Pr strategist Saman Ali has long considered what businesses leaders need to do close the gap between rhetoric and reality on racial equity at work. Needing insight on what is happening on the frontline, on behalf of DiversityQ she sat down with award-winning business strategist and founder of The Black British Business Awards – Melanie Eusebe.
Melanie has risen to the upper- echelons of the corporate world, and in their broad conversation, offered her perspectives on corporate responsibility, solidarity, and how to sustain the current momentum.
After months of black squares, hashtags and big promises about self-reflection, there is growing concern that the anti-racism momentum might soon come to a halt or get crushed altogether by the intensity and pace of a 24-hour news cycle. However, unlike previous efforts to raise consciousness about racial disparities, this protest movement and the global conversation it started, has brought hope to many.
Persistence and being (data) prepared
Despite being a rare presence in the white-male-dominated business world – just 1.5% of top positions are held by black people in the UK– Melanie Eusebe has built a successful career, leveraging her success to pave the way for others who face a system that is set up against them. Her role as a management consultant for corporate giants like IBM and EY took place long before any culture of accountability was established, meaning that she needed to find ways to be heard. Her secret weapons? – “Personal preparedness and vigour.”
When asked to consider the current momentum, Melanie was unequivocal: “I don’t think that we will go back to where we were.” She explains this outlook through her conviction that persistence is the key to lasting change. Instead, she continued, we should treat this moment as a vital opportunity to secure bold commitments and insist on accountability measures.
During her career, she quickly learned that navigating an ingrained hierarchy in the workplace is not merely about assertiveness, but also knowing exactly what to say and when to make a move. “I’m not quick to speak. I always base my arguments on data. If you want to be taken seriously, you have to have that credibility which will amplify your influence and authority.”
Deeply rooted in personal experience
Melanie’s outspoken advocacy for inclusive workplaces is deeply rooted in her own experience of being a black woman in non-inclusive spaces. It is also linked to a larger narrative of missed opportunities and squandered talent when certain groups are excluded.
“No one should be excluded. It’s a horrible feeling not to be acknowledged around the table; to not know that the table even exists. Or to know it exists but you are not there, and you can never get there”.
No matter how jarring her own experiences of exclusion, she is cautiously optimistic about the direction we are heading. For too long, we have accepted silence and withdrawal from difficult conversations about racial discrimination. Melanie, however, believes things are starting to change.
“We are having the necessary conversations. We are getting comfortable with being uncomfortable”. The call for humility and vigilance is just the beginning, Melanie added: “We must push on, so that everyone can be seen, and heard, and celebrated for what they bring to the table”.
Our formative years
Growing up in Canada – a young nation that prides itself on offering a more inclusive concept of identity to its citizens – played an important role in Melanie’s journey toward self-actualisation. The country’s merit-driven model, albeit flawed, made progress possible. However, it was her mother’s fierce scrutiny of racial bias (no matter where it occurred) that Melanie is most grateful for.
Although she had access to high-quality education, casual prejudice was inevitable at a school, where most teachers, students and the curriculum were white. It wasn’t until she moved to London that she was able to explore the infinitely complex and rich perspectives that London’s diverse black community had to offer.
As we talked, this deeply resonated with me. I also understand the dilemmas involved in questions of race and identity. In my own experience in the capital, London was able to respond to my basic desires of belonging and community in a way that my small, predominately white hometown in southern Germany never could.
A bigger sense of duty
Melanie’s London epiphany occurred because: “I realised that I was part of something bigger”. This realisation was both empowering and daunting. On the one hand, this was propelled by her exposure to the burst of black creativity and talent – beginning in 2014 when she co-founded The BBB Awards – which shone a spotlight on accomplishments that had long been overlooked.
But on the other hand, grasping the prevalence of prejudice has set out the moral philosophy that drives her work; a sense of duty to give back to the community. Today, she empowers the next generation of business leaders with a series of mentorship programmes and uses her platform to bring attention to structural injustice. Like many, Melanie sees a long road ahead amid the euphoric talk of ‘how far we have come’.
Ending the culture of silence to achieve genuine solidarity
Whilst there is no clear roadmap for how to support the cause, ditching denial is an obvious starting point for Melanie. I was curious to know what she would say to people who regard her achievements as proof that the barriers to social mobility are either exaggerated; or at least, do not require immediate attention. She urges businesses and organisations to focus on those who are serious about solidarity. She considers this process will disempower deniers and allow us to move the debate to where it needs to go.
As someone who understands the corporate mindset, Melanie believes that business must be pushed into a more proactive next phase. On an executive level, this means stepping up accountability by introducing and tracking data. But on a broader level, colleagues have to start calling attention to injustices. “If the people who sit around the table look like you and have the same world views as you, you are creating an inward group,” she asserts.
Regardless of whether you are at work or at an event, Melanie states, you should – “Always look around you and ask who is not represented at the table. Then ask yourself, why?”
Saman Ali is a PR Strategist for Mulberry Marketing Communications.