Work & Wellbeing

Educating Ally: Brixton Finishing School founder on supporting the mental health of diverse talent

By Ally Owen | founder

September 1, 2021 | 11 min read

In her latest column for The Drum, Ally Owen catches up with individuals from backgrounds under served by our industry to understand how she can become a better ally. Patrick Sanyaolu is her latest guest.

In this series, you’ll get to meet talent who will share their individual story so we can gain a deeper understanding of their experience and the interventions that will make us a better ally to them. Today, my latest guest is Patrick Sanyaolu, currently a UK account executive at Momentum Worldwide.

Patrick shares his experience as a young Black man in North London and discusses why businesses need to do more to invest in the mental wellbeing of diverse talent.

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Ally Owens interviews Patrick Sanyaolu on why businesses need to do more to invest in the mental wellbeing of diverse talent

Ally: I’m so pleased that you’ve taken the time to chat to me Patrick. Why don’t you start by introducing yourself and your background?

Patrick: So my name is Patrick and I’m currently at Momentum Worldwide UK. I was born in Nigeria. I come from parents that came over to this country like many other parents from African countries to create a better future for their children.

Their experiences of coming over here are a very crucial part of my DNA because it’s taught me about overcoming challenges and hard work. My parents came here with nothing; they left everything they knew and had in Nigeria. So I’m used to taking on challenges and working hard, which I think is very important, and it speaks to a lot of my experiences in the workplace. It shapes you.

For someone from my background, education is key. It meant that university was a necessity.

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Obviously your family values education very highly, as many working class and immigrant families do. So following your education, how did you find your way into the industry? Had you heard of us?

Absolutely not. I’m sure it’s similar for most people in North London. Obviously I was aware that things were advertised, but I wasn’t aware of planners or marketing strategists or any other roles in the industry.

I think a lot of children growing up in inner-city areas aren’t exposed to these different types of career paths that are available, especially when there’s a lack of funding in their schools. For me, I was fortunate enough to broaden my horizon because I went to a boarding school completely outside of London. It was a completely different environment.

That’s amazing, your family pushed you to go to boarding school to give you a better chance to succeed. What was it like leaving?

Well, I had doubts, but it was the best thing for me and it was the best thing my parents could do for me to set me up for my future. I say this because I left at a crucial time. It was when knife crime in London was at a high point and a lot of people I know were involved in that life and they’re still bearing the consequences today. So I think my parents pulled me out and took me to a completely different environment where the focus was different.

And because of leaving London, when I entered the working world I had been set up to see the world in a completely different way. Obviously, people do manage to succeed in London and overcome all sorts of barriers, but being away from the city meant I was being nurtured for success in a different way.

So you mentioned that you hadn’t heard of the industry, how can we advertise ourselves better so that potential talent can find us?

I think more important than knowing the industry exists, we need funding. For non-Black people, it is easy to get funding and so it’s an easy route in. But for Black and ethnic minority individuals, you have financial access barriers with a lack of generational wealth, so to achieve wealth you see your only options as selling drugs or becoming a footballer or rapper.

What we’re talking about here is limited choice – you can only become what you see. The spotlight isn’t on any other industry or individuals. So there is obviously a lot of work to do in exposing and shining a light on the different options out there.

So what can we do? Are there any things that make you think ‘come on guys you should be doing this’?

We’re in 2021. I’m sorry, but there is no reason why companies can’t be diverse or speak to people from different types of talent pools. You need to tell them that there are jobs here for them.

We should turn up to an interview and see other Black candidates in the room. You should see female candidates there. There should also be people with disabilities in that room.

How does it feel when you walk into an interview space and maybe you’re waiting outside in the room and it’s clear they haven’t invested in diversity?

I’m sure it’s a similar feeling to if you were to walk into a male-dominated space. It’s a feeling you get when you see a plethora of faces.

When a Black person walks into a white-dominated room, what they tend to do is adjust themselves to be more reserved. You almost tone down your personality to a degree because you think that’s the norm of the room. And the problem with that on a larger scale is that in a business that doesn’t invest in diversity, you don’t really get the real personalities of your Black employees because they’re having to adjust to a white environment. So you almost lose a part of what could be so beneficial to a company.

Can we talk about mental wellness and how that can be reconciled as a position a company takes if they’re not dealing with race?

We’re in an era where mental wellness is so, so, so important. And for the Black experience it is even more so. As I’ve said, there is a lot that comes with Black experiences. Even at a granular level, there are mental gymnastics for a Black woman when it comes to her hairstyle choices when coming into a workplace. She’s constantly thinking ‘oh, I can’t have my hair in a particular way just in case X happens or someone tries to touch it’.

So before she’s even really started her day, she’s carrying that and all the other things start playing on her mind in the background. It’s a constant hum. And we’re not talking about when she’s at a work meeting and she’s constantly thinking about how she should say something or should she even say it at all. It’s not healthy.

What we need is for people at the top to understand these things Black people are thinking about to help us in the workplace. When it comes to our hair, for example, mental gymnastics happen when there are no clear rules in place because they’ve never been thought about. But understanding those crucial things that make Black and ethnic minority individuals different is a good starting point for helping make workplaces inclusive, which supports our mental wellness.

I want to ask, in terms of the change-making since the murder of George Floyd to improve inclusivity, do you feel the pace of change has slowed?

I think when we talk about posting black squares, they’re great for raising awareness. But we need to start addressing the structural problems. The issue is understanding the problem in the first place, and I think this goes back to education. People aren’t educated on the problem and they’re not educating themselves, which I think is the reason why we’ve seen a slowdown in the pace of change.

Black lives matter, but businesses need to be telling them why they matter because then we wouldn’t witness a slowdown. If it never leaves the heart of your business you’ll never see it as a trend to jump on and you’ll understand that you need to carry on. People jump on things, but the ones that are really committed will remain when the dust is settled.

But beyond the black squares, what’s a particular company doing to change its recruitment process? What is it doing to change its boardroom? What’s it doing to change its ethos? It has to become a core value of your business.

Do you think we should start seeing more race, gender and sexuality reporting to show people what’s actually happening?

We live in an age and an industry that values data. And I think that when you have clear evidence from data and you speak on that data, it definitely gets people to sit up and listen. But a lot of the issues are experiential and difficult to report on.

But I do think the fact that these reports are commissioned in the first place tells you enough about the problems that exist. We’re dealing with structural issues – the structures and systems in place that allow certain things to happen. That’s why I set up a podcast within Momentum to start these discussions. The pipelines, the kind of inner workings, the way things are, the way things are done. I think every and any problem that we’re looking to address has to begin here.

Finally, I want to ask why you think it’s so important to shine a light on the experiences of Black and ethnic minority individuals?

What I’d like to stress is that the Black experience is not one collective experience. There are Black women from Nigeria with a different experience from Black women from Ghana. There are Black Muslims with their own experiences. I can only speak from my experience in a sea of many different perspectives. But there is a joy and a benefit in having all of these different perspectives available to us – businesses just need to pursue them harder.

Patrick’s recommendations for further understanding:

  • Dope Black Mums, The Black Mums Upfront podcast

  • The Receipts Podcast

  • 3 Shots of Tequila Podcast

  • About Race by Reni Eddo-Lodge

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