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Workplace Success
Overcoming prejudice

By Emma Clark
BBC News Online business reporter

Savile Row's first black tailor, Andrew Ramroop

In August 1970, a fresh-faced young man arrived at the port of Southampton, full of burning ambition to be a tailor on Savile Row.

Yvonne Thompson campaigns for minorities
"I had always heard that Savile Row had the finest tailors and I naturally aspired to the finest," he recalls.

Almost a decade earlier, a six-year-old girl had also stepped onto British shores to begin a new life.

As the "favourite" in the family, she had been chosen to accompany her mother on a trip that took them half way across the world to join her father in the UK.

Against the odds, Andrew Ramroop, the aspiring tailor, and Yvonne Thompson, now a successful business woman, learned to flourish in a strange country, thousands of miles from home.

Click here to watch an interview with Andrew Ramroop

Click here to watch an interview with Yvonne Thompson


When Mr Ramroop stepped off his ship from Trinidad, he was overwhelmed by the crowds of people in London.

What has been perceived as a disadvantage is an advantage. I have been forced to try harder than someone else.

Andrew Ramroop
"I didn't like it at all but having left home with such excitement and enthusiasm... I couldn't possibly go back."

It took eight years before he overcame his homesickness and felt settled in the UK.

By 1988, he had bought the tailoring business of Maurice Sedwell, becoming the first black business owner on Savile Row.

Despite her early years in Guyana, Ms Thompson, now feels more at home in London than anywhere else.

She owns a PR company in Brixton called ASAP Communications and chairs the government's Ethnic Minority Business Forum.

Determined to be different

During their careers, spanning 20 to 30 years, both felt compelled to set up their own businesses, driven by an instinct to shape their own development and escape the pettiness of prejudice.

Mr Ramroop made clothes for Princess Diana
"There has been a marked trend for ethnic minority people to start their own businesses," observes Ms Thompson.

By the mid-1970s, the slow improvement in British attitudes to ethnic minorities was getting underway, with the Race Relations Act in 1976.

But, both Mr Ramroop and Ms Thompson encountered speed bumps on their journey to self-employment.

Mr Ramroop was turned down for many jobs on Savile Row, while Ms Thompson was continually passed over for promotion in the record industry.

"In those early days my accent wasn't what it is now and I was applying for jobs to be at the front of the shop to cut and to fit and to meet clients," says Mr Ramroop.

"People wanted to protect their own businesses and they were being realistic in saying this guy won't suit the front of the shop."

Overcoming the obstacles

However, both Mr Ramroop and Ms Thompson agree that that UK has become a more multicultural place.

They have also proved that commercial success has not been confined to the white middle classes.

Ms Thompson has a second home in Cornwall, while Mr Ramroop has become the first tailor to be awarded a professorship at the London College of Fashion.

And being successful at what they do, they both believe their ethnic background provided them with the extra spur to do well.

"What has been perceived as a disadvantage is an advantage. I have been forced to try harder than someone else," says Mr Ramroop.

Confusingly, you are left wondering what more they could have achieved had they not faced prejudice but also the question arises whether they would have been so successful if they had not faced setbacks because of the prejudice of others.

Andrew Ramroop's story

Andrew Ramroop made his first pair of trousers as a child in Trinidad. "Some are born with a silver spoon in their mouth, I was born with a needle and thimble in my fingers," he jokes.

Andrew Ramroop
  • 1952, born in Trinidad
  • 1970, arrives in UK
  • 1974, starts at Maurice Sedwell
  • 1988, takes over business
  • He compares his boyish ambition to work as a tailor on Savile Row with representing his country in the Olympics.

    In 1974, he started work for Maurice Sedwell on Savile Row, after studying at the London College of Fashion.

    "I think Mr Sedwell was very courageous in engaging me as an assistant because I had been turned down for many jobs in the Savile Row area...

    "He was very clever in the way he fed me to the front, I would be visible but not really dealing with clients but gradually my talent came through."

    Building a reputation

    In the early days, Mr Ramroop was confined to making alterations.

    Mr Ramroop bought 90% of Maurice Sedwell

    The big break came when a client personally asked for Mr Ramroop to oversee the entire fitting.

    Mr Ramroop's reputation was soon sealed through personal recommendations - and at one point he was dressing half a dozen cabinet ministers.

    "To think about it now, I tremble," he says softly.

    Famously, he also designed the cashmere jacket worn by Princess Diana in her Panorama interview.

    Sizing up the business

    During those years, Mr Sedwell sold Mr Ramroop shares in the business, until he had accumulated 45%.

    The crunch time came in 1988 when Mr Ramroop wanted to leave to set up his own business.

    Mr Sedwell eventually persuaded him to stay and sold him a further 45% in the business.

    BBC News Online: Race survey

    Question: How many people say they have lost job opportunities due to race?

    "I would communicate ideas as to what he should do if trading was down for the season, for instance," says Mr Ramroop.

    "I guess what he was seeing in me was someone who was thinking more about him and his business than just someone who was collecting his salary."

    Room to grow

    Eight years after taking over the business, he expanded the premises from 500 to 3,000 square feet.

    But he had problems borrowing money from banks to invest in the business.

    Even the bank, which Maurice Sedwell had banked with since 1938, wouldn't help.

    "They refused to lend to me, even though I had been turning out a profit every year."

    Mr Ramroop is hesitant to draw conclusions, but admits, "There wasn't anyone else on the street who looked like me who was looking for a loan."

    In the end, his clients lent him the money, which he has since re-paid.

    "They had the confidence in what I did, and had the confidence in me that I could do the business."

    Yvonne Thompson's story

    Yvonne Thompson began her career in investment banking and the record industry.

    Yvonne Thompson
  • 1955, born Guyana
  • 1961, arrived in UK
  • 1983, started PR agency
  • 1987, set up EFBWBO
  • After more than seven years, she realised she was only moving sideways, rather than upwards.

    "The last time I applied for the job and didn't get it, I decided it was time to move on.

    "So like most women do, I ran in to the ladies' toilets and had a good cry.

    "I came back and wrote out my notice and basically never looked back."

    Tough time

    She has been running her marketing business for 20 years, winning clients who wanted to target the black community.

    I feel that I've been quite - I keep wanting to say lucky but it is not luck at all it's bloody hard work

    Yvonne Thompson
    At first, it was very difficult, she says.

    "Not many companies knew what PR was... and there's this black woman telling them about something they should have, that she can't quantify."

    Her client list now includes The Dome, BA, Choice FM, Corporation of London and The Voice Newspaper.

    Two years ago, Ms Thompson became chair of the DTI's Ethnic Minority Business Forum, which advises the government on policy.

    Some of the recommendations taken up by the government include encouraging small businesses to use e-commerce.


    Background & analysis

    What else do the statistics say about work and race?

    Ms Thompson - who admits she tends to think of herself as a superwoman - also set up the European Federation of Black Women Business Owners (EFBWBO) in 1997.

    "I didn't have any black role models, I didn't have any like-minded black women that I could network with, that I could ask to be my mentor."

    She was inspired by a similar group in the US, where she met a room full of "400 powerful black women".

    "When people say there's that sisterhood - I used to think what are they talking about?

    "But let me tell you, when I walked into that room, I knew exactly what they were talking about."

    More than luck

    In being black and a woman, she feels that she had a "double whammy" of obstacles to overcome.

    Ms Thompson's experiences have made her angry in the past, but all the more determined to succeed.

    "I feel that I've been quite - I keep wanting to say lucky but it is not luck at all it's bloody hard work - so I think that I am reaping what I have put in."

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