Sign up to our newsletter and be the first to receive new episodes and the latest news in DE&I straight to your inbox.

Series Fifteen, Episode Six: Regional representation, recruitment and retention: acknowledging and navigating early career inclusion


In this episode, host Julia Streets is joined by Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell, CEO of 10,000 Black Interns Foundation and the 10,000 Able Interns Foundation, and Philip Olagunju, Head of Corporate Finance at PEM, the oldest and largest independent accountancy practice in Cambridge, UK.  They discuss advocating for the unrepresented through both structured internships and organic connections. Together they explore regional differences outside the capital and beyond regional cities, the differing degrees of acceptance across the country, call out the barriers to change and consider how best to drive better inclusion for all.

Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell

Rebecca is Chief Executive of the The 10,000 Interns Foundation. Previously, she was the founder of NKG, a communications and media agency working on social change projects. She is a thought leader on diversity in institutional spaces, and also a former professional athlete and world number one, becoming the first Black woman to swim for Team GB in 2010.

Philip Olagunju

Philip is head of corporate finance at PEM, the oldest and largest independent accountancy practice in Cambridge, UK. PEM was established in 1875, and in 2021, Philip was appointed as the firm’s first ever partner of African-Caribbean descent. Philip advises entrepreneurial mid-market businesses on company sales, acquisitions, valuations, private equity transactions, strategic reviews, and fund-raising projects. In 2021 Philip was awarded "dealmaker of the year" at the Insider Central & East of England dealmaker awards, and was shortlisted for the award in 2019, 2020, and 2022. Philip sits on the advisory board for "Lendoe" - a tech-enabled lending platform with a particular focus on black, early stage and ethnic minority entrepreneurs. Philip holds both the ICAEW corporate finance qualification and a "triple crown" accredited MBA from the University of Bradford, the 2021 Times Higher Education Business School of the Year. He’s also a full member of the Chartered Institute for Securities & Investments.

Series Fifteen, Episode Six Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast talking about equity, inclusion and diversity in financial services. On the podcast, we seek to shine a light on positive progress, call out areas requiring further focus and offer lots of ideas to help drive change. Before we get started today, I just want to take a moment to thank our friends at CityAM who have given DiverCity Podcast, a new home at Impact AM. Their pages dedicated to ESG, impact investment, DE&I and more. And we really appreciate that they publish and promote both our episodes and our supporting blog series so that their readers can stay right on top of the very latest diversity, equity, and inclusion debate. Thank you to CityAM.

I’m delighted today because I’m joined by two stellar guests. Our first guest is Philip Olagunju and Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell. Let me tell you a bit about each of them. Philip is the Head of Corporate Finances PEM, the oldest and largest independent consultancy practise in Cambridge in the UK. Established in 1875, Philip was appointed as the firm’s first ever partner of African Caribbean descent. He advises entrepreneurial mid-market businesses on sales, acquisitions, valuations, equity transactions, strategic reviews and fundraising projects. And in 2021, he was named Deal Maker of the Year at the Insider Central and East of England Deal Maker Awards. He also sits on the advisory board for Lendoe, a tech enabled lending platform with a particular focus on Black, early stage and ethic minority entrepreneurs. Philip, we’re delighted you could join us. Welcome to the show.

Philip : Thank you, it’s my absolute pleasure to be here. Thank you.

Julia: Well, I’m really looking forward to hearing what you are up to and the advice you’re giving mid-market entrepreneurs as well. I very much sit in that category myself, so can’t wait to hear what you had to say. But before we do, our second guest today is Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell. She is the Chief Executive of the 10,000 Interns Foundation and oversees two really key programmes. One is the 10,000 Interns, the second 10,000 Able Interns. She’s the founder of NKG, a communications and media agency working on social change projects, and she’s a recognised commentator on diversity in institutional spaces. She’s also a former world number one, becoming the first Black woman to swim for Team GB. And of also recently heard that she’s been named one of Forbes 30 under 30 leaders in the social impact category. Rebecca, thank you so much for being with us.

Rebecca: Thank you so much. It is an honour to be here.

Julia: I’m really curious to know what you are up to at the moment. Rebecca, let me come to you. What are you focused on right now?

Rebecca: Well, the 10,000 Interns Foundation is all about championing underrepresented talent. We started with our programme for young Black students and graduates two and a half years ago now back in 2020. And it just grew and grew. I mean there was a real appetite frankly at that point in time following the real eruption of the BLM movement. As our organisation grew, we recognised the need to meet other diversity challenges. So we started with ethnicity facing Black and Black heritage students, and then we launched a programme for disabled students and graduates of all ethnicities. 

With this second programme, we recognised how much intersectionality comes into play and how important that is in the DE&I conversation. What we are really thinking about now is how we can deepen our engagement with these underrepresented talent groups and champion full intersection of students and talent going into those early career spaces.

Julia: Well, we’re definitely going to get into a lot of that as we go through the discussion. I have so many questions for you, so prepare yourself. Before we do, Philip, I’m really curious to know what you are up to. We were talking in your biography about the advice you give mid-size firms in the UK, but also your work on the advisory board. Tell me what you’re focused on right now.

Philip: It’s really interesting to hear Rebecca’s speak so eloquently about the work that the 10,000 interns are doing. I guess that’s almost like a holistic panoramic view. What I’m focused on is how I can implement influence and change things, boots on the ground from a regional advisory perspective, it’s not the most diverse space in the UK economic ecosystem. I’m primarily focused on how I can increase diversity within my team. About 20% of the team are female. In terms of hiring behaviours and attitudes and approaches, I’m constantly thinking how can I increase the gender diversity within regional M&A and corporate finance.

Which as I say traditionally, historically has been very limited and homogenous in that view. And about a third of my team are ethnic minority global majority. Again, I’m thinking how can I, in the spaces that I now occupy, be an advocate for change in terms of being attractional for ethnic minority global majority candidates who might not see themselves in a role within regional M&A and corporate finance. So really I’m primarily focused in the D&I context of trying to encourage and influence people to come into these spaces that they may see as being prohibitive to them, for sure.

Julia: One of the things I really attracted me to, as I was doing my preparation for the show was there’s a real risk in my mind that the D&I conversation could centre around cities and particularly the capital city. It’s really important that we drive this change right the way out through the regions as well. So I’ve got again, many questions for you on that as well because we really have to get to the grassroots level. And of course the role of leadership and role modelling comes through very, very clearly.

Rebecca, can I come to you sort of my next question, if I may, which is I’m really curious to think about some of the insights that you must have gained while you’ve been working with the 10,000 Interns Foundation and the different programmes you’re running. Talk to us about some of the work you’re doing, some of the insights you’ve gained, but also areas where you need support.

Rebecca: Super interesting to hear your discussion with Philip there about moving away from the square mile and moving away from being London centric. That’s something that we’ve tried to really do as the programme has grown. We are now all over the UK and I think what’s also become really important to us is that our program’s not just open to UK nationals. A lot of students who come through the 10,000 Black Interns Programme are African students from the continents just like me where I grew up, and they are attending UK universities. We need to do better as a country at welcoming those students into workplaces and into those early careers, jobs, even if it’s just industry insight whilst they’re studying here. We’re really focused on making sure that our barriers to entry are as low as possible. That means we take the broadest as possible view of education.

You are eligible for our programme if you are 18 plus with a confirmed place at university in any year of study undergrad, postgrad, or three years recently graduated. We get a huge intersectionality in terms of age, in terms of diversity of experience, and it means that our talent pools are really diverse as well. I think probably the most interesting thing about the programme is really asking firms to change in the direction of this talent. What we’re saying to them is, here’s a talent slate of young Black students, for example, on our 10K BI programme. And they come from all different kinds of universities and they might have all different kinds of degrees and they might have all different levels of exposure to industry but we want you to consider them as talented individuals who can add a diverse perspective to your workplace. Because we know that diverse workplaces equals better outcomes.

When we realised we had this great model, we’ve been very method and metrics focused, really trying to produce impact at scale from the very, very first moments. We’ve now had 26,000 applicants come through our programmes in just three years. We aim to create a minimum 2000 paid internships every single year. We tell our firms to sign up, you have to pledge an internship that’s at least six weeks long and pays at a minimum local living wage. The launch of the pilot, the disabled programme, was another challenge as well. Obviously it’s not a question of just replicating the same thing again, not all minority statuses are made equal. We also know that the disabled community doesn’t have a unified identity in the same way that the Black community does, for example.

We’ve faced lots of challenges in learning as a team and learning from the people in the sector who have been doing this work for much longer than we have. We’ve partnered with the DCC, the Disabilities Charities Consortium of the UK, that Scope, MIND, Mencap, RNID, and we’re learning with our firms, that poses the biggest challenge, especially for big organisations. They’re large ships, it takes a long time for them to turn. But I think what we’re saying to people is, “You might not always get it right, but you have to try and you have to keep up. And you have to keep putting resources into this because otherwise you will get left behind.”

Julia: One of the things that’s come out really loudly and clearly in the conversations we’ve been having, particularly centred around disability, is this wonderful realisation that when you, and I say this with inverted comma fingers, “When you get it right for your employees with disability, you get it right for everybody.” And I’m really curious about, you were saying there about how your engagements with corporates, it’s almost kind of you are learning together. That feedback loop, are you getting some really strong insights from the organisations about what they need from you as much as you are about what you need from them?

Rebecca: Yes, absolutely. I think the biggest question the people always have is, “How do we know we’re doing it right?” And then when we drill down into that, the challenge that firms face is in disclosure. And the other challenge that they face is in making reasonable adjustments within a reasonable period of time. And those two things really feed into one another because if you’ve got disabled people in a workplace, one of whom has disclosed their disability and is making reasonable adjustments on that basis, and another disabled person sees that it takes 20 weeks for them to get the software that they need to on their computer, that’s going to hinder disclosure. What we see from firms and what we are trying to do is we become more and more data rich each year as we have more and more people pass through our programmes, is really gain insights on how we can promote better disclosure, which is a culture issue as much as it is a practical and reactive thing.

Julia: It’s fascinating listening to you speak there because it flows into two really big things in my mind. One of them is about workplace culture and also workplace adjustments and environments also in about enlightend leadership, which we talk a lot about in the industry. And Philip, can I bring you in here because I’m curious to understand a little bit more about your background as well. Did you come through on any sort of an internship programme? What’s your experience of coming into the workplace and then also listening to Rebecca’s remarks there about leadership, culture and environment. Love to get your thoughts too.

Philip: I went to Loughborough University, I did a four-year degree, third year being in a year in industry. So not so much an internship, but certainly a year placement, which gave me a fabulous early insight into the world of professional services. And I was fortunate enough to do that with Johnson and Johnson, they’re one of the largest companies in the world. Right off the bat as being a London centric guy who was seizing opportunities as and when they came, the university programme just gave me a really strong insight into the world of work. And look, it wasn’t just the degree programme, faith plays a huge role in my life and I had lots of support around people in my church, older men and women who’d gone before me. So I was able to plug into their experience and through informal unofficial mentoring, I was able to very quickly partner with people to give me vicarious insight into their experience.

That situation rolls forward to today, Dawid Konotey-Ahulu, who is one of the founders of 10,000 Interns Nation. He’s a member of the Jubilee Church. I’m also a member of Jubilee Church. I’ve able to develop a relationship with him. It’s a friendship more so, but I’m able to pick his brains, his fabulous brains in terms of his experience, not only in the world of financial services, but also as a mixed ethnic man trying to navigate these spaces. So I’m hugely cognizant of the fact that I’m fortunate to have these mentors and these people around me that I can plug into. LinkedIn I think is a fabulous opportunity as well for people to reach out to others who might look like them or read their bio and you can see they’ve walked a similar path or come from a similar background. That’s certainly something that I did.

I leveraged that platform looking at Black and mixed race men who were in financial services who had gone before me who were in senior positions of leadership and influence and was able to, as the youngster say, shoot my shot and slide into some DMs to ask for some support. Thankfully in invariably 10 times out of 10 people will come back in some sort of capacity. When you talk about my experiences and how I was able to navigate my career pathway, certainly those factors come into it. And then obviously it flows into culture and into how I now see myself as a leader. 

Whenever I’m approached by younger people on LinkedIn or whatever social media platform that I’m leveraging, I have to pay it forward. I absolutely have to pour into them as others have poured into me. For sure.

Julia: What’s wonderful about listening to the two of you speaking, one is a programme structure foundation initiative. The other message I’m getting is about personal proactivity. And of course it’s a wonderful message to our audience about the potential of both, how they can really help your network is one of your greatest career tools. But also you have to take the initiative. Take the initiative, and don’t be afraid to ask and to find your mentors and look up to your role models.But also role models and senior leaders, you have a duty of responsibility and to pay it forward, to use your expression, which is really important.

I wonder if I could just move the conversation on just a fraction, which is, we’ve picked up with this a little bit already, which is D&I being very sort of London centric or capital city centric or major city centric. I’d love to get your thoughts, Philip, if I could stay with you about regional career development. And then also do you see any differences about how D&I is being embraced by organisations, maybe some of the clients that you advise, the organisations that you know across the UK?

Philip: Look, I think there’s a cascaded in dynamic at play here, which isn’t always helpful. What do I mean by that? From my perspective, I think there are two elements at play here. You’ve got big corporates seemingly supporting D&I initiatives, and then the smaller companies follow suit. So that’s one dynamic at played. And the other dynamic is London being seen as the epicentre for activity. And I’m probably being disparaged into the likes of Manchester and Birmingham and the other larger regional players out there, but certainly London seems to be where it all originates from. And then the other cities follow suit. And so I think what happens is cities like Cambridge, other cities in and around the East Anglian region that they’re not always marching into the same drumbeat that’s coming out from London. And equally smaller organisations are catching up with the larger organisation.

So I think initiatives like 10,000 Interns, whether it’s the Black interns or whether it’s able interns, it’s just a fantastic way to raise profile and raise awareness in other areas of the UK, which may not be up to speed in the way that London seems to be. In my experience, D&I seems to be concentrated with a big city and big corporate focus and there are plenty of regional initiatives that are at play here. 

And so to your second half of your question, around career development, again, from my perspective, I can’t see that small organisations within these regional cities are following suit and adopting things like 10,000 Interns. It’s all about the individual showing that initiative and proactivity, but it’s a circular argument. How can a young Black or mixed race man or woman trying to navigate their career show proactivity if they’re not seeing leaders and people of influence in their organisations from a similar perspective, in terms of how they look or backgrounds. It’s not only just about what you look like, it’s about socioeconomic similarities as well.

From a Cambridge centric focus, which is obviously where my firm is based, I’m seeing lots of individuals who are having to travel into London to attend award shows that are focused on shining a spotlight on the D&I initiatives or people who are championing D&I initiatives within the organisations. But again, that’s just a reinforcement of them having to travel into London. And normally the people who are being celebrated are working for big banks or big corporates. When I know firsthand that there are people in the regions who aren’t necessarily getting that spotlight, but they’re doing some fantastic work boots on the ground, not least being representative of their groups. Because it’s hard work when you are the only or when you are the first in a space that hasn’t been created for you in mind in the first place.

Julia: Earlier when you were speaking Philip, I could see, for the benefit of the audience, I’m recording us on Zoom, I could see Rebecca nodding. I’d love to bring you in immediately if you would, in terms of your thoughts about regional differences.

Rebecca : I had firsthand an experience trying to make a really meaningful impact to the students who apply to our programmes who aren’t based in London. And that’s with the 10,000 Interns Foundation. We do a lot of work to try and feed region matching into our algorithm. You can imagine we get 13,000 applications a year, it’s not easy. But actually I think I want to talk a little bit about my work with NKG. I grew up in Nairobi, but my parents moved back to the UK when I was about 17 and they now live in Gloucestershire, as you can imagine, I’m one of the only Black faces in that area when I go home.

We were doing a lot of social impact work with NKG. We were working with charities just like 10,000 interns Foundation to platform their message, to showcase their impact and to help them do that storytelling piece. What’s really important to mention when you are thinking about areas that aren’t Metropolitan London, London centric, is that the context for race-based work or work around diversity, equity and inclusion is different. The story is different, the profile of minorities is different in those spaces. And I think that we need to do a lot of work to recognise that as well. That we need to meet people where they’re at and not try and pull the conversation forwards to a place that is similar to Metropolitan London where people have the lexicon and we have the resources and we have the melding pot of nationalities.

Where I’m from in Gloucestershire, the race work that we did was very, very different and equally as challenging, but for very different reasons. That’s because there’s a smaller profile of Black people in rural areas of the UK, for example. But diversity isn’t just race, we know this and there’s huge ageing population in those areas that are cut off through digital divides. There is a lot of visible and invisible disability, bad transport routes, there are loads and loads of reasons why the D&I conversation is lagging behind. It’s important not to point the finger and say, “You guys need to get up to speed.” But as Dawid always says, “Lift as you climb.” And that’s something that’s baked into the fabric of 10,000 Interns Foundation. We have to bring people along with us or we’re not going to see the rate of change that we want.

Julia: I think that’s a great moment to pause conversation whilst we bring in Cynthia Akinsanya who has some research to support the discussion.

Cynthia: Learn Academy’s 2023 article on how to start a successful internship programme highlights that they require careful planning, effective communication, and a clear understanding of your goals. Implementing an internship programme can bring several benefits to an organisation and here are five main advantages. 1) build a talent pipeline. 2) increase diversity. 3) mentor junior hires. 4) promote a culture of learning. And this can create a positive work environment where employees feel valued and supported. And 5) increased productivity. Interns can help increase productivity within your organisation by taking on important tasks and projects. By building a talent pipeline, increasing diversity, mentoring junior hires, promoting a culture of learning and increasing productivity, internship programmes can help organisations grow and succeed.

Julia: Thank you as always to Cynthia for the insights from the research. Let me take a few moments to remind everybody how to find DiverCity Podcast. Links to all our research could be found on our website, Don’t forget that’s divercity with a C. It’s about financial services, DiverCity Podcast where you could find all episodes and sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Do also sign up for our newsletter, DE&I That Caught Our Eye where we share news stories and updates so you can stay right on top of what’s current. You could find us on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, LinkedIn and DiverCity Podcast is available on all good podcast channels, and we’d love a rating, we’re enormously proud of our five star rating. We would love a rating because it all helps to broaden the reach and to promote the show.

It’s been a phenomenal conversation so far. And I’m really curious because we’ve thought about the dynamics of the UK, we’ve talked about some of your amazing work, we’ve heard about sort of Philip’s personal pathway and also role as a leader and paying it forward and helping people as you grow came through very clearly. I wonder what some of the barriers are, and Philip, I wonder if I can come to you first of all. What do you see as being the biggest barriers for change across the regions?

Philip: Just an unwillingness to, a desire to remain with the status quo. Rebecca spoke so eloquently about the need to change the approach to D&I education on a regional basis. There were some regions where ethnic diversity isn’t high on the list of agendas to approach. A huge barrier is an unwillingness to change. A quick anecdote, you’ve got lions in the Serengeti in there have been eating antelopes for many years and the antelope turn around and say, “We’ve had enough of been eaten. We’ve had enough of been eaten.” It’s not incumbent upon the antelopes to drive change. It’s incumbent upon the lions too. So if there’s a willingness to change, then change will be evident I think.

Julia: What do you tell people who are facing these kind of barriers?

Rebecca: I look at this from two angles. I guess the first is the companies need to take this upon themselves as something that needs to remain front and centre. It’s an absolute priority. And that’s exactly what Philip’s saying. They are the people, they’re the institutions that need to drive that change. And I guess my message is what gets measured gets done. Really take the data seriously. But not only that, challenge yourself within it. If the data is telling you that you are doing just okay, do better.

If you find interesting things within the data, for example, you are laying people off and you found that the majority of people that have come up for layoffs are your ethnic minorities. Ask yourself why, why is that. And course correct, do something about it immediately. I think from the other perspective, which is that of the change makers and the advocates. It’s really, really important to keep finding ways to raise the conversation. And that means taking the most nuanced and specific approach possible. I think it’s really easy to bang the D&I drum, but we need real stories from real people to connect with people and to make a difference.

Julia: That’s why it’s been phenomenal having you both on the show, to be honest. Because I’m just sitting here literally hanging on your every word, listening to your stories and your passion for the topic. We must never diminish that ever, we would always continue to talk about it. But I am concerned, if I’m really honest, we go through very tough economic times. People have got to make decisions about resources and budgets and where they’re going to commit to their time, effort. And so I would love to hear from each of you about your compelling reason why this absolutely must stay at the very top of the corporate agenda. Rebecca, I’m coming to you first.

Rebecca: I think that it comes back to diversity of thought and a challenging environment that is going to drive change. The things that have brought us to the present moment aren’t going to be the things that take us to the future, that challenges that we face as a whole society, as a global society. They’re required diverse voices to find problems, the solutions to the problems that we face. And what is very, very clear is that the people who hold those solutions are not the people who are currently represented in the boardroom. If corporates want to win the profit race, they need to win a diversity race too.

Julia: I love the way you’ve brought it back to commercial imperative because that’s what, particularly in the world of financial services, everybody’s paying attention to. And there’s such a compelling reason about why this matters. Rebecca, thank you, Philip. I’d love to ask you the same question. Why must this remain high on the corporate agenda?

Philip: Studies show that diverse boards and backgrounds contribute positively towards company performance. And equally, we’ve seen group think and homogenous boards arguably perform poorly. Diversity is a commercial benefit. It flows down to your bottom line. I’m a leader of a team. I want my team to be diverse, not just because I want it to resemble United Colours of Benneton type representation. No. I want different ideas to result in different and better outcomes for our clients, but also for my department. So diversity’s a no-brainer for me.

Julia: It’s been a phenomenal conversation and thank you both so much for taking the time. Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell, the CEO of 10,000 Interns Foundation. Thank you so much for being with us.

Rebecca: Thank you for having me.

Julia: It’s been a pleasure. And Philip Olagunju, the co-head of corporate finance at PEM, thank you for all your insights today.

Philip: A privilege. It’s been a fun, thank you.

Julia: And of course, to all our listeners, thank you for joining us today. I hope you’ve enjoyed the discussion as much as I have. I’d be Julius Streets, thank you for listening to DiverCity Podcast.

Cynthia: This episode of DiverCity Podcast was produced by Roshan Roberts on behalf of Julia Street’s Productions. You can find out more about the guests from this week’s show on our website. That’s That’s diversity with a C and not an S. Whilst you were there you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates. All our episodes are available in Apple Podcast, Spotify, or your favourite podcast app. If you enjoy DiverCity Podcast, remember to share on social media and give us a rating or review. And finally, our Twitter handle is @divercitypod. Thanks for listening.