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Growing up as a black woman in segregated New Orleans, Joyce Roche ’72 saw just three possible career paths. “You could be a teacher, nurse, or social worker,” Roche says. “As women, our universe was defined very narrowly.”
But while attending a party as an undergraduate student at Dillard University, when the civil rights movement was gaining momentum throughout the South, she overheard her then-boyfriend and his friend discussing the business schools they had applied to — one was headed to Columbia, the other to Harvard. The conversation sparked something in Roche, who “didn’t know anything about business,” and before graduation, she applied, too — and Columbia offered her a fellowship and a living stipend.
The opportunity marked the first steps on a new life path for Roche. After graduation, she was hired in marketing at Avon, where she would go on to become the company’s first African American vice president of marketing, the first African American female vice president, and the company's first vice president of global marketing. Roche then served as president and COO of Carson Products Company, a cosmetics company geared toward African American customers, before moving to the nonprofit world as president and CEO of Girls Inc., a national organization more than 150 years old that is focused on inspiring girls to be strong, smart, and bold.
The now-retired Roche wrote about her varied experiences and trailblazing life in her 2013 book, The Empress Has No Clothes: Conquering Self-Doubt to Embrace Success (BK Business), a memoir that shares her lifelong struggle with the “impostor syndrome,” a condition that she says plagues successful people in all walks of life. “I felt like people were always thinking, ‘She’s not as smart as she needs to be,’ or, ‘She doesn't have the experience, so she's probably not a good leader,’” Roche says. “So I worked like crazy to prove that, in fact, I did deserve to be where I was.”
On the Importance of Education:
“My mom and aunt, who helped raise me, were both domestics — they cleaned houses. They drummed in the message of getting an education, because they believed that would allow me to break out and do more than they had the opportunity or ability to do. Growing up at a time when opportunities were limited, their words gave me endless encouragement to pursue education and tell myself, ‘Okay, you need to work hard. You need to prove that you can do this and show that you can be successful.’”
On Being the First:
“When I joined Avon’s marketing department, there were only four women in the whole department, and one of them started the same day that I did. I really couldn't look to any examples to figure out the right way to act or perform. I felt like I had to learn it all myself.
“I also felt like everything I did had to be perfect, because there weren't that many of us. I felt like I had to work over time, over prepare for everything, because I worried: was I up to it — to the expectations, to the job? We just didn't have the support. We didn't have role models. We had to kind of lay it out for ourselves. Most of all, you didn't want to fail.”
On the Next Generation:
“The Millennial generation, in my observation, is very different in that there's not as much separation between personal life and business. They’re more integrated. Therefore, the things that motivate them are different than previous generations. The way they work is different. The way they view their interactions with colleagues is different. I think it requires business schools to focus on how companies and leaders can adapt to that difference. At the same time, how do we blend existing business culture with the Millennial approach?
“We've got to find a way to embrace both the old and new, because that’s where the value is. I get so intrigued whenever I'm at one of the companies whose board I sit on, and we're with their Millennials — to see the working dynamics that are so different than the way I worked is phenomenal. We've got to open our minds on both sides of the equation and understand. That's how we're going to move the dial forward. Throughout my career, I’ve found that being flexible is critical. I got my start in a world that was changing dramatically in terms of the possibilities for women and people of color. I knew that I needed to stay open, flexible, and ready for new opportunities — and the same is true for those just starting their careers today.”