Many black women and other people of color know what it’s like to be “the only.”
The only black woman.
The only person of color.
The only woman.
The list goes on. We’ve all likely experienced it at some point—the feeling when you look around the room and see no one like you.
And this was Nikole Collins Puri’s experience, too. At all levels of her schooling and into her professional life, Nikole was the only black woman. This experience both shaped and motivated her to work hard to open doors for other black women and girls.
Today, Nikole is the CEO of Techbridge Girls, a nonprofit organization that excites, educates, and equips girls from low-income communities through STEM, empowering them to pursue STEM careers.
Nikole joined me on episode 28 of Unlocking the Club podcast, where we talked about work-life balance (if it’s even real), being “the only,” the tension black women live in, and what the difference is between belonging and representation.
Is Balance Possible?
Nikole is a wife, mom to a 7-year-old, social justice visionary, CEO, mentor… the list goes on.
Juggling so many hats has taught her something simple—work-life balance is an illusion. She described days when she’s an amazing CEO, days when she’s an amazing mom, and days when she’s an amazing wife.
And they don’t always coincide.
Because the reality is that some balls have to drop. And that’s okay. Most of them can be picked up again and some of them really aren’t too important.
Nikole reflected on how recently she’s learned this lesson, only giving herself the grace to “fail” in the last few years. As black women, we are so often expected to perform and succeed wherever we go—there isn’t that space in society to fail.
But internalizing the expectation to be a “strong black woman” can have serious mental health consequences. It takes an emotional and health toll on black women.
So, we have to take space and give permission to fail at times. Nikole now knows that for her to be successful in one area, sometimes something else has to be on hold.
Balance is not the end game—living your life according to your priorities is the goal.
Being “The Only” and Living in the Tension
Nikole was the only black girl throughout her school life and into her career.
Despite being “the only,” Nikole knows she was blessed in a way other people weren’t. Her family’s efforts and other opportunities were open to her which allowed Nikole to build a successful career of her choosing.
But not everyone has that experience. Being “the only” means a lot of doors are shut to you. You’re trying to fit into a space that wasn’t designed for you.
As Nikole put it, the white supremacist culture we live in simply did not design the table, the club, or the opportunity for black women. Existing leadership theories, frameworks, and ideas lack sociocultural support for black women leaders—they were not developed with us in mind.
So, to hold space as a leader, you’ve got to live in the tension of assimilation and disruption.
To disrupt the status quo and make space at the table for other black women and diverse people, you need to be able to assimilate and get yourself a seat at that table.
What does this look like? A few ideas from Nikole:
- Approaching everything with genuine curiosity so people hear and respond to your questions or pushback.
- Learn the language of the people in power and identify what is important to them.
- Adapt your ideas to who is in the room so you can receive their buy-in.
These actions and knowing when to “fit” into the mold helps black women get a seat at the table. A seat from which they can disrupt, change, and inspire.
And while many don’t like the idea of “assimilation,” Nikole is convinced that it’s the reality of the world we live in, though she’s hopeful for a future where it isn’t.
The key is to embrace the tension. And to use it as a tool to navigate life, not make it your entire identity.
Navigating the tension requires you to be in touch with your energy—what battles you can take on. But it also depends on the moment, what’s at stake, and whether or not you can draw from other people and allies to take it on.
There’s no clear playbook here. Just the idea that disruption and change often starts by getting your seat at the table. And, trust me, you’re needed at the table.
Belonging vs. Representation
Nikole works with girls and teenagers from a variety of backgrounds and experiences. Her mission through Techbridge Girls is to empower them to pursue STEM careers that will set them up for financial security and economic mobility in the future.
In her work, Nikole sees a lot of emphasis on representation.
And, it’s easy to see why. Representation is quantifiable—companies can fill quotas and count heads, “proving” their diverse representation.
But here’s the thing—there’s no representation without a sense of belonging.
People don’t stay in a job without feeling like they belong or that they’re valued and needed in that role.
So Nikole wants to know about the sense of belonging in each company she sends her girls to work for. The question is not if they are good enough to work at that company—because they are—but if that company has created a role and space that is designed for them. She wants to know if that company deserves the brilliance of her girls by their priority on creating a sense of belonging.
There are two main ways that companies can prioritize belonging in STEM, not just representation:
- Creating opportunities in STEM education that is reflective of black girls’ experiences, lineage, and community.
- Creating jobs and spaces that are built for black women, where seats are specifically set at the table for diverse voices.
We talked about so much more on the podcast, including how Nikole got into this “purpose-driven work” and what motivates her to keep going.