Women in Law

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.

Making Work, Work

What does Black History Month mean to you? That’s the question we are asking leading BAME figures in the legal industry this October. Here, we talk to Oliver Gayle, Director of the legal team responsible for credit restructuring at Barclays Bank PLC, about his career, his influences and his work helping to assist those from less privileged backgrounds get into a career in law.

As a director of Legal at Barclays, Oliver Gayle can work with his team of six lawyers on headline exposures worth several hundreds of millions of pounds as well as on smaller projects such as a local chain of floristry stores. Reaching this position in the banking industry came after many years of hard work, including in the major global financial crisis, where his specialism was all of a sudden in high demand.

Oliver had a somewhat unusual start to his career – having accepted a training contract at Garretts, the legal arm of Arthur Andersen, he found himself being approached to move to Addleshaw Goddard whilst at law school 18 months later, when one of the partners at Garretts moved to Addleshaw Goddard. He says “it was pretty unusual to be approached by another firm without ever having worked a day as a lawyer”. It was a move that would prove pivotal to his career given the subsequent collapse of Andersens and Garretts in the wake of the Enron accounting scandal a couple of years later. He admits there was a level of irony in that Addleshaws had previously rejected him for a training contract.

A restructuring legal team in a bank was a novel concept.

After eight years at Addleshaws as a restructuring lawyer, Oliver was approached by Barclays about what seemed like a unique opportunity. “They were seen as leaders in restructuring field, and regarded as having one of the best teams in any financial institution” he says. “They were considering setting up a restructuring legal team to support them, which was pretty novel at that time [2007].”

Oliver joined Barclays in August 2008 – six weeks later, the financial industry imploded. Lehman Brothers, HBOS, RBS – the UK banking industry followed the US banking industry in its demise. “Within weeks [of starting at Barclays],” he says, “I was talking about the liability of other financial institutions and the impact of their failure.” It was undoubtedly an interesting time to be working in banking and finance as a restructuring specialist, and he admits the timing benefited him in heightening his profile within the organisation. In 2013, he took responsibility for the UK restructuring on the legal team and in 2016 the role expanded to cover European exposures.

“Things I value are people, integrity and respect.”

Before accepting the role with Barclays, he asked his prospective boss what she was looking for in a colleague and she responded, “I want them to have integrity, be technically skilled at what they do and have fun.” This was something he says immediately resonated with him and has stuck with him as a work mantra since.

However, Oliver’s true sense of identity has deeper roots – his parents. Born in Jamaica, they moved to England where they met and married, his mother a nurse, his father a company director. They had a very strong Christian faith and it impacted every aspect of the way they lived their lives, their work ethic, how they treated other people how they spent their time and money. Being black in a predominantly white neighbourhood, and attending school where he and his sister were part of a handful of black children was challenging. His father said ‘life isn’t necessarily gonna be fair but you just got to adapt and work hard or harder. Retaliating or reacting negatively doesn’t help.’ Growing up in the 1970s and 1980s before political correctness, Oliver learned to adapt to the adversity that he was up against.

“The ‘no blacks, no Irish, no dogs’ sentiment was not unusual for my parents and the Windrush generation.”

At age 18, tragedy struck when his father was killed in an accident. At the funeral, he realised that his father, who he considered to be “just a regular guy,” had in fact impacted many people’s lives. There were hundreds of people there, with speakers rigged up outside the church as they couldn’t fit inside – the engineers and shop floor workers from his company in their overalls, directors of companies he did business with in different countries were all in attendance. Oliver drew a life lesson from this painful episode. “You don’t know how long you’re going to be around in life – when I die, I hope that I’ve generated that sort of impact on other people,” he says.

“Black History Month gives people a chance to sit back and recognise the achievements of black people and significant individuals who have made a contribution to how today’s world is lived – so much has changed in the last 50 years.”

“It’s hard to overstate both the impact and legacy of Nelson Mandela.” Oliver also highlights the achievements of the U.S. Senator and Civil Rights leader John Lewis who marched with Martin Luther King Jr. “He was very young when he was there at the start of the Civil Rights movement,” he says, “he’s always really impressed me.”

In the 1960s in the U.S., college students put themselves in the way of bodily harm to end racial segregation. In this struggle, Oliver has huge respect for some white people who stood up for the rights of people of colour at a real risk of harm or being ostracised by their community. “They acted purely for the benefit of others, which was particularly selfless.”

At Barclays, Black History Month events include displays, exhibitions, special food every Tuesday and Thursday, and they also have black entrepreneurs coming to discuss their businesses, and panel-type discussions with senior management of colour.

Why is BHM so important in terms of understanding social history, identity and gaining equality in the workplace?

“As a society, you can learn where people are coming from and their perspectives from events like Black History Month. It helps you gain respect and understanding of their points of view.” Being a big advocate of diversity and social mobility, Oliver is convinced that more equality in the workplace will result in more equality in society. That’s why he is heavily invested in educational initiatives with charities and pro bono schemes. He’s on the board of Frontline, a charity that seeks to develop high quality candidates as social workers and leaders working with vulnerable children.

“Children’s opportunities in life are materially impacted by their parenting and immediate home life and the charity Frontline looks to impact the lives of the most vulnerable children and families.”

Outside of work, he also supports various schemes helping to diversify the entry into law, working with minority ethnic groups and people from lower socio-economic backgrounds. At Barclays, he is involved in a children’s literacy scheme that partners with primary schools.

“I understand that the opportunities I had were just because of who my parents were. You don’t choose your parents and in my case, it was to my advantage.”

To unplug from his professional life, Oliver keeps himself quite fit and exercises in the gym, and he’s also keen on cuisine. “I’m quite handy in the kitchen,” he says, “And sometimes do catering on the side, at functions such as christenings or private parties. My wife, who watches MasterChef, urges me to apply but the standard is so high nowadays, I’ll just stick to law for now.”

To us, this sounds like the perfect way to unwind after long stressful days at the office.

Oliver Gayle is a director in the Barclays legal team and is head of legal for the Bank’s Credit Restructuring team. He has been at Barclays for 10 years and prior to that was at Addleshaw Goddard and legacy firm Addleshaw Booth for 8 years. Oliver is also on the board of the charity Frontline and has a keen interest in supporting initiatives for diversity in the legal and other professions. He is married with no children (yet!).