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Most people don’t love working with project managers. “We’re literally stalking people to make sure they do what they need to do on time,” jokes Yolanda Hemphill, Principal Consultant at NTT Data Services. “We’re basically low-key harassing people. Let’s just call a spade a spade!” 

But Hemphill has a unique approach. “People say, ‘Okay Yolanda, I’ll get it done but only because you’re nice!’” 

It’s not just that Hemphill is nice. It’s that she leads with empathy. She prioritizes letting her “light shine” (more on this later). And as a result, Hemphill has reached some exciting milestones, including being named a Charlotte Business Journal Top 40 Under 40 and National Association of Black Accountants (NABA) Southern Region President of the Year. 

Hemphill sat down with us to share her hopes for the financial industry and how she blends her personal passions with her professional ones. 

Did you always know that you wanted to work in finance? 

I did not. When I initially got to college at Mississippi State University, I was majoring in computer engineering. I took my first computer programming class and quickly realized it was not for me. I switched to business because my mom always told me, “You can never go wrong with business.” I took my first accounting class at the College of Business and it came naturally to me. So flawlessly, in fact, that I was like, “Maybe this is meant for me.” I went on to get my undergraduate degree in accounting and my master’s in accounting. 

What do you hope the future of finance and accounting looks like and what do we have to do, or continue doing, to get there? 

My ultimate goal would be for the future of finance to look like the community that it serves. It would be great if the community receiving financial resources could see themselves in the people who are providing those services. How do we get there? I think we continue to do what we’re doing. We have a ton of allies that are helping us do the work, people who realize the issues and the concerns that people of color have and realize that a change needs to happen. As long as we have those allies, I think the future is very positive and finance is going to reflect the community in which it serves.

I can tell you’re very passionate about what you do professionally. I can also tell that you’re passionate about diversity and inclusion. It can be hard for professionals to blend their professional and personal passions together in a way that feels meaningful. How were you able to achieve that?

My passion is helping people. Fortunately, accounting and finance are ways to help people. Everyone needs those services. 

When I started my career, there weren’t many people that looked like me in my field. So when my company audited minority-owned corporations and businesses, clients would box me in and say “Wait, what are you doing here? Are you auditing our finances? Wait, how did you get started?” They always wanted to know my story. I quickly realized that’s the part of accounting I liked. Interacting with people, learning about them, and having them see themselves reflected in a position black people typically didn’t possess. 

You have to help your clients make or save money, but it’s ultimately about those people you can touch and share your story with. I truly believe the more people we share our story with, the greater our impact. 

It sounds like your approach to professional development has been focusing on what you’re good at and where you can have an impact. And as a result, opportunities have opened themselves up to you and you’ve been open to them in return. You seem to go with the flow. 

Exactly, that’s exactly it. Let me tell you a secret: I plan every other aspect of my life. But my career journey, my volunteer journey, has always been happenstance. It’s because other people have seen the light in me and given me opportunities. 

Earlier in my career, I had very little experience with implementation and project management. If you told me at the time I’d be responsible for implementing new systems, that would’ve blown my mind. But I landed a job doing just that, even though I had no idea how to make that happen for myself. A recruiter contacted me and we had an amazing conversion. She said, “You know what Yolanda, I submitted you for this role.” I quickly said, “I don’t have the qualifications.” She answered, “You have every qualification for that role. Your people and soft skills overshadow the hard skills that any of the other candidates presented.” I’m not one to turn down a great opportunity so I decided the least I could do was go for an interview. 

I beat out five other people for the role that had project management experience. The hiring manager told me, “You’re going to come in with that Southern hospitality and smile and people are going to do whatever it is you want them to do.” And surprisingly, that worked! I’ve used that charm with all of my following roles.

So how does that translate into advice that you give your mentees? 

I tell them to do what they love doing and the rest will fall into place. That’s it. If you allow your light to shine bright, people are going to need shades to block it out. They’re not going to be able to deny it and will recommend you for opportunities. They will want to invest in, mentor, and/or sponsor you. Typically you don’t have regrets when you try something new. At the very least, you can decide you won’t ever do it again! That’s literally the advice I give. 

What do you mean by letting your light shine? 

It means to live in your truth. So whatever that is, be confident in it. 

I haven’t always had natural hair, for example. Since I was little, I had been getting relaxers in my hair to chemically straighten it. And that’s what my mom told me I needed to do for people to respect me more. Straight hair is more accepting.

Eventually, I decided I wasn’t going to let the perception of my hair define me. I wanted to be natural. I didn’t like getting relaxers because it burned my scalp. So I cut all my relaxed hair off (which is the first step to going natural) in 2011. I felt like I didn’t look very feminine with my small afro. I was very insecure, which is how my flower clip fashion statement started. I started putting them in my hair because I thought no one could mistake me for a man while wearing flower clips!

What I quickly learned as my hair grew out was that, “Yolanda, you’re beautiful no matter what your hair looks like because you allow your light to shine.” And so I continue to wear the flower clips in my hair to remind myself that I am beautiful. So that’s me living my truth. Owning whoever it is you want to be on the outside and the inside, and allowing that to be your story. 

I think among professionals there’s a fear that you have to conform (to some extent) with the company culture to get hired or promoted. Is that an unfounded fear? Or is it a reality and the trick is to look for the right working environment where you will be accepted? 

Yes, all of the above. Sometimes you’re overlooked because you’re not in the right clique or you haven’t made the right connections with the right people. Sometimes it’s because your company doesn’t see your true value or you march to the beat of your own drum. Everyone’s not going to value your value but it’s our responsibility to know it and not settle for anything less. 

So if you’re at a company and you’re doing all of this work but they don’t appreciate you, you know your worth, so leave.

However, if you like the company and you feel like they do see your worth, then maybe you need to change your strategy, meet with some of the senior leaders and collaborate on ways to change the company’s culture to be more accepting. 

You are very passionate about seeing more people of color in professional financial roles. How has the cause of increasing diversity within your industry evolved over your career? 

A lot. When I started out, there may have been one or two people of color in a room. Now there are more people that look like me in the room. One of the biggest changes I’ve enjoyed is the increase in the number of employee resource groups (ERGs). So now, you not only have black employees you hope to run into in the hallways or the elevator that you can speak to, you now have your own organization where you can connect and feel included. You’re surrounded by people that look like you and support you. That’s part of the reason I started the black ERG for our Carolinas team at my company. It’s specifically for our black employees here in the Carolinas so we can get together and have open, candid conversations about anything that affects us and how it makes us feel.

Sometimes if you’re the only one on your team that looks like you, you may feel intimidated to talk to people about what you’re going through because you’re afraid they may not feel the same way. But if you have a safe space, you can say “Okay someone in this room feels like I feel and even if they don’t, I’ll be supported. They’ve had similar experiences so they can relate without judgment.” I would say that’s a big change because, in the early part of my career, ERGs weren’t common. 

As far as where I want to see the industry go, while there are a lot more people of color in this industry, most of them are in entry-level positions. Most of them are not in the senior leadership roles. And that’s where I would love to see more representation. If people of color make up let’s say 2% of a company and all are in entry-level positions, how did that happen? Why is that? Things are most certainly changing and I know it’s only going to get better. 

What advice would you give your younger self? 

Always be true to who you are, because the people you feel you need to please right now are not even going to be in your life later. I spent so much time and money through school wanting people to like me. And I don’t even talk to those people anymore! So I would love to tell my younger self, “Queen, you are perfect the way you are. Don’t change a thing. The skinny legs you got? They won’t be that way forever, okay? You are amazing and will do amazing things, continue to be you.” 

What is a new skill you’re learning right now? 

This probably sounds super cliche, but COVID has taught me patience! I did not realize that my patience was lacking until COVID hit and I had to be patient about going outside, traveling, and meeting up with my family and friends. 

As for the skills I’m working on professionally, I’ve been taking a lot of leadership courses. Being over a non-profit board, being over NTT DATA’s THRIVE Carolinas ERG, I feel like it’s easy to assume you’re doing everything right. But I’m human just like everyone else, and there are so many things that I can improve on. I don’t want to be a great leader. I want to be an empathetic leader. I want people to look at me and say, “Wow, Yolanda is going to listen and support me because she truly cares.”