"My journey with CSTT - and losing the battle, to win the war.....!"
There is something uniquely rewarding about the power of service; service to other human beings, many of whom are solely desirous of a life-changing opportunity to just be.
Where copious amounts of societal benefit and/or social value, exists and there being no ‘prima-facie’ financial gain, has been a strategic pursuit that became the DNA of our Founder & Chair, Bola Abisogun OBE. A serial entrepreneur, he has amassed a demonstrable track record, littered with career trauma, eye-watering failures and plenty of vexatious, pre-meditated knock-backs. Upon qualifying in 1999, Bola chose to become something of an industry disruptor using his self-acclaimed title of ‘fuzzy-logic’, the stuff that doesn’t quite fit [or belong]. Choosing to be the voice of the voiceless, the strength behind the weak, the power behind the disempowered and the light for those that co-exist in complete darkness; was and remains the modus-operandi, nurtured and maintained by him.
As a young person (and aspiring Surveyor) born, raised and living in East London, hailing from at the time, the most deprived ward in Europe, the London Borough of Hackney has always been the focal point of economic deprivation and has for the most part, been an area of London, fraught with poverty and extreme wealth gaps. A long-term resident of the borough, often overlooked as a viable location for inward investment, it wasn’t until the Y2K milestone, that this area of London came into its own and has since become quirky and a designated area, of ‘over-zealous’ gentrification, though many would call it ‘ethnic cleansing’. However, the rampant new development and redevelopment of historically run-down areas, including the Kingsmead Estate, Pembury Estate and the ‘Holly Street ensemble of dark corridors’, not too far from the infamous ‘Murder Mile’ has been unsuccessful in allowing Hackney to relinquish itself of the very same high levels of crime that instigated the initial identification for significant regeneration and European funding.
A career insight _ by Bola Abisogun OBE [written in first person]
Let’s see, where do I begin? Well, let me take you back to December 1999….… the year that I qualified as a Chartered Quantity Surveyor in London. I was frustrated at not fitting into a sector that I was more than capable of leading on in my own small way. In 1999 I thought [and knew] that I was ready to become Partner in a major firm, but I just couldn’t identify a viable ‘route to market’. Clearly, my God given talent wasn’t enough; please refer to my piece called ‘Bake-Off’ afforded to me by my Surveyhood colleagues. Since then I’ve turned to my profession and on 14.08.20, just over three (3) months ago; we / RICS made history, for the first time in the Surveying professions 152 year history. The historic affirmation was a public facing ‘global commitment’ to positively support Black surveyors. Following a Zoom meeting earlier this week [on 26.11.20], the current focus, openly adopted and maintained by the Senior Executive Team, led by Sean Tompkins, CEO – is to positively engage with a growing number of practising Surveyors, many of whom have responded to the aforementioned request by RICS, penned by Richard Collins. As Head of Diversity & Inclusion, my dear colleague and ally Barry Cullen, fresh back from furlough, has now inherited the brief which will allow me to elevate and take DiverseCity Surveyors onto it’s next, natural, global destination. For those, that have queried it, yes my work with RICS [demonstrating the overwhelming 'Corporate' business case for additional & cultural support for both Black and BAME ‘practising’ Surveyors] has now been successfully completed. From hereon in, my DCS Board Members and myself, will continue to assist RICS, and simultaneously pivot such support in line with other urgent efforts, of equal importance, all in support of the further development of the wider BAME talentpool.
Where there is no entitlement, create what you need
During late 2000, and as a young practising Chartered Surveyor, I set about attempting to win some of the large tracts of publicly funded work, where large grants had been secured e.g the New Deal for Communities [or NDC] programme. Taking over office space in the – at the time – semi-derelict area of Hoxton, along the fringe of the City of London, I set about my foray into QS Consultancy, specialising in the Disability Discrimination Act….. which was to be passed in October 2004. My general view was that having a disability was a detriment to anyone, but being Black and having a profound ‘i.e. visible’ disability was a double jeopardy. Additionally, and with close family members enduring structurally systemic, dysfunctional and other unnecessary challenges, that became exponentially worse on grounds of ethnicity; the business case just made sense. I set up Accessable Advice in November 2000, as an RICS Regulated Firm and traded successfully – even with the absence of any meaningful Public Sector, Supplier Diversity policy – working with Contractors and Domestic Clients, as one of only two (2) Black led practices across London. However and rather regrettably the 2008/09 financial crash, precipitated the financial demise of my small firm, which was then forced to shut down for reasons that will likely prove to be a contentious debate, but nonetheless, inspired me to effectively, give birth to successor business Urbanis – my industry unicorn which led to the successful award of an OBE in the New Years honour list of 2019.
In 2005, whilst seeking to demonstrate 'another possibility' to the emerging Black and Asian graduate talent pool, the RICS profiled me, as one of only two (2) independent Black-led practitioners, at that time with a public facing, regulated firm in operation. It was through the lens of Supplier Diversity and general business support, that my discussion began with the RICS, which in turn, led to a referral to the Chartered Surveyors Training Trust 'CSTT'. I felt that if I became successful in securing some of the vast and growing publicly funded work noted above, then I would build a team and require support staff, preferably an Apprentice, sourced from an equally challenging background to my own. I would also target those who had a clear and demonstrable desire to become a Chartered Surveyor. It was also fortuitous for me in that, the CSTT – at that time, back in 2005 – had, as part of their core programme offer, publicly stated a firm and genuine desire to identify and support aspiring Surveyors and other individuals from hard-to-reach and disadvantaged backgrounds. Inspired and energised by their presence, a year later DiverseCity Surveyors was born, in 2006.
The ‘positive influence’ of the US procurement model:
There was no way on God’s Earth that I would have started, if I’d known that everything would disappear – and I mean everything, including the shirt on my back, after a 20year commitment to change the narrative. Today, I truly wish that I had been selfish enough and flown to Atlanta on that one-way ticket; in fact, I will never know how Mr Herman Russell even had the foresight [or simple audacity, given that he was that kind of gentleman!] to even ask me the question “did you come here on a one way ticket?”. In hindsight, the ‘real’ question that I am now asking myself [some 20yrs later, on the 28th November 2020] is, was the return trip back to London – in August 2000 – actually worth it; did I make the right decision?
And, in honour of Mr Russell RIEP ‘the Godfather of Atlanta’ – despite the documentary of his achievements airing earlier this year – HJ Russell remains the maestro [and one of the biggest recipients] of, set-aside / minority participation, public dollar construction contracts in the City of Atlanta [via Maynard Jackson's rule]. In fact in 1974, as the first Black Mayor of Atlanta, Maynards’ objective for minority [i.e. Black] owned firms was “fair access to their share of contracts on a major public works project”. That is where my journey with UrbanIS [i.e. Urban-Inclusive-Solutions] as a Construction Manager, started and stopped. With only the hapless, Section106 process to rely on, I still successfully articulated my vision and positioned Urbanis to succeed, but yet, I was ruthlessly and callously denied by ‘a system and process’ administered by the public sector; one that still continues to fail minority and Black led businesses, specifically micro-businesses, at a local level.
The ‘public sector’ business case for Urbanis:
Twenty years after my first business trip to Atlanta, the most critical meeting being held and conducted with Mr Russell of HJ Russell; I am now asking myself why, in the absence of any legislative support or known public policy instrument, I felt the dire need to bring the US model back to the UK. Back then, I had heard that in so many ways, the US was streets ahead of the UK – in public procurement terms – but ever the optimist, I still proceeded knowing that my business case would be attractive enough to secure the sustainable interest of the entire public sector. It worked and was well received by local authorities across London, not least because of the demonstrable #Social Value [designed to be] delivered at a local level e.g. that achieved on our last public sector contract, with ENGIE / formerly Keepmoat. Although no longer operating in the construction space as a package subcontractor to Tier 1's, I can remember as far back 2003, that the Section 106 contractual commitment(s) along with a huge leap of faith, was the only policy instrument available to me. But as the only competent Black-led / owned firm in many local Supply Chains, across London, the 'measurable' social value being delivered simply wasn’t reflective of the effort that I had deployed and envisaged. There had to be a better more sustainable way to create value and generate economic wealth, particularly in areas that have been economically deprived for decades. Thankfully, in 2020, sector champions and early adopters at Homes England have provided me with a 'national platform' to conduct a more meaningful conversation; one that can be scaled across the UK and infused with innovations proffering greater and sustained use of BIM, DfMA, MMC and, eventually Smart Contracts intertwined with Digital Twins.
The barriers to entry for Black and BAME Surveyors amidst ongoing structural and systemic racism:
That RICS themselves have only recently committed to what I have coined ‘a generational impact strategy’, has taught me that patience is a virtue, but strategic dogged determination, is everything. In the case of the current ‘global conversation’ revolving around the ongoing persistent challenge(s) presented by systemic and structural racism both within and across society, one has to wonder how the various built environment professions are seeking to address the myriad challenges, if at all. Thankfully the RICS has begun its journey and three months in, they appear willing to be challenged and measured on any aspirational targets. More to follow.
For me, the role of Trustee / Board Member at the Chartered Surveyors Training Trust, will afford me a unique opportunity to finesse and grow a ‘grass-roots’ vision into a global ‘talent making machine’, and of course I cannot do this alone as “there is no I in TEAM”. Moreover, I intend to support the vision of the SLT led by Terry Watts, CEO and help grow the ‘non-traditional’ CSTT talent / Surveying pipeline, through various engagement models, using technology at its core.
But when we talk about Black and BAME led businesses, Black and other employees, from non-traditional backgrounds, we have to be clear, open and honest, if we are to dare to move the dial. In recognition of the many DM's received from many of the emerging young talent who chose to contact me directly, following my recent panel contribution last night [27.11.20] at the RICS Young Surveyor of the Year Awards 2020, along with colleagues David Shaw MRICS and recruiter, Paul Micallef, I have to say that the "only" silly question is the one that is never asked;
In summary, and with the end date confirmed as 30th November 2020, the UK Government is currently seeking input from the Black / BAME community towards their survey on "ethnic disparities and inequality in the UK"; you can access the survey and contribute here.
However, with reference to young Black and BAME surveyors I am posing the following questions, to the wider profession, Employers and Clients alike:
Is it OK, for them [us], to simply be authentic?
Are you willing and truly capable of becoming an ally?
Do you care less about your Black and BAME colleagues, if so, why?; and
Just where are the ‘valid’ entry points for the young Surveyor, with absolutely no connections or social capital?
Pertinent questions that really need to be addressed, by all, if we are to tangibly ensure that the Surveying profession survives, grows and continues to attract, permit and retain Black / BAME and non-traditional talent, whilst simultaneously allowing them to thrive. The continued and unrelenting injustice(s) camouflaged by daily micro-agressions, and directed towards against Black and BAME surveying staff, aross the UK, is still being brought to my attention and whether the profession / industry wants to listen or not, 'this ill' must be formally addressed and eradicated during the next 25years. To this end, both the RICS and CSTT clearly have critical roles to play, the latter _ as it did for me _ on a personal level, nearly 20 years ago.
So let’s leave no-one behind, and actively choose to build an ‘inclusive (global) profession’, one that has respect at its core..... for everyone, who is desirous of an opportunity to join, excel and co-exist on a level playing field.
Credit: Ric Yeboah, Homes England [East London Estates; Hackney]