Life after graduation

14 Black professionals share their advice for your career journey

Wisdom for navigating your job or internship from people who’ve been there.

There’s nothing quite like receiving a job (or internship) offer. It’s almost always a moment filled with excitement, promise, and much-deserved celebration! But for Black new hires, especially those just taking the first steps in their career journey, such moments may also come with complex feelings attached. Particularly for those entering an underrepresented field or function, questions might arise: “Will I be treated with respect here? Will I be the only person of color on my team? Will I be the first Black hire my manager has ever made?” 

One of the best ways to combat these feelings of isolation and return to the joyous celebration part of a new career is to arm yourself with wisdom from people who’ve been there. Some day, you’ll be able to return the favor for the next generation!

While no two career journeys will look exactly the same, there is power in sharing knowledge and lived experience to help the people who come after you. “In any type of career when you are a minority in that field, there’s a fine line between sharing what my struggles were early on and me being [positioned as] some spokesperson for all Black young professionals and fighting against that,” says Austin Williams, a Director on Handshake’s Talent team. “But the other part of it is that you also have the opportunity to be a trailblazer and pave the way for people. Ultimately, I think [the Black professional experience] looks different for everyone. Sometimes you should fight it, sometimes you embrace it, but I think at the very least people should realize the value in it.”

Advice for young Black professionals starting their career journey

At Handshake, one of the ways team members share hard-earned wisdom with others is through dedicated identity-focused communities. Wakanda, the employee resource group for Handshakers who identify with the African diaspora, is a thriving community of Black professionals ranging from interns to executives. When asked about advice they’d give Black students and grads entering the workforce, more than a dozen Wakanda community members rose to the occasion, eager to help the next generation. Ahead, read their valuable insights about mentorship, making an impact, and staying true to yourself at work.

What’s that? Employee Resource Groups (ERGs) are becoming more common, especially in the tech sector, and these communities are a vital component of Handshake’s own culture. Our identities run deep and we believe that celebrating shared experiences plays an important part in one’s sense of belonging. You can learn more about our employee communities here!

“A lot of times I see students approach their career by only focusing on searching for jobs. But zoom out first! Focus on what problems you want to solve, what you love doing and are good at, and what organizations or sectors you want to be in first. Then you can be more intentional in looking for opportunities from there.” — Jordan, Global Support

“For any young Black professional beginning their career journey, I think an important thing is to understand what questions they should be asking and what matters to them. I think there’s often this idea of the ‘rat race,’ especially here in the US, where you feel like you have to compete for the compensation and the title and working for this or that big-name company — a lot of those things don’t matter that much. What we’re seeing is that the people who don’t find a sense of fulfillment early on are the ones that are more likely to burn out and not feel like they’re as engaged with their community. If they can learn to ask the right questions, they’re better able to assess the mutual fit; it’s not just a question of if you’re a good fit for the company, but is the company a good fit for you?

And with how many more companies are investing in recruiting more underrepresented talent, especially Black talent, that puts them in a really great spot of leverage to make sure that the company that they’re going to be working for is one that they can be proud of saying: ‘I work at Handshake,’ or ‘I worked at [insert company here].’” — Tony, Employer Sales

Find your people

“Network across! Networking up with senior and executive/C-suite colleagues is amazing, but there is so much magic to be made by networking across, with your peers, as well.” — Racquel, Team Handshake

“Keep going. Find a community or mentors to help you on this journey.” — Carmen, UX Research

“Finding and maintaining relationships is key to anyone’s success, because no one gets to where they are by themselves.” — Austin, Talent

Don’t underestimate the value of a great boss, even if they don’t look like you

“Your manager can play a huge role in your career and growth. When interviewing or meeting potential managers ask them how they’ve promoted, developed, and helped secure sponsors for their teams and why. This will give you a sense of how the manager and company invests in the team.” — Jordan, Global Support  

“Consider the managers that you work with; is the manager that you really love during the interview process expecting to stay at this company longer term or not? Because you know people quit managers just as much as they quit jobs, maybe even more so.” — Tony, Employer Sales

“In the past I think I’ve subconsciously leaned towards other Black leaders, really wanting to work beside them and learn a great deal from them. There was bias there. And while I think that [working with Black leaders] is important, it’s also good to realize the value in other leaders; they can get you to where you want to go as well and they can still help you grow.” — Austin, Talent

You are worthy of being authentically yourself  

“Play the game but be yourself!” — Rahni, Sales Development

“There is beauty in what makes you different. Don’t be afraid to share your opinion, it is valuable.” — Maya, Enterprise Account Management

Never lose sight of your own potential

Take every rejection as an opportunity to learn, grow, and strengthen who you are!” — Tiffany, Success & Education 

“Always advocate for yourself.” — Jarred, Employer Outreach Engineering

“The only person that can tell yourself no is you.” — Jendayi, Sales Development

Fight imposter syndrome with self-affirmations

“I think you need to have a lot of confidence and understand that you’re there for a reason. I think it’s very easy to graduate from an HBCU or wherever, then go into the workforce and have a perspective of oneself that maybe you don’t deserve to be there because you look different than everyone else. So I think you need to have a level of confidence in who you are.” — Austin, Talent

Keep an eye out for red (or green) flags

“The first job that you’re getting is not as important today as it used to be. Turnover is expected… But there are so many ways to find out what happens to the people that do go into those companies. Whenever I talk to interns, I tell them to look at people in the full-time role they want, then look at the people who’ve moved on from that role and company: what are their titles? What responsibilities do they have in their next job? This gives you a good sense of the organization; are people staying there and spending more than a year or two, or are they leaving after a few months? That’s a really big flag to keep in mind.” — Tony, Employer Sales

Seek mentorship, then pay it forward

“Don’t be afraid to introduce yourself to someone who you think might be able to help you out—a potential mentor, a potential job lead, whatever—and don’t be afraid to ask for help. That goes both for in-person and virtually.  Many folks out there are willing and even happy to help out a young person get on the right track, but if you don’t ask in the first place, it’s the same result as getting a no! Or, in other words, ‘A closed mouth doesn’t get fed.’” — Rashad, Enterprise Employer Partnerships

“Don’t be afraid to ask for help, seek out mentors from different backgrounds, be an expert at asking for (and giving!) feedback.” — Diana, Employer Success

“It’s okay to ask questions. My parents immigrated to the US, so I came from a first-gen background when I was in college. I look back now and I realize that many of my peers were almost project-managed to succeed. They knew what they were doing from day one; go talk to this professor, go to this department to get your resume reviewed, that kind of thing. To me it seemed like they were more mature or something, but then you realize they had people who they were listening to to get there. 

Nowadays, we are seeing that many schools are putting an emphasis on providing those resources to students proactively. Tomorrow I’m talking to three students from my alma mater about what it’s like working at Handshake and my journey into tech. I do this regularly. You’ll find that so many people are willing to do this, and if you ask the worst you’re going to get is a ‘no.’ I’ve been talking to students for five years and I’ve never said no to a single one. Just reach out to people and you’ll be surprised how many are open to helping you.” — Tony, Employer Sales

There’s nothing wrong with leaps of faith

Don’t be afraid to try something new! Figuring out what you want in a career can be daunting, but taking leaps of faith, exploring new opportunities, and inquiring about industries you’ve never even considered might pleasantly surprise you and the outcomes of your internship/job search.” — Jordyn, Communications + PR 

Know that your community is rooting for you

You’re not alone even if you are the ‘first/only’ Black (fill in the blank).” — Joel, Student Engineering

More tips for success at work

Now that you’ve got the great advice of these incredible Handshakers in your back pocket, you can feel better equipped as you take the next steps in your own career. Check out additional Handshake resources to help you:

And you can always check out other students’ stories to get inspired! 

Photo by Christina @ wocintechchat.com on Unsplash

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