The Black Lives Matter movement has put race and ethnicity at the top of the agenda. At the same time, a series of events from the #TalkAboutBlack and #IAM Campaigns, to the Accelerate your Career Conference, have provided platforms to discuss the need for structural change in the drive for equality in the workplace.
Our Women In Asset Management Summit speakers Justin Onuekwusi, Fund Manager, Head of Retail Multi-Asset Funds at Legal & General Investment Management and co-founder of the movement #TalkAboutBlack, and Dennis Owusu-Sem, Founder of Success Talks, Oversight Relationship Manager at Bank of Montreal Global Asset Management and member of the NatWest Advisory Board for Diversity, discuss how to keep up the momentum.
When Justin Onuekwusi kicked off the #IAM Campaign on his LinkedIn page, he was unprepared for what was a massive and positive response – more than 100,000 views, 2,500 interactions and likes.
The Campaign called for black people and non-black allies to post a picture of themselves on social media answering the question ‘what are you?’ It was set up jointly by senior black professionals in the investment industry, the #TalkAboutBlack movement and the Diversity Project to raise awareness of racism.
“We were completely blown away by just how many people were active in sharing their #IAMs, says Onuekwusi. “It shows that people are willing to be allies; to go the extra mile and say ‘I’m standing shoulder-to-shoulder, side-by-side, with black people’. I think that is very powerful.”
The real catalyst for change was June’s #IAM Talking About Black webinar, which Onuekwusi organised. It attracted over 1,800 people from both investment and non-investment professions who spoke openly about racism and the structural barriers within individual companies.
“The feedback has been incredible,” he reveals. “My inbox exploded with offers of help from non-black people. Judging by the response on LinkedIn, and the number of times we were tagged, it’s clear this webinar moved a lot of people.”
He adds: “I never thought that we’d get to a point where people would talk so openly about ethnicity. At one point, the IAM hashtag was trending on LinkedIn higher than Donald Trump.”
The webinar has helped junior people, as well as senior leaders, accelerate change in their business. After watching it, people have sought the views and lived experience of those who ordinarily don’t have ‘a seat at the table.’ The Campaign has given black people who are not senior in their business, a voice to help shape future policy.
More black role models
Learning from the shared experiences of black people from different sectors was a key feature of the Success Talks Accelerate Your Career Conference 2020 organised by Dennis Owusu-Sem, in collaboration with #TalkAboutBlack.
“People were able to take some comfort in the fact that what they were experiencing was not unusual. Equally, having senior black role models share their lived experiences gave inspiration that they could achieve greatness too.
“It makes it easier if you can see Justin Onuekwusi, who manages £6 billion of assets, or Dawid Konotey-Ahulu, the founder of Redington, achieve these great things. Suddenly you believe that you too can make it to the top. And it gives you the motivation to really stand on the shoulders of giants and continue to move forward.”
Owusu-Sem is now developing a year-long programme to build on what was discussed at the conference. It will involve at least one talk a month with a senior leader. Other initiatives include the virtual conference for Success Talks in Q1 2021, as well as, #TalkAboutBlack mentoring circles and dedicated one-on-one mentoring of black talent. There’s also an upcoming Parker Review event, which includes companies from the FTSE 350 plus senior C-suite sponsorship for black leaders across the UK.
Breaking the ethnicity taboo
However, while these various events are succeeding in raising awareness, Onuekwusi argues that understanding the lived experience of black people and the barriers they face because of their ethnicity, requires long-term education. And there are a range of initiatives in which people can get involved.
He likens the barriers to black people succeeding in the workplace to kinks in a hosepipe which prevent the water flowing through. The kinks, in this case, are taboo, pipeline, entry and progression.
“Taboo is essentially where people are just uncomfortable talking about ethnicity or race,” Onuekwusi explains. “This is why we did the #TalkAboutBlack, to create a platform to get people comfortable talking about ethnicity.
“You need to allow people to make mistakes; because they will. But when they do slip up the consequences should not be punitive; be mindful that they are still learning. I think that’s important.
“We need allies to show-up. Help us host events, be on stage. We are hoping that the next I AM event will be hosted by CEOs sharing what they have implemented within their businesses to achieve lasting change.”
Improving social mobility
He continues: “The second kink is pipeline; this is really about going out into communities. It isn’t easy to untangle social mobility and ethnicity. And that social mobility means that the poorer you are, the less likely you are to get a good education on average. British-born black people tend to finish school with a lower average grade than the average white person. That then manifests itself in professional jobs because it means that they do not have the CVs that match the requirements.”
To address this, he is involved in setting up an after-school programme, aimed at giving 14-year-olds an insight into the corporate world. Run in conjunction with the City of London, it will feature ten modules covering softer skills but also financial matters, include savings, mortgages and wealth management. It is due to launch in the third quarter, starting in Tower Hamlets, East London and, so far, ten businesses have signed up to support and fund it.
The entry kink in the hosepipe is how black people can get into asset management, where they have very few role models. As a result, people from underrepresented communities tend to be attracted to sectors where they see more representation.
Says Onuekwusi: “HR teams tell us the reason why they’re not hiring black people is that they’re not applying. To address this, last November, for example, we started what is going to be an annual event, where we connected 100 students to 13 different asset managers; saying, there really is no excuse not to have a diverse slate. And that’s just using our networks.”
Set up ethnically diverse task forces
Progression, the final kink, is enabling more black people in the investment industry to climb the corporate ladder to C-suite/fund manager level.
To move forward, Onuekwusi believes it is important to fully understand the feedback from the IAM campaign and webinar. A second event is being planned to assess what steps have been taken to create change. Discussions are also underway for taking the IAM campaign to a different medium, such as TV.
“It is essential we start to embed real structural change as the businesses/companies that are doing this will see the benefit,” he adds. “We have reached a turning point. The fact that people are talking about it is huge, and can’t be underestimated. But, what we seek is a long-term structural change to bring about tangible action.”
The big challenge is that many businesses lack black people at senior level, making it difficult to include their voices when forming policy. What’s needed is for companies to set up ethnically diverse task forces that aim to catch that lived experience of people and feed recommendations directly into the executive.
That lived experience, Onuekwusi says, requires a more tailored approach to aspects such as sponsorship and coaching.
“I know several senior black people in the industry and beyond who are ready to be coached,” he explains. “Most businesses in the City will have a list of executive coaches. But very few of them have experience in dealing with ethnicity and the challenge of being a senior ethnic minority in a business. So, as a black leader, you have to go external.
“A tiny thing like that can have a massive impact on your productivity and feeling whether you belong.”
Give D&I professionals power to make change
D&I tends to fall short when the people responsible are structured within HR and don’t have direct routes into the boardroom.
This is vitally important,” says Owusu-Sem. “To support their work, D&I professionals need to have the power to make the change and not simply be in a position where they are only there to make suggestions. We need to give those professionals the influence and authority to implement real change.”
Owusu-Sem also feels that putting all ethnic minorities under one BAME banner is unhelpful, and it was more important to understand the lived experience of each minority.
“You have to delineate between the sub-groups and go as far as looking at the next level of granularity. For example, there are differences between black Africans and black Caribbeans in the way they are raised and how they handle certain situations. So if we truly want to have that diverse mixture of the population represented in those companies, then we need to get to the bottom of understanding it.”
On unconscious bias training, Owusu-Sem points out that it tends to be a one-off and therefore not as effective as it should be. He adds: “Recent events have highlighted that racial injustice still exists in many forms, we need to adopt modern forms of consistent training to tackle it. Furthermore, we need a more consistent programme of training and education to overcome the challenges.”
Understanding black people’s experiences
Achieving meaningful change will depend on a proper understanding of black people’s experiences and why it is difficult for them to progress. Owusu-Sem cites the example of how a manager, when faced with two equally qualified candidates, is more likely to choose the person who is more like them.
He suggests that how work is allocated needs a different approach so that black people are offered equal opportunities to shine and therefore, progress at an equal rate.
“And I think we need allies. We can talk as much as we want about wanting to make the change, but our current system is flawed and needs to be addressed with advocates campaigning and pushing for action in order for things to change, ” Owusu-Sem explains. “So we’re going to need their support to make that change stick.
“Right now, following George Floyd’s murder, racial injustice is in the news, but we’ve been here time and time before. It seems as though more white people are now more willing to have the conversation, but we don’t want this to be another flash in the pan and that in five years we’re still having this conversation. We want to maintain the momentum, and we’re going to need everybody on board to help make the change that we all require.”
He advises that while the system is flawed, black professionals should not only wait for others to change the landscape for an opportunity.
Self-promote and build networks
“A lot of us have probably been educated in a way that tells us that if you just work hard and get the grades, you’ll go to the next level,” says Owusu-Sem. “But, once you get to the workforce, it’s a different game. It’s about the relationships you build, who’s sponsoring you and aware of the great work that you are doing.
“Some of it comes down to the self-promotion that a lot of black people don’t or are aware they should do. I’ve observed that the people who progress are good at finding the right people to support them, having the conversations and getting the sponsorship.
“We need to learn from others how to navigate the corporate ladder and then, more importantly, apply this information to our careers. We can listen to as many talks as we want, but unless we take action, nothing is going to change.”
Onuekwusi agrees and also suggests that people need to build their softer skills – climbing the career ladder doesn’t just depend on doing the hard skills right.
He also recommends building a network of people who would have similar experiences. This helps people to feel that they are not alone.
“One of the biggest challenges of being black in the asset management industry, or a corporate environment, is that there’s just so few of you, so you always feel like an outsider,” Onuekwusi concludes. “So actually having that network of lived experiences helps you to understand and navigate the workforce.
“What I think senior people should do, which I’m trying to do so much more, is amplify the voices of the more junior people in the industry. That is so important because that creates the leaders of tomorrow.”
Hear more from Justin and Dennis by joining them at the Women In Asset Management New York Virtual Summit on September 9-10. Register Now.