The Glass Hammer: Rising Stars with Amber Hairston
Amber Hairston, agency underwriter, PGIM Real Estate, shares her experience on freeing yourself into authenticity.
When I became chief inclusion & diversity officer at PGIM, I knew I needed to connect with those who were already working to create a more supportive atmosphere for those of different races, genders, sexual orientation and abilities. Ron Andrews was one of those individuals, whose insights I depended on to help us do better as a company.
Growing up in Newark, New Jersey as one of three kids raised by a single mom, Ron never imagined a career in financial services at PGIM’s parent company, Prudential, the city’s most prominent employer. “I didn’t know any Black kids from Newark who grew up to work there,” he says.
Ron helped change that. Spending 40 years at Prudential, he rose from a management intern to vice president and head of human resources for our U.S. Businesses, and helped launch our Black Leadership Forum (BLF). A voluntary, employee-led networking group uniting Black colleagues with allies across PGIM and Prudential, the BLF continues to be instrumental in guiding our firm’s response to systemic racism and the call for racial equity.
To honor Ron and his legacy, this year PGIM created the Ron Andrews Diversity Scholarship, a program that will award $10,000 to selected college sophomores and juniors in PGIM’s 2021 Summer Internship Program who identify as Black, Latinx, Native American, LGBTQ+ or Differently Abled.
Ron recently shared his experiences and thoughts on PGIM and Prudential’s work to achieve greater diversity. For him, the scholarship is an important step forward in advancing multiple aspects of diversity—but he knows there’s still much work to be done.
Why are programs focused on diversity hiring so important?
Let me give you an example. After graduating from Dartmouth, I had gotten pretty far in phone interviews with a bank I’m not going to mention. Then they invited me up to New York to meet me. I remember the receptionist looking at me oddly when I said I was there for the interview. She calls somebody, he comes out and has that same look. “Oh, you sound different in person,” the guy told me. It was really clear they weren’t expecting who they saw. I never got a call back, never got an offer.
The opportunity at Prudential came along thanks to a headhunter looking for diverse talent, who thought I would be a great fit for the company’s management intern program. I got accepted and my experience in the program led eventually to a leadership position in Prudential’s guaranteed interest contracts business. So to me, that effort to specifically focus on finding diverse talent made a difference. I’m the product of that.
What frustrations did you face at the start of your career?
In the management intern program, I was the only person of color. I remember two of my classmates coming to me excited because one of the executive sponsors had pulled them aside and said, “Hey don’t worry I got your back, I’m looking out for you.” I’m thinking, great, but no one said anything to me!
When I started full time, there were no other Black people in bottom-line, money-making roles for the company—they were all in staff jobs. In fact, when I was offered the job in human resources, I was bold enough to ask my boss, “Are you moving me there because that’s where people of color go?” In the long run, and this is where my personal motto comes in—“blossom where you’re planted”—I said if I’m going to human resources, I’m going to do it my way. It turned out to be a great opportunity. But I wonder sometimes how things would be if I’d had a different route to follow.
How has the culture at Prudential changed for the better?
Once I got into HR, the company started to embrace affinity groups that gave employees with a common background, and their allies, a venue to network and help shape company culture. I helped launch the BLF and I’m proud of what it has done to enhance the experience of my Black colleagues. In the early part of my career I had nowhere I could connect with and relate to others. Having this network is such a blessing. There are a lot of really talented Black people in PGIM and Prudential who can do much bigger jobs and they want to prove themselves in bigger roles. BLF helps them showcase their capabilities and skills to management in ways their day jobs may not allow.
I give PGIM CEO David Hunt a lot of credit—the BLF is at a peak right now in large part because of his executive sponsorship. When I challenged him that the BLF needed to expand what it could be and have more input into company decisions, he said, “You’re pushing through an open door, let’s go, let’s do it.”
What do we still need to work on?
When you look at the top of the house, you still see mostly white men. I’m happy to have been part of a strategy to attract more diverse talent—and humbled that this diversity scholarship will bring new perspectives into the organization across many facets of diversity including gender, sexual orientation and abilities—but I’m also concerned about what happens to those individuals once they’re on board. They need to be able to see themselves on a path to advancement—that’s going to determine whether they stay and are successful. I believe eventually the leadership and decision-makers of Prudential and PGIM will be peppered with more people who come from different backgrounds and perspectives.
What qualities are you looking for in the scholarship winners?
We can’t look at these interns only as future employees but as future leaders. Back when I started, Marcellus King was the highest-ranking Black person at Prudential I knew. He was in middle management but was absolutely brilliant. The way he carried himself, the way he spoke, the way he engaged, all those were just cues for me as to what it took to succeed. I reached levels that he would never have imagined because of the example that he set. I hope these scholarship winners, no matter their race, gender, sexual orientation or different ability, will demonstrate that same sense of responsibility to set an example for others.
What’s next for you in retirement?
A lot of people that I know who’ve retired are too busy to enjoy it. I want to be strategic and selective about how I spend my time. I’ve got three adult kids and any day now, my son and his wife are having my first grandchild—a granddaughter. She’ll be keeping me busy enough.