Working While Black: Former Black Engineer Makes Triumphant Climb Up the Corporate Ladder Despite Racist Efforts to Knock Him Down
Throughout his college years and the early stages of his career, David Price was constantly reminded that corporate America wasn’t a welcoming environment for a Black man.
But that never deterred him from transitioning from an engineer to a successful corporate executive—eventually the president of two divisions at Monsanto during his 25 years at the company, and the president of a division at BF Goodrich before retiring in 2001.
In fact, the negative comments Price received from the racist people around him only served as fuel for a man who was determined to prove them wrong.
There is no telling if Price was truly aware of just how difficult his mission was before he embarked on his corporate journey, but today he certainly understands why so many people are amazed by his story.
“If you are a Black person, and you chose to be great at something, choosing to pursue a leadership career in business is the hardest thing you can choose to do,” Price told St. Louis Public Radio.
It’s also exactly what Price chose to do after he first became exposed to the racist realities of the business world.
Growing up, Price was aware of racism, but it wasn’t something he faced on a daily basis.
Growing up in the historic St. Louis neighborhood, The Ville, he was encouraged by his family to become a doctor or engineer, and he excelled at math and science.
Due to his family’s financial struggles, Price decided to follow the engineering route because the medical career was a much costlier path to follow.
Regardless of what college he would decide to go to, however, the real lesson for Price wasn’t about the content of his textbooks or what his professors said during lectures. Price’s college experience turned into a serious trial run and a real-world lesson on dealing with racism.
Leaving his supportive family and predominantly Black classmates behind, Price found himself in classrooms where, for the first time in his life, he was struggling academically.
When he sought help from a professor, he learned just how blatant racists could be.
According to Price, his professor never offered him any help but instead told him that a “C is all that colored boys could get.”
“It was just an eye-opener of how mediocre or average he thought I was,” Price explained. “I was mad.”
That anger sparked the fire that would catapult Price into corporate success. He was determined, now more than ever, to prove that a Black man could achieve great things even in the middle of a racist society.
Price found himself working at Laclede Gas as an engineer of structural design after graduation, and while it was a coveted job for many Black men, it wasn’t enough for Price.
He realized that he was in the business of designing bridges, and that’s all he would be able to accomplish if he remained stagnant.
“Once you design one bridge, all you’re going to do is design a bigger bridge,” he said.
So he teamed up with his brother to launch their own design firm, but it proved to be a failed venture since neither of them were business savvy.
This was the turning point for Price.
He enrolled in business school with hopes of getting the knowledge he needed to turn the failed venture into a grand success. It was the kind of hope that his former boss thought was absolutely foolish.
“My boss thought it was stupid,” he said. “He made it apparent to me that I was doing very well as an engineer, doing very well as a colored engineer to be exact. Why would I want to pursue business where I probably would not be a success?”
It turned out that his former boss couldn’t have been any more incorrect.
After completing business school, Price became the first African-American to be recruited in the engineering department at Monsanto. He explained he was usually always a “first” wherever he went.
While Monsanto lacked diversity, it wasn’t a racist company overall, but it did have racist people in positions of power — racist people who wanted to do whatever it took to get Price out of there.
“I had been given an assignment that everybody had failed at before,” he said. “I knew it, but my supervisor didn’t think I knew it.”
Price played the game, and he played it well. By forming relationships within the business and gaining a sense of loyalty with other workers, Price was successful at fixing the issue and working his way up the ranks.
He clearly had the determination and incredible skill set that any leader should possess, but he also knew that he had to do even more because he was Black.
He had to make white men feel OK about following a Black man, and he couldn’t let the absence of other Black people shake him.
“I was always the only one, but there were others who weren’t in the room who were proud,” he said as he described his journey as the only Black executive at the company. “And I knew if I didn’t perform and I failed, they wouldn’t get a chance. I was proud of the fact they were proud of me, and I wasn’t going to let them down.”
He lived up to that promise to work hard enough to give other Black people a chance to reach the corporate status he managed to obtain.
From the racist college professor to a boss who doubted a Black man’s potential, Price proved them all wrong, and he hopes other Black people will push to do the same to the racist naysayers in their lives.