Mercedes Benson is on a mission to solve the creative industry’s lack of representation
The founder of SocialFixt, a platform to connect Black talent with jobs in creative industries, discusses what businesses need to do to create a workplace that’s reflective of the populace
By Jess Kelham-Hohler Images courtesy of Mercedes Benson Wednesday 1 July, 2020 Long read
Following a rapid rise in the creative industry, London-based DJ and social entrepreneur, Mercedes Benson, decided she’d had enough of not seeing more people who looked like her in the workplace. In 2017, Benson launched SocialFixt to give Black creative talent exposure to job opportunities. Since then, it has grown into a burgeoning online community and support system, with resources ranging from a constantly updated job board to CV workshops. Here, Benson discusses founding SocialFixt, how the Black Lives Matter movement has pushed the conversation around workplace representation, and what the industry needs to do next.
How did you first end up working in the creative industry?
Coming from an immigrant family – my mum is from Nigeria – the advice I heard growing up was: number one, you’re going to have to work 10 times harder because you’re Black. And number two, you’ll find more security following a traditional career path. The creative industry was seen as a risk and was pretty discouraged. It wasn’t until I got into university to study biomedical science that I realised that being a doctor wasn’t what I wanted to do for the rest of my life.
I became immersed in the internet and online communities such as Tumblr, which allowed me to explore things to do with fashion, music and art. In 2012, a Beyoncé concert sparked my curiosity for actually understanding how the entertainment industry worked. I started to call up all the companies and agencies that I came across, and eventually tried adidas (purely because at the time I was working at a sportswear shop), and I asked if they had internships.
The first lady to email me back from adidas was Ghanaian, which I immediately knew from her name. That was the first time I realised how much representation matters in a professional setting. When I showed up for my first day of a two-week internship, I discovered the whole department was made up of Black women. I was in awe. It immediately showed me that I could do this, too.
My career trajectory was very quick. After a stint at Puma with a team also run by Black women (my luck), I went back to adidas before taking an opportunity at a big tech company. I wouldn’t say I immediately recognised it as such, but that company was the first place I witnessed institutional racism. It was my first experience of being a token – I was the only Black girl in the department.
At first it was exciting. I saw it as an opportunity to teach people about Black culture through the eyes of music and fashion, and hold exciting cultural events. I did just that. But after a year and a half, it got draining. I started getting lonely at lunch, and had to go a few floors above or below to find Black colleagues I could spend time with. At that time, in 2016, Black Lives Matter was a growing movement, but nobody in my office was talking about it. In those moments, I began to feel alone.
SocialFixt was born out of frustration; frustration around being the only one in the room. Whenever I saw internal vacancies open up, I would share it anonymously on Twitter, just so I’d receive more CVs from people that looked like me. I would pretend that all the Black girls and guys sending them were my friends. My thinking was, nepotism is a thing and so many of these roles are filled internally. The onus was on me and I ran with it. Whether they were successful or not was a different question – but it took me taking responsibility for my community to give them a fairer chance of being considered against their White counterparts.
How has SocialFixt evolved since then?
SocialFixt organically formed its own community with the aim to connect more Black talent with jobs in creative industries. We’ve been able to build a Facebook group over the past three years with more than 6,000 members, with the onus of just sharing opportunities.
When I first started SocialFixt, I wanted to focus on BAME talent to be as inclusive as possible. But I came to realise that working through that lens didn’t do enough to help the Black community. A year ago, BAME talent made up 11.4% of the creative industry, but we have no idea what the percentage is for Black talent. And 3% of C-suite roles were held by BAME talent – we don’t know what the figure is for Black. That’s where the problem is.
How has the Black Lives Matter movement shifted the conversation?
I think what’s so important about the Black Lives Matter movement is that it’s putting the pressure and responsibility on corporations, not Black people, to do the work. Companies must be intentional in reaching different communities. If you want a diverse talent pool and workplace, then you have to ask yourself, what are you actively doing to make sure your opportunities are being seen by diverse communities? So often, I hear ‘but Black people don’t apply’, but we’re coming from a community where we’re not privy to how this exciting creative industry exists. We don’t have uncles and aunties who have been able to work their way up to VP level and bring us in for internships. It’s a different ballgame for us, and that’s a socio-economic issue as well.
I see my role as being a mouthpiece for how Black people feel in the workplace. Because of this moment, we can now boldly say to these brands and companies, ‘hey, this is how you’ve made me feel’. But my role is to speak for those who still don’t feel they’re in a position to stand up to the corporations. Then, the role of SocialFixt as a platform is, firstly, to systematically make sure that Black talent are being seen, interviewed, hired and retained by these brands. And secondly, to provide a solution. Right now, White people are being asked to work on anti-racism, and that’s great. But a lot of White people might not know what to do or how. I want SocialFixt to be the platform to help you create change in your workplace, both in finding and retaining Black talent. Basically, we want to become the LinkedIn for creative Black voices.
What advice would you give young Black creatives who are about to try and make their way in the industry?
For me, it’s about the Black community knowing what’s out there and not just abiding by what our parents’ measure of success is. All the failures and doubts I had pushed me to the next step, and that’s how I ended up ultimately working as a DJ and social entrepreneur. Thanks to the internet, we can build a community and find opportunities in a way that our parents’ generation couldn’t. We have a lot at our disposal, but it’s about having the boldness to grab those opportunities and own it.
What do you consider to be the most important next steps that companies need to take?
1. Check your stats
Look at your departments and company structure – how much Black talent exists within that space? If it’s less than 10%, you’ve got a problem. In London, 40% of the city’s population in the 2011 census was made up of BAME individuals, of which about 20% was Afro-Caribbean. I think change begins by trying to reflect the make-up of the population in your own workforce.
2. Create diverse partnerships
A lot of people say they don’t know where to find Black talent. But the question is, what are you doing to connect with and have visibility in these grassroots community organisations? Find these communities or connect with groups like SocialFixt that can help you find that talent. If you don’t have the answers, partner with somebody who does. Be thoughtful in your partners and help put money back into the Black economy.
3. Become a real ally
Consider what you are doing internally to create a professional pipeline that allows Black talent to feel comfortable and empowered to work their way up. Are you encouraging them to take courses to expand their skill set, and building them up in your one-to-one reviews? Are you actually listening to your Black talent? Empathy will go a long way but most importantly pro-actively being anti-racist in everything you do. Daily making an effort to unlearn your subconscious or conscious prejudices and biases.