Empowering Black individuals isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach. There are crucial points in any person’s life where a combination of circumstances, choice and opportunity can dictate the path you take. It’s important that society, educators and organisations understand the reality of how this intersection is different for minorities, and what can be done to address it.
I come from a strong, supportive Nigerian family. My mother and father raised me and my siblings to follow two values: one, strive for excellence; two, try and be of service to others. So excelling at school wasn’t negotiable; my parents would reinforce the need to study at home and were eventually buying me books to read that were two to three years ahead of my class curriculum.
Experiencing academic success in my formative years was fundamental in getting me to where I am today. I grew up in Woolwich Arsenal, south east, London and attended a secondary school with kids of all different races and backgrounds. However, not all educational experiences are made equal. For context, in the year I finished secondary school, the percentage of students in my year who achieved five GCSEs at grades A* - C, including Maths and English, was only 19%. I was fortunate to finish near the higher end of the grading curve, but it’s my home structure I have to thank for that.
“The higher the level of further education, the smaller the proportion of people from lower socio-economic backgrounds; as society is today that results in a lack of diversity in race”
Students need an incentive to get good grades and to see where getting good grades can take them. If it feels like you’re not good at education, all the other distractions that come with being a child become your focus and in a diverse, inner-city school, this can lead to poor life choices. It doesn’t feel good to fail, and if you’re not getting the right support, it’s much easier to get distracted by activities outside school.
After secondary school, I started sixth form at a grammar school. Demographically, the two schools were worlds apart. I went from being part of the majority to the minority. Before, the mentality was to do well at school because that’s just what you should do, but at sixth form, the focus shifted to where it could lead you. I was introduced to different fields and career options. It was the first time I’d ever heard about the finance world, despite growing up just across the river from Canary Wharf.
Going from university to the corporate world was one of the most challenging transitions I’ve ever made. The biggest shock was how un-socioeconomically diverse it was. When I first joined the corporate world, I struggled to find a blueprint to success for someone who looks like me. It doesn’t exist because there were little, to no, Black individuals in senior positions. I started my career at 21 years old, I was hungry to learn and looking for a path to follow. But when you’re one of only three Black sales executives and there are no Black regional heads, it has an effect on you. There’s no evidence that you can be successful and you start to question yourself. The unfortunate truth for many people of Black professionals working in industries like finance is you have to create your own blueprint.
“Inviting diverse hires to have a seat at the table and encouraging them to use their unique voice is just as important as hiring them in the first place”
My experience isn’t an isolated one. The business world still has a long way to go in terms of diversity, but it’s crucial for organisations to understand why it’s important and the chain reaction that building a workforce of people from different races and backgrounds causes.
Diverse teams create diversity of thought, which builds better solutions to solve problems. If you’re serving a multicultural customer base, which almost every business is, employing people from different backgrounds is essential. All you need to do is look at businesses that have made mistakes. A prime example is when H&M had a young Black boy modelling a t-shirt with the words ‘coolest monkey’ on it. When that happened, the people who signed it off were clearly just viewing it through their own lens; if you had a more diverse group involved in the decision-making process, chances are someone would have seen what was wrong with it.
Increasing diversity isn’t enough, it’s about championing it too. Inviting diverse hires to have a seat at the table and encouraging them to use their unique voice is just as important as hiring them in the first place. There could be someone that sees something wrong but doesn’t feel empowered to disagree. If there is no one else who looks like you in the room, you’re less likely to use your voice, for the fear of highlighting what’s different about you.
Humans are naturally adaptable; it’s how we deal with change and thrive in new environments. If you join an organisation and most of the people are similar to you, you’ll have to do a little bit of adapting to the processes and company culture, but nothing too drastic. If you’re a minority, you don’t have the luxury of forgetting to adapt, purely because you’re so different to everyone else.
The danger is that diverse hires continue adapting to an extent where they hide everything that makes them unique, which becomes assimilating, or code switching. They might still think in their own way, but have to translate it into something that resonates with the majority by changing their mannerisms or cultural traits. This results in a secondary mental load that is ongoing through someone’s day to day, and a constant feeling of imposter syndrome, which often leads people to holding back their true selves.
I joined London Business School’s MBA programme in 2016. Growing up in London and going on to work in the finance industry, I knew of LBS’s reputation as a world-class business school. I wanted to immerse myself in a diverse environment where I’d be able to build my network, develop global business skills and learn from the perspectives of people from different countries and industries; the MBA programme proved to be the perfect fit.
I was surprised to find myself one of only five Black students on the programme. Talent exists across the full spectrum of race, gender, sexuality and background; by ensuring diversity doesn’t just apply to nationality, the School and its students can only benefit. LBS has recently done a good job of promoting the empowerment of Black individuals, with initiatives like the Black in Business Club and the Black in Business Scholarship.
The most remarkable thing about LBS is that it’s an equaliser. No matter your race, background or experience prior to joining the school, studying there is like a seal of credibility; people take more time to view you for your merits as it commands a certain level of respect and cements your pedigree.
People need to get over the stigma of having discussions about race. Black people have gone through a lot of psychological hurt, which is something we are dealing with, and as a result I often feel the white population take on a subconscious guilt or discomfort with this, which leads to the conversation being avoided. It’s because of this that the conversation is often avoided, but we’ll never get comfortable having these discussions if we don’t start. Like riding a bike; when you first try, you might fall off a few times and scrape your knee, but then you eventually become comfortable. This is exactly what needs to happen; the world needs to have these discussions about race more often and be more open and honest.
“When it comes to empowering and supporting Black individuals, either in their careers or just in society, appreciating that their reality may be different to yours is the first step to becoming a true ally”
To be a good ally, people need to understand that we all wear a lens when we view the world. I grew up having four sisters and a mother who had very strong personality, so by association, I learnt early on that the experience of a woman in the world would be significantly different to mine as a man. But if you’ve never been exposed to another viewpoint than your own, it can be hard to truly see things through other people’s eyes. For example, when I travel to a new country, I check if there are any instances of racial prejudice. As a Black man, if I’m heading somewhere, I need to know what kind of experience I can be expected to have, which is something others might never think of.
Once you realise that there are different lenses, you can start thinking from another person’s perspective. When it comes to empowering and supporting Black individuals, either in their careers or just in society, this is the first step to becoming a true ally.
The murder of George Floyd did a lot to wake up the world and start addressing the problems that have existed for such a long time, but there’s still a way to go. The day I can go into work and not feel that I have to be conscious of my race is when we’ve reached a turning point. When your diverse workforce no longer worries about the fact they’re diverse, then your organisation has reached a milestone that we should all be striving to reach.