoleezza Rice. The setting was a candid conversation in Regions’ Birmingham, Alabama, headquarters, just three miles from the neighborhood where Rice grew up.
The discussion was a recent installment in Regions’ “Conversations with Clara” series – a collection of forums led by Clara Green, Regions’ head of Diversity and Inclusion, and streamed to Regions teams across 15 states.
Dr. Rice’s firsts are many:
- First African-American woman Provost (and the youngest) at Stanford University
- First African-American woman to serve as U.S. National Security Advisor
- First African-American woman to serve as U.S. Secretary of State
What makes her accomplishments even more admirable is knowing the challenges she overcame to reach them. At an early age, Rice knew a world that was neither kind nor inclusive toward many people like her.
“Having grown up in North Carolina, a state very much a part of the segregated South at that time, I could relate to the impact families had on a child’s trajectory,” Green said. “It was difficult for black Americans to thrive in the 1960’s era in the South, especially in Birmingham.”
Birmingham, the epicenter of the Civil Rights movement, is where Dr. Rice spent the first 11 years of her childhood. There were protests, bombings and civil unrest that made it a challenging time. But, families in her tight-knit neighborhood of Titusville had a shared commitment to helping each achieve success, despite systematic injustices.
The community’s mantra was that you have to be twice as good and work twice as hard. And don’t allow yourself to become a victim to what is happening around you.
The foundation of her upbringing set the stage for the firsts she would achieve.
The Pressure of Being First
Green shared an important cultural perspective on being first in the black community.
“We often feel that if we’re first, then don’t perform well, we are holding generations behind us back,” she said.
Dr. Rice was first in two of the highest-pressure jobs in government. Green shared thoughts on two important takeaways Dr. Rice shared with Regions associates.
1. When you are first, embrace it.
When someone breaks through, embrace the joy in that. Celebrate how their breakthrough can pave the way for others.
“Dr. Rice was a trailblazer, especially for women of color aspiring to be in leadership roles,” Green said. “We continue to see the benefit of her knocking down doors, including our current 116th Congress, which has more women and women of color than we have ever seen. That’s the impact of someone taking the first step. Others will follow.”
2. Recognize the value you bring.
Dr. Rice never dreamed of being the first black National Security Advisor or Secretary of State. She was appointed to those roles because she was qualified and ready when the opportunity came. Remember, the Titusville community instilled in her that she had to be twice as good, so when it was time for these two critical appointments in the George W. Bush Administration, she was more than equipped to take the helm.
“Dr. Rice’s story is a great example of what happens when preparation meets opportunity,” Green said.
Green said Dr. Rice’s experience helps others gain new perspectives. For the standing-room-only crowd witnessing their conversation in Birmingham, or watching it on screens across the Southeast, Midwest and Texas, Green knows Dr. Rice’s impact will continue to inspire.
“Any time we can get people who are in positions of influence to tell their story and also acknowledge the role diversity and inclusion have in organizations and institutions of higher learning, it sends a powerful message,” Green said. “Regardless of race or gender, I know everyone left this conversation feeling empowered to make a difference. The point of Conversations with Clara is to provide opportunities to better understand the things that make us different and the things that we have in common – to be able to break down the stereotypes.”