“Making a pledge is easy. Delivering is not.”
We spoke to Saman Ali, the Founder of AspireForce, a business that Saman established with her sister in order to help employers hire and retain Black talent. She reflects on the lack of Black representation in businesses, looks at the fundamental issues behind this disparity, and outlines how AspireForce is tackling this issue head-on.
Can you tell us about your experience and what led you and your sister to set up AspireForce?
My sister and I grew up in a small German town and eventually decided to move to London in 2008, in part to escape an overwhelmingly white neighbourhood that increasingly felt isolating. London has a very visible Black community, so we felt right at home.
After university, we started to work in very different industries, yet encountered the same problems. There is a deep culture of exclusion in corporate Britain, which was difficult to articulate before 2020. The global outpouring of racial solidarity meant we could talk about casual racism and how to address it in the workplace.
However, three years after the death of George Floyd, Black representation in both our industries broadly remains white and middle class. The fact that “just 1% of senior dealmakers at top investment banks in Europe are Black” shows the scale of the challenge. It was our shared experiences of being Black (women) in Europe, and our desire to challenge pervasive disparities, that ultimately led to the launch of AspireForce.
How have you found the experience of running your own company so far?
Family relationships can be tricky, so we thought that starting a business, and mixing the personal and professional, would be even trickier. Luckily, our skills complement each other.
As a Finance Professional, Fadhia is meticulous and organised. Numbers are her forte and her ability to solve complex equations on the spot never ceases to amaze me.
It’s not how my brain operates at all. I’m spontaneous, I jot down ideas on a piece of paper and revisit them later. My whole desk is one big sticky-note.
In my defence, I work in Comms. I don’t shy away from disagreements. In fact, they are a source of creativity for me, whilst Fadhia is known for her quiet pragmatism.
For me, running AspireForce has been liberating in many ways. I’m in control of the narrative and don’t depend on being heard by others when voicing creative ideas. Unfortunately, this is a common theme for Black women in my industry – a fear of being invisible or not being taken seriously.
How does your business reflect your journey from continental Europe to the UK?
Whilst we’re quick to think of racism as a predominately American problem, (continental) Europe needs its own reckoning and conversation about structural racism. It starts with addressing racism or racial bias in schools.
From elementary school on, my sister and I had honed different strategies for responding to racism – when to ignore it, when to confront it, and when to simply flummox it by studying hard and outperforming expectations.
We have been applying some of those strategies throughout our careers. Starting AspireForce was and still is an attempt to break that cycle and get serious about change.
What work does AspireForce do to improve the lack of Black representation in the PR and financial services industries?
Our business consists of three pillars:
- The recruitment arm aims to connect Black candidates with opportunities, leveraging our network. This means breaking the cycle where recruiters hire the candidates whose faces ‘fit’ best into a profession or team and overlook candidates from different backgrounds who have the right skills for the role.
- We recognise the need to upskill graduates and professionals. Upskilling allows individuals to take charge of their own career mobility. We will launch a mentorship programme in 2024 that helps Black students, graduates and professionals grow by tapping into the knowledge and experience of someone further along than themselves.
- For businesses, we offer tailormade workshops for different teams to build awareness of the issues. The aim is to deepen their understanding of racial disparities at work, so they can create strategies to address them. Our focus remains racial equity as that directly speaks to our own experiences.
Has the Black employment landscape changed much since the death of George Floyd three years ago? Are too many companies still paying lip service to the idea of improving diversity?
Before launching AspireForce, I interviewed over a hundred Black professionals in PR, Finance and Tech across the UK to understand their job-hunting experiences post-George Floyd and find out whether we have lost momentum. What I learned aligned with my own experiences.
“Making a pledge is easy. Delivering is not,” was a quote that stood out to me. However well-intended company pledges are, implementation can be elusive without the necessary infrastructure to assess effectiveness of changes made. For his own industry – Public Relations – he felt that the rate of overall improvement remains slow.
Others said that whilst plenty of initiatives were launched to raise awareness of the problem in the beginning, they fear dwindling enthusiasm now. Some think we have already hit a plateau. What we really need now is accountability. If businesses want tangible progress, they need to define long-term goals, measure performance, and make public disclosures.
What needs to happen to improve Black representation in businesses?
The disparities begin when hiring managers fail to reach, attract, and offer Black graduates entry-level roles, ensuring that they get a fair chance at developing and budding a career. If more Black candidates could get started on the corporate ladder, it would carry through to the senior ranks and it would create the role models that young Black professionals are so eager to see.
Sadly, with no Black executives in top three FTSE 100 roles, the UK’s boardrooms stay white.
Only “10 out of 297 leaders in the top three roles had ethnic minority backgrounds, the same proportion as in 2014.” Black professionals’ absence in senior leadership roles is not only felt by fellow Black professionals, but it is also a missed opportunity to inspire an entire generation hungry for direction and role models.
Furthermore, this trend discourages exceptional people from pursuing careers at top firms, achieving their full potential. It’s simply not enough for businesses to recruit Black candidates to fulfil quotas but exclude them from strategic decision making.
For real, tangible wins companies need to move beyond glitzy mega-events with generous corporate sponsorship or simple statements. They must acknowledge that eradicating racial inequality is not just a moral imperative, but benefits businesses and should be an essential part of any long-term strategy.
What are your future plans for AspireForce?
With AspireForce we want to achieve real, long-lasting change. At the micro level, this simply means solving an important problem. It means helping businesses remained how they attract and recruit. At a macro-level, our purpose is far more ambitious and deeply personal.
Our own stories expose Europe’s repeated failure to recognise, encourage and reward Black talent on the continent. We are well positioned to leverage our background and decade-long industry knowledge to inspire and build the next generation of Black professionals in PR and Financial Services. What we want to achieve requires full-time commitment, investment, transparency – and with no wealthy background or powerful business connections, we are certainly taking risks.
Our source of optimism, fellow Black women, who have shaped history. Their important contributions to society, that we rightly celebrate this month, are an invaluable source of inspiration and motivation to undertake the mammoth task of tackling racial injustices.