“I want to inspire young Black women”
Zainab Kwaw-Swanzy won the Financial Services Rising Star of the Year category in the Black British Business Awards. Here, the Barclays Senior Digital Product Manager talks about making a difference to the bank’s culture through its diversity networks, being a mentor to young professionals – and maintaining the momentum of the black lives matter movement.
For Zainab Kwaw-Swanzy, working at Barclays is a chance to influence the bank’s business and culture – and inspire other colleagues to do the same.
Starting a two year banking graduate scheme in 2016, Zainab was excited by the “breadth of potential opportunities” at Barclays. She worked across various placements before settling into a role developing and improving the Barclays banking app. Her work has included developing new features for the app and ensuring that customers can use Open Banking to carry out transactions using all of their bank accounts, no matter the provider.
We are seeing progress being made and that’s a good thing. The key is to ask how we keep up the momentum of the black lives matter movement – not just in the workplace, but across society
Senior Digital Product Manager at Barclays
Now a Senior Digital Product Manager, Zainab says: “I didn’t know that this role existed back when I started – I’m grateful for the rotational programme I was on as part of the graduate scheme, as otherwise I wouldn’t have found it.”
“Product management feels right to me. It can be technical and analytical at times, but I also have to step back and ask, ‘What is the vision? What do I want to do for the customer? What is the end goal?’. I’ve found a role that speaks to a lot of things I’m interested in in general."
A question of values
As well as choosing Barclays for its opportunities, Zainab says she chose the bank for its principles. “It feels like a lot of the values and the initiatives that Barclays has align to my personal values,” she explains.
She was particularly attracted to Barclays’ diversity and inclusion networks, which aim to ensure that all colleagues thrive and are included. As Co-Chair of the bank’s Black Professionals Forum UK, which focuses on promoting an inclusive culture and attracting and supporting Black colleagues through networking, mentoring and other schemes, she feels she has been able to make a difference.
“I’m quite passionate about the idea of bringing your full self to work,” says Zainab. As an example, she shares an experience that will be familiar to many Black women – the sometimes negative responses that can meet wearing natural hair in the workplace. “It’s easy to feel out of place when you are a Black woman with afro hair, especially because we are still underrepresented in many corporate industries. The majority of Black women I know, including myself, have experienced microaggressions in the form of people touching our hair without asking, or making comments about our hair that make us feel uncomfortable. It’s important that we challenge the notion of what ‘professionalism’ looks like in the workplace, and work to make sure everyone feels comfortable in their own skin – and hair.”
Through the Black Professionals Forum she has been able to tackle this issue head on. “I didn’t think I would be able to do that at Barclays,” she says. The Forum provides a space for Black colleagues to talk about the experiences they’ve faced, and for non-Black colleagues to listen and engage in these topics too.
While her role chairing the Black Professionals Forum is additional to her day-to-day job in product management, Zainab says that she sees the two as intertwined.
“Both are critical to the success of Barclays – they are there to support colleagues and influence the business. I don’t view co-chairing the Black Professionals Forum as separate to my day job. All of this is working towards the same goal. It’s about bettering us as a business.” Outside of her roles at Barclays, Zainab is also writing a book called A Quick Ting On The Black Girl Afro, part of a series on Black British history and culture for the Black British publisher Jacaranda.
If a young Black woman sees me becoming more senior and it inspires them, then all the work I do will be worth it
Senior Digital Product Manager at Barclays
Zainab is passionate about mentoring young people, helping sixth formers at a college in Lewisham, London, UK through a programme led by the Black Professionals Forum, and working with student and professional mentoring group Tech Allies Network.
“I became a mentor for students while I was still on the Barclays graduate programme, so I felt very close in age to them. I was worried when I first started mentoring and thought, ‘Do I know enough?’ but a lot of them really valued the fact I could talk about A-levels and other things going on in their lives,” she says.
“Being a mentor has really ingrained in me that no matter what position I’m in, I need to make space to support other people – even 15 minutes can be so valuable to someone.”
Recently, Zainab’s work has been recognised more broadly, when she was named Rising Star in the financial services category at the Black British Business Awards, and named number six on the INvolve EMpower Top 100 Future Leaders list. She was also a finalist in the FDM everywoman in Technology Awards.
She says she’s excited by the recognition, because it can inspire others, but adds that she is “getting quite tired of seeing my face”.
“It’s been an unintentional outcome of the things I’ve done and I’m still adjusting,” Zainab says. “What keeps me grounded is that I’m not doing these things because I want to get my face out there. If a young Black woman sees me becoming more senior and it inspires them, then all the work I do will be worth it.”
Keeping up the momentum of the black lives matter movement.
The murder of George Floyd in the US, and the rise of the global black lives matter movement were, Zainab says, one of the most overwhelming things about the past year.
“It has been a lot to process and on top of that all, we are still trying to do our day jobs. That is exhausting and overwhelming. The silver lining is that some good has come of it. It is a shame it feels it has taken such a tragic situation to happen for conversations to be had, but I am glad they are being had. It’s resulted in Barclays creating a Race at Work Action Plan, and our CEO Jes Staley releasing a statement in response to the tragic killing of George Floyd. From a Black Professionals Forum perspective, we hosted a number of panel events to get all colleagues openly talking about race. We also partnered with our US counterparts to send an open letter to colleagues offering our support during that difficult time.”
She describes the recent Oprah interview with the Duke and Duchess of Sussex as "really triggering and difficult". "Nearly a year on from the murder of George Floyd, it's sparked further discussion around racism, discrimination and mental health," she says.
Reflecting on the future, she adds: “Last year was tough, but we are seeing progress being made and that’s a good thing. The key is to ask how we keep up the momentum of the black lives matter movement – not just in the workplace, but across society.”
Find out more about banking graduate schemes at Barclays.