Dr. Nikki Blacksmith is hard at work, behind the scenes, trying to advance women in business. She hails from Chicago, but considers herself a proud Washingtonian (D.C.). As a researcher, Dr. Blacksmith focuses her energy in the field of Industrial Organizational (I-O) Psychology, the study of how to improve workplace productivity. When she isn’t teaching at American University’s Kogod School of Business, or working on her start-up, Blackhawke, she’s working as a contractor for the U.S. Army Research Institute for Behavioral and Social Sciences.
INTERVIEW BY @THEMIGSEXPERIENCE FOR BLOOM.
WHAT IS YOUR FAMILY BACKGROUND?
My mom came to America from Mexico in the late seventies and then over the last couple decades following, her eight siblings came to the U.S. as well. They crossed the border and came here to work. If you ask my mom why she came here she will tell you that her primary reason was to give her children an education and so I took that to heart. I was raised thinking education was important and valuable, and obviously I agree with that! I have three degrees [laughs], am teaching in a university, and truly believe in the power of education.
My mom came here with only a high school degree and I remember her working in Kmart customer service when I was younger. She then worked to get her bachelor’s degree and finally got her doctorate! Eventually, she had a high level position in the government working for the Speaker of the House. My mom's amazing. She's overcome so many barriers and obstacles.
It's not the same for the rest of my family members. It's a very difficult thing for individuals in low wage positions to gain skills to show that they can move up in an organization. The working environment in low-wage positions is far from healthy or engaging, and a lot of employers misclassify employees as contractors so they kind of skirt around a lot of the employment benefits and other standards in place to protect employees. You know a friend of mine, – I am going to put a shameless plug in here, Aaron Seyedian, started a company called Well Paid Maids that categorizes their employees as actual employees and is able to provide them a living-wage which cannot be said for other similar companies in the cleaning industry. I think it’s amazing what he is doing and hope other companies start to do the same.
TELL ME MORE ABOUT YOUR CAREER & THE PROJECTS THAT YOU’RE WORKING ON.
Currently, my research in Industrial Organizational Psychology focuses on three main subject domains: individual differences, psychological measurement, and decision-making. You can't physically touch someone’s personality so how do you measure it? Part of my research attempts to address this question.
The last area that I really focus on is decision-making in the workplace, and specifically trying to understand cognitive bias and why people take mental short cuts to make decisions. If we can better understand that then maybe the findings could lead to better organizations in the future.
SO, YOUR COMPANY, BLACKHAWKE, TELL US A LITTLE BIT ABOUT HOW YOU STARTED IT.
My partner, Ben Hawkes, and I came up with the idea behind Blackhawke from a combination of our passions and seeing a critical need in the start-up world. We started noticing how little funding that females and minorities get in the entrepreneurial world and the reason behind that, a lot of times, is because of unconscious bias. For example, people tend to judge [others] on their similarities or [one’s] likeability; meaning people like people who are like them. Also, entrepreneurship is typically seen as a masculine field so if you have a male assessing a male team for funding, without even knowing it, he is already going to have an inclination towards that team because he has that similarity to begin with and [the team] “fits” his idea of what an entrepreneur “looks like.”
When one seeks funding, they present their pitch and provide investors with a lot of information about the company like the marketing plan, business plan, and financial forecasting. The entrepreneur could have the greatest idea ever, but if an investor doesn't believe that the person can actually take that idea, run with it, and execute, they're probably not going to invest. So those judgements right now are very subjective, which are not uncommon from problems we see in hiring. To tackle this problem, we’ve built assessments to help investors make more objective decisions about the people they're investing in, by providing people with data to complete the package for making an overall decision.
STEPPING BACK FOR A SECOND, CAN YOU DESCRIBE AN OBSTACLE THAT YOU HAVE OVERCOME?
In life or in work? (laughs) Sorry I have to think for a second…I think one of my biggest obstacles has been a mental obstacle – teaching myself to ignore other people’s definition of success and be ok with my own unique definition of success that makes sense for me.
For example, I’m an academic and in that world there is a very specific and narrow path you are supposed to follow to become a tenured professor and be considered “successful.” An academic in my field has to conform to a specific view of success to be considered for a professor position in top research school – they have to have many publications, publish in specific journals on “safe” topics, and put all of their attention and focus on publishing. I love research (and writing!) just as much and probably more than most academics, so publishing is definitely a part of how I judge my own success. So, for a while, I was “playing the game,” but I was finding myself unmotivated which was not like me at all. I love working! So when I started noticing how long it took me to get going in the morning, I realized something was wrong.
Part of it is that when someone tells you that you have to do something and that you have to do it in a specific way, it removes the intrinsic motivational value. I often find myself spending time on things that take away from the time I have to do research such as spending extra time mentoring and coaching students, working on Blackhawke, or writing editorial or opinion papers. To others, spending time on those tasks may appear that I am unfocused or “not committed” to academics and publishing, but to me, each one of those areas is a component of my definition of success within the scientific field – and connected to my overall goals as a scientist. I feel successful when my students accomplish significant goals of their own, when I can help other organizations be successful, and when I can communicate and share scientific findings to external, non-academic audiences.
When I started evaluating and articulating what my definition of success is, I found a renewed sense of motivation and enjoyment in my work. I will say that, the idea of others defining success for you is not just a thing in the academic world. People judge other people’s success in various ways – what kind of car you have, whether you own a home, how many degrees you have, or the your title at work. When someone allows others to tell them what success “looks like” it can lead to lower sense of self worth or disengagement in their work but this is the nature of our society. It’s very difficult and continuously challenging to ignore other’s perceptions and judgments of you. I still am working on that every day.
SO, SHIFTING GEARS, WHAT IS FEMINISM FOR YOU?
For me, feminism is showing that females know as much as males and being a different gender or sex has nothing to do with one’s ability to get a job done. It’s about equality. For example, there's a gender pay gap that we've been struggling with for years and it's still not solved.
There are simple facts, like if you look at the number of female minorities in doctoral positions, it's so small, even in my field where we study work and advocate for gender equality. A few years ago, research showed that men were more likely to have doctoral degrees in Industrial-Organizational Psychology and that 27% of SIOP (the Society for Industrial-Organizational Psychology) Fellows were women; however, the mean income for women was almost 20% lower than that of men. These are issues that I-O psychologists are experts on and continue to study, yet we still have the problems ourselves. It’s discouraging.
For me personally, feminism is about advocating and supporting my female peers, students, and other individuals that I am in a place to help. It’s so important, with the positions I hold, that I open doors for and provide opportunities for other women and individuals in other underrepresented groups.
IN REALITY, THERE AREN’T THAT MANY WOMEN WITH DOCTORATES. CAN YOU TOUCH UPON YOUR SCHOOLING HISTORY?
You’re right! Women only make up 46% of doctoral degrees even though they are overrepresented in bachelor’s degrees (approximately 60%). I went to the University of Iowa, not because it's a top party school (laughs), but because it has one of the top creative writing programs in the nation. Growing up, I wanted to be a writer and also wanted to be a psychologist. I decided to double major and minor in Spanish.
I thought social psychology was really interesting so I started doing research studying decision making. I randomly stumbled upon I-O. There weren't any I-O courses at Iowa, at that time, but a professor from the business school came in and gave a talk and I was like, ‘well that's amazing and sounds like exactly the type of degree I would want to progress my psychology career.’
WHAT LED YOU TO RESEARCH?
The professors at UNCC [University of North Carolina at Charlotte] involved me in their research and made it so much fun and changed my perspective on research. After graduating, I was hired as an external consultant at Gallup, a consulting company. I ended up being in their research and development department, and focused on improving their products and services within employee selection, employee development, and leadership.
Gallup was a detour, a fun detour. I started realizing that I would get more excited and feel a stronger sense of accomplishment when I published a paper than when I was promoted. In fact, every time I got promoted I got further away from the work I actually wanted to be doing – the research. It become obvious that I needed to leave Gallup and go back and get my Ph.D. so I could focus on developing a career in academics and science.
WHAT WOULD YOUR ADVICE BE TO YOUNG PEOPLE JUST STARTING IN COLLEGE AND TRYING TO FIND WHERE THEY HAVE THEIR PASSION?
My advice would be to try a lot of different things. As I just shared, I would never have known that I-O was the perfect career for me if I hadn’t decided to “try it out.” I suggest taking classes in anything that they might not be familiar with or that sounds interesting even though it may not have a direct connection to their degree or career path. Recently, I've been reading a lot of philosophy. I started wishing that I had been a Philosophy major in college because I have found it so interesting that I never took a philosophy class in college. I felt like I missed out a little bit. So my advice would just be try a lot of things and get involved as much as you can.
A bachelor's degree is not something that's going to put any one of them ahead of the job market; everybody has one, so they’ll have to figure out how to distinguish themselves. Employers are going to want to see that you have gone above and beyond and have a wide range of experiences and perspectives that you can bring to an organization because all work is really moving towards being increasingly knowledge-based. They're going to want people who can problem solve, think creatively, and make smart decisions. That comes down to having a lot of that experience to rely on and pull from.
SINCE YOU STARTED YOUR NEW VENTURE, BLACKHAWKE, WHAT IS YOUR ADVICE TO WOMEN THINKING ABOUT STARTING THEIR OWN BUSINESSES?
My advice would be to find something that you're very interested in because it is a lot of work to start a--what's the word now, side hustle? [laughing] I'm doing this on my nights and weekends. I'm giving up a lot of free time. I don’t know how I would get anything done if I wasn’t intensely passionate about the work and didn’t believe it could truly make a difference for society both economically and socially.
Spending the time up front creating a long-term strategy is so important and sometimes overlooked because there is such a rush to launch a new product and young companies are constantly in survival mode. Technology changes, society changes, and your company is not and should not be defined by your first product.
We spent a lot of time figuring out, ‘what do we want this company to be?,’ ‘Who are we as a company?,’ ‘What are our values?,’ and ‘Who is Blackhawke?’ We asked ourselves, “How do we want to be perceived by others?” We even got down to little details, where we were identifying our soundtrack that we would play in the lobby – the music that we felt embodied the brand and our personalities as founders. It’s the Rat Pack by the way. [laughing]
We believe that all of these details about the mission and culture of Blackhawke arethe most important first steps. Developing a strong culture will give us much stronger chances for survival in the long run. Everything we do as a company is based in science. A few years ago, I published a paper, using real companies that started prior to 1940’s like Ford, that showed how organizational culture predicts long term survival. We know that culture is linked to employee engagement, organizational performance, and many more outcomes. So the decision to spend a large time designing and defining our company culture was very intentional and done with great care even though it did not directly impact our bottom line immediately.
WHAT DO THEY WANT TO BE REMEMBERED FOR?
I always say that I don't care if somebody remembers my name but what I really want is to leave behind is change. I want to advance science and improve society from a social, psychological perspective. So few people know the name of the person who created the periodic table, but look what that did in terms of advancing science.
Basically, it all goes back to my mom. She came here and wanted her children to have an education in order to make something of themselves. Unfortunately, there are still so many social barriers – I think Hispanics make up less than 5% of SIOP members, for example. I hope that I can significantly advance our understanding of human behavior in organizations so that it can applied to improving the social landscape of organizations. So really what I hope to leave behind is scientific advancement that will lead to more just workplaces.
WANT TO READ MORE ON INDUSTRIAL ORGANIZATION (I-O) PSYCHOLOGY? SEE SOME OF DR. NIKKI BLACKSMITH'S ORIGINAL WORK AND COLLABORATIONS:
A KICK BUTT FORUM THAT AIMS TO INSPIRE, COMFORT AND UNITE INCREDIBLE WOMEN (& DUDES) THROUGH DYNAMIC INTERVIEWS