Melyssa Barrett: Welcome to the Jali Podcast, I’m your host Meylssa Barrett. This Podcast is for those who are interested in the conversation around diversity, inclusion and equity. Each week, I’ll be interviewing a guest who has something special to share, or is actively part of building solutions in this space. Let’s get started.
So Akita has over 20 years of international experience in retail, financial services and payments with companies such as Elavon, MasterCard, Visa, Barclays, HSBC, and Citi across roles and strategy, business development, and product. Having lived and worked in five different countries, she brings a rich understanding of markets at different stages of development and diverse cultures across Asia, Europe, Middle East, and Africa. She completed her bachelor’s from Delhi University, and MBA from XLRI Jamshedpur both in India.
Akita is passionate about people and relationships and has the opportunity to drive an impact in this space with her current role as Diversity, Equity and Inclusion Champion at U.S. Bank. So please join me in welcoming Akita. I’m so glad to be speaking to you today, and I love the idea that you are a Diversity, Equity and Inclusion champion, own that title. So I just wanted to start out. Maybe you could talk a little bit about how you got to where you are today. And then we can dive in and talk a little bit more about Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
Akita Somani: Absolutely. Well, Melyssa, it’s a pleasure to be with you here today. And I’m quite looking forward to this conversation. So growing up, I spent my years in Nigeria and did all my primary schooling in Lagos. And therefore that was, I think my very first experience in terms of living in a different environment and a different culture altogether. I then moved to India and did most of my secondary education, university and MBA in India, before proceeding to join the financial services industry, and worked for a number of large brands like ABN, AMRO and Citi in retail financial services. And then had an opportunity to move to Dubai and work for HSBC. Again, very different experience, even though culturally, Dubai is a great mix in terms of different populations, but again, very, very different and then learning dynamics of being in a different religious state altogether. I had an opportunity to move to the UK after that, worked in London with Barclays as part of their global strategy team, exposure to different international markets.
Understanding the macro environment and also the cultural differences in play. And things worked out and turned in such a way that I then was able to move to Singapore and work with Visa, something that you and I share in common, Melyssa. And again, Singapore is a great mix of different populations, but a very, very different environment to what I had experienced either in the UK or in the Middle East or in India or Nigeria for that matter. Very very small country, but so much to learn from how they’ve evolved and developed into the place that they are right now. And then eventually came back to the UK and have been back in London for about six years.
So for me, I think the two good things about my journey is not just the exposure to different parts of retail financial services and payments and different leading organizations, but most importantly, understanding the different markets, the different environments. And the diverse set of backgrounds and experiences that I’ve had the opportunity to come across. I have a new learning every day in terms of how people operate, what they think, what is important to them. And I think that journey is going to continue for a while.
Melyssa Barrett: That’s awesome. And really, I mean, if we think about it, I mean, women in the payment space is also, I won’t say it’s rare, but it’s… You don’t necessarily have lots of women in payments. Now that you’re in London. What is the culture like in terms of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion? Because it feels like things are changing over there as well. And as we look at all of the social justice emphasis around the world, I’ve seen like a change happening. So what’s the scene like in London now?
Akita Somani: So I think the advantage that we have in London, Melyssa, is that it is a big metropolis. It is one of the biggest financial centers in the world. And therefore attracts people from all over the world to come and work here. Right? So by its very nature and because of the industries that it survives on, there is a huge diversity of the populations that live and work here. And in line with that, there has been a lot of progress made in terms of hiring practices, in terms of how talent is manage and looking for a diverse set of skills and experiences. Increasingly, London is also trying to move towards being a FinTech hub. And therefore that younger population, new skills coming into play as well. Having said that, there is still a lot of work to be done. I think on two fronts in particular.
One is advancing women in leadership positions. There’s a lot of conversation around having more women on boards. In particular, organizations like the 30% Club are very, very active and prevalent in the UK and across Europe as well. And that is precisely because we don’t have enough women represented on boards. Right? And so there needs to be a concerted effort to work towards that. I think the second aspect you just spoke about, justice and social background. We still have a lot of work to do, in terms of representation and giving more of a hand to our BEAM communities, which is the Black, Asian Minority Ethnic communities. And also other minority groups in terms of giving them the foundation, to enter a level playing field as far as education, work, advancement and all of those things come. Right? So we have a sizable representation from those minority groups in the population that we have here, but not enough concerted work had been done up until now.
And what the pandemic has reflected over the course of 2020, is that these groups have gotten more adversely effected, than others because of the lack of infrastructure, because of the conditions that they live in, because of the lack of the skills that they need to get the right opportunities. And therefore this year, we’re beginning to see a shift with the likes of Lloyds Banking Group and Standard Chartered, some of the largest banking operations in London, announcing a specific commitment to measuring and closing the black pay gap, and taking specific steps to address it. So yes, a change is happening. We have a way to go, to get to a comfortable position.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. And you’ve been doing diversity, equity, and inclusion for a while. Can you talk about, some of the things that you have done. What’s been helpful? What’s worked? What maybe hasn’t, and kind of, what has that journey kind of led you in terms of where you or your companies that you’ve worked for have been in terms of integration into the business from a DE&I perspective?
Akita Somani: So Melyssa, that’s a fantastic question, really. I’m not sure I would have all the right answers, but I’ll certainly tell you my experience.
Melyssa Barrett: That’d be great.
Akita Somani: I think the two prerequisites for making progress from a diversity, equity, inclusion perspective, one is around leadership commitment, not just from an organizational standpoint, but from a broader, the communities that we live and work in and around us. It’s very important to have the right leadership commitment to not just say yes, we want to focus on this, but be committed to taking the actions needed to get there. I think that’s one very important prerequisite. The other one really is in terms of awareness. Right? So whether it’s an awareness of cultural differences or other differences, whether it’s an awareness of the unconscious biases that we hold, all be well-intentioned. I can very safely say that there’ll be a very negligible population who would intentionally want to discriminate in the world that we live in today.
But even with the best of intentions, sometimes we do not understand how our actions and words could be construed in a very different way by our colleagues and teams and other people that we live with, just because we do not understand their context better. And so that awareness both from a cultural standpoint, as well as an unconscious bias standpoint, that self awareness and an understanding of the context that we operate in, is step one, to then identifying the right guiding tools and ways that we can continue to work and collaborate, despite those biases and differences that exist. So having laid down those prerequisites, I think if we are able to address both of those, we would make huge progress from a foundational perspective. And then being able to show some impact and progress in moving upwards.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, that’s fantastic. So when you think about commitment and the actions that follow, because I think, there are a lot of CEO’s from the top-down that are committed. And I think if you ask them, they would say, yes, I am all in. I want to focus on diversity, equity, inclusion. And it’s the activities and the actions, and sometimes even the accountability that people get tripped up around. Because I always say Diversity, Equity and Inclusion to me is the business case for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion. And so, if you can’t do Diversity, Equity and Inclusion in terms of how you’re taking those actions, and activities, and integrating them into the business, with your own Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, as part of it, it becomes really challenging to actually see progress. And so are there certain suggestions or things with some of the leaders that you’ve talked to that you could share?
Akita Somani: So I can certainly think of three things, top of mind. The first is in terms of whether diversity is considered just a good thing to do, or it’s considered as a part of the business itself. So to your point. Right? It has to be the mainstay of how we work and operate, not just a thing that we do off the side of our desks. And that is reflected in multiple ways. Right? It is a function of where in your organization does diversity sit. Is it placed at the right level with the right accountability and empowerment? Right? It’s also a function of how it’s embedded into business objectives and the business initiatives that are taking place, whether it’s in respect of business marketing or a diverse range of suppliers. So it’s not limited to just recruiting and managing the right talent, which gives us that representation, but it gets integrated in how business is done and represented at the right levels in the organization.
I think the second piece is for all of us. Right? When we go to work, sure, a large part of the excitement and passion about our work is because we enjoy doing what we do. But at the same time, no one’s going to deny that a part of it is also, do we get compensated well enough for what we do? Right? And therefore, the underlying assumption is, that what gets measured actually gets done. So having a concrete set of measures and objectives and aspirations, which translate into real numbers that get tracked, reported on, not just internally, but in the form of external commitments as well, makes a huge difference in the progress on Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.
And then I think the final piece in there is about the leaders committing to the actions that get determined by the employees collectively. Right? So it is great to say, I think we should do A, B and C for our employee base. But if that feedback comes to the employees themselves through either the form of employee engagement surveys, or other focus groups, or business resource groups, that becomes even more powerful. And if the leaders actually sponsor those actions, that’s where I think they’re putting lives in terms of, are they really falling behind? Or are they actually supporting what the employees really feel is going to create a difference?
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, those are great areas. I think the… And when we think about employee feedbacks, collaboration, the way we develop products, we go out and get information from the market. So that’s kind of the same thing. When I keep talking about the business cases, like, what are your employees saying? What do they want? But then even as a function of that, if we pivot to, say a corporation, U.S. Bank, for example, has an outwardly facing brand. And what does that mean to the community itself on a broader basis?
And so are there things that you think companies can do externally? I think, I know you’ve had different conferences and things. Are there things that you would suggest to bring some additional attention and activity to corporations around the world?
Akita Somani: Absolutely. Right? So one of the simplest routes for corporations is to commit funding to the right causes. Right? Which support making progress in the right direction. Right? So whether it’s around, funding organizations, or education, or other initiatives that help reduce the racial equity gap. Right? From a socioeconomic perspective, that’s possibly the simplest route. Right? To commit a certain set of funding, and the right organizations get on with it. I think there’s a second more impactful the commitment as well, which is around contributing the expertise and skills that an organization has to the right causes. Right?
So, if we picked, helping small businesses or diverse set of suppliers, which would primarily be small to mid-size businesses. Apart from actually funding to give them some support in growing their businesses. Right? The other opportunity would be to make the right products and solutions available to them. To educate them on how to better manage their cash flow, and give them the right tools and support to help grow their businesses. Because you have access to developing the right products and solutions, and also very good understanding of how these businesses could better manage their financials. So that’s just one example, but deploying the skills and expertise and the distribution network of corporations, as large as ours is certainly something that’s going to drive more sustainable long-term impact, than one or a couple of rounds of funding.
Melyssa Barrett: That’s awesome. Let’s pause for a moment. We’ll be right back.
So and in your… I want to dive in, because I think in some cases you sit in a unique position having had the ear of CEO’s and your chief of staff positions. That is also such a critical element that CEO’s have the level of expertise at their disposal at that time. I think that’s why we see so many people that are moving to chief diversity officers that are sitting at the table with the CEO, with the executive committees. In your role, are there other things that maybe we can tap into? Because I think there’s so many different ways that people are attacking Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, just organizationally. Are there specific benefits, I know you bring lots of benefits because you bring that expertise to that level. Are there things that, people that are further down in the organization might be able to do in order to channel that type of momentum that you bring to the table?
Akita Somani: I think Melyssa, that’s a fantastic point. Right? Because there’s only so much you can drive top-down. And we certainly can’t set up huge and massively resource Diversity, Equity and Inclusion teams. So certainly something that organizations need to do is give the chief diversity officer a seat at the table, which we’ve successfully managed to do. But I think the other component of, is how do we mobilize a network of passionate employees, to then take that strategy, and those objectives and translate them into real actions for the business lines and the broader set of employees. Right?
And I in particular have the opportunity and privilege this year to be what we call the, Diversity Equity and Inclusion Champion. So we have a number of champions across our business, who sit in the different business lines and therefore understand how the business works and operates, are very well-connected with the employees. And able to drive that momentum, partly though awareness, partly through specific initiatives, and inviting other employees, therefore, to be a part of that movement and execute some of the actions. Because none of these just get done by one small team of people or making a change to our policies or rolling out some educational initiatives alone.
All of this has to be done in conjunction. And the real success factor is the more employees that get engaged and motivated by this, the more success you’re going to have. One of the other great success factors is the business resource groups, which are employee led. But one of the interesting components to it is, they could be employee led, and then a lot of what they could be doing is just event led. A number of webinars, networking, some bit of skills development and the like, a lot of it doesn’t come to life unless you have your leaders signed up to it, not just in terms of turning up to all of these different options. But then building that into things like talent management, business development and so on. So to give you an example. Right? If one of the objectives of a women’s based business resource group is to support the skills development that helped women advance in leadership positions.
If the leadership has signed up to it, especially all the C-suite executives, then they are actually guiding that process to say, here are the skills that we look for as women progress leadership positions, you would help by focusing on these things in particular. And I’m happy to turn up and actually support and facilitate that process, and give you insight into how we think from an executive perspective. Right? And equally to then, if somebody has actually made the effort of developing those skills to build that back into the talent management process, and assess them for their potential. So that’s just an example of how the two interplay and therefore a combination of these informal champions, as well as these business resource groups are just a couple of examples of how we mobilize more people and pull them in to drive, not just the communication and the message, but actual actions that help us all.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah. And we actually have, it’s interesting that you mentioned all of those things, because I do come back to a point you made about, not doing it off the side of your desk and really kind of focusing. But yet we have so many employees that do it off the side of their desks. I mean, it is a volunteer, labor of love, a thankless job in many cases, but it is progressing and moving the business forward in ways that they will probably not even understand for generations to come.
And so, they are leaving their legacy, those, hidden figures, as I like to call them that are actually doing the day to day, making the decisions, helping to move the needle one way or the other. And so what are some things that maybe could motivate people to stay engaged if they… Because I think, I know for me after, kind of the George Floyd murder, for example, I mean, there was just a sense of sheer exhaustion. It’s like, you continue to try and try and try and then you work and then you see something like that.
And it’s like, what is happening? And we had a lot of people, allies a like, just come and say, I didn’t realize that the experience that you have. And it was almost like, I knew there was something there, but it’s way worse than I thought, kind of thing. And so there was this sense of trying to get a deeper understanding and creating that awareness. So when you talk about awareness, there are these levels of awareness that when people are thinking about their own bias, they don’t go deeper. Is that fifth question. Right? Where you’re really digging into, why do I feel this way? So it’s interesting. Are there things that you do to kind of inspire and motivate you to keep going?
Akita Somani: So I think Melyssa, you’ve made such a solid point in terms of, we don’t go deep enough. Right? And like I said. Right? Educational programs or training programs can only take us so far. It’s the actual behaviors that we execute as a result of that, which will make more of a difference. And I think the basic principle for that is, do we listen enough? Do we give everybody an opportunity to be heard? That’s, I think step one in general, it’s not got to do with gender. It’s not got to do just with minority groups. It could be a range of different factors. We are sometimes great at building diverse representation at the table, but do we consciously seek out the views and perspectives of that diverse set of people at the table? Because, we do not appreciate enough that not everybody will be able to speak up without being prompted.
Some people need to be encouraged and supported to be able to speak up and provide their view on a certain situation. So step one [really 00:25:48] is to listen and understand and give that equal opportunity. And when I say equal, it’s not good enough to say, we’re all in an open meeting or in an open discussion. Everybody has the opportunity to contribute. We need to do a little bit more than that to move from that equality to equity state of mind, where we are actually helping some other people come to the same level playing field. If we get that right, the next stage then is valuing and respecting those diverse perspectives, which don’t look and feel and sound like our own. Right? It’s again, not great if you are okay to hear everyone out, because you want to tick the box and say, “I’m doing the right thing. And I’ve heard everyone around the table, but my opinion is still valid” Right? Without actually incorporating that input.
So I think that’s where we should be moving towards in terms of stop to listen and truly comprehend. Because like you said. Right? Some of these things have existed for the longest time. It’s not just the murder of George Floyd that brought out these differences or these atrocities or the discrimination. It’s just that we have not observed well enough, understood well enough or probed enough, or really listened to what was happening around us. Right? So we’ve not been able to work ourselves through the noise that exist, to understand it really well. So if we get that right, we will be able to elevate ourselves to that level of, okay, now I understand what it means. How do I ensure that I value what that means for people who don’t look, feel, and sound like me?
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, that’s definitely the key. I think… And it’s so funny because I think what I have learned over the last few months, especially, is just leaving space for people to actually allow them to speak. I think people don’t realize how often they just speak over people, and then all of a sudden the meeting’s over and you didn’t get to say a word because they didn’t give you the space to actually participate without you interrupting. So I would be remiss if I didn’t ask, how has, I mean, I think everybody is been in COVID now for so long and we’re sheltered in place, many of us working from home. And how has that changed? Not only the activities obviously, which have likely had to go on virtual, but have you seen a shift or… I know I’ve seen a lot of focus on, just mentality and being well and focusing there. Is there a diversity and inclusion element to making sure that we connect with folks as they are dealing with this whole COVID situation?
Akita Somani: So, Melissa, I certainly think that there has been an impact, some positive and some not so great. So let’s talk about the positives first. Right? As a lot of people have pointed out. Right? Everyone is now a square on a web conference. And therefore, technically everybody has an equal position in a virtual meeting set up. Right? Which is great, which means that no one is more important or less important than the other. And therefore has an opportunity to participate and be seen and not get left out. Right? Which is brilliant. You spoke about the focus on wellbeing and mental health, which again has come to the fore. And also like I spoke about drive the adverse effect of the pandemic and the aftermath of the George Floyd killing, bringing to the fore, how our ethnic minority groups and other minority groups are most impacted with these kind of catastrophic situations. Right?
So that’s certainly come to the play and therefore become ever more important, both from an overall wellbeing perspective, as well as are we doing doing more to make our colleagues feel truly included. Right? So there’s definitely a focus on that and therefore, a virtual event that focus on that as well as the business resource groups, those activities have certainly stepped up and become a lot more prevalent and with a lot of leadership focus as well. I think the places where we still need to do a lot of work on is, like you said. Right? Often even when we get into these virtual meetings situations, we are in such a rush to get so much done that we’re just so focused on the outcome of the conversation that we don’t really think about the process of how we get there. And that’s something that has become even more challenging in virtual environments because we miss that slight facial reaction or that expression or that ability to truly include everyone who’s in a room.
And so that is something that still needs a lot of work, especially in a virtual environment to really ensure that everyone is truly a part of conversations and being able to contribute. I think the other aspect of this is isolation. Right? We’ve risked, in a physical environment, it’s difficult to miss someone. Right? You’d run into them into a break room, you’d run into them in a meeting, you’d run into them on your way to work or back from work or the like. Right? So you can’t really see through people. And even if you weren’t in the meeting with them on a particular day, you would have the likelihood of running into them in one form or the other. And therefore they would be constantly top of mind. In a virtual environment, you could find that there are certain sets of people whom you are isolating on account of the fact that you’re actually not physically with them.
And therefore that could put certain people even further back than they originally were. Right? And there’s a lot of research and surveys that are being done on the impact on women and as well on other minority groups. Right? In terms of dropping out of the workforce because of not being able to manage the work and home balance, or childcare responsibilities in particular, or just not feeling able to cope with the demands of this new environment. So we have the potential to further make these situations even worse than they were in a physical environment, because we are not able to see and observe all of those different things that are unfolding in a virtual environment scenario. So I think the final thing really on that is that, a lot of efforts that were in play. Right? Either from a leadership commitment or a funding perspective to drive certain big scale things and organizations around a lot of DEI initiatives. There’s been a lot of causes and stop starts also for some of those things because of the environment that we operate in, we can no longer do physical events.
So what does networking look like? It’s taken some organizations longer than others to determine, okay how do we pivot? How do we change how we get feedback from employees? Are we still doing an annual engagement survey or do we need more quick pulse feedback? Are we still able to plan for some future physical events or should we just get on and find a new way to do virtual events. So, its taken quite a while to pivot and therefore some of the great things that were in momentum and in play, suddenly got paused or halted, and it took quite a while for the world to evolve, to get to a new working normal and continue some of those things.
Melyssa Barrett: Yeah, I mean, what’s funny to me is I think about, the coffee chat, where people used to… A lot of the senior leaders would say, “Hey, I’ll do like the coffee chat or whatever” Well doing that virtually is kind of really awkward. And so I’m kind of like, when you do different meetings, it’s just not the same. Picking up a pastry and having a cup of coffee with somebody in the room and then looking at them on screen while you’re drinking a cup of coffee, it is not the same.
So I think, it’s funny because I think, the new norm will be something different, but I think everybody is still realizing how valuable the connection kind of person to person really is. And you can do a lot, there are people that have started working in my company that I have never actually seen yet. Because they started during COVID and it’s like almost a year has gone by, we have a great working relationship and yet we actually haven’t been in the same room together. So it’s funny how you can really create the relationship, but there’s kind of that yearn for that connection. So, I’m hoping that whatever comes out of it is even better than what we have had in the past. So learning how to connect to people.
And I can’t thank you enough for joining me and having this conversation. I think, all of the things you said posed so many different opportunities for people to jump in, whether they’re an employee, a CEO, whether they work at a company or in the community, how you can get involved in managing diversity, equity, and inclusion, and really creating the social impact we need. So thank you so much for all the work that you do. And I’m really excited, hopefully we will stay in touch and we’ll continue to follow you and watch you thrive. So thanks for being here.
Akita Somani: Well, Melyssa, it’s been a pleasure talking to you. In my conversations with you, not just this one, but previous ones as well. I think you are an inspiration to a number of us, for actually driving, not just the conversations with a number of amazing people around the globe, across different companies and share some insights and what they’re doing really well. But just relentlessly pursuing that agenda of moving forward on diversity, equity, and inclusion. So thank you for having me in this conversation.
Melyssa Barrett: Thank you so much Akita.
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