Kike Oniwinde Agoro discusses how the BYP Network Leadership Conference, the largest event of its kind for Black professionals, showcases what is possible.
On October 6, a stellar line-up of speakers will address the BYP Network Leadership Conference, the flagship annual event for thousands of Black professionals from around the world.
They include Tim Campbell MBE, entrepreneur and winner of The Apprentice; Ade Hassan MBE, founder of Nubian Skin; Sir Trevor Philips, writer and broadcaster and Natasha Shotunde, co-founder and chair of the Black Barristers’ Network. TV and radio producer Will Njobvu from Capital Xtra is hosting alongside Scarlette Douglas, host of Channel 4 ‘Worst House on the Street’. It will be followed by a virtual career fair the next day.
The leadership conference, which coincides with Black History Month, is an integral part of the calendar for the BYP Network, a platform connecting Black professionals to each other and corporations.
Since its launch six years ago, the Network has grown to 150,000 members and more than 1,000 corporate clients. All the members boast of having an enhanced network, and over 15,000 have developed skills through BYP’s mentorship and thought leadership events.
Founder and CEO Kike Oniwinde Agoro says: “I see the BYP Leadership Conference as action. Black leaders are on stage, and that, in itself, is showing you what is possible. A member once described the conference as a Black heaven.’
“So many of our members talk about how it’s transformed their lives since attending, as previously they didn’t know what was possible. Role models and visibility are important. Why can’t more conferences show more Black people on stage?”
Agoro herself is a shining example of what is possible. She excelled both academically and athletically – as an international javelin thrower. After gaining an economics degree at Nottingham University, she went to the University of Florida on a scholarship and earned a master’s degree. Then, after a spell in investment banking, she worked in business development at a financial technology company. Her many accolades include Forbes 30 under 30, a Sky Women in Technology Scholar, an F-Factor winner, and New Entrepreneurs Foundation winner.
However, she recalls: “I used to get a lot of opportunities, scholarships, bursaries, internships, you name it, but I would be the only one that looked like me. It was pretty confusing; I’d be on an internship, but the majority of the Black people were cleaners and security guards.
“It became clear early on that the standard for entry for a Black person into the corporate world is much higher. I was able to navigate the system because I achieved exceptional grades in multiple degrees and was an international athlete; deemed acceptable. But we know the majority in the room didn’t have to achieve the same standard. In the Black community, we know we have to be excellent to get an opportunity, which I don’t think is fair.”
During her time in the US, she found that talented Black students faced the same challenges as their counterparts in the UK. Whereas successful Black athletes and musicians were lauded in the media, high-achieving Black people in the workplace tended to be invisible.
Visibility for Black professionals
“I thought everyday people should be celebrities,” Agoro argues. “There’s so many doing incredible things, committing to their work, they should be seen, they should be known. And how do we amplify that? That’s essentially why BYP was born.
“We created the Network to connect as a community, role model visibility, learn how to grow personally and professionally from each other and show the world that we exist.”
She describes the network as about giving, especially since many in the Black community don’t always grab the opportunities available. Development mattered to those aspiring to be leaders, and BYP provided essential thought leadership and insight.
“We work with our corporate partners to also give to the community,” Agoro explains. “It’s incredible the testimonials we have of people getting jobs, connecting to mentors and people in the network. That’s been great seeing how much the corporations want to give.
“All the companies we work with say they want to hire more, retain, and ensure that their pipeline of Black professionals is developed. This is to make sure that they’re an employer of choice.”
BYP acts as an amplifier for corporate clients’ initiatives and helps them to achieve their aims. There’s a mentorship programme where corporate employees mentor BYP members. The network offers a Black Experience course for corporates to help them understand the daily challenges Black professionals face. It holds weekly webinars and events, and there are BY-Peer groups in cities worldwide.
Agoro points out that the Black Experience course came from the realisation that “we needed to educate our clients and make sure that it’s not just a tick box.” During the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020, several networks emerged to change the Black narrative. But, while these have mostly disappeared, the BYP Network has gone from strength to strength.
The secret is authenticity. She says: “We’re just ourselves. The mission has come from my own experiences and the team’s. We’re doing business with clients and helping our members because we understand what we’re here to do.”
Agoro adds that it was important to “preach on both sides.” That means tackling clients about why they don’t have more Black leaders and asking about the internal initiatives to help them get promoted. On the community side, it was what steps individuals were taking to put themselves forward, the courses they were taking and whether they were attending the BYP Leadership Conference to understand how to become a leader.
Nevertheless, there was still a problem of Black professionals leaving their jobs against the backdrop of the cost-of-living crisis. “It’s very, very difficult to be a Black professional,” Agoro offers. “We always say that mental health comes first. You don’t want to be in an environment where you’re suffering, you’re being underestimated and undervalued, where you realise you’re being paid less than the white person next to you, and you’re being micro-managed every day.
It’s, do I choose mental health or cost-of-living crisis? Maybe I will go without my dinner so that at least I have my mental health. Many Black professionals will go freelance or start a company, but the sad reality is that’s dire too. We don’t get funding; we don’t get business loans. Sometimes, as a community, we don’t even support ourselves.”
COVID-19 has affected the Black population, particularly women. Black Women’s Equal Pay Day in the US last month, which denotes how far into the year a Black woman must work to achieve parity with what a white man was paid the previous year, was 58 cents to one dollar. Last year it was 63 cents.
Making a difference
Agoro says this shows that there is still much with which to contend. She adds: “We shouldn’t have to be saying Black Lives Matter, quoting stats like 58 cents to the dollar, leaving workplaces, not getting funding, Black professionals not getting jobs. It’s just so jarring and frustrating.
“So, it’s quite hard to see the light at the end of the tunnel. I always said that the BYP Network exists, not to exist. We would close the business if all these companies were diverse and Black professionals got opportunities. But we’re six years in and still have a long way to go.”
On the plus side, the network has achieved much in that time. With 150,000 members worldwide and over 1,000 corporate clients, it is making a difference.
Says Agoro: “I’m in awe of how far we’ve come. We’re showing people that a Black female leader can grow and scale a Black company focused on Black people, can hire diverse people, help allies to understand what’s going on for Black professionals and speak to companies at the highest level about Black talent and their experience and be her authentic self.
“When I started BYP Network, I didn’t think I would be a role model. I just wanted to do something and make a change. And all of this has happened as a consequence, so the journey speaks for itself.”
You can reserve your place at the conference here.