Thirty years ago, this year, Black History Month was born in the UK. Inspired by the US version (which was initiated by President Gerald Ford in 1976), Black History months around the globe are devoted to promoting the cultural, social and professional successes of black and other peoples of African descent, through events, articles and other educational means. Of course in an ideal world, the spotlight would be cast over black excellence all the time, and we wouldn’t need Black History Month. But because there’s an incredible amount of mis-information propagated about both African history and modern-day achievements in the media, and there’s a disproportionate amount of black and ethnic minority (BAME) candidates in high-level roles, and because many successful people are still facing challenges specifically related to their cultural identity in the workplace, (which in 2017, is totally unacceptable), Black History Month needs to stay. And with recent evidence suggesting that aiding black and ethnic minority candidates in their career progression can help boost the UK economy by an incredible £24b, it’s clear that promoting diversity and inclusion at work is good for everyone. So at Go Think Big we’ve asked 5 fantastic, modern-day career heroes to tell us about their journey into journalism, finance, retail and TV and film so you can copy their path to success, whatever your background.

Mathieu Ajan – “I’m an ‘artrepreneur’ – I make short films, curate photography exhibitions and run Teardusk.

black history month

Mathieu Ajan

What he does: Mathieu has forged the kind of creative career many young people dream of having – and he’s still got much more he wants to achieve. He told us that diversity is crucial in all industries, but in the creative fields, which are “driven by story-telling” it simply “doesn’t make sense” to be restricted to just one narrative. Mathieu’s personal work is grounded in the framework of the black experience and is; “shaped by my own personal experiences…with cultural stories tackling  race, social mobility and identity issues embedded within them.”

Why he does it: The creative organisation Mathieu founded called Teardusk, is devoted to creating opportunities for underrepresented groups and championing new talent, as so these creatives can “have their voices heard”. He explained; “We dedicate our time to mentoring diverse talent and creating workshops and events which help develop the key skills they need to thrive both personally and professionally.  I’m super passionate about this not only due to the fact that there is amazing talent out there which deserves to be celebrated but also because I know how it feels to face barriers and challenges on the journey to realising your ambitions.”

How you can do it: When it comes to offering advice to aspiring black creatives, Mathieu has more than a few words of wisdom to offer. He said: “My advice to young black creatives is to never view your background as something that holds you back professionally. Coming from a diverse background creates a different level of understanding which companies value and need. Use it to your advantage. Also, invest your time in being indispensable by actively developing your craft and self and make sure you are actively networking with key figures within the industries you aspire to work in – nepotism is unfortunately real.”

Bridget Lea – “I lead the stores, online, supply chain and multi-channel teams at O2.”

Black History Month

Bridget Lea

What she does: Bridget has enjoyed a varied and exciting retail career after first getting her big break on the M&S graduate scheme – one of her ultimate career highlights. She told us; “Being accepted onto the M&S graduate scheme [made me particularly proud]…It was notoriously difficult to get in as the graduate places were in high demand.” Bridget believes it’s “absolutely critical” for work teams to “support and champion a diverse range of employees” as it helps to “create stronger teams, more engaged employees and happier customers. Diverse companies deliver financial returns significantly above the national industry average. Of course it’s also the morally correct thing to do.”

Challenges: As a devoted champion of diversity in the workplace, Bridget’s rise to the top hasn’t been without its own challenges. “Very early on in my career I remember asking questions about how we could improve the ethnic diversity of the team”, she said. “I was told that there wasn’t a problem, and that if I wanted a successful career I wouldn’t raise these issues, as I’d be perceived as a trouble maker and [it could] hinder my career. It was a disappointing response…it made me second guess my actions for a while, but also made me more determined than ever to create talented diverse teams and do as much as I could to support others to fulfil their potential irrespective of race, gender or sexuality.”

How you can do it: This year Bridget placed 12 in the Financial Times’ top 100 ethnic minority UK leaders. She  advised younger BAME talent coming into the workplace to “work hard, deliver tangible results and network. Finding a mentor to help with career decisions is very useful. Make your ambitions known to senior people and find an organisation where the culture brings out the best in you – cultural fit is critical if you’re to be successful.”

Olaitan Olaoye  – “I’m an Actor, producer and founder of co-creation platform, Levile TV.”

Black History Month

Olaitan Olaoye

What he does:  Ola’s work is is centred around widening participation for BAME creative in the TV and film world and his company has already succeeded in placing “talent in production and acting roles and cast people in BAFTA nominated projects” – despite being around for just a year and a half. Levile TV is also a “creative access hub for talent needing advice or a creative boost” and Ola tells us his company is 80% BAME and 60% female.

Why he does it: “I’ve studied, trained and worked professionally as an actor, but I became disheartened by the lack of opportunities afforded to my peers, which led to me forming my company” Ola explained. “The platform has afforded many opportunities for creatives, young people and females to gain advice on how to kickstart their careers in the TV and film industry…the talent is there we just need more support and opportunities.”

How you can do it: Ola’s no stranger to mentoring fresh new talent and offering experiences to lesser-recognised actors and presenters, and tells us how he thinks up-and-coming BAME creatives should behave in order to boost success. He said: “Be the best version of yourself. Remember there is no one like you and now more than ever it is easy to be seen or put your content out there. Have laser focus on what you want to achieve but whilst you’re young, continue to try new things and make mistakes, you’ll see the benefits and reap the rewards in years to come.”

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff – “I am print editor at gal-dem, weekend editor at Dazed and Confused Magazine and Guardian freelancer.

Black history month

Charlie Brinkhurst-Cuff

Why she does it: Aged just 23, Charlie has carved out a remarkable career for herself writing about important cultural and political issues that are all too often overlooked in the media. She told us she believes the press have a responsibility to promote diversity and equality because, “we are so front-facing”. She explained; “we have a massive responsibility to the public to be doing the best work we can be. As Jon Snow said after Grenfell, the media is ‘comfortable with the elite, with little awareness, contact or connection with those not of the elite’. That needs to change and it will naturally change in part, if more people of colour are able to come through.”

How you can do it:  Charlie hopes her work as a journalist generally inspires other young black women to “take up the mantle” and with gal-dem, that it continues to give “a much-needed platform for underrepresented voices.” When it comes to offering advice for other aspiring black identifying writers, Charlie urged them to first search for institutions, grants and opportunities and things that are already in place to help you…and if they don’t exist in your particular workplace, seek out your peers online, she advised. “I’ve made so many amazing black and brown journalist friends through social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook and they’ve been invaluable both in my career progression and as a support network.”

Paul Asare-Archer  -”I am the Head of Compliance at O2.”

Black history month

Paul Asare-Archer

What he does:  When it comes to making a name for yourself in your career, Paul is more than capable, illustrated by the huge amount he’s achieved since starting out in O2 Money in 2012. He said: “I now oversee all O2 FCA regulated products such as Mobile Phone Insurance, Business Essentials and O2 Refresh and I’m responsible for the Whistleblowing, Anti Bribery & Corruption and Computer Based Training areas.  I love my job!”. With all that responsibility and success it’s no wonder Paul has been recognised for his professional contributions; “I’m really proud to have been named as a finalist at the recent Black British Business Awards” he told us. “I was in the Financial Services Leader of the Year category. Whilst I didn’t win on this occasion it was great to be considered amongst such high calibre.”

Why he does it: Paul therefore understands the importance of diversity in the workplace and noted the value it can add to a working environment. He said: “People with different backgrounds help bring unique experiences to the workplace and enable us to engage with our customers as effectively as possible. Diversity and inclusiveness also fosters creativity and innovation thus drives a high-performance culture.”

How you can do it: For anyone wishing to craft a career like Paul’s, he advises them to be open-minded when it comes to perceived setbacks in the workplace. “My approach in life has always been to strive to be the best I can be,” he explained. “I’ve never seen barriers, I just see opportunities. My advice to anyone would always be to be confident, believe in yourself and never to give up on your goals.”

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Black History Month: Behind the successes
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