Black History Month 2022: An Interview with Managing Partner Samiatt Folorunso on Inspirational Black Leaders
By Samiatt Folorunso
18 October 2022
It's Black History Month! We've used this opportunity to chat to our Samiatt Folorunso, Managing Partner at Max Fordham, about inspirational leaders in her life.
Which Black Leaders have inspired you when you were growing up, and why?
Before I answer the question, I’d like to start by saying that identification and seeing people that look similar to yourself is really important, especially in a business context. It shows you things are achievable and suggests you’ll be accepted in that environment as well.
When I went to school, I was the only Black child there – for the most part I was okay with that as I had very supportive parents, but from a young age I realised the importance of encountering people who looked like me. When you find yourself as a minority in an environment and you come across people that look and sound like yourself, there’s an unspoken bond that's automatically created. It can mean different things to different individuals, but for me it’s a sense of understanding, belonging, community and allyship. I have a desire to make everyone feel welcome wherever I am, but I’m acutely aware of how it feels to be the only black face in the crowd. And so my smile grows wider, and my hand is extended even more if I sense that someone could feel like a minority in an environment I’m in.
Later in my life I ended up moving back to the same area I went to school in, and I was in shock to suddenly see people around me who looked like me! There have certainly been many changes as time moved on.
But coming back to the question – besides people I’ve seen on screen, really and truly the two leaders that inspired me the most were my mum and my (female) pastor from church.
These are two women who embody strength, perseverance and commitment, traits I truly admire. My mum showed me what real strength looks like; from silent resilience to a roaring lioness, and sometimes like the tears on a pillow that you think nobody sees. She showed me what a Black woman coming to London in the 80s, where things looked very different to how they do today, can do. With very little she raised me and my siblings with hard work and determination, and she never let being a minority stop her from achieving her goal, and that was to see her children thrive. That commitment and determination inspires me to never give up, to keep working hard and reminds me that anything is possible - mum did it, so I can do it too!
The other influential person in my life was another amazing woman, she was my minister at my church, leading a team of over 60 people. It was a big church with thousands of members, and it was very easy to be lost in the crowd - but if Minister Jacqui was your leader, you never felt lost, you felt equipped and looked after. She inspired me to seek excellence in all I did, to never wear a chip on my shoulder, to be organised, prepared and on point! She showed me how important communication is. She taught me that people come from different backgrounds and experiences that might result in different abilities to communicate well, and that you shouldn't take any offense in that, but instead have patience and grace.
Have you had leaders that have helped you along your journey?
I am very happy to be able to give “Yes” as my answer to this question. It’s really important to have people along the journey to mentor you, give you advice, and stop you from making silly mistakes by learning from theirs. I have been blessed to have many leaders that inspired me and helped me get to where I am today, and that’s why it’s important for me to try and help other people find their footing as well.
One of the key figures in my journey was Mike Waring, Senior Partner at Max Fordham for many years. Unfortunately he is no longer with us. Mike was one of a kind, he fixed my messes, taught me to be specific and detailed, and always had time for me no matter how busy he was. I loved him because he was very patient, and accepted my views even when they were different to his own. He didn’t see me as a person of a minority ethnicity, he just saw me as I am. We butted heads over many things, but he always encouraged me and pushed me to be better. There isn’t a week that goes by that I don’t remember something he taught me!
Have you experienced barriers to leadership coming from a Black heritage?
I have been blessed here at Max Fordham, and I have not experienced the kind of barriers I have heard others speak of in other workplaces. Max Fordham was my first proper job after university, so all I’ve really known is here. There is no perfect workplace though, and I have once witnessed where a person with an accent was treated very differently to those without one. There seemed to be less patience for the individual with the accent, and witnessing how it made the (very capable) person feel less confident in their abilities as a consequence made me sad. People can be hindered in their progress because someone else doesn’t understand their accent, or rather, haven’t had the patience to try to understand them or reframe the question. People from different backgrounds might occasionally take longer to find the right words, or use different words. I’ve seen people who have not been given confidence in their abilities because of that. I’ve seen it more so with Black and Asian accents than with accents from other European regions.
When my mother goes back to her home country Nigeria, I can witness an immediate change in her confidence levels, because she’s able to speak her native language and then I’m the one who feels less confident and clings to my mother’s side for direction. It’s funny how we feel when the shoe is on the other foot.
I find it important to highlight such experiences, because even in a highly inclusive environment we need to carefully observe our own behaviours and attitudes to make sure everyone continues to thrive and flourish not matter their heritage.