Members of the 2017 UPstanding list of leading ethnic-minority executives talk about the barriers faced by black and ethnic minority (BAME) people in business, the importance of role modelling and the commercial value of inclusion.
Heather Melville, director for strategic partnerships and head of business inclusion initiatives, Royal Bank of Scotland
Heather was born in the UK to Jamaican parents. She was recently awarded an OBE for work in gender equality.
I’d be lying if I said I haven’t faced discrimination in my career, but I’ve overcome it by working hard and having mentors and sponsors who inspired me to believe I could do anything I wanted to, irrespective of my ethnic background.
When I first came into this industry 36 years ago, there were no BAME role models, but over time, my exposure to international markets helped me identify some. Being first in any role is tough, but it’s about recognising that first doesn’t always mean last: it’s important to share your experiences and help others to succeed.
In finance, our customers are from all walks of life and demand an organisation that mirrors the diversity of their businesses. Companies that want to progress will always attract and retain the best people, and that’s where commercial value is apparent.
True workplace equality is when being ‘different’ is the norm. Employers such as RBS are shifting the dial to create an inclusive environment through employee-led networks, mentoring schemes, and business development opportunities.
I’m honoured to work with dynamic businesses around the commercial value inclusion brings. I’m the interface between our own inclusion team, the business and our customers, ensuring all areas of D&I are considered – from the creation of products to speaking at conferences.
As chair and trustee board member for the Chartered Management Institute (CMI), I can influence potential leaders and managers through CMI Women: our Blueprint for Balance looks at the ‘missing middle’ in the female talent pipeline. Meanwhile, our partnership with the Executive Leadership Council presents development opportunities in international markets, access to global BAME talent and role models.
Being included on UPstanding’s list of leading ethnic-minority executives 2016 and 2017 challenges me to raise awareness of the importance of BAME talent to any business. My partnership with The Voice newspaper allows me to profile female BAME leaders and future talent.
To young BAME people I would say: achieve the best possible qualifications (this gets you to the table); create a network of role models; and find something you’re passionate about.
Mo Haghbin, head of product, Beta Solutions, OppenheimerFunds
Mo was born in Iran, relocating permanently to the US, with his parents, aged seven. Initially an asylee, he became a permanent resident and gained US citizenship in 2013.
From childhood, I was passionate about social justice and considered a career in immigration or civil law. In a way, there are parallels in my current role, where I’m focused on developing investment solutions and democratising access to building wealth.
Since joining OppenheimerFunds in January 2017, I’ve helped enhance programmes across recruiting, hiring and development of diverse talent. OppenheimerFunds also provides business resource groups, including our Black Professionals Network. Previously, at BlackRock, I served as Chair of the New York People Committee within Global Fixed Income, which supported inclusion, and I was involved in its global multi-cultural network.
Though there has been progress in race-related issues in the US, recent events in Charlottesville, VA, highlight the undercurrent of intolerance, and polarising political rhetoric has brought issues into the spotlight. I’ve been fortunate not to face barriers or discrimination in my career due to my ethnicity, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. All organisations must actively work to create an inclusive environment where employees feel respected. Role modelling is important at senior levels, but it’s imperative to build a deep bench of future leaders through development programmes.
I’ve had supportive sponsors, mentors and managers and, interestingly, many wouldn’t be classified as ‘BAME’. For me, it has always been more important to forge authentic relationships, built on trust and mutual respect. Advocates don’t have to come from similar backgrounds or through traditional affinity groups. Many organisations have started to move towards broader inclusion instead of narrowly defining diversity by race, gender or sexual orientation.
D&I has become less about specific targets and more about identifying the lost opportunities of not having a diverse and dynamic workforce. In a global marketplace, organisations recognise that D&I is important to the bottom line and serving clients. Companies must connect with a diverse client base.
To be clear, diversity is really about people who think differently. Diversity of thought leads to greater creativity, innovation and strengthens collective intelligence, helping firms serve the unique needs of clients. Research shows well-integrated diverse teams are more effective in solving business challenges than non-diverse teams.
My advice to young people from ethnic minority backgrounds is to view your background as a strength and leverage your unique perspective and thinking as an advantage in your career.
Sonia Sng, vice president, products and innovation risk, Visa
Sonia is Chinese and grew up in Singapore. She moved to the US in 2014, becoming a permanent resident.
Singapore is one of the most multicultural countries in the world, so I border on being pathologically pro-diversity. Growing up in Singapore, which strongly rewards academic achievement, also sparked my drive to excel. I’ve been at Visa for 17 years, in 10 different roles, and it has given me amazing opportunities to manage international, diverse teams across multiple time zones.
However, traits such as tenacity and being ‘driven’ are not typically associated with a petite Asian woman, so early in my career I was warned about being perceived as ‘ambitious’. Having to justify that bothered me, because I know that ambition in men is desired and expected.
I came to realise that my ‘ambition’ is a big part of my success so I embrace it and have been lucky to be surrounded by supportive colleagues and managers. I’ve also been inspired by role models, including Carla Harris, vice chairman of Morgan Stanley – and gospel singer, author and motivational speaker – whose grit and determination led her to become one of the most powerful women and African Americans on Wall Street.
It’s important to expose people to success stories such as Carla’s, and I try to be an inclusive leader and superstar team member, so my gender and ethnicity are not relevant. ‘Exposing’ people to my strengths lets them see me for who I am.
It wasn’t until I reached a senior level that I began to notice how few women (even fewer non-white women) were at the top of business, but I strive to bring the change I want to see, elevating, mentoring and motivating others.
I champion the overall D&I agenda for the Visa Risk function, and co-chair the Visa Women’s Network, ensuring women are able to reach their aspirations, regardless of their backgrounds. I also mentor diverse minority employees in Dubai, Singapore and the US.
Companies need workers with diverse views and experiences and there is recognition of this, but for true inclusion, narratives need to change. I cringe when I see headlines such as “Multinational X aims to double minority employees”. I don’t want to be hired or promoted to meet a diversity quota, but because I’m the best person for the job. Some of these well-meaning ‘anti-sexist/racist narratives’ reinforce the divides and undermine meritocracy.