Can you tell us about your professional background and why you became focused on diversity in the workplace?
I started my career in journalism and I quickly acknowledged that it was an industry very much catered towards individuals who were upper-middle class, who could afford to do lots of free work experience, and who understood how to behave in these environments, which people from other backgrounds didn’t. I wanted to do something about that. At the time I was doing work experience at The Voice newspaper and interviewed a young man who had very similar views to me. He was really keen to elevate people that were interested in working in his industry, which was politics and business. We connected and stayed in touch. At that time, we were only about 16 and by the time we were 18 and in our first year of university – I was at Reading University, he was at Brunel – we decided that we and a group of six friends would come together and create an organisation called Elevation Networks [in 2005]. We had a large sponsorship from Barclays Capital and Morgan Stanley, which was amazing and meant that we could host a number of networking events. Our position was that, if you knew a broad range of people, then you’d start to learn how to get into these sectors. If you can network and have that group of people who are constantly looking out for you, then it will increase your opportunity to move into a particular industry.
How did this evolve into you getting more into the recruitment side of things?
I was focused on the creative industry and my colleague was focused on the representation of women within law; another was focused on IT and technology. So, we all came together in the hope to be changemakers within our respective industries and went on to form relationships with some great organisations. Over about two years, we placed 600 people into work-based opportunities. At this point, I was in my second year of university, and was doing lots of work experience and working across radio, all while studying.
Then I set up [social enterprise] Shine Media in 2008 on my own, and also wanted to do a masters. I realised at that point that I wouldn’t be able to run Elevation Networks, do a masters and do my part-time job. So, this is where Shine was really born, and I guess where my more entrepreneurial journey started. When I was applying for my masters, I didn’t have any money. I was the work experience kid that was walking to work and going without lunch. I was definitely not the person who could afford a masters. I applied for funding and was lucky enough to get sponsored by the BBC. But the reason I was chosen was because of all the work I’d already done with Elevation Networks and Shine Media. When I got on the masters, I was the only ethnic minority that was there on a bursary. I wasn’t necessarily focused on ethnicity at that time, it was more on social mobility and class as I thought those were the biggest barriers to any industry.
What happened next?
I continued to work as a journalist, and I started to reach all the goals I wanted but, even when I was in the industry, I was still faced with challenges. At the same time Shine Media was building; we’re running these programmes and placing people into work. I loved what we were able to achieve but I also realised that we needed to focus on senior leaders. Shine was very much considered an early careers support mechanism and we wanted to support those in the “frozen middle” that were trying to excel and progress up to C-Suite leadership positions. So Shine transitioned into Hyden, a diversity and inclusion consultancy business in 2015, and we went into a FTSE 250 company for a couple of years. But now we are Blue Moon, a flagship inclusive executive search business and diversity and inclusion consultancy practice.
What does it mean when we talk about inclusivity and diversity in the workplace? As you mentioned, socioeconomic background plays a big role, and it’s not just about race…
No, it’s also age, sexual orientation, religion… inclusion is about creating an environment where people feel like they can be themselves. Some people will argue that there’s your “work self” and then there’s your “family self”, but ultimately it means that people feel comfortable enough to bring to the workplace the things that are part of their strengths. So, for example, for a long time I didn’t talk about the fact that I was from a really low-income background because I didn’t think it was relevant or still felt a level of shame. When I’m talking about inclusion, it’s about recognising the privilege that you have – which we all have. It’s recognising some of those things while sitting in the same room as other people who would not have the same privileges and creating a space where they feel they can speak about some of the things that are a barrier.
Have you ever been challenged about this or come up against opposition?
Absolutely, but I welcome it. When we saw lots of conversations and protests around Black Lives Matter, terms such as “white privilege” and “white fragility” were very triggering. I had to learn this myself. I’m the daughter of a white woman and a black man, and their experiences in society have been entirely different, and then their experiences as a couple were different. And then I recognise that as a mixed-race, fair-skinned black woman, there are privileges that I get that dark-skinned black women don’t. So, it’s a triggering conversation – there is no party that’s comfortable here. But it’s about understanding that you can be an ally for those individuals while using your privilege to understand that you do get certain privileges in society, whether you recognise them or not. You can also not feel guilty about the fact that you are who you are. We don’t get a choice, we come into the world this way – but we do get a choice in how we treat people and the contribution that we make to certain situations.
What are the benefits of an inclusive workplace?
I think that you understand customers better, and you start to reflect an understanding of what the everyday person is actually experiencing – and you can develop your product to reach a broader range of people. There are so many commercial reasons why this works. Also, you want the best people to come and work for you – so you need to understand that the best people don’t look and sound the same; they come from different places.
We don’t get a choice in who we are but we can choose how we treat people
What improvements have you seen in diversity, particularly in the City?
We are a lot more open about talking about sexual orientation and the “This is Me” campaign [part of the Lord Mayor’s Appeal] has been huge in breaking the stigma surrounding mental health. I think the biggest improvement we’ve seen is around gender. The City has made a very deliberate effort to improve the attraction and recruitment of women into organisations but also their progression to board level. The challenge that we still have is the intersectionality of those women: of ethnicity or disability or sexual orientation or class. Typically, when we see partners in law firms – even women of colour – they tend to come from private-school backgrounds. There has definitely been a lot of improvement but there’s still a lot to do.
What’s next for you?
I recently stood for election to the City of London Corporation for the Cornhill Ward, which includes The Royal Exchange – and won! The City Corporation is the local government authority for the City of London, but also incorporates the function led by the Lord Mayor to promote the UK as a centre of financial and professional services and still performs many historic functions such as managing the bridges and markets like Smithfield and Leadenhall. Winning the election means that not only have I fulfilled a longstanding personal ambition, but I hope it will give me the opportunity to actively listen and proactively work with those in the Ward to ensure that Cornhill is a pleasant place to live and work by supporting individuals’ needs efficiently and with pace.
Find out more about Blue Moon at createbluemoon.com
A Conversation With… is a monthly series that invites today’s leading minds to discuss current topics, exchange points of view and explore new ideas with The Royal Exchange.
Joanna was photographed at The Royal Exchange by Tami Aftab