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Reflections from Black History Month

Ayodeji Omoogun joined the Standard Chartered Bank’s Graduate Scheme in 2013 in Nigeria, and later moved to London to join the Bank’s Public Sector and Development Organizations Team. In 2016, Ayo moved to New York team and has since become a leader of the Origins, Nationality and Ethnicity (ONE) employee resource group. Here he reflects on this year’s Black History Month, and why his work in this space matters to him.

When I first came to New York, I didn’t immediately get involved with the Employee Resource Groups. I’d just moved from London, where we had been trying to revive the Africa Forum, a UK-based network for African colleagues, and with so many ERGs in New York, I didn’t know where to start.

But the death of George Floyd changed that.

I was already discovering that the perception that I had of the US while being on the outside looking in is very different to the experience of living here, which took a lot of getting used to. Being Black, I was sympathetic to the struggles of the African American community.

But as I interacted more and embedded myself, I also started to understand better the historical context, which gave me more insight into structural and systemic racism in the US. At the same time, it made me realize that there is no simple fix.

I hear the frustrations that people have, and I believe we must maintain high ambitions for change and not settle for the status quo. But I also like to analyze things in context, and the experience today is  better than it was about 60 years ago when the Civil Rights Act was passed. And why is that? Because people continue to take individual responsibility to be drivers for positive change. In some cases, knowing that their efforts might not be rewarded in their lifetime, but simultaneously knowing it’s the right thing to do.

For me, I felt obligated to continue to be part of the fight to help create a just and inclusive society. Not just for race, but in every aspect of discrimination.

Reflections on Black History Month

This year we had several events to mark Black History Month. Our keynote session  featured Celeste Warren, Vice President, Global Diversity and Inclusion Center of Excellence at Merck, who spoke about her experience both personally and professionally working in the D&I space. It was extremely insightful, and I hope that more people within our organization take the time to watch it.

Historically, we’ve had a lot of focus on the keynote event, but this year I think the lead up events were even more important, as they were key drivers to some of the changes that we’re striving for.

As part of my role within the ERG, I often receive feedback that people, Black and young professionals especially, are struggling to navigate career progression within the corporate context.  So, we held an internal panel discussion in conjunction with ONE UK and ONE-AG on navigating careers and featured several Black colleagues at various stages of their careers. The discussion touched on a range of topics, including changing roles, managing your brand, and dealing with uncertainties. There was a transparency to the conversations that I believe left those who attended better empowered to manage their individual brand and ambitions in a way that you are never taught at school.

We had an early careers event called Being Black in International Banking, aimed at students who were either still in school or recently graduated, which is especially important to build a strong pool of diverse talents for our early career opportunities.

ONE also hosted events with some of our partner community organizations, Leadership Enterprise for a Diverse America (LEDA) and The Zahn Center at The City College of New York.

The great thing about these sessions is that the participants were in front of the next generation. Black students seeing black professionals, black lawyers, black bankers, black leaders. If we’re going to become a more diverse bank, a big part of that is getting out there into the talent pipeline and letting black students see that they are reflected in our organization.

What we need to do next

Our approach this year has already been successful. We’ve had a lot of follow up and connections, and we feel that the variety of sessions was an impactful way of making a difference to the Black community.

But was it enough?

In the summer of 2020, there was huge momentum felt by both individuals and organizations. It was the most I’d seen in terms of corporate commitments and funding in my lifetime.

But when you look around in 2022, the general feeling is that that momentum hasn’t translated to results at that scale. We had a key moment in time, which sparked a sense of opportunity for change, and if we don’t see that change, then people lose faith.

I think we’re at the stage where we need to honestly and transparently assess whether or not we’re making as much progress as we should.

I’m not sure corporate institutions understand the level of expectation that the African American community has. The expectation is that change is drastic, it’s clear, it’s prioritized and it’s quick.  Incremental isn’t good enough anymore. The ambition is higher now.

We’re in the time of the great resignation as people reassess their careers post-pandemic. More than ever, we’re seeing individuals interviewing organizations as much as organizations are interviewing them. And it’s easy to spot companies that aren’t walking the talk – which is a risk to the brand.

Sometimes we hear the excuse that we’re struggling to find talent. But are we looking hard enough? Post 9/11 there was a huge focus on compliance. Post 2008, huge focus on regulatory compliance. And we found the people to do those jobs. There wasn’t a pipeline of compliance people waiting out there ready to fill those jobs – we went to find them. Why don’t we take the same approach now? You can teach the technical skills if you find people with integrity, vision and drive.

We must be more intentional and creative to fulfil our diversity goals – we need to look at the entire pipeline and be open to new ways of doing things. To listen to the people who are bringing the lived experiences to the table and understand the barriers and identify solutions.

Things to remember

Black History Month is not a one-month activity. It’s every day, and we need to continue the conversation throughout the year. This year especially, listening to the incredible black voices that participated in our celebrations, made me realize two crucial points if we’re going to continue making Standard Chartered, and banking as a whole, a more diverse and inclusive space:

First, no one should underestimate their ability to drive change. We need to remember that when building effective, inclusive cultures within institutions, policies are only the starting point. The culture is built by people freely expressing themselves in a way that allows them to be their authentic self.

Finally, we don’t have to agree; but we should be able to talk in a respectful way. If it’s only one group speaking, that’s not diversity. We need a diverse range of thoughts, opinions, backgrounds, and perspectives so that organizations can firstly hear them, and secondly take action.