Leading Through Adversity: Black Women Who Paved the Way

As a Black woman in leadership, adversity is a part of the journey. In my book  Leading Well, I wrote, “Black women’s leadership is steeped in adversity because we are often working in places where microaggressions and biases thrive.” Rather than avoiding adversity, however, we shift our perspective to navigate through adversity. The beginning of Black History Month is a great time to reflect on the stories of remarkable Black women who have been able to thrive despite obstacles. Through their experiences, we can learn valuable lessons about perseverance, determination, and leading through adversity. 

OprahOwn it, so they can’t take it

Photo Source: istock.com

Oprah provides a great example of the importance of ownership. She bought the entire building that housed her talk show studio in 1990 and continued to own that space until 2015.  This gave her the leverage and power to make her own decisions. From that, she was able to have a historically relevant talk show for over two decades and ultimately went on to create the OWN network. Her ownership model also influenced the model of other prominent media empires like Tyler Perry Studios, which is completely Black-owned.  Oprah’s example showed us the importance of creating our own spaces and owning our work. Wherever you lead, own your ideas, own the room, own your point of view, and ultimately, own the space you’re in. 

“I had taken ownership of the show so I could be my own boss and have my own space, separate from my original bosses at WLS-TV in Chicago. I bought the building, and the enterprise evolved into something more..” Source: Oprah.com

Michelle ObamaPave Your Own Way

Photo Source: obamalibrary.gov

Michelle Obama is a great example of paving your own way despite the expectations of others. While her husband, President Obama, was in office, she maintained her identity and causes. She also maintained grace and poise while facing scrutiny, amplified by the dawn of the social media age. She did all of this while not allowing the scrutiny to affect her mission, raising two young girls in the spotlight and having an aging parent. Many Black women in America can identify with and learn from her example. 

When I met her in the rope line at the end of then-President Obama’s farewell address in 2017, I shook her hand and remarked, “You represented us so well.”  As I recounted in Leading Well, “She looked me straight in the eye and sincerely, without missing a beat, said, “Well, that’s who we are.” Her intonation led me to believe she wasn’t just talking about herself, her daughters, and her mother, but she was talking about who we are as Black women. “We can thrive in the most hostile of environments and shine in the darkest night.” The light within paves the way toward our God-given destiny.

“When you become leaders, the most important thing you have is your word, your trust. That’s where respect comes from.” Michelle Obama.

Coretta Scott King – Build A Legacy

Photo Source: womenofthehall.org

Coretta Scott King is a prime example of looking beyond what is happening in the present and recognizing God’s purpose. Many people don’t realize that Coretta Scott was an activist before she met and married Martin King. She was clear on her sense of purpose and the principles of the movement Dr. King espoused. 

She became a widow at the young age of 40, and even through the tragedy and loss, knew the importance of continuing the nonviolence legacy. In the decades after her husband’s assassination, she devoted her time and energy to developing social programs, establishing the Martin Luther King, Jr. Center in Atlanta, and fiercely working to secure Dr. King’s birthday as a national holiday that many use as a day of service. In doing these things, she established her own legacy as a civil rights leader, activist, and coalition builder.

 “What most did not understand then was that I was not only married to the man that I love, but I was also married to the movement that I loved.” – Coretta Scott King

Bishop Vashti McKenzie – Do not be afraid to break barriers, no matter the obstacles

Photo Source: nationalconcilofchurches.us

Bishop McKenzie is a powerful example of breaking barriers by becoming the first woman elected bishop of the AME church.  In a traditionally male-dominated space, she first earned the position as bishop of her denomination among a group of 42 highly qualified candidates, of which only two were women. She later went on to head the AME Church as President of the Council of Bishops. After retiring from that position, she continues serving as head of the National Council of Churches (NCC), an ecumenical religious organization. According to Religion News Service (RNS), the NCC has 37 communions, or member denominations, including Protestant, Orthodox, evangelical, Anglican, historic African American, and peace church traditions.

Speaking about her recent role as head of the NCC to the publication, The Presbyterian Outlook, “The more I delved into it, took a deeper dive into advocacy and activism work and, of course, unity, and ecumenism, the more I saw needed to be done and wanted to do. I’ve always had a passion for justice work.” Bishop McKenzie is no stranger to activism, as it was ingrained in her upbringing. Her parents actively participated in the Civil Rights movement and even took her to the historic March on Washington. Bishop McKenzie has been a role model for many women to follow the call to lead despite gender and racial barriers.

Shirley ChisolmMake space for yourself; don’t wait for others to do it for you.

Photo Source: womenshistory.org

Shirley Chisolm is a good example of creating space for yourself. She was the first Black woman elected to Congress in the United States in 1968 and went on to serve seven terms. During her time in Congress, she introduced legislation that benefited racial and gender equality. She also became a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus. She was also the first Black woman candidate to run for the presidential nomination of a major party. 

As the first Black woman in Congress, she faced much adversity and pushback. Regardless of these challenges, she still made her mark on history and reminds us not to wait for permission or invitation to be real change-makers. 

“If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring in a folding chair.” – Shirley Chisolm. 

Rosalind Brewer Make waves while in a position of power. 

Photo Source: forbes.com

Rosalind provides a great example of succeeding in the face of adversity and making an impact.  She has held top leadership positions, including CEO and COO of companies like Walgreens and Starbucks. Other career highlights include being the only Black woman on Amazon’s board and Sam’s Club’s first Black woman CEO. She is also a  first-generation college graduate with a chemistry degree from Spelman College. 

During her time as Starbucks COO, she responded to a racist event at a Starbucks location by personally 

apologizing to the people affected and shutting down every store for a day to hold racial bias and sensitivity training. Black women are so rare in C-suite positions that they may hesitate to make waves. Bold endeavors like this one are a great example of making your presence known and felt. 

“You get mistaken a lot. You get mistaken as someone who could actually not have that top job. Sometimes, you’re mistaken for kitchen help. Sometimes people assume you’re in the wrong place, and all I can think in the back of my head is, ‘No, you’re in the wrong place.’”

 – Rosalind Brewer

Black women in leadership face adversity but possess incredible strength, resilience, and determination. By learning how to navigate challenges, we can make our own spaces and make a real impact. 

So, how do we cultivate a healthy identity as Black women who lead in the face of cultural stereotypes and bias? In my next post, I  will offer guidance on developing identity-based habits that will help you lead from a healthy place.

Happy Black History Month!


  1. Yolanda Harris

    What an inspiring and empowering article about Black women trailblazers! I absolutely love this!

  2. BrenAda Williams


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