At WP Engine, we’re committed to providing an inclusive environment where a diverse set of people can come together, be their authentic, whole selves and do their best work. This is made possible through our core values and our Open Doors pillar, which supports WP Engine’s Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) that are aligned with the company’s mission and values. One such ERG is Rise (formerly called “Represents”), a group that seeks to intentionally raise awareness of the perspectives and experiences of all racial and ethnic groups within the tech industry and increase the equality of opportunity.
To commemorate Black History Month, we invited members of our team to share their thoughts on black leaders, historical figures, and community members they admire, the challenges they’ve faced in their careers, and what Black History Month means to them.
Throughout the month of February, we’ll be featuring our employees through our social channels. Follow @wpengine on Instagram for more thoughts from the team.
Below, we speak to WP Engine’s Troy McHenry, Senior Manager of Technical Support; Brian Kenney, Manager, Sales Performance and Development; and Carmen Johnson, Customer Success Manager.
Are there any black leaders you admire, either in history or in current times? Why?
Carmen: Two people that have had the most profound impact on me to date are opera singer Marian Anderson and businesswoman/author/singer Carla Harris. I was drawn to Marian Anderson when I first discovered opera music at a very young age. As the first African American to perform both at the White House and The Metropolitan Opera, her story was one of my first realizations that regardless of your background or disadvantage, with hard work and relentless persistence, nothing and no one can limit you.
This is also one of Carla Harris’ mantras, who I deeply admire as a highly successful businesswoman that has broken barriers with unapologetic authenticity and a fearless mindset. As women, and particularly as black women, there is so much pressure to suppress and conform. To see a successful black woman embracing her uniqueness and owning her power is so validating and encouraging.
Troy: I have been blessed to have strong men in my family tree that have left their impression upon me. My maternal grandfather paved the way in education by becoming the first African-American to obtain his Master’s Degree at Northeast Louisiana University. This example displayed the importance of education and its value as it shaped my future.
My father also had a huge impact on my life and helped shape my work ethic. I watched him display the quality of servant leadership in every aspect of the word when he took care of my mother during her battle with a terminal illness.
In history, one of my favorite authors is John Hope Franklin. He was a great historian who wrote about American History from the standpoint of including blacks and showing how we helped shape the American story with fairness. He was a graceful man, who loved education and teaching about our rich heritage.
Brian: As a veteran, Colin Powell represented “proof” that the military was a meritocracy where my only limits were my own skills, abilities, and drive. General Powell reached the highest rank possible in the military and it had nothing to do with his race, color, or creed. I also admire Ta-Nehisi Coates because he makes reasoned and courageous arguments in support of the black community and does so eloquently. He forces the discussion into the open and makes us confront it in a thoughtful way.
What challenges have you faced in your career to get to where you are today?
Carmen: Black women in particular face a unique set of challenges due to racial and gender bias. One of the first hard lessons I learned in my career was around “tone policing”. As someone who is very direct in my approach, I have sometimes been misunderstood as being combative or labeled as “angry” when asking questions or expressing concern. While this is something I know women of all ethnicities experience, there was one instance in particular where a white female colleague was praised for her “no-nonsense” approach to getting something done, and I was given coaching on “improving my tone so my message wasn’t lost”.
Fortunately, I’ve had some great mentors who have helped me see my direct approach as the strength it is, and it’s definitely one of the main reasons I’ve advanced in my career thus far. This is also one of the main reasons I’m proud of the work we do at WP Engine to try and create an inclusive environment where employees feel truly understood and are valued for being their true selves.
Troy: In my previous companies, there was a lack of attention to mentorship. This forced me to strategically reach out via LinkedIn to leaders that matched where I wanted to take my career and develop a relationship with them. Now that I’ve had the opportunity to serve as a people leader, I feel it’s my responsibility to give back to individuals looking to follow in the same tracks.
Brian: The challenges I’ve encountered have rarely been overt which, in and of themselves, made them more difficult to overcome. As a black man I have to be vigilant and aware of the existence of bias, prejudice, and racism—because it’s real—but also circumspect in how I choose to or not to address it. Most of my challenges have taken the form of continuous microaggression. Some with malign intent and others born out of simple obliviousness.
Why is it important that Black History Month is celebrated in your workplace?
Carmen: Black History Month’s role as a beacon of change and hope is still a very important and relevant aspect of society, and understanding the history of black people in America is crucial to undoing many of the injustices—both big and small—that still impact society, even in the workplace. Many people question the relevance of Black History Month in modern society, or write it off as “rehashing the past,” but this completely disregards the very real impact that the history of black people in America continues to have on society today. And as a black woman in corporate America, I don’t get to leave my blackness at home when I go to work every day, which is why having a workplace that is constantly seeking understanding and acceptance is such a crucial thing for me.
Troy: Celebrating Black History Month gives opportunities for dialogue to take place about prominent African Americans that helped shape America and in a more specific way.
Brian: It’s important that we celebrate Black History Month—full stop. Not just in the workplace but in every place. Having said that, it’s important in the workplace because the work environment is not one that we can control. By that I mean it is not a place where I alone can choose who comes and goes. It is a shared place where our differences must intermingle. As a result, Black History Month, along with other celebrations, helps create the understanding necessary for those differences to become assets instead of liabilities.
WP Engine will continue to build on groups like Rise and the initiatives these employees are spearheading. If you’re interested in learning more about being an employee at WP Engine, visit our Careers Page and stay tuned to the WP Engine blog for more about groups like Rise and the events they have scheduled.