Working While Black: From Engineer to Executive, David Price Fought Racism and Won
This is the third of a three-part series of essays that explore the experiences of three African Americans in corporate America.
“If you are a black person, and you chose to be great at something, choosing to pursue a leadership career in business is the hardest thing you can choose to do,”
Those are the words of David Price, who faced significant racial challenges in his career as an engineer turned corporate executive.
In 1968, Price started out designing pipelines for Laclede Gas as a distribution engineer. He went on to become the president of two divisions at Monsanto during his 25 years at the company, and the president of a division at BF Goodrich. He retired in 2001.
Price grew up in the historic St. Louis neighborhood, The Ville. His father was a railway mail clerk, and his mother was the first black female supervisor for the Navy Records Center. Price demonstrated his aptitude for his future career early. He said he was the No. 1 student in math at Sumner High School and excelled at science. There were high expectations on Price to succeed. Everyone around him said he should pursue a career as a doctor or engineer. Price said his decision was influenced by his family’s circumstances.
“I applied to a lot of schools with an interest in engineering and an interest in the medical field. And I chose engineering primarily because that’s the only place that my parents could afford to send me to school,” he said.
First Glimpse of the Real World
When he got to college he was separated from his reputation as a high-achieving student in the supportive atmosphere of a black high school. Additionally, he no longer had his primary social circle of family that included fifty first cousins who provided partial insulation from the harsher elements of the outside world. In school at the University of Missouri-Rolla, which is now called Missouri University of Science and Technology, is where he experienced a profound increase in racially based challenges.
For example, the words of one professor stung especially hard. For the first time in Price's life, he had been struggling with the math. His professor didn't believe he could get a better grade. He told Price that a “C is all that colored boys could get.”
“It was just an eye opener of how mediocre, or average he thought I was. I was mad,” he said. Price developed a chip on his shoulder. His resistance to being labeled “mediocre” made him set out to prove he was just as capable as his white counterparts.
"Black men in general are threatened. There's a complete lack of empathy and lack of concern of the disadvantages that black men have to deal with." — David Price
His fight had just begun.
After college Price got his job at Laclede Gas. One year into his new career and new life, he was drafted to serve in the Army for two years during the Vietnam War, which impacted his perception not only of America, but of his place in it.
“After that time, my perspective on things had changed. There was no respect for humans and you had no control over your fate in life,” he said.
Price had become dissatisfied with Laclede Gas, and he decided he wanted to steer his own destiny. Additionally, he realized that as an engineer of structural design, he would not continue to grow as a professional. “Once you design one bridge, all you’re going to do is design a bigger bridge,” he explained. This overall discontent led Price to partner with a fraternity brother to start their own design firm. The problem was, they knew nothing about running a business.
“We failed miserably,” Price said.
This “failure” led him to enroll in business school, so he could advance in management. He told his boss at Laclede Gas, who was white, about his plans, and was met with opposition. “My boss thought it was stupid. He made it apparent to me that I was doing very well as an engineer, doing very well as a colored engineer to be exact. Why would I want to pursue business where I probably would not be a success? I was appalled and quite upset,” he said. This disapproval only further fueled Price’s drive to succeed.
“I was never satisfied with the status quo. When I was younger it didn’t have anything to do with race. But as I got older it had everything to do with race,” Price declared.
New Career, Familiar Problems
After business school, Price was the first African American to be recruited in the engineering department at Monsanto. “I was usually the only one, or the first one, or whatever in my work experiences,” Price explained. It was at Monsanto where he began his ascent to the executive level, and was also met with more racial struggles.
“Monsanto was not racist,” Price insisted. “But they had people (in positions of authority) that had racial biases.” These biases posed a threat to Price’s mobility. When asked if there were any clear racial instances he initially had trouble picking just one. But Price remembered a significant test that was designed to end his career.
“I had been given an assignment that everybody had failed at before. I knew it, but my supervisor didn’t think I knew it.” Price was asked to fix an issue no one else had been able to resolve. Aware he was being set up, Price decided to play the game. He won.
“Instead of being focused on why are they setting me up to fail, I got focused on what are the things that need to be done to solve it?” he said. Part of his scheme also included sharing credit with his team, and in turn, winning allies and loyalty.
Price’s ability to maneuver the traps intended to hold him back allowed him to work in several areas at Monsanto and learn the company. He eventually was able to transition into management. The battles continued, but not all encounters were as flagrantly racist.
While president of a Monsanto division, external colleagues who hadn’t met Price would often believe his white coworker was the one in charge. In most instances, he was forgiving and said he, “made the crash-landing safe.” But on occasion, people who hadn’t done their homework to find out who he was, received a stern dressing down.
"What's different for a black person is that you have to do all of that, and you have to compete, and you have to teach white people that it's okay to follow you." -David Price
“There are times when you have to put the person in their place. And sometimes even threaten.” Price chose not to elaborate what he meant by that. When asked if Price’s apparent self-assuredness caused him to be perceived as an “uppity Negro,” his response was: “Of course.” But remaining confident is not only crucial in being faced with “Uppity Negro Syndrome,” but a key ingredient in becoming a leader.
“You have to be exceedingly self confident. The DNA of leadership is action. You have to make a tremendous difference in the status quo,” Price said. And for black aspiring leaders, there’s an added layer of strategy.
“What’s different for a black person is that you have to do all of that, and you have to compete, and you have to teach white people that it’s okay to follow you,” he said. Making white people feel safe around you is a skill black men are called on to master to survive in and out of the office.
“Black men in general are threatened. There’s a complete lack of empathy and lack of concern of the disadvantages that black men have to deal with.” Price kept that in mind during his climb up the corporate ladder as the only black executive.
“I was always the only one, but there were others who weren’t in the room who were proud. And I knew if I didn’t perform and I failed, they wouldn’t get a chance. I was proud of the fact they were proud of me, and I wasn’t going to let them down,” he said.
Price faced extreme struggles beginning a career as a black man on the heels of the civil rights movement, and believes it’s even harder today for African Americans in the workplace.
The corporate environment where an employee could be developed as a professional over a period of decades has dwindled due to what Price believes is a growing cultural need for “instant gratification.” Therefore, employees, particularly those of color, are not cultivated in the same way that allows for upward mobility. Price also believes race matters. For those seeking leadership positions, “everyone is watching you. Everyone is testing you.”
When it comes to combating racism in the workplace, Price’s perspective aligns with what I’ve heard from every successful person of color. “Pursue excellence in everything you do.” That’s the simple doctrine. But as Price demonstrated, in addition to excellence, many black professionals have to implement professional and behavioral strategies not only to navigate, but also to endure the ongoing complexities of race in corporate America.