I had a meeting with a potential vendor for one of my clients. The vendor and I had exchanged emails, but had never met. He suggested we meet at a café around the corner from my client before walking over to the client’s office.
I got there first. The café was full of ironically-dressed hipsters, so when a guy wearing a button-down shirt and khakis and carrying a briefcase walked in, I was pretty sure he was my 9 am appointment. I smiled at him, he glanced at me, then he looked around. He looked around some more and walked out of the café.
I walked out behind him. He looked around, then at me – again – then at his cell phone. I walked up to him, called his name, and introduced myself. For a very brief moment he looked stunned. I was clearly not who he was expecting me to be. But then he smiled and shook my hand. We had our meeting. He told me about his expertise, his company’s corporate culture and philanthropic endeavors. I took him on a tour of the client’s facilities and gave him an overview of its needs. It could have been a good meeting, but it wasn’t. It was stilted and awkward.
One of the other consultants asked me how my meeting with the potential vendor had gone. “He rubbed me the wrong way,” I said. “I can’t quite put my finger on why.”
The truth is I knew exactly why. It’s clear that my appointment saw me (a few times) and didn’t think I was the person he was supposed to be meeting. Did he expect me to be older? More professionally dressed? Not a person of color? Was our hour-long conversation weird because he was not a great presenter? Or was it because he was uncomfortable around me? Or was it because I was having a hard time shaking off my own first impression of him?
I don’t have a huge chip on my shoulder about being a young woman of color; I believe that a good attitude, a good work ethic, and good money skills have gotten me far. But I’m also realistic. I had a director-level job where my boss (also a woman) and I both earned far less than men a level below us. I went to a top-tier university, where a couple of classmates told me that I was only accepted because of affirmative action. I know that sexism and racism exist. I don’t claim to be free of prejudice myself, either, but it doesn’t mean that I’m not surprised and disappointed when it happens to me.
I’ve thought a lot about first impressions since that meeting. When looking for work/clients/customers, we know to dress the part, to act professionally, to speak with confidence – all excellent advice for making a good first impression. But then there the little signs that betray us – the quick flinch when meeting someone new, a greater physical distance than decorum calls for, awkward body language during a presentation. In the end, actions that are incongruous with words say far more about us than a nice outfit or a good resume ever can.
Will I work with this vendor? I’m not sure. I’m doing what any experienced business person would do, and I’m vetting many different companies for this role. I may have had a less-than-stellar first impression of the vendor, but I’m willing to take other factors into account and keep moving forward. Keep moving forward – in this case, it only seems fair.