Getting ahead involves attitude, says Pamela Thomas-Graham
Pamela Thomas-Graham’s résumé is packed with achievements.
The New Yorker is a board member of The Clorox Company, Peloton Interactive and Bermuda’s own Butterfield Bank, to name a few.
She was the first African American woman to become a partner at global management consulting firm McKinsey & Co, and was president of CNBC.
She was group president of Liz Claiborne Inc.
She also runs her own business, and writes mystery novels.
“The secret to success is being nimble, and light on your feet,” Ms Thomas-Graham said on Tuesday at Butterfield Bank.
She was speaking as part of the launch event for Global Entrepreneurship Week running from November 14 to 20.
“Most of my pivots come through conversations,” she said. “Maybe it is because they are giving voice to something I have already been thinking about.”
She was working at McKinsey when a friend asked her why she was “hanging around in this consulting firm” when she had always talked about starting her own business.
“He said what are you waiting for?” Ms Thomas-Graham said.
She founded Dandelion Chandelier, a luxury lifestyle digital media enterprise, in 2016.
She grew up in Detroit, Michigan in the 1960s and 1970s during a time of racial unrest in the city. She described her mother and father as “high standards parents” who encouraged her as much as they did her older brother.
When her high school guidance counsellor was “extremely dismissive” of her plans to apply to Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, her parents were only more determined that she should apply, even if it meant great financial sacrifice on their part.
“Everyone who has achieved something, there have been times when they did not know if they could do it, and there were definitely times when people told them they could not do it,” Ms Graham said. “It is really important to have people around you, family, friends, or someone in your life, who can back you up against the naysayers.”
Her family were overjoyed when she was accepted to Harvard. Her father kept her acceptance letter in his bedside table for the rest of his life.
“It was really touching to me that it meant that much to him,” she said. “He just wanted to hold on to that moment that we had shared.”
But she felt intimidated during her early days at the top American university. At freshman week she met another student who asked her how many from her high school were at Harvard.
“I said none,” she said. “He said ‘oh, I went to Phillips Exeter Academy and there are like 25 of us’. Talk about a running start. He knew 25 people already and I knew nobody. That was when it really dawned on me that it might be harder than I thought, not academically, but socially.”
But she did well, and in 1989, received a master’s in business administration, and a doctorate in law from Harvard.
She said a lot of getting ahead involves attitude.
In 2010, Credit Suisse asked her how much she wanted to be paid to work for them.
Her answer: exactly what the boys in the executive board are being paid.
“I got a whole lot more than I was expecting,” she said. “Women are socialised to be good little girls, and to be precise, and meanwhile other people are like no, I want to be paid like everyone else.”
She was chief marketing and talent officer at Credit Suisse for six years.
She said: “You have so much more agency than you realise. There will always be people saying you can’t do this, you are too old or too young, but you have a lot of power if you choose to own it.”
An Evening with Pamela Thomas-Graham was moderated by Hazel Clark, Olympian and director of global sales and development at the Bermuda Tourism Authority. It was organised by the Bermuda Economic Development Corporation in partnership with Butterfield Bank, and the BTA.