Think - AT LONDON BUSINESS SCHOOL

Taking stock and looking forward: Black in business in 2021

A conversation between Tabria Lenard MBA2021 and Axel Tagnon MFA2022 on where progress has been made and where there’s more to be done

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Tabria Lenard MBA2021, Co-founder of the Black in Business Club

I grew up between New York and New Jersey, but I felt quite grounded in terms of my culture. I’ve always been part of Black groups and had a mixed circle of friends. That’s partly what got me interested in working in luxury retail – a space where the Black influence is widely felt, but rarely reflected in senior leaders. I wanted to get my MBA so I could help change that, especially in terms of improving the representation of Black women in business.

When I arrived at LBS I was one of a tiny number of Black students, which is how I got talking to Cole Agbede and a few of our peers. These conversations quickly led to us founding the Black in Business Club together.

Axel Tagnon MFA2022

“The UK might not be the most diverse society in the world, but the conversation is much more open”

My parents moved around a lot too, though I had a very different experience. At different points we lived in India and South Africa, but I mainly grew up in France, where exposure to my Black heritage was limited. I went to a school in the centre of Paris where, for more than 10 years, I was the only Black student in my year, the year above and the year below. On the other hand, we would go and visit my mum’s family in Senegal every Christmas. Over time, this helped me realise the disconnect between my life back in France and the experience of being surrounded by other Black people. In France, many people don’t want to talk about race. They’ll talk about diversity, but only in terms of what kind of school someone went to, or the social class they belong to. When I moved to the UK to study at UCL, I noticed a big difference. The UK might not be the most diverse society in the world, but it feels like there’s progress – the conversation is much more open.

Tabria Lenard 

It’s interesting that you say that. I’m in Paris right now, and I was having a conversation with someone who works in HR for a French company recently. She was asking me about the nuances between how we talk about race in the US and in Europe. And I have to say, while the US is nowhere near where we need to be, we’re a lot more vocal about these issues as a nation. People at least seem aware of the challenges Black people can face. When I came to the UK, I noticed that it was ahead of the rest of Europe, but it still doesn’t feel like the conversation is happening on a wide enough scale.

I also think it’s interesting that we’ve both had that experience of being the only Black person in a school or university.

Axel Tagnon

I see lots of my Black friends at LBS go through this transition, where they’ve always been surrounded by a very supportive Black community and then they come here and they’re suddenly a minority. But I’ve always felt like a minority, especially while I was at my school in France. I started there when I was 6 and I genuinely was the first Black person lots of these kids had ever seen. I experienced lots of what some people would call racism – personally, at that age, I think it’s more ignorance than anything – but there were definitely lots of children who didn’t want to be friends with the Black kid.

I was very lucky to have my mother, who is one of my role models. She actually had to fight really hard to get me into that school. They had an interview process and we’d been on the waiting list for months. Not long before term started my mum bumped into a friend of hers, who said she’d just rung up and got her two daughters accepted. My mum figured out what was going on; she called them up again and didn’t mention my skin colour. When they asked her to come into for an interview, she just made up some excuse about us not being in the country. You should have seen the other parents’ faces when I turned up with my mum and dad on the first day of term. They couldn’t believe these three Black people were at the school gates.

I knew then that being average would never cut it. I worked hard to be exceptional, and by the time my parents sought admission for my younger brother, the school had no issues accepting him.

“Every time I enter a room, I’m immediately aware of how few people in there look like me”

Tabria Lenard 

I find that people look at experiences like that and wonder how you can be so positive about it. But it’s a question of pride, isn’t it? If you’re proud of who you are, then overcoming these experiences is part of that.

But I relate to what you’re saying. Sometimes it feels like this incredible burden – and other people don’t even know you’re carrying it. Every time I enter a room, I’m immediately aware of how few people in there look like me, or that there’s no one in there who looks like me. It reminds me of this JAY-Z lyric, “only spot a few Blacks the higher I go”. It’s so true – when I lived in the Bronx I was surrounded by Black and brown people. Even when I moved to New Jersey, I had a pretty mixed crew. But as I started taking more Advanced Placement classes and Honours classes, I was suddenly on my own. In the US we say you can either go to a HBCU, a ‘historically Black college or university’ or a PWI, a ‘predominantly white institution’. My university was the latter, only a handful of students there were Black. This is even more extreme at post-grad level – so it’s no surprise that it trickles down into the corporate world.

For me, that’s heartbreaking. There are so many talented people out there who just don’t have the right access or opportunities. That’s why I never take my place for granted, and always try to bring people along with me. Black people face so many setbacks, for no reason. We have to find a better system.

Axel Tagnon

How are you finding life as a Black woman in France? I’m curious, based on my own experiences.

Tabria Lenard 

Well, there’s another level to it now, because I don’t speak French. I can see you laughing, but it’s confusing. It’s like, are you acting this way because I’m a Black woman or because I don’t speak the language? Is it because I’m an American? [laughs]

Axel Tagnon

What about now that you’ve graduated? What’s it been like leaving LBS and entering the corporate world?

“It’s so fascinating to see how the work we’ve done with the Black in Business club has empowered me”

Tabria Lenard 

It’s so fascinating to see how the work we’ve done with the Black in Business club has empowered me. I feel able to be a lot more vocal on where I stand on issues like racial equality. It’s part of my profile. I’m looking at full-time opportunities right now, which means talking to lots of different people at various organisations – and they want to talk about race. I had someone telling me they’d just signed up to the 15% pledge, where companies pledge to commit a minimum of  15% of their shelf to Black-owned businesses. It’s so great to see initiatives like that becoming more common. I think, in some ways, me being so clearly interested in talking about these things opens up the conversation.

What’s it been like for you, right at the start of the LBS experience?

Axel Tagnon

So far? Amazing. The French community in London is pretty tight knit, so that’s been nice. Plus, I do feel like LBS does a lot to make sure people from all backgrounds feel welcome. We’ve been having foundation classes these past two weeks – covering things like understanding unconscious bias and diversity, which have been eye-opening. It does feel like we’re part of a very multicultural community. 

“Business schools have a responsibility – they’re hopefully educating people who will one day be managing diverse teams”

Tabria Lenard 

I agree. I think the community at LBS does a very good job of warming each other up to the importance of being culturally curious. We just need to make sure that stays true throughout the whole length of the programmes. Business schools have a real responsibility – they’re hopefully educating people who will one day be managing diverse teams. We have to make sure these people are being developed to go out into the world and make some change.

Axel Tagnon

I liked that you mentioned the 15% pledge. One initiative I’ve been really inspired by is 10,000 Black interns. They’re working across 24 different sectors to match young Black people up with internships that provide invaluable experience and training.

Tabria Lenard 

Yes, they’re great. There’s been lots of good organisations popping up over the last couple of years – this feels like a sign that there’s a better base level understanding of the issues Black people face. More and more allies are stepping up and trying to understand their role in the conversation as well. It’s no longer just us Black people looking around and talking to each other.

There’s also a lot more top-down change. Even at LBS, the Dean was keen to involve Cole and I in a lot of sponsor conversations.

Axel Tagnon

So much of the progress we’re seeing is down to education. Look at how some state schools, like Brampton Manor in London, are starting to compete with places like Eton in terms of how many students they’re sending to Oxford or Cambridge. While this is only one step in the right direction, I am convinced that education has a pivotal role to play in the movement for racial equality.

“We need to remember that diversity isn’t just putting Black models on the catwalk. It’s about having Black leaders making the decisions”

Tabria Lenard 

People need to understand that there are so many underlying factors to racial inequality. It’s partly financial, it’s partly social, it’s partly a question of geography. I’ll give you an example – I was having a conversation with somebody the other day about how few GMAT testing centres there are on the continent of Africa. Most people don’t have the money to fly hundreds of miles to take a test, so they’re automatically excluded from our world.

When people realise things like this are still happening, they realise how much work there still is to be done. It’s also a good reminder that we need to think globally – I’m Black, but I’m also American, so these weren’t challenges I was ever going to face.

Axel Tagnon

Another thing we need to do better on is the retention of Black talent. There’s increasing support around early-careers, but that support does drop off. How many Black people have left a job because they’re not progressing, or being promoted past a certain level?

“I’d love to work with the admissions body at LBS to see what we can do to bring more Black students into the School”

Tabria Lenard 

A lot of Black employees get stuck at the mid-manager level, don’t they? It would be good to see more organisations actively mentoring people through every stage of their career. Those at the top need to be reflecting on where they’re losing Black talent and asking why that might be.

There has to be a shift towards looking at diversity as a structural issue, not just a visual one. For example, in my industry, we need to remember that diversity isn’t just putting Black models on the catwalk. It’s about having Black leaders making the decisions.

“I'm always going to be very happy and very proud to be a Black woman. I just want the same for others that are coming up after me”

Axel Tagnon

I’d love to work with the admissions body at LBS to see what we can do to bring more Black students into the School. I really believe that if offered more support at an early stage we’d see more people showing an interest. It would be great to go into schools and present our programmes, even just to increase awareness. That would be a great achievement – to have helped drive a measurable increase in the number of Black applicants being accepted to LBS.

Tabria, you’ve obviously left behind a real legacy of your own. How do you feel about that?

Tabria Lenard 

Looking back on everything we’ve done with BIB is overwhelming. It was really just a case of meeting the right people at the right time. I don’t think there was anywhere else I needed to be in 2020 than at a business school like ours, helping to start the conversation. The fact that we’re here, a year later, still talking about these things is just great.

On the other hand, I’m excited to see long-term changes. I'm always going to be very happy and very proud to be a Black woman. I just want the same for others that are coming up after me.

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