Bukola Adisa speaks to workingmums.co.uk about her organisation, Career Masterclass, which aims to pass on her and other professionals’ knowledge about career progression to others, particularly black and ethnic minority women.
In 2015 Bukola Adisa had just started her first major role at the Royal Bank of Scotland as Global Head of Financial Crime Assurance where she was leading a global team of 52 people across three regions. She had worked hard and faced challenges, but felt that the new role was a validation of all her efforts. It was not long, however, before she noticed that she was the most senior black woman in the bank, and she was not even a managing director at the time, and that she was often the only black person in the room in the meetings she was in.
“There are so few black people in more senior roles in financial services that you end up being de facto mentors. You see a string of very intelligent young professionals in the banking sector who are not progressing; and you see people in your community who are educated and talented who are taking non-skilled roles,” she says.
Never one to sit back and contemplate problems without doing something about them, she set to work, thinking of how she could improve things. “I didn’t want to be the only one. In my view this showed that society had failed,” she says. After reading The Confidence Code: The Science and Art of Self-Assurance – What Women Should Know by Katty Kay and Claire Shipman – a book that “changed her life” – she spoke to a friend about how she could pass on some of things she has learnt, particularly to black and ethnic minority women. Within a month she had set up and funded her first masterclass in Canary Wharf. Many of the 36 women who attended were black or Asian and the feedback was very encouraging. “It was a lightbulb moment,” says Bukola. “Our mission had been born.”
Over the next months the organisation, Career Masterclass, grew and provided regular masterclasses, webinars and worksheets on everything from how to negotiate better to how to build your professional network. Due to demand – as a result of women telling their partners about the classes – it opened up to men. Then leading companies started to hire their services.
In 2017, when she was Head of Europe Regulatory Compliance Monitoring and Testing at HSBC, Bukola started running annual career development conferences, called STRETCH conferences. “I was dissatisfied with the conferences I was attending,” she says. “There were very few black people in the room or on panels.” The first conference was planned for 90 people, but 120 attended and it was trending on Twitter for 24 hours. By 2018, the year Bukola was appointed a managing director at Barclays, that had doubled to 250 people and the conference had secured sponsorship. The most recent conference attracted 1,200 people and multiple sponsors.
In 2019, Bukola decided that to scale further it needed to go digital. “We were getting interest from Kenya, Nigeria and Canada as well as other countries via Facebook,” says Bukola. She put the masterclasses online for people to buy. They were delivered by senior professionals rather than corporate trainers and the feedback has been very good.
In 2020, when the pandemic struck and as the Black Lives Matter [BLM] movement was building, interest in Career Masterclass increased and Bukola decided to quit her job at Barclays and commit full time to the organisation in addition to her portfolio of advisory roles. She has been crowdfunding to build the next iteration of the organisation which focuses on mentor matching [by location, industry, years of experience and expertise, for instance] and building networks. The masterclasses, which cover all industries, are now held solely online, but membership of these includes access to live events, such as the STRETCH conferences [which will go hybrid] as well as Q & A sessions with senior leaders, accelerator programmes and many other benefits.
“For a long time I did Career Masterclass on a voluntary basis and worked with volunteers who believed in our mission,” says Bukola, who now has a team of 10 people with several outside the UK in places such as Zimbabwe, the US and Nigeria working on a remote basis. “I did not set out to build a business,” she states. “I want to make a difference to people, to give everyone a fighting chance. This sense of mission is still what motivates me.”
She adds that one of the most popular aspects of the masterclasses and conferences is hearing about people’s success stories. “It makes people feel that if others can do it so can they. There is an authenticity in listening to the stories and a practicality. These are real people’s stories,” says Bukola.
Covid has, she says, made people more aware of the need to form communities, whether online or off, and BLM has brought a much greater awareness among many employers of the need for action to open the top of organisations up to a wider range of people. Although there has been some backlash against moves towards greater diversity, Bukola is optimistic. “My heart is gladdened by the amount of positive change and the richer, fuller conversations we are having,” she says. “That is not to say that ignorance does not still exist, but there is an appetite for change.”