An Interview with Crystal German, Prosperity Labs


Crystal German, Principal, Prosperity Labs

Community-centric. Fierce. Committed.

Prosperity Labs

Crystal German

If there was a headline for your leadership journey throughout your career, what would it be?

I was raised in an environment of appropriateness. You don’t realize how much your parents and family upbringing will shape who you are when it comes to the business world. Despite being reared in a household of moderate means, there was an emphasis on appropriate and proper behavior. What would be the appropriate way to enter into this room and the appropriate way to engage? For me that background can be a help and also a stressor. It helps because if you read the room well and understand the norms of a situation, you can usually get a warm reception. But it can also be hindrance if you become obsessed with appropriate and proper and being defined by others. (Crystal German pictured at right.)

This is a Debbie Downer, but my headline would be, “Are we tilting at windmills?” It’s a reference to Don Quixote, which questions whether our efforts are in vain. The idea is a question about whether the work that I’m doing — that we’re doing collectively — is enough. Are we moving the ball fast enough, far enough, or quick enough?

Leaders and experts in economic inclusion get tapped all the time for the work that we’ve done. There is value in the models we’ve created to build out ecosystems for minority communities and we know the work is being used by the market, but that same market has devalued the contributions of people of color since the beginning of time. Using the market as a barometer for success is a fallacy for me. Asking the same system that creates the problems I address to validate my work is a circular problem. I wonder if we are going at this all wrong. My work is to create equitable economic development solutions, yet the system that is responsible for creating the problems that require my firm’s solutions pays for the work we are doing.

This headline is larger than my career, but my career hasn’t been about me in the last 16 years. It has been around creating change — lasting change, shifting behaviors, shifting ecosystems — and momentum around who gets to sit at the table, eat at the table, and decide what’s on the menu. For me, the headline is less about jobs I have had or tasks accomplished and more about whether we have really shifted the conversation. Have the tides begun to change a little? I am one person in a sea of others doing similar work. It’s a larger statement around the work that I and others are engaged in and the impact that we have or have not created in the last 40 years.

What are some of your career highlights?

I view that question in two ways. First, as bullet points on a resume that you would rattle off to others to validate your professional experience. The work I’ve done for the last 16 years has been around creating equity around wealth creation, asset building, entrepreneurship participation, and real estate as a form of asset building. There are widely held metrics for what it means to create impact in the economic development space. Highlights that come to mind are when my teams have been recognized in national publications or our work has been replicated in other communities.

The second way I think of highlights is personal victories. For example, the first time I was able to give a presentation or speech, walk off the stage, and I wasn’t replaying all the mistakes I made in the presentation. Rather I walked off and felt really good about the information I conveyed and how it was received. I was happy to think I might have motivated one person in the audience to think differently.

Another personal highlight is the first time I owned my space in a way that felt good to me that wasn’t intimidating or off-putting (to others), but also encouraged others to own their space at the same time. This is a skill that I haven’t mastered yet.

Owning the space is about what’s happening inside of me and also what is happening outside of me. That moment when you make a comment or series of comments that result in head nods can become the launch pad for somebody else’s brilliance to shine through. It’s different from when a comment is made and someone dismisses it, speaks over it, or repeats it as if you never said it. Owning the space (for me) represents a hyper-focus on the inclusion of that voice and not just the sentiment that is being expressed. There’s nonverbal and verbal acknowledgement that it resonated, which then takes the conversation to a different level where people are feeding off of what I said in a way that is less about acknowledging me, but the truth that was in my words.

Bullet points on my resume will change, but what is consistent is dedication to my professional and personal growth and that impact will grow as a result of who I am in the work that I do.

What are your favorite types of challenges?

I’m a data person, a numbers person. Before working in this field, I did corporate finance. I like challenges where I look at data and use it in a way that can illuminate some of the obstacles and opportunities that exist in developing and implementing a solution. People like to think of data as being objective, but data is far from objective. Who collected the data? Who set the parameters around what data would be collected? Who developed the algorithm for the data? There are so many places where numbers are manipulated — not always in a nefarious way, but in the manner data is collected. I like to get at the fundamental questions often obscured by data.

What is one book that was meaningful or influential in your development as a leader?

I’m an avid reader. I have a goal to read 48 books this year. I read a number of different topics, but no self-help books. I prefer to read someone else’s stories and glean lessons from that.

When our family joins a new community, the first thing we get are library cards at the public library. The public library is a critical anchor institution in many communities; we further contribute to the libraries’ foundations. Libraries are a meeting place, a place of comfort and escape. It’s one of the “great information equalizers” with relatively low barriers to access.

Reading has been a critical part of my development ever since I was a child. I read lots of autobiographies and biographies. I’m not a big fan of Rudy Giuliani as a person or his politics, but I found his book (Leadership) to be an extraordinary example of strong and decisive leadership and what to do in a time of crisis (September 11th attacks).

On the other end of spectrum, The Last Black Unicorn by Tiffany Haddish had so many nuggets. If you are not put off by profane language, there were so many life lessons applicable to the workplace. She didn’t set out to teach a lesson; she was telling her story.

I recently read Born a Crime: Stories from a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah, which personalized the effects of institutional and systematic racism and classism that mirror this country in so many ways.

I enjoy books that bring to life our societal problems and give me greater understanding about their complexities. I just finished Missoula: Rape and the Justice System in a College Town by John Krakauer, which is about a college town and how the justice system addressed or didn’t address incidents of sexual assault.

Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Matthew Desmond explores what happens when you get trapped in a cycle of eviction and what it does to families and communities. It’s about the system: things at play that maintain the cycle of eviction that could be changed through policy and advocacy. My reading goes between books written by and about people — life, workplace, interpersonal lessons from them — to interesting stories and accounts around experiences or systems that I’m completely ignorant about. My next book to read is written by a close friend, Dr. Robin Martin, called Navigating Courage, which chronicles her professional journey in athletics and academia, two areas I know nothing about!

Work in the social sector can be very personal and linked to one’s values. Can you think of a time when your values were in tension during your career and how you reconciled that tension or not?

I have been blessed to have amazing leaders and work for amazing people. They have all given me the space to grow and at the same time were clear that they had my back in case of a misstep. As a boss and a leader, that’s the best that you can give an employee. The times that there were tensions were few and far between, but that may be because I have worked at organizations that were mission-driven and I believed in the work and their leadership.

A mentor once said to me, “No permanent enemies, no permanent friends, just permanent interests,” which really resonated with me. If you stop looking at coworkers or partner organizations or clients as an ally or enemy but focus on interests, then the work can go further. It can also create strange bedfellows and you need to be prepared to answer any critics. Having permanent interests helps to relieve some of that tension.

Summer 2017, Democratic Representative Maxine Waters coined the phrase, “reclaiming my time,” as she thwarted Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin’s attempts to waste her time with nonsense.  Can you share an experience in the workplace where you have had to reclaim your time? What was the context? How did you navigate it? What was the outcome?

I’m sure that I have spent my time on things where I didn’t think there was any value. I’ve probably asked people to spend time on things they thought were a waste. I haven’t had a lot of times in the context of Representative Waters. Her context was an instance of people usurping her authority, power, and voice, and in that, taking away her opportunity to speak which is different to me than if I have spent time doing things that I feel have limited value.

Some people don’t want you to be heard, they don’t value your voice — they think it’s a distraction at best or hindrance at worst. That is different than a person in the room who has more insights than you, has different perspective, and is telling you “not right now.” Knowing the difference between someone who is saying “never” and “not right now” matters. Understanding that the person saying “not right now” may also be willing to help you when the time is right matters.

I’m a proud graduate of Florida A&M University (FAMU) — a proud graduate of a Historically Black College and University (HBCU). I went into the workplace full of, “I am here. You will recognize the greatness, the shoulders I stand on, the kings and queens that came before me and birthed me.” I credit FAMU for helping me to recognize my worth but I had way too much confidence for what I was actually bringing to table at 21 years old. Shortly after starting my first job, a senior person said I was taking up too much space and suggested that I share every third comment that comes to mind. I was offended and felt like he put me in a corner. When I later reflected, he was exactly right. He was telling me, “not right now.” I was too inexperienced to know I was not adding value with my comments but with mentorship and support and time, I became a welcomed team member.

When it happened twenty years later at another organization, I think the person had old-school notions around women and people of color in the workplace. The intent wasn’t to say, “Wait, I’ll help and support you in getting your points across.” They were speaking from a place of fear and trying to put that fear into me. The environment needed to be shook up. My voice needed to be heard. Leadership in the organization was not used to the level of experience, authority, acumen, and understanding I spoke with coming from someone who looked like me.

There’s nuance. It may be a jerk trying to take away your power. Other times you have people with great intentions.

What’s your approach to self-care? Are there any rituals you use to survive and thrive?

Ever since I launched my own firm, I take Tuesday and Friday afternoons off. I try not to schedule any meetings or calls to the extent possible. Part of that is about self-care, but also life management. I don’t work any less hours throughout the week but being able to unplug for those few hours twice a week is invaluable to me and the way I am able to re-engage and plug back in. Friday afternoons allow me to unplug before the weekend begins. Prior to adopting these half days, I found it was Saturday afternoon before I had really unplugged from work. The weekend was half over before I was really enjoying myself. Half-day Friday allows my weekend to be one where I get to enjoy my house, my household, and my family. There’s always work to be done but those urgent and pressing things will rob you of the ability to enjoy the people around you.

Tuesday afternoons are about doing something for me. I’m a big movie watcher at the theatre with the big screen, my slushy, popcorn, and nachos.

At the theatre, my phone is off which allows me to immerse myself and focus on some entertainment that has nothing to do the system-level issues my firm works on. I pick nonsense movies that are totally unrealistic with bad one-liners. I don’t do serious movies; I need entertainment that allows me to escape away.

I’m am also blessed to have a husband that buys me spa certificates and indulges me around what I would consider self-care.

I also drink wine. I like wine over exercising any day of the week.

What advice would you offer other Black women trying to develop or amplify their voice and become self-advocates?

Define who you are yourself. My Facebook feed is full of both people of color and white people defining blackness and feminism. It’s amazing to me that everybody is now an authority on what it means to be Black and female. We have gotten to a place where we are hashtagging ourselves to death on things that are much more nuanced. This creates bandwagon identity politics and is a disservice to the complexities that each of us need to explore for ourselves.

I find that I am my most powerful when I am able to step into who I am and call on all of the experiences that give me authority to speak — living my life as a Black person, a woman, a Christian, wife, descendant of sharecroppers, an entrepreneur, a mother, formally educated, and as a social-economic activist. Being able to call on those experiences helps me speak in an authentic way. If everyone can figure out how to do that, and not be defined by other people, to lead with all of who they are and not just one part of who they are, that would be powerful.

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