Changemakers: Vanessa Sanyauke

Diversity campaigner who rejected a career in medical science to promote inclusiveness in the workplace


Ask Vanessa Sanyauke how she’s changing the world and her answer is quick: “One girl at a time,” she says with characteristic clarity.

It was while she was working for The Brokerage, a social mobility charity connecting young Londoners and employers, that she realised girls needed some extra help to get into the workplace – especially in traditionally male-dominated sectors such as finance, law and accounting.

“I noticed that when we were trying to engage young women they were opting out of those sectors – they were saying ‘I don’t really know if banking is for me’,

‘I don’t think law’s for me’, and they didn’t see that there was a place for them,” says Sanyauke, 32, who was born in north London to parents who had both emigrated from Zimbabwe and worked hard to build a new life in the UK.

Her parents made it clear they wanted her and her brother to have ‘proper’ professions such as medicine, law or accountancy, prompting Sanyauke to gain a degree in biomedical science (she decided against going on to become a doctor).

“I think I just sympathised with these girls,” she says. “I didn’t know about the opportunities available to me when I was growing up as I went down a path that my parents pushed me down, so I saw myself in these girls, and that’s what drove me to start what I started.”

‘When you have a big idea it can seem like an enormous task to get it underway, but if you start small and build, you can get things done."

What she started in 2013 was Girls Talk London, an initiative which aims to inspire girls and women and help them realise what opportunities there are for them. It’s a unique enterprise with a trading arm that offers consultancy services, and a social mission arm that runs speaker events and campaigns, along with a YouTube channel featuring interviews and discussion programmes that have garnered half a million views worldwide.

In 2018 Girls Talk London’s Step into STEM programme won a European Diversity Award. Created in partnership with four major telecoms companies (BT, Vodafone, O2 and Ericsson), the scheme places young students with a mentor in one of the participating organisations and provides work experience to try to increase the number of women pursuing science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) careers. Since it began in 2016, 106 girls have taken part in the scheme and 80% are still pursuing STEM subjects, with members of the first group now in their second year of university.

Girls Talk London has also worked with other major companies, including Salesforce, Sky, Lloyds Bank and the law firm Gowling WLG.

“They come to us with a problem,” says Sanyauke. “They might say, ‘We have really low numbers of black employees and we are struggling to recruit them’, or ‘We have a really low number of women on our board’. We can help them with that and we can show what it means for their bottom line to build a talent pipeline or increase diversity.”

Despite falling out of love with her degree subject, Sanyauke’s undergraduate days at Brunel University London weren’t wasted. Outside the lab she launched her first social enterprise, the Rafiki Network, which she ran for five years in a bid to help tackle gun and knife crime among young people. Named after the character in The Lion King who mentors the hero, Simba, it started with her and her university friends visiting local schools to mentor pupils and try to deter them from joining gangs and grew from there.

Sanyauke applied for funding to the UK youth volunteering charity vinspired, which went on to make her a trustee of the organisation from 2010 to 2014: “Sitting on the board and being responsible for how well this major charity was doing and the direction it was going was good strategic experience,” she says. “It helped me understand the [not-for-profit] sector really well.”

At the same time, she took a series of jobs in banking and was most interested by her work in JP Morgan’s corporate social responsibility department. That sparked her to study a Masters in sustainability and management at Royal Holloway, University of London that continues to inform her work today.

Sanyauke has made a name for herself as a speaker and is regularly invited to host events, take part in panel discussions and give lectures on corporate social responsibility, diversity and employability at a range of universities. She was ranked 22nd on the EMpower 50 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders List 2018 presented by the Financial Times, while in 2017 The Sunday Times Style magazine named her one of 10 people changing the workplace for women in the UK.

In her latest role she has joined the diversity and inclusion team at the UK Parliament to work on the Speaker’s Parliamentary Placement Scheme. It’s an initiative that each year gives around 12 people from all walks of life a paid internship with a member of parliament to try to increase the diversity of people working in parliament.

It’s another page in Sanyauke’s impressive portfolio. So what does she think are the skills that have got her to where she is today? Along with a can-do attitude and an ability to talk to anyone – from teenagers to CEOs – she lists her sense of commitment: “I don’t do things I’m not passionate about,” she says. “If I’m speaking at an event, it’s because I want to be there. And that’s a strength as people know that if I work on a project, they are going to get 100%.”

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