My Work in the Rural South

I’m reading much about the controversy about the Confederate flag. It reminds of when I worked for six months in the South.

I was a young associate at Bain & Co. I was on a project that advised a private company with billions of revenues a year. They sold frozen food door-to-door in rural parts of the country.

No drivers went to college and some didn’t finish high school. All executives started as drivers, and so, you had this huge family-owned business completely run by a very homogeneous group of employees and managers.

I didn’t see any non-whites anywhere in the company. It seemed understood within the company that they would only call on white neighborhoods.

Our project divided the country into four regions. I was assigned to the Southeast US and my territory included rural parts of Georgia, South Carolina, Maryland, Virginia and the like.

When I say “rural,” I mean really rural. Multiple flights and long drives to get to depots. My job was to work with people very different from me in terms of race, education, and background. And, I had to persuade them to change how they did business.

So, yes, imagine a scene where I’m wearing a suit and tie, a really young-looking Asian guy from Yankee-Boston, meeting with much older and white southern truck drivers to tell them that how they were running their routes was wrong.

Honestly, I was pretty concerned. I’d never been to the rural South. How would I be treated? What barriers might I have to break through? Would there be any bias or discrimination?

I didn’t know. I just made the best of it.

I worked really hard, showing up at depots when they opened at dawn and at 11 pm when the drivers all returned. I told the managers that my job was to make them successful, that this project had high visibility at Corporate. I tried to find common ground and found that talking about fishing and football broke the ice.

And, one of the managers, Keith, liked to go to Hooters. Not my kind of place, but I treated him to a meal whenever we met.

I was on the road nearly every day, sweating in my starched shirts, eating at Waffle House, and calling older ladies “ma’am.”  I ate dinner at fried chicken joints, realizing that collards greens and pork fatback was really good, and learning that there were two kinds of iced tea, sweetened and not. Many waitresses called me “Hon.” On and on.

If someone gave me a quizzical look, I just smiled and said hello.

Six very long and hot months. I felt that I was under a microscope wherever I went.

Thankfully, the project was a success. In fact, the Southeast region experienced the highest sales lift in the whole project. It was my favorite project during my five years at Bain. I had real impact.

Now, did some of those folks have issues with my race? I don’t know. If I wasn’t representing Corporate and instead was a regular guy about to buy a house next door to them, would that create problems? Maybe, but who knows.

All I know is I went down there to do a job. And, I did it. What they thought of me wasn’t something I controlled, and I didn’t let it get in my way.

As I’ve written before, if you’re at a bar and someone wants to fight you because of your race: just ignore the noise.

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