Dawid Konotey-Ahulu is co-founder and chairman of Redington, an investment consultancy, and winner of the Black British Business Entrepreneur Leader Award
How does it feel to be awarded a Black British Business Award?
It is a real honour to win the Black British Business “Entrepreneur Leader” Award. The recognition of people with black heritage and the part we play in the life of the UK is part of an awakening that is rapidly changing the narrative. I genuinely believe we are at a tipping point from which there will be no turning back. Some of the smartest, most engaging and right-thinking individuals that I know are from the black community. It’s time they were recognised for what they bring to the table.
Tell us about your career – how did you start out, when did you get your big break, what path have you taken?
I started my career as a junior barrister in Lincoln’s Inn back in the late eighties but checked out of that world and into investment banking in 1991. That was probably my big break. One of the MDs in the bank where I was then working as a lawyer mentored me and backed me to work on the derivatives structuring desk. That was a big deal back then especially as I was a lawyer and didn’t have an economics background. It took me a year to get even a basic understanding of the capital markets. In 1997, I was asked to run a derivatives desk in Singapore and in 2000 I moved to Merrill Lynch where I was responsible for doing a lot of the early pioneering work around helping pension schemes to manage the key market risks they were facing. That was pretty entrepreneurial work but I really became a true entrepreneur when I left Merrill Lynch and, together with one of my colleagues and best friends, Rob Gardner, set up Redington, a new firm that had the purpose of changing the way the pensions industry managed risk.
What are your thoughts on Black History Month? Do you think it’s important/necessary? What kind of message do you think it sends to society?
Black History Month is so important because it brings a focal point to the many discussions and conversations that we need to have. We are living in a new age of enlightenment, in which, as a society, we are facing up to several inconvenient truths about the way we treat people. For example, it is now rightly the case that if you treat a woman badly at work or in society, you are more likely than at any point in history to be called out for that behaviour. Look at what has happened to Bill Cosby and Harvey Weinstein. It’s been several thousand years coming, but now it’s a thing. The same is true for many other minorities, and, at this juncture in history, Black History Month serves an invaluable purpose as it brings us all together in the big discussion.
Can you share some of your experiences of being a person of colour in the workplace. How you come across barriers or prejudice and if so, how have you overcome them?
In 1987, as a trainee barrister, I applied for a pupillage (internship) in chambers in Middle Temple, London. A senior barrister there told me: “Look, we just hired a black guy. You can come do the pupillage, but we won’t offer you a place afterwards. We can’t do it two years in a row. I hope you understand.” I’ve never forgotten that episode in my life but the truth is that I love my racial heritage and I wouldn’t change it for anything. I’ve come to realise that my upbringing (I was raised in Ghana until the age of 17) and my parentage have made me who I am. I grew up in a time of revolutions and coups d’etat and life definitely wasn’t easy. But in many ways it was also idyllic. My friends and I were inventive and innovative and resilient. All of which have allowed me to adapt to my circumstances and make the most of them.
There is lots of research that suggests people of colour still experience prejudice in the workplace. Do you agree and If so what would you like to see happen to change that?
I speak to a lot of people who believe that they are held back by their colour, by a systemic “understanding” that they may get into a good firm, but they will never make it into the higher echelons. This is too complex an issue to answer here but there is no doubt that we need to grasp this nettle and have a mature and well-reasoned conversation about what needs to happen. The gender agenda shows what can be achieved when a minority group determines to bring about change. So I would like to see this discussion happening across our industries and at every level in every firm: how can we ensure that more people of colour are brought into the industry, mentored and helped to achieve their true potential, and, ultimately, routinely play a key role in the management of our firms. Some of us are now engaged in the start of a movement we have called #talkaboutblack. If you haven’t heard of it yet, you soon will.
You have set up an organisation that teaches young black people the essential art of public speaking. Tell us a little about that – why did you set it up, what impact is it having?
Yes! I have always believed that if you want to make an impact on society, it is not enough to have great ideas and beliefs about how to change the world. You also have to be able to communicate them powerfully and eloquently. In other words, you must be able to hold the room spellbound. This is very hard to do and isn’t taught properly (or at all) in our state schools. So, you have some incredibly smart young people who could be changing the world, but who don’t have the skills to do that and aren’t using their time effectively or to do good. I set up Spellbound to provide young people with those skills and I have taught the course at several Universities around the country, usually to the Afro-Carribean Society members during a weekday evening. To do it properly, I do three evenings over three weeks for about 2 hours each. The results are that people who start out with a deep fear of public speaking soon learn that far from being feared, it is one of the most powerful things you can learn to do. As Barack Obama demonstrated.
Finally, have you got any words of advice for your people of colour who want to forge careers in investments and/or business?
This is a very hard industry to get into, but, from what I see, more and more firms are beginning to recognise that it is vital to have people from more diverse backgrounds within the organisation. So, there has probably never been a better time to be black if you want to get into the City of London. I say that with a large dose of hopefulness but I do think it is true. For your part, you have to get your act together in terms of your academic achievements. That doesn’t mean you need to go to the usual suspect top universities (although that will always help) but you do need to get some very decent grades in your exams and demonstrate that you mean business. So, join a few societies and work as hard as you can. The day is soon coming when someone like you will be at the top of the recruiter’s list.