If ever someone was a must-interview subject for this magazine, it’s Tara Jaye Frank. The one-time greeting card writer turned equity strategist’s recent book, The Waymakers: Clearing the Path to Workplace Equity with Competence and Confidence, has been credited with having “the potential to make an observable difference in corporate America” (BlueInk Review).
In it Frank combines statistics and storytelling to emphasize that while better systems and policies are important in creating a more even playing field in the workplace, at the end of the day it’s the who—the leaders that are willing to seek to help others overcome obstacles and barriers in their way—that matters more than the what.
“Every blonde, brown and Black person I know who made it to the top of their game, however they define their game, did so not only because of systems change, which we focus a lot on in diversity and inclusion work (and we should), but because someone made a way for them,” says Frank, echoing WayMaker Journal’s mission.
“Somebody opened a door and removed the barriers and ushered them through,” adds the woman named to Success’s list of 125 most influential leaders for 2022 (and whose other past accolades include Working Mother of the Year). “And so, we all need waymakers. Those of us who have been successful have definitely had them, and I’m inviting more people to do exactly that.”
Frank’s book—described as “a timely and profound dissertation on equity and leadership” by Kirkus Reviews—draws on her many years of experience successfully climbing the corporate ladder as a Black woman and helping organizations become more inclusive.
She spent more than two decades with Hallmark Cards, starting out as a copywriter and rising to become a senior vice president. That entry-level gig turned out to be formative. “From the day I started my professional career I was hyper-fixated on relationships, on what people needed to hear from those they were in relationship with [and] how they needed to hear it,” she says. “What built relationships up, what damaged them, what repaired them: that was the heart of the business.”
Relationships play an important part in our work lives, too, “so being in the relationship business has really given me a very powerful foundation from which to do workplace equity work.” Diversity has also been a long-running thread. While at Hallmark, in addition to serving as creative director for the company’s Mahogany brand centered on the Black market, she also worked on lines for the Hispanic and Jewish communities.
Closing the gap
The Spelman College alumna fully expected to retire from Hallmark, where she had moved from the business side of things to become corporate culture adviser in 2016. But her career path took a turn with a divorce and remarriage that led her from Hallmark’s Kansas City, Missouri, home to a new life in the Dallas/Ft. Worth area.
Frank poured all her experience into founding TJF Career Modeling, a leadership development consultancy whose clients over the past six years have included the likes of U.S. Bank, UPS, Procter & Gamble and Hearst. Her early work centered on leadership, helping minorities—Black, brown and women—develop their capacity. But she got frustrated.
“What became exceedingly clear to me is I could develop that vine till I was blue in the face, but if the vineyard was dry, they still wouldn’t thrive. So, I shifted my work from individual leadership development to culture, to working with the people who were currently making the talent decisions.”
She originally had white leaders in mind when she wrote The Waymakers, wanting to give them pointers on how to “lead equitably,” but has found minority readers telling her it has helped them frame things better when interacting with senior executives. “I didn’t necessarily plan for it to be an empowerment tool in that way,” she says, “but it is certainly shaping up to be exactly that and I couldn’t be happier.”
Frank encourages taking a lead if you’re looking for someone’s sponsorship or support, and going out and asking for help. The traditional way of waiting to be approached is disempowering, she feels.
“What it sounds like to us is, ‘Work yourself to death, do all the things you can possibly do, throw all the darts at the board you have, and maybe someday, in some way, someone’s going to recognize how smart and good you are and they’re going to tap you on the shoulder and make you queen.’”
But that only perpetuates the sense that “we have to be twice as good, three times as good. We have to work twice as hard, three times as hard. We have to not only do what we’re supposed to do, but everybody else’s stuff too, because what we’re really trying to do is cast as wide a net as humanly possible so that somewhere in that net we’ll be acknowledged.
“And I think that exacerbates the inequity problem, quite frankly.”
Her advice: be brave in pursuing “cross-difference” relationships. However, that requires that the people in power need to be receptive, of course. And, sadly, that’s not always—not often, even—the case. Frank has been disappointed to discover that some minorities that have made it to the upper levels of the corporate world have not been looking out for those coming behind them. Hearing from those who have reached out to people further up the ladder than them for help and gotten no response, she conducted an informal survey that found around 70% of respondents reporting this happened to them all the time.
“Which breaks my heart, honestly, because that is something we can do and should do if we want to help create more pathways for people once you get to that level,” she says. “You are there . . . and to deprive another Black person that insight, that understanding, that access—to me, it’s a really hard pill to swallow.”
Making a connection
Of course, busy executives don’t have time to help everyone who reaches out; she understands that. “But this, just refusal to engage people who are coming behind us… I get the sense it’s still happening. That’s something we can control, right, and we should make a way for more people where it is possible.”
Why does there seem to be that reluctance to lend a hand? A combination of factors, Frank believes, including the fear that championing “people like us” might be viewed as nepotism. It’s a question of courage, she says.
Then there are those who “don't like to be defined as a Black woman leader or as a Black leader. Because they don’t want to be defined that way, they don’t want to behave in a way that would elevate that aspect of their identity. Which makes me sad, honestly, but I know it happens.”
That fear of being labeled can lead to one Black person not acknowledging another when they are the only minorities in a roomful of whites. But in failing to do so, “we unconsciously perpetuate the problems that we have, because what we also know that person who has earned their right to be in that room, didn’t get there by themselves.
“Someone along the way acknowledged them or made a way for that person to even be in that room. So, I always feel like the least we can do is open ourselves to a connection. That doesn’t mean we have to nurture it into best friendship. It doesn’t mean we have to become family on the other side of it, but the least we can do for each other, in my opinion, is open ourselves to the connection, because you also just never know how your life might be enriched or how you might be able to enrich the life of another by just being open.”
By being a waymaker, you are a “great accelerator” for change, she says. Because “you can be the smartest person in the room, you can work the hardest . . . and still not be tapped on the shoulder because someone who should know you or needs to know you just doesn’t.”
From an interview with Louis Carr