I think there is a fear of talking about the ethnic minority gap – it’s like some people think ‘black’ is a dirty word, or they think you use it as an excuse for not progressing. But it’s something that’s real, it’s something that’s out there and it needs to be tackled.

Photography by Leonora Saunders

Alice

I had my daughter quite early on in life, and it’s been crucial for me to be a great role model for her. I want her to know and believe that she can do anything in this world. That’s why this project is so important – it represents women like me. Something as simple as this could make such a difference to so many people; if I’d heard stories like this it could have done so much more for my career.

I think there is a fear of talking about the ethnic minority gap – it’s like some people think ‘black’ is a dirty word, or they think you use it as an excuse for not progressing. But it’s something that’s real, it’s something that’s out there and it needs to be tackled.


As a single parent, you can only set yourself up to be and do the best that you can. I was really clear that in the first couple of years I wanted to be at home with my daughter, because that was her foundation. But once she was able to go nursery, I was really clear that I didn’t want her ever to want for anything; if ever she needed anything, I didn’t want her to look anywhere else other than home. And that is what has, I guess, helped me to work really, really hard – to ensure that my daughter has every opportunity. I had to sacrifice things; if I couldn’t be at the school play, she understood why. It was the quality – not the quantity – of time spent with her that was important.

I started my career on a fifteen-hour contract. I worked really hard – my mum instilled that in me. Within six months I was promoted to team leader, and then about a year later I was promoted into a management position. I left my then employer due to a restructure to go and develop my career elsewhere, but when the opportunity came to go back I took it. I went into what was then considered to be one of the most challenging stores in south London. I think there had been about eight managers before me in the space of two years, so it was deemed a ‘problem store’. It was in a diverse area and probably needed somebody different – and that somebody was me. I got the opportunity there to act up as store manager and after four months I was officially appointed.

Then I got a great opportunity to cover another ‘problem store’ and managed both over Christmas, which was quite a challenge. I guess that put me on the map as a leader, because I was able to make an impact. You can only do that through your people and understanding what they need. Sometimes it’s not necessarily experience that managers need; you need to be able to connect with people. Because I’d come up through the ranks and worked hard to get to my position, I became that role model that people could actually see, “If Alice can do it – and she comes from south London, like us – then we can too.” The thing that motivates me most is how I can help my team to become the best that they can be, whether it’s with my organisation or not.


Some years later I got the opportunity to do a seconded role out of stores, which is probably where I learnt the most about business in terms of just fitting in. I found it really hard to fit in, and to build rapport with people. I think instinctively people gravitate towards people like themselves – and suddenly here was me, Alice, who was probably totally different in every way.

Although I’m not a loud person, I think people perceived me to be. I didn’t really feel I fitted in, I am not one to talk about my personal life – because I’m quite a private person. I think that didn’t help and it meant that there was a perception about me. I recall I was told “You’re very direct.” People are not always that comfortable with directness, and so you’re perceived as arrogant, loud, diva or even standoffish to others.

At the time I was on a high potential development programme; I recall getting the feedback “You have no presence in a room.” I felt it was personal and unstructured as there was no context to the feedback. I never felt that I belonged in that environment.

I think that experience probably knocked me for a good six months or so. There’s only so much ‘constructive’ feedback you can take before it starts to do some damage. I decided from then on I would just come into work, do what I needed to do and get paid. I came off the programme, went back into a store and did the job I was paid to do. I went from being ‘high potential’ to just your average store manager. I guess that’s a choice and I allowed it to impact me… Often people would ask why I made the choice to return to store, but I never really shared. I focused on keeping my head down and focusing on my team.

We have an amazing HR Director. She visited my store twice and I remember her asking “So what’s next for you?” I told her I would love to be a regional manager if I ever got the opportunity. She asked me about my time in head office and I was honest with her; I think that really stuck with her. I decided to invite her to have coffee with me instore and have an open conversation with her about what I wanted out of my career and to understand her career journey. We spoke openly about many things and she advised me to get back on the development programme, to go all out and not let anybody take that away from me if it was what I really wanted.

I’m back on the programme. I cannot lie, I am very conscious that I am the only ethnic colleague, however I’ve realised the diversity agenda in regards to ethnicity is bigger than me. There’s still a generation behind me that needs to be given opportunities. Being the first black woman to become a regional manager within our organisation motivates me enough now to keep going – if you’re going to do something, then let it represent something that’s good and right, and in the long run will empower and help others.

It’s hard to feel that you fit in when you’re often the only black person – and the only black female. You feel it – although you try not to – and when you try to explain that to people you get responses like “Well I don’t see it like that; why do you see it like that?” Well…you won’t see it like that because you’re not me. You’ve got people there that you can instinctively build rapport with and understand. I come from an African Ghanaian background. Respect is massive: no matter what, I wouldn’t shout at anyone. I’d never go to a work function and be acting in an inappropriate manner, I haven’t been raised that way. On many occasions I’ve found it so hard to connect with people when our worlds are just so different. And although you try and you ask questions, sometimes people just aren’t interested in hearing something different. It feels like I have to work harder than everyone else at times.

I have colleagues who come from black and Asian backgrounds, and don’t aspire to be anything more than what they are now, because there’s no one above that they can identify with. When you’re striving to progress, instinctively you look for those role models, those who have come before you and been successful. I think it’s a real shame as they have a lot to offer and being different and thinking differently is ok. How great would it be if all my colleagues aspired to progress, and aim for CEO?

We need to have representation at all levels of people from all walks of life. People who have gone through different journeys, but who have something really important to share. Everybody within an organisation should feel valued and important, and that they have a contribution to make at every single level. But in order to do achieve that people need to be able to talk openly about how certain actions, behaviours or experiences make them feel, without feeling that they’re going to be judged negatively. Communication and understanding – that’s the foundation of anything, isn’t it? In order to know what somebody is going through, you need to listen and be open to hearing their story.

My advice for anyone reading my story: be centred in yourself and proud of who you are. So many people will try to mould you into what they perceive to be the correct thing. But if you’re going to do something, at least do it your way, on your terms.

Then your successes and your failures are a hundred percent yours – not tainted by anything, or anyone else.