The Naturally Professional series on Afrobella.com and CurlyNikki.com was created to make a positive statement. Our intent is to disprove false and long held beliefs that wearing ones hair in a natural style — including locs, sisterlocs, and loose natural hair — makes a person somehow not professional enough for a corporate environment. Natural hair IS professional, beautiful, well taken care of, and welcome in any kind of workplace. This month’s Naturally Professional woman proves that you can wear your hair in whatever style suits you, and rise to the top.
Name: Carolyn Edgar
Title: Vice President and Legal Counsel, The Estee Lauder Companies
Tell me about your natural journey. What styles have you worn your hair in? How long have you been natural? What led you to wear your hair in a natural style?
As a child, I wore my hair completely natural and unprocessed. Straight, pressed hair was reserved for special occasions, like Easter and picture day. In middle school, my mother started giving my hair a light press that usually didn’t survive the week, or gym, whichever came first. From high school until I entered law school at 25, I wore my hair pressed straight. My mom pressed my hair until I went to college, and then I learned how to press it myself. My mom was very good at pressing hair, and she taught me well, so my hair was thick, long and healthy. But when I went to Harvard Law School, I decided pressing was “old-fashioned” and it was time for me to enter the modern world of relaxers. My almost waist-length hair got shorter and shorter. But apart from a brief period when I wore braids to grow out some damage from a particularly bad relaxer, I kept my hair relaxed, even though I hated the damage.
In a way, though, I’m grateful, because if I had continued to press my hair, I never would have discovered the beauty of my own natural hair texture. My family is from the South, and my mother was firmly in the “good hair” camp. I grew up believing my own natural hair texture, while not quite “bad,” certainly wasn’t “good.” And since it wasn’t “good,” it needed to be straightened. It took a long time for me to look at my own natural hair texture without cringing. Finally, in about my 7th year of practicing law, I got tired of relaxed hair breakage. I was also a new mom, and I wanted my daughter to grow up embracing her natural hair. I decided to grow out my relaxer. I didn’t do a “big chop.” I stopped getting touch-ups and cut the relaxed ends off, bit by bit, until I had enough length to finally let the rest of the relaxer go. I went back to pressing briefly, but disliked being so vulnerable to the elements. I then shifted to twists and wore two-strand twists for about five years. When I got tired of getting my hair re-twisted every 3 weeks, I decided to loc it.
Was your hair natural when you entered the working world? Or did you go natural while at your current job?
I wore my hair straight when I first entered the working world, and kept it that way until I finally grew out my relaxer. I don’t distinguish between the years I pressed and the years I relaxed my hair, because both were the result of my not liking the way my natural hair looked. I didn’t wear my hair straight because it was more manageable, I wore it straight because I thought it looked better that way. I was embarrassed to be seen with naps and frizz. When I transitioned to natural hair, I was a bit nervous at first. No other black woman lawyer at my conservative firm had ever worn natural hair, so I wasn’t sure how they were going to respond, but I received nothing but positive comments.
Have you ever faced any undue scrutiny and/or adversity in your career because of wearing your hair natural?
Not at all. I had all these hang-ups and ideas and beliefs about what the “right” styles were for black hair in white corporate America. I thought our hair had to be straight. I thought my natural hair was not only unprofessional, but ugly. Letting go of relaxers and pressing combs allowed me to fall in love with my natural hair and to call it “curly” instead of “nappy.” I learned to work with my hair’s natural curl pattern instead of trying to get rid of it. I had this image in my head of what “white people” would say or think about my hair. It turned out no one cared what I did with my hair, as long as it was neat. That doesn’t mean people didn’t notice, or ask questions. But I have never been reprimanded, “talked to,” or discriminated against because of my hair.
Do you think there is an issue today with acceptance overall in the corporate workforce for women who choose to wear natural hair?
I think it depends on where you are and in what industry you work. I know black women lawyers who practice across a broad range of specialties, from patent law to tax to environmental to corporate, who are natural. I know television producers, PR specialists, real estate brokers, accountants, managing partners at investment banks – all natural. In New York City, for the most part, natural hair isn’t much of an issue. I find it ironic that even in industries where natural hair is less accepted – such as entertainment, beauty and fashion – black women who are in front of the camera wear their hair relaxed or in weaves, but black women who work behind the scenes, including in senior management, are often natural. It’s definitely true at Estee Lauder. But at the same time, my friends and family in my hometown of Detroit tell me that natural hair is not as accepted there, and I suspect that’s true in other parts of the country as well.
I’ve also learned that this isn’t just a black woman’s issue. Just the other day, a white co-worker said she always thought her curly hair was “unprofessional” but she had chosen to wear her natural curls to work because of the heat. Curly-haired women of all races and cultures feel pressured to wear their hair straight and think of their own natural hair as “unmanageable.” I think all women would benefit if acceptance of our hair’s natural texture became a cross-cultural or multi-cultural conversation.
Are there any particular natural hairstyles they feel are no-no’s for the workforce or a particular style that is “safer” or more accepted than others, based on your experiences?
I’ve seen women of color in the workplace in New York City wearing just about every natural hairstyle that exists, but I do feel men are more restricted in their options. For instance, I think locs are more readily accepted on women than men. A young black man who works in my building, but not for my company, told me recently that his manager made him cut off his locs. The manager, a white woman, was in the elevator when we were having this conversation. She said to me, “He’s more handsome this way.” I was angry for a minute, but had to let it go. I couldn’t jeopardize that young man’s job by going off on his boss. So I just said to her, “He was handsome before, too.”
How do you or have you handled any questions or issues you’ve faced regarding your hair?
I feel like there are no dumb questions. White people don’t have to learn about black hair in the same way that we learn about white hair. Many people, regardless of race, don’t understand locs and think they’re unwashed and dirty. Some of the most negative comments I’ve heard about my hair, in fact, have come from black people. My mom, who passed two years ago, called my locs “a waste of long hair” because to get rid of them, most people just cut them off. I’d rather answer and provide information, than ridicule or make someone feel badly for what they don’t know.
Your job is an interesting mix of both beauty and the legal world. Does that make for a more creative working environment? Do you think your natural hair and style would be more or less welcome in an alternative legal career?
The Legal Department is comprised of lawyers who specialize in different areas. Some of our lawyers interface regularly with the beauty side of the business. Others – like myself – have less direct involvement with the beauty side, and more involvement with operations or corporate governance. The work done by the lawyers who handle our contracts with our models, for example, certainly appears glamorous from the outside. At the heart of it all, though, we provide legal advice to our clients to help them manage risk and make better business decisions, and it almost doesn’t matter whether the business is beauty or widgets. But the fact that we are a global prestige beauty company permits us, as employees, a wider degree of flexibility in self-expression than I think would be present in many other corporate settings. Some of our lawyers are very fashionable, others dress more conservatively, and the rest of us are in the middle. When I was in private practice, I wore a business suit every day. Today, I own two suits, and I almost never wear them to the office. I favor slacks with blouses or fitted tees, or dresses. I think if I were in an alternative legal career, such as working for a non-profit, I would dress pretty much the way I do now. I do wear more makeup than I used to before I joined the Company. I was a consumer of our brands’ products before I became an employee, and I love the fact that I get to experiment with our different products and brands.
There is always discussion and sometimes concern about wearing your hair natural and working, as well as succeeding, in the corporate workforce. What strategies can you offer other women who wear their hair natural on handling issues they may face in the workplace regarding their hair choice?
I think it is important to understand the environment you are about to enter before you begin working for a particular employer. A headhunter or recruiter can help you suss this out, and if they can’t, you are working with the wrong placement team. There is a lot you can assess about a place as you walk around meeting people on interviews. In most companies, “fit” is as important as skills and experience – even more so in this competitive environment. So you have to determine whether or not you are a good fit for the workplace you are contemplating, and whether they are a good fit for you. If wearing your hair naturally is something you value, you should work in an environment where your hair will not be a limiting factor in your ability to perform, achieve and succeed.
As a leader what insight can you offer women in general, natural or not, on succeeding as African American women? What are the top 3-5 tips to success you can offer?
1. Manage your own career. Know what it is you want, and find out what you have to do to get it. People are willing to help you, but you have to let them know what you want.
2. Be confident. If you wishy-washy in conveying your opinions, people will stop asking you for them. If you are apologetic when you ask someone who works for you to do something, they won’t take you seriously. If you say you are going to do something, do it; and if you figure out you can’t do it, own up to it.You don’t have to be perfect, or in possession of perfect information, to express yourself with confidence. Our CEO, Fabrizio Freda, encourages Estee Lauder employees to “lead from every chair.” That phrase means a lot to me, because it recognizes that even if you aren’t the person whose name is at the top of the org chart, you can demonstrate leadership within your sphere of influence. The more you step up and demonstrate leadership, the more people will recognize you as a leader.
3. Be helpful, but prioritize. Learn when to say yes and when and how to say no. You don’t have to say yes to everything you are asked to do, but there is an art to saying no. Make sure your priorities are in line with your management’s priorities and your company’s priorities, and hopefully those two things don’t conflict.
4. Be yourself, but be your best self. One mistake people often make is in thinking they need to fit into a mold to succeed. “Fit” means making sure your values and priorities, as well as your style of working, are aligned with the organization that you work for. It does not mean twisting yourself to fit into a box that does not suit you. We spend too much time at work to be uncomfortable there. Bring your whole self, but your best self, to the workplace.
Thanks for sharing your story, Carolyn!
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