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Looking to Those Who Lead the Way: 5 Successful Women with Natual Hair

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May 18 2014, Published 8:02 p.m. ET

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For years, within traditional work environments, there has been an unspoken stigma and pressure for black women to wear their hair in ways that are deemed “professional”.

While we are still learning to embrace our natural hair, it can be hard to find the courage to break away from what is considered the standard.

In his column for Diversity Inc., “Ask the White Guy,” Luke Visconti points out the idea behind this mindset:

“There’s no doubt in my mind that Black people have been overlooked for promotions because of natural hair or darker skin color. Psychological tests show that people most trust people who look like them. Since white men run most corporations in this country, straightened hair and/or lighter skin is going to be an advantage…”

In one of my most recent articles, I explored why black women should not allow these obstacles to prevent them from embracing their natural hair in the workplace. One of the best sources of encouragement we can confide in is to seek out other women who are already living out their natural hair styles in a professional environment.

So, we wanted to highlight current, successful black women who are doing just that!

Here are four black women at the top of their careers- natural hair and all:

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Julee Wilson

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Julee Wilson started her journalism career as an assistant for the Editor-In-Chief of Real Simple Magazine. Within two years, she became the Staff Fashion Editor- the first African-American to take on the title.  Today Wilson is the Style & Beauty Editor for Huffington Post’s Black Voices. In The Huffington Post’s series, titled “Curly Hair Chronicles,” Wilson shares:

“As a black woman you learn that even your hairstyle could keep you from getting a job. Once I landed a gig, I still wasn’t fully comfortable unleashing my curls, so I kept them under wraps until I walked through The Huffington Post doors…I think it’s been the combination of simply growing up and working in such a liberal/creative work environment that has helped me embrace my curls.”

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To browse through some of Julee Wilson’s most recent articles, click here.

Viola Davis

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Known for her performance in movies such as “The Help” and “Doubt”, Viola Davis is an award-winning and well-respected actress in the film industry. After the arrival of her daughter in 2011, Davis internalized the importance of being a living example and embracing her identity- natural hair included.

She shared with Essence Magazine: “I am not going to traumatize my child about her hair. I want her to love her hair,” she said. “My image of myself [as a youth] was in the mouths of young white kids calling me ugly and then going home to a mother who did not fully embrace her own beauty.”

Her decision to sport her natural-do at The Oscars in 2012 won over the hearts of many viewers, as she debuted her new look to the world.

Davis’ decision has appeared to do nothing but open more opportunity. Last year, she was featured on the cover of Essence’s October magazine, her newfound confidence shining through in her image.

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Denise Young Smith

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At the beginning of the year, Apple’s VP of Global Retail Stores, Denise Young Smith, was promoted to head of human resources.

Seattlepi proves a good point– Smith has been chosen to handle one of “Apple’s most important assets…its talent.” As one of the new woman to join Apple’s “top ranks,” it will now be up to Smith to decide what the new faces of Apple will look like.

In recent times, Apple has received criticism on the lack of diversity in its executive team. Analyst, Brian Marshall, commented, “Apple’s still a great place to work, but they’re not experiencing the uber-growth they once did.” In order to combat this, a more diversified team may be exactly what Apple needs.

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Visconti continues and writes, “Companies that manage past bias and hire, mentor and promote equitably have better talent. They are also better prepared for the future as our country becomes more diverse.

Could Apple have chosen a better woman for the job? Hopefully with Smith at the head of human resources, Apple will have a fresh look on how to make its diversity a reality.

Kay Wilson Stallings

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As previous Vice President of Development and Production for Nickelodeon Preschool, Kay Wilson Stallings served as  a major contributor to the creation of award-winning shows such as Backyardigans, Yo Gabba Gabba!, and Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!. It was this success that eventually led to Stallings’ promotion to Senior Vice President of Development and Production in 2013.

Stallings’ new position includes the responsibility of recruiting new animationators, designers, writers and musicians for Nickelodeon Preschool’s team. She is also responsible for developing relationships with educators and keeping up to date in today’s curriculum trends for young children (which is where her degree in Higher Education Administration plays in).

Executive Vice President for Nickelodeon Preschool, Teri Weiss, commented, “Kay is a tremendous asset to the Nickelodeon Preschool team, developing various hit series…In her new role, Kay will continue to develop funny and innovative content for kids and cultivate creative talent to elevate the Nickelodeon Preschool series slate.”

With television being a major influence in today’s time, Stallings plays an important role in content that children are exposed to at an early age.

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Ursula Burns

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Last but definitely not least is Ursula Burns, Chairman and CEO of Xerox. Starting as a Mechanical Engineering summer intern at age 20, Burns has spent her entire career with Xerox. After several years with the company, Burns gradually began climbing the ladder from senior vice president in 2000, to president in 2007, and then onward to CEO and chairman in 2009 and 2010. All the while, Burns never once received any pressure to do something about her hair.

During an interview with Marketplace, Burns shared:

“When I walked in…I had a huge afro. I dressed the times and looked the times…I didn’t quite dress in business attire, because I grew up on the lower East side of Manhattan. The closest thing I saw to business attire was the guy who ran Safeway…So all this stuff was new to me…They said nothing about it. It was kind of stunning.”

Today, Burns continues to rock her fro, and she continues to progress Xerox as a company.

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