Agency Work & Wellbeing

Educating Ally: Brixton Finishing School founder on the warning signs of virtue signalling

By Ally Owen | founder

January 6, 2022 | 10 min read

In her latest column, Ally Owen catches up with individuals from backgrounds underserved by our industry to understand how she can become a better ally. Aliyah Mustapha is her latest guest.

In this series, you’ll get to meet a 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. My latest guest is Aliyah Mustapha, currently a business intern at The Trade Desk.

Aliyah shares her experiences of institutional racism at school and talks about the lessons needed for parents to help them see the opportunities that are available in the industry.

Hands of various skin tones overlapping on pink background

Ally Owens interviews Aliyah Mustapha on the dangers of virtue signalling

Ally: It’s really great to speak with you Aliyah! Could you tell me about yourself?

Aliyah: Hey Ally! Thanks for having me. To answer your question, I guess I'm just a person just trying to make it. I am very focused and I'm just always trying to do my best at whatever I do. I guess I’m just trying to figure it out like everyone else. But career-wise, I’m currently a Business Intern at The Trade Desk.

I think that’s a really great answer. I’d love to know if you had heard of the ad industry before joining?

I actually had no clue about the industry. When I found out about the options available it actually troubled me a lot because I had somehow missed an entire industry! But in my life, there are so many people in my friendship groups and family who don’t know about it because we’re not presented with these roles. I do think there is a negative stereotype around what advertising is but it can provide so much opportunity that you would realize.

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So when and how did you find out that the ad industry existed?

I found out about advertising during this lovely summer course called Brixton Finishing School!

That was your first time? Really?

Really! I knew what an advert was and I knew what marketing and new business were but I didn't really know that they were joined in one big industry. At school, I never would have guessed that this is where I would end up.

Why did you choose to pursue Brixton Finishing School if you've never heard of advertising?

I’m the kind of person who is very open-minded and is always on the hunt for experiences I could be interested in. The summer before I graduated with my Business and Economics degree, I studied a Google digital marketing course and I finished it in such a short amount of time because I was so interested in it. It showed me just how important digital marketing is to companies looking to scale. Afterwards, I wanted to get into a digital marketing role but I didn’t know how so I started following marketing pages and one of them presented me with BFS!

I think that goes to show just how important our recent venture, ADVenture is for reaching talent at a much younger age!

Exactly, I was going to point out how important it is to know earlier on, both in school and university, because it shows you your options and helps let your parents know about the roles too. I come from a very professional and career-driven family and you have to go into certain careers because they provide a certain salary. My parents had bad experiences at work in the UK so they never wanted me to be dependent on working for someone. They worked hard and yet didn’t feel or receive the benefits from their jobs so they didn’t really want that for their children.

Have you ever had similar experiences to your parents?

Compared to my parents I would say I’ve been very blessed and fortunate to not have had experiences as brutal as theirs, but I have had my fair share no doubt. These experiences have been worse since I moved from Nigeria to the UK because in the UK it’s institutional racism- it’s kind of hidden. It actually happened at school too and it’s only when I look back that I realized.

Back in Nigeria, the system is different because even if you’re a D or a C grade student. You’re always told you’re a good student and they make you believe that you can achieve anything. When I came to the UK, I had good grades and I remember getting a C on a test which made me confused. I asked the teacher what I did wrong and how I could improve but he turned around and said ‘It’s fine, some people are okay with C’s, you don’t need to stress yourself out. There was a white girl sitting next to me and she also got a C and she didn’t even ask the teacher for help. He called her back and said that he would give her extra lessons to get her grade up.

Wow, that’s a clear example of institutional racism at work! Maybe it's our responsibility as an industry to not only say that we are at risk, but that we say that we’re not happy for people to not be high achieving if they want to be.

You mention school, is there anything you’d like to add from your experience in a business environment? Is the ratio of white to black people comparatively fair?

I don’t think you would find the ratio to be anywhere near fair in the UK, and I work in the tech industry, so definitely no. The place I work in now is predominantly white. I could probably count the number of Black people on my hands within the company from what I can see.

That’s it isn’t it, we're trying to make this industry inclusive of all talents but we’re not at that stage yet clearly. So how can we make the talent we already have comfortable and thrive to stay with us?

I think after the Black Lives Matter movement companies that weren’t doing anything before started to jump on hiring sprees to improve their company image. We can see what you’re doing clearly- it’s worse than doing nothing at all. It’s more than just employing someone for the sake of stats. What I appreciate about where I work is the fact that the company is open to criticism and asking where they need to improve.

But I also think that the industry doesn’t need to just get us through the door, it needs to get us to the door in the first place. For Black people, often our parents’ traditions are present in our lives so it’s really key that we educate parents on what the industry has to hold. They need to understand that there are so many roles.

You mentioned this rush after the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, do you think things have slowed down?

The reason why people got up wasn't because of how many black killings there were, it was because of the way Black people were reacting. We were making it uncomfortable for them to do nothing. A lot of people and businesses were pretending because of it but there is only so much pretending you can do. When we work with you we’re going to see the truth.

So what are the warning signs that make you think they’re pretending?

The first thing for me is the numbers. It gives me a sense of where they’re at. If they’re a new company and they only have a few people that’s fine but it’s about what they are doing to hire more diverse talent. It’s also about how they’re measuring! There also needs to be a team that is in charge of recruiting diverse talent in the right places. There are so many resources and networks out there so it’s really just about connecting these companies that want to change to these people.

And what can we do as an industry to be a better ally to you? How can we get out of your way to help you reach your goals in five years?

Woah big question. In the next five years, I would love to see growth in my career, that’s probably as specific as I can get right now. But overall, I want happiness and contentment wherever I’m at. I would love to see more initiative in trying to employ more diverse people and developing that. Keeping the conversation going is going to make the industry a better place for me and others.

Aliyah's recommendations for further understanding:

  • DIVERSE- a careers community that helps diverse people get hired

  • The Diverse Podcast

  • 2020Change-a youth empowerment organization

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