“BAME pretty much just means everybody but white people, and BAME isn’t a minority”

We sat down for a conversation with Kike Oniwinde. Kike is the Founder and CEO of BYP Network, a digital platform that connects black professionals with each other and corporations. She has been recognised as a leader in tech and featured on the Forbes’ 30 Under 30 and Financial Times’ top 100 BAME leaders in technology, along with winning many prestigious awards.

Can you tell us about your story leading up to founding BYP Network?

I started BYP Network in 2016 off the back of the Black Lives Matter Movement. But it all stemmed from my own experiences leading up to that moment. I realised there is a big issue going on in the black community that I never quite spotted until this moment.

I grew up in East London which is a very diverse area. I went to a local state school, again, a diverse state school, and I did well academically. I found when I went into the working world and had my first internships, I realised there weren’t people that look like me. I was like ‘Okay, I’m from just around the corner. Here I am in this big office, and the other black people that work here are cleaners and security guards.’ I felt uncomfortable, but I couldn’t quite pinpoint what that was.

I got a full-time scholarship at The University of Florida, and I remember thinking when I was there that there were so many talented black students doing a lot of different types of things. The media only shows successful black people in America as being in sports, music, or entertainment. When I came back, The Black Lives Matter Movement started. It was all of these things combined that led to me starting BYP Network.

What are the specific barriers that black professionals face?

There’s a whole educational pipeline problem. I’m sure we’re seeing it in the news a lot about what black students are going through in schools. It is this situation with schooling where there is micro-aggression, bullying, racism, whatever it is, towards some black students, that is felt and it’s felt along the journey.

Black students are told they can’t apply to Oxbridge. A lot of my peers have a story like that. I mean, I have a story like that about maths: in further maths, I was told ‘I don’t believe you’re going to get the eighth grade or a star grade, so I’m going to predict you a B’, even though I had 95 out of 100. So, I even went through that, and that led to a confidence dip for me in maths.

I feel like grammar schools, independent schools, and private schools better prepare people for university. So, I think that’s also a part of it. I also saw a statistic that showed black students were dropping out of university more, not getting the right grades, not feeling supported, or going through discrimination and racism.

Were there any specific experiences that you had that motivated you to create the BYP Network?

It was Black Lives Matter in 2016. Seeing all the traumatic videos on Twitter and feeling that pain and thinking that something has to change. I was working in Fintech for a startup company, and I realised that there weren’t many black people in tech. I was naturally curious to find other black professionals and I started asking myself ‘How do we connect with each other?’ and ‘How do we progress in the world of work?’

I wanted a platform and community where we leave our titles at the door, and everyone comes to help each other and grow together. So, I already started it with that kind of mindset and that’s essentially how the BYP Network started. I just hosted an event initially and it sold out in three days. It was a lot of black professionals coming together just having a good time.

Is there a clear solution to elevating black professionals to positions of power?

So when I started BYP Network, my view was that the solution was to get a pipeline of black professionals, as companies say they can’t find the talent, whereas this pipeline would be that talent pool. It’s important to have something like this because we know there are biases. There’s also a culture fit and things that people don’t know about when starting a job.

In my early experience in banking, I was fortunate enough to know what I needed to know to get in when I first got into a programme. But then when I got in, that’s when they were telling us ‘Okay, you’re going to need to do psychometric tests’. But if you didn’t know that information, you’ll get caught out.

The platform has been described as wanting to ‘change the black narrative’. What does this mean to you?

Yeah, great question. Changing the narrative essentially means changing the view society has of the black community. Our view of ourselves isn’t necessarily negative, but the media view seems to be negative. In media, the narrative always has something to do with knife crime, gun crime, low attainment rates, poverty, black people having less income than white people, etc. It’s just always negative and reinforces our status as being at the bottom and I think that gets frustrating. We don’t want to keep seeing these negative stories, especially when you’re around people who don’t fit into that category.

Black people are not a monolith. So, you can’t just say ‘black people are criminals.’ Then when it comes to organisations, again, the hiring and retention of black talent, that’s always a problem. For some reason, they’re just not good enough. For some reason, they’re not getting past our pipeline. For some reason, black professionals just underperform. So, there’s always this kind of negative news on black professionals.

What we’ve done at BYP Network is highlighted black role models, black leaders, and young professionals that exist in organisations that are making a difference. The difference could be the fact that they even got the role in a unique way that others might not think about, or how they got promoted three times in the space of two years, or them being a managing director at the company, and even though they’re the only one that looks like them, this is how they got through it. So, we’ve been a source of information, knowledge, thought leadership, and confidence, and we’re able to empower the community by seeing representation.

Schemes like BAME can have the ambition to make the workplace more diverse but can sometimes have the inverse impact, as these are not homogenous groups. Do you think that terms such as BAME are good for marginalised communities?

BAME pretty much just means everybody but white people, and BAME isn’t a minority. The thing with BAME is that there’s different weighting to each letter – the ‘A’ might be doing better than the ‘B’, or the ‘M’ is doing better than the ‘A’. The black experience is different from the Asian experience, for example, and we know that, but at the same time, even within that, there are nuances. We know in the black community that it seems like Nigerians are outperforming some of the other African countries and Caribbean countries.

So, I think BAME is one of those things that is dying out, but people don’t know what to use instead. I know a lot of people say ‘people of colour’, but then people don’t like ‘people of colour.’ But I understand that it’s very long to say, Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic, White. I think this is still a conversation that’s happening.

Is the working world changing quickly enough for black professionals?

It’s not changing quickly enough. There is no silver bullet. And that’s one thing I’ve learned on this journey. Like I said, when I first started, I just thought there was a silver bullet. Here are black professionals and here are companies – that’s it. But I realised that it is so much more nuanced than that. There are biases, there are things that people don’t know that they need to know, and there’s culture fit. There’s just so much to it. So no, it’s not moving fast enough, but there’s a lot of work that still needs doing.

Do you let your team sleep at work?

Our company is mainly remote anywhere, but people come in like once or twice a week. We’re not monitoring people, so if they want to nap, they can nap. If they want to just go for a walk, they can go for a walk. I’m a napper as well and that helps me feel energised to keep going.

As someone who used to do sports, napping was super important to me to feel rejuvenated. I think one thing we’re seeing, especially in this kind of post-COVID world, is that employees want that flexibility, they want the ability to come in if they want to, or not come in and have that option.

Is there anything you take away from being an athlete that transcends to being a founder and CEO in terms of your mindset?

I think going from being an elite sportsperson to being a CEO was an easy transition for me – because it’s hard work. Hard work is resilience, it’s doing things you don’t necessarily want to do, going through the pain, overcoming it, seeing great results, and seeing bad results. So, I think there are a lot of similarities between sports and entrepreneurship.

People say that entrepreneurs have to have this kind of mindset where they want to achieve audacious goals, we’re going to create something that’s never been created before. It’s the same for sports. You have to have that mindset that you are the best, that you can be the best, and that you’re going to win every competition. So, it was very much an easy transition.

You’re about to have a baby. How will this impact your role within BYP Network? Do you have a new approach to the way you work because of this?

I don’t know, I guess you could ask me that in some months or years. I’m just going forward if that makes sense. I just allow myself to feel how I need to feel or be how I need to be. It’s me learning for mums before me. It’s always been a topic in the world of work – when women hit a certain age and when they start having children.

There’s a view that many women drop off, they leave the world of work because they want to focus on their children, or their ambition isn’t the same, or some become more ambitious? I don’t know, I think it’s exciting to be on this journey, to finally enter the conversation because I hear about it all the time. But I can’t relate because I wasn’t part of it. So, I am intrigued. You’ll have to catch up with me to see how it goes.

You’ve recently experienced significant loss with your mother passing away. How has this impacted your work as a CEO?

It was very, very hard. It still is obviously. My mum was like my role model. Essentially, it’s a shock right to the system. I tend to think ‘I’m a soon-to-be mother without a mother’, but I’m a daughter about to have a daughter. I think, for me, my pregnancy is a silver lining because it’s like I feel my mum’s coming back. So, I think I’ve been fortunate in the sense that I have my silver lining coming.

I don’t see a situation and think it’s negative. I just think ‘Okay, well it must have happened for a reason’. That’s always been my mindset. When I look at my life, it’s always been positive, anything negative that happens turns into a positive, and things always happen to me for a reason. I still carry that same view and belief.

In the past six months, I’ve felt like I’ve been so blessed. I feel like things are a bit different. I feel like things are just dropping into place that never dropped into place before. So, I do feel her energy around, I do feel that connection.

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