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November 18, 2020updated 31 Mar 2023 4:44pm

Where are the black CIOs in the tech sector?

“I’m here because I earned the right to be here.”

By Cristina Lago

Black representation among the C-suite remains abysmal despite black talent and candidates being widely available. In the US, African Americans hold only 2–5.3% of executive positions across the tech industry. The rate is even lower within Silicon Valley tech companies, where black people make up less of 1% of the executive roles.

Similarly, in the UK, 74.5% of boards and 70.5% of senior executive teams in top tech companies don’t have black members. But as recently reported on Tech Monitor, this is not just a numbers problem: “The discrimination when developing your role comes when people don’t consider your skill set,” says Douglas Hamandishe, chief clinical information officer at ExtraMed and expert representative for IT and digital development at the Royal College of Nursing.

He adds:  “It’s almost as if you are invisible. The chances of seeing a black CEO or black CIO are very small so you need to be very good at visualising and be very confident in your abilities because you are going to be swimming up against the tide when you can’t see somebody like yourself in that position.”

Here, two leading black CIOs tell the story of their inspiring journeys to the top tech position and give advice to companies and CEOs who want to take meaningful action to stamp out discrimination.

A black man in the City

black CIOs

Chris Adjei-Ampofo, CIO, Uphold. (Photo courtesy of Uphold)

“If you talk about racial diversity in companies I’ve worked in, it’s frustrating for me as a black person,” Christopher Adjei-Ampofo says candidly.

Today CIO at fintech company Uphold, Adjei-Ampofo began working in financial services in 1996. Back at the time, he explains, there were just a handful of black people in the City and dealing with investment banks at a senior level was a challenging task – especially if you were a black young man.

“I didn’t get the respect that I think I deserved,” says Adjei-Ampofo. “There was an immediate assumption that a young black man didn’t understand how financial products work, which made selling software to senior executives very difficult.”

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He gives an example of the typical situation he would encounter when attending client meetings in the City. During telephone calls before the appointments, his English accent didn’t give away the colour of his skin, nor his surname, which could be German, Dutch or simply ‘foreign’.

Adjei-Ampofo would always arrive 15 minutes early to his meetings. As soon as his host would enter the room, there was an immediate stop and a step back: “Can I help you?”, would ask his client. Adjei-Ampofo would introduce himself and give his business card, as it is the etiquette, but they would just leave it on the table and wouldn’t offer him theirs.

“These were senior bankers,” says Adjei-Ampofo. “As I was presenting, they would be talking amongst themselves and stay slouched in their chairs.

“When this first happened to me as a young man, I was really taken aback by it and threw me off my presentation. But I realised that it’s not actually them, it’s society: they are not used to seeing young black men in this environment. It was very alien to them.”

It wasn’t until half-an-hour into the presentation, when his clients finally realised Adjei-Ampofo knew what he was talking about, that these people would sit properly and start engaging with him. At the end, they finally offered Adjei-Ampofo their business cards.

“It became like a game to me,” he continues. “I would go to Goldman Sachs, Lehman Brothers, etcetera, and I would always have to prove myself. I would challenge myself to step it up and change this mentality: yes, a typical black person is worthy of being there.”

One of the ways that Adjei-Ampofo used to make himself stand out in this kind of environment was by dressing smartly. People’s heads would still turn as he walked down the corridors but the way he presented himself gave them an oversight of the confidence that he had – and that he had to have – for them to understand that a black young man was also entitled to be there.

“I’m here because I know you need me to be here,” says Adjei-Ampofo. “I’m here because I earned the right to be here.”

Before joining Uphold, the CIO spent four years at Ipreo – one of the largest software providers within investment banking. There he held the post of global head of data privacy. With about 2,000–2,500 employees, at the time of Adjei-Ampofo’s tenure, there were just three black people at the executive level. He was one of them.

“I don’t think it was an actual case of them having certain stereotypes. But you hear the term unconscious bias… They don’t make an effort to be diverse,” says Adjei-Ampofo. “They need to question themselves, look around the whole company across the board and ask, ‘why don’t we have black people at senior level?’ ‘What can we do to make sure this situation changes?’”

Although Adjei-Ampofo feels valued in his current position at Uphold and even though the company appreciates his experience and authority, he still finds himself as the only black person at the C-level.

“It’s not a case where they’re racist or see colour,” he says. “It’s just that they haven’t thought about it, that they probably don’t see that I’m not only the black man in the C-suite but the only black person within a company of 160 people.”

But for meaningful change to happen, Adjei-Ampofo says that the boardroom needs to believe that diversity policies are not just a piece of paper – instead, a conscious effort is needed. There’s no lack of black talent: what there is, is a lack of will to look for it.

“Look at your recruitment processes and at the recruitment agents that you use. Go out there and look for black people at this level because we do exist,” advises Adjei-Ampofo.

“Let’s look out and actually make the conscious effort to bring more black people on board and then it will become the norm. We do exist and we could do a pretty damn good job in these roles.”

Being a black woman in tech

“As a black woman, I’ve got two things against me before I’ve even got my foot in the door,” says Sharon Prior, CIO at Inovivo.

Prior has four degrees, two of which are masters, but despite her skills and an impressive CV, which includes IT director at Post Office and executive director, WEMEA IT, at Avon, she knows that when it comes to the race for the top job, she still stands in clear disadvantage compared to white candidates.

“The struggles that black people in this country face today go back to the late ’50s and early ’60s, when the Windrush generation arrived in Britain,” says Prior. “If you come from an Afro-Caribbean background, you were always told that as a black child you had to work twice as hard as your white counterpart in order to get to the same level. When I went into the workplace, I always felt different. I always felt I had to try a lot harder.”

Like in the US, there’s a staggeringly low black representation among the UK C-suite which has only become worse in recent years. Superficial changes in the recruitment process haven’t fixed the inability of companies to create a steady pipeline that promotes black talent. Worst still, little has been done to eradicate the ingrained structural racism that prevents black workers reaching executive jobs.

If the C-suite doesn’t see the value of black candidates, says Prior, putting a black figurehead into a senior role isn’t going to solve the problem of lack of black representation in the boardroom and the wider tech community.

“It has to be much more genuine and authentic than that,” continues Prior. “And I think authenticity on addressing the issue is a key step forward in trying to resolve what is a very real problem.”

During her tenure at Post Office, Prior co-created Post Office Ethnic Minority (POEM), an ethnic minority network to create awareness and build relationships with employees among the organisation.

A consultation within POEM found that black and other ethnic minority employees in Post Office didn’t have role models from their same backgrounds at the executive level. “That was the biggest problem,” says Prior.

The Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police officers in the US has moved many companies to produce solidarity statements with black communities and commitments to have a more diverse workforce. However, Prior points out, employers need to be clear about what they are trying to achieve with these initiatives.

“Employers need to be able to think through the issues that black people face and what can they bring to the table to help an organisation overcome certain challenges,” she says.

Black employees possess an unrivalled understanding and empathy for the customer base often overlooked by organisations, explains Prior: “It’s in our DNA.”

“We think more about others’ needs and about what is the attraction to others, so much more than our white counterparts, simply because we’ve had to do it all our lives,” she continues.

“But the one element that I think black candidates bring above anything else is the fact that throughout most of our lives, we’ve had to battle the status quo – and that capability is what drives innovation, it’s what drives change. If the C-suite embraces the differences that a black candidate can bring I think they would see the benefits in hard revenue.”

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