Wande Elam moved to the U.S. from Nigeria one year into college. She worked in Dallas as a bankruptcy lawyer at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, Pronske & Patel, and Shackelford, Bowen, McKinley & Norton before being hired as a tech lawyer at Toyota, where she supports entities, including Toyota Connected, Toyota Motor North America, and the Distress Supplier Task Force.
Below, Elam expresses the importance of representation in the workplace, working against biases, and the power of difference.
Re-Writing the Story People Put on People of Color
“My first week at Pronske & Patel, my boss, Rakhee, gave me a file and said, ‘Hey, why don’t you handle the hearing.’ I still remember looking around thinking, ‘Surely, she’s not talking to me.’ She must be talking to somebody else. She said, ‘No, I’m talking to you. Go handle this hearing. I know you can do it.’ And that was all it took. Just her telling me, ‘I know you can do it.’
“They would do annual reviews, and I would read some of the reviews, and I would think ‘Well, this isn’t right, and I disagree,’ or I had something to add, but I never said anything. I didn’t even realize at that point that I could have entered a rebuttal in my file. I didn’t know that, and nobody ever told me that. Now, whenever I mentor young attorneys, I always tell them, ‘Don’t forget, you can enter a rebuttal in your own file.’
“People a lot of times think that I’m not a lawyer, and I know a lot of Black attorneys and Black women attorneys who have faced this. We had a conference with a number of different parties involved in the conference room, and they thought that I was the person who serves the drinks… It’s been hard because you have to keep fighting that version of a story of yourself that people try to put on you. It’s been a challenge to kind of push back on that.”
“Not having a mentor who looked like me—someone I could look up to—was hard; representation matters, and I didn’t have that in the early years. But thankfully, when I switched over to Pronske & Patel, Rakhee Patel is Indian-American, and she took an active role in mentoring me. She was very proactive in sharing things with me about how to succeed.
“I could tell that [Patel] wanted me to succeed, and she saw me as someone who would eventually become her partner. That was crucial for me. That was the turning point, at least in my mind, for my journey as a young woman of color attorney in Dallas. Having that mentor, and having her support, and having her believe in me.
“One of the reasons I joined Toyota is because I know that the general counsel is a Black woman, Sandra Phillips Rogers. I had heard of her before I joined, and I had seen her speak at events. She inspired me the way that she spoke and the way she carried herself. It was important to me to be at a place where I could see someone who looked like me up high in the ranks.”
Support is Key
“I have colleagues and friends who are in other situations where they’re still struggling, and we support each other. I think that’s what makes all the difference—being able to have people around you who can provide that support.
“After George Floyd was murdered, [Toyota] had a meeting where everybody was able to share how they were doing and how they were feeling. People were honest, and I’ve never had something like that before in the workplace. I felt seen and heard.
“When people feel like the organization cares about them, they will want to give their best. They will want to go above and beyond. They will be energized, and that’s been my experience at Toyota, too: I would go the extra mile for this company. I would go above and beyond, because I know that these people care about me, and the organization makes it a priority to care about its people.”
Strength in Uniqueness
“In the past, when I walked into a room where I was the only Black woman, it gave me a sense of fear. Also, when I opened my mouth to speak, and I had an accent, it made me nervous about how others were perceiving me… As I grew and I learned, I realized how much power exists in my difference, and how empowering it is for me to own myself and my unique quality.
“When I walk in the room now, I am confident. I am thinking about what I can add to the story, because when you have people from diverse perspectives with diversity of thought, you have a more well-rounded story and solutions.
“I remind myself of just how important it is to have my voice. My voice matters. And in the same way, I’m seeking the voices of others. I want to hear the perspectives and thoughts of other people who are not like me, because I think we are better when we all contribute, as opposed to when one person’s voice dominates.
“Your contributions have value. You should have a seat at the table. You should speak up, use your voice. Don’t let anybody tell you differently.”