“You have to make stuff happen rather than just talking about it” – Q&A with #100blackinterns initiator Wol Kolade

Wol Kolade, Livingbridge

Wol Kolade (pictured), managing partner of London-based private equity firm Livingbridge, is one of the brains behind the #100blackinternscampaign. Over 100 firms in the City of London have signed up to the program so far, offering internships in finance to people of colour, in only six to eight weeks. Private Equity Wire sat down with Kolade to learn more.

What sparked this campaign for greater diversity within finance? 

As ever, someone starts off with a thought, you test that thought on someone else and before you know it you have a group saying: ‘I think we can do this’. It started with opening our contacts book and getting in touch with the people we knew really well. And the people we spoke to weren’t just enthusiastic, they were actively supporting it and made referrals. 
Once you get the first five firms, then getting ten, then twenty, gets easier and easier. We were pushing on an open door. This scheme is about that we’re not just talking about stuff, you can actually do something about it right now, and that’s the action bit which I think people quite like.
What are you ultimately hoping to achieve?

At the moment there are no formal schemes which allow black people access to this sort of internship, so step one is achieved in that we got over 100 firms offering internships. As of yesterday, we had 500 applications already for these internships from talented students.
There’s a structure around how we help students put forward the best application, and then we support the firms in helping them to choose. We’re putting in place a support structure around mentoring, training on what the industry is about so that when they arrive, there’s some understanding as well as a network, in place. Hopefully it will be a rich experience for everyone involved – the firms as well as the individuals, and that means that it becomes sustainable. 
If we do 100 every year for five years, then we have 500 people that wouldn’t have necessarily got involved in the investment management industry. What you should see is a very different make up of firms. If you put 5000 people through this programme, after ten years you’d hope to see a significant shift. It’s long term, so we have to be patient. 100 seemed like a decent number to start with. We want to move forward at a reasonable pace and scale, in order to maintain quality for both the firms and individuals involved.
According to a 2018 study by New Financial, there are only 12 black fund managers in the UK. Why is black representation within finance so low?

It’s a complicated question – it’s not simply down to structure or process. It’s a combination of many things. Access to and understanding of what the financial sector involves has been limited, [diversity] hasn’t been on people's agendas until the last few years. Gender diversity initiatives such as Level20 have helped a lot in putting diversity inclusion on the map. 
It’s also down to a lack of role models. Within the sector, people might think: ‘this isn’t for me because I can't see anyone who looks like me in it,’ so it becomes self fulfilling. For us it’s about breaking that chain, ensuring that you can start seeing role models that look like you and start gaining access in that way.
When I started I wasn’t put off by the conservative industry back then, but it’s more fertile ground now. People understand the richness and power of diversity and inclusion and that it’s a positive thing rather than something you ‘have to do’. It’s a positive benefit; diverse thinking creates better solutions.
The pleasing thing about this initiative is that it shows that you have to get going and make stuff happen rather than just talking about it.
How have you dealt with challenges in your own career?

It’s a two-way street in many respects. There are things that happened to me, and my response to them has allowed it to happen to other people. So it’s not just blame on one end, it’s actually two ways. The fact is, I run a very successful private equity firm in London. However, I don’t think it’s helpful to look back and say, ‘yes, there were challenges but clearly I overcame them’. My personal upbringing and circumstances will be very different from the next person. What is more important is to shine a light on the lived experience of being a person of colour in an activity which is largely white and male - let’s call it out for what it is. 

"there’s a whole complex system that we need to challenge and make better if we want to attract people of colour" 

But there’s a lot more to life than just making money – there’s a whole complex system that we need to challenge and make better if we want to attract people of colour into these sort of sectors.

Women have opened up about experiences of having to navigate issues they encounter in finance in their own way, but it’s not necessarily helpful to the sector as a whole. Is that comparable to issues of diversity?

Yes; you found your path, but why should someone else have to go through that same thing? It’s better to say; ‘look, we shouldn’t have to be doing that.’ The good news is that I think people are ready for change and this is a big moment. Things sometimes start small and then gather pace. That’s how it feels to me.
How do you envision the legacy of #100blackinterns?

I hope that other people copy this initiative. The financial industry is a conservative sector, so other underrepresented areas, like architects for example, could look at this and follow suit. By normalising the involvement of people of colour, it could be a template for what leadership could look like. I’d like to look back in ten years time and see more people of colour in all kinds of sectors, not just finance.