Eight years ago, aspiring senator Harold Ford called investment firm president Mellody Hobson up to ask for help getting press coverage for the upcoming election.
For someone as accomplished as Hobson, this was no problem. She set up a lunch with the editorial board of a major New York media company, which was a huge opportunity for Ford, but things didn't go quite as she was expecting.
When she and Ford arrived at the company's office, they informed the receptionist that they were there for the lunch. After ushering them through a series of corridors, the receptionist turned to the two, both dressed to impress, and asked, "Where are your uniforms?"
Ford and Hobson, one a U. S. congressman, the other a Princeton-educated business executive, had been mistaken for kitchen help.
It was no mistake, though, that Hobson and Ford were both black.
"In many ways the moment caught me off guard," Hobson explained in her powerful recent TED Talk, "but deep, deep down inside, I actually wasn't surprised."
"Imagine if I walked you into a room and it was of a major corporation like Exxon Mobil, and every single person around the boardroom were black. You would think that was weird. But if I walked you into a Fortune 500 company and everyone around the table was a white male, when will it be that we think that's weird too?"
Hobson coupled her story with similarly unsettling statistics about minority representation in corporate America. Thousands of companies are currently publicly traded on the market, but only two are chaired by black women. Hobson is one of those women, and she is speaking out.
Hobson acknowledges that talking about race is "like touching the third rail," but argues that it's necessary to foster change. She overcame her own fears to help address it and the resulting talk, embedded above, is well worth the watch.
There is a quantifiable difference in opportunity for people of color, Hobson says, and avoiding talking about it is holding back our businesses and our economy. Diversity is essential for creative problem-solving.
"We cannot afford to be color blind," she says, "we have to be color brave... Not because it's the right thing to do, but because it's the smart thing to do."
And maybe if those words are taken to heart, the next generation's Mellody Hobson will arrive to her big New York meeting and be ushered directly to her seat at the head of the table, without a stop in the kitchen.
CLARIFICATION: A previous version of this article referred to Ford as a former Tennessee representative. He was a Tennessee representative for the U. S. House of Representatives.