Advocating for people not in the room

Holly Branson interviewing the founders of the Black British Business Awards
Image from Virgin.com
Holly Branson
Holly Branson's writing
Published on 21 October 2020

2020 has been an immensely difficult year for businesses and entrepreneurs. It has also been a landmark year in the fight for racial equity and the growth of the Black Lives Matter and global anti-racism movements, so it’s wonderful to celebrate some truly remarkable achievements at the Black British Business Awards (BBBA) this month. 

I’m so honoured to be involved in the virtual, month-long awards ceremony with Virgin proudly sponsoring the Consumer and Luxury Category – highlighting how Black identity, Black ingenuity and Black executives contribute to innovation, consumer engagement and digital trends in people-focused businesses.

Black British Business Awards 2020 poster
Image from the Black British Business Awards

The BBBA was founded in 2014 by two brilliant business women, Melanie Eusebe and Sophie Chandauka – who once worked with us at Virgin Money! Beyond the annual celebrations, the BBBA acts as a powerful change agent for the Black British business community and works with over 50 corporations to increase the recruitment and retention of Black professionals. Through their programmes, partnerships, research, campaigns and mentorships, the network is opening doors and opening minds. 

Melanie and Sophie work so hard to champion Black excellence and business success, and to amplify Black voices. However, Sophie and Melanie also have powerful voices and they are voices that need to be heard. In the midst of the awards celebration, I sat down for a long and thought-provoking conversation with the pair, which I’m excited to share with you all today. I hope you find it as insightful as I did, and please do share it far and wide so we can continue this important conversation.

Black British Business Awards - full interview with Holly Branson

It was fascinating to learn more about Sophie and Melanie’s upbringings in Africa and the Caribbean respectively. Throughout childhood, neither of them realised that the colour of their skin would impact their capacity to dream and to achieve the things they were capable of in life. As Sophie put it: “The best gift that I had was growing up was seeing Black excellence all around me and never even realising that race was a limiting factor.” 

This realisation hit hard when they moved to the UK and suddenly stopped seeing, hearing and reading about Black talent and achievements. When they entered the world of work, they both began to ask questions about this lack of diversity. When challenged, many organisations claimed they didn’t know where to find Black talent and Black candidates simply weren’t applying. Melanie and Sophie knew this wasn’t true, it wasn’t good enough and it was time to do something about it.

Melanie and Sophie also work tirelessly to prove the business case for championing Black talent, as well as the moral case. They argue that increasing the amount of Black people in the workforce will drive productivity and profitability from this largely untapped talent pool and customer segment. As Sophie put it: “We are here and we are making a contribution that is meaningful to the British economy.” 

It was also very illuminating to speak to these two powerful women about allyship and what we all need to do to make sure we are driving equality and addressing systemic racism. As Melanie said: “Allyship is activity. It’s not just believing in something, it’s asking ‘what can I do about it?’”. In answer to that very question, she added: “Advocate for people who are not in the room. There’s a certain privilege to the space we’re afforded because of our class, race or gender that other people might not be allowed… if you’re sitting at a table and realise everyone looks just like you, ask yourself: ‘How can I advocate for those who should be at this table and who don’t look like me?’”

It was such an honour to learn from these two incredible change-makers and cover so many topics, while reflecting on what it means to be an active ally. I’ll be sharing more insights and conversation starters from Sophie and Melanie in the weeks to come too, as we explore the language surrounding race in the workplace and how we can all work together to break down barriers. Stay tuned! You can learn more about the Black British Business Awards and get involved in the brilliant work they are doing right here.