Women and minorities, states Pamela Thomas-Graham, CEO of CNBC.com and executive vice president of NBC, belong to “a unique moment in history” in which unprecedented economic opportunity co-exists with continuing impediments to advancement.

“There’s no question that there are barriers, people who are going to try to make us feel badly about our prospects, people who are going to say it’s not a glass ceiling, it’s a concrete ceiling and you’re never going to overcome it, you’re never going to get there,” Thomas-Graham told participants at Wharton’s Whitney M. Young, Jr. Memorial Conference Jan. 19-20. “But I actually think that we are going to get there. If we stay optimistic, stay realistic and stay focused, I think we can change the world.”

Thomas-Graham knows about focus. As head of the online arm of one of the world’s largest business news and information gathering networks with a presence in the U.S. and 140 other countries throughout Europe and Asia, she is a high-profile rider of the current dot-com roller coaster. In that role, she has presided over fast-paced growth and expansion that tripled the organization’s workforce during the first five months of her tenure.

However, the impact of the stock market turndown that began last March was felt at all levels of NBC, including its emerging on-line initiatives, and forced a change in strategy.

“On a dime, our management team had to turn from focusing on growth of our market share to trying to get the business to break even,” she said. “Now I’m in a situation where I had to lay off 5% of my workforce. So all of us as managers had to be incredibly nimble and flexible and rapidly adapt to all that was going on.”

Still, she remains a proponent of “calculated” risk and bold actions, a strategy she credits for the career successes that led her to become the highest-ranking female line manager at NBC.

During her address at the conference, Thomas-Graham shared “six rules of the road” for business success. The first is: Take chances.

Despite uncertainties in the economy, including the sobering possibility of a recession, Thomas-Graham urged her audience to always think in terms of new challenges. “Should you even consider taking risks in an environment where the economy might be slowing down? Throughout my career, I’ve found it very important to have a mindset that says I have to keep taking chances, because that’s how you learn, that’s how you develop and that’s how you grow,” she said. “Even though the economy is more challenging, it’s still going to reward people who are creative and innovative and have vision.”

Such pluck is not just for entrepreneurs. Thomas-Graham drew a lesson from her own experiences as a consultant for McKinsey & Co. Armed with both an MBA and law degree from Harvard University and willing to put in the requisite long workdays, she was the first African-American woman to be named a partner with the firm. A comfortable future seemed assured there, yet the lure of the Internet eventually proved irresistible.

“I thought that it was really important, after having done the same thing for ten years, to take a risk and put myself in a situation that was going to be important for the future. Understanding how Internet companies work and what it takes to manage them and what it takes to make them profitable is going to be a critical skill for managers going forward … While it can be frustrating and difficult, it’s a wonderful thing to shake up your career and try something different,” she said.

Lesson number two: Do your homework.

“Wherever you are in your career, you have to become an expert at something pretty quickly. Being a generalist and being a smart person is not going to get you where you need to go,” she said.

Thomas-Graham told conference goers that investing time to learn can be a sacrifice, since it usually requires using free time to go to conferences and make new contacts. But the effort invariably pays off.

Lesson number three: Be nimble and flexible.

All managers and especially Internet leaders need to be ready to respond to changing market conditions and organizational mandates rapidly. “Six months at an Internet company is an extremely long time,” she noted, adding that her 18 months at CNBC have been marked by shifting demands that required creative – and fast – management responses. Staying focused and keeping staff motivated during times of change is an especially hard task for today’s managers.

Lesson number four: Surround yourself with the right people.

Building the right team begins with an examination of a company’s values. “Ask yourself: Does the company that you are getting ready to work with really share your values?” Thomas-Graham urged job seekers to pose tough questions to potential employers such as, “Are there any black people in senior management?” and “What is the company’s policy toward women?” Companies that would hold such questions against a job candidate probably are not worth investing time in anyway, she said.

Thomas-Graham urged attendees to find more than one mentor in the workplace. “It’s very important to have a mentor who can help you understand the unwritten rules of the company. Try to find three or four people who can look out for you in different ways.”

Managers need to consider hiring people who challenge them to achieve. “Think about hiring people who push you. It’s important that you create an environment among people that says we’re all trying to be better, we can all learn from each other, we can all inspire each other.” Such challenging and supportive people needn’t only be found at work. Thomas-Graham noted that her husband, attorney and author Lawrence Otis Graham, has played a role in helping her succeed.

Lesson number five: Strike a balance.

“Burn-out is a real concern for people today; many jobs created by the Internet are not great jobs,” Thomas-Graham said, noting that long work hours, not sleeping and not getting home at night have been responsible for personal lives falling apart. She cited a recent Wall Street Journal article about people in their late 20s needing to “go into semi-retirement for a couple of years because they were so burned out that they couldn’t contemplate going to work any more.” She called this trend “a tragedy in the making” and told the audience that they needed to “make time for yourself and for your family.”

Community involvement is another important way to avoid burnout. She urged people to “get into the habit of giving back to the community,” and cited her own involvement on several non-profit boards as a particularly satisfying activity. “We in the business world have much to offer the non-profit sector,” she said.

Outside of her corporate duties, Thomas-Graham is an accomplished novelist, with two murder-mysteries published by Simon & Schuster to her credit. She believes that creative outlets are tremendously important for personal satisfaction in life. “Think about the other side of your brain, the side that’s not about business, the side that is more creative … Through my characters, I can explore issues about women, race, ethnicity and all kinds of interesting things in a completely different way. But also, [writing] is fun.” Her first novel was completed while she was trying to make partner at McKinsey. “That’s what kept me sane.”

Lesson number six: Never take no as an answer.

Thomas-Graham pointed to the lack of women and minorities in leadership roles. “There are more role models now, though still not enough. Most of us are still going to wind up being trail blazers in our respective jobs. A lot of us are going to be the first black person or the first woman to do something.” She urged the audience to take this as a challenge that energizes them to achieve.

She closed her remarks with a story about growing up in Detroit and having to work hard to gain recognition for her abilities. When college application time came during her years at a parochial high school, a guidance counselor discouraged her from applying to Harvard. “Nobody from this high school has ever gone to Harvard,” she was told. She said she was lucky that her parents believed in her and helped fill out the application. This made all the difference.

“Don’t let other people’s diminished expectations for you be the truth about your life,” she said.

During the conference’s closing banquet, speaker Richard Parsons echoed the theme of new opportunity. Parsons recently became co-chief-operating officer of the newly-formed AOL Time Warner and will oversee the company’s filmed entertainment and music businesses. High on Parsons’ agenda will be his service on a four-person integration committee working to ensure a smooth and rapid combination of the two companies.

Parsons told the audience that it is important to focus on the opportunities gained for African Americans during the civil rights struggles of the last four decades. “The notion that, when it comes to race relations in America, things haven’t really changed, that the enemies of equality are as strong and effective as ever, and that there has been no substantial improvement in the underlying conditions facing minorities” is not true, he said.

Parsons noted that even as the conference was proceeding in Philadelphia, “they are swearing in today an African-American secretary of state and an African-American secretary of education in the new cabinet” in Washington D.C. “The increasing number of African-American business leaders and executives is also a difference,” he told the audience. “And your presence in this room today, at this conference” is another difference.

“No matter what anyone tells you, the fact that these changes have occurred in our country represents a fundamental alteration in the social architecture of American society.”

Parsons said that the failure to appreciate the magnitude of social change “denigrates the great personal sacrifice made by Martin Luther King, by Whitney Young and by thousands of others, both black and white, who fought against tremendous odds to made change happen.” He quoted from the Rev. Jesse Jackson’s commentary on civil rights history in the U.S. in which Jackson pointed to three pillars in the struggle for equality: emancipation, enfranchisement and empowerment.

Today’s African Americans, especially those making up the young business community, are focused on the third pillar, empowerment, encompassing the move from legal equality to full equality, Parsons said. “Your success is at the heart of this third and culminating chapter in the struggle for African American rights. It rests on your boldness as entrepreneurs and your skills as executives. Those who have crossed the threshold to success must insist on keeping the door open for those who will follow.”