What’s your why? Why do you do what you do?
I think in terms of the why, really, it’s twofold. One, my own personal experience, and two, when I came face-to-face with my own unconscious bias, and bias that I didn’t think I had. You know, I was brought up in a very multicultural part of the UK. My parents are Ghanaians. I have friends from all walks of life, and the area I grew up in, difference was actually an asset. So I always saw myself as somebody who was incredibly inclusive. And then, on top of that, obviously, I’m a Black woman. I’m from a working-class area. So if ever I was looking at this issue, I was looking at it on being on the receiving end as opposed to doing it myself. And then a few years ago, as you say, I was living in America and I was filming. And there was a young man on set who had tattoos. I made up, in my head, all of these assumptions about him. And he had not, in any way, behaved menacingly or threatening. But I just decided, this is who he must be. And it was so strange because he could sense my discomfort, and therefore he was going out of his way to seem approachable and acceptable and helpful. In that moment, I was able to see this issue from the other side.
How would you advise people to start a conversation?
So I had the extra insight of genuinely knowing what it feels like in terms of how I was behaving to this young man. But what I would say particularly to white people who are now really wanting to know how to be allies and how to be champions of change, is to be in listening mode. That actually sometimes it’s okay to acknowledge that you don’t know. When you take the time to listen, that creates the kind of trust that then allows you to broach the more unsure stuff.
What hurdles have you had in your career?
You know, when I started out in television, almost 25 years ago, I was often the only Black woman on British television. Many of the shows that I did, I was usually the only Black person on set. And so there were many barriers that I broke, and I had many milestones and many firsts. But within that was interwoven with many rejections. Where it was never said but it was clear why I hadn’t gotten that gig. Or why, last minute, I had been dropped off that magazine cover. And all of those things that, in my industry, really go a long way to shaping where you sort of eventually land. But the thing that always was consistent was my ratings in that the work spoke for itself. Audiences from all backgrounds connected with me and the work that I was doing, and so I always knew that the actual reality in terms of where the majority of people are was different to what the executives thought.
What prompted you to write your book Diversify?
What prompted me to write the book was the incident that I explained where I found myself face-to-face with my own unconscious bias and thinking that I didn’t have any. And it made me really want to work out how to create a safe place to have these uncomfortable conversations. Also to understand where we’re all coming from. If you understand a person’s journey, you can understand how they would think the way they do, even if you don’t agree with it.
Talk to me about the words diversity and inclusion.
I think there’s a big difference in meaning. So in Diversify, I say diversity is where you count the people and inclusion is where you make the people count. But Vernā Myers, who’s head of diversity and inclusion for Netflix, has a famous quote that’s often used, which is “Diversity is being invited to the dance and inclusion is being asked to dance.” So what we want is lots of dance partners who probably wouldn’t think that they had stuff in common, but actually when they take that step, we’ll be pleasantly surprised.
How does diversity and inclusion help or hurt business and client relationships?
In terms of clients, especially for a global investment firm, it means that you can authentically connect with as wide a customer base as possible, because you actually have people within your organization that just understand the nuances of all of the different cultures.
And when you look at emerging markets, and if you look at even the continent of Africa, where by 2030, 40 percent of the world’s youth will be, and you see the sort of growth in terms of economies and the rise of the middle class there. So what we’ve seen happen in China and what we’ve seen happen in Latin America is slowly beginning to happen on the continent. I think it’s also going to happen quickly once it really sort of takes off because of the amount of young people that you have there.
So what you want is that diverse workforce that just understands all the different perspectives, but also can give you a view that you would never have had otherwise.
What are the benefits of empowering women in the workplace?
I think it’s so important to have male champions of change. I speak to a lot of CEOs and leaders who, obviously, in the current structure, tend to be white men. It’s funny because often, when you’re at the top of an organization, you are the last word on everything. You’re the one everybody comes to for an answer. And this is the issue that a lot of leaders don’t know the answer to. So there’s a level of humility that’s needed to sort of go on this journey.
However, what I do say is, if you’ve managed to get to the top of an organization, even with inequality, you got to the top, that means you have something. That means there’s something that you can do that perhaps nobody else can at the moment. That means you’re a natural problem solver. Look at this issue the way you would any other problem. Take away the guilt and the shame and all of the stuff that comes with it, and just look at it purely from a problem-solving perspective. And what would you do there? You look at the reason why something is the way it is, and then you look at how you find a solution. I believe it’s as simple as that.
Can you give us some actionable tips we can put into practice today?
So I would say, in the workplace, we all know the colleague that doesn’t quite fit in for whatever reason. The colleague that perhaps, at the moment we’re not in the office but when we’re in the office, sits on their own, doesn’t go out to lunch with other members of the team. And isn’t necessarily going out for the evening drink, et cetera, et cetera. Perhaps is slightly awkward with clients. But you know that they are good at their actual job. And I think that if you can be the person that reaches out to them, and actually makes them feel welcome, makes them feel that they belong, that could go such a long way to change their experience within your organization, but also to change the culture within your organization.
In terms of within our own lives, I think there’s a special role for parents to play. I think that often, it’s much easier when this stuff is done through our kids. Because our kids are much more open-minded than we are. But also we can actively ensure that our kids are not just playing with kids that are the same as them. So if you live in an affluent area, don’t put your kid in the Little League in your area. Go to a poorer community and put them in a Little League there, so therefore you get to know the families, you get to know the parents, and your kids themselves get comfortable with playing with children that are different to them. And I think that, often, the kinds of friendships that are formed through children, the kind of friendships that parents also form, can really be transforming.
How might progress be measured?
I think for companies, it’s definitely leadership levels. It’s the number of people from diverse backgrounds that you have within leadership. I think that’s the easiest way to begin to measure, because what the data shows us is that diverse leaders, in the same way female leaders tend to hire more women, et cetera, et cetera, you have a ripple effect. If you say, okay, we are going to create a progression pipeline where we are creating an initiative or a program within where we’re identifying the leaders of the future for our organization and we are going to nurture and develop them so that within a five-year period we have X percentage of people in the upper echelons of the business. That to me is a place to start in terms of being able to tangibly measure progress.
What advice do you have for young Black women starting a career in corporate America?
The advice I have for young Black women is: Your voice is needed. You are so needed in helping to rebuild, reshape, and create something that’s extraordinary. And I think that actually Black women have a unique position in the sense that we understand gender discrimination and we understand racial discrimination. And I think that that added insight is very helpful when it comes to helping companies find ways to be inclusive because of that intersection. So for me, and what I would say to any young woman of color that’s coming is, yeah, you’re needed. And remember that. Even when you feel that you don’t belong. Remember, you are needed.