From being told that adland only hires from Oxbridge to being given the “uniform chat” as to what is acceptable attire in an office, leading figures of colour share their inspirational stories on how they have managed to rise to the top of their profession in new book A Colourful View From the Top.
The book, which is released today (16 March), features 21 black and brown luminaries who have succeeded under often hostile circumstances. It has been curated by Jonathan Mildenhall and his team at TwentyFirstCenturyBrand.
Below is a series of extracts from the book.
Co-founder and chair, TwentyFirstCenturyBrand
Right after that first tutorial and the lightbulb moment, I went back to my career adviser with this renewed sense of purpose and passion. I had found my calling and I wanted to pursue it right away. I thanked her for her advice and promised her that I would work incredibly hard and eventually get a job working for an advertising agency in London. I could barely sit still.
She clasped her hands, lowered her voice and said: “Jonathan I need to explain some things to you. The advertising industry is very white; it’s very middle class; and they only actually recruit from Oxford and Cambridge.”
In the space of a single sentence, she had respectfully told me that my paternal background, socioeconomic background and academic background were going to prevent me from pursuing this ideal career path. I walked out of her office and thought back to the advice from my mum all those years ago. I was determined to prove my adviser wrong and own my difference.
My career adviser had unlocked something in me and there was no turning back. I had a healthy obsession with researching this new-found industry. With all of my research, I steadily cultivated it into a passion. I researched all the top London advertising agencies, their clients, their leaders, who invested the most in graduate training, campaign awards and different approaches to bringing a campaign to life. By the time I was ready to apply to different agencies, I was sure that I was armed with all of the knowledge and nuance, and this endowed me with the confidence I needed. This also allowed me to relax into the interview and allow my character to shine through.
Founder and chief executive, Involve – The Inclusion People
I was in my first recruitment job at Michael Page for nearly four years, but because of my experiences right from day one, I was aware there were improvements that could be made to the predominant culture within the recruitment industry. It was very macho, and from the perspective of a working-class lad coming down from Derby like me, it was very intimidating – I hated it when I first started there. I remember I was so excited about moving to London – gosh! My big graduate job in this global business! – so of course I wanted to dress really stylishly and look really cool and trendy coming to London. I bought a suit that was aubergine in colour; I wore it with either a white or a purple shirt and a really colourful stripy tie. And at this time, this is me in the closet, or at least thinking I’m in the closet.
When I got there on that first day, not only was I probably the only working-class graduate, I was the only one who hadn’t been privately educated, and they all looked super smart and corporate, wearing a navy blue suit, the red tie, the white shirt, and with me looking garish and very flamboyant. At the end of the day the managing director took us all to the pub – there was a very big drinking culture there – and I remember in front of everyone said: “Suki, what on earth are you wearing? You look like a deckchair!”
You laugh along with it because you don’t want to be the troublesome one, but I also remember my manager at the time taking me to one side to give me the “uniform chat”: she said I needed to fit in and I needed to be more restrained in my choices.
Head of Americas risk management and intelligence at Meta
I co-founded the Black British Business Awards for the same reason I’m involved in mentoring. When London hosted the Olympic Games in 2012, we were immersed in these amazing visuals, showing the city at its best. But in the months leading up to the Olympics, there had been serious riots. The media portrayed these riots as largely instigated by black people. I thought: “Here we are, all eyes on us, and this is how they depict black people.”
I watched a BBC interview where there was a young girl called Mercy who attended a primary school in Hackney, and she’d been one of the torch bearers. The morning after she was asked: “How did it feel?” and she replied that she was just so grateful to be there because she “didn’t think they would allow people like us!”.
That really struck me. It was as if she was already convinced that she was going to be disqualified on the basis of how her community was depicted months before. I thought: “We’ve got to find a different way of depicting our relevance to London and to the narrative of Great Britain.”
Hence, I co-founded the Black British Business Awards – BBBAwards – in 2014, which is firstly intended to be a beacon to young people who have aspirations, a message that they belong and they can do it; secondly, to respond to the common refrain that says black talent in business doesn’t exist. We exist, and we exist in meaningful numbers. The BBBAwards have been growing from strength to strength, and I would love to find a way of making it a global campaign that elevates the global black brand across continents.
Founder, The Stack World
When I first came to London to do my degree at Central St Martins, my boyfriend at the time was a hip hop DJ, so I’d go to this high-fashion art school during the day, then at night I would go to hip hop clubs and parties. I started the WAH magazine because I loved that music, but I found the whole culture of it very misogynistic. I didn’t understand the word “misogyny” back then, but I immediately recognised that all the women in these music videos or performing were scantily clad – it felt as though the expectation was for me to dress that way too. Whenever I’d go out, there would only be five or six women in a room of about 100 men, so I know I wasn’t alone in feeling this wasn’t a very female-friendly culture.
In truth, I started WAH as a process of figuring out my own identity; I was using it to work through my thoughts, coming to grips with what it was like to be a woman who was into traditionally aggressive, masculine music, but who also doesn’t want to be hyper-feminine. Looking back, I’ve definitely taken a path of entrepreneurialism as a way to define my own culture – one free from misogyny, stereotypes and gendered expectations. That’s one thing I’ve learnt from my work in diversity and inclusion initiatives – misogyny in the workplace tends to be a little more insidious rather than obvious. There’s a part of me that wonders what other people say when I’m not in the room – how they might be judging me, and whether those judgements are based on my race or gender. But that’s the beauty of making your own way in work; you can create the culture and community that works for you while also catering for women across the globe.
A Colourful View From the Top launches on 16 March and is published by Little Brown