Life can often seem as though we have been dealt a hand that offers an unfair advantage to the other players in the game – especially if we’re already in a social minority. There will always be incidents in our lives that demonstrate how unfair the world is. But out of these situations, we have to take the learning and use it to shape our future. Look at what these experiences have taught us – or what they are still teaching us. What can you take away from these experiences, and channel positively, to transcend the pitfalls?
It won’t come as any surprise that people who are Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (whatever that means!) are hugely underrepresented within the business and corporate world. Fewer than one in ten management jobs in the UK are held by members of ethnic groups. Inequality is a topic that many people still feel uncomfortable discussing. Often, it is a taboo subject even amongst the people who make up these groups.
In my earlier years of business, there were times when I, too, would feel self-conscious of other people’s judgements or prejudices – especially when I was stepping into a meeting room with a prospective client for the first time. I often felt that I would have to do more to prove myself than a white person would – to dispel any prejudgements they might have made about me, based on the colour of my skin, my age, my accent or any other surface impression. Of course, this self-consciousness wasn’t altogether such a bad thing – because it was great motivator for me to become better at what I do and helped me to substantially grow, as an entrepreneur.
But these concerns and fears are very real; to such an extent that, even to this day, I still experience similar scenarios at business meetings or industry events. I’ll be standing with a colleague, and someone will come over to talk to us. And more often than not, they presume that my white, middle-aged, male staff-member must be my boss, because he fits the perceived stereotype of a business leader (whatever that is). Of course, I sometimes put it down to my youthful looks! I’ll choose to believe that it’s very easy for someone to mistakenly presume that someone looking so youthful couldn’t possibly have achieved the level of success that I have. Nothing to do with my ethnicity – I’m just far too young!
Although I make light of such situations, it’s still a negative reflection of the unconscious biases being maintained within the business world. Equality might have come a long way in the last hundred years, but business leaders are, largely, still ‘expected’ to be white, middle-class, middle-aged men. We all have a responsibility to change the paradigm. But that is easier said than done, because we all have our own personal unconscious bias.
It is a fact in our society that a specific reality exists for people of colour that is not experienced by other people. Small, everyday operational things become overshadowed by the need for extra awareness and caution. To an extent, I have even saddened and disappointed myself, because there have been times when I have consciously based my own decisions on discrimination – deciding which manager should attend a meeting, to pre-empt a client’s possible prejudice. In anticipating prejudice, I recognise that I have also pre-judged. I was helping to perpetuate the cycle of discrimination and prejudice. But it is a sad reality that we are sometimes placed in positions in which we can’t be seen to be “too black” or “too ethnic” – which is extremely unjust. It is unfortunate that, as an entrepreneur, I have had to consider these issues, in order for the business to develop and progress – on top of everything else business leaders have to contend with. It has been a hard journey at times, but a learning process, too. Until wider society changes, we have the choice to conform or transform. I tried the former; I now embrace the latter.
As I began to grow as an entrepreneur and business leader, I realised that the lack of representation from people of colour in the business world is, in fact, an opportunity. It has allowed me to build a company that is aligned with my values – one that challenges the status quo and aims to improve people’s perceptions of people of colour. In fact, the whole way I have structured our company is based on the principles of being different – diversity and challenging traditional thinking. Our whole approach, the way we conduct ourselves in business, is very much influenced by our pride in embracing difference. Instead of shying away from difference or seeing it as a negative, we now own it – and are proud to be developing our services based on this core principle.
Our greatest challenges are the things that best define us, making us unique and special. Whatever you believe to be holding you back is what will propel you forward. Your ‘problem’ just needs to be reframed: perceive it as a challenge and an opportunity; because the greatest triumphs in life are forged from adversity, so – if channelled correctly, whatever difficulties you face become the lessons that shape you into who you need to become. Our greatest gifts are hidden within crisis and adversity. This will distinguish you from the crowd and take you towards your goals.
Cover photo by Rene Asmussen