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Succeeding as a black woman in business

I was born and raised in Nigeria where I lived and went to school. I am the second of five children and was born into a very professional and entrepreneurial family.

My dad was a pharmacist and my mum had always owned her own businesses.

From a young age, I had always been exposed to diverse perspectives as that was the example I saw in my own family. In a country that very much runs along tribal and religious lines, my parents were an exception. My parents were from different tribes and religion affiliations, and it was never an issue in our family, so I grew up fully being tolerant and comfortable with difference.

I relocated to the United Kingdom in 2006 straight out of university to join my husband (then fiancé) who was already living here. For the first time in my life, I was keenly aware of my skin colour.

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Growing up in a majority black country, I had not been exposed to the nuances of race and ethnicity.

Another thing that starkly stood out to me was the lack of black people in corporate leadership positions. This bothered me a lot as a person who is naturally driven and ambitious. It felt to me that the corporate set up in the UK was not favourable towards black people.

I made up my mind to strive to succeed against all odds. Not just for me, but for others like me to have a reference point of successful black people. To let them know that career success was possible.

I went on to build a very successful career in compliance, risk and controls, but figured out quite early on in my career that being hardworking and technically excellent was not enough.

To truly be successful at work, I realised you needed to develop other skills and savviness that were necessary for career progression.

For me, the single most important ingredient for career success is confidence and self-belief.

As a black woman, it was critical for me to believe in my own abilities, to tell myself that I was deserving of success, not to feel like anything was beyond me and to fully acknowledge my own brilliance and hard work.

I have found over time that lack of confidence and self-belief plays a huge part in holding people back from the success they desire to have in the workplace.

I also learnt that to continue to succeed and progress at work, I needed to build resilience. Corporate life is not easy for anyone, but it is doubly hard for black people. You are constantly trying to prove yourself and your abilities and that can take a toll on one’s physical and mental health. Resilience, I have discovered is a critical muscle that must be exercised.

Lastly, I have found that no one is truly successful without a network of sponsors, mentors and allies.

A lot of workplaces do not run on meritocracy and sadly, the cream does not always rise to the top. It is important not only to do good work but for people to know that you are doing good work and most importantly, for a group of people to champion you and let others know you are doing good work.

My experiences led me to start a career development platform focused on helping people from black and ethnically diverse backgrounds progress in their careers. So many people from underrepresented backgrounds do not have the access, network and knowledge to progress their careers and our tech platform works with individuals and organisations by providing access to a network of professionals who act as instructors, mentors and coaches.

Career progression should not be the persevere of a few groups, we exist to democratise career growth and to contribute to a more equitable and just society.


Bukola Adisa is CEO of Career Masterclass


October is Black History Month in the UK and every Friday throughout HR magazine will be posting a series of expert perspectives on how HR can provide better support for Black employees in the workplace.

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