Thursday, 29 October 2020
As Head of Technology Engagement for Capital Markets, Honey Ajuwon is responsible for ensuring that NatWest’s business strategy can be delivered in technology solutions. She also runs her own hair and body care business. She talked to us about the power of combining corporate and entrepreneurial intelligence, and key ways to leverage data, diversity and determination to drive forward your business.
Let diversity be about talent
Yes, it’s good to make an economic and business case for diversity, but after some time, it feels dehumanising to hear that because we should really be talking about the talent that is out there, regardless of ethnicity or gender. Every organisation benefits from the talent that people bring to it, but if one is always having to first make a business case to be included, particularly as a black person, it basically makes you feel as if you're less human. Having to convince people that you're worth something or you bring something as a monetary value feels uncomfortable because a lot of the people who are already in these rooms, particularly those who are white or male, have never had to do a ‘business case’ as to why they're there.
Change the paradigm to create better solutions
When we do talk about how to build a business case for diversity, I look at where we, as citizens of a ‘global nation,’ are moving toward. We're heading for a major demographic shift in 50 years’ time with an ageing population, particularly in Western Europe, and we’re going to need to use technology to solve a lot of the issues around this, as well as around climate change. It’s difficult to come up with new solutions if the same people who've been ‘driving the bus’ for the last 400 years are still there. If we’re using the same mindset and the same paradigm to try and solve things, it is likely things are not going to improve for the better. That is why it’s important to have people from diverse backgrounds, and particularly people from economically disadvantaged backgrounds —necessity tends to be the mother of invention. If you've never had to make a pound stretch or had to be in situations or institutions where you have to use your ingenuity to solve a problem, it’s much more difficult, I believe, to come up with solutions that are all-encompassing and inclusive.
If there is no pathway, create one
There’s a burgeoning gap between what we need in terms of the technology and digital sector skills and the talent available. To my mind, the best way to bridge that gap is to focus on diversity and inclusion and enable youngsters coming up to see digital skills and technology as a viable career for them. That’s difficult if you can’t see people who look like you in senior positions. I approached the Head of Ventures at NatWest with an idea to set up the Social Mobility Technology Apprenticeship Programme and she bought into the idea, particularly because of the intersection between ethnic diversity and social mobility. I then went to schools to talk about opportunities at NatWest and we picked 18 candidates from those who applied who went through to ‘boot camp’ to be taught about interviewing skills, mindsets and behaviours and introduced to technology and cloud computing. This programme meant that when it actually came to the interview stage, they were well prepared, understood their contributions and their background was not a hurdle to them being successful. We selected 10 apprentices and the remaining eight were actually placed with other companies on their own apprenticeship programmes. Following this success we’re now hoping to roll out the programme nationwide and get a minimum of 250 social mobility apprentices into the organisation over the next three years.
Open up your potential with a side hustle
I think a side hustle keeps you lively, but I also think it means that when you're coming into the workplace, you're adding value. When I do my job at work, I don't do it as an employee; I bring my entrepreneurial mindset. I look at it in terms of where the organisation is heading, what will enable it to get there and what I can do in my role to ensure it’s meeting its goals. Changing your mindset to think like someone who has a stake in the company also means that you don't think in terms of things being ‘done to you’ that you have to ‘accept’; all the weird ways in which people think they are not an active participant or don't have agency. If you think as a business owner, you reclaim that agency and can make suggestions and implement changes that take the organisation forward.
Trust your intuition
My background is Nigerian. I was partly raised there, and I was lucky to be brought up in an entrepreneurial household. In Nigeria, it’s seen as standard for everyone to have a side hustle — I had my first venture at 16 years old running a cleaning business. When I came to the UK, I expected there would be lots of entrepreneurs, particularly black entrepreneurs, leading big companies in the UK. I was in for a disappointment because that wasn't the case. But that led me to think about the services I needed and setting up businesses to provide these. When I was 20, studying part-time at university, my boyfriend and I put together a business proposal for a company selling wigs and weaves and went to the Prince's Trust. I was interviewed by four white men who told me that black women wouldn’t be interested in weaves or braids and didn’t give me any funding because they didn't think my company was viable. Two years later, Nicole Ritchie talked about weaves and hair extensions on her TV programme The Simple Life and the market blew up. I was so demotivated by this, and it was what lead me to do a master’s dissertation on black entrepreneurship in Birmingham — to try and find some answers. Doing that helped me understand entrepreneurship better, and the challenges we face. It motivated me to continue. I’ve set up many businesses since then, including my current business, WIP (World In Progress), which is focused on products for natural black hair and body care.
Use your bank to give you insight
When you have a small business, you don't always think about your boardroom, because a lot of the time you are your own board. But it’s important to look at your bank or business relationship manager as someone who can give you insights into to what your competitors are doing and what support there is for you — monetary support but also the tools that are available either via government programmes, charities or third sector companies. A lot of big companies see that relationship with their bank as intertwined with how they conduct their business and it’s something small businesses can learn from.
Don’t be afraid of data
The primary thing that my colleagues ask me for from a technology perspective is data. They’re very interested in getting insights into the economic drivers that could be impacting their customers and how they behave in the current environment, in order to be able to support them better. I think that is something that a lot of small businesses could also benefit from. It’s important to really analyse the market, your customers and their propensity to purchase your products or services. How often do people come back to buy from you? If you have word-of-mouth how is that actually disseminated? What positive feedback or reinforcements are you getting from social media like Twitter and Instagram? Data is key and while it may be a buzzword now, it’s just basically information on your customers, your products and your market, as well as something that can give you the understanding to benchmark your service, quality and pricing against your competitors to ensure that you're viable for the future.