Bonnie Low-Kramen never intended to become an Executive Assistant. In fact, she studied theater and English at Rutgers University with her sights set on an acting career. Her dreams shifted when she began working in a theater box office. This position helped her realize that she preferred to work behind-the-scenes instead.
Low-Kramen’s life changed dramatically in the mid-1980s when she started working as a personal assistant to acclaimed actress Olympia Dukakis. Dukakis would eventually win an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress in 1988 for her role in the film “Moonstruck.” Low-Kramen worked as Dukakis’ assistant for 25 years.
Over the years, Low-Kramen has found new ways to help other aspiring assistants thrive. In addition to creating her own company, she is also a published author. The fifth edition of her book, “Be the Ultimate Assistant: A Celebrity Assistant’s Secrets to Working With Any High-Powered Employer,” came out in 2012. She is also the Co-Founder and former President of the professional association New York Celebrity Assistants. Forbes devoted a cover story to her in 2019.
Low-Kramen offers workplace training programs and workshops that aim to cultivate a healthy work environment. She dedicates much of her time to combating workplace bullying and harassment and championing equal pay. She is also an advocate for diversity and inclusion within the profession. Low-Kramen explored the current state of Black Executive Assistants in her recent blog post, “Shining a Light on Black Assistants: It’s Not Black and White.” In this blog post, she gives Black EAs a platform to describe their own professional experiences and how they differ from the experiences of white EAs. Below are excerpts from their responses.
In their own words
Spencer Casseus, a C-Level Executive Assistant with more than 10 years of experienceand the Development Coordinator at GRIOT Circle, a nonprofit based in Brooklyn, New York:
“It is hard being a ‘token,’ the only Black person in a group. It is typical to be looked towards as the authority, the expert on all things Black. That happens to be a lot of pressure and stressful. Please don’t assume that about Black people.
I am currently looking for new work as an Executive Assistant in the entertainment business. It has not been an easy journey being one of the only Black male Executive Assistants in a profession dominated by females. I happen to be a talented and skilled EA with 18 years of experience but am often judged as an outcast by the color of my skin and gender before I get to prove that I am actually the answer to their problem.”
Melba J. Duncan, Founder and CEO of The Duncan Group, a management firm for Chiefs of Staff and Executive Assistants based in New York:
“Racial barriers demand a vigorous response …There certainly have been times when I have been offended by responses and reactions that could only be defined as racial. However, as Executive Assistants, we preserve human dignity if we acquire and demonstrate intellectual global skills, offer the best service that we are able to provide, and advance our careers by continuing to learn and apply new, competitive skills.”
Aaisha Joseph, consultant at Aaisha Renée Consulting and former C-Suite Executive Assistant:
“As a DEI (Diversity, Equity, Inclusion) and anti-racism coach, I work with clients who have expressed the same nervousness around not wanting to say the wrong thing … There are real fears around coming off as racist, insensitive, or inflicting emotional damage and adding to an individual’s trauma. However, in the words of author and activist Jean-Paul Sartre, ‘Every word has consequences, every silence, too.’
We show that we care when we take the time to check in or speak up,” says Joseph. “And, it is natural to make mistakes – especially when seeking to become an ally to the marginalized. The truth is, we are all on a journey of learning, and most people are understanding of that – especially when you are sincere in your efforts.”
“As women, we are intuitively mindful of our personal safety while traveling alone in ways that men are not. As a Black woman – it can be twice as daunting under certain circumstances. When I attend an off-site meeting in an unfamiliar, predominately White town, I will find out as much as possible about that community and the surrounding areas – especially from Black friends and colleagues…When I am driving to/from a remote destination by myself, I am always vigilant and have situational awareness to ensure my safety. For example, if I were to drive through an area where Confederate flags had a significant presence, I would consider that a warning and reassess my situation. But the sad reality is, racism isn’t always as overt.”
What inspires Bonnie Low-Kramen is her desire to make executive assistants’ work environments healthier and fairer, to learn, and to change what’s wrong in her field. She learns by asking people of different races, sexes, and backgrounds questions, listening to their answers, and advocating for change.