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Series Seven, Episode One – Let’s Talk About Race – #TalkAboutBlack

To launch Series 7, Gavin Lewis, Managing Director at BlackRock and co-creator of The Diversity Project’s #TalkAboutBlack initiative joins host Julia Streets in the studio. Gavin explains how the initiative was formed, discusses the taboo subject of race in Britain today and offers many personal perspectives and insights. They explore the challenges of moving up the career ladder and highlights some obstacles that black and other ethnic minorities may face along the way. Gavin’s insights are further supported by advice from Raphael Mokades, Founder and Managing Director of Rare Recruitment. This episode is timed to align with The City A.M. Diversity Decodes Event ‘We have to talk about Race’ hosted by Julia and where Raphael featured as a one of four panellists talking about how to attract and retain ethnic minority candidates.

Articles mentioned in this episode:

So, Can We Talk? #Talkaboutblack

Now that I have your attention

Gavin Lewis

Gavin Lewis was born in Tottenham, in inner city London. He was raised in a single parent family and attended state secondary school before completing his degree from the University of London.

He has been active in highlighting the challenges to increasing ethnic minority representation in the asset management industry and attempted to find solutions. One of his key initiatives is co-creating the #Talkaboutblack movement, dedicated to breaking the taboo subject that is race in Britain today. He has also worked with asset management firms to create mentoring circles for junior and mid-level ethnic minority professionals and with industry CEO’s to create action plans for increasing ethnic minority representation.

Gavin has held Senior Distribution roles at Russell Investments, UBS Asset Management and Vanguard Asset Management and is currently a Managing Director at BlackRock.

You can follow Gavin on Twitter @LwsGavin and you can follow #Talkaboutblack @talkaboutblack

Raphael Mokades

Raphael Mokades founded Rare in 2005, on his own, with no previous recruitment experience, no candidates, no clients, and a desk in someone else’s office. He has been the company’s Managing Director ever since. Rare now works with some of the UK’s most prestigious companies, has over 2,500 candidates on its books, and employs sixteen people.

Prior to starting Rare, Raphael was in charge of diversity at Pearson, the international media company which owns the FT. Pearson won two Race for Opportunity awards during this time. Raphael has a First class degree from Oxford University. He represented Oxford at basketball, served as his College’s JCR President, and organized the biggest ball Oxford has ever seen.

Raphael is a non-executive Director of Hubbub, the local online food delivery service.

Raphael has written on business, sport and social issues for the Guardian, Times and Financial Times. He has co-authored five Rare research reports: Recruiting Arabic-Speaking Graduates (2009); High Achieving Black Students: A Portrait (2009); What Top Ethnic Minority Students Want (2010); Class, Race and Recruitment: Best Practices (2011); and Five Years On (2012). He also is the author of Three Steps to Success (2011), published by Profile Books.

You can follow Raphael’s firm, Rare Recruitment, on Twitter @Rare_London.

Series Seven, Episode One Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about equality, 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. I’m delighted today to be joined by Gavin Lewis, Managing Director at BlackRock.

Gavin Lewis has been active in highlighting the challenges with a view to increasing ethnic minority representation in the asset management industry and helping to find solutions. One of his key initiatives is co-creating the #TalkAboutBlack movement dedicated to addressing the taboo that is race in Britain today. He has also worked with asset management firms to create mentoring cycles for junior and mid-level ethnic minority professionals, and with industry CEOs to create action plans for increasing ethnic minority representation.

Julia: Gavin has held senior roles at Russell Investments, UBS Asset Management, and Vanguard Asset Management, he is currently a Managing Director at BlackRock. Gavin, pleasure to have you here today.

Gavin: Thank you for having me.

Julia: Tell us about #TalkAboutBlack. Why was it set up and can you give us an example of the work and its impact?

Gavin: Absolutely. It’s interesting because it came across accidentally. The background to this is that an asset management movement called the Diversity Project was established by Dame Helena Morrissey. Helena and a few women initially focused on gender representation in the asset management industry, but then realised that there were other characteristics that are challenged as well. They felt it would be remiss not to focus on those.

I was asked to join the Diversity Project, and lead the ethnicity work stream and the initial brief was B.A.M.E. So it was, “Go away, figure out how to increase BAME representation in the asset management industry”. A group of us sat around a table, literally with a blank sheet of paper, the first thing we did is discuss BAME, and whether it was appropriate or not. The group was a mixture of black and Asian asset management professionals, and we felt it did a disservice to us because I’m not a BAME person, I’m a black person.

The challenges facing Black-Asian and minority ethnic individuals are all different, so it’s not a homogenous group. The first thing that we did is dis-aggregate the acronym, and broke it down into its component parts. Quite interestingly, myself and some of the other black professionals, put forward the idea that maybe we should deal with Asian representation, and it tells you how far the conversation has come, because even us, as black professionals, didn’t want to confront the fact that there’s black under-representation.

But the Asian individuals in the group said actually, and they were Indian, said, “Actually, we’re doing okay. It’s you guys that need the help, because you are virtually the only people that we see at any level, or particularly the senior level.” So we decided to focus on black. The B in BAME. To be honest, it could have gone another way because if you look at the challenges facing ethnic minorities in the UK, the most challenged groups are black, Bangladeshi and Pakistani. Given there were black individuals in the room, we decided to focus on black.

The next challenge we had is that, okay, if you’re going to take this on, where do you start? Because it’s all very well saying that you want to increase representation in the asset management industry for black professionals, but there’s a whole socioeconomic, political, historical context to the reason why those individuals are not represented, and when they do get in the industry, why they don’t progress.

We debated this long and hard, but felt it appropriate to take it right back to the roots of the problem. The discussions led to us focusing on four distinct obstacles, to make it more understandable, or accessible for people that perhaps haven’t experienced this. We used the analogy of a hose pipe and the analogy basically suggested that there is talent and potential and it does exist, but what you have are kinks in the hose pipe, that stop that talent from reaching its potential. To resolve the problems, there’s no point in just unkinking one part of the hose pipe because there’s a blockage further down or further up, you need to unkink all the obstacles. We landed on four. 

The first is the socioeconomic context situation that many black people find themselves in.

Julia: In tackling that really interesting analogy about the hose pipes end to end, what did you find?

Gavin: We found that there are four distinct challenges that individuals – black individuals – face in the UK. I’m making a distinction here. For us the real focus was particularly UK born black individuals, because a lot of firms would point to black representation at maybe senior levels, but we tend to find that they’re not born here. So either that they are US professionals, and I’m not suggesting that the US situation is any better than it is in the UK, but you do see more successful black professionals in the US than you do in the UK.

Or we see professionals from, for example West Africa, so particularly Ghana and Nigeria. That is fantastic, but it seems to be a problem which is unique to black people who are born in the UK, which is challenged. I have to add a disclaimer here. This isn’t all black people, so there will be some that this will be alien to, but there were many who feel that this is pertinent and resonates with them.

The first challenge is that socioeconomic context in which they find themselves, and that is typically characterised by high levels of unemployment, higher statistics related to crime, and really for us an under-performance in education. We find that the most challenged groups again, are typically UK born black students, particularly boys and particularly Caribbean boys. I say that from experience, because I was one of those black Caribbean boys who was underperforming in education, but I can talk about that maybe a bit later.

That said, there are black students who do very well. And again, for context I became one of them. But what we find is that even if they do achieve a good education, for some reason they don’t apply to work in the asset management industry, or when they do apply, they rarely secure their preferred role. So kink number two is the fact that how do we actually get them into the industry?

Julia: There’s a question there about how do you inspire them into the world of financial services?

Gavin: Correct. If you’re a young black student, and you go to one of these big asset management firms and there’s no one that looks like you, sounds like you, can relate to you, it will seem like a very, very uncomfortable and alien place. There’s absolutely a question about role modelling, but for us as the asset management industry, the world is changing, and I’m not sure we’ve kept up with that change just in terms of work practises, culture, what we stand for as an industry. There’s a whole narrative there around attracting talent and retaining it, particularly diverse talent.

The third kink is that when these individuals do get into the workplace, we find they typically end up in support or back office functions and rarely in leadership positions. There’s a much higher rate of attrition for that demographic than there is compared to their white counterparts. Where this really manifests itself is in leadership. When you look at the leadership of organisations, certainly at the board level, there are very few, if any black professionals. When you look at CEOs leading firms, there are very few, if any black professionals. When you look at the C-Suite minus one, very very few, if any black professionals I can go on, but you get the picture.

The fourth kink is the fact that as a society, we’re just not comfortable talking about this. We felt that if you’re going to make a difference, the first thing is understanding the problem. It’s very interesting that in the UK we seemed for many years to believe that we function in a post racial society, and that race is no longer a problem here. I have my own views on why that is the case.

Julia: Of course we sit here at the moment, and there are questions about members of the Royal Family who are leaving with questions about race associated with, is that a reason why they’re leaving?

Gavin: Correct. I think the challenge is that, when most people think about race, racism or having an issue with race, they think about the ugly side of it, which is in your face, often violence, and often characterised by certain words and distinct behaviours. The N-word being a prime example. What I don’t think people realise is that it can also take a different form, and that can be institutionalised, it can also be in attitudes and behaviours towards black individuals, which may not be explicit, but it’s about how those individuals feel they are being treated, and why they still struggle to have a seat at the table.

We have an issue with race in this country. It’s the lived experience, those individuals will tell you as much, the statistics will tell you as much. An anecdotal evidence suggesting otherwise I don’t think carries weight.

Julia: Having done an analysis at the very beginning, what has your main focus been in terms of where to begin in those four kinks that you’ve beautifully laid out there? Where on earth did you start?

Gavin: We felt that the lowest hanging fruit, when I say that that lower hanging fruit is right at the top of the tree, but that lower hanging fruit would be to at least put the issue on the agenda.

Julia: With very senior management of the organisation.

Gavin: With all levels of organisations. Myself, and the Co-Founder of TalkAboutBlack, who’s one of the chairs of Redington and Investment Consultancy, Dawid Konotey-Ahulu thought the best way to do this was to take a different approach. This was right in the epicentre of the #MeToo movement, and we’d certainly seen the amazing things that the women’s movement had done, but also the challenges the women’s movement faced. Because a lot of men had become very, very defensive, and shut down the conversation because of this whole D&I thing, they just didn’t feel included. We felt that we needed to take a different approach. The last thing we wanted was for the majority to say, “Right, okay. We’ve had women and then we had the gay community, ah, here come the black people as well.” We didn’t want that reaction and that was a concern of ours.

We tried to give them some insight into our left experience, we wrote blogs. Dawid wrote a blog called, So Can We Talk? Can We Talk About black. This is about his experience being a lawyer and then a financial services professional, living and working in the UK. I then wrote a blog and that blog was called, Now That I Have Your Attention. What Dawid did is he laid out the four kinks, and I, through my lived experience brought it to life.

I talked about growing up in a single parent family in Tottenham, which is an inner city area on a counsellor state, and my experience with overt racism, attending a school in Enfield, knife crime, the fact that education became my way out. My experience then navigating the corporate world, and then getting to senior positions, and all that came with it. Those blogs went viral, which was fantastic because it seemed to come to the attention of people.

Julia: We’ll make sure they go out across the podcast channels as well, which will be amazing. Publishing materials and articles and blogs and insights is one route. I know you do a lot around mentorship and leadership programmes. Can you just talk to us a bit about that as well?

Gavin: I would also say that in addition to the publishing, we’ve had panel or individual conversations with probably over a hundred organisations now. We’ve gone in and talked about our lived experience and what we’re doing. That’s, we think, has really moved the dial. Because those a hundred organisations now have had someone go in and talk about this and they’ve gone away and then implemented things themselves.

Julia: I was going to say, and have they got engaged with what you’re trying to achieve? What sort of things are those organisations doing? I’m just wondering if there are heads of D&I and their leaders in the industry listening to the podcast. If there are a couple of practical things that they should go away from hearing this and going, “We should just do that tomorrow in a heartbeat,” what might they be?

Gavin: This is also wrapped up in unravelling some of the other kinks. The third kink in terms of that progression really encompasses mentoring, which you’ve mentioned, and discussing the challenges with CEOs. For the CEOs, and the leaders of organisations, we put together a five point action plan, which we felt through our lived experience would again make a difference.

The first thing that we suggest organisations do is discuss this issue with your black and ethnic minority populations. Because what often happens is companies issue surveys, and the surveys come back and say that, “Oh well there isn’t really a problem, or they’re not really telling us.” The reason why is because those populations don’t trust you. They don’t trust why you’re asking, and they don’t trust that anything will be done.

The first thing to do is don’t hide behind a survey, sit down, and have a discussion with those individuals and you might not get the truth after one session. It’s going to take a while.

Julia: It’s a relationship.

Gavin: It is. And you’ll find that many of those individuals have entered those organisations and have played down the fact that they are a minority, because it’s never been an advantage. It’s been a disadvantage. Speaking out about it. Well, I mean I think that is difficult and challenging for many people. Probably asking why I’ve decided to do it, which is a good question.

Julia: Its interesting you say that because we’ve heard that number of times where people say, “It’s all good on paper and having initiatives and the five-point plans,” which is wonderful because it’s very practical and it’s about engagement with employees, at a time when employees may not feel particularly engaged with, or indeed this question of trust actually is very important. But there’s the other side of it which is about the confidence to speak up, and the certainty that if you do speak up that actually it won’t negatively impact your career journey as well.

Are you seeing a shift? I don’t want to ask you a leading question, but is that one of the things that’s come out of engaging with more senior people and just seeing that kind of trust has changed in the conversation is much more engaged.

Gavin: I’ll be very honest here. I think that what you find is that CEOs and the C-Suite get it and they want to do something about it. That is a significant change from where we were or have been. I think the challenge however is that I have a good network of black professionals that I’ve cultivated over the years, and any asset management industry and outside of it. They are still facing challenges because they are black.

I think there’s still a chasm between what the intention is, and those lived experiences. I think it’s positive that it’s now on the agenda. The reality is that we still have a long way to go.

Julia: What do you think, as you look ahead in the next two or three years. What are you optimistic about in terms of continuing to have the conversation, continuing to drive change, so that this becomes a change reality. And what’s the #TalkAboutBlack movement going, I call it a movement. It feels like a movement to me. I mean, what are you focused on in order to keep that momentum going?

Gavin: I think if we had the sense that it wasn’t making a difference, I’m not saying we would have given up, but it would have been difficult to keep it going. I think what we’ve done is laid the foundations for change. I think it’s a bit too premature to suggest that change has happened. What we now have the opportunity to do is really build upon the momentum that we’ve created. So there are a few things that we are, that we are doing.

We do feel that that CEO conversation needs to advance. I’m not suggesting this needs to be like the 30% club for black professionals or black board members, but we do feel we need something in place which actually targets driving representation at the C-Suite because the talent does exist, and it’s just not getting through.

Julia: Should that come in the form of quotas?

Gavin: It’s interesting. If you did ask me, do I believe in quotas, a couple of years ago, I would’ve said no. If you ask me now, I’ll still say no. Only because I think that the language, maybe syntax, but the language of quotas is quite alien in the professional world, but I do believe in targets, because we are used to that and we are used to having a number attached to something. If you are going to do it, it needs to be backed up by incentives.

For example, if you’re targeting a Manager to increase representation of minorities in his team, he needs to be penalised or she needs to be penalised if he or she doesn’t achieve those targets, and be rewarded if they do, as you would with any other target in the financial service

Julia: It’s all part of the scorecard.

Gavin: Correct. Unfortunately we’ve been doing this for two years now and we need to move the dial in a different way now. The other thing which we are doing is that we’re going to continue the mentoring circles, and this has been fantastic for early and middle level entry black. To be honest, it’s not just black, we have a mix of ethnic minority groups. There are also some economically challenged groups there, and we’ll continue them because that’s been great in terms of reverse mentoring for us. That’s been great in terms of allowing them to sit down with people who understand the nature of the problem and get some advice.

Last year we held our first student insight day, which gave again Back students an insight into the asset management industry. That was us as an industry saying, that we are attractive, we need you to help us navigate this changing world. We had over a hundred students who attended Mansion House, which was fantastic. So we’ll be doing that again. The most difficult challenge is the socioeconomic ones.

How do you increase the pipeline? What do you do? That’s the one which caused the most consternation in the group, and there were some who felt that we shouldn’t go anywhere near it.

Julia: Can I ask why?

Gavin: Because it means moving out of our sphere of influence and sticking in the professional environment is where we should be. Because this means engaging with communities and schools.

Julia: It’s a real grassroots.

Gavin: It is. But to be honest, I mean again, I think the calls upon the industry are changing. You know, the population is asking us to resolve climate change, but they’re also asking us to resolve societal inequalities. In some shape or form, I think this is what businesses need to be doing. Personal view of course, but I think you do see organisations such as mine saying, “actually yes, we need to take responsibility for societies and communities as well as the environment”.

Julia: And of course there is a broader backdrop of financial inclusion. Thinking about actually individuals, whatever their background, think about their relationship with financial services and financial inclusion. Not to mention of course they are the investors of tomorrow, whatever journey their career may well take. I’m thinking about obviously the intention that’ll be a very positive one.

But of course that doesn’t always chime with the focus for those financial organisations to return sometimes on a quarterly basis, better financial results. It is a very fascinating time. 

Do you actually go into the schools?

Gavin: What we’re proposing to do is launch an after school programme, where we will have students from the age of 14, he will follow a set curriculum which will allow them to learn about the world of finance, both personal and professional, and also fusion skills, which was a new term for soft skills. So that when they progress through education, and interview for the corporate world, they have developed a familiarity with it, they know the language and the codes and how to interact with people who probably come from a different background.

We’re at the final stages of planning. We have nine fund managers who’ve signed up to the programme. I say nine fund managers, which includes investment consultants as well.

Julia: Don’t forget the consultants!

Gavin: Don’t forget the consultants. This is in conjunction with the City of London Corporation who’ve been very, very helpful in driving this. Subject to planning we intend to launch this quarter. It’s something that we’re really excited about. And for me, it feels like I’m going back in time and looking at my younger self, and actually able to help kids who are just like me. We think this will be, hopefully a game changer.

The aspiration is to do this on a national scale using technology and streaming lessons to schools. I need to not get too far ahead of myself, but who knows.

Julia: I was going to say ambition is a wonderful thing. You mentioned earlier about the importance of role models, and I think you’re an amazing role model. And everybody’s involved with the TalkAboutBlack movement as I call it. But to go back into the schools and to inspire the next generation, and to really think very critically about the talented today and the talent of tomorrow. To bring them into the industry but also inspire them to engage with the industry in a very positive way and also stay in the industry is really important.

Gavin, it’s been such a pleasure to have you on the show. Thank you so much for joining us.

Gavin: Thank you.

Julia: Let’s just take a pause at this moment and I’m delighted to bring in Cynthia Akinsanya who has some research to support the discussion.

Cynthia: A 2019 article from the Guardian newspaper highlighted that black Britons and those of South Asian origin, face shocking discrimination in the labour market at levels unchanged since the late ’60s. A study by experts based at the Centre for Social Investigation at Nuffield College, University of Oxford, found applicants from minority ethnic backgrounds had to send 80% more applications to get a positive response from an employer than a white person of British origin.

A study linked by the same researchers comparing the results with similar field experiments dating back to 1969, found discrimination against black Britons and those of South Asian origin, particularly Pakistanis unchanged over almost 50 years.

Julia: Thanks, Cynthia. The links to the research can be found on our website, That’s where you can find all our episodes and sign up for early notifications of future recordings. Please do follow us on Twitter @divercitypod, and DiverCity Podcast is available on BrightTALK and all good podcast channels. We’d love a rating because it all helps to promote the show.

Inspired by this interview with Gavin Lewis at #TalkAboutBlack, we were keen to welcome other perspectives about what both organisations and potential candidates can do to appeal. And we were pleased to catch up with Raph Mokades, founder and CEO of Rare, the specialist in graduate’s diversity recruitment. Firstly, we asked him for his two top tips for organisations to consider when seeking to attract more diverse talent. Here’s what he had to say.

Raphael: For organisations to improve their recruitment, and get more good B.A.M.E candidates in, they really need to focus on recruiting potential rather than just polish. I’ve got two concrete suggestions that help them do that. The first is contextualising achievement. The second is reducing bias. To contextualise achievement, particularly for people at the start of their careers is quite easy. You don’t just want to look at their work experience and their grades, you want to understand the context in which those grades, and that work experience was achieved.

Simply put their A, A, B, did that come from a school where the average is A, A, A, or the school where the average was two D’s. Their work experience, did they get that through a relative or friend, or were they able to actually go out and secure it for themselves? Once you understand that you have a better sense of what these achievements really mean. The other thing to do is to think about reducing bias in the interview process.

It’s quite common after an interview with someone who’s different, for the interviewer to feel, “Yeah, they were great. They ticked all the boxes, but there was something not quite right.” And that’s because the interviewer has got feelings generated from a part of his brain, often called the amygdala, which you can’t really put into words. That’s normal. It’s natural. It happens to all of us. We’ve been developing software that helps you identify and reduce those biases and it does seem that in the majority of cases, we’re actually able to reduce the level of bias the interviews display in these situations. Two relatively easy things that you can do, to get a fairer process that helps you end up with better high potential people.

Julia: What about ethnic minority talents looking for a job, what tips would he give the graduates?

Raphael: If you’re a B.A.M.E candidate and you’re applying for a job, there are two things you should do. The first thing actually comes before you apply. It’s doing your due diligence. Is this really a place that you want to work at? Is this a place where people like you have the opportunity to thrive? Go online, read what people say, look at your network, ask, do you know anyone who works there? Do you know anyone who used to work there? Do you know anyone who might know anyone that works there? Find that person, have a cup of tea with them and get the gossip.

Quite often, if you’re smart at this point, you’ll decide not to apply. If you’re headhunted, tell the headhunter you want to have a 15-minute chat on the phone with the person who would potentially be your manager. The headhunter is going to spin things in a particular way, just be explicit. Say, “Listen, I’m black,” or, “I’m Asian” or, “I’m a practising Muslim,” or whatever it might be, “and we all know that the world isn’t fair. I only want to understand what this person’s commitment to race diversity is really like, and I want to have a 10-15 minute conversation with them on that basis to ask them questions.”

If the person isn’t prepared to have the conversation. That in itself tells you potentially you don’t want to be applying. I mean if someone said that to me, I would absolutely take the time to have that conversation. The second thing, once you’re in the process, particularly actually when you’re drafting your application, your cover letter, your CV, but also when you’re in the room, toot your own horn.

One of the things that we’ve got at Rare is hundreds and hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands of draught job applications. We used machine learning to investigate them, and we found that white people, people from higher socioeconomic backgrounds, and men, are much more likely to talk about, “I”, rather than, “we”, in the context of their achievements. They’re much more likely to use the active rather than the passive. And that often produces a sort of prototype of a leader, a doer, an achiever, even when you’re talking about exactly the same things. Blow your own horn, talk about what you personally have done. Use the active voice, make yourself sound like a winner because everybody wants to recruit winners.

Julia: Thanks to Raph Mokades for those valuable insights, and of course to our guest Gavin Lewis from #TalkAboutBlack for joining us on the show. My name is Julia Streets and thank you as always for listening to DiverCity Podcast.

Kieron: This episode of the DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya for her insights. You can find out more about the guests on this week’s show on our website, Whilst you are there, you can also sign up to our newsletter for all our latest updates.

To be sure of catching all our future podcasts, subscribe to our feed on iTunes, or your favourite podcast app. And, if you’ve enjoyed this episode DiverCity Podcast, remember to give us a rating or review. This all helps promote the show to a wider audience. Finally, our Twitter handle is @divercitypod. Thanks for listening.