Jagdeep Rai, Khalia Newell, Nazreen Visram and Ken Osivwemu

Attracting the right talent

04 July 2018

Four Barclays colleagues have been recognised by the Financial Times’ EMpower list, created to challenge the lack of ethnic diversity in business. We talk to Khalia Newell, Ken Osivwemu, Jagdeep Rai and Nazreen Visram about the workplace barriers faced by people from ethnic minority backgrounds – and how they are helping Barclays overcome them.

Khalia Newell did not grow up expecting to work for a FTSE 100 company. After a childhood in south-east London, including several years living with her aunt in Jamaica, she says she “never stepped foot in Canary Wharf until I was 19. I didn’t even know it existed or what the people in these buildings did.”

Now Vice President (VP) in Barclays’ Chief Controls Office, she says: “I come from a background where I am the first in my family to have been educated past GCSE level, so going to university was a huge achievement, and becoming VP at a company like Barclays was unheard of.

“I grew up wondering if I was capable of achieving all the things I wanted, but I was also told the classic thing: that as a person who is black and also a woman, you have to work twice as hard and make half as many mistakes to be half as successful as your white counterparts.”

Earlier this month, Khalia was one of four Barclays colleagues to be named in an annual Financial Times (FT) EMpower list that recognises professionals who are working to advance racial, ethnic, cultural and religious inclusiveness within their organisations and beyond.

The four colleagues chosen – Khalia; Ken Osivwemu, VP Transaction Banking; Jagdeep Rai, Head of Corporate Banking, Heathrow and South West London; and Nazreen Visram, Head of Citizenship at Barclays Corporate Banking – are involved in almost too many initiatives to list.

Internally, both Jagdeep and Nazreen are involved in the EMBRACE network, the bank’s multicultural agenda. Ken is Co-Chair of the Black Professional Forum, which he helped to launch last year, and Khalia sits on the same forum. Its current priority is coaching junior colleagues to ensure they rise through the ranks.

Externally, Khalia sits on the All Party Parliamentary Group on Diversity and Inclusion in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers, and Nazreen is a leader on female empowerment in her faith community of Ismaili Muslims. All four spend their free time speaking at schools and mentoring young people from disadvantaged and ethnic minority backgrounds – as Jagdeep puts it, to “show that there are people like them who work in places like Barclays”.

We have to work out how we attract more people in, because banking is seen very much as a stereotypically white male industry

“They are excelling in this environment”

All are clear that diversity and inclusion is very much on the agenda at a senior level within Barclays. “There’s a real drive to ensure we are attracting and developing that talent – and a recognition that it’s not only the right thing to do but that it also makes sense for the business,” says Jagdeep. “We wouldn’t have been having these conversations ten years ago.”

Jagdeep has been with the bank for 23 years, having joined as a graduate. As Co-Executive Sponsor for EMBRACE, she is responsible for driving inclusion and engagement within the bank. “There are three pillars: attract, include, develop,” she explains. “We have to work out how we attract more people in, because banking is seen very much as a stereotypically white male industry. Once they’re here, it’s about how we ensure they are included. And then it’s how we develop them to ensure they want to stay.”

Ken agrees that the bank’s ability to attract young people from ethnic minority backgrounds into Barclays has “improved tremendously”. “We have well over 3,000 apprentices now, and about 19% of those recruited to the programme last year were from ethnic minority backgrounds,” adds Nazreen. “And that’s where we’ve been able to be game changers, because some of those young people have had tough upbringings and they bring something very different to the bank. And they are excelling in this environment.”

Jagdeep Rai, Khalia Newell, Nazreen Visram and Ken Osivwemu

“To be successful, we must reflect our customer and client base”

The business case for diversity is well established. Research by US business research body McKinsey, for example, found that companies with greater racial and ethnic diversity are more likely to have above-average financial returns. “If you think about it, it should be obvious that diversity of thought contributes to the bottom line,” says Nazreen. “Difference brings positive value to any organisation.”

So what holds companies back from embracing something that would ultimately make them more successful? Nazreen says unconscious bias is a major issue. “We naturally gravitate towards people like ourselves,” she says simply.

There is always a balance to be struck, she adds, between celebrating diversity and recognising the real challenges faced by people from ethnic minority backgrounds in terms of recruitment, inclusion and promotion.

Research by EMpower has found that although one in eight of the UK population is from an ethnic minority, only one in 16 top management positions are held by people from ethnic minority backgrounds, and less than 2% of British directors of FTSE 150 companies are from a black, Asian or minority ethnic background.

Do people who aren’t from an ethnic minority background sometimes overlook these issues? “Yes, but through no fault of their own,” says Jagdeep. “If you are not exposed to it or your world isn’t diverse, you might not notice.” She says people can be very worried about causing offence. “They are emotive words: ‘racism’ and ‘prejudice’. It’s difficult and sometimes people find it easier to ignore it through fear of saying the wrong thing.”

Ken agrees. “There is still a discomfort in talking about race. Both from an ethnic minority perspective, because you’re thinking, ‘If I reveal too much about myself, how will it be used’, and from non-ethnic minority people thinking, ‘I won’t say anything because if I do I might say the wrong thing and upset someone’.”

“To continue to be successful, we must reflect our customer and client base,” says Khalia, who has worked for Barclays for four years. Pointing to the bank’s apprenticeship, LifeSkills and other programmes, she adds: “One of the things that Barclays does very, very well is that we are not here only to serve customers and clients, but also the community that we operate in.”

There’s a real drive to ensure we are attracting and developing that talent – and a recognition that it’s not only the right thing to do but that it also makes sense for the business

“Your difference is your edge”

What challenges have they personally faced? “I was the only brown kid in a class full of white people,” says Jagdeep of her childhood in Kent, south-east England. “It was a parallel world – I had a world at home which was traditional and cultural. I was trying to rationalise the two worlds and working out where I really belonged.

“It was quite interesting particularly when there was so much ignorance and intolerance in those days. Often people don’t understand difference – they fear it.”

Jagdeep says her Sikh parents’ advice to ‘keep your head down and fit in’ – which was the approach they took after moving from India to England during the overt racism of the 1960s – was something she later challenged. “I came to the realisation that actually fitting in isn’t a good thing,” she says. “You have to be brilliant at your job but your difference is your edge. It’s good to be unique.”

Nazreen echoes some of Jagdeep’s experiences. “Already as a woman you have to work hard, but as an Asian woman you have to work even harder, because people do naturally make assumptions based on my background,” she says. “But if I can do it, then everyone can do it.”

Ken was born in London and went back to Nigeria with his parents when he was 11, completing his secondary schooling and undergraduate degree in civil engineering there. When he returned to the UK as an adult, he says he found it “almost impossible to get a job. A lot of it was down to stereotypical ideas of me being Nigerian.”

He continues: “It wasn’t until I did my masters here in the UK and came out with flying colours that the job offers started coming in. So when I look back, the amount of rejections I got, it was just unbelievable. Some didn’t even bother to answer. What I didn’t do was allow it to destroy me.”

Reflecting on how he brings these difficulties to his work on diversity within Barclays, Ken is optimistic. “Those who have had these experiences and those who haven’t have got to meet in the middle,” he says. “And that’s where the power of a multicultural network like the one we have at Barclays is huge. It enables you to bring those two parties together in a safe environment where you can have those frank and open conversations. And that’s the way things can change.”

Latest news