By: Chanèle McFarlane

I’ll never forget the first time I heard the term ‘personal branding.’

I was in my third year of university, attending one of the many networking breakfasts that the Communications department held for students. I quickly wrote the term down but to be honest, as soon as I heard it, I immediately committed it to memory with a bit of fear settling in my stomach. So, you’re telling me there’s yet another thing I need to be able to succeed after graduation?

I should mention that the idea of networking was still very foreign to me too. It was only a few months prior that I learned it was crucial to actually socialize with strangers to unlock career opportunities. As an extreme introvert, the mere thought terrified me. Yet, here I was, waking up early before class to attend networking events on my own. I guess this is what my parents meant by having to work hard, I thought to myself. I can do this.

The concept of hard work was certainly one I was familiar with.

After all, it’s something that my family had ingrained in me from a young age. Chanele, you know as a Black woman, you’ll need to work twice as hard to go half as far, they’d tell me. We don’t have the option to cut corners or be lazy.

The sentiment is quite daunting but yet I never quite grasped the magnitude of it. I’m not afraid to admit that I was very naive. I just thought I’d have to get excellent grades, after which I would automatically land my dream job and climb up the corporate ladder with ease.

However, as I began to learn about networking and then, eventually personal branding, I felt as though my confidence in myself was waning. I remember spending hours scouring the internet for personal branding tips (did you know there’s over 400 million results?!) and taking copious notes. 

I’m pretty sure shortly after that, I created my first personal website. I got a professional headshot and then created my Linkedin profile where I started writing articles. I felt like I was on my way to authentic personal branding excellence.

And then of course, I enter the workplace and well…let’s just say that things weren’t as picture perfect as my research suggested. 

Here are the 3 personal branding insights I wish I was told in my early-career:

Self-awareness is a critical skill

Although I do believe that self-awareness is critical for everyone regardless of how they identify, I’ve found it to be particularly important in the context of personal branding as BIWOC. In the workplace, we’re faced with so many negative stereotypes that we’re often forced to spend so much time and energy trying to prove that they aren’t valid.

What I’ve learned since the start of my career is that personal branding is our power. It equips us with a tool that we can use to reshape the many stereotypes and misconceptions that people have of us. However, as Stacey Abrams outlines in her book, Lead from the Outside (one of the many books I highly recommend!), the key to really making the most of that power is “thinking intentionally about who we are and how we want to be perceived.”

“What I’ve learned since the start of my career is that personal branding is our power.”

This is why I regularly love to do what I’ve called The Power of Words exercise. First, you begin by outlining all the words, ideas, values and feelings that people associate with you right now. Then, you create a second list of all the words, ideas, values and feelings that you want people to associate with you in the future. Personal branding is what allows you to make that shift from point A (where you are now) to point B (where you want to be in the future).

You’ll have to find the balance between authenticity and conformity

One of the most popular pieces of career advice is “be your most authentic self.” Seems simple enough, right? The intent is great but I can say from experience that when you’re the “only” in a workplace, it is very difficult to fully show up as who you are. 

I’ll always remember the time when I showed up to work with braids, a hairstyle that is very authentic to me. Nothing could have prepared me for the literal water cooler gossip and back-handed compliments I received from my colleagues. It was one of many moments where I realized that the whole authenticity thing doesn’t exactly apply to people like me. As Stacey Abrams says, we can’t just be our most authentic selves, instead we need to find the balance between fitting in and being authentic.

My experiences (and the experiences of so many other BIWOC) underscores the need for workplaces to implement equity policies and practices to tackle racism within their organization. Yes, we have agency in choosing the balance between fitting in and true authenticity but it’s imperative that we hold the systems accountable to creating meaningful change. After all, it’s easy to post a Black square on social media but I’m waiting to see what organizations actually live up to their big promises.

Give yourself grace

The problem with working twice as hard is that we often end up with triple the burnout. Trust me when I say that I learned this the hard way. It’s so easy to get caught up in the cycle of signing up for online courses and certifications, putting in long hours at work and finding new projects to get involved…all in the name of “working twice as hard”.

When you know that you always need to go above and beyond, how do you know when to stop? Eventually, you have to allow yourself to recognize that what you have done is enough. There will always be more work to do so eventually, you have to stop, rest and allow yourself to reflect on your achievements, instead of just moving on to the next thing. Besides, it’s very hard to be at your best when you’re physically and mentally exhausted.

“When you know that you always need to go above and beyond, how do you know when to stop? Eventually, you have to allow yourself to recognize that what you have done is enough.”

Essentially, personal branding looks different for us as BIWOC. Yes, it’s a bit more challenging and at times, discouraging, but I can say with confidence, leveraging the power of personal branding is very much worth it.