Brynn Plummer is a champion of diversity and the current Vice President of Inclusion & Community Relations with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. Brynn has been a part of c-suites since the age of 26, and her blog discusses her journey to leadership as an “Only” and why she fights to bring diverse voices into leadership positions. She lives in Nashville, TN.
Who are you, where are you from, what do you do?
Hi, I’m Brynn Plummer, and I am the Vice President of Inclusion & Community Relations with the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. At the EC, I oversee our strategy to build a diverse and inclusive entrepreneurial community and a program called Navigation that aims to connect entrepreneurs to all the amazing resources available to them in Nashville.
I was born and raised in Greensboro, North Carolina, then moved to New York City to attend Columbia University, where I majored in English & comparative literature and minored in psychology. I then made my way to Nashville, Tennessee in 2011 by way of Teach For America, a not-for-profit that finds great people, develops their educational leadership as teachers, and supports them across their lives to effect systemic change and achieve educational equity. I was placed as a 6th grade science, English language arts and social studies teacher at West End Middle School, where I taught some of the most brilliant, goofy and gracious young people I’ve ever known. I then spent 5 years working for Teach For America’s Nashville regional team.
Professional path aside, I’m a wife and parent to 30+ houseplants, some 4 inches tall, and others 14 feet long. I live with my husband, Mark, in Music Valley, a sleepy labyrinth of subdivisions adjacent to Opry Mills where you’re just as likely to see a deer or possum as you are to see your human neighbors. I identify as a Southern, Black, plus-sized, cisgender, heterosexual, feminist/womanist progressive woman.
What inspired you to an executive position? What was your path there?
Throughout every step of my journey, I’ve found myself in the right place at the right time. Right when I was feeling like it was time to jump to something new, an opportunity seemed to present itself and fall into my lap.
After teaching for two years, I joined Teach For America’s Nashville regional staff as the Manager of Diversity, Inclusion & Community. I oversaw our approach to growing our teachers’ abilities to work with Being able to form meaningful relationships with people, even when we don’t yet know how we will endeavor to work together, restores my spirit and energizes me.students, families and colleagues from all backgrounds while working to reverse historic and predictable patterns of students from marginalized backgrounds being poorly served by the education system.
In 2015, I transitioned from my role devising our diversity & inclusion strategy to leading our region’s Alumni Leadership Team. In this role, I led a small, but dedicated team of staff members who were supporting the career and impact goals of the hundreds of alumni who call Nashville home. In my time leading the team, we saw our alumni community in Nashville grow from 500 members to 800 members, and we grew our Net Promoter Score among our alumni from -5 to 7, reversing a 4 year downward trend in NPS. We also built the region’s first aspiring school leader fellowship program affiliated with Metro Nashville Public Schools, through which we tripled the number of Teach For America alumni serving as assistant principals and mid-level school leaders in traditional district public MNPS schools. I felt proud about what we’d built, and knew there was infrastructure to carry out the next wave of alumni support and development.
So in the fall of 2018, I decided to step down from my role at TFA. I felt confident that we had built an intricate system to bolster the experiences of teachers and students, but I was increasingly curious about what would happen to our children once they left school. Would they find meaningful careers that helped them live lives of meaning and purpose? Would they make it to college, but find themselves saddled with debt and unable to build the kind of wealth that could afford them a comfortable life, as well as provide for their families? As I was having these thoughts, there were also a slew of articles and studies coming out on the racial wealth gap. What I was learning led me to be increasingly interested in entrepreneurship and economic development as a means to bring about economic justice to marginalized communities.
Then an email dropped into my inbox from my former manager from my first year at Teach For America. She was encouraging me to explore an open role at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center. She had gone through PreFlight at the EC, loved it, and thought I would be well-suited for the role on their team as the Vice President, Inclusion & Community Relations given my work in diversity & inclusion at Teach For America.
What about your job brings you the most joy? What challenges you the most?
I love people: Meeting them, hearing their ideas, validating their dreams and thinking. Being able to form meaningful relationships with people, even when we don’t yet know how we will endeavor to work together, restores my spirit and energizes me. I also cannot believe some of the ideas people bring through the door at the EC. I’m blown away by our current and aspiring entrepreneurs, and am honored to support them, however small our interaction.
What’s most challenging for me in this moment is the newness of the subject matter. I didn’t take a single business course in college or high school. While I have the business savvy to know how to build and track budgets and have grown in my abilities to think and plan strategically, I’m sometimes lost when I hear about the world of venture capital, investment, startup practices, technology, etc.. Learning the content isn’t what’s difficult—the big concepts of entrepreneurship aren’t rocket science…unless you are funding a rocket science startup, I suppose, ha—but what is difficult is owning my own ignorance about what I don’t know. Having the humility to admit when I don’t understand a term, without internalizing the idea that I am less than or less smart because I simply haven’t been exposed to a particular concept or skill.
What obstacles have you faced, internal or societal, in your involvement in an executive position?
One aspect of leadership that I wasn’t prepared for was being seen as “the man” once my new title was conferred. I had been part of the leadership team for 2 years prior to becoming a managing director at Teach For America, and yet didn’t see myself as a senior leader because my title was manager, and I did not Being “the only one” is still a common experience for women. One in five women says they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work—in other words, they are “Onlys.”manage any full-time employees. I knew that I was going to have new responsibilities and be responsible for managing people while also taking home a bigger paycheck, but I hadn’t thought about how the title, pay and scope change from manager to managing director might change the identity I’d constructed for myself as a burgeoning activist and voice of what wasn’t working within our system. The moment I stepped into a senior leadership position, I was viewed with skepticism and suspicion, and deservedly so, by the very people who had been some of my most ardent supporters. Now, I understand that hierarchies with organizations do occasionally make it harder for us to hear and understand one another, and I appreciate why that might be the case. I also assume the burden now of winning the trust of the people I work with, as opposed to assuming that trust is automatically conferred because of previous relationship or even title.
Because I’m a woman of color with a young face who has been in the C-Suite since the age of 26, there have been many times when I wasn’t taken seriously or when someone I was meeting with assumed there was someone more senior or important to whom they should be talking instead of me. I also find in the C-Suite, especially when meeting with people from different organizational cultures, that my relaxed, warm and collaborative style can read as junior or not intellectually serious. I occasionally flex into different modes of cultural expression given the environment, sometimes dipping into humor and other times leaning into more traditional business stoicism (Read: white, male, upper middle class norms) when I feel the room isn’t reading me in a way that benefits my goals.
What has been the most challenging piece of your journey?
There were many times when I felt I did not have the technical skills required to lead in the C-Suite. I majored in English & Comparative Literature in college, with a focus on modern Anglophone novels and radical poetry…so, yeah, I did not learn about return on investment analysis or profit and loss accounting in my four years at Columbia. I often found myself having to study or prepare for finance meetings in particular way more than my colleagues seemed to need to prepare.
But beyond technical skill acquisition, in my more than seven years sitting in leadership team meetings, I have had the experience of being the only person of color around the table for 2 of those years, the only woman of color around the table for more than 2 of those years, and the only Black woman at the table for more than 4 of those years. In McKinsey’s latest “Women in the Workplace” study, a good deal of the report digs into the concept of Onlys, women who are the only ones in their particular station, level or room. The report reads: Being “the only one” is still a common experience for women. One in five women says they are often the only woman or one of the only women in the room at work—in other words, they are “Onlys.” This is twice as common for senior-level women and women in technical roles: around 40 percent of them are Onlys.
Women who are Onlys are having a significantly worse experience than women who work with other women. Over 80 percent are on the receiving end of microaggressions, compared to 64 percent of women as a whole. They are more likely to have their abilities challenged, to be subjected to unprofessional and demeaning remarks, and to feel like they cannot talk about their personal lives at work. Most notably, women Onlys are almost twice as likely to have been sexually harassed at some point in their careers.
They go on to note that this experience is often further compounded by race and sexual identity: Being an Only is a far too common experience for people of color and gay people. They face more extreme biases and have a more negative experience than people like them who are not Onlys. Forty-five percent of women of color and 37 percent of men of color are often the only or one of the only people of their race or ethnicity in the room. When this is the case, women and men of color are more likely to feel excluded and scrutinized—and this is especially pronounced for women of color who are Onlys. In particular, Black women are having a difficult experience. They are significantly more likely than other Onlys to feel closely watched and to think that their actions reflect positively or negatively on other people like them.
So when I was feeling green or under-prepared for those meetings around finance or strategy or what-have-you, I was also feeling hyper-visible and on the spot to represent my race and often my gender as the Only in the room. I had few people I could turn to for support who shared my identity, and I was often I am not interested in being an only for the long-term. The first, sure, but not the only. I want people who look like me to be the norm in the C-suite, and not the exception.scared to reveal my ignorance for fear it would cause my colleagues to view me and other Black women as unable to play at the C-Suite level. That sense of alienation and isolation can cause anxiety, alienation, and ultimately underperformance. It’s an endless cycle that so many of us SHEsuiters face.
One of the ways I’ve found to combat this is to make communities of affirmation where they exist, such as online and among affinity spaces with junior staff and other community members. I often find myself looking to women who look like me across industries, such as fashion entrepreneur Gabi Gregg, educator, activist and TFA executive Brittany Packnett, and fine art curator Kimberly Drew to glean insight on how to move forward in my career while not having to negotiate or compromise my identity. It helps me remember my true north, and to manage the intermittent case of “the rep sweats.”
Is there anything you would change about your journey to SHESuite leadership? The environment? Culture?
First, I became a manager of people at 26, both of whom were older than me and one of whom who had more content expertise than I had at the time. I’m not sure how to say this tactfully without sounding ungrateful for this unbelievable opportunity I stumbled into, so I’ll just say it: The vast majority of people, no matter how smart they are, should not be in the C-Suite at 26. I was in a unique position where I was given an opportunity to support our organization at a time of great change and upheaval while also furthering my career, and I took it without recognizing the weight of what I was stepping into. The learning curve was steep. VERY steep, and I made a ton of mistakes those first years. I do not believe that we do enough to prepare people for the intellectual, emotional and technical demands of being in the C-suite, and I believe this is particularly true for women and people of color. We don’t do a great job of building our bench and letting people in on what C-suite leadership actually looks like. We have a tendency to be opaque about what happens in boardrooms and leadership team meetings, and I want to actively change this culture. People should know what it takes to prepare and defend a functional budget, to name and set a plan to test bets via their strategic plans. Looking ahead to my future, I want to do more to stack the deck of exceptional C-suite candidates, and give folks from marginalized backgrounds on the path to C-suite leadership access to learning and experiences that show them firsthand what it takes prior to stepping into senior leadership roles.
Lastly, as someone who has had the experience of being the only for a long time, both the only Black woman and often the only woman of color or the only person of color, I am not interested in being an only for the long-term. The first, sure, but not the only. I want people who look like me to be the norm in the C-suite, and not the exception.
What advice would you give SHEs considering a career path or continuing their journey to an executive position?
I once heard Nashville Public Radio reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán share advice he’d received in a previous post: that every person of color or person who is in the minority in whatever way cultivate 3 key and distinct relationships in their workplace: an ally, a mentor and an advocate. They should not be the same person. An ally is someone who, if you need to walk out, will walk out with you. If you need to speak up, they’ll help make sure your voice doesn’t shake, and that you have a “second” to affirm your motion. A mentor is someone you can learn from, likely someone who has been around and the block and who shares a few of your sociocultural identity markers to whom you can look up and pose questions and from whom you can receive honest advice and feedback. They’ll help you figure out how to tailor your message to that one difficult coworker of yours. They’ll tell you what’s worth your time and struggle and what isn’t. They’ll help you sharpen your approach and learn the culture. Third, every person needs an advocate. An advocate is a person, usually above you, who can speak up for you when you’re not in the room. This is the person who, when it counts, can speak on your behalf, which can go a long way in terms of recognition, promotions and, if it’s not already obvious, money. Every woman or femme should cultivate these folks because we will often face additional scrutiny that is not heaped on men, and building your room of cheerleaders can go a long way. And when they come through for you, let them know how much you appreciate them for being in your life and career in this regard.
Some other quick ones:
Career Navigation: Listen to Stacy-Marie Ishmael’s “Stacy’s Career Corner” from the podcast “Another Round.” Stacy-Marie was the Managing Editor of Buzzfeed’s Mobile News, and has now launched her own company, Galavant Media. Stacy-Marie gives life-changing advice about applying to jobs, pitching your skills, negotiating and working with difficult people. I especially recommend this podcast/segment for women and femmes of color aspiring to senior leadership.
Finance: Get your money together. If you’re applying to take the Bar exam, running for office, going to start a business, etc., your money situation is going to be picked apart. I SO wish I had smarter decisions about credit and spending at a young age so that I could genuinely enjoy the fruits of a
higher paying salary, instead of seeing most of that money go out the door to pay for things I don’t remember buying and haven’t owned in years.
I once heard Nashville Public Radio reporter Sergio Martínez-Beltrán share…that every person of color or person who is in the minority in whatever way cultivate 3 key and distinct relationships in their workplace: an ally, a mentor and an advocate. Paraphrasing Laverne Cox: “no one is entitled to your time, your money or your body.” Don’t give away intellectual or resource capital away for free if it took you time and money to learn/earn. Beware people who “want to pick your brain” unless you’re both clear on what will come of the exchange.
Acumen and Savvy: Stay informed in your field. At Teach For America, I subscribed to “The Tennessean” for education news, State Collaborative on Reforming Education’s updates, ChalkbeatTN and other education-focused entities. I’m now subscribed to the Wall Street Journal and Forbes Online with Google news alerts set up for “entrepreneurship.” I also follow updates from organizations dedicated to entrepreneurship, workforce development and enterprise creation, such as the Case Foundation, Association for Enterprise Opportunity and Rise of the Rest. It helps me stay sharp while also growing my dexterity with new language. It also never hurts to keep up with what the Harvard Business Review is putting out. I’ve learned so, so many leadership parables and gained super helpful skills from the HBR.
Communication: I highly recommend exploring principles of balancing power and managing conflict across power levels and socio-cultural identity markers in the workplace. Conflict arises, and it is informed by the identities we bring into the room. It will behoove you to know how to detect talk patterns in yourself and among others, so you can maximize the impact of your words and engagements. When do you speak up? And for how long? How do you offer advice? How do you share your dissent? With whom do you feel you can be yourself? How long are men talking in groups? How often do they restate or re-frame or take credit for ideas presented by women? Put data to it. Study it, bring it to leadership.
The accuracy of this piece on how not to be threatening as a woman in the workplace is withering…and hilarious.
Want to know more about getting to the C-Suite? Read our latest AskSHE: SHEsuite Edition!