When Alvin Hall was hired on 7 December 1982, he was the first black person on Wall Street in a training capacity. “I was walking on eggshells all the time,” he said. “I remember one very bigoted man who told me I wouldn’t be around in two years. He said ‘we’re going to eat you up and spit you out’. My Grandmother was my best mentor. She told me to ignore those people and their comments and let them go.”
We may have come a long way since the 1980s, but there is still progress to be made when it comes to achieving truly multicultural and inclusive organisations, particularly in the insurance industry.
In this session, broadcaster, author and financial expert Alvin Hall chaired a panel of senior leaders with multi-ethnic backgrounds, who shared some of their paths to success.
Lesley Wan, Corporate Real Estate Counsel for Lloyd’s Banking Group, started the session by describing her experience as the daughter of Chinese parents who grew up in New Zealand. She urged participants to use their cultural background to their advantage.
Hani Kablawi, Executive Vice President of BNY Mellon, spoke about being the son of Pakistani refugees brought up in Lebanon. “We were stateless so we couldn’t travel, but after 17 years I finally got my Lebanese travel document,” he said. “My father gave it to me, along with plane tickets to Iowa to study, and said if I ever came back to the Middle East he would break my legs! After Iowa I moved to New York and when I first started to work there, I adapted to fit in. But eventually you get to a place where you realise that your authentic self is the one which can actually be of worth to your company.”
Henrietta Jowitt, CBI Deputy Director-General, spoke of her experience of being the first woman at every milestone in her career. At Heinz, she was the first female graduate trainee as the job specified applicants must play a team sport and be over 6ft – attributes she luckily possessed. When she took maternity leave at Nestlé, there was no maternity policy for senior managers, so she had to help them write one. And at Schroders, she was the only female director on the management committee. But things are changing – she now works for a female boss for the first time in her career.
Jennifer Thomas, former hurdle runner for England and currently Chair of the Gender and Working Families strand at Direct Line Group, said she remembers bringing her report card home. “I thought my parents would be glowing with pride, but my father just said ‘I need to remind you that you are a woman and you are black so you need to be better than everyone else just to be considered’. That brought it home to me that I would have to be excellent at my job in the future.”
Lesley Wan, who set up Lloyd’s Banking Group’s Breakthrough Mentoring programme for women, said the key is inclusivity. “We are not trying to alienate men by doing this – we want to bring them to the table as well,” she explained. “You have to access the people at the top of the company and have them lead by example.”
Jennifer stressed the need for specific targets and proactive strategies to achieve diversity in the workplace. Hani advised companies to hire on merit, remove unconscious bias, embed inclusion and embrace differences.
Alvin ended the session by reflecting that while great progress is being made in terms of getting more women into senior positions and on boards, achieving the same success for ethnic diversity is quite a few years behind.