DOLAPO AKINBOLAGBE Public Affairs Analyst at Tulchan Communications
THE PEOPLE WHO HELP YOU MAY NOT LOOK LIKE YOU
“My mentor is a white, middle class woman. She has a different upbringing to me, but we were able to find common ground. She's someone who, even today, I still talk to and get advice from. Sometimes you have to make opportunities where there isn’t a clear route.”
Dolapo Akinbolagbe, 24, is a Public Affairs Analyst at Tulchan Communications. A recent graduate from the Taylor Bennett Foundation, she says her search for the right career also led to her examining her own national identity.
Ironically, my first impressions of the PR industry were pretty negative, namely because the societal perception of PR isn’t always rosy – i.e. people assuming that PR agencies help businesses cover up big scandals. Before I entered the industry, I had no idea that it even existed, let alone the breadth or reach of PR. Now, as someone who works in Public Affairs, I couldn’t think of a job more suited for me if I tried.
Today, when I think about how far I can get in the PR industry, I look to those who have gone before me – the Taylor Bennett Foundation alumni that I’ve seen get to levels of seniority. I see people like Esther Oluga, Regional Communications Manager at the Home Office, who have risen in the industry and they assure me that reaching top positions is a possibility. With that being said, one thing I have noticed is that there are a lot of black people that don't stay in the industry and that is something I find concerning.
Growing up, the importance of getting a good education was drilled into my head. My parents wanted me to pick a job that ‘society was always going to need’ – that was very important to them. After all, my parents have the ideal migrant story – they came here wanting a better life for us as a family.
I wouldn’t say my parents came over to the UK because we weren’t wealthy, it was more about the opportunities that would be afforded to us. I often joke that my parents wanted me to go into nursing because they knew in their hearts I didn’t have the grades to become a doctor. Everyone quickly realised that I had the ‘gift of the gab’, so pursuing Law made the most sense to them – and to me, initially.
After university, I went through a mid-life crisis and decided to move to Lagos, Nigeria, where I got a job as a junior political lobbyist for a year. I found the whole experience fascinating, but quickly realised politics in Nigeria was completely different. I thought if I could survive the corruption within the Nigerian political system, I could certainly survive England, post Brexit.
In hindsight, the decision to move to Nigeria was as a result of me questioning my identity as a black woman, and a Nigerian. I thought going to Nigeria would give me the answers, but if anything, it left me with more questions. At one point I really interrogated if ‘I was really British’’ and the answer I came to was yes, I’m both (British & Nigerian), and that’s ok.
I came back and started my political job search all over again, this time I focused more on local government – which was still a struggle. A friend of my recommended Public Affairs and said he thought I would be well suited to it. So, when he sent me the application for the Taylor Bennett foundation (TBF) programme, it made perfect sense to apply – and I was lucky enough to get onto the programme.
TBF opened doors into a whole new world I never knew existed. The programme put me in the right rooms to be able to utilise the skills I had developed from my education and personal life – notably, skills that my parents had also instilled in me. Growing up in a Nigerian household, confidence was second nature to me, but finding people that would give me the time of day was something the programmes helped me with.
As amazing as the TBF Programme is, they only take six people three times a year. So only 18 people in one year get a chance to kick doors down. This just shows there is an issue in the industry that needs to be addressed.
After completing the programme, securing a job was difficult due to the coronavirus outbreak. I took the proactive step to join the TBF’s mentoring programme and was introduced to my mentor, a Director at Tulchan communications. After explaining that I was finding it difficult to get substantial work experience and get my foot in the door during such trying times, she managed to get me three weeks work experience at Tulchan. The team saw value in me and decided to keep me on.
One thing I have learnt along the way is that the people that are going help you in this world may not look like you – and that's ok. My mentor is a white, middle class woman, who had a different upbringing to me, but we were able to find common ground. She's someone I still talk to and get advice from. Sometimes you have to make opportunities where there isn’t a clear route.
One thing that I want a lot of people in the industry to recognise is that every individual you come across, is so much more than their racial or socio-economic background. I say this because PR has a glaring class issue and judging people on pre-held stereotypes is unfair.
The Nigerian writer, Chimamanda Adichie, summed this up really well when she said ‘the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story’. If every individual in the industry could commit to looking past stereotypes, I think there'll be structural changes within the industry as a whole.
In general, people need to stop seeing black people as a monolith. We all have different ideas, thoughts, political views and experiences. So, don't think that because you've hired one black person, you've seen them all. No – we are very diverse. Black people don’t want to be hired as part of a tokenism scheme; they want to be recognised for the value that they offer.