Each year, the ATHENA Young Professional Leadership Award is given to an emerging leader who demonstrates excellence in their career and devotion to improving the community through serving as role models for other young women.
This year’s recipient is Mary Owusu, vice president (partner), director of digital strategy and analytics at the Buffalo office of Mower (formerly Eric Mower + Associates).
She is also an adjunct professor of marketing at the Wehle School of Business at Canisius College where she teaches at the MBA and undergraduate levels. In an environment where STEM fields seem out of reach for many minorities, Owusu has fully embraced the challenge of actively elevating others through her work as an analyst.
Owusu’s commitment to empowering women and people of color in the workplace and community has largely been influenced by her family’s move from Ghana to the U.S. in 1992. Recently, we asked her some questions about her experiences and how they contributed to importance of diversity in her life.
Q: How has your personal story affected the way that you see the world and your view of diversity?
A: I was born and raised in Ghana where nearly everyone is black. So, for the first decade of my life, I was not a minority. When my family – two parents, five kids – moved to the U.S. in 1992, we knew immediately that things were different here. We were new, poor, black, African and had the accents to prove it.
After about 10 years, my parents returned to Ghana under circumstances beyond their control, leaving behind all five of us children. So, at 21, while I was wrapping up college, I was also fighting immigration battles to keep my younger siblings from being deported.
The years that followed were incredibly difficult for all five of us. But through hard work, prayer and the help of a network of friends and strangers, we made it. When you have nothing and you want better, you have to become both vulnerable and strong, leaning on the help of people with different ideas, hearts and plans for how to approach the problem.
My siblings have grown from that experience to become high-achieving career-minded professionals. I appreciate those early years because they opened my eyes to the beauty in people. People are people. And once we start putting labels on them, we lose sight of their value. I embrace diversity because I’ve seen firsthand its ability to nurture the soul and bring solutions to complex problems…whether those solutions only affect a small family from Ghana, or the world at large.
Q: How does your own identity impact your work with a diverse staff and student body?
A: As a black immigrant African woman, I can check nearly all of our society’s “minority” boxes. In nearly every business setting or function, I am one of a few minorities in the room. And I am okay with that. We live in a society where the population of racial and ethnic minorities is rapidly growing. What’s exciting about that is that with diversity often comes diversity of thought. Because I am a black immigrant African woman, I’ve had unique experiences that allow me to bring different creative thinking to a problem. The same can be said about a white man, white woman, native American or anyone really.
Our diversity is an advantage to one another because homogeneous teams create homogeneous thinking which is a barrier to innovation, viability, and personal and corporate growth. As you know, I work for Mower – an advertising, marketing and public relations agency – and our founder, Eric Mower, is deeply committed to diversity and inclusion. Several folks at Mower are actively involved in promoting diversity and inclusion initiatives because we realize that the advertising industry is very white – and that can only be changed by talking about it and then doing something about it.
Professionally, one of the ways I contribute to the solution is by being a speaker at major digital marketing and analytics conferences. Many people have told me that it’s empowering to see me on stage because people like me are uncommon at such conferences. I put myself out there because I want to encourage people that they too can defy all odds.
I also teach digital marketing and analytics to undergraduate and MBA students at Canisius College, and in that capacity, I feel it is my responsibility to be myself with these students: tell them my story and connect meaningfully with them. I measure myself by my ability to convince them that a career in digital marketing and analytics is available to them regardless of their background and experiences.
Through both my work and my teaching, I take personal responsibility for continuously educating myself on diversity and inclusion, and then sharing that knowledge both through my actions and my words. Whether we’re in the business of marketing, manufacturing, research, education, medicine, or whatever it may be, our ability to creatively and collectively come up with new ways of doing things depends on our commitment to embracing diverse thinking into our work. And that cannot come from the individual; it must come from the collective whole.
Q: What diversity and inclusion challenges are facing the STEM fields?
A: Many people might be surprised to learn that globally, women are fairly well-represented across the occupations of statistics, analytics and mathematics. That said, I’ll be quick to point out that equal numbers do not necessarily equate to equal opportunity. Female analysts are less likely than their male counterparts to be visible in publications, at conference podiums and in the media. We have a significant pay gap compared to our male counterparts for the same roles. And we are significantly less likely to have the top analyst title within our companies.
Black females have it much worse than their white counterparts. As a matter of fact, the Women in the Workplace report found that when companies take a one-size-fits-all approach to advancing women, women of color end up under-served and left behind – and black women specifically have it the worst.
To help solve this, we have to do better at not only encouraging more women and minorities to enter STEM fields but also nurturing their growth once they’re there. We have to work with our schools to introduce STEM and STEAM education sooner and more consistently throughout the early years of education and beyond. And in the workplace, if we can all commit to either calling out bias when we see it, being a mentor to someone, and/or educating ourselves on the economic and societal payoffs that parity affords to ALL of us, we will help our places of employment achieve better fiscal outcomes which oftentimes get passed on to us. The fiscal benefits of diversity to businesses has been proven time and time again by research organizations like McKinsey&Company and the World Economic Forum.
Q: How do you encourage people to honor the uniqueness of each individual?
A: Be willing to acknowledge and understand that inequalities exist. Call out bias when you see it. Show up at the table, listen and take action in whatever way you can.
Inequality is not a black vs. white issue nor a man vs. woman issue. It’s an “us” issue. Surrounding ourselves with diverse people leads to less homogeneous thinking, more fact checking, better decisions, more innovation, and ultimately, a stronger, better, smarter world. The way we get there is to invest in our part of the solution. Decide to make a shift. Decide to be part of the solution – that’s a lesson we all can take on regardless of who we are.