By Adedotun Adesina, expert in Customer and Digital and our Ethnic Diversity Network Lead

Big families are not dissimilar to any other groups, there tends to be the more outspoken individuals and the quieter ones. Growing up in Nigeria, as the second youngest of five children, I was one of the quieter ones. When my little sister was born (7 years after me), I soon learnt that to get my voice heard I had to speak up! I also learned, through my family dynamics, the immense value of having a strong support system early in life.

Authenticity and belonging

Like many people with similar stories, I moved to the UK for university at 17. Arriving as an undergraduate in Sheffield, I was incredibly lucky to meet and befriend other Nigerian students in my first week. Being in a new country and experiencing the shock that comes with blatantly recognising my ‘otherness’ as a black person for the first time, my Nigerian friends provided an incredible and needed support system. With them I felt accepted and knew I could be my authentic self.

Finding a support system is something I now strive for in any new space I find myself in and is a huge driver for me as a Lead for Baringa’s Ethnic Diversity Network (EDN).

As an ethnic minority at work, it’s so easy to fall into the trap of representing ourselves in an inauthentic way in an attempt to better assimilate with our majority colleagues. We do it to try to fit in with society’s sometimes racist and archaic definitions of professionalism. But inauthenticity at work negatively impacts on performance. It demands a vital chunk of brain power to act as who we think we should be, rather than achieve as who we really are.

I joined Baringa in October 2018 and actively sought out a new support network of people with similar experiences and backgrounds, so I joined the Ethnic Diversity Network. They quickly became a big part of my Baringa community. In the EDN, I’ve been lucky to find both people who look like me and understand me as well as allies who encourage me. When a lead role opened up in February 2020, I was nominated by my peers. I felt quite junior and lacked the confidence to actively seek out this role at the time, I might have missed out on the opportunity if it wasn’t for my network’s nominations and encouragement. I took on the role, becoming the sole Network Lead at the time, compelled to maintain and grow this fantastic support network for others.  

A supportive network that drives real change

I couldn’t have imagined how rewarding it would be to be part of and lead the EDN. I’ve seen it have so much impact on Baringa even in two (pandemic) years – we even have three leads now! We’ve been able to advise the business at every level, from the partnership to departments to project teams. We’ve created a community where people are actively speaking up and becoming part of the change they want to see for themselves and their colleagues.

The events we hold are widely attended and people are genuinely engaged by our objectives and initiatives. We are succeeding as catalysts for change across the business as well as working to improve representation of ethnic minorities at all levels of the business. We’ve implemented initiatives such as ‘Tea Breaks’ that foster inclusive conversations on race and ethnicity across many teams, as well as contributing to shaping our Baringa Future Leaders’ Programme which is launching later this year, to further support the growth and development of our ethnic minority colleagues into future leaders of our business.

Challenging ourselves to be better

The programme of initiatives run by the EDN is stronger now than ever, framed around key campaigns across the year such as South Asian Heritage Month, Black History Month, Race Equality Week and World Cultural Day of Diversity. These events have seen external speakers, panel discussions, music and poetry performances, and even a visual mapping of the far-flung places we all have our roots across the globe. Our events create safe spaces where people can ask questions and listen to the experiences and advice of others. We’re all on a learning journey and it’s OK not to be perfect. The more conversations we have, the easier they become, and the closer we get to a truly diverse and inclusive workplace and society.

In the wake of the global anti-racism protests in 2020, the EDN worked closely with the partnership to shape our commitments to anti-racism. I know that for some, diversity targets are seen as positive discrimination. I like to think of them as helping us balance the scales, giving direction and focusing our efforts. It’s not enough to simply hope that by saying we are inclusive diverse talent will find us. We need to go out and look for them. Be proactive. Be purposeful. What’s so refreshing about Baringa is that we don’t see these commitments as the end goal. We know there is always more to do to create a diverse and inclusive workplace with equitable opportunities for all.

Be proudly, uniquely, you

Being an ethnic minority at work comes with its unique challenges. I hear of people who go by a different name at work, adopting English names over more ethnic sounding birth names as they fear others may struggle to pronounce them. For me, my name is integral to who I am and part of bringing my authentic self to work. It’s sad that others feel they are expected to represent themselves inauthentically so as to assimilate at work. I believe there’s more power in showing up as our true and authentic selves.

Whoever you are, and whatever your story, you are unique and enough. As ethnic minorities, our difference is a strength, not a weakness and it deserves to be celebrated. At work we bring unique perspectives just by being who we are, growing up where we did or having different cultural values to our majority colleagues. We can help our clients and colleagues understand the experiences of people often overlooked by society. We bring value just by being who we are and we can be powerful forces of change in the spaces we find ourselves in.

Never underestimate how important it is that you speak up and reach out. You never know what changes you are igniting; people are listening and inspired to be their authentic selves by watching you be you. Find or create the support system you need at work. There is so much power in feeling part of a whole, knowing that your unique contributions are valued. And, don’t forget, valuable.

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