I recently watched the amazing “Hidden Figures” which has given more of a profile to the black American women who were integral to the NASA programme in the 1960s – one to watch if you haven’t already done so.

It got me thinking that we are so used to seeing headlines bemoaning the lack of females in positions of authority and leadership, yet we see and hear even less about ‘women of colour’ in these types of positions. Other than sports and TV celebrities, the only other women that come to mind readily were Diane Abbott MP, and Baroness Lawrence of Clarendon, OBE. Why is that and what is it that prevents them from rising to top of their chosen careers – are people inherently both anti-feminist and racist? Surely that can’t be the case. It was timely then to hear from Mavis Amankwah, owner of Rich Visions, asking if we would be interested in talking to her and some of her clients about their own stories, successes and challenges.

Mavis Amankwah

Rich Visions specialises in producing business plans and securing financial support for SMEs from £2 – £100k, most notably those of black, ethnic backgrounds, looking to grow and expand their businesses. Mavis is also a founder of BE Mogul which is a biennial awards event celebrating the contribution of black British business owners, organisations and entrepreneurs.

When I caught up with Mavis, she passionately argued that the contribution of black British business to the UK economy is often overlooked. Citing stats from Eric Osei’s (2008) study “Britain – The Rise and Rise of Black Britain”, she noted:

  • In the 1990s, the majority of black-owned businesses mainly served the black community, with niche services like hairdressing, food retail and catering.
  • Today an increasing number of black entrepreneurs are running multimillion pound companies in mainstream sectors such as IT, financial services, property, media and fashion, as well as law, consulting, recruitment and other professional services.
  • In London alone, there are 16,000 businesses owned by people of black African and Caribbean descent.
  • London’s black-owned businesses currently employ 100,000 people and generate a combined annual sales turnover of around £10 billion.

These are certainly some impressive numbers and it is perhaps also testament to London’s multicultural nature.

Mavis, who has a degree and qualifications in IT and management, gave up a full time job in 2002 to start her own business and to date she has won 13 awards and spoken on the same stage as Richard Branson and Alan Sugar.

I asked Mavis how hard it had been for her to get her business off the ground and what it was that keeps her motivated:

Mavis: My motivation was, and remains, that I want people from ethnic minorities to be recognised for their qualifications and skills and not for the colour of their skin. There is no doubt that there is a lot to do but looking back, we have already come a long way. I have helped over 650 businesses secure just over £6m worth of funding and loans within 5 years. We have also delivered numerous business training workshops, seminars and conferences directly to over 1500 businesses over the last 10 years.

It hasn’t always been easy, I had a lot of challenges, including the sudden death of my PA in 2013 who had been with me for 10 years. I also lost about £90k a few years ago and a few big contracts along the way but it has made me even more determined to succeed and I am a stronger person for it.

Suzanna: What do you think are the barriers to more ethnic women going it alone and setting up in business? Or getting promoted to the more senior positions in larger corporations?

Mavis: Not seeing role models that look like them in the public domain. Ethnic women may be alienated into thinking they won’t be seen, heard or taken seriously in business. It doesn’t help that women are generally afraid to take risks, but without role models, there is no testimony to somewhat justify that business and entrepreneurship can be rewarding.

Suzanna: I know that you have mentioned that you would love to be the first black female Dragon in The Dragon’s Den – who has been your favourite Dragon so far and why?

Mavis: Peter Jones – I absolutely love him. He’s a no-nonsense man with a big brain; a bit like me! I remember reading an extract from one of his books: “Everything manifests itself around that magical word called ambition.” – Which holds great meaning to me.

Mavis suggested we also spoke with other ethnic entrepreneurial women to hear first hand of their own experiences and so we caught up with Nicole White, founder of Palmcole Properties and Jennifer Obaseki, Solicitor in Shoreditch.

Suzanna: Jennifer – your story is quite unusual in that you now have your own business as a solicitor but you started out in retail and cleaning – that’s quite a journey! How/what prompted the career change?

Jennifer: Certainly is! I started in retail and had a cleaning job between 1990 and 1997. I was trying to sort out my disabled mum’s needs and I became frustrated by a system which seemed arbitrary. This led me to get a job as a law clerk and to study to become a solicitor as I felt the system was unfair. So to get through the studying and to pay the bills, I also had a business buying and selling beauty products alongside my job as a Legal Clerk. As a single parent of 5 children, I needed to pay the bills and keep a roof over our heads! I then got a passion for representing the vulnerable, fighting against inequality and for women’s rights. But innovation in generating home and business solutions through Ecommerce platforms will makes the work-life balance easier to maintain.

Jennifer Obaseki

Suzanna: Whilst not the same field as yourself, were you encouraged by the press release from the Queen’s Counsel into appointments for 2016/17 which shows that 113 QCs were appointed and they had the highest number of female, and subsequently, successful appointments, at 31. They also appointed 16 new QCs from black and ethnic minority backgrounds having had the highest number of applicants from this group. Professor Moorhead, having looked at the Diversity at the Bar report from December 2016 by the Bar Standards Board, noted that approximately 1 in 5 applicants to the bar were from women and 1 in 7 were from ethnic backgrounds. In respect of non-QC barristers, it is more encouraging as around 39% are female but the number of female trainee barristers is 50%. Have you found that both being female and of ethnic origin has been more of a barrier than if you were male or any other female colleagues?

Jennifer: Yes indeed, but having tried to use my difference to my advantage, no matter how excellent one may be, as an ethnic worker, one cannot force someone with racist views to appreciate you. I discovered this when I was doing my training. Sadly I discovered that there was pay disparity in the firm I was in, not only between men and women, but also across ethnic groups. I made a complaint, but vowed that I would work for myself. Discrimination, sadly is not a thing of the past, but hopefully things will continue to change for the better.

I am worried about women’s position post-BREXIT, as protection legislation enshrined in EU law has allowed the protection of women and part-time workers from unequal pay and terms. Within the UK we have to rely upon the Equal Pay Act (1970) for the protection of wages, and the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC), responsible for the publication of companies gender pay gap.

I am hopeful that the statistics of accomplished females awarded QC status show improvement, however we have to consider how many other young women – especially ethnic women, are coming behind.

There has also been a considerable amount of discussion over the fusing of Solicitors and Barristers. The real issue lies with the young women hoping to convert to the legal profession, with fees from Law school and Bar finals. Secondly, apart from the costs, I also honestly feel that there are a lot of distractions for todays up and coming legal trainees and also sadly, not enough opportunities in training, experience or available mentors

Suzanna: Do you see it as a generational or an institutional issue? As we grow up in a more multicultural society are today’s children more accepting of others – children are not born racist after all surely?

Jennifer: In my opinion, a lot has to do with one’s environment and their tolerance. Obviously, children are neutral, and like sponges they absorb anything they have been taught, and along with personal experience, form opinions. Now the government attempts to combat this through curriculum, an example of this is through citizenship lessons, the teaching of core values, and personal, social and health education (pshe) lessons. However, adults are restricted through legislation. But outside of the law and formal teaching, when back at home, what we watch and where we socialise are massive influences, so we need to be careful.

Suzanna: Nicole – you too have gone into what some might consider to be a difficult sector for anyone, let alone a ‘woman of colour’! What made you decide to set up a real estate company in the UK promoting property investment in Jamaica?

Nicole: Simple – it was my love and passion for the island of Jamaica as well as wanting to both work and live there in due course

Nicole White

My background is in Local Government and I’ve also been a Private Landlord for over 25 years as well as running a local estate agent for a number of years so I am used to perhaps being seen as public enemy number 1!

Suzanna: What have you found to be the most challenging part of setting up in business so far and do you think being a female has added to the challenge or not?

Nicole: Definitely setting up an overseas business whilst still based in the UK has its challenges as it limits what we can do, however finding partners to work with, who are based overseas, has helped up to overcome that hurdle.

Although there are a lot of Women in the Estate Agency business, it remains to be a heavily male dominated industry – particularly at the top. I am a fairly head strong female, as I grew up as an only child on a housing estate, so I had to be fairly headstrong to survive that. I do not allow my gender or race to hold me back and prefer to see these as unique assets, which will see me noticed.

Your mind-set has a lot to do with how you are perceived, so I maintain a positive mind-set and look to collaborate with people, male or female, wherever I feel I may not have the strongest link. I therefore feel that although there are challenges being a female, they are not very hard to overcome.

Suzanna: Did you find that your family were fully supportive of your decision to go it alone or did they think you were slightly mad?

Nicole: My family were all very supportive of me, very proud and have filled me with encouragement, all of the way. This obviously helps to boost one’s energy when going it alone, so it has helped me to maintain my positive attitude and continue to push forward.

Suzanna: Do you think that the global uncertainty around Brexit and Trump’s Presidency has impacted on people wanting to invest in overseas property given the currency fluctuations?

Nicole: Brexit definitely had an effect on the UK market and rental yields that Landlords can expect. This coincided with a whole range of different regulations, which impact the financial world – affecting Mortgages, and Private Landlords who may experience in the difference of their taxed income, and how they are to treat their tenants. For these reasons, many investors (Private Landlords) have looked to downsize their UK portfolios and look at options overseas.

Suzanna: If you could live your life again – would you change anything, for example, would you want to come back as a man, choose a different career? If you could be someone famous, past or present, who would you choose to be?

Nicole: Having experienced my life of almost 50 years as a women, there is no way I would want to come back as a man! I am very happy, positive, courageous, adventurous, fun loving female and wouldn’t change myself or my life for anything/ anyone.

I believe, life is what you make it, so rather than come back as someone/thing else, it’s best to make the changes yourself. Only we can change our destinies, our experiences. Sometimes it will require a lot, sometimes it may just require a little, but in all cases, it may require a change of mind-set.

I love quotes and affirmations and have used these on occasions, here’s a short one – ‘Be the CHANGE that you wish to see in the world!’ We live in a very diverse world now, more accepting than when I was growing up, so if we are strong enough to BELIEVE in something, that our situation can change, it’s very likely, with some personal adjusting, it can, we just need to make it happen.

Suzanna: Do you think the UK is a welcoming/easy place to set up/do business in for anyone regardless of their educational, racial, social background?

Mavis: I think going in to business, for anyone at any age is a daunting decision, particularly if you have attended a mainstream school. I don’t believe our basic education system is designed to make business people, it’s designed to churn out workers. It is therefore very much up to the individual to go out there and seek the additional information that they may need, to start their own business.

You definitely need to have an entrepreneurial mind-set, if you want to push ahead, set up and run your own business. So although you may not feel that you have a head start, due to your social background – such as your race or your gender, this should not hold anyone back. It may just mean that you will need to work that bit harder to get where you want to.

Suzanna: What would be the one thing that would make it easier for women to start up in business?

Nicole: One thing that would make it easier for women to start up in business is the access to female mentors, already in business. This is something that Mavis has found success in and to some extent offers in her Women Like Me Club. More programmes such as this, would be a great benefit to young Women, wanting or thinking of starting up their own businesses.

Suzanna: What would make it easier for people of colour to set up in business?

Mavis: Similar to what Nicole has mentioned, there is much to gain from group dynamics, there is much to learn from those who look like you and from those of a similar background. Belonging to, or meeting with groups such as this, can help to raise your self-esteem, give you ideas, contacts and mentors. With the age of technology that we are now in, there are many different ways that we can create such groups. These meetings do not have to be time intensive and involve a physical sit down meeting. Groups can be set up on social media, or arranged on platforms such as Zoom, so you can be anywhere in the World.

Suzanna: Finally – What would ‘equality’ look like for you in 20 years time?

Mavis: This is an interesting question! We do not live in a perfect world and in some respects, it does not change very fast.

The extent to which change occurs also depends on where you are living in the world. Physical location can have a significant impact on what equality looks like for both Women and people of colour. I do believe that for both identity groups, we will continue to make strides forward and there will be a slow change.

I am hopeful that more generally, there is much more respectful acceptance of both people of colour and of women, living, working and achieving in society across the globe.

Mavis, Jennifer and Nicole are living in a time where negotiating issues of race is a persistent aspect of society. Whilst these issues may not be as obvious as they were throughout the times of segregation, they are still there, perpetuating modern business. The key word here is ‘modern’, and it should be emphasised that in this modern time, women of colour are still experiencing restrictions within business. It calls for influential and powerful role models to transgress boundaries and succeed such as; Mavis, Jennifer and Nicole. Such progress will begin to break down internal structures or opinions that limit ethnic women’s success. Subsequently allowing for a system of support to develop and ‘naturalise’ women of colour’s position within business. It is through this process that Mavis hopes for an increased acceptance and respect for female ethnic minorities. Finally facilitating a productive environment where your gender or the colour of your skin, becomes an irrelevant aspect in your potential and ability to succeed.

Suzanna Bailes 

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