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Series Three, Episode Eleven: Intersectionality and building a pipeline of diverse talent

In the final episode of Series Three, Mariam Jimoh, Founder & Director of Women in the City Afro-Caribbean Network (WCAN), and Alex Odwell, Managing Director of Referment, discuss why being a D&I pioneer gives firms a competitive advantage, eliminating recruiters’ subconscious bias, creative ways to test job candidates, intersectionality, the shortcomings of a ‘one size fits all’ approach, encouraging diverse talent to apply for roles, and the power of including networks in the recruitment process.

Alex Odwell

With over 10 years experience recruiting within the Financial Services sector, Alex launched Referment in October 2016 with an innovative and rewarding recruitment model.

Using technology and the power of human connection, Referment rewards people for referring people they know for jobs at companies across the Financial Services ecosystem.

They are headquartered in London with exciting plans to launch into new geographies and sectors in the near future.

You can follow Alex on Twitter @Alex_Odwell.

Mariam Jimoh

Mariam is an investment banker and social entrepreneur who founded diversity platform, WCAN; a network for the professional and personal development of young professional black women with over 2500 members across the UK. Passionate about the progression of black women, she has launched a number of initiative under the WCAN brand including a private network for working black women, WW Collective and the SheCAN podcast focused on sharing experiences of inspirational black women. As a junior M&A banker at boutique advisory firm, Rothschild & Co and a University College London (UCL) STEM graduate, she has a diverse array of experience both corporate (J.P Morgan, Citi and London Stock Exchange) and in the fintech startup and venture capital environment. She is the co-Founder of Ọwo Ifẹ, a foundation dedicated to supporting young girls orphaned by Boko Haram in Nigeria and creator of Foodienne, a food blog launching in 2018. She is a McKinsey Next Generation Women Leader delegate and Executive Advisor for publication, Citoyenne.

You can follow Mariam on Twitter @TheArtofMariam.

Series Three, Episode Eleven Transcript

Julia: Hello, my name is Julia Streets and welcome to DiverCity Podcast, talking about diversity and inclusion 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. Today I’m joined by Mariam Jimoh, Founder and Director of Women in the City Afro-Caribbean Network, and Alex Odwell, Founder and Managing Director of Referment.

Mariam is the Founder and Director of WCAN, Women in the City Afro-Caribbean Network, a nonprofit organisation that specialises in working with black female students and young professionals to help progress their careers. As part of their support, WCAN offers a wide range of events, ranging from leadership and personal development, and also inter-career oriented and workplace networking.

Her city career has included a diverse range of experience ranging from fintech startups, investment banking, M&A advisory, debt capital market, strategy advisory, corporate finance and social entrepreneurship. In 2014 Mariam was selected as a Next Generation Women Leader by McKinsey. Mariam welcome to the show.

Mariam: Thank you for having me.

Julia: Alex Odwell is the Founder and Managing Director of Referment. With more than 10 years of experience recruiting in the financial services sector, two years ago Alex launched his own firm, Referment, offering a rewarding recruitment model. Using technology and the power of human connection, Referment rewards people for referring candidates for jobs at companies right the way across the financial services ecosystem. He and his team are headquartered in London, and he tells me he has exciting plans afoot to launch into new geographies and sectors in the near future. Alex, welcome to the show.

Alex: Thanks for having me.

Julia: As always, at the start of each episode, we invite each guest to take a minute to talk about what they’re up to. Mariam, let me start with you. What are you focused on at the moment?

Mariam: I’ve very much been focused on growing WCAN, and looking at WCAN from more than just a student perspective. So, making sure we’re working with women along the whole pipeline, starting off with girls as young as 15-18, getting them focused a little bit more about their careers and also the universities they may look into going to. Then taking that all the way up to people who are 5, 10 years into their career, and are young professionals who want a network of black women who they can draw on, and resources that they can draw on from that network as well. It’s been a really busy period for us to continue to put out things that we’re putting out, but across that whole pipeline. It’s been very busy for us at the moment.

We’re also working on expanding the different brands under WCAN name. We’re working on a podcast that’s also for women of colour, getting their voices out there, inspiring, but also giving practical insight into different things that women might deal with as they’re growing up or going through their careers.  We are also working on a slightly more targeted group that’s for young professionals, a targeted mentorship scheme that’s almost like a private members club that a lot of black women can get the support that they need from that group, but quite specific. There’s a lot of different things we’re working on under the WCAN brand, it’s quite exciting times for us.

Julia: Amazing. And from one very, very busy woman to another very busy man, who is an entrepreneur in his own right. Alex, tell us what you’re focused on at the moment.

Alex: Referment is a platform that is built for people who work within the financial services sector and it enables them to refer their peers, colleagues and ex-colleagues for roles that Referment are working on with companies in the marketplace. We’ve got a website which is available at We’ve also built an app that’s available on iOS and Android. In short, we reward people for their referrals. They receive a £50 Amazon voucher if their referral gets an interview. If their referral lands the job, we give them a portion of the recruitment fee, which on average is around £2,500 at the moment.

We started Referment back at the end of 2016 because we believe that people who work alongside each other know their strengths and weaknesses better than a recruiter does who’s judging them just off a CV. But also, because in a world of data and information consummation at the moment, it’s really invaluable information that people have got within their own brains, their own networks, and their connections, and that’s really valuable. We want people to be able to monetise that, earn a bit of extra money on the side and essentially benefit from building out worthwhile networks.

Julia: Mariam, let me start the discussion with you. Do you see that positive steps have been made to hire BAME individuals?

Mariam: I definitely see some differences in the way some companies are operating. In that, I think they’ve noticed now that it’s more than just putting some money behind an Afro-Caribbean society, or a network like WCAN, and that there are actually some practical things that they need to do to engage with their audience if they want to get these candidates to apply. Some of the things I’ve seen is that they’re utilising their own data to realise how BME applicants are actually applying, and seeing where they fall out in the pipeline of applying, or where they struggle in that application section. They work with organisations like my own in order to fill these gaps in.

For example, one Big Four company came to us and said, “We’ve noticed that in numerical testing we get a lot of BME people slipping out of the application process, and we would like to hold very practical sessions that will help these guys get on board with the sort of testing that we do and explain it to them. Those are the things that they want to work on with us. Then there are other firms that are probably a little bit further behind I would say, in that they’re still thinking about how to go about that, but that’s definitely one of the best practical things I’ve seen so far where firms are actually utilising the data that they’ve collected on BME students and they’re using that to direct their recruitment process, which I think is really interesting.

Julia: Of the firms that aren’t paying quite as much attention to it as they clearly should be, what are the awakening moments when they go, “Actually, we’re going to miss out,” or, “We’re missing an opportunity”?

Mariam: As much as I don’t want to say it, I think when they see other firms doing something different to them, there’s a little bit of a lag, and then they say, “Do you know what? They’re doing that, so I think we need to do it too.” I’m not necessarily sure that it’s an awakening moment where they’re like, “Okay, it’s not working,” because I think what they continue doing is saying, “Do you know what? We’re going to keep doing it this way until there’s a reason for us not to.” I think it’s very much watching what some of the really big names in diversity are doing at the moment, and using that to govern what it is that they do as well. I’ve been running WCAN for the last five years, and I’ve definitely seen this cannon of people doing one thing, and then all firms follow bit by bit afterwards. I do think it’s driven more so by that, than a light bulb switching on.

Julia: The power of fear of missing out, or the FOMO, is incredible isn’t it?

Alex, you’ve been in the city for a number of years in the world of recruitment. When you’re working with organisations, do they come to you with a brief saying, “I’m looking for greater diversity, not only in terms of ethnic representation, but actually across the board”? Are they thinking differently in their approach to it, or is it a more traditional model, when they go, “Just get me a different result”?

Alex: I think there’s different approaches by different companies. We’ve definitely seen over the last couple of years, much more awareness from companies to challenge the diversity issues that they’ve got internally. Now, we don’t have, with the exception of the tech side, companies asking for women in technology. We don’t ever have any clients that come to us asking for specific types of people based on the diversity radar, or other areas. I think one of the challenges that companies have, or things that companies have to take into account or be aware of is that they’ve got to want to change, they don’t want to feel that they have to. I think if you tap into the general human psychology, if you want to do something, you’ve got to want to do it. There’s got to be an actual reason. What is the benefit of that to the actual company to have a different workforce or a more diverse workforce? Until companies are able to nail down exactly why and what the benefits will be to them, there will be an element of lip service driving diversity internally.

Julia: A question to you both, do you see that people are paying attention to the potential and the opportunity to outperform their peers? Mariam, let me start with you, because you say there are some firms who are very much on that journey and others that aren’t. Do you think that’s with a commercial intention or is it still a nice to do intention?

Mariam: I think the firms that see it from a commercial intention, are probably those firms who are pioneering and innovating, and thinking of different ways to do things, because there’s no confusion that having a diverse workforce makes your company more productive, or makes your company more profitable. I think McKinsey’s done so much research on it, a lot of the big consultancies have, so it’s not really something that I think can be disputed. So, those firms that have really understood that this is a benefit for you in the long run or the benefit for your company, for your clients. Your clients are not all the same. They’re not all from the same backgrounds or all from the same anything really. The firms that I see that have taken it from that perspective definitely have made a little bit more progress or are a little bit more innovative, a little bit more forward thinking about the way they approach it, from my perspective anyway, from what I’ve seen.

Julia: Alex, anything to add there?

Alex: No, I think Mariam’s got that about spot on. I think that there’s a lot of research that’s been done over the recent years to show that having different thoughts, different backgrounds, people who have experienced different things that can add another angle and another view of looking at a common age old problem, which is how do we make more money, how do we get better service, or whatever it might be within whichever industry.

Julia: I think one of the great things that we’re seeing is the power of the network, and clearly Mariam, you’ve got your network, and the potential for referrals. Alex, thinking about your business model, do you tap into those sort of networks to drive referrals through that, or do you find that it tends to be very much it’s a corporate environmental Referment network, people going literally, “I was sitting next to you, therefore I think you’re a good candidate”?

Alex: Yes, we’ve thought about how do we tap into other people’s networks? But to be brutally honest, we don’t want to do it for marketing purposes. We don’t want to sit there and jump on the bandwagon of “we’re teaming up with this charity or this network, or this network because it helps us in our pursuit of what we’re trying to do in our business.” I think there has to be quid pro quo in any type of business relationship. So, as organic as it is, it’s an open platform that people can refer whomever they’ve worked with in a work capacity and they feel that they’ve added value to that organisation, and they think they’re a good employee. We’ve had and we’ve seen a spike, an increase, in the numbers of diverse candidates that get put through to us, that we then are able to then pass on to our clients.

One of the challenges that the traditional recruitment model has is that you’re trying to make a snap judgement on an individual within a seven to 10 second window of skimming a CV. You can look at a CV and you can say, “Oh, that person’s had too many jobs in a short period of time.” or “That person’s only been at one employee for 10 years. They’re institutionalised.” You could say, “Their notice period is too long,” or “their ethnic background’s not right,” or, “their university isn’t right.” For me, fundamentally that’s wrong. I think that subconscious bias that people within the recruitment industry have, whether or not they realise it, is a barrier to change, and it’s not helping people get in a selection of candidates and people for them to meet and for them to assess for the right roles.

We also get referred people for jobs that come from different pathways to where your traditional candidate or individual would come from. One of the things that we have to do with our business model is that we have to speak to people, and we have to meet them, and we have to ensure that we give a good service to people. Because if you or Mariam referred someone to us and we didn’t give them a good service, then that would turn that person off and it would inadvertently, or inevitably, turn you off. So, we have to give people the time of day, and by giving people the time of day you get to hear their story.

Julia: From representing the young people who are in and of themselves represented on those CVs that you talk about, do you spend a lot of time with people thinking about how do you position yourself to get through some of those biases that exist?

Mariam: Yes, definitely. I think a lot of people, like you mentioned, are really focused on that pathway as the perfect pathway to get to an investment banking role or a consulting role. Whereas, they don’t realise that it’s really how you position yourself and how you sell yourself from your own perspective that really could get you anywhere. I think because of the traditional way firms maybe look at particular universities first, or they look at particular names first, or anything, people think they’re less likely to engage or less likely to apply, or, “I don’t think I’ll get in,”. So, I think we spend a lot of time with people telling them, “Well, this is how you position what you do have to get a role,” or, “This is how you position what you don’t have yet, or what you can add to whatever it is that you do have, to get a role.”

I think that changing the mindsets of the people who are also applying is extremely important. It’s not so much just about the firms who are saying, “We want Oxbridge,” or, “We want x, y, and z.” I think it’s also the people who are applying who almost rule themselves out sometimes before they even start because they don’t think they follow that pathway, not knowing that actually, that diversity in your pathway adds an element that someone else may not necessarily have, who had that very straight road to the role.

Julia: It’s the power of life experience, actually, in many cases along the way. Does that come down then to a question about confidence and being able to find your voice and finding your way in that? Alex, you were saying about always meeting a candidate and having that engagement, that’s probably the most important part of how the supply and demand dynamics come together, which is that moment when you sit for a coffee and have your first meeting. Are there any tips you would give for Mariam to take back into the network to say, think about these things?

Alex: Yes. I think Mariam nailed it again, you have to understand what value you’ve given to an employer in the past if you’ve been in work, and if you haven’t been in work, it can be quite difficult. We’ve all been there before. But it’s about then trying to effectively communicate what’s the value that you could bring to that business. For me, value comes down to time and money really, that’s it. Where are you going to help a company make money or save money? Where are you going help, or where have you helped a company save time. One of the things I’ve mentioned before is about de-risking things, and it’s not in a regulatory sense, but just in thinking of a solution different to somebody else that maybe balances a portfolio of a company, or stops a disaster happening six months down the line, because they’ve picked up on something that others haven’t.

I think that the confidence thing for me is you have to put yourself out there. You have to appreciate and understand that within an interview process, it’s there to test you and far too often interviews aren’t there to test people, they’re there just to be judged, and I don’t think that’s right. I think, there’s ways that you can test people who aren’t technical. I mean, technical people are fairly easy test.

Julia: So, go on, share some insights. How do you test people?

Alex: I test my sales guys/girls by saying to them at the end of the interview,, “I’ve really enjoyed that. I’ll be keen to continue the conversation and get back in touch with you.” If, and this isn’t because I need to feel self-important, if they don’t come back within 24 hours with a note saying, “Hey, really enjoyed that, you mentioned x, y, and z. When are you free to meet up again?” it’s not a good sign, because one of the key things that I believe a salesperson is good at is a) following up, and b) being courteous and polite, and just a good person. If I’m giving somebody a buying sign that I like them and they’re not picking up on it, then a) are you interested in the job enough? Which if you aren’t, that’s fine, that’s perfect, but I don’t think you’ve got good manners.

So, that’s one of the examples that I do with my salespeople, but you can also with client-facing people, try and talk them out of a job, at the end of the interview say, “Look, is this really going to be for you?” outline the negatives, and for salespeople, it’s great because if you go, “Hey look, don’t think you’re right for this, but thanks very much.” If they go, “Oh brilliant. No worries. Thanks ever so much for taking the time to meet with me.” You’ve dodged a massive bullet there, because that somebody can’t handle objections or find a way of overcoming that objection. I think you’ve just got to try and think a little bit creatively about how you test these people.

Julia: So, Mariam, what are the big hurdles, the big barriers to change?

Mariam: I think one of the biggest hurdles is a lack of intersectionality. I think when people say the word, “Diverse”, it’s almost lost its meaning, because it represents a bunch of different things. I think one thing that’s quite important is that you realise that people are diverse and they are different, and there are different things you need to do to cater to different people. I don’t think a lot of firms actually realise that, and I don’t think a lot of organisations realise that what would make a great working environment necessarily for say a black woman, may not necessarily be the same thing that would be for a gay man, for example. There are different things that make different people comfortable. It’s about not just being diverse and throwing a bunch of people in a pool and then saying, it’s diversity, but it’s also how do they integrate into your company, how do they integrate in a day to day, and are they comfortable staying? Because what we actually find, which is what we’re doing more research on now is that yes, the women might get in, but they don’t stay very long, or they find their way out at some point, or they move quickly.

I think it’s not news to anybody that by the time you get to senior positions, a lot of women have fallen out. It’s not just to do with the general, women are having children or they’re getting married. It’s not just to do with that, there’s an environment that firms are creating for women or black women, or anybody that’s making them feel as though, “I can’t succeed in this, so I’m going to move and do something else.” I think it’s really important to target that intersectionality and think about diversity as not just one big conglomerate, but like different parts and people that need different things, and making sure you’re catering to all of them, as opposed to just, here’s one size fits all and here’s a diversity jumper, just put it on. It doesn’t necessarily work like that.

Julia: One of the things that I hear a lot of people talk about, and guests on the podcast have also commented on is the risk of using BAME, because Black, Asian minority ethnic dimensions and dynamics are really discreet. It’s like just lumping everybody into one category, it feels incredibly wrong in this quest for inclusivity, and also intersectionality as well. Do you find that organisations are making that mistake, what are your views?

Mariam: 100%. It’s one of the biggest things we have to deal with, where we have to almost stand on a table and shout at firms, that BAME is very different to BME, is very different to black. They’re all very different and the things that you would need for one necessarily wouldn’t fit all.

It’s not just about diversity in a sense of, our skin colour is the same. It’s not necessarily that. It’s more how I’ve grown up is very different from how you’ve grown up. For example, if you’re from Hong Kong or you’re international, you’d be put in a BAME sort of situation, but you’d be very different from somebody who’s from Inner City London, who grew up in Zone 1, in a council flat. Even though your skin colours might be different or the same, or whatever it is, really your experience is very different. Therefore, it doesn’t make sense, like I say, to put all of those together and make them into one big ball of diversity because that’s not necessarily going to get you the best results.

Julia: Those firms that are very progressive, do they get that point?

Mariam: 100%.

Julia: Do you find they’re beginning to understand it?

Mariam: 100%. I feel like sometimes firms are afraid to use the word ‘black’. You can say it’s a black x or a black y. It can be for a black person. It can be for an Asian person. It can be for any kind of person, and you can say that word. I think they’re almost politically correct about it when you don’t need to be.

Julia: So, let’s take a pause there and turn to Robert and Cynthia who have been doing some research to support today’s discussion.

Cynthia: According to the 2017 BAME Women at Work Report published by Business in the Community, there over 20.6 million women in the UK’s working age population. 2.9 million or 14% are from a Black, Asian and minority ethnic background.

Robert: There is a significant difference in the employment rates between white women and BAME women. 72% of white women are in employment, compared to 55% of BAME women. Indian, mixed race and Black women experience employment rates of 65%, 64% and 63%, respectively. However, the employment rates for Bangladeshi and Pakistani women are significantly lower at 30% and 39%, respectively.

Cynthia: Personal networks play an important part in recruitment. According to the data, 23% percent of white women use acquaintance networking, while the figure is 19% for BAME women.

Robert: When applying for roles in financial services, it’s often very useful to do some practise aptitude tests. Careers and networking site, Bright Network has lots of handy advice, tips and practise tests for people applying for roles in financial services.

Julia: It’s interesting, before we went to the break about the whole question about language, we have so many guests on the show, we talk about race a lot and ethnicity. The resounding response from all our guests is you need to get stuck in with language. Have courage and be brave about, exactly as you were saying Mariam, about even the use of the word, black, but have it with an empathy and appreciation that it’s not one grouping about BAME.

But there’s another thought around that, which is then we’re always catering to individual voices and individual identities in organisations, but organisations don’t have the time or the energy, or the appetite to cater to those individuals, and they have to meet a minimal requirements around opportunity and pay, career progression etc. Alex, let me turn to you about that, when you’re talking to organisations, do they want to be talking to individuals, or do they want to be acting for the whole?

Alex: I think, by and large when you look at the corporate culture, that’s what thats there for. It’s about genuinely taking the time to understand your employees and what motivates them. I think far too often the culture and values are left on a wall, and they’re not actually lived and breathed throughout a business. Going back to something that Mariam mentioned earlier that some companies are doing this better than others, I’ll be really keen just to hear which ones, and examples of how companies can ensure that inclusion is visually seen and breathed, and smelt and felt within the business.

Mariam: What I find is that a lot of firms have a very specific community groups within their firms. They will have a black group or they’ll have an LGBT group. I find that when these smaller groups get involved with what the company is doing recruitment wise, it almost does the work for them, if that makes sense? So, a lot of firms I’ve seen they’ve got their black networks to kind of interact directly with black students because you would have that connection to say an Afro-Caribbean society. Naturally what you’re saying to that student is, “There is a space where you will feel inclusive in this firm.” It doesn’t necessarily have to be hands on work that the firm is doing, but by giving people spaces where they can be themselves and be individuals, you’re almost showing that inclusivity, because that’s all people want. They want to be able to look around or speak to someone and feel like, “I get where you’re coming from. I feel like I’m included in what you’re doing whether we’re different or not.”

Mariam: I think that’s one of actually the biggest things, though some firms don’t even have black networks or LGBT networks. The most you’ll see is a women’s network. I think that’s definitely something that firms can really leverage to actually attract a lot of diverse candidates and make them feel comfortable.

Julia: It speaks to me that there’s huge possibility and I think what’s been wonderful from this discussion is really good practical insights and practical ideas for listeners to take away with them. So, I just want to thank you for taking the time to join us today. Mariam and Alex, thank you very much indeed.

Mariam: Thank you.

Alex: Thank you.

Kieron: This episode of the DiverCity Podcast was produced by me, Kieron Yates, on behalf of Julia Streets Productions. Thanks to Cynthia Akinsanya and Robert Pinto-Fernandes for their 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.