This article is part of Stronger Together, an in-depth look at diversity, equity, and inclusion in IT from the October issue of our magazine.
IF I HAD ONE MOMENT I could point to as the most pivotal in my life, it would be a childhood trip to McDonald’s. It involved french fries.
My family immigrated here from Calcutta, India, when I was 11. My childhood was really rough; we barely got by. I wore the same clothes every day, my accent created a speech barrier, and my parents didn’t allow us the freedoms that other children had.
Even though we didn’t have much money, going to McDonald’s once a month was our big night out. My entire family would share a small order of fries. One day, I saw a man eating a large box of fries by himself. I felt some invisible switch flip in my mindset: From that day forward, I strived to change my circumstances and live in a “large fries world.”
I wish the story ended right there with happily ever after, but even with an engineering degree I faced adversity throughout my working life because I am different. But I learned that adversity will work to your advantage if you change your mindset.
It wasn’t easy breaking into MSP sales as a woman of Indian heritage. I was different from most of the salespeople, and I knew that this difference was probably hurting my chances of success. I hid both my femininity and my heritage behind hairstyles and clothing, but I still couldn’t figure out how to break down the barriers. Everything came full circle one day when my partner and husband Mike Fowler went to a sales call in my place.
Unaware that he was my husband, the prospect told him, “I’m glad you showed up here. I got this email from this girl. I couldn't even pronounce her name, and I thought some dot-head was going to show up and I wouldn’t be able to talk to her.”
There it was … all the cards on the table. It was a painful moment of clarity, but ultimately, he gave me a gift.
It dawned on Mike and me that if this prospect was feeling this way, he was probably not alone. Rochester, N.Y., where our business was founded, is a conservative town, without many minorities represented. We needed to adjust some of our marketing collateral to address business owners who would not be open to a conversation with me. Meanwhile, I started poring through books and reaching out to business owners to get ideas.
Instead of choosing a victim role, I turned my differences into advantages. Now, I use the fact that I'm Indian to build rapport, talking about my culture and how I teach Indian cooking. It's a door opener and a differentiator. Many of our clients in Rochester are women business owners, and I earned their business by relating to them in ways our male counterparts can’t.
As minorities, we need to reach out to other minority business owners and make connections. Just as importantly, let’s be there for each other. If we see another minority looking for their next opportunity, let’s invite them in for a meeting, explore careers, and show them that the MSP world is a fast-growing one, with lots of room for people of all ethnicities and genders. If they feel no one is buying from them because of the color of their skin, let’s share our success stories and show them how their differences can be used as a differentiator, in a good way.
Where you are today doesn’t have to be your future reality, and if you change your mindset, you can achieve anything that your white peers can.
Use what makes you different to stand out from the sea of sameness. What a gift we were given! And we’ll take some large fries with that.
SITIMA FOWLER is a founder and vice president of marketing at Iconic IT, and former co-CEO of Capstone IT. She also founded RochesterRockstars.com, where she interviews successful leaders in the community in the hopes of educating and inspiring other entrepreneurs.