Sonya Jackson: The Journey to Finding Your Agency

Sonya Jackson, Chief Experience Officer, Bonfire


By Laura Moy

While you may not be surprised by the following workplace statistics, starting with this data paints a backdrop for the greater picture. For every 100 men promoted to manager, 72 women are, so men end up holding 62 percent of manager positions, while women hold only 38 percent (McKinsey, 2019, p. 10). You can imagine for women of color this statistic is even lower, for every 100 entry-level men who are promoted to manager, just 68 Latinas and 58 Black women are promoted (McKinsey, 2019, p. 10).

Des Moines, Iowa native, Sonya Jackson has been breaking glass ceilings for more than 25 years. A few of her accolades include: named to Savoy Magazine’s “Top 100 Most Influential Blacks in Corporate America” and “Top 100 Most Influential Women in Corporate America”, named to Today’s Chicago Woman’s, “100 Women Making A Difference in Chicago” and she has been recognized with the Chicago Defender’s “Women of Excellence Award.”

From serving as President of United Airlines Foundation to holding the position of Senior Global Business Adviser for BP’s Foundation, Sonya is a trailblazer for women, people of color and native small towners alike. She is currently Chief Experience Officer for Bonfire, a company whose goal is to give all women the power to rise up in the modern workforce. During our interview Sonya shared impactful insights on the state of diversity, inclusion and equity in the public relations industry, career tips for young professionals and countless stories of standing up for the unheard voices.

Career Advice & Tips:

1. Be Present.
In recent years, society has romanticized hustle culture – where young professionals believe they’re only successful if they’re working around the clock and getting little to no sleep. As this trend continues upward, the message of living in the now could not be more important. Sonya shared a powerful, personal story of losing two of her closest friends and the lesson she learned about being present. After the passing of her first friend, Sonya had a breakthrough that she was watching her life instead of living it. When the unfortunate second time came around Sonya was 100 percent present in the loss of her second friend. It is vital for young professionals to realize their personal relationships and life should not be runner up to promotions, money and the corner office.

2. Know your go & no-go’s.
Before applying to jobs write a list of the values a company must uphold, and a list of deal breakers – these are your go and no-go’s. For example, if you do not agree with big tobacco and the major health risks they encourage this would be a no-go for you. This may seem like an obvious no-go but when put in the situation of more money versus integrity it is vital to know where your values lie.

3. Lip service or Authentic values.
It’s no secret that Millennials are interviewing a workplace as much as the workplace is interviewing them nowadays. Because companies know this about Millennials, I asked Sonya, “When interviewing how do you know whether the company truly values D&I or it’s just window dressing?” First, before the interview look at the senior leadership team on their website as this lends a true look into if they walk the walk. Second, share your point of view in the interview and let the company know authentic diversity practices are a priority. Third, ask the interviewer what the company’s policies and practices are around diversity and inclusion. At the end of her answer Sonya stated, “You have to be willing to step in, stand up, speak up and use your voice.”

4. People don’t know what they don’t know.
In the diversity and inclusion conversation people often forget you do not know what you do not know. Sonya made the powerful point that with diversity and inclusion you have to bring senior leadership and C-Suite executives into the conversation. Diversity and inclusion are about educating, from the top down, through diverse candidates sharing their experiences with adversity, sharing the history of systematic practices that do not allow an equitable playing field for all and showing that data proves the value and success diverse employees bring to the table. It is not about confrontation, rather education that will get the modern workplace to reflect the diverse reality you live in.

5. When you have agency, you have the power to stand up.
The ongoing theme in the interview was Sonya’s dedication to the power of agency. When women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community and other marginalized groups find their voices they will not go unheard. For young professionals entering the workforce, learn your go and no-go’s, use your voice to start a conversation around D&I and know when you find your agency you will have the power to stand up.

Now go out, find your agency and create a workplace where diversity and inclusion can flourish.

Laura Moy is currently a DePaul University Graduate student who – when not grinding – loves playing volleyball, yoga and most importantly sharing photos of her two dogs. This is the first in a series of profiles written by DePaul PR & Advertising graduate students who researched and interviewed communication leaders as part of a unique D&I course based on the book Diverse Voices: Profiles in Leadership.

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