HR & Management

business leaders of colour
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What’s it like being a business leader of colour?

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According to government statistics from 2018, 5.4% of the UK’s small-to-medium businesses were led by ethnic minority employers. By sector, there were more ethnic minority-led businesses in the accommodation and food services industry, (7.9%) over sectors such as manufacturing (3.2%) and agriculture and utilities (0.2%).

These figures show that ethnic minority people, though already underrepresented in employment figures, are even more of a minority when it comes to business leadership.

While data does help to illustrate the leadership disparity, it’s not enough to change the status quo. Furthermore, while discrimination and lack of inclusion among ethnic minority employees is a topic that is gaining more attention, there is a risk that ethnic minority employers could be left out of the discussion.

Experience can be more useful than data

Experience is perhaps an even more useful tool than data collection to assess not only what ethnic minority employers experience in the workplace in terms of inclusion and discrimination issues, but also how they are experiencing it. In fact, using experience ‘as evidence’ could help sufferers, work peers and HR teams implement better strategies to tackle the problem.

Real Business spoke exclusively to three business leaders who have offered us their unique perspectives on being entrepreneurs “of colour” in a white-dominated business world.

What their testimonies show is that hierarchy hasn’t made them immune from suffering a similar degree of discrimination that ethnic-minority employees also experience. However, some have also used aspects of their ‘difference’ to their commercial advantage.

We regularly experience minority stress and stereotype threat

Hira Ali, International leadership trainer, career coach and author

Hira-Ali
Hira Ali (pictured).

Being a woman is already tough, but being a minority woman in business can be even tougher. Compared to most women, minority women face far greater challenges in their careers, including isolation, discrimination, and low self-esteem. Being in the double minority means twice the roadblocks!

As a businesswoman of colour, I think one of my biggest challenges is impostor syndrome which rears its ugly head from time to time. And this is not something which is entirely in my head. All marginalised groups feel as if they have had to work twice as hard to prove themselves worthy of any achievement or accolade.

We also regularly experience minority stress and stereotype threat. I have been regularly asked where I am from and people often look very surprised at my English proficiency, so of course, there are microaggressions there too. Plus, I think it’s always a challenge to ask for pay raises or high fees as not only do you tend to self-doubt but others can expect you to charge less than your worth in comparison to people of non-colour.

I try not to think of being different as a hindrance or an obstacle

Asad Dhunna, founder, The Unmistakables

Asad Dhunna
Asad Dhunna (pictured).

As a boss ‘of colour’, I try not to think of being different as a hindrance or an obstacle. Instead, it’s about finding the upside of the minority mindset.

We focus on the ‘difference dividend’ – how we can all use what makes us different to find a conversational, cultural or commercial dividend. For us, as a business, it means thinking about how we can create a modern marketing and communications consultancy that actually reflects society.

That means thinking about ideas that speak to new audiences or looking at how to bring diverse stories to life through brands. For our clients, it’s about helping them rethinking the way they do business by bringing in different perspectives and rewiring structures that are holding people back.

My advice to non-BAME, (Black, Asian minority ethnic) staff and businesses would be to untick the box and not categorise all difference into one easy catch-all. BAME ain’t the same – the experiences of an Indian man are very different from a Nigerian woman. We are just as similar as we are different, so it’s important to understand nuance and not try to have a one-size-fits-all approach.

People look at me with curiosity

Shazia Ginai, CEO, Neuro-Insight

Shazia Ginai
Shazia Ginai (pictured).

A lot of people – male and female – suffer from imposter syndrome. This is because we form our identities based on the environment we are in and the people we are around. As such, when we enter positions of leadership – where we are suddenly thrust into a new environment and surrounded by new people and new contexts – we feel like outsiders, and it’s only until we’ve settled into that role that this stops being the case.

This process happens sooner for men than for women because they can look around and see others like them, giving them a sense of belonging. But unfortunately, people of colour have it even worse as they are used to walking into a room full of leaders who are not only not female but also not white.

I had a recent experience of this at an industry event: I didn’t feel like I stuck out in a positive way; I felt like people looked at me with curiosity; I felt like I didn’t belong. What’s more, the panel – though nicely split in terms of gender – were all white, blonde, and middle-class women.

We can also use the principles of neuroscience to make sense of all of this. If we consider how personal relevance (a driver of what we encode into our long term memory) is fundamental for high engagement levels for advertising and media, in the real world, people of colour, when deprived of seeing anyone that looks like them in their environment, will feel less connected and more isolated.

We’ll only achieve a more equal society once we are able to stamp out unconscious bias. The implication of not having enough representation is that future generations are conditioned to view leadership as looking a certain way. If we don’t change this now and more drastically, it will take years to undo that conditioning.

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