Coming up to the second birthday of TLA 's Black Women in Tech, it seems fitting that we turn to it's founder, and one of the most influential contemporary women in the industry. Luckily for us, this is the same woman.
Flavilla Fongang, an advocate for diversity and inclusion in the workplace, doesn't just stop at an inclusion email, or sensitivity workshop. Instead she pushes for changes that will shape the industry as a whole; work-life balance, mentoring, the culture of the office, mental health, and sincerity.
There's no words to describe Flavilla Fongang. Well, apart from 'award-winning, multilingual, brand expert', maybe. Flavilla is a recognised leader in marketing, and for good reason. She is an Entrepreneurship Expert with the Saïd Business School at Oxford, a podcast host, and a renowned international speaker, all culminating with her being named one of Computer Weekly's top 5 most influential women in tech.
The founder of 3 Colours Rule, an award-winning branding and marketing agency, she shares her strategy, design, marketing, and customer experience expertise to clients.
Now, with Flavilla coming to speak at this years #MarTechFest Global, we've sat down to talk with her about all things disruptive tech, diversity, and some industry gripes.
Visibility is a vital part of diversity. So, when Flavilla is up on stage, it is a chance to encourage other women to have the confidence to do the same. But this is easier said than done.
"It's not only a fear for women", she says. "Public speaking is actually a top fear for men and women. I will tell you a bit of a story."
But, first up, she starts with the way you present yourself. It's all about physical confidence, plus a little bit of exposure therapy.
“You know I would say, basics, I would say start small, a small crowd, people you are familiar with”.
And remember, project confidence. And if you can’t - fake it. She espouses the importance of “eye contact”: A tip to have is to look right between the eyes”.
Flavilla was in Budapest when she was first thrown in the public-speaking deep end. When her colleague invited her to speak, she went along.
“I didn’t check the size of the event; I just knew my topic”
“I get there, and I look to the right and see 5000 people. I thought I can go back home, or to my hotel room… or I can just go for it." So she went for it.
When it comes to public speaking, Flavilla says, it's not a fear of the speaking itself. It's a fear of everything going wrong.
People, when it comes to the stage, tend to imagine the worst. "You speak the wrong word, or the slides go wrong. But do the opposite. Visualise that it goes well. They'll be laughing. They'll be interested in what you're saying."
"Get started with practise, until it becomes second nature."
And lastly remember this: the audience is there to hear you speak, your expertise.
“One thing I’ve really learnt that, when talking to CEOs and heads, is that they’re just humans, they’re not better than me, they’re here to learn".
How does mentoring, inspiring, and supporting black women change the industry? As we've mentioned, we're nearing the second anniversary of Black Women In Tech, a
Flavilla suggests, as a mentee, choosing someone that is on the career path now, that you want to see yourself on in the future. Plus, in terms of getting that mentor on your side? Her advice:
"Be cheeky!” Show a good deal of confidence, and ask for what you want. It’s worked for her!
And top tip: If you want to find a great mentor, and get them talking, “invite them for food!”
Diversity goes beyond the hiring stage. We hear a lot about getting through the front door of an office. But what happens when people of diverse backgrounds are hired, but find themselves in an incompatible office? It's important that CEOs and employers put the emphasis on how they can change the nature of the office, and make it more welcoming to a wide range of people. It's all well and good hiring people, but useless if they don't stay and provide their expertise.
Flavilla thinks diversity from the bottom is ineffective. Not only do we need diversity, but we also need inclusion. And part of this inclusive atmosphere is the consideration of culture.
So, what is culture?
By this, Flavilla means the culture of the office, and the invisible barriers that come with it. She also shares a personal experience. “I’m French, and I’ve noticed that you [in the UK] spend so much time at the pub!]
A lot of time, discussion can happen in these informal places, where if “you don’t drink beer or cider” you might be excluded. It’s all about how you build relationships.
“When there’s an opportunity…and people don’t know your name, then you’re not going to get it”" If you’re not actively building relationships, then “you’re not going to get that position”.
She admits she was “cheeky enough”, to ask for what she wanted. “That’s always been my approach!"
But she also gives her view as a brand agency. Even down to the little details, like “choosing the stock photos”, diversity should be on everyone’s minds.
Culture doesn't just count as the exterior environment, but how you react internally. Often, mental health and strength aren't discussed enough in the professional space. But it's one of 3 Colour Rule's global missions for social impact, alongside a better work-life balance, diversity and empowerment, and the environment.
So, how does Flavilla keep her office a space that is supportive and empowering?
“I’m very strong on energy”, she says.
There’s a real importance in keeping a happy, healthy work environment. In fact, her company was working “hybrid” before it was the norm. Allowing her employees access to flexitime, to meditation libraries gives them space to breathe. Plus, if she’s giving off stressed, unhappy energy, her employees are likely to have the same feelings. It’s about how the group works as a whole.
“It’s all about output, not input”, she states. She even jokes that employees can work from bed, or in pyjamas, if they get the job done. “It’s suitable for them, you know. It doesn’t bother me”.
“Again, it’s a cultural thing.”
She mentions her “flat management structure”, which encourages equality and communication. And she never strays away from expressing “vulnerability”, too. If she shows that she finds a task difficult, then her employees will be more forthcoming with their own issues.
Diversity in the office statistically helps the end product. But how will this impact the structure of an organisation?
Flavilla notes that when diversity is absent, a company can make some pretty embarrassing pitfalls.
For example: “There was a virtual video of a soap dispenser. When you put a white hand underneath it, it worked. When a black hand was underneath, nothing came out. And you realise, ‘oh my God’…you didn’t think about testing other skin colours, and how it might affect [it], and how exactly you collect the data.”
“Diversity is not an act of kindness. It’s also good business”
“We conducted a survey” She said. They looked into the companies considered the ‘most diverse’, and found that a large number of them were on the FTSE 100 list.
If you don’t include diversity in your office, you’re limiting your ideas. If you hire people from the same background, or people who went to the same school, you get a small pool of perspectives and experiences. Flavilla encourages all types of diversity; disabilities, genders, and race, to create this multi-faceted environment.
This can also work alongside how far you want to take your business. If you need to work in other countries, Flavilla says, then you need to have people who can help.
The process needs to be as universal as possible.
But tech can also reinforce harmful ideas. In fact, the Algorithms behind Apple, Nikon and HP’s software, had issues identifying non-white people in images. So, how can diversity within the industry help with changing this? Especially when it comes to AI and Machine Learning?
Flavilla warns against building with biases. If we’re putting power into the hands of machines, then the data needs to be diverse and fair, otherwise we will be creating further disparities. “With human biases, [AI] can be very dangerous.”
But luckily there’s been a lot of interest from VCs into companies that promote this innovation using diversity. There’s a big rise when it comes to investment…in ESGs”
Barriers remain, even when women and people of colour have risen through the ranks. Even when they get through the door and climb the ranks, get to the big leagues, they're still underrepresented on panels and events.
“I know!” she laughs.
She reports that she always makes sure she has a minimum amount of black, female speakers on stage. When the entire line up is white, this needs to be addressed.
But it’s not just about getting people onto the stage, but what they’re talking about when they get there. Women and people of colour, who are experts in their field, are often not asked about the big topics, but are instead expected to just talk about diversity.
But it’s not just women asking this, it’s the men too. She’s had male attendees come up to her, at events she’s speaking at, asking “where are the other women?!”. This move is not just for the advantage of women, but also stops this disadvantage in men, of hearing a diverse range of viewpoints and expertise.
And now so many women are making names for themselves within the industry, there’s no excuse for not having a diverse panel, she says.
Not everything marketing is smooth sailing. In fact, some of it is Bull$hit. So, is there anything common in the industry that gets on her nerves?
“So many” she laughed.
“One of them that really pissed me off with the Black box” she said, referring to the plain, black screens that went round on social media during the initial BLM movement.
What this represents is brands responding to any social cause, no matter the context. “There’s so many societal issues…they do all of them”. So, it’s an issue of insincerity.
The heads, or CEO, will turn round and push the marketers to respond to each issue – “Let’s talk about that, because everyone’s talking about it”.
Marketers should turn round and say “no, it’s not relevant” to their company. But when it “is relevant, then do talk about it”. Companies must avoid just jumping on the back of every wagon that drives past them.
For example, she says, water companies like Volvic should focus on issues like single waste plastic, and the environment, issues that impact them directly. This way, they can comment on important social issues, remain relevant, and still make a difference.
And in terms of impactful, and effective, ways of addressing social issues, Flavilla and TLA know what they're talking about.
Though their recent Kickstarter for 'The Voices in the Shadow' didn't reach its goal, she is continuing to advocate for its message.
The project is a book full of inspirational stories to be distributed to schools for free in the UK and Ireland so that more diversity can be brought to tech, at the time when girls are most likely to turn away from STEM.
In a recent tweet she said "I'm not afraid to lose some battles because it's part of the game. The campaign continues because this project is definitely happening". And knowing Flavilla, it will be a success. Why break the habit of a lifetime?