The Madison-based social entrepreneur and a motivational speaker Sagashus Levingston is known these days as a leader. But there was a time when the founder of Infamous Mothers was headed down a less ambitious path.
"I wanted to be a construction worker," she said, wryly, before a crowd of more than 150 people at the Madison Public Library's Central branch on Wednesday night. "That's because I wanted to stand on the scaffolding and whistle at the men who walked by."
What changed Levingston's path spoke was mentorship — a key theme touched on by all the panelists at the evening's discussion on race and leadership, organized by the Capital Times and the coworking group 100state.
For Levingston, her mentors were the black mothers she saw in her community.
"(They) would say things like, 'Never accept no from someone who's not authorized to tell you no," she said.
For Kaleem Caire, the founder and CEO of Achieve 64 and One City Early Learning Centers, the mentors that helped mold him into a leader were the women who raised him.
"My path to leadership started when my aunt took me in when I was 2 years old," said Caire. "I am the product of 10,000 hands."
City Alder Barbara Harrington-McKinney grew up in Missouri in an era of segregation. She said that for a long time, she didn't think she was "good enough," because no one ever told her otherwise.
"There was something in my belly that I didn't understand," she said. "There was such a hunger. And I didn't understand it. Because I didn't know what mentoring was."
It took the mentorship and support from people at her church to the people at her work to help her unlearn those negative self-conceptions, and unlock her leadership potential.
"My path to leadership started when I started throwing off the 'isms' that people put on you, and all the labels they put on you," she said.
Such stories of how people of color became leaders are salient ones, given the current landscape in Madison. According to a 2016 Madison Region Economic Partnership report, about 95 percent of top-level positions in Madison's workforce are held by white people. There are indications that leadership areas ranging from the judicial bench to the realm of private equity are likewise overwhelmingly white.
One panelist, Israel Lopez, said he sees that lack of diversity from his point of view as an attorney. He recently asked the state bar for numbers on how many business attorneys in Wisconsin were people of color. The answer: 22.
"If you are a young individual and you think affirmative action exists in corporate america, it doesn't," said Lopez.
The discussion on Wednesday focused on how to try to change that dynamic by fostering leadership that breaks the mold. Harrington-McKinney said that often the first step is often assessing who stakeholders are.
"When I'm in a room, and when I'm in a meeting, I look for who's at the table, who's not at the table, and who should be at the table," she said.
After that, she said, it's a question of bringing the right people to the table — and beyond that, "holding their hand" and teaching them how be a leader and stay at the table.
Mayra Medrano, the president of the Latino Chamber of Commerce of Dane County, said a key ingredient of that mentorship is actionable advice.
"It's more than just saying, 'You can do anything that you want,'" said Medrano. "You need someone to tell you, 'You need to take these steps.'"
Medrano and the panelists also observed that fostering diverse leadership often means shifting white attitudes. She said that one thing that continually frustrates her is when her white friends and colleagues ask her "why she's mad."
"Embrace being mad. If you're not mad, there's something wrong with you," she said. "As a woman of color, I am tired of being uncomfortable and having to feel awkward because you feel awkward. Just feel awkward with us."
Harrington-McKinney agreed. "If you are not uncomfortable, then you are not making a difference," she said.
Capital Times education reporter Amber Walker moderated the discussion.