Pride of being a strong, black, 50+ woman

Sueli Nascimento

Localization Product Manager Brazil | Business Women’s Network Leader

Although the Brazilian population is mostly black or mixed (50.7%) and female (51.4%) per the 2010 census, the corporate world is somewhat different. Survey results by Instituto Ethos and the Inter-American Development Bank are quite alarming: Only 4.7% of leadership roles are held by black employees, and 13.6%, by women. The numbers are even lower for black female leaders. That's why Sueli likes to describe herself as the embodiment of diversity: She prides herself on being a 52-year-old black woman – or 50+, as she likes to say – and occupying a management position in a large technology company.

Sueli was born in São José do Rio Preto, a city in the state of São Paulo, about 440 kilometers from the capital, the daughter of a tailor and a housewife. She studied in one of the best public schools in the region and learned the importance of responsibility and independence from an early age. As a child, she would hear her mother tell her that by the time she turned 17, she would have to leave home, which is precisely what she did.

Sueli and her brother left their hometown and moved to São Paulo, one of the largest cities in the world. She inherited her mother’s creativity and passion for art, and her father’s work ethics, sense of humor, and self-confidence. A few years later, she got two degrees from one of the best private universities in the country. She graduated in Fine Arts and Data Processing and moved on with graduate school to pursue a master's degree in Human Resources. She worked for several companies until she joined SAP over 20 years ago. Ten years ago, she began teaching.

Drag the mouse to check out the before and after pictures of Sueli's wall.

Along the way, Sueli realized there were not many people around like her, but it took her a while to discover that race and gender were the main reasons why. She’d been completely unaware of the existence of racism, even when it was everywhere around her: In her hometown’s “white only” club; in the offer to work as a maid she got from a lady who lived in the same upscale neighborhood; and in the insults she received from a woman who’d hit her car and kept asking her, the “little black girl,” to pay for the damages.

Whenever I faced these situations back then, I failed to understand that they were all due to racism. I get it now.

However, the moment she heard a close friend of hers, who happened to be black, deny her own ethnicity, that’s when it hit her. Her friend wouldn’t acknowledge her true identity because she feared she wouldn’t have the same opportunities as her white colleagues. This must have been back in 2000, when the discussion about university ethnic quotas began to take shape in Brazil. “I wanted to understand what it was about. I talked with friends from the U.S. to find out what’d happened there when it was implemented. In 2004, when the first university in Brazil adopted the system, I already had all the information necessary to know I had to be in favor, for the sake of opportunity and justice, and for my friend to be able to embrace her ethnicity,” she said.

Sueli did not let anything shake the basis of her self-esteem, much less her pride in being a black woman. “I came from a family of very strong women,” she said. Most of my male relatives passed away early on in life, and so women took over and were responsible for our family's livelihood. Sueli led for many years the Business Women’s Network, an SAP employee network group that addresses gender equality in the workplace and helps create and maintain an inclusive environment for both men and women. Currently, Sueli leads Ethnicities@SAP, the employee network group that focuses on underrepresented ethnic minorities.

Besides gender and race, Sueli is also fascinated by age. When she was 15, she lost her maternal grandfather, who was 95. Since then, the matter of aging intrigues her. So much so that in 2009, she began a postgraduate course in geropsychology, to better understand the aging process. This is a relevant topic for diversity and inclusion. “I want to know how to be inclusive of those who are over 50 and wish to stay at work, as well as ensure that they get along well with their younger counterparts. If we have a diverse workforce, our company will be enabled to perform in global markets that also are diverse,” she argues, as the embodiment of diversity she prides herself on being part of.

Address of graffiti art: 420, Frei Caneca St. - Consolação | Sao Paulo, Brazil