What I’d say to me back then – SAP’s Etosha Thurman on dealing with micro-aggressions, hair anxiety, and colleagues ignoring her emails
Etosha Thurman is the first Black woman in this series, and her experiences highlight the huge obstacles still facing Women of Color working in tech (and other) industries.
Etosha Thurman’s entry into tech was by way of a degree in mathematics with a focus on actuarial science. However, she soon realized that her life goal of being a wife and mother wasn’t conducive to becoming a Fellow of actuary:
What I didn't see were many women actuaries that were able to have a career and a family.
So she pivoted and went to work at Procter & Gamble in procurement, where the business was moving from manual systems to SAP. With her background, Thurman ended up being a key user and was asked to join the SAP implementation team as a procurement subject matter expert. Within nine months of joining that team, she was project manager and spent three-and-a-half years rolling out SAP for P&G North America for the fabric and homecare unit.
After completing the project and making a move to California, where her husband had a new job, Thurman joined an e-payment start-up in the Bay Area and went through a major transition.
I went from a 110,000 person company at P&G Global, where it was well respected and career-oriented, to a start-up in California where I was employee number 54. My introduction to tech was a bit shocking.
When she joined, Thurman was the only woman manager at the company, and was one of two African-American staff, the other whom was on the support side. It took her a while to adjust to working not only in tech, even with her background in procurement, supply chain and ERP, but also going from being the customer to being the supplier:
What I found is, I love it. I love looking under the hoods of companies and helping them be better. I also love this supply chain procurement space. The marriage of my experience, the technology and the space has worked for me.
Looking back, it’s easy to idealize working at a start-up in the early 2000s, she reckons:
We were mavericks introducing things that hadn't existed before. But it was also hard.
The difficulty came not from issues with the technology or market, but her gender:
There were times where we were trying to make strategic decisions, I'd be the only woman in the room, and often I was talked over. It’s the classic thing you hear about - I would say something, people would ignore it, then somebody else would say the exact same thing in different words, and then it would be discussed.
At the time, Thurman didn’t challenge these behaviors as she was young and still growing in confidence. She recalls one particular situation where they were in the boardroom discussing a pivot to the business and how they wanted to approach an offering to the market.
I was making my point, I was being talked over - just the things that most men don't realize they do to women. A guy slapped his hand down on the table and said, ‘Etosha has been contributing, and every time we talk over her.’ I was just so shocked.
The interruption did two things: it brought an awareness in the room; and it was a reality check for Thurman that she wasn’t saying all the wrong things:
It was a gut check for me that if I'm going to be in this space, how do I find my voice?
In 2010, after having her children, Thurman joined Ariba (which was acquired by SAP in 2012) as Network Program Manager. At the time, the Ariba leadership was predominantly white male, and while the firm had a women manager's network, there were no ERGs and diversity wasn't a focus:
As a male-dominated environment, it was ego-centric and very testosterone-driven. I thought, I'm a Type A person, I'm smart, I'm going to figure out how to contribute because that's what I'm here for.
Thurman found that she actually thrived in the performance-driven culture, where she was able to try out ideas and learnt a great deal. Even though she returned to work for a job, not a career, at Ariba she found a push to make it a career:
Jason Kurtz, one of the leaders, became my one and only sponsor. He challenged me to not just have a job. He provided a safe space for me to learn, he made himself available and he invested in me. He sent me to leadership training.
Kurtz is still Thurman’s sponsor today, despite leaving Ariba long ago, and the pair still get together. Thurman also had two other male bosses at Ariba, who invested in being part of her network and opened up doors:
I had two female bosses, and it's not to say they weren't great bosses, they just didn't have the same access or the same voice in the room. None of them were able to unlock what the male bosses who have become part of my network have been able to do. I never experienced that stereotype competitive woman boss. Every female boss I've had, I've loved.
So much so, that Thurman returned to SAP after a short hiatus at Capital One because of Julia White, the firm’s Chief Marketing and Solutions Officer and member of the Executive Board. Thurman left SAP in late 2019, where she had been working in the Ariba division, as she didn’t feel she was making an impact or her voice was being heard:
I came back because I wanted to work for another woman in tech, because I haven't seen many at her level. To get a chance to work for someone who's made it to the board of a Fortune 500 company, where would I get that chance?
As a Woman of Color, Thurman has encountered many challenging situations during her career. As head of networking strategy and then GM of Ariba Network, she couldn't get some of her partners to engage with her:
I couldn't get them to even respond to meeting invites. I would have to escalate to their boss to get them at a table to talk about the product direction. I did not feel like I was valued. Common courtesy is that you say yes or no to a meeting invite, not just ignore it. That was not an easy time.
Thurman has also found herself in situations where she was asked to do a job, only to find a man was put in charge above her as she wasn't deemed to have the credibility:
The part that was hard was, when I start performing the way I like to perform, then it becomes a threat to the person who was put in to oversee me because I'm an expert. Because I don't like to be disruptive and combative, I'm not going to engage in 'Game of Thrones'. I want to work assuming positive intent and in collaboration, and where I can't find that I have to find a different role.
Then there are the micro-aggressions. If Thurman wears her hair in certain ways, the comments are tough to handle, and she’s even had to cope with people touching her hair:
I'm not just African-American, I'm also dark-skinned. With some people, it’s like I'm a specimen with my hair, which is why I tend to wear it straight. Last year I went curly for a long time, to positive feedback, and I told people, 'This is a step for me'.
Thurman feels fortunate she had Kurtz as her sponsor early on, who has been a guiding force:
When I'm in difficult situations, when I think of some of my other Black women peers who did not have that, it's been much more difficult. The choice has been to try to find environments where you could continue to grow.
There’s more sensitivity around hair now, according to Thurman, who doesn’t hear the same kinds of comments:
Earlier in my career, I had someone tell me when I wore my hair in a twist out, which is natural, that I looked unprofessional. I'm going to be customer facing, I need to think about how I want to present myself. Now, when I change my hair, it's much more positive and affirming. I have much less anxiety about it than I did even three years ago.
Thurman is also positive about SAP’s investment in D&I resources, including a Black employee network and a business women's network:
At SAP, it’s very much we know who we want to be, we just have to continue to put forth the effort to drive the behavior and show the behavior that makes the environment inclusive.
Working under White as SAP’s Chief Marketing & Solutions Officer of Intelligent Spend and Business Network is proving a much more positive experience than some of Thurman’s earlier roles:
White’s collaborative, open, smart, she's clear on what she wants you to do. I learn from her and with her. I do not at all regret the decision coming back.
SAP as a whole has made significant changes in the attitude of the leadership. Christian [Klein, SAP CEO] genuinely wants an inclusive environment and I see him being transparent, I see him being focused on the feedback from the organization. That makes it easier to rally and be part of the senior leadership. It makes me want to do that.
If she could go back and meet her younger self, Thurman would give two pieces of advice.
Firstly, you don't have to know it all to take the role, she counsels:
Working in tech, you get to look into the living rooms of the biggest, best and most creative companies in the world. You’re there because they need your experience, your curiosity to help move business. I would tell my younger self trust what I know, be curious in where I can help and enjoy it. Don't stress so much about the end. Enjoy the process.
Secondly, don’t apologize for your values and being you - a mom, a fast thinker, a talker, a hugger:
There were many years where I was apologetic for those pieces of me. If I could, I’d save myself from apologizing for what makes me me, because that's what brings the magic, those things all together.