At the National Association for Female Executives, women of color often tell us: “The first thing people see when I walk into a meeting room is my color.” 

Follow these steps

We developed a few strategies that might help.

1. Take charge of your career

If you’re ambitious, set out early to understand career paths at your company. To reach the top, you need to work in “line” or operations positions where you are generating revenue. (Another viable career path is in the support functions, like human relations, communications, legal or finance.) But to get to the top, you need line experience with products, sales, services, and/or customers. So clarify your career steps with your HR department, your boss and with advisors. 

2. Women of color need sponsors

You must find people who will block and tackle for you and open the field. Succeeding really does depend on who you know — maybe more than the quality of your work. Everyone needs a powerful advocate who will fight for them and protect them if necessary, but no one more than women of color.

Having a sponsor works

Sponsors are people with influence who offer critical feedback and targeted advice, and who use that clout to land opportunities for you. A mentor advises you privately, but a sponsor goes to bat for you. Men are more intentional about finding sponsors than women. Sponsors tend to seek proteges who look like them, so Caucasians are 65 percent more likely than multicultural professionals to have sponsors. But when you’ve got one, it works. Racially and ethnically diverse individuals with sponsors are 57 percent less likely to leave their company.

So get out early and find a sponsor from among people who observe your performance and results. Go to them for advice and ask them how they accomplished something that you’d like to try. If possible, assist them with projects so they see how good you are. Talk with them about your career path — so they’re clear about your aspirations.

If you hear of an opportunity, ask your sponsor what you need to do to qualify. But remember, when sponsors recommend you, they’re spending their own capital. So you must earn their trust and support by always performing superbly.