A year and a half ago, I was interviewed for the cover story of a CEO leadership magazine. I learned I’d be sharing the cover with the likes of retired four-star US general David Petraeus, hedge fund billionaire Leon Cooperman, and Anheuser-Busch US CEO Michel Doukeris, amongst others. As I humbly took in the moment, the interviewer asked what my name, JT, stood for.
“JeVon Thomas,” I told him.
“Oh,” he said, “you’ve got an athlete’s name!”
In that moment, I faced a choice many black professionals face: I could lose my temper on the interviewer and “set him straight” for his ignorant comment, or bite my tongue and still land the cover story. I chose the latter, although it’s a choice I shouldn’t have been forced to make.
People like that interviewer—who later told me how “articulate” I was—are the reason I changed my name from JeVon to JT when I was 21 years old. I figured out early on there were people who would preemptively judge and dismiss me for having a “Black name” like JeVon.
So, I chose to edit myself by becoming “JT.” It was the kind of ethnically ambiguous name I knew would avoid judgment and improve my odds of success.
My experience—which is sadly not unique to me—shows that to fit into an organization, Black people often have to change themselves to avoid making others uncomfortable. If they don’t, they’ll miss out on chances to advance their career, or even to just get one off the ground.
That’s exactly what happened to me.
Change yourself, advance your career
At 21, I was eager to make a name for myself in business. But there was a problem I kept running into: I wasn’t booking meetings or getting many callbacks. Meanwhile, my white colleagues’ phones rang off the hook and their appointment books were overflowing.
I knew I was just as skilled as they were, and their work ethic couldn’t touch mine. So why were they having more success? To find out, I decided to try a little experiment.
I got letterhead printed with “JT McCormick” and erased all traces of the name JeVon. Just like that, my calls started getting returned and my calendar filled up with appointments.
I knew at that point my non-white name had caused me to be denied opportunities. By changing myself to make white people more comfortable, I was able to advance my career.
JeVon McCormick couldn’t get a call back. But JT McCormick was able to climb the corporate ladder all the way to the top: CEO. Was it disheartening to have to take this route?
Yes. Would I do it again? Yes. I have no regrets.
It was an effective strategy for those times—and unfortunately remains so today.
Why our best efforts fail
It’s been 28 years since I made the decision to change my name, yet society as a whole remains largely unchanged when it comes to racial equity in the workplace.
A study by researchers at Northwestern University, Harvard, and the Institute for Social Research in Norway showed that on average, “white applicants receive 36% more callbacks than equally qualified black applicants.” This statistic has shown no improvement over time.
It doesn’t get any better once you’re in the door, either.
A report titled “Being Black in Corporate America,” by the Center for Talent Innovation, found that even though many companies have implemented diversity and inclusion programs, they often do nothing more than erase Black experiences by creating a culture that dictates how to contribute only in ways that white people are comfortable with.
This is not surprising. Black representation at the highest levels of corporate America is abysmal. Black people make up 13.4% of the US population, yet you can literally count on one hand the number of Black CEOs of Fortune 500 companies.
Despite our best efforts to mitigate racism in the workplace, can we really expect sufficient change to occur when the demographic “in charge” has never been discriminated against?
It’s no longer about me
I’m a CEO now, but it wasn’t JeVon who landed that coveted title. It was JT.
What my experience has shown me—and what the facts back up—is that to truly reckon with racism in the American workplace, we as leaders must ask ourselves:
Why do individuals feel the need to edit themselves to fit into our organizations?
For corporate America to be truly diverse and inclusive, we must instead edit our organizations to better fit individuals. That means acknowledging, respecting, and valuing the individual histories and experiences of each team member, rather than asking people to erase what makes them unique for the sake of everyone else’s comfort.
I’ve recently decided that I have to embody the change I want to see in the workplace. I want the next generation of would-be leaders to see I’m a CEO who’s the mixed-race son of a black pimp father—a man who, I learned later, fathered 23 children—and an orphaned white single mother who grew up on welfare in the slums of Dayton, Ohio.
So, I’m reclaiming my name, JeVon, because it’s no longer about me. It’s about those coming after me, and the belief that one day, they’ll work alongside lots of JeVons, and not just JTs, and won’t find it the least bit surprising.