Viola Davis Brings Black Girl Magic; Words of Wisdom to WorkHuman Conference - Black Enterprise

Viola Davis Brings Black Girl Magic; Words of Wisdom to WorkHuman Conference

Viola Davis
The author with Viola Davis at the WorkHuman Conference

The WorkHuman conference sponsored by Globoforce is cloud-based software for employee performance management and recognition.  It all started with the idea of bringing more humanity to the workplace and, now in its fifth year, has evolved into a movement fueled by the annual conference. Tackling complex topics like #MeToo, workplace equality, barriers to diversity and inclusion, and navigating employee emotions, WorkHuman has become an event where human resources and business leaders come together as a community to educate and inspire one another to action.

There were fantastic keynotes and fireside chat interviews with George Clooney, Gary Hamel, Kat Cole, and Brene Brown. Ellen McGirt of Fortune interviewed actor and gender equality advocate, Geena Davis.

The closing keynote featured the one and only Viola Davis. She sat with WorkHuman’s CHRO Steve Pemberton for a fireside chat. Pemberton’s first question was a simple one about her upbringing—but Davis seized the moment to deliver a clear message to never let up.

Made to Feel “Worse Than Nothing”

“For most of my life, I waited for people to just see me,” she said. “When you grow up in abject poverty, you are made to feel like you are worse than nothing. This is worse than being bullied. You’re being ostracized constantly—and there’s no one to throw you a rope … All the while pretending that none of it was happening.”

Pemberton interviewing Davis.

She also spoke about the call to adventure and greater purpose she felt living in Rhode Island in the 1960s, growing up “po’ — not poor. Po. We couldn’t afford the other two letters.”

However, Davis knew there was more out there for her and she had to find it. “A hero is always born to a life where they don’t fit in, then there is a call to adventure. They refuse the call because they feel they cannot make it, that the journey is too big for them. Then they decide to answer the call and there are tests and they slay dragons and come face to face with themselves—but they finally find that golden elixir. And they go back to their ordinary world to share it with others. Something in me felt that kind of call to adventure

“People call those who come from foreign countries ‘dreamers’—and I love that word. But you know what? I’m a dreamer, too. I call myself a dreamer. I am the outsider too. I am a descendant of sharecroppers, who were descendants of slaves before them; I am what this country rejected. Policies were put in place to keep me from dreaming, to keep me from all the materials and tools to fulfill those dreams. So when a vision was planted in me and I wanted to pursue it at all costs, I didn’t know how and I didn’t have anyone; I didn’t have a mentor or any of those things to help me in the beginning. That’s why I call myself a dreamer, just like anyone else who comes from outside the country. I am a dreamer, too.”

A Call for ‘People Leaders’

Davis spoke about Upward Bound and the mentors she connected with through that program helped her gain the confidence to pursue her potential. She also shared the story of walking two miles and catching three buses daily to attend classes in her first theater program. “I was 14 and had a full scholarship. But no one in my family had a car or license; I barely had money for bus fare or food. Meanwhile, my classmates were arriving in Saabs and Peugeots with their parents and packed lunches–but I needed all those resources just to get there, leaving 3 hours early just to get there on time. And the school had a strict late policy. Once again, I have to follow the [school’s] rules—but the [real world] rules are different for me. I’m not coming to the starting line at the same point as others. And I just wanted someone to see me, see my needs and see my potential and gifts to see that I’m not asking for a handout. I need another ‘h’–I need help.”

Pemberton said that Davis’ story was an example of the call for ‘people leaders’ to see those they lead more completely and fully in their humanity. In organizations, people leaders have to be able to identify those normally unseen; identify their potential, and provide opportunity.

The actress agreed with this sentiment and said this is what pushed her and her husband to start their own production company, JuVee Productions. Because of nepotism and commitment to box office dollars over everything else, Davis said “There’s no way in! So I’m always thinking about helping people get in. What kind of rope am I throwing to help people get in? Because I know if there is no one to throw you a rope, you will stay in the hole. If there is no one to stand in the gap for you, you will stay in the hole.” She said her production company is committed to invest in the potential of creators of color and to open doors that will create a pipeline for more opportunity.

“We must all be committed to create an atmosphere that brings people up,” she said in some of her final remarks to a crowd of almost 3,000 business managers in leadership and HR.

“And know that if you really care, it is going to cost you something. Change doesn’t happen without chaos and anxiety. Heroes are just as ordinary and scared as everyone else. They just stay five minutes longer.”

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