Working While Black: Crafting Her Own Destiny in Corporate America
This is the second of a three-part series of essays that explore the experiences of three African Americans in corporate America.
Laurna Godwin is the co-founder and co-owner of Vector Communications, a public engagement, communications agency. She wasn’t always a business owner. She transitioned into that role after spending nearly 20 years in broadcast journalism.
Godwin grew up in New Jersey where her parents, both overachievers, were engineers. Her mother was one of the first African-American woman engineers in the state and, initially, was her father’s supervisor. The family moved to Shrewsbury, N.J. to gain access to better public schools. They were the only black family in the neighborhood. The bulk of the family’s experience there was pleasant, but there were a few residents who were not happy to have black neighbors.
“We lived on a cul-de-sac, and the neighbor to the left of us, he would go all the way around the cul-de-sac not to pass our house,” Godwin recalled.
A more serious instance entailed two white boys who prompted their dog to attack her. She was bitten in the arm.
Not only were they the only black family in the community, but Godwin was the only black student in her elementary school. However, she said she never felt singled out. “I was the only one they knew, so they didn’t have other comparisons to make.”
Godwin became used to being the “only one.” It prepared her to feel confident in her own skin later in life when working in environments where she would be the only black person or the only woman in the room.
Godwin went to Princeton University where she double majored in English literature and American studies. While in college, she got her first shot in media. Her parents volunteered for the Monmouth Park charitable ball committee. They made inroads that helped her become an “Ask Me” girl at the Monmouth Park race track in Oceanport, N.J. As an “Ask Me Girl,” Godwin walked around the track and answered questions. She also gave tours of the race track. This led to her opportunity to run the press box.
She helped reporters with their stories and hosted a nightly, live, half-hour cable show, where she interviewed jockeys and reviewed races.
A statuesque, black teenage girl running a press box in a race track, towering over teeny jockeys in interviews was hysterical and seemed unlikely. Looking back, Godwin realized it does sound like the makings of a John Waters movie.
“I’m six feet, and then you have these little jockeys,” she said, laughing. “But what great exposure and experience.”
She was again, the only black person, but, she said, “it never came up.”
The Hard Realities of the News
Godwin has a master’s degree in journalism from Columbia University, and is a three-time Emmy award winner. She said she believes being a person of color was an asset when she began her career in media.
“I think it helped because in many ways [people in the industry] were looking for a diverse newsroom,” she said, “I brought a different perspective. What a white person thinks is news may be different from what I think is news.”
During the course of Godwin’s career she worked as an on-air news anchor, and provided production for television stations including WNET in New York, and local channels, KPLR and KETC.
Although newsrooms may have been interested in diversifying the staff, there were many times Godwin didn’t feel that intention was applied to how news was reported. She sometimes fought with her editors to make them see how limited their coverage could be.
There is one conversation she had with her editor that particularly stands out.
“There were two girls missing. One was white, one was black. And every night, we led the news cast with the white girl being missing. We hardly ever did a story on the black girl missing,” Godwin recalled. She confronted her editor, and he said, “Well, the white girl being missing is news. The black girl being missing is not because that happens quite often.”
Godwin found those types of exchanges challenging.
“People think news rooms are so liberal. They’re really not. That was not my experience. It was very stressful at times,” she explained. She also described an ongoing practice of reporters picking “the black person who looks the worst, who plays into your stereotypes, and you put them on the air.” Unhappy with this, Godwin took control where she could. “I got my power back when I got out and covered a story, and I decided who I’m going to interview.”
Eventually, Godwin's frustration over how newsrooms operate became too much. “I got in [journalism] to educate people about the issues; so when they went into the voting booth, they could make informed decisions. I guess I was naïve and I didn’t realize when I first started out that it’s really big business,” she said. The last straw was a story Godwin had to cover about a murder/suicide in north St. Louis.
She and the videographer working with her were waiting for the authorities to remove the body of the man who was suspected of the murder from a car. It was summertime with typical St. Louis 90 degree heat.
People from the neighborhood had begun to gather. They waited for hours for the body to be removed. Godwin didn’t understand the fascination of watching a corpse. “A dead body is not going to change.” Fed up, she addressed the crowd about their need to participate in such grisly spectatorship. “I just basically went off,“ she said. That was the moment Godwin knew the news game was no longer for her.
The sensationalist environment coupled with ongoing racial challenges, made Godwin generally dissatisfied with the industry. She had also been profoundly affected by the death of a close friend which made her realize she wanted to do more meaningful work. Godwin decided to quit journalism and redirect her energies.
After taking some time off, she struck out on her own and formed her own media relations and video production company, Godwin Communications, working out of her home. During that time she met her current business partner, Jessica Perkins, who is also African American. In 1998 they formed Vector Communications.
Being the boss has advantages. Godwin can choose the type of work she wants to do, and how she wants to present it. But there are still challenges — some that come with the territory of being a business owner and others that have had racial undertones.
"There was nothing that [my parents] felt I could not do. But again it was, 'You have to have a good education.' That was absolutely key." — Laurna Godwin
For example, people have approached Godwin to use her company as a front for projects that required a percentage of minority participation. “I’ve had that a few times. And that is insulting beyond belief,” she said.
The insult has always been presented as if it’s a gift, as if Godwin wouldn’t understand that her company would be exploited for being black owned. She would vehemently let them know that her team would not be used as “secretaries” when they are capable of contributing more substantively to the project.
“People now know. Don’t approach Vector for that,” Godwin said, “Go to someone else.”
In response to those who allow stereotypes to shape their view of her, Godwin declares: “I’m going to change your line of thinking.” Her experience as the only black child in elementary school helped shape her confidence to address biased beliefs and to define her own self image as a woman of color.
She also received guidance from her parents, who spoke with her about what life would be like for her as a black woman. They told her, “Take your place in the world.”
“There was nothing that they felt I could not do. But again it was, ‘You have to have a good education.’ That was absolutely key,” she said. As assured and competent as Godwin may be, she knows there are those who will have a preconceived perception of her and her abilities.
As a black woman, "I still have to prove myself at times," she said. "I knew that when we started the business, that we wouldn’t get a second chance.
The flip side of those who are unsure of Godwin’s skills because she is black, is that there are people who are impressed by them because she’s black.
People often say, “Oh, you’re different from most black people,” she said. “I want people to see that I’m an African American woman because I am proud of that.”
Even though she hasn’t allowed others to make race an issue for her, she knows race and its surrounding challenges, are a ubiquitous part of the black experience.
She explained, “I don’t think there’s any way that any African-American person cannot pay attention to race. It’s how you address it and how you deal with it.”