Equality Of Opportunity: The Black Talent Charter

In this episode, I talk to Laura Durrant, Chief Executive of the Black Talent Charter. We cover why the charter is needed, how it will set about achieving its aims and the tangible results Laura anticipates.

In this conversation, I was joined by Laura Durrant, the Chief Executive of the Black Talent Charter. Before we dived into the questions about the Black Talent Charter, I asked Laura to talk a bit about who she is and the background to her role.

‘Thank you very much for having me here today. It’s wonderful to amplify what the Black Talent Charter is doing. We’re at the beginning of a journey. There’s a lot of work to be done and the more people can follow us, be aware of our profile, and support us, the better. We’re very grateful for the support.

My background is as a lawyer in the commercial sector. I became a lawyer almost 20 years ago. I started in a big commercial organisation as a general litigation lawyer. I was dealing with organisations, with individuals, with challenges, disputes, regulatory issues, and internal investigations. In 2008, I became much more focused on events in the financial sector, partly because I was representing organisations that had been caught up in the global financial crisis. I moved to be a Head of Litigation Regulatory and Investigations at the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the high profile, near casualties of the issues then.

Latterly I became a partner at a global law firm. But looking back over my career, it became clear to me, and this was pre-COVID, that so often there were unintended consequences from the systems that were set up within organisations. As well as from the ways often good people were trying to just live their lives and make reasonable decisions with the right information, yet not being able to navigate the very, very complex world in which we live and it being very difficult to bring everyone to the party. It’s hard to break down hierarchies, hear about different issues, and face headwinds. These are human traits and it’s really difficult. So, in 2019 I decided to look at that more closely and became interested in cultural analysis, increasingly in my career and then became more involved professionally. I run a consultancy looking at that.

In 2020, with the murder of George Floyd, the focus moved to race quite significantly in that context. Perhaps naively I had not appreciated that people didn’t realise that race was still a challenge in this country. I began to think that it was necessary for me to have a new vocabulary to talk about it and to interrogate it afresh. So, I put myself back in education and I started a master’s at UCL on race, ethnicity and post-colonial studies, which I’ve just finished. I did that part-time alongside my consulting work and through that, met Harry Matovu KC, who had been, the founder and visionary behind the Black Talent Charter. It had a lot of very engaged businesses supporting it as founding signatories but required a little bit of development in terms of what it was actually going to offer. I have now found myself leading that and we became operational at the beginning of this year.’

My next question was to ask Laura to go a bit deeper into what the Black Talent Charter is.

‘I like to think of us as a hub of knowledge, a hub of challenge and best practice. We have a very clear objective, which is working with business to turbocharge the progress that I know business wants to make. An awful lot of commitments were made in 2020 about black representation in business and seeing and unpicking systemic inequality but it’s hard to do. It is increasingly apparent that progress was committed to optimistically. People thought that by seeing the barriers they might melt away. It’s simply not the case. It’s a much more complex issue than that. Sectors like financial services, professional services, accounting, technology, they all need additional support, challenge and ideas from each other because everyone’s trying different things in silos. The core objective is we want British business to match UK population demographics for black representation at all levels within 10 years.

It’s a challenging goal because the latest research is that we are slipping behind in British business quite significantly. If you look at census data from 2011, we were about 30 years away from black representation matching population demographics in British business. The 2021 census, it looks like it’s more like 50 years. So, we have not made any progress at all. It’s not to say that business hasn’t been trying, it’s just that the population is shifting rapidly. We’re just about to release some new research from Bain, the consulting business. They have done this work for us and we’re slipping further than 50 now so we really do need some new ideas.’

At the risk of posing a bit of a daft question, I asked Laura it anyway. ‘Why is the charter needed and why did you decide to lead the organisation?’

‘I ask myself that question every day and it’s not daft at all. It’s because this agenda is hard and uncomfortable at times and raises lots of thorny questions. It is so broad that it can be a little bit overwhelming at times. I know that, even with the best of intentions, that is the case. Without a laser focus on black as a racialised category, we’re just not going to be able to make progress where we need to. I put myself back in education because race is such a difficult topic. I wanted to have the breadth of knowledge, historical context, political context, social context to feel comfortable having these discussions.

Now with the best will in the world, not many people have the time, bandwidth or are at the right point in their career to do that. So, there is a need to have that external resource expertise to push the agenda forward and to think about answers. A key part of what we’re doing with the Black Talent Charter is not duplicating what anyone is doing. There are some brilliant efforts going on out there already, and I’m very aware of many of them and we are a hub for referrals to talk about the amazing things that have worked, and things that haven’t worked.

I’m a trustee for a charity called Action for Race Equality, which does a huge amount of work in schools, in criminal justice, in employability, all of these things are important. And we don’t want to do any of that. But has this charity, which has been operating for 30 years, been introduced to all the businesses that it could support? No, of course it hasn’t. Has the work and the things that have made a difference, have they been talked about in the business circles in which the Black Talent Charter is operating? Probably not. Certainly not consistently. And that’s just one example. There are hundreds of examples, so it’s about that focus on black and the need for answers. We’re a not-for-profit, so we’re not competing with anyone. It is about amplifying great work already underway and maintaining that momentum at a point.

It’s awkward for leaders to just focus on one cohort. It’s really hard. People talk about there being pushback and ask, “What about me? What about this cohort? Why is it justified to focus there?”

As a leader in an organisation, you’ve got to answer all of these questions and it’s difficult. Whereas, if you can work with us and say, we’re working with this organisation that is going to provide answers and provide training and challenge us on that specific topic. Then hopefully we can build some momentum behind it.’

There are some commonalities between what Laura has said and what I’m experiencing with clients. I think a lot of leaders feel overwhelmed with all the different groups that they need to think about on the diversity and inclusion journey. I’d like to get them to think more about how to create equity. How to level the playing field? And how to focus on inclusion where everyone is included and it’s not just focusing on one or two demographics.

When it comes to talking about specific topics, I know there’s a lot of fear about saying the wrong thing and causing offence. That often leads to inaction. I get it. I’ve got a disability, I’m a wheelchair user, and I’m also a member of the LGBT community. I go along to a meeting with clients and they say, “Oh, how do we even talk about disability? What’s the right language we should be using?” And I know that they have the same questions when it comes to talking about race as well.

Laura agreed. ‘I see this in all of our discussions. Incredibly good intentions are undermined by the human frailty of not wanting to upset people, and therefore failing to engage with it and worrying about saying the wrong thing. Let’s face it in a difficult moment where things never disappear, they remain online forever. Mistakes are publicly criticised and therefore it’s completely understandable why people find this awkward. Race is a social construct that we have mapped a reality onto. Health inequalities don’t exist innately, they are created by social, economic and political inequalities. Thinking about race as an idea, you just have to think about the words that we use to describe race. Some are colours like black and white, some are about locations, Asian. It’s just obviously made up when you’re approaching it in that way. Of course, people are of mixed heritage. My own heritage is Black-Caribbean and White-British. But, if I look through my heritage in more complexity, there’s a whole host of different origin stories there. What am I? It’s really difficult. And so, putting people into boxes, trying to advocate on behalf of anticipating how different interventions will land and progress different groups is really, really hard.

I absolutely understand the sorts of discussions you are having where people just hope that by solving one issue, say gender inequity, they solve it for everything else because you can roll out the same thing more broadly. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t seem to be working that well.’

When I worked at Deloitte, the partner I worked with had this catchphrase, “We’re going to create a culture of respect and inclusion, but we’re going to take targeted interventions where required.” I thought that was really cool because that was about creating that kind of overarching culture, which was based on respect but with the understanding that you do have to take targeted, specific actions to create equity for different groups of people.

Some people talk about leveling the playing field and there’s an image where three people are standing behind a fence watching a game. I’ve looked at that image quite a lot because it’s quite popular in showing what we’re talking about with inequality or inequity. There are three people of different heights and the smallest person can’t see over the fence. But for me, I don’t like the idea that people are different in their innate characteristics, what we’ve done under some people, is just dig a flipping big hole. We need to work out what that hole looks like. It’s not about them fixing them, it’s about filling in the hole so that they can all see over the fence in the same way if they choose to do so.’

I use that image in some training that I do, but always with a practical example. If I was to go and work for a company and I was given a standard issue laptop, that would be equality. I’m being treated the same as everybody else. I’m given the same piece of equipment as everyone else, but I still couldn’t do my job because I can’t lift my hands to type on a normal keyboard. So, I need to have some software installed, which is called Dragon, which allows me to control my computer with my voice and write emails and documents with my voice. But this software costs like $200. Once that software is installed on my laptop, I can do my job just as well as anybody else. And so that’s the equity piece. It’s about giving me that little piece of assistive technology that helps me compete on a level playing field with everyone else.

My next question was about Laura’s plans for the Black Talent Charter and how will they go about achieving its aims?

‘This is the intimidating bit, needing to move this agenda forward and finding the right solutions because racial inequality has such a complicated history and is related to so many different elements in terms of how society is structured. We have to have quite a broad breadth of vision so we’re looking at it through the lens of three pillars of activity.

The first one is research and analysis, learning from others who are already doing good work in this space and identifying areas that require more focus. A key part of that is bridging what is often a gap between the academic world and the business world and translating it. I know from having gone back to education after 20 years out, it is hard sometimes to follow the academic train of analysis and we end up with concepts being pulled into the commercial world like intersectionality with actually very little corresponding analysis of the parameters of it and how to use it in a nuanced way.

There are so many examples of great research that just aren’t quite translated or you simply are not aware of it. Making sure that we are a hub that can analyse what already exists and the work that’s been done and what further research is required. It’s not just the academic world. You’ve also got brilliant people in the likes of Deloitte and The Big Four and Bain I mentioned have been doing this work for us. Data analysts are so important in terms of what we’re presenting here through the lens of black experiences in a particular cohort, the British economy. So, all of that research and analysis is absolutely key because that means that we are evidence-based in looking at what interventions for black talent, the people who we want to see progress, need to be focused on them. This isn’t about fixing people; it’s about seeing that hole and empowering them to drive their careers and support each other and realise that there are lots of other people out there. As you become more senior in organisations that can feel quite lonely.


Whereas across the City, there are a reasonable number of people but it’s not representative of the population. It’s certainly not representative of the London population. Nationally, there are lots of people who feel quite isolated. So, building that network of support, and collaboration that I, in my professional career built ad hoc, but didn’t really feel like I had much access to and laterally in my career felt I saw much more on the gender side.

That’s not to say that a white man cannot be an amazing mentor and sponsor and source of inspiration at all, but having people who, with some of the shared experiences who you can go to at different points in time can be powerful and useful. So that focus on black talent, events, development programmes, ready to give people an advantage. And then finally the charter. So, I know it’s in our name, Black Talent Charter, but I don’t want people to get distracted by targets. Targets are part of this story, but not every organisation, for good reasons, wants to set them or is in the right position to set them. We also want organisations to be willing to be a little bit creative and to take a few risks and to work with us on thinking about what moves this agenda forward.

That means that they may not always be successful. So, we do have a charter with commitments, which is really about everyone committing and moving this forward. It’s about looking at their supply chains, particularly for large organisations, and the diversity in that supply chain. It’s about their own internal commitments and targets. Absolutely. But that is a third pillar. It’s not the sole focus of the Black Talent Charter.’

I asked Laura, ‘When do you think we’re going to see some real progress being made and we’ll start to see some tangible outcomes materialise?’

‘That’s the million-dollar question. I would love to significantly move the discussion on. Sadly, I don’t think we’re even in a place where people can automatically say, “Yes, this focus on Black talent is the right thing to do.” So, we’ve got quite a bit of groundwork to lay first that requires this research and analysis piece. We simultaneously will be working with our cohorts to look at what they’ve already got in place and really support them to retain people and stop the exodus that happens mid-career for black talent within the commercial sector.

Those are the two pillars of what we’re immediately looking at over the next six months to twelve months. Our long-term goal is to significantly change the face of British business within 10 years. And when I say that it should be a really uncontroversial goal to simply match British business to population demographics.

Because if those businesses are equitable, then that should be easy to do. The talent is out there and challenges we hear such as the education sector is the barrier and people don’t come through to us is not true at all. We’ve done our research so far and we can say that actually, the Black population is over-represented in universities. It’s just not translating into the commercial sector. Looking at the 10-year plan, it’s to reach that core goal, but the steps that we will need to take in the intervening years mean I hope we’re seeing real progress within four or five years. But it’s going to be very challenging.’

I asked Laura, ‘If a business signs up and becomes a signatory to the charter, what would you say are the top three benefits that they get.’

‘Access to a committed cohort. Often if you have a law firm, they will have a network of other law firms. They will have a network of clients depending on their sector, but they’re not talking about these sorts of things with clients. And there can be discomfort about discussing it with competitors, direct competitors, and financial services. Again, they’ll talk to each other in different contexts. But, coming together as that cohort, bringing together the DEI lead, bringing together the head of the Black Affinity network, bringing together C-suite leaders in different rooms and asking, “Okay, what’s on your plate? What does the strategy look like? Facilitating those discussions is one of the key benefits.

They’ll obviously also have access to us and our growing expertise and ideas bank. I hope as we develop our thinking in this area, their black talent will get access to a huge roster of events over time. Opportunities like we’re looking at a mid-career for that senior black individual who can’t quite kick into the executive level. What does that look like? What would really move the dial for that? So, there will be lots and lots of different opportunities for black talent to progress their careers.’

My final question for Laura was, ‘What does inclusive growth mean for you?’

‘Well, first a caveat, because growth is baked into our economic system for good or ill, isn’t it? And growth means that we’re moving forward and change is occurring and that comes with risks that people are being left behind. So inclusive growth for me has to mean that we are filling in those holes that I was discussing earlier as we go at pace because otherwise, they get deeper and deeper and deeper and everyone has moved on and change has occurred, and we have baked in systemic barriers and inequality and created additional cultural pressures.

So inclusive growth for me means that growth only occurs with everyone at the table, at the party, whatever you want to say and however you want to describe it. But you pull everyone along filling in those holes as you go.’

To learn more about the Black Talent Charter and check out the existing organisations signed up visit their website. If your organisation is not listed there already, follow the Black Talent Charter on LinkedIn and please get in touch and ask for more information.

To talk about getting bespoke support from Toby and his team for the diversity and inclusion journey of your business, head over to their website at mildon.co.uk.

Equality Of Opportunity: The Black Talent Charter - Mildon