Page last updated at 22:56 GMT, Wednesday, 30 September 2009 23:56 UK

'Woeful' lack of black professionals

When Tidjane Thiam takes to his desk this morning as Prudential's chief executive, he becomes the first black boss of a FTSE 100 company.

Black entrepreneur Piers Linney, who, when he worked in the City, was mistaken for a bike courier by the staff, looks at what can be done to encourage more young people from minority ethnic groups to work in the world of finance.

Piers Linney
Piers Linney is chief executive of communications firm Outsourcery

Tidjane Thiam's appointment is certainly a milestone for black people in this country.

However, the fact that it has only just happened is also a reminder that there is still some way to go before black faces are the norm around the boardroom tables of UK PLC.

Before going into business I spent more than 10 years working in the City of London.

During this time I did meet other black professionals, but like Mr Thiam himself, they were almost exclusively well-educated West Africans.

In the City, the majority of the black faces I saw belonged to cleaners who worked through the night or in support roles.

I never once met 'myself' in the City - that is to say, a professional with Caribbean heritage or even a state education like my own

While the City in the 80s and 90s became home to so-called barrow boy traders - who often came from working class backgrounds - the advent of electronic trading and complex financial products has resulted in London's financial centre reverting back to its elitist past.

The need for the right connections, an expensive education, a professional qualification or an MBA has raised high barriers to entry.

'Woeful shortfall'

I never once met "myself" in the City - that is to say, a professional with Caribbean heritage or even a state education like my own.

When I have ridden my bike into the City and turned up for meetings, I have been mistaken as a courier by the staff. I was also often asked when 'Piers' would be arriving

There is a woeful shortfall in the number of black men in professional careers in this country and there are more young black men in prison than in university in the UK.

PricewaterhouseCoopers, the accountancy firm, estimated that the under-achievement of black men carries an economic cost of £808m a year.

This makes me proud to have been selected as one of twenty black men to represent the government-backed Reach national role model programme, which aims to raise the aspirations and achievements of young black men by providing positive role models from all walks of life.

US lessons

I believe the City could learn a few lessons from Wall Street.

This is not because the election of Barack Obama has left an open gate on the other side of the Atlantic.

Tidjane Thiam
March 2009: Appointed successor to Prudential chief executive Mark Tucker
Named second most influential black Briton in 2008
Chief executive, Europe at insurance giant Aviva
Partner with management consultants McKinsey & Company
Chief executive, National Bureau for Technical Studies and Development, Ivory Coast
Minister of Planning and Development in Ivory Coast government
Studied engineering in Paris and gained MBA from INSEAD

The issues of race and prejudice, of course, continue to be problems in the US. I found my own personal experiences as a black man working on Wall Street from time to time quite liberating.

This was not because I had ever encountered examples of overt institutional racism in the City. Rather it was because in "the great melting pot", it was not uncommon for me to be working alongside or meeting an African-American.

Many did have an MBA from Harvard, but of more interest to me was the fact that African-Americans with quite ordinary backgrounds had made it to Harvard in the first place.

When I have ridden my bike into the City and turned up for meetings, I have been mistaken as a courier by the staff. I was also often asked when "Piers" would be arriving.

On too many occasions, I was also stopped by the police when driving home through the City late at night and asked whether the nice car was mine.

Incidents like these never happen in the US and I didn't need to look out for the tell-tale double-take I have become so used to.

Cultural change

As a country which is still dependent upon the financial services industry and the City for a significant part of its income, the UK needs to make its financial centre a more hospitable place for those people who have not had the privilege of a private education and the career guidance that it offers.

It will take a generation or more change to filter through, which is why it is important to inspire the young today.

The City and big business should open their doors from time to time, to inspire young people from minority ethnic groups to consider the wide range of careers that exist.

Selection based on classic interviews or traditional measures of ability, achievement and success should be avoided. This would have been of great help to me as a short cut to the insights that took me years to gather.

I have benefited greatly from the opportunities that I came across in the City and the network that I've established. It is only recently that I have stopped to look back at the path that I took and reflected on the fact that I am one of very few that have taken it.

I just hope that I don't have to wait until my baby daughter is in her late 30s before we see the second black chief executive of a FTSE 100 company, long after Mr Thiam has retired.

Piers Linney is joint chief executive officer of communications and hosted IT company Outsourcery. The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by the BBC unless specifically stated.

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