Candace Marie Stewart has gained attention — and acclaim — within the fashion industry for her work developing and implementing social media strategies for brands like Barneys New York and Prada (and also, for her incredible personal style). She always knew she wanted to work in fashion, but she got there from a background in finance, at the urging of her mother: She received her MBA before going into the corporate sector and then eventually pivoting. Reflecting back on her decade-long career, though, Stewart says it isn't all that different, what she's seen behind closed doors in more traditional corporate environments versus in fashion. That's what motivated her to start Black in Corporate, a platform that launched this summer with the goal of connecting Black corporate professionals and giving them access to resources that would help them grow and excel in their fields.
"There were multiple things happening, but I felt like this was the perfect chaos, this moment," she tells Fashionista. Amid a global pandemic, she continues, "we were confined and we had to face a lot of realities that already have been here… I'm used to hopping on planes, constantly moving and changing. I might see certain things happen that make me distraught, but a lot of times I might cope by making myself busy. With Covid, it almost made me be like, 'No, look at this.'"
Stewart has always been vocal about representation and equity behind the scenes, but this time, she says, it felt different: "I got to thinking about my tenure of working within corporate spaces… [and] systematic racism, whether it's from a corporate company standpoint or from a lack of Black colleagues when I know we have the brainpower, the education… I can't say [it was] one moment, but Covid definitely made me stop and see certain things from a more personal perspective, where I couldn't really necessarily hide from that anymore."
Black in Corporate began as an Instagram account (@blckincorporate), where Stewart would share graphics with information she wishes she had had when she was starting in her career. "I just knew I needed to create a space," she explains. "I knew it would continue to build on certain things because I didn't have it all figured out — I feel like that's normally where we hit a wall, when we want to have it all figured out before we start something."
Instagram seemed like "the most natural way to start," given her professional expertise. Plus, she recognized the power social media has had in amplifying the Black Lives Matter movement and other important issues, and how people are more engaged with content online than they might've been before, since we're spending more time indoors.
"For me, it was like, 'Let's start this platform and see, are there other people out there like me that needs these resources?’ I know there has to be, because I talked to my colleagues and friends who were in these spaces," Stewart continues. "Let's just start building and see how this goes. I for sure want this to be a community where Black individuals who are in corporate spaces can come and feel like they can be themselves, but also where we give you the tools that you need to thrive."
Now, in addition to the Instagram account, there's a website, as well as an upcoming mentorship program, where Black individuals can connect with other professionals across different industries virtually and continue to build their networks. (That's also why Stewart specifically set out to create a platform that spoke to the corporate experience beyond the scope of fashion: "Just thinking about my connections, when I'm looking at peers — my best friend in the travel industry, my friends that I grew up with are in legal, a lot of people I made friends with in college are in finance — and when we're talking, the problems are the same. It's not really a difference in industry.")
Mentorship is going to be a major pillar of of Black in Corporate. Applications recently opened on the website for both mentees and mentors, to begin the program in November. (The application will remain live on the site, for candidates that want to be considered for the second class, which begins in February 2021.) Obviously, IRL meet-ups aren't an option right now, so the plan is to have an external platform hosted on the Black in Corporate website where mentees can connect with their mentors — who come from a range of backgrounds and industries — virtually, a minimum of twice a month for hour-long sessions. (At the end, there will be an opportunity to send a review to Black in Corporate, so they can incorporate any feedback into the following mentorship class.)
There are advantages to this format, Stewart argues: “Typically, you might meet over coffee with a mentor, or you might go and visit them. But being virtual opens the playing field up, where it's just not the people that are in New York, L.A. or the bigger cities — you can literally be anywhere and be paired with someone that's higher up in their career, that's established, that has been doing this for a while.'
Stewart herself won't be a mentor during this first round. (She wants to oversee the process and make sure everything's going smoothly, while also working on a few other Black in Corporate projects that are coming down the pipeline.) But she's obviously very invested in the mentorship program. "I wish I would have had people that helped me along and guided me," she says. "To give that back to another younger individual, it’s going to be profound and do wonders for them for their career."
She's been blown away by the interest she's gotten from people to be mentors. "I couldn't believe how many people signed up," she tells us. "I'm thinking to myself, 'These are some amazing people who are giving up their time freely.' It's one thing for me to start this myself and put my all into it, but for other people to come along, especially other Black individuals — that, to me, is so inspiring, to know that we all understand, we've all been in these same places before and want to help another person that we might not even know."
Mentors in the inaugural round include Ezinne Okoro, global chief inclusion, equity and diversity officer at Wunderman Thompson; Neahle Jones, head of L'Oréal USA School of Excellence for Marketing and Digital; Sarissa Thrower, communications lead at Instagram; Melanie Gatewood, director multicultural merchandising and segmentation at Target; Dr. Rhonda Mattox, chief medical officer and psychiatrist; Dana Oliver, beauty director at Yahoo; Anika Joseph, director of rooms at Omni Atlanta at CNN Center; Courtney Richardson, creative director of Paper; Nourbese Joseph, CEO and founder of People Strategy Reimagined; Christopher Lacy, CEO of Christopher Lacy Consulting; Cheyenne Beam, associate director of strategic media relations at Island Records; David Rosario, HR manager at Kaplow Communications; Justin Dwayne Joseph, digital media and creative executive; and Christian Mitchell, creative strategist and Brand Innovator.
"At the end of the day, it's about providing those with a disadvantage a greater opportunity to thrive within a company," Stewart says of the program. "Whether you decide to pursue something in fashion or in engineering or in tech, you have someone that you can count on and come back to, that you've learned from and hopefully have built a substantial connection with, that can lead to something else."