Black History Month: Interview with Bernadette Kisaalu, Principal Lawyer for BT Customer Experience and Chair of BT’s Ethnic Diversity Network

Touching on topics as important as Black Lives Matter, equality and making a difference, Bernadette Kisaalu, Principal Lawyer for BT Customer Experience and Chair of BT’s Ethnic Diversity Network has been talking to The Attic for Black History Month. Bernadette shares her legal journey and aspirations, the role models that have inspired her along the way and what she is doing to help improve equality in her community.

Please tell us about your professional journey

My first professional role was with Impellam Group, a leading global talent acquisition and workforce solutions provider where I worked as a Contract Risk Manager. At that time, I had completed all my legal exams but needed to secure a training contract in order to become a qualified solicitor. As a Contract Risk Manager, I worked with lots of different stakeholders in the business and was exposed to different types of legal work. Due to my passion and determination to become a solicitor, whilst working for Impellam Group, I applied for several training contracts and used my annual leave to do vacation schemes at law firms. Having completed a few vacation schemes, this confirmed that I didn’t want to work in private practice. Instead I wanted to work in-house, being at the heart of a business, seeing a matter from the beginning to the end and helping shape it. I have Rebecca Watson (Impellam Group, General Counsel & Company Secretary) to thank for believing in me, she saw something in me, and gave me the opportunity to complete my training contract in-house at Impellam Group. This was a company first, as I was the first trainee solicitor the company had taken on!

After qualifying at Impellam Group, I stayed with the company for a further two years before moving on to Avon Cosmetics. I joined Avon Cosmetics as Legal Counsel for UK and Republic of Ireland. At a time when their business model was transitioning from a direct sales business which primarily involved door-step selling from Avon brochures to online digital sales. My role covered a broad spectrum of legal work ranging from advertising to commercial contracts and personal injury law. After a few years at Avon Cosmetics, I decided that I wanted to become a subject matter expert and moved to Vodafone in 2014 as a Consumer Lawyer, looking after their Mobile portfolio. This was a fantastic opportunity and really helped my career to grow. One career highlight was taking part in Vodafone’s International Short-Term Assignment Programme (ISTAP). This gave me the opportunity to work for Vodafone Italy to develop an understanding of how their Italian consumer business operated.

In 2016, I then moved to BT, in a Senior Lawyer role in the Consumer Law and Advertising Team. This was an exciting time for me as, soon after I joined the business BT acquired EE. So, I found myself working in one of the largest Consumer Law legal teams in the UK. Four years on, I am now the Principal Lawyer in the BT Customer Experience Legal Team. I advise BT’s Consumer business (BT, EE and Plusnet) about how they sell BT products and services to UK consumers, in compliance with UK Consumer law and Ofcom regulations. With my team of three, I advise the CEO of BT Consumer, Marc Allera and his Senior Leadership Team. The business comes to us with questions like, “We want to create this new cool product for our customers, what should we look out for?” Things I look at include, what do we need to make customers aware of when they’re buying products and services from us online, or over the phone? What information should be part of the customer order journey? What terms and conditions need to be created? This creates a fast-paced work environment which I love, as no two days are ever the same.

What is BT’s Ethnic Diversity Network?

I’ve been Chair of the Ethnic Diversity Network (EDN) at BT since November 2019. The EDN was created in 1992 and has now been operating for over 28 years. It was created to promote and develop the professional image of BT’s BAME employees, with only 9 members. Today, the EDN has over 1,400 members. With lots of different ethnicities, it’s a strategic part of the business and has backing from the BT Board to empower and amplify the voices of BT’s racially diverse colleagues. The EDN also has an integral role in creating a community, especially since COVID-19 where colleagues are working from home and want to still feel connected to each other.

In the wake of the murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, the EDN really amplified and empowered the voices of our racially diverse colleagues. Having chaired an open conversation with Philip Jansen, CEO and his Executive Leadership Team, giving Black colleagues the opportunity to express how they were feeling and let Philip know what actions they would like BT to take. This elicited a strong statement from Philip, executive engagement with Black colleagues around the world and the production of BT’s Ethnicity Rapid Action Plan. This plan includes a series of actions to improve employees’ experiences through several measures including race awareness training, a reverse mentoring programme, mandatory diverse short lists and a new talent programme for high-potential ethnic minority colleagues.

We also connected with our colleagues in America and set up an Ethnic Diversity Network Americas chapter after creatively using internal social media tools to promote Black Live Matter and encourage candid debate in teams across BT.

What do you value in life and work?

In life, my family is very important to me. My parents have been together for over 43 years and I’m one of six children. Growing up my parents always raised us to first and foremost love and respect one another and to help each other wherever possible. Like any family we naturally have our highs and lows but, throughout it all we remain extremely close.

I also value my health. It’s too easy these days to become all consumed by work, social media and our devices that we forgot to take time out to maintain our mind and body. I try to strike a balance and regularly go to the gym, where I join spin class, pilates and kettlebells. At work, BT offers a lot of benefits and I practice mindfulness twice a week. This provides me with a great form of release, a time to reset and be still.

My work values are linked to discipline. If you’re disciplined, you’ll do the right things. It’s important that businesses and the people they employ are flexible and can respond and adapt to changes in business needs for example the present global issues such as COVID-19 and BLM.

How did your upbringing and education / experience help to strengthen your sense of core identity?

My upbringing and education strengthen my sense of identity. I was born to parents who were not British citizens (my father is from Uganda, my mother is from St Kitts & Nevis). My father came to the UK in hope of a better life, and my mother was the byproduct of the Windrush generation, she was brought to the UK as a child with my great grandmother. My mother was a chef and my father a qualified accountant for the Ministry of Defence, both are now retired. They worked hard and were positive role models for me.

I witnessed some of the challenges my parents experienced. For example, I recall countless stories from my parents telling me that they had been spat on and racially abused in the street and on occasion at work. I personally don’t know how my parents coped during these times. However, they always taught my siblings and I to rise above it and turn the other cheek. When I saw that my parents prevailed in the face of adversity to become successful professionals, supporting our family unit this really inspired me. My parents said, if I worked hard, I would be able to go on and do anything that I set my mind to. This gave me a great tenacity.

As a child, I grew up in predominantly white areas. The schools, college, and university I attended were all predominantly white. I was maybe one of two pupils who were Black or from an ethnic minority background out of a few hundred. I looked different, I had Black skin, an African surname (which very few people ever cared to try and pronounce or spell correctly), and natural Afro 4C hair which my mother neatly braided every Sunday. Inside our home it was completely different, there was a strong sense of Black culture, from the records my parents played (Aretha Franklin, Ella Fitzgerald, Diana Ross), to the books I grew up reading (Toni Morrison, Maya Angelou – I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings) and the traditional cultural foods my parents prepared for us. As a result, I always had a strong sense of my identity.

What does Black History Month mean to you?

As a celebration of the amazing contributions of Black people to the world history we know today, Black History Month is very important. The month of October acts as a catalyst for meaningful change. In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, it’s essential for everyone to have hard conversations and to allow some issues to come to the forefront. These issues need to continue to change and evolve.

Businesses need to look at what it means to be inclusive. It is time to educate others because students were never taught Black History in school. Not only would it be beneficial for all students to learn a more representative curriculum but, it’s important that Black students can see themselves in the lessons they are taught. Eradicating the achievements of Black people throughout the centuries, avoiding subjects such as Britain’s colonial past or teaching history from the perspective of white people only serves to drive further racial inequality in the modern day.

It is also time to be proud of everything that we’ve achieved, to acknowledge all the pioneers that’ve come before us, to celebrate what makes us unique and the progress we’ve made.

However as much as I love Black History Month, I wish there wasn’t a need for it to exist. If we shined a light on it every day, it would become mainstream. We are on a path to gaining equality. It would be great if we could get to a place like that.

Who are your role models?

My parents are my biggest inspiration and role models. Another role model is Michelle Obama. When I read her book Becoming, I was in awe. A lot of what she said resonated with me. She had a very important job as the first African American First Lady of the U.S. She taught Black young girls to dream big, that you can be anything that you want to be, particularly if you look or sound different. It’s important to have high profile people as positive role models.

Someone else who is important in Diversity & Inclusion is Rihanna. One of the world’s richest musicians, she really shines with her sense of business acumen. She launched two incredibly successful brands in cosmetics and lingerie. Rihanna was inspired to create Fenty Beauty after years of seeing a void in the industry for products that performed across all skin types and tones. I like the fact that she noticed a gap in the market via her own experience and did something about it. Her brand is now distributed in retail stores globally with a range of over 40 different shades from light to dark in what was essentially a whitewashed beauty industry.

Can you talk about the causes and non-profits you support?

Within BT, we support the Aleto Foundation to create lifetime opportunities for young people and shape the next generation of leaders. We aim at providing high achieving university graduates from BAME communities with real-life educational foundations to equip them in the corporate world.

I’m also a trustee of a charity called Sour Lemons. It was founded to address the diversity gap in leadership roles in the creative and cultural industry. Sour Lemons aims to be a disruptor. They challenge the systemic barriers that prevent diverse leadership from thriving in the first place. They do this by placing those who have been excluded from the conversation, at the heart of reshaping it via the ‘Making Lemonade’ Programme, “turning one sour lemon into lemonade at a time”.

The Attic wishes to thank Bernadette Kisaalu for sharing her experiences and for the inspiring work she does to support diversity and inclusion in the legal profession.