PwC's Mary Agbesanwa on how to be a role model for change and the importance of 'taking space'

Lianna BrindedHead of Yahoo Finance UK
Yahoo Finance UK
Mary Agbesanwa works as a management consultant at PwC UK
Mary Agbesanwa works as a management consultant at PwC UK

The tragic deaths of Breonna Taylor and George Floyd, and the ending of many other black lives at the hands of police, has sparked a global ground swell to fight racial injustice.

Protests have swept the globe and leaders are now confronting the urgent need for change. This applies equally to business as it does to politics.

Business leaders are facing renewed pressure to show true diversity and to foster inclusion and belonging at work. They need to work closer with marginalised communities to bring out true diversity, while acknowledging fault lines and bringing greater accountability to those who have the power and platform to make a change.

One person leading the way in driving this change is Mary Agbesanwa, a management consultant at PwC UK. Agbesanwa is the winner of the EMpower 100 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders list 2020.

The list celebrates inspirational people of colour who are not senior in their organisations but are making a significant contribution to ethnic minority people at work. Diversity and inclusion network INvolve compiled the list, which is supported by Yahoo Finance UK.

“To me, it is important to have these lists to showcase and celebrate the work many people are doing to make their teams and workplaces a more inclusive and an accommodating environment,” Agbesanwa told Yahoo Finance UK.

“Often this work is done outside of people’s day jobs because people are passionate about the topic and cause. However, I love that these lists provide an opportunity to shine a light on the work happening in the Diversity and Inclusion space, so we can celebrate the uncelebrated and share best practice and ideas across companies.”

Agbesanwa is co-chair of PwC’s Multicultural Business Network and leads the London Steering Committee. In 2019, the network celebrated Black History Month with a virtual and augmented reality exhibition of Black British role models. Originally staged in London, the exhibition later toured regional offices across the UK.

Agbesanwa contributed to PwC’s Ethnicity Pay Gap Report, led the delivery of a Colour Brave training session for over 500 colleagues and has pioneered PwC’s staff-run peer mentoring circles, where staff support each other with career guidance.

Outside of work, Agbesanwa is the co-founder of Now You’re Talking, a female millennial personal development community, which last October hosted a showcase to promote side hustles owned by predominantly Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) women. Mary has appeared on the HERoes Women Role Model Lists and won a WeAreTheCity Rising Star Award.

“To win the EMpower Ethnic Minority Future Leader 2020 feels absolutely brilliant,” Agbesanwa said. “When I found out I was so shocked, I waited a day or so for them to recall the email and explain that they had emailed the wrong Mary — #impostersyndrome.

“However, now reflecting, I know that I am worthy and deserving of this award and I thank the judges and everyone involved in the process for believing in me and my achievements. I am excited to utilise this platform to shout more about what I and other amazing people I know do.”

Mary Agbesanwa speaking at an event
Mary Agbesanwa speaking at an event

Agbesanwa’s win comes at a poignant time for the black community globally. The world is still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, which has disproportionately affected Black and Asian communities. On top of that, the urgent focus on the Black Lives Matter campaign has compounded the trauma the community is facing.

Many people feel “tired and exhausted and don't want to relive the trauma,” Agbesanwa said.

“My main reflection is that although the [incidents or protests] might be 4,000 miles away, the subsequent movement and the kind of energy on social media and discourse has brought it home. And because of lockdown, it has brought everything into our homes and our mental space.”

Many ethnic minorities “may feel the need to hide their feelings and [present] professionalism and maybe their colleagues can't see [how they feel] in half an hour catch up,” Agbesanwa said.

“I dream of a world where people can be themselves in the workplace and not have to feel like they are acting or they don’t belong.”

Agbesanwa is trying to create that world by encouraging colleagues to share their stories, as well as providing resources to help people educate themselves on the issues at hand.

“It is not always easy but it can be better if we start conversations about challenges and how we feel,” she said.

“This is exactly why I started my blog, A Millennial’s Diary, to document my journey working in the corporate world as a Black British Nigerian woman, hoping it will start some interesting conversations with my peers and act as guidance for future generations.

“Based on feedback, and given it currently gets around 7,000 views a month, I am glad my blog is doing just that.”

The most crucial thing someone can do daily to encourage an inclusive environment is simply be inquisitive, Agbesanwa said.

“As humans, we are naturally inquisitive but there is something about the workplace that diminishes this in us. Instead, be bold and inquisitive about your colleagues and co-workers to truly understand what interests them and how they feel. This probably just starts with asking ‘How was your weekend?’ on a Monday morning and truly listening to their response.”

INvolve’s lists recognise that advocates and allies are essential to bringing about change. Agbesanwa is always on the lookout for people she thinks can help support her cause within PwC.

“I believe in finding allies by finding people who naturally gravitate to you and what you believe,” she said.

“I do not believe in spending valued time and energy trying to convince people or organisations of the business case — or even the moral case — for diversity and inclusion. There is enough research, think pieces and articles for that.

“Instead, spot people who are keen to support you or amplify your voice and bring them along for the journey. They will have a different network they can share your message with, so harness this.”

Still early in her career, Agbesanwa hopes “to democratise access to the corporate world, particularly financial services” and encourage more women into the industry.

“Through my day job as a management consultant, I work directly with banks and fintechs to shape the financial services industry of the future that will be customer-centric and digital,” she said.

“Through the community, I run the Now You’re Talking network, where we run workshops and events to help women get into, and thrive in, the corporate world.

“I want to see these women succeed and transform the industries they work in because ultimately they took the step to invest in their personal development and themselves. Please do connect with me if you have shared ambitions.”

She ends our talk with a reminder to her black colleagues to “remember their worth, take time to self-care — this is top priority. Sometimes say “no,” and take time out.

“Remember, you deserve to take up space.”

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