A company president rejects the troublesome title of “chief”.
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March 2, 2021 4 min read
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When I started Seam Social Labs in 2018, my goal was to try and find a way to build a business as impactful to our culture as Amazon, but solely focused on community empowerment. It took me eighteen months of customer discovery to realize the solution would start as co:census, (i.e., our first portfolio product dedicated to making sure voices are heard through the lens of qualitative data).
Now that that business is up and running, one question that I’ve gotten is about my title as company leader.
I am not the Chief Executive Officer, or “CEO”, of Seam Social Labs. I am the Head of Strategy. In fact, our company doesn’t have a CEO. I am every job description related to a Chief Executive Officer, but I specifically chose a different term because I wanted to think about the impact of titles in corporate structures.
I self-identify as an Afro-Latina woman. This identity is not based on the indigenous heritage of America, but I understand how it feels to be oppressed and silenced.
History of the word “chief”
Over the past few years, I researched conflicting opinions on this term. From a city dropping “chief” from it’s job titles, to protests against the name of the Superbowl runner-up Kansas City Chiefs. Recently, Duluth Mayor Emily Larson said, “the city will vote next week to remove the word ‘chief’ from city job titles so that we have more inclusive leadership and less language that is rooted in hurt and offensive, intentional marginalization.”
When I chose the title of Head of Strategy, my stance was based on the word “chief” and the limited representation of indigenous communities, overall.
From the website Native Circle: “[Chief] is a word that is commonly given as a nickname which incorrectly labels Native American men. The term ‘chief’ itself is incorrect. American Indian leaders were never ‘chiefs’, but headmen, or clan mothers, and so on. Not ‘chiefs’… Being called ‘chief’ carries with it the same insulting, belittling sting for a Native man as being called ‘boy’ does for African American men.”
In a “Washington Post” opinion piece responding to the Mayor a reader wrote: “There is no reason to believe that this word was ever intended to mean anything other than its definition: ‘a leader or ruler of a people or clan.’ There is simply nothing offensive or marginalizing about the word. Its use goes back as far as around 1300, when in Old French, it meant pretty much the same thing as it does now.”
Historically this word has been used as one to define leadership, but it’s also been used as a slur against native leaders. As a business founder focused on community empowerment, anything that is still being decided upon by an entire community, is worth careful consideration. No title, brand name or symbol is worth the harm of negatively impacting a culture. If 2020 has taught anyone anything, especially for those who did not work in the inclusion space, it is that you have to look at everything with new eyes.
A title that reflects my territory
One of my biggest goals in creating this company is to show that we can decolonize the systems we’ve created. This requires conversation and challenging the assumptions that we have historically had. If you’re looking for the opportunity to work at a company that challenges these assumptions? Hey, we’ll be hiring in the next few months.
As a sociologist, I am acutely aware of how much culture shifts, language changes and habits transform over time. My hope is that Seam Social Labs hires people who know they can bring their full culture and selves as added value to our business.