Think at London Business School
The Black executive is still a relatively rare sight. Cole Agbede MBA2021 and Eliot Sherman discuss how to address the imbalance
By Eliot Sherman, Cole Agbede
Fiere Habte is an MBA student at London Business School, recipient of a prestigious Laidlaw scholarship, and a budding consultant who recently completed a coveted placement with Boston Consulting Group. She is also a qualified actuary who began her business career in KPMG’s Pensions Practice, working with businesses ranging from FTSE 100 companies to mid- and small-sized firms.
Fiere is also the co-president of LBS’s Black in Business Club. In this year-long role, she says that she wants to “show the importance and visibility of Black people in the business world at large”, so that Black heritage students and allies alike can strive for representation in the workplace long after they finish their studies.
At the age of 27, Fiere has accomplished so much, and is determined to achieve even more. Her success is worlds away from her humble beginnings, growing up in North London with parents who had fled the Eritrean War of Independence, and who arrived in the UK as refugees in the 1980s. “My parents wanted us to have the best education we could get,” she explains today. “Because of the war, they didn’t get a chance to complete high school so they wanted me and my brothers to have what they hadn’t. They constantly reminded us that access to education is an opportunity and privilege they did not have and one that we should appreciate. But because my dad’s English was limited, the only subject he could help us with was maths”. This focus on arithmetic and algebra at home would ultimately shape Fiere’s education and become a passion.
In 2016 she graduated with a degree in Mathematics from the University of Birmingham. Despite achieving a first in her studies and landing a job offer from a Big Four firm, Fiere didn’t feel prepared for what she faced when she went into the working world. Other people, it seemed, had quickly figured out the unspoken codes of the workplace and had ready-made connections they could rely on.
“I felt very lonely,” she says of the early days in her job as an actuary. “I felt like I didn’t belong”. Despite getting to grips with the job - using her mathematical background to assess risk - as a Black woman from a working class background, Fiere says that while she didn’t feel “imposter syndrome as such”, she did feel somewhat alienated. On one occasion, she attended a client meeting where she was mistaken for catering staff. She didn’t know how to respond. “As the only person of colour in the room, assumptions are made about you”, she says.
Things improved as Fiere benefited from a reverse mentoring scheme in which she was paired with a senior partner, a service lead who was also one of the regional inclusion and diversity partners, in her firm to learn more about each other’s backgrounds and approaches to the workplace.
“He was very engaged and wanted to learn more about me,” she says. “He cared about the programme, so we both got something out of it”. Fiere also joined her workplace’s African Caribbean Network, which inspired her to face difficult issues head-on at work. “I realised how important it is to champion causes, and speak up,” she says. “I saw a lot of people who felt uncomfortable bringing up certain topics in the workplace, so I tried not to shy away from difficult discussions. I always find I regret not speaking up more than I regret speaking up about something”.
When her department at KPMG was sold to a private equity firm, Fiere transferred to a new standalone company. It was there, amid the widespread changes triggered by the pandemic, that she began to consider a career change. Working as an actuary specialising in UK pensions was a niche area, and the process of the KPMG sale had piqued her interest in the wider business world. Fiere began to consider how an MBA could help her advance her career.
“I put all my eggs in one basket and only applied to LBS!” she says with a smile. “I wanted to stay in London and build my professional network here, and of course it’s where so many companies have their headquarters and where so much happens in the business world. I didn’t think about going anywhere else”.
Because of her background, Fiere knew there was a chance she would be offered financial help, but - even so - she says she was bowled over by the level of support that the Laidlaw Women’s Leadership Fund provided. As a beneficiary of the programme, which looks to reward exceptional women from a diverse range of backgrounds - especially those who might otherwise struggle to fund their studies - Fiere received not only financial aid but other help besides.
“The Laidlaw community has supported me with applications and given me extra support, as well as taking away financial pressure”, she says. In the year since she began her MBA, Fiere has thrown herself into a range of activities at LBS, from touch rugby to the Women in Business Club and the Black in Business Club.
“I feel very comfortable at LBS,” she says. “I’ve spoken about things I’ve never spoken about before and I’ve made friends as well as professional connections”. Compared with the difficulties she encountered earlier in her career, today she clearly feels at ease, and encouraged to reach her potential.
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“Black History Month gives people time to find out about what Black in Business seeks to achieve - it’s a time when everyone is engaged in these conversations”
As co-president of the Black in Business club, Fiere, alongside her fellow co-president Seun Akingbogun, aim to nurture LBS’s Black community, as well as thinking about what future cohorts might need.
“We’re looking at admissions, and what support people might need before they come to LBS,” she explains, acknowledging the need to make the application process for courses such as MBAs more transparent, and to acknowledge the cultural differences between different candidates.
The next step after that is making sure that their members are equipped to apply for any industry they want to enter after graduation, for example consulting, for which she is also a peer leader. Fiere believes that events like Black History Month are a key time to highlight the efforts of LBS’s students of Black heritage, and the progress they are making.
“It’s really important to have a month dedicated to celebrating Black achievement while also acknowledging history, and the issues and challenges still faced by people of Black heritage today,” she explains. “Within LBS, it also gives people time to be exposed to Black in Business, and what we seek to achieve - it’s a time when everyone is more engaged in these conversations. I appreciate when people say,’ I wish we didn’t need a specific Black History Month and celebrated Black history all year’, but even in this day and age I think we still do, and people can benefit from it”.
Today, the combination of a world-class education at LBS and a strong belief in equality and social mobility have made Fiere feel more confident than ever about her future. “Having an MBA from LBS is a stamp of approval and is sure to open so many doors for me,” she says.
“And I still maintain the view that, throughout my career, I will continue to speak up. I’ll be pushing and trying to improve opportunities for those who come up after me.”