Mentorship, networking, and finding your support system

Zoom photo of Alex and Yasna
Zoom photo of Alex and Yasna

Yasna, a junior at Columbia University, studying philosophy and sustainable development. In addition to my studies, I am the author of Werk Your Net, a book that focuses on bridging the network gap between marginalized communities and higher institutions. I recently connected with McKinsey to set up a discussion with one of their senior Black women leaders, Alex Wood.

Alex is an associate partner based in New York. I wanted to learn how she navigated her education and career choices and hear her advice about building long-term relationships with mentors.

Prior to joining McKinsey, Alex was the chief operating officer of a fashion technology company. She developed an artificial intelligence unit within a global advertising and media holding group. She also managed operations and logistics for a multi-billion-dollar industrial supplier and attended culinary school.

I was excited to interview Alex as I found her path inspiring. She’s a testament to how far aspiring professionals from marginalized communities, like myself, can go and what we are capable of achieving despite still being heavily underrepresented in higher institutions. Alex’s position allows her to be seen and heard, which enables her to impact infrastructure in our society.

I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I enjoyed speaking with Alex.

Yasna: How did your upbringing influence your personal philosophy and decision making throughout your education and career?

Alex: I was born in New York City to a Haitian immigrant mom, who came to the States in 1971. My dad migrated from South Carolina to Queens. From very early on, I was surrounded by diverse neighbors and friends who shaped my view of the world. I learned there were fundamental things that made us human, united us as a family, and gave us a shared sense of purpose. I've always found energy working with people from different backgrounds, learning about their traditions and cultures. I believe the most important thing is building that one-to-one human connection because often we're far more alike than we realize.

Yasna: I also grew up in Jamaica, Queens! My dad is Trinidadian and my mom is Japanese so I was always surrounded by so many people from different backgrounds.

So, next question. As a Black woman in a senior position, how do you tackle burnout, high expectations, and microaggressions. What is a strategy you wished you knew earlier in your career.

Alex: In the first bucket regarding burnout, it’s about setting boundaries and keeping to them. This is something I should have done earlier. Sometimes you have to prioritize your own wellbeing. Make time to do things that energize you. For me, it’s cooking, exercising, or just calling a friend or colleague to talk. Sometimes work can wait a bit; not everything is urgent.

My second piece of advice is to find people at work who will help you. Especially as you build more relationships in your career, you’ll find folks who really want to do just that. When you tap into those networks and relationships you can take the burden off bearing it all by yourself. Let them introduce you to others who might have knowledge you might need, help you problem solve, cover meetings for you, etc.

As for how to get through microaggressions, teach yourself not to take it personally. Over time, I have come to understand they are not about me. They're a reflection of something the other person is projecting onto me, whether or not they understand it. Even in the moment, remember that what someone says doesn't necessarily speak to your worth or value as a human being. That's something I could have done a better job of adopting earlier on. Therapy, meditation, and my personal mentors have helped give me the tools to cope on a day-to-day basis.

Yasna: You shared that one of the ways you are handling burnout is cooking. How did your time at culinary school play a role in your success?

Alex: Culinary school is one of the most random, but enjoyable things I've done. My former employer actually paid for me to go to culinary school. I figured it was the only time in my life I’d have the opportunity to try out an area of passion on someone else’s financial sponsorship. I enjoyed it so much, I left my full-time job (on good terms) during the tail end of culinary school.

The two biggest lessons I learned from culinary school were more tactical:

1. Be very organized: it helps you deal with unexpected situations. When you're working in a kitchen, you chop your vegetables and prep ingredients in advance. Then, as you’re cooking, you clean all the surfaces. That way, if somebody changes their order last minute or messes up a dish, you have much more space to deal with it. That's more profound than I thought it was. You have your house in order, so when unexpected things happen, you can address them more easily.

2. Think multiple steps ahead: In the kitchen, you're constantly multitasking. You might be cooking a pasta dish that includes a sauce, noodle, and protein. You are constantly thinking about the sequence. It’s a bit of an art and science, and it won’t always be perfect, but thinking like you're playing a chess game also helps you to cope with the unexpected.

Yasna: What is your favorite thing to cook?

Alex: Being a Haitian American, I really love making a soup called Joumou. We make it every January 1, which happens to be Haitian Independence Day. Haitians weren't allowed to have it before they fought for their freedom from France.

Yasna: That sounds amazing. My roommate is Haitian. I haven’t had the soup but, I'm going to ask her for some next time. She's a great cook. Are there any pivotal moments from your time working at McKinsey? Tell me about the most memorable mentorship example you've had.

Alex: I'd never worked in consulting before McKinsey. I came from running a digital solution. A few months in, I was still learning the basic McKinsey consulting toolkit and was heading to a training in London. I knew a partner who was based there. We took the opportunity to catch up in person. I told them, “I want to immerse myself in a traditional McKinsey project, like designing a merger integration program – physically on site with the client, working hand-in-hand to build and implement.” They responded, “Okay great. I have a project, starting on Monday. Half of it is in London, half of it is in Tokyo. Do you want to join the team?&rdquo

I lived in the same four dresses I had originally packed, flying between London and Tokyo on one of the most intense projects I've ever done! Still, this mentor went out on a limb for me. He had no idea what I would be like with his clients, but he gave me the opportunity to try, and I will never forget that.

Yasna: What do you think he saw in you that made him give you that chance?

Alex: I think he saw a commitment to learning. I wasn’t coming into the firm from business school or undergrad, and I think he saw my desire, regardless of my past experiences, to fully immerse myself in understanding the client’s problems, how to interact with them, McKinsey’s methodology, etc.

Yasna: Now that you are also a mentor, what advice would you give other junior-tenured Black women?

Alex: Prioritize your own wellbeing; that is the foundation for your success. You're still going to work hard, have some late nights, do things that make you tired. But that should be in the service of achieving your goals and helping your clients. There's no pride in saying, “I worked all weekend, and I'm hustling all the time.” I think especially as a Black person and a Black woman, it's so important to prioritize your own wellbeing as there are additional layers of stress you may face.

Coupled with that, learn to forgive yourself when you're not perfect or things don’t work out the way you plan. It's fine – life’s an adventure. No one knows what's going to happen.”

Yasna: What are some strategies you use to handle disappointment?

Alex: A few of my favorites are:

1. Giving myself the space to feel bad, acknowledging by disappointment and unmet expectations, and reminding myself that my feelings are valid.

2. Trying to understand oftentimes things happen for a reason. There were other jobs to which I applied before McKinsey. I’m glad I didn't get them, because I wouldn't have come to the firm, and I really enjoy the role I’m in.

Yasna: As a Black woman and perfectionist myself, I’m often asked to speak on behalf of my people, and it’s hard to do that without being hard on myself. As you were saying, it's important to allow yourself to be sad and to remember you are human.

Leading into our final question… What does McKinsey's Black Network mean to you? Could you tell me how that community has supported you throughout your career.

Alex: The McKinsey Black Network is a space for Black colleagues around the firm to come together. Half the time, we problem solve things that we might be facing or events happening around us at the time. There have been multiple instances where something has happened in society; it's an emotional situation for Black colleagues but that stress or emotional pain isn't necessarily felt at the same level by our broader colleagues. The Black Network comes together for townhalls or members reach out to each other to provide support. It really helps.

This network offers a safe space and reminds us that you're not alone in what you’re feeling.

Yasna: In my case, I got in touch with a member from McKinsey after I posted an article I wrote on LinkedIn. We all have potential to become the best version of ourselves. However, our achievements are tied to how strong our support systems are. Sometimes the first step is reaching out and showing that you are available to be a thought partner. As a mentee, it means being proactive in finding new opportunities and being confident enough to know you deserve it.

More about Alex: Alex is an associate partner and senior solution leader at McKinsey. Alex serves clients transforming their organizations through advanced analytics, behavioral science, and digital platforms. Alex earned her bachelor of arts in government and French from Harvard University. A native New Yorker, Alex speaks French, Spanish, and Haitian Creole.

More about Yasna: Yasna is a junior at Columbia University, a musical composer, and the author of Werk Your Net. She is Japanese and Afro-Caribbean-American and grew up between New York and Seattle.

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