While often overlooked, empathy has become an increasingly vital skill for leaders in today’s business. Not only can be it be paramount for making operations flow smoothly, but research has shown that it’s important for fostering innovation, employee engagement and retention and inclusivity.
Tatiana Ferreira, SVP of customer service excellence and East region integrated retail at Neiman Marcus Group, knows firsthand how important empathy is for empowering her colleagues to success — particularly those of color.
“From a personal perspective, there’ve been many instances when others wouldn’t stick up for something that was really important to me,” said Ferreira, who is Brazilian and feels she’s faced prejudice in the workplace because of her ethnicity. “So I promised myself that I once I became a leader, I would never allow for that to happen if I were in the room.”
A 2019 study from Glassdoor shows that 42% of U.S. employees have experienced some form of racism in the workplace, where advancement has remained difficult for people of color. According to data from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, Black people make up just 3% of executive roles, Asians 6% and Hispanics 4% (who, as of 2019, are the largest minority group in the U.S.)
Speaking more specifically of the biases she’s encountered, Ferreira — whose first language is Portuguese — shared, “When you’re from a different country, sometimes there’s this assumption that your comprehension is diminished because of the language barrier, which in many cases is not correct. Early in my career, I really felt like I had to prove myself and was held to a higher standard of perfect grammar and communication than some of my peers were.”
She continued, “Someone may revert to a comment like, ‘Oh, maybe you didn’t understand my English or Spanish,’ if I would bring something up in a meeting or disagree with something someone said. And the fact was that I actually did understand them perfectly; they would use those things as a way to undermine my contribution, whether it was conscious or unconscious.”
Ferreira, who lived in São Paolo and attended university there until the age of 20, moved to the U.S. to earn her MBA in business administration at Rollins College in Orlando, before landing a job as an event manager and translator at Walt Disney World. After pivoting careers, she’s since moved her way up through the fashion industry, holding a variety of high-power positions at major retail companies like Louis Vuitton (for whom she’s occupied roles in both the U.S. and Mexico) and Stuart Weitzman, before joining NMG.
Despite encountering prejudices in the workplace because of her background, she also notes that in other ways, it’s enabled her to thrive professionally.
“Throughout my formative years, I gained a better understanding of other points of views,” she said of growing up in Brazil, which, according to Minority Rights Group International, is home to over 305 ethnicities. “Having such a diverse perspective, I wasn’t afraid to say yes to roles in different industries and different countries, that opened new doors for me. I also believe it made me more aware of the biases, prejudices and the very real fact that not everyone has had the same access to the same opportunities.”
Additionally, she credits her professional growth to having the support of mentors, which she believes are crucial for bolstering people of color.
“It’s invaluable to have someone that has faced some of the same obstacles that you have and that you can speak to about those challenges in a vulnerable way, while also learning how to handle them,” she said. “And mentorship doesn’t have to just be one-on-one with a single person. When you’re reading or listening to something, you can identify with those experiences as well. I think when you’re hearing these different stories, you learn there is more than one way to be successful and that nothing [in life] is really easy — which gives you the fuel to not give up.”
Working in an environment that supports diversity, such as NMG, according to Ferreira, is also key.
Last year, as conversations around racial inequality were pushed to the forefront following national unrest over police brutality against Black people, NMG launched a spate of diversity initiatives. In addition to instituting a program that regularly measures and reports its DE&I performance, the company debuted its Executive Leadership Development Series, led by diversity expert Dr. Katrice Albert, to educate NMG executives on topics like cultural intelligence and diversifying talent in hiring. It also introduced its Belonging Advisory Council, a speaker series open to all associates.
What’s more, to honor Hispanic Heritage Month, NMG has partnered with Prospanica, or the National Association of Hispanic MBAs, to help the company build a pool of Hispanic and Latinx talent and support recruitment throughout the year. In 14 Neiman Marcus stores across the country, dedicated window displays will showcase styles by Hispanic and Latinx designers including, but not limited to, Manolo Blahnik, Oscar de la Renta, Narcisco Rodriquez and Gabriela Hearst — who joined NMG for an exclusive Zoom fireside chat (open to employees only) on Oct. 7 to discuss her heritage and its influence on her designs and the fashion industry as a whole.
Additionally, NMG subsidiary Bergdorf Goodman will spotlight various Latinx creatives weekly as part of its “Voices of Now” Instagram series, including model and influencer Genai Nakama and designers Johanna Ortiz and Maria Cornejo.
Ferreira, who names many of these designers as her biggest inspirations, said she ultimately chooses to see the glass half full when it comes to her own career and how she can use her platform to uplift other Hispanic and Latinx individuals in the fashion industry.
“I always aim to enhance my strengths and what I can bring to the table, versus focusing too much on where the disadvantage is or was,” Ferreira said. “Of course, there are biases and barriers you have to be aware of. But with the awareness, you can take action and position yourself in the right place [to bolster yourself and others]. I think that as a Latina and as a woman, that’s incredibly important. Ask yourself not only how you can better highlight your strengths to the team, but also what your role is in breaking those biases or barriers.”