Interview with Denise Myers, CEO of Evenfields and founder of the Black Talent Awards
Read our interview with Denise Myers, CEO of recruitment firm Evenfields and founder of the inaugural Black Talent Awards, which aims to champion relatable professional role models and tackle employment discrimination.
What’s your career background?
My earliest career aspiration, aside from wanting to be a singer and dancer, was to be a social worker. I loved the idea of helping people get their life together and giving them the support and opportunity to turn helplessness into hope. But, at school, this kind of aspirational thinking was discouraged.
When I was 15, my form tutor said that such a line of work was out of my reach; I had to lower my sights and strive for something more achievable, like getting an office job at the local factory. But the tutor’s feedback didn’t dampen my dreams. It made me only more determined to prove him wrong. I would never allow these detracting words to define who I was or what I was capable of.
Of course, I was fully aware of my own limitations but I was confident enough in my potential. For example, I knew that I would never become a mathematician, doctor, nurse or scientist; although worthy, these are not professions I feel passionate about nor are these areas where I have shown natural ability.
But I didn’t appreciate being discounted, out of hand, for wanting to be a social worker when I knew I possessed all of the fundamental traits needed for such a job. Social work also needs to attract more grassroots talent into such roles to tackle an unfolding recruitment problem impacting society’s most vulnerable. My tutor’s flippant comment was not helping this cause.
Since then, and more particularly given that I now work in recruitment, I have considered all the other countless students, past and present, who did not or will not pursue a particular career path because they were discouraged or told they didn’t have the ability by teachers with low expectations of their academic and personal outcomes. I believe that this can be a self-fulling prophecy.
Where did the idea for your business come from?
I remember the precise eureka moment for starting up, sitting in a conference chaired by the Metro mayor and attended by private sector businesses in Birmingham, talking about inclusive leadership. Here, every single organisation that presented their “pledge” had shown improved success in meeting the majority of their inclusivity targets – from gender imbalances, and LGBTQ+ to disabilities – except for race.
It was disheartening and I was incredulous but also curious about the issue. I very quickly realised that the problem stemmed not just from recruitment inefficiencies but also the lack of retention and progression of employees from Black and ethnic minority backgrounds.
I felt very strongly that there needed to be a dedicated, concerted effort to change these dismal statistics; to understand the determining factors preventing people of colour from applying for jobs, upskilling and progressing to properly engineer an impactful solution, not just initiatives that yielded vanity metrics.
How did you move from idea to actual business?
The transition from paid employment to establishing my own recruitment business wasn’t a difficult one. I was taking with me a long track record in the field, having placed black talent into managerial positions within HR, business development and sales within Blue chip and public sector organisations including the British Transport Police, Trident Group, HSBC and RAC.
Having experienced discrimination myself in the job application process, I could empathise first-hand with the struggles of the candidates I was serving to circumnavigate these challenges. They were not to tread this treacherous path alone.
What’s your USP?
DE&I initiatives largely fail to succeed because the interventions employed do not tackle the problem holistically. Having already seen the transformative effects of community, not least from my upbringing, I was keen to channel these benefits for the betterment of job seekers’ prospects.
Research shows that 41.6% of young Black adults remain unemployed compared to just 12.4% of their white counterparts (ONS, Sept 2021). So I set up Evenfields Community where we work with emerging Black talent to engender them with a confident and resilient mindset that empowers them to plan and pursue ambitious careers in what can often be an intimidating and inherently hostile process.
Who’s your target audience?
Black and ethnic minority professionals, young people looking to reinforce their skills to enter previously inaccessible or undiverse sectors, and corporates that have the power to initiate meaningful change with effective DE&I strategies that actually work.
Beyond recruitment, I was intent on setting up further initiatives that dispelled misconceptions that Black talent in professional services is few and far between. Indeed, their achievements needed recognition and celebration.
Society needs more relatable successful role models in the Black community to inspire all those at the grassroots that great achievement is possible; that glass ceilings can be smashed; that, despite the narratives that one should achieve ‘small’ and not dream big, that disadvantage can be turned into opportunity provided that the right support is given.
It’s for this very reason that I established the Black Talent Awards – the inaugural celebration of which is happening on 29 September 2022. The initiative has had valuable backing from brands like Merlin Entertainments and EDF, and provides a vital platform to champion not just Black talent but also nominate key organisations that can demonstrate clear accountability for the success of their DE&I efforts.
How do you spread the word about what you do?
Networking remains important and, given that we’ve been around some years, word of mouth continues to be valuable for us. We have someone who manages our social media; our target audience consumes information through these channels so it’s important that we get share of voice via those avenues. We also recently enlisted the help of a PR agency to help raise our profile and also spread the word about the Black Talent Awards.
What’s been the biggest obstacle you’ve had to overcome?
My strong sense of self-belief came from my parents who championed and supported me and my siblings. And whilst they certainly didn’t put a glass ceiling on what they thought I could achieve, a bad experience at a job interview reminded me that, as a Black woman, I operated on an uneven playing field upon which I had no choice but to negotiate.
I remember being put forward for a role by a temping agency. The company in question needed someone to start imminently. Following a phone interview, the office manager couldn’t believe her luck; she said that I had everything plus more than she was looking for in a candidate. I was promptly invited to come to the office, and spend two hours with the person whose job I was to take, as part of a handover.
I took the bus journey to what I thought would be my new job. On arrival, I pressed the buzzer. A voice told me to come up the stairs, turn left and the manager would meet me. As I rounded the corner, I saw how suddenly shocked and flustered the person who was greeting me had become.
Upon entry, I was immediately ushered into a conference room where I was left alone for 15 minutes. Upon their return, I was thanked for coming in but they had many more people to see and that they would let me know the outcome of the application via the agency. Goodbye.
Afterwards, the recruitment consultant who thought they had successfully placed me in this position, was speechless. “You had the job. I don’t know what else to say,” I was told. I asked what they had said to the employer. Why was I suddenly unsuitable for the job at hand?
The recruitment consultant looked blank. Nothing was said. They had not called this out nor stood up for me. The sudden retraction of the job offer wasn’t questioned. But I think we knew the significance of the great unsaid. We all knew why this happened.
It’s not without irony that I became a recruitment consultant and agency founder, and have since enjoyed a 22-year career in this field. If one needs to make a social change, that change has to come from within the very problematic systems in place.
And your proudest moment so far?
Teachers play an integral part in teenagers’ developing sense of self. They can be a great source of support, encouragement and inspiration for a child at a time when they may be beleaguered by self-doubt, insecurities or chaos at home.
Because teachers are deemed the wise ones, a lot of credibility, rightly or wrongly, can be put into what they say – even if the words of wisdom imparted may cut down dreams before they’ve even begun to flourish.
Perhaps unconscious biases around the abilities and aptitudes of children of particular colour and class are at play here, alongside ignorance about specific industries and the skillsets and qualifications required for entry that leads to ill-placed advice. A cursory glance on Google and the same stories unfold: there’s the Black award-winning engineer and STEM advocate who didn’t even know that engineering was a career path open to her.
Her misconceptions led her to believe that it was a profession exclusively for white, older men. Accounting, instead, was a profession she was urged to pursue. Then there’s the writer, schooled in a failing comprehensive, told by the teacher that it doesn’t matter what university they go to – just any university will do. Which beggars the question: why then do the rich and privileged invest inordinate amounts of money in elite institutions if the kind of university eventually attended has negligible impact on job opportunities?
I never told my parents what my tutor said about dreaming and aiming low. I feared my father would have gone straight to school to speak to the teacher explaining that he found the comment both insulting and untrue. Yet I’m proud that my background and sense of self-belief made it easy for me to brush off that slight, plus any others that would come my way. And I fully appreciate that not every child nor student is lucky enough to have that.
Whilst I wasn’t pushed anywhere near hard enough to academically achieve, I counteracted this deficit with humour and light-heartedness. Schools can certainly set up specific types of students to fail. But in the real world, in business, whilst qualifications can open up doors, a different kind of intelligence is required. Being personable, and having the ability to negotiate, lead and develop strong working relationships is what ultimately makes future entrepreneurs successful.
As for my other school friends – all were similarly given a cap on their potential by teachers. Whether the teachers were trying to help us see ‘realistically’ the outside world and our place in it as adults to avoid future disappointment or whether they genuinely believed we had little prospect because we were Black is left to conjecture. Years later, I am pleased to say that we have proven them wrong. All of us are very successful in legal and medical careers that our teachers would never have expected of us.
Why is work so important to you?
The nature of my work – helping the next generation of job seekers, giving them direction, role models, a sense of aspiration, opportunities and choice – makes this very important to me. I am driven by a very simple purpose in the day-to-day running of my business: I want my children and your children to be treated equally; I don’t think that is too much to ask.
Who inspires you?
My Jamaican parents, both of whom arrived in the UK in the late fifties as part of the Windrush generation remain inspirational figures. Having both landed in their host country separately (they were just neighbours back in their native Jamaica, but my dad always kept an eye out for her as he arrived first), both initially had no clue where to live but they found each other, fell in love and managed to create a happy life, a home, and form a strong sense of community even in the face of hostility.
I was later born and raised in Tividale, just outside Birmingham, the youngest of six children. You can imagine Tividale having very few Black faces in those days. They were initially regarded with curiosity, sometimes derision or even fear. But there were a few local Jamaican families with whom my family eventually bonded.
I grew up and went to school with all their children and everyone knew each other. That’s when I really saw the value of community. It was like having one large extended family. Because of that, I feel that my younger years were truly blessed. I had a great childhood. Later, I would harness this very power of community in my business to improve diversity and inclusion in the jobs market.
The values of respect and hard work were drilled into us from an early age. As far as my parents were concerned, we had no limits to our potential. The world was our oyster. There was no assumption that our blackness would frustrate our efforts to achieve our goals so long as we received a good education, worked hard and took the opportunities presented before us.
How do you balance your business with your life?
It’s not easy to strike a balance. With the business and the establishment of these awards, I don’t like to turn down opportunities that come my way. But I know what’s important. I always make time for my family and I ensure I keep in regular touch, especially with the wider extended family, which is huge.
I have recently taken up golf which gets me out in the open air and I find it very relaxing. Although work keeps me busy, I’m not prepared to sacrifice my health, well-being or connections with my family for it.
What are your three top pieces of advice for someone wanting to do something similar?
- Make sure that, in your business, you are genuinely solving a problem. This mission will keep you grounded even at times when things can get difficult and overwhelming.
- Make sure that you have skills and expertise in your area or field. We should never stop learning and we should never get so comfortable that we believe we have seen and done it all.
- Make sure that people will pay for your solution. If your business or product genuinely solves a wider or everyday problem, then garnering demand will surely follow.