Kike Oniwinde founded the BYP Network as an antidote to some of the disheartening realities that Black professionals face, every day.
Whether it’s the fact that 25% of Black workers earn below the real living wage (compared with 20% of white British workers) or that Britons of Nigerian descent must submit 80% more job applications than their white counterparts before receiving a successful response, Oniwinde felt that the “negative news needed to change”.
“I realised that my view, and that of many other people, was that successful Black people are either musicians or athletes,” she says. “If you enter the world of work and don’t see any other Black people there, it reaffirms the idea that the only routes to success are through entertainment and sports.”
Often described as ’LinkedIn for Black professionals’, the BYP Network is a platform that helps Black professionals to support one another throughout their careers and to connect with global companies.
Oniwinde set up the company in 2016 and explains how the idea for the business was a result of her experience working as an intern in investment banking. “I felt very uncomfortable but I couldn’t pinpoint why,” she says. Then she noticed that “there weren’t many people there that looked like me”.
“I didn’t see other Black people in banking and finance,” Oniwinde continues.“So where were we? I felt we needed to find each other.”
Since launching the platform, BYP Network has grown to 150,000 members and 1,000 corporate partners. “It started as a way to find other Black professionals,” Oniwinde says. “I saw a problem that needed to be solved and it grew from there.”
Creating opportunities for Black leaders
Even with a newborn baby, Oniwinde continues to grow her business. The entrepreneur took just six weeks of maternity leave before returning to work part-time – her mother-in-law’s help with childcare, she says, has been invaluable.
Despite the success of the platform and the interest it has attracted from the business community, Oniwinde wants more people to recognise that change cannot come from a single source.
“We shouldn’t put the onus on the Black community. We need as much help as possible from allies, from companies, from governments, so that we can make sure that people get the opportunities that they deserve,” she says.
Although confident that things have been moving in the right direction in the six years that she’s been working in this area, Oniwinde does worry that “companies could easily decide that Black professional development isn’t a priority anymore. We still have a very long way to go,” she says.
This is evidenced by the lack of Black representation at the top of business. Although the latest Parker Review report shows that 89% of FTSE 100 companies have now met its target of one director from an ethnic minority appointed to the board, Green Park’s 2021 Business Leaders Index found that no Black leaders held C-suite positions.
Commenting on the fact there are no FTSE 100 CEOs, Oniwinde says: “We need Black leaders. We need more trailblazers because there aren’t that many people to look up to. You might have to be the person who has to break that glass ceiling.”
In her view, getting more Black people in leadership positions requires two things. It needs companies to recognise the importance of diversity of thought and inclusion. And it needs businesses to promote from within to give more Black people the opportunities to lead.
Why racism in the UK is more ‘covert’
It can be easier for some people to find these opportunities in the US, rather than the UK, according to Oniwinde. She has observed that attitudes towards race, in her experience, are different on the other side of the Atlantic.
“What stood out to me was the Black people I met and the different fields they were in,” Oniwinde says. “Despite the issues of race relations with the police, there is a significant Black upper class in the US. I’ve seen Black business people leave the UK to look for opportunities in the US because they think their prospects are better over there.”
She describes the racism she’s experienced in the UK as being more ”covert” – it isn’t always clear from individual interactions but it may rear its head by way of a rejected job application or being overlooked for a promotion.
“There is systemic injustice in the UK and Black people face these problems from a young age, whether it’s not getting the right grades because of a lack of support or being less likely to get a job offer,” Oniwinde adds. “It is entrenched throughout the journey from school to employment.”
Inclusion is also an important factor. Once more Black leaders are in leadership positions, Oniwinde wants to see them support others to get to the same level. She says: “We want people to help others through the door, not pull up the ladder behind them. For that to happen, people need to stop having to sell their souls.”
She explains: “Sometimes to get a promotion you might have to behave differently or take up interests you wouldn’t normally, in order to fit in. That might get you the promotion – but it takes you away from the grassroots you need to be connected to.”
Oniwinde believes that BYP Network’s upcoming Leadership Conference, which takes place in London, 6-7 October, is one way to remedy this. She claims that previous attendees have secured jobs, found mentors and gained the confidence to make the next step up in their careers as a result of the event.
“We’re always so busy that it’s sometimes hard to notice the impact it has,” Oniwinde says. “But when you hear people’s stories, that’s what makes me happy.”