Black History Month: 'Saluting our Sisters' discussion with Donna Fraser, Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell, and Lorna Boothe

Black History Month: 'Saluting our Sisters' discussion with Donna Fraser, Rebecca Ajulu-Bushell, and Lorna Boothe

The conversation was based on this year's Black History Month theme of 'Saluting our Sisters', and the panel were keen to open up on women who had played a pivotal role in their journeys, as well as having an honest chat on their path from elite sports to the boardroom.

For Fraser, the trek from athletics to becoming the director of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at the Professional Cricketers Association took place after a career of awards and accolades, with highlights including two World Championship bronze medals in the Women's 4x400m Relay Team in 2005 and 2007.

Boothe is the silver (1982) and gold (1978) 100m hurdles Commonwealth medallist, and her leadership journey came through the coaching route. She was the Athletics GB team manager for nine years and the Senior Team Manager for the 2000 Summer Olympics before swapping careers for the boardroom at England Athletics.

Ajulu-Bushell is the chief executive for '10,000 Interns' Foundation - an organisation striving to boost representation across UK industry by providing paid internships for Black students, disabled students, and graduates of all ethnicities.

"I think the media has shaped a lot of my journey out of sport," Ajulu-Bushell, the first Black woman to swim for Britain, said.

"There was a lot of scrutiny around my skin colour and how I spoke. On top of having to swim a good race and maintain my position as one of the top 50-metre breaststrokers in the world, it was also about proving people wrong every time I got in front of the blocks," the 29-year-old admitted.

"It got to a point where I think the sport had lost me in some ways, and it stopped being about the process and my love of what I could do with my body; it became very outcome-focused."

"Other people's narratives started to shape who I was and what I felt about myself. One of the final straws was the moment before the Olympics when I was sitting my A-level exams. There was this choice that I had to make about continuing school or dropping out and training for the Olympic Games.

"The idea of not having an education was horrifying to my dad, who'd fought everything to have one. He was a freedom fighter in Kenya in Africa.

"He was in prison during the apartheid, so that part of my life had to come first. That was the most pivotal moment of my swimming career - retiring from the sport at 17 and going off to university."

Ajulu-Bushell was the double British champion in 2010, and training for international events before she decided to change course.

"Do I miss it? Yes and no. For a long time after I quit, I was scared that the best thing I would ever do had already happened, which was terrifying, especially being 17 years old.

"But when I got appointed CEO and when I got Forbes 30 under 30 earlier this year, those moments felt powerful and meaningful in a different way," she said.

"From the minute I was born, I was surrounded by phenomenal, strong women." Fraser told of her upbringing.

"My parents, including my dad, who we counted as a woman because he was the only male in the household, and my godmother still teach me."

"I think coming from a West Indian background, sport was not the thing to do," Fraser added.

"It was a hobby. I worked alongside my athletics career, which only a few knew, simply because I wanted to do both. I wanted a career at the end of my athletics career, but I also wanted an athletics career.

"But with my dad's voice saying, 'You're going to have to work twice as hard, but athletics is not going to earn you money'. Of course, things are slightly different now, so I always was looking forward all the time.

"I think the pivotal point for me was being diagnosed with breast cancer in 2009, and I think that was the turning point, thinking athletics is not the be-all-and-end-all," she explained.

Then, at the age of 39, Fraser decided to experience what life was like away from the track.

"I used to think about what the next thing was. How will I give something back and make the most of my life? I became the president of Surrey County Athletics Association, and was like, 'wow, okay, so this is what it's like being in that space on the other side than just being the athlete.'"

For Boothe, her career trajectory was very different. She said: "When I left school, I was supposed to go to university, but I didn't."

"I decided to take the pathway of going into banking to support my athletics because I decided I wanted to be an Olympic athlete.

"I ended up training three times a week and banking. I was only at work twice a week, and they became my sponsors for several years. But I stepped away from the sport because my son needed me then.

"I came back in as a coach, and have worked with quite a few people who have gone into internationals, and coming through as a team manager, I had a lot of resistance from the male team managers, and I was one of the only females, let alone Black.

Boothe had got those experiences in her coaching stint for Great Britain at the 2000 Olympics, where she had even coached Fraser during her relay days.

"Now, the thing is, though, coming from sport, you think that your sporting expertise will get you into a governing body, but there's far more to it than that - it's a business. You have to ensure that that business is running well, it's sustainable, and that you're looking after it."

Osei-Nsafoah then asked whether the trio had anything to share for the future generation of women considering following in their footsteps.

"When you're in a boardroom environment, that's a hindrance. You're not a foot soldier anymore; you're not someone just mindlessly swimming up and down the pool," Ajulu-Bushell said.

"You have to challenge and bring your own experience to the table. Being a young Black woman in that space, it feels like a real challenge every day to make sure that I'm taken seriously. But it's not just about me being able to speak up. It's also about encouraging other people to listen".

"It's an interesting role," Fraser added.

"I remember my first board position and going in like an athlete, with that air of confidence that you know your stuff and can do the prep work.

"That's the other thing - you've got a lot of reading when you're on the board.

"But from my perspective and many others, if you've got that initial passion, that helps because then you're bringing something to the table."

The discussion turned to how a career in senior positions could appeal to younger populations, especially Black women.

Fraser said: "Returning to what you said earlier, did I see anyone who looked like me when I walked into the room? And the answer was no. I think I'm now in the position to have that visibility, to create those opportunities for those coming after me.

"I'm a massive believer in mentorship, giving something back to people who look like me and sharing some of those pitfalls I fell into.

"I may not always have the answers to the questions, but being that listening ear and helping again through my own experiences, I feel I've been given a second chance. So why would I not want to give something back?" said the 50-year-old, who worked at the Birmingham 2022 Commonwealth Games Organising Committee as Head of Inclusion and Engagement.

"The advice I give to the younger people is don't be fearful of trying something new.

"Much of that comes down to access and opportunity, right?" Ajulu-Bushell, who has been leading the way on opening up pathways for underrepresented talent as part of her foundation.

"It's not just about people trying hard because we know there are structures in place that mean it doesn't matter how hard you try. For some people, those doors aren't open.

"There should be representation at the board level, but also making sure that those opportunities are signed to young women and that they're encouraged to know that they can do that. The access also has to be there, and that's much broader".

The former professional swimmer has put that idea into inception through her own programme, by initially offering Black and Black heritage student graduates paid internships across 25 industries in the UK.

"It's not just a feeling inspired and seeing that representation. You have to know you can get through the door when it comes.

"As board members, we can create those opportunities within our sport or our boards so we can help direct the exact operations to create those opportunities for Black females," Boothe agreed.

"We can give them access, but if they don't have the skills, they're still not going to be able to take that opportunity. So we have to create those opportunities".

The guests discussed whether opportunities were being created to allow a pipeline for future talent to develop, with a special focus on agencies and their potential flaws.

Osei-Nsafoah explained that she often hears the phrase 'we can't find the talent', but also added: "They do exist. They're [agencies] just looking in the wrong places. That is pivotal because they talk about the lack of capability, which isn't the case at all. It's the lack of opportunity. And that's the bit we need to try and channel our energies into."

Boothe added she was concerned that when positions were available, many Black women did not believe they offered equal opportunities.

"We also need to make sure that they trust us. There's been a few times where a job is put out there, but they don't trust the organisations" she said.

"Organisations have to make sure there's a trust within the community for them to be able to go for those opportunities."

Ajulu-Bushell said: "Employer brand is essential, and I think we've seen that a lot in sport."

"Many institutions probably have lots of questions to answer about their values and why things have gone so wrong in the past.

"Trust is the thing that will keep diverse people and voices in a space. And it will allow them to progress to the highest level."

Succeeding in their roles has been the result of three very different paths, especially for the youngest of the three.

"I inherited the charity I work with, which is lovely," Ajulu-Bushell said. "I got headhunted to do this job. And after being in the media and the spotlight in sports for so long, it shied away from having a hyper-visible personal brand."

"So taking this job felt like a huge personal challenge. It was like, 'okay, you're going to be out there, and people are going to know your story, and you're going to have to be okay with that.'

Ajulu-Bushell talks more of her own story in her debut memoir These Heavy Black Bones, which she describes as "an offering of freedom" to a younger self "who wasn't protected well enough from the power structures that govern our sporting institutions."

That realisation has put her on a journey of learning and trying out new things.

"The impact and legacy we leave behind are more important. I've been working for 20 years already, and I've been doing so many different things in that period. I am on a journey, and it's that appetite to keep learning and developing," she admitted.

The trio have taken their sporting experiences into their senior leadership roles. But how comfortable are they and are there any obstacles?

"In England Athletics at the moment, I'm quite comfortable that we're moving in the right direction," Boothe told the panel.

The 68-year-old, who has worked for England Athletics for almost a decade and was recognised for her efforts in 2019 by being appointed a Member of the Order of the British Empire (MBE) for services to Sports Coaching and Administration, has played a part in every level of the organisation's plan to represent marginalised groups.

"We have 25% Black [representation] on our board, and a 50/50 split male and female.

"I can express myself, speak freely, and feel safe to do so, and they respect that.

"By me doing that, they are also learning because if I hide it, they won't know. So I have to help to educate our board as well. I have to feel comfortable in doing that," said Boothe, who helped set up the Sporting Equals programme with the Commission for Racial Equality.

Ajulu-Bushell admits: "I'm the only Black woman in the space that I'm in, and that hasn't changed since I was a professional swimmer.

"I'm mixed race. My mum is white, and my dad is Black. And I've been fortunate to have an incredible education. I went to Oxford University.

"I sound like the people that I'm speaking to. And so, in some ways, it sounds cynical, but I'm the acceptable face of diversity.

"So I have this responsibility in those rooms when I sit at the table. I have to speak up for people who don't, and I have to be that person whether it's comfortable or not.

Fraser explained: "If you haven't got inclusivity, you haven't got the others."

"Since I chaired the Black Asian and Minority Ethnic network for EDF energy, I learned the traits of exercising inclusivity and having that psychological safety in the room to allow people to speak their truth and have healthy debate and discussion.

"As an example, we spoke about intersectionality. When you've got Black people who are very much set in their ways - some, not all - but want to work with the LGBTQ + network as well, thinking, 'Oh, well, I don't believe in that, how is this going to work'?

"So again, having that open discussion, allowing to hear those individuals' voices and listening, then you can move forward as one while respecting their views.

"I think it is the job of the chair of any board to create that environment for inclusivity. If you see someone with imposter syndrome, bring them into that conversation."

Claudia Osei-Nsafoah explained how Sky had improved representation in the three years since the murder of George Floyd.

"We've done a huge amount of work over the last couple of years to make sure that we set our stall around our ED&I commitments," she said.

"Since the murder of George Floyd, we decided to make quite a massive commitment at Sky, £30m to be exact, over three years to help fight racial injustice.

"So we centred it around four pillars of representation, progression, culture, and using our voice.

"The fortunate thing about Sky is it's a media platform, so we can use our forum and industry to ensure we influence wider communities.

"We've got some fantastic partnerships, such as Mission 44, which Lewis Hamilton leads, and that's all about helping Black students in particular, especially those of Caribbean heritage, who get excluded from school.

"We've also started looking into a diversity supply programme where we diversify the suppliers that can work with Sky.

"But the key thing I would like to say in that space is that sometimes I find that as the HR team, we're expected to be the ones to drive the agenda, and it absolutely is not the case. We're here to help facilitate, but it has to come from the top," she told the panel.

"If the people at the top demonstrate the right behaviours and values and encourage their team to speak up, it creates that safe environment for everyone else.

"We've done a lot around investing in the training in that space to help build that capability there. So that's why I'm there - to make sure that the executives are taking this space seriously and doing what they need to do to make the change we hope to see.

"The work is not done. It's about making Sky a better place than where I found it. But we're certainly heading in the right direction..."

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