“There was a whole new blueprint that I was going to be sort of writing for myself as I went along the way, and there were not a lot of role models or blueprints that I could refer to throughout my journey,” Elaine Welteroth reminisced while speaking virtually to some 5,200 employees logged in to T-Mobile’s fourth annual Women’s Summit, which recently took place. “I just remember how important it felt to connect with another black woman leader.”
Welteroth found her way to become the youngest editor-in-chief at a Conde Nast publication when she took the helm of Teen Vogue in 2017, as chronicled in her 2019 best-selling memoir More Than Enough: Claiming Space for Who You Are — but she said finding a mentor who looked like her and shared similar experiences in her career journey was one of the biggest challenges she faced. And as someone who identifies with the Shonda Rhimes-coined acronym F.O.D. (First. Only. Different.), she feels a responsibility to ensure the advice of a mentor who has been there before isn’t so elusive for those next in line.
“I thought, ‘We are doing a disservice to the next generation,’” she continued. “The goal is to be the first but not the last. The responsibility that comes with being a F.O.D. is to create more space for other folks who might not have an opportunity had it not been for you being there.”
The summit, hosted by the Women & Allies Network, one of six Employee Resource Groups focused on the company’s Diversity, Equality and Inclusion initiatives, was held on Women’s Equality day, which this year marked 100 years since the 19th Amendment gave women the right to vote — even if that right was not immediately available to all women due to discriminatory local laws. The summit tackled subjects focused on understanding the meaning and importance of allyship, intersectionality and inclusionist thinking. The session with Welteroth also included T-Mobile’s Jon Freier, EVP of Consumer Markets, and was moderated by Women & Allies Network Co-Chair Lauren Hayes, Director of Signature Retail Consumer Markets for the company.
“We need to be sharing our stories, our tools, in order to empower each other and feel less alone,” Welteroth said definitively when asked what’s next in the journey towards women’s equality. “I thought if I’m going to be held up as a trailblazer for being first then I have work to do beyond the scope of my job description. I have to make sure the work I’m doing lays the groundwork, paves a trail, but also leaves signposts along the way that make it less daunting, less alienating, less confusing and less disempowering for the next young black woman leader who comes behind me.”
But while Welteroth remarked on the importance of recognizing and leveraging women who identify with her experiences as a black female professional in white corporate America as key, she didn’t discount the power that comes along with inviting others without these shared stories and experiences into the dialogue. Her conversations were once relegated to a privately shared understanding, but Welteroth said the next necessary step towards change involves the uncloaking of these truths for public discussion.
“My coping mechanism throughout my career in media has been to find my tribe, find people who can relate to these experiences of micro-aggression and … what it means to be the only one like you in a room in a corporate environment. We have our off-line chats and we have our group chats … and we support and we hear each other … but I think now there is an opening in the matrix,” said Welteroth. “There is an opportunity for all of us to be a part of these conversations because Black people, women, whatever the marginalized group is, we cannot fix these problems on our own. We need to be working in concert with the majority and the folks in power to actually create the change that we all want to see.”
Armed with a newly created blueprint and ample signage to place along the way, Welteroth made it clear that she is determined to ensure her journey is a key part of that change.
Gold medal gymnast Aly Raisman also presented as one of T-Mobile’s Women’s Summit guest speakers. Watch her discuss managing anxiety, believing in yourself and finding courage within.