Life As The First and Only

by Vickie Cox Edmondson

Recently, I spoke about the controversy that surrounds affirmative action. I said the words, "I am an affirmative action hire." The mostly Black audience looked at me with disbelief. But no one blinked. I went on to tell them how I was recruited and some of the problems I had faced as the first and only Black female faculty member in the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB), School of Business.
During my lecture, I discussed how the university made a special effort to recognize and support my research interest in black entrepreneurship by arranging for me to have lunch with some of Birmingham's prominent Black business people and entrepreneurs during the interview process. I discussed how some of my colleagues weren't enthusiastic about my arrival in 1996 and how after almost 10 years of service, some of the students will at times overtly attempt to demonstrate that they are more knowledgeable than the Black woman who stands before them.
Later that day, I received an email from one of the Black students who attended the lecture:

I enjoyed the lecture this morning. I found it very interesting about your view on "Affirmative Action", and it's significance for you personally. . ."You Go Dr. Edmondson."
I responded:
"Thanks! I can be strong because of the people who have gone before me. I have to be strong for the people who will follow me. "

I grew up in a small rural town in Georgia, was an unwed-teenage mother, and had minimal exposure to career alternatives. Determined to make my mother (who died in a car accident before I finished high school) and father proud, I was the first person on the family tree to earn a college degree.

I attended Spelman College where I learned to be demanding of myself and others. Once, I received a "D" in one of my courses. I had not earned any scores less than "B" in that course. I called the instructor and she informed me that my grade was "D" because I had not "lived up to my potential." I wanted to shout, "Don't grade me on potential, grade me on the assignments!" But, I didn't. I simply said, "Thank you!," hung up the phone, and went to my sorority advisor to inform her of the situation. My advisor asked me what was I going to do about it. I replied, "Nothing!" I am sure that surprised her and that the instructor was surprised that I didn't demand that she change the grade to reflect my work in the course. That was a wake up call. That was my career intervention because, from that moment on, I knew that my success did not depend on my work. Instead, I felt my success was based upon what others thought I could do. If they thought I could succeed; then I would. However, if they thought I couldn't; then it would be my duty to prove them wrong.

Graduating from Spelman presented many firsts in my life. Earning my degree a semester early enabled me to be the first person in my class to accept a job offer. As my career developed, I found that I was the first and often the only Black person in many of my roles. In my first position, I was the only Black woman in my national sales training class. Later, I was the only woman and only black member on the first team of a national rollout for one of Procter and Gamble's highly anticipated products. I was the first Black woman to earn a Ph.D. in management from the University of Georgia.
What have I learned about being first and often the only person of my race/gender in an organization? It's not an easy feat. To break down barriers, I had to pray a lot, keep an open mind about other people in the organization, and realize that I was more than capable of meeting the challenges that were set before me.

Often, I was expected to fail. When the national rollout for Procter and Gamble was over, our team celebrated. I was excited about earning a highly coveted sales position. One of my colleagues pulled me aside to tell me how proud he was of my accomplishments. He informed me that he and a few others never thought I would last or that I would be good at my job. I thanked him for the "compliment" and rejoined the festivities. It is amazing what people will tell you when they have been drinking alcohol.
Although I have not had formal mentors, I have always had people in my career who wanted to see me excel. They taught me how to properly manage people and situations. They protected me from the criticisms and wrongdoings of employees who were not exactly thrilled I was a part of the organization. They stopped me from making mistakes that could have hindered my career development. Many of them did not look like me. For these well-wishers, helping me wasn't about race or gender. The bottom line was always: how can we work together to ensure that the organization achieves its goals.

I commend the President of UAB for the progress the university has made in regards to hiring faculty of color. Blacks (and other people of color) who are first to be hired in an organization and who value working in a diverse workplace must be willing to assist in the hiring of other qualified firsts and additional people of color. We must not yield to the hypocritical screams of those who benefited from preferential treatment years ago, but shout that everyone be treated equally now. If one can succeed, so can others. It is never enough to be the first and only.

Dr. Vickie Cox Edmondson is an associate professor of management at the University of Alabama at Birmingham. She holds a B.A. from Spelman College, an MBA from Mercer University and a Ph.D. in strategic management from the University of Georgia. Her research interests include strategic management, entrepreneurship, corporate social responsibility, business ethics, ethnic business enterprises, and diversity in organizations. She has published in several academic journals, and is often cited on topics that discuss race and diversity. She co-founded Follow Me Foundation, Inc., a nonprofit community based organization whose aim to assist economically disadvantaged high school students in her community. Dr. Cox Edmondson has more than 10 years of professional experience at NBI, INC., Procter and Gamble, and United Airlines. She can contacted at
The University of Alabama at Birmingham