The ‘chameleon effect’ and authentic self-belief have helped Joel Blake OBE to break down barriers in the traditional world of finance.
Belief in yourself is essential for anyone striving for success but not nearly enough to open doors for Black entrepreneurs and professionals.
According to Joel Blake OBE, Founder and Chief Executive of the GFA Exchange, while self-belief in “the value of what I’m offering is crucial from a business point of view, it’s much more about being congruent with authentic self-belief.”
Authentic self-belief explained
Authentic self-belief means not caring whether people consider you are good enough. A feeling that Blake candidly admits is “borderline arrogance.” He explains: “It’s about me believing that I’m at the table on merit, even if you don’t think I should be – and let me show you how and why without apology.
“What drives me is things that have nothing to do with business. When I walk into the room, I know I have to own the responsibility of being an accomplished businessman, but I’m mindful that it’s not my whole life. I am always learning to become even better and authentic about who I am in that room. However, the other side is what I call the chameleon effect; knowing how to adapt without changing who you are. It is a skill you have to be conscious and consistently developing, and you never get it right all the time.
“It’s about understanding the language, culture, etiquette, and the nuances of the space that you’re in — and then adding that to your authentic self. If you don’t do the two things together, your authentic self will probably rub people up the wrong way. Or being so deep and entrenched in the way things are, you forget who you are, and you become a pawn in the game.”
Blake points out the depressing fact that Black people are forever being judged just by their colour and constantly face bias.
Yet, this discrimination hasn’t prevented him from carving out a successful career. Before his fintech venture, he focused on making business support and enterprise more inclusive and co-founded a financial lending firm. He has found that while his familiarity with the language of finance helped him break down doors, build good networks and have a presence in the sector, not having a tech background has been a hindrance.
“There’s a lack of Black faces in fintech full stop,” says Blake. “I know of maybe three or four Black fintech founders in the UK; we’re not visible at scale. That is probably the biggest barrier. The traditional and conservative nature of financial services doesn’t lend itself to being inclusive.”
Blake describes himself as a bit of a rebel or even an anomaly, having not joined the sector by the usual routes of university or accountancy. “I like that,” Blake adds with a smile. “It means that you’ve already got a perception of who I am or what I’m about, but you don’t realise what I’m about to do. I take power from that. It’s the delivery that precedes the responsibility of being Black within this industry. Because, if I don’t deliver, it can be made to feel like all of us can’t deliver, and so I take that responsibility very seriously every day.”
Understand and embrace culture
Blake suggests that the lessons Black people learn from their culture can add a positive edge to traditional environments. A person’s culture shouldn’t consciously be left at the door in the workplace. Organisations need to wake up to the fact that Black people should not be expected to solve issues of discrimination and racism.
The importance of understanding and embracing culture was brought home during his experience of running the financial lending company. For him and his two partners – both white men – it was start-up 101.
“None of us had been in financial lending before, so it was a real baptism of fire,” Blake recalls. “Alongside the processes and systems of the business, we didn’t have time to sit down and work out what type of culture we wanted. But we did share a kindred value of forging an inclusive culture within the business.
“But as a startup, we always had to balance the burden of fulfilling a five-year Government contract and building a business that focused on people. There was definitely a lack of understanding about each other’s cultures, and I have to hold myself up to that as well,” he admits. “I’m thinking that we need to be delivering a business that’s supporting everybody from every background because every business deserves the opportunity to grow. But others were focused on delivering on the contract by getting the ‘best’ talent while those who didn’t fit would have to wait.”
To get around this, Blake was elected to run the post loan mentoring programme part of the contract – which suited his supportive metier. But, as the direction became more about traditional lending, rather than finding and helping promising businesses and being more inclusive, he decided to leave and set up GFA.
Growth v fixed mindset
So perhaps the Government needs to rethink its lending? He agrees: “That’s exactly why the very premise of what we’ve done with GFA has been on business health and performance information, rather than all the other data sets that the industry uses.
“If we can build the biggest data set of business health and performance intelligence, we can feed that directly into any Government level to inform their decision-making right through the industry. At the same time, we can help the lenders on the ground to make better lending decisions, reduce their risk and therefore inform them of what inclusive data ought to look like.”
Ultimately, Blake says that the secret to overcoming obstacles is the growth mindset versus the fixed mindset. He concludes: “The fixed mindset is born of all our conditioning and experiences and all the valid things that have taken us to where we are. The growth mindset says, ‘what can I take from all this to get over there?’ That’s facing your vulnerability, your inadequacies, and that’s hard but definitely achievable.”
To catch Joel at the upcoming ‘Rethinking Inclusive Mentorship’ event on June 24th, click here to register for your free place.