There is just one Black CEO in the whole of the UK FTSE 100. In a country where close to a million Black people are in the workforce, only Dr. Segun Ogunsanya at Airtel Africa is currently at the head of any of the largest 100 companies listed on the London Stock Exchange by market cap.
In fact, the Equality Group’s FTSE100 Diversity Data Report found that there was six times the number of UK FTSE 100 CEOs called ‘Simon’ than Black CEOs.
But it’s not only senior leadership roles at large global firms where Black professionals are underrepresented. Government statistics estimate that only 0.1% of SMEs in the UK are Black-led. And the UK isn’t the only country failing to provide opportunities and a seat at the table for talented Black professionals.
In the US, where legislation has sought to boost diversity in senior management and boards, representation remains low despite a record eight Black CEOs now running S&P 500 companies.
October marks Black History Month in the UK, Ireland, Germany and other European countries. With the underrepresentation of black people in business, it’s clear why the annual observance – traditionally observed in February in the United States and Canada – is so important. It exists not only exist to celebrate culture, heritage and history, but also to shine a light on the bias and lack of opportunity the Black people face both professionally and in wider society, and looks at ways to overcome current challenges and obstacles that are still suppressing Black communities.
In business, underrepresentation, a lack of inclusiveness, diversity and opportunities, and even discrimination are all experiences that Black professionals regularly face. So how can we truly achieve racial equity in the workplace, and what role can business schools play to create a more inclusive environment?
For Curtis Johnson, a Brand Strategy Executive at The Walt Disney Company, there are levels to the answer. “At least as it relates to Corporate America, more people of color as decision-makers at all levels, particularly among the c-suite and board is important, and it’s a step in the right direction. That said, if we aren’t also disrupting systems and networks that were built on inequity, then we are changing the faces of leadership without a realistic expectation for sustainable change.”
The challenge to create a more inclusive environment
After an early career in public affairs at Edelman, Curtis transitioned to the non-profit sector where he did in-house communications at the NAACP and became an inaugural leader on the digital engagement team. He then headed to Wharton for his MBA.
“The leadership curriculum at Wharton was exceptional. The range of leadership opportunities were vast – from simulating a Marine training at Quantico to coaching first-year students through Wharton’s Leadership Fellows program, my experience has aided my career via situational leadership, people management, team building and coaching.
But Curtis admits that it wasn’t always easy to navigate his own identity within the b-school environment. “There were periods and moments of clarity that reinforced my unique value to the Wharton community; those moments kept me going. Ultimately, Wharton was the experience that enabled me to stand in this truth: it was and is my specific experiences, values and identity that not only drive me to success, they make the people I touched and the communities I’m a part of better, too.”
He explains that one of the perils for underrepresented Black MBA students is the risk that comes with seeing yourself through the lens of others. “In the early b-school days, I fell into that trap – my non-traditional background and work experience, my identity or even just being a Philly native all contributed to a feeling of marginalization.”
Curtis struggled with feeling a sense of belonging and the notion that he had something to prove. “MBA programs aspire to a culture where students easefully explore each others’ experiences and worldviews. It’s beautiful conceptually – in practice, I was expected to enter into the world of my classmates much more than they would traverse into mine.”
“One of the best ways schools can be more inclusive of Black people is to actually co-create course curriculum, cases, experiences and more with Black people – students, alumni, faculty, consultants, community leaders and beyond. There’s no shortage of creativity, ingenuity and innovation among Black business communities; schools have to invest the time and capital in building connections with them.”
As a Black MBA student at Harvard Business School, Alterrell Mills believed there was a lot of opportunity for improvement. It is why he decided to run for Co-President of the African-American Student Union (AASU) on campus. “I believed I could make meaningful change by building a coalition of my peers using many of the leadership and organization frameworks we had learned in our first year courses.”
Some of the areas for improvement were around the lack of data on representation in cases and among faculty, classroom protocols that allowed for potential racial bias, and a lack of training future business leaders in how to manage diverse teams.
“For my own experience while at HBS, I experienced more challenges from the administration than my peers. My classmates were all very well intentioned people who followed the rules HBS implicitly sets out for us,” he insists. “For example, in attempting to advocate for more representation in our curriculum, faculty members were the biggest obstacle to progress. I even created an award voted on by students in an attempt to incentivize writing more cases that covered diverse leaders and topics relevant to managing gender and racially diverse teams.”
Before the Harvard MBA, Alterrell had been part of the CEO’s internal strategy group at American Express, and upon graduation he joined Tesla as a member of the Leadership Development program (LDP) that puts high-caliber talent into the business to solve complex problems. Now a coach and advisor to entrepreneurs and MBA applicants, he has thought a lot about how to create a more inclusive environment for Black professionals and business school students.
“In my first year, the Black students did a presentation during Black History Month to help provide supplemental information especially to international students. The first question asked was: is it offensive to call you African American, or can we call you Black? Many people entering graduate management education — as is the case in American society and the workplace — are more focused on saying the right words to describe people and not enough on nuance.”
“In my section at HBS, we had panels after complex cases where we asked our classmates our burning questions,” Alterrell recalls. “We had a panel from our several Muslim students after a case on Saudi Arabia and one with our Chinese-born classmates after a case on China. We were all provided the space and opportunity to see the differences in opinion of a group that could be viewed as monolithic to an outsider. It was something our section decided to do. This could easily been curated and a suggested activity within management programs.”
Alterrell points out that Harvard Business School and many others have continuing education programs for senior leaders and executives. “How many of those programs go beyond inclusion and talk about managing inclusively?” he wonders. “What does it mean to manage Gen Z, Y and X if your company is mixed? What adjustments should managers make (or not) if they do not know how to have a culturally competent conversation?”
He argues that if the beacons of management education are not creating practical content — and only relying on their faculty, then they are already behind. “For example, there are probably amazing managers of age, race, and gender diverse teams who are NOT the CEOs of companies and therefore not on HBS’ radar to interview. You can probably think of some. Imagine if their best practices were published in HBR and not just someone who was the CEO of a diverse company.”
He comes back to this being an institutional problem. “Educational institutions are not usually the places of innovation, so why wouldn’t we spend more time learning where innovation happens and then incorporating that into curriculum?”
Improve access to quality education
For Lucy Wanjiku-Mutinda, Founder and Engineering Director of Ecycle Ltd, “in business education, there is a need to ensure more supportive channels such as scholarships, supported training, and acknowledging and celebrating successful Black students so other Black students can gain reassurance, confidence and be inspired to succeed.”
In doing this, she states, we will likely see more Black professionals taking on leadership roles and moving into the C-suite, with the development of more diverse work teams and even the creation of more black-founded companies.
As a Fellow and Alumna of Launch and Grow – Fellowship for Kenyan Women Entrepreneurs at Babson College and recipient of the Tech-women Fellowship, a prestigious training programme in the US for women in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Maths, Lucy found throughout her education she needed to secure added funding through scholarships in order to progress further and gain access to her next career move.
“From personal experience, the challenge in pursuing education has been about limited financial resources among others. However, I have leveraged sourcing and obtained scholarships to enable my further education.”
Now with over 17 years of experience spanning Wastewater Treatment Equipment Engineering, Automotive Engineering, Autodesk Software and Project management, Wanjiku-Mutinda was able to secure the Allianz Scholarship to finance her Global Online MBA at ESMT Berlin.
Business school has enhanced her strategic thinking and problem solving, and sharpened her skills to adapt to the digital world while fine-tuning her entrepreneurial spirit. So what advice does she have for other Black professionals and students?
“Believe and have confidence in your abilities while continuously enhancing knowledge and building networks. You need to get as much exposure as possible to garner skills, and expertise to be able to have a positive impact within your community.”
For Steven Zwane, access to quality education was not something he believed he’d ever have. Growing up in the rural landscape of South Africa, a country characterized by struggle and resilience in the midst of apartheid, Steven was systematically provided inferior education due to his race. In fact, he did not begin his educational journey until 11 years old.
“This meant that I didn’t complete high school till the age of 21, I faced the daunting task of pursuing undergraduate education, diligently saving every penny to supplement the limited student aid available to fund this education”, said Steven, who is now Founder and Chairperson of Youth Leadership and Entrepreneurship Development.
Remarkably, Steven’s delayed start hasn’t stopped him from completing an MBA at Durham University Business School, in the UK, and going on to study for a Doctor in Business Administration (DBA) at the same business school.
I owe a substantial debt of gratitude to my experience at business school,” he confirms, “as it armed me with the tools I needed to face the challenges and seize the opportunities that lay ahead. The MBA program at Durham University Business School endowed me with a global perspective on business, nurtured critical thinking, honed my leadership skills, and fostered a robust network of like-minded individuals.
Steven credits the late, post-apartheid South African leader and global icon, Nelson Mandela, not only as the reason he gained a further education, but also his inspiration. Steven was a Nelson Mandela scholar himself, which gave him the funding to study an MBA, something he’d not been able to afford or achieve without the help to access, and he believes that “the importance of accessible and quality education, particularly for underprivileged communities, is the cornerstone of empowerment.”
These skills and connections have became his greatest assets as he embarked on his journey as a social entrepreneur.
Improving the access to quality education at an early stage is also something that Ifeatu Adaora Soludo believes is an important way to cut out the issue of inequality at the source. Ifeatu, who is Founder and CEO of Aorah and Anambra Fashion Expo. She says that “the root cause may be that not enough Black individuals have access to the same opportunities, possibly due to disparities in education or the types of schools attended.”
For Ifeatu, who studied a Masters in Management at Imperial College Business School in the UK, educational institutes and companies are simply not expanding their talent pools wide enough to reach more diverse groups. “Ultimately, decision-makers in both businesses and educational institutions need to commit to doing the real work that creates change for a more inclusive future.”, she says.
Support systems, mentorship programs, and community engagement are crucial, as is holding institutions accountable through transparent reporting. “However, the initial step should involve identifying specific objectives and defining how they will be measured,” she asserts. “Do you aim to increase the representation of Black individuals in your workforce or school? If so, have you set a target percentage? Do you seek greater representation in specific roles, such as entry-level positions or leadership roles, or in particular academic disciplines? Once these objectives are established, it becomes clearer what actions need to be taken.
Ifeatu Adaora Soludo points to the impact of bias, “which persists and affects Black professionals who possess the skills necessary for success but are either not adequately supported or are overlooked. Addressing this bias may require training for decision-makers and those involved in the selection process. Concurrently, mentoring programs, especially those led by individuals in positions that others aspire to attain, can be instrumental.
In response to these types of challenges, Ifeatu found that “cultivating a robust support network composed of like-minded peers, who not only understand the unique experiences I face but also offer invaluable encouragement and guidance, is helpful”.
Tackle unconscious bias in recruitment
Access to education is not something that Sebastian Ifeanyi Obeta has found difficult in his own experience. Originally from Nigeria, Sebastien studied Physics as an undergraduate, and later pursued a Masters in Applied Artificial Intelligence and Data Analytics at Bradford School of Management, UK. He is now working as a Data Analyst at Cambridge University. However, Sebastien says that he has faced challenges when it comes to securing job roles post-studying.
“I must also acknowledge the presence of significant stereotyping and negative biases faced by Black students during their job searches”, Sebastien says. “These biases can be quite frustrating and can erode one’s self-esteem, leading to hesitancy in pursuing job applications that align with one’s strengths. The lack of clear reasons for rejections can be particularly disheartening.”
Similar to Ifeatu, Sebastien states that networking, and mentoring in particular, helped him to secure a role in a competitive jobs market, however this does not excuse the stereotyping faced by many black graduates. He believes that to establish a more inclusive environment for Black professionals in business, “an initial step involves raising awareness about unconscious bias, with anti-bias training programmes implemented widely, as biases can influence decision-making regardless of one’s background.”
Sebastien notes that the interview stage is already a strong indicator of the inclusive culture of an organization, and whether the interview panel has a well-represented team.
“When businesses embrace this approach by ensuring diverse leadership teams at all levels, including executives and board members, it demonstrates their dedication to inclusivity and equal opportunities. Every organisation should acknowledge their corporate social responsibility,” he argues, “and actively engage with and invest in communities, especially those with predominantly minority populations, to demonstrate their commitment to equality.
Sebastien also underlines the importance of showcasing your expertise, whether it’s in your services or technical skills, so that people recognize your value. “If you don’t assert your presence, it’s easy for others to overlook you. Therefore, don’t hesitate to promote your accomplishments and advocate for what you rightfully deserve, be it a promotion, salary increase, or opportunities for growth.
Help black graduates get on the corporate ladder
Linda Masibo, a safety consultant who is looking to pursue an MBA through the help of the Graduate Management Admission Council’s Talent and Opportunity Scholarship, has faced plenty of challenges in her career pursuits. “As a Black African woman, I am often aware of my accent, and the potential for people I meet to have preconceived biases about me. I have felt challenged to prove my competence and capabilities to overcome any misgivings colleagues may have.”
Getting onto an education program is just the start of a challenging journey of making your way in business, according to Linda, and more needs to be done to help those Black graduates who are wanting to get their first steps on the corporate ladder.
“I think organizations need to be more intentional in their recruitment and outreach efforts. Many black graduates may lack the awareness of paths to entry for opportunities both academic and work-related. Institutions can create specific initiatives, particularly targeting first-generation students or graduates from diverse backgrounds.”
Linda also advises graduates to seek out, “mentors whose careers and professional life you admire and want to emulate. It may be difficult to identify a mentor as an individual, in which case look for organizations that match aspiring mentees with mentors.”
Improve mentorship opportunities
But unfortunately, it can be difficult to seek out mentorship opportunities for Black graduates if there are very few available, according to Dr. Ifedapo Francis Awolowo, a Senior Lecturer in Financial and Management Accounting at Sheffield Business School, UK, who struggled to find Black mentors himself.
“A significant challenge I faced as a Black individual in business and academia was the scarcity of Black mentors,” he says. “Mentorship is critical to success in these realms, but there is a notable dearth of successful Black figures in business and academia. Unfortunately, those who have achieved this success are often inundated with commitments and, regrettably, are unable to respond to mentorship requests from aspiring Black business people and students.”
Ifedapo believes that successful black figures in business and academia should actively allocate their time to mentor and guide aspiring Black individuals. “Personalised mentorship is a critical component for the success of Black individuals in these domains.” To that end, Ifedapo highlights the Accomplished Study Programme in Research Excellence (ASPIRE), an initiative created by Black academics for Black students, funded by OFS/UKRI, and led by Sheffield Hallam University in partnership with Manchester Metropolitan University and Advance HE.
“ASPIRE fosters access and participation and Mixed-Black heritage Scholars at the doctoral level through personalised mentorship and a compassionate pedagogical approach”, he explains.
For Ifedapo, imagination is everything. “Greatness resides within you; all it takes to unlock it is unwavering determination and resilience. Remember that your potential for accomplishment knows no bounds as long as you can envision it.
Challenge the lack of representation
Rimm Elfu, Managing Director at Intersurgical Beatmungsprodukte GmbH, recalls a time at the beginning of his career when he didn’t secure a job role as a travelling sales representative, because the company “couldn’t imagine a person of colour driving through this very rural part of Germany supporting or acquiring customers.”
Rimm, who is an Executive MBA graduate from Mannheim Business School, states that his education has certainly helped him overcome some challenges, however there are plenty that still remain.
Rimm says that the more educated he has become the more subtle the discriminatory challenges are, making it hard to differentiate. “Most of the time they are very inconspicuous or even incidental and therefore sometimes they only have an effect in retrospect. Here it is important to be able to differentiate.”, he says.
Although it might be uncomfortable to do so, Rimm believes it is important to address and call out a lack of representation and acts of racism, and that steps in the right direction are being made. “I think the business world is becoming more and more sensitive (at least outwardly) to diversity and inclusion. That’s a positive development.”
Though to Rimm Elfu it may seem representation may be getting better, in some contexts it certainly isn’t, according to Danat Tekie, Manager at Deloitte Norway and an Executive Sustainable Business Strategy graduate at NHH Norwegian School of Economics. Danat says that representation is still an issue today, with “the trend is going in the wrong direction in Norwegian business, where there are only 0.22 per cent of managers with a multicultural background in Norwegian management teams.”
Such a lack of representation not only limits opportunities for harnessing a more diverse range of talent, it also risks isolating those employees who do make it into management roles. This is something Danat experienced herself in her professional career.
“I have experienced challenges such as a lack of representation, where I have often been the youngest in the room, one of the few if not the only woman and person with a multicultural background.”, says Danat. “These experiences have led me to feel that there is no place for people like me, which has meant that I have consciously been in rooms and in arenas where I have had to overcome these challenges and fight to disprove various prejudices and beliefs.”
Expanding influence in business and beyond
In all of these personal and professional experiences, Curtis Johnson at the Walt Disney Company recognizes that each of us is on a path with the potential to expand our influence in the business world and beyond. “While the goals are yours, the impact extends far wider.“
“There are people’s lives that are tied to your dreams,” he reminds us. What does that mean to you? What does that require of you? Let that awareness inform your goals and intentions, your time investments, your actions and your circle.
He advises business school students to journal regularly. “The experience flies by and by looking back at key moments and memories you’ve documented, you’ll have a richer pool from which to draw lessons and opportunities for growth.”
And his last advice is to stay connected with people who will remind you who you are and where you come from. “Amidst a sea of newness, whether in school or embarking on a career, I think there’s value in being grounded in stable relationships that exist completely independent of your new business endeavors.”
Curtis met his best friend for dinner every week while at Wharton. “I can’t say enough how important that was for my sense of balance and grounding.”