I visited a client’s offices recently and was struck by a big-screen slideshow celebrating scientists, leaders and innovators who were Black women. This year’s Black History Month, themed around Saluting Our Sisters, spotlights the often-overlooked role of Black women in shaping British history, from poets and musicians to business leaders and scientists. I was struck by the range of careers the display represented, and by the fact that though many of these women work in areas I’m very interested in, I didn’t know their names.
That display, and a recent article I read about Akyaaba Addai-Sebo who started the conversation that led to establishing Black History Month in 1985, got me thinking about the kinds of Black women, and people of colour in general, we’re used to seeing in the public eye. It’s relatively common to see Black people in ‘activist mode’ roles, like heads of a charity or in professions like academia. But we see less representation in areas like the public sector or business leadership.
It’s as if there are certain spaces that are a bit more open and others that remain closed. It takes a lot of work to access those closed spaces, and I thought about the journeys these successful Black women must have taken to get there. What kinds of obstacles did they face? Which aspects of their identity, if any, did they have to give up?
To be clear, activism is very important. We need the strong, charismatic personalities who command attention and drive change, and we have a lot to thank them for. We also need other personality types, points of view, talents, and contributions.
When only the fighters can make it through, they are all you see, and they don’t represent the whole.
I’ve also been taking the opportunity to reflect on my life before coming to the UK and how it shaped me. Part of that was a recognition of some internalised racism in myself. I had internalised some of the racist narrative around me to the extent that it was surprising and difficult to discover it. I’m very conscious of it now and I’d like to see myself work harder to make sure it doesn’t surface through unconscious bias and influence my decision-making. Ultimately, I hope it will help me to handle racism better when it comes from outside, and to enable and advocate for other people.
This brings me to our business. As we grow our team, I’ve been thinking about our hiring process and what we want to achieve. It’s certainly important to be inclusive of, and accessible to, the widest range of talent possible. But it’s even more important to create a culture where people want to stay long-term, going beyond enhancing inclusive recruitment to retention. I want to create a space where it’s safe to be who you are without second-guessing how you will be perceived based on race or any other characteristic.
What does that look like? I think it’s about being able to retain your sense of self at work while taking something new from the organisation. Our goal is to promote integration, sharing as many perspectives and cultures as possible but never asking people to let go of who they are and where they have come from. That way we can build something that’s composed of everyone’s contributions, rather than asking people to conform to something they may not feel connected to.
We’re entering a new hiring phase soon, and I see it as a golden opportunity to put these insights into action. Whether the people who join us are fighters, or whether they’re quieter voices. Whether they’re scientists, researchers, business experts or something else. Whether they are from a particular culture or group – and whether they’re full of confidence or feeling that impostor syndrome creeping in. We want people to feel comfortable being themselves with us.