Ep 13: Disrupting the Status Quo, Utopia’s Nadya Powell

Who would have thought the ‘job interview’ is redundant, and leadership courses are following outdated perceptions…hear what Nadya Powell, CEO and founder of Utopia, has to say about how today’s businesses have to change, and how Nadya and her fellow activists are challenging business thinking in the name of inclusion.


Manisha: So, wouldn’t it be lovely to live in a perfect world where there is no bias, no discrimination, no judgement of who we are, and we’re all accepted for who we are without question?  Well just because we don’t live in the utopia doesn’t mean we shouldn’t try to change people’s thinking to challenge accepted norms and to disrupt our world a little bit so that it becomes more inclusive.  Welcome to With, Not For, a podcast from the Centre for Inclusive Design.  My name is Manisha Amin and I’m speaking to you from the lands of the Gadigal people here in North Sydney Australia. 

My guest today is from London, UK, and her name is Nadya Powell.  She’s the Cofounder of Utopia, a culture change agency and consultancy.  And she’s also been the Cofounder of Culture Social, a network of people, culture leaders and changemakers who believe new ways of thinking about culture will disrupt businesses for the better.  But starting up two organisations hasn’t really been enough for Nadya.  She also cofounded two diversity networks and initiatives, The Great British Diversity Experiment and the So White Project.  Welcome, Nadya.

Nadya: Thank you.  Thank you so much for having me today from a slightly grey London.

Manisha: Look, it’s a real, real pleasure, and I – look at all the things you’ve designed and cofounded and founded.  How did you end up in this area in the first place?

Nadya: So it was sort of by accident.  I’m going to just be very honest.  I think one of my partners talks about something called survivor’s mission, and survivor’s mission is when you’ve experienced things in your life which make you want to drive change.  And that’s definitely the case with me.  So I had a very unusual childhood in that I had a father who suffered very badly from depression.  My mother was an alcoholic.  And I scraped my way through life.  But I had some lucky breaks, like some people sponsored me.  I had an extended family who were able to support me, and because of that, I managed – and at the time, you got paid to go to university.  So I managed to get to university and I managed to get jobs. 

And then when I was about 30 and started to feel like I – because I had so much trauma in my childhood, 20s to heal.  I started to look around and just go, “Do you know what?  So many things in this world just aren’t fair.”  I got some lucky breaks which meant that I have a job. I’m earning a decent wage.  And I’m living a reasonably good life.  But other people didn’t get those lucky breaks, or just because of the way they look or who they choose to fall in love with, they are facing barriers and obstacles every single day that I’m not having to face.  And it made me get quite angry.  I started to feel very, very angry about it. 

And so I started to think, “Well actually, I don’t want this to happen.  I don’t want certain people to just have a worse experience of the world just because of a tiny difference.  So I started to look at ways that I could do more and at the time, I was in digital marketing, so it was a totally different world, which is why I founded things like the So White Project and The Great British Diversity Experiment and also something called Millennial Mentoring, which was to do something outside of my job which was responding to the calling that my survivor’s mission was starting to give me.  And then over time, I realised, “What I’m doing outside of work is – I’m enjoying that much more than what I’m doing inside of work,” and then there was a moment in time when I was able to make the flip from the side hustle to the full time. 

Manisha: I was just about to say: so your side hustle actually became the full-time job.

Nadya: It became the full job, but I want to be really honest and say it was a moment of great privilege that I could do that because flipping from guaranteed paid work to starting up a business where there is no guaranteed paid work, is not something you take lightly. And at the time, and now, I am married, so my husband earns a decent salary.  So we had a dual salary so we knew that I could potentially not earn for a short amount of time.  I also was working at a business which didn’t work out and I was able – I’d had an amount of money that could keep me going for an amount of time as well.  And also, I was a certain age.  I was 42 and my life had got to the stage where I had contacts and had lots of clients who I knew. 

So people often said to me when I first started up Utopia, “That was such a brave decision,” and I’ve never felt like it was brave. There’s a myth of this brave entrepreneur putting their house up and taking these massive risks.  If I’d tried to do what I did when in my 30s, I wouldn’t have been very good at it.  I wasn’t ready, and it would’ve been really risky.  But when I did it when I was 42, I did have certain things in place which made it a much easier decision to do.

Manisha: That’s really interesting when you talk about the brave entrepreneur and I guess the mythology that comes with some of these roles.  How does that play out in your daily life?

Nadya: I’ve never ever – I’ve really been uncomfortable with the word “entrepreneur”, the whole time that I started up Utopia, and you have this internal dialogue where I go, “Is it because I’m a woman and I feel imposter syndrome and I don’t think I deserve to be called and entrepreneur?  Is it because I don’t like the capitalist resonance around the word ‘entrepreneur’?”  Why am I not comfortable with the word “entrepreneur”?  Because that’s what people see in me.  They go, “You’re a female entrepreneur,” and I’m just like, “OK, well I know I’m female, and I run a business, but am I an entrepreneur?” 

And then I had a massive nirvana moment literally this week.  I was swimming because I do cold water swimming, and I suddenly literally said in my head, “I’m an activist.  I’m not an entrepreneur.”  And that is a word I feel much more comfortable – I don’t think I deserve the word “activist” yet.  I think I’ve got to do a lot more work to deserve it.  But that’s why I’m doing what I’m doing.  I didn’t want to start up a business.  I had to start up a business because what I wanted to do didn’t exist yet.  I couldn’t go work somewhere where it existed.  So a moment in time came along.  I was at the right stage of my life to be able to do it, and I had to do it.

Manisha: It’s interesting that you see yourself as an activist, because the strength of activism, particularly in the community sector, is so they can mobilise and disrupt communities, and disrupt the status quo.  And at Utopia, you actually do the same thing, just in businesses.

Nadya: Yeah, and it’s a really important point to make.  I mean, the power businesses have now is incredible. They’ve always had power, but we see governments retreat out of social life.  We see the third sector being squeezed by lack of funding.  And social media has taken up so much space that people may have had for the third sector in previous times.  So the power of businesses now to drive change is incredible.  And our experience is that most people in businesses, they want to do the right thing. 

Manisha: So can you give us some examples of how that disruption works in real life in some of the companies that you work in?  What are some of the things you do?

Nadya: Yeah, so I suppose we do disruption at a macro and a micro level.  So at a macro level, we’re challenging the leaders of businesses to not inclusion and diversity as a bit of CSR or a nice to have but as a core part of their overall business strategy, and we work with them to create an I&D strategy that can be integrated into their overall business strategy.  So that creates a fundamental shift on their perception of what inclusion and diversity is, because there are no businesses, or very few businesses, that are saying, “We don’t care about inclusion and diversity.”  That’s not a sensible thing to do as a business now.  But there are lots of businesses who are saying they care about it, but actually it’s not at the heart of their business, and they’re not driving real change.  So the first step is to get the leadership to really pivot what they think inclusion and diversity is, to really feel that inclusion and diversity, and then to put it at the heart of their business.  So that’s strategic disruption.

And then the next stage is almost challenging all the things that they feel to be true.  So a classic thing for me is the interview.  In the old days, people got jobs through who they knew.  So your dad who worked in a bank would suggest to all his banking friends that they might want to employ his son, and his son would get the interview.  It was done through that.  Or if you’re a blacksmith, it was your trade in your family, and it was passed down.  So interviews didn’t really need to exist before the 1850s.  They came about mythically because somebody was like, “I need an assistant.  This is a whole new field so there’s no one who’s done an apprenticeship before, and there’s no one whose son has done this before.  So I need to meet someone who could do this.” And the interview was done. 

But the interview was predicated on just – it was almost like a final check because the person would come recommended by all your cronies around you and you would just do a final check.  It wasn’t about whether you were good at the job.  It wasn’t about whether you were capable at the job.  It was like, “Peter has recommended his son David to me.  I’d just better check that.  We like golf.”  That was literally what an interview was for.  But the interview has just become the centre of an application process when the world has totally changed.  So those networks have been smashed up.  People are very, very different, so not everyone has been to Eton and has learnt how to do interviews.So you now have a situation where interviews hugely prioritise the privileged few and hugely disadvantage a whole other set of people whether an introvert or whether you’re just different to the majority.  But no one’s really saying anything or doing anything about it.  The interview just keeps rolling on and it’s driving me mad. 

So on a micro level, we’re just saying, “Why did you do that?” and they’re like, “Well, because interviews are how we hire people.”  “But why?”  “Well because that’s the best way to find out if they can do the job or not.”  “But is it?”  “Well yes, because we chat to them about whether they can do the job or not.”  “So when you talk to somebody about how to do some design thinking and they explain it to you, that means they must be good at it because you do realise they could’ve just read that on Wikipedia,” just as a small side step.  Yeah, micro level, we’re just telling them and working with them to challenge everything that they know to be true.

Manisha: And then how does that land?  So I know that when we’ve done work in this area, one of the things that we find is that there are steps.  One is, “Oh my gosh, what I’m doing might not be as inclusive as I thought it was.”  And then the next step is, “What do we do about it?”  And in the middle of that, there’s often that pain or anger or disappointment or shame that sits there.  How do you hold those spaces?

Nadya: It’s really, really tough and you hit so perfectly there.  We talk about the – there’s lots of literature around the path you go on when you’re grieving, and it’s very similar in inclusion and diversity because you start off with shock. We will say to somebody, we’ve done some research with them, that there’s racism in their organisation. Now, they shouldn’t be shocked because if there’s racism in society, there will be racism in an organisation. There’s no invisible forcefield.  But everyone always thinks that there can’t be racism in their organisation because they’re all really nice people.

So they start off with shock.  They then go into denial, “No, it’s not happening here.  We’ve worked really hard.  We’re lovely people.”  And taking them from shock to denial can take a lot of time, and you’ve got to let people go on the journey at their pace, because if you try and force someone to come out of denial too quickly, then they’ll go into shame.  And as soon as someone goes into shame, you’ve lost them because shame makes them go quiet, hide, and suddenly, they’re not responding to your emails anymore. 

I think my key tips would be you’ve got to go at the pace that they are able to go at, and also at the same time, holding them really accountable for the change that they’d driven.  And what we will often say is once we’ve – if we do a lot of insight work, once we’ve shown them what’s in their organisation, we’ll go, “OK, you didn’t know this was happening.  You probably should’ve known it was happening, but you didn’t know it was happening.  You now know it’s happening.  So this is the true test, because before you weren’t doing anything because you didn’t know.   But now you do know, if you do nothing, you’re choosing to ignore it.” 

So that for me is where you get to see really how committed an organisation is, because when they know what’s happening and they choose to do nothing, that says everything to me.  So then I’m just like, “OK, we’ll come back to you. You need to do some work on yourselves.”  Most organisations will go, “OK, now we know it’s happening, we have to do something.  It is on us to do something.  We just need to understand what and how.” 

So yeah, you’ve got to be really patient with them and move at the speed they’re going.  You have to hold judgement.  It’s really hard sometimes in meetings to hold judgement, but you have to because if you’ve been in the privileged majority for 50 years, you really don’t understand and again, you can go, “You should’ve understood.  Just listen to some podcasts, read some books.”  But they don’t and you’ve got to keep the judgement so that again you can move them through to the change.  And then you do have to hold them accountable.

Manisha: And so you’d need some really amazing people around you as well, and some great staff.  So as a person who wants to get rid of the interview, how did you find your staff, and how do you pick the people that you work with?

Nadya: I mean, it’s really hard, I’d have to say.  So the thing that’s most hard, and I’m sure you’d probably have this in your organisation as well, is that our people are typically from marginalised backgrounds, and the work they’re doing is them reliving the experience of being marginalised every single day, because if you’re teaching on racism, if you’re trying to get a business to understand the impact of racism and you’re a person of colour, you’re having to dig deep into those areas that you have probably yourself experienced in the workplace or in society over the years. 

If I’m doing some work around gender, and I’m sitting in front of men who are questioning, “There’s no pipeline for senior women in this industry,” and I’m like, “There are, there are, there’s lots of them. There’s loads of senior women in your industry.  But for some reason, you’re not hiring them.”  And then you’re having to challenge them on that.  It’s very hard for me not to get really quite cross because I’m having to justify my reason for being.  And again, I come from – I’m a straight, white, without a disability, cis woman. I’m in the second most privileged category of people in the western world, and I find it hard. 

So for some of my team, it’s super, super hard for them.  So we have to bear that in mind so much in what we do, setting very careful boundaries.  There are certain topics we know people in our team just will not do any work on because it’s just too raw, or challenging emotionally for them.  So when we’re finding people and trying to understand who would be right, it’s a lot of very deep conversations.  We really encourage people to shadow what we do so they can see what we do before they join because if they see the work that we do, and they can put themselves in that situation, then they can really evaluate whether it’s right for them.

We always ask them to share some thoughts and ideas on a topic so we can see how their brains work, and there are a million different ways that you can do the work we do.  So there isn’t like there’s a right way.  It’s like, “OK, how would you approach this?”  And then we have to have lots of conversations around boundaries.  And then obviously we do all the things you have to do: diverse sets of people meeting them, different layers of the company, all the company meeting people, because we may be an inclusion and diversity company, but 100 percent there’s bias in all of us.  So we have to be really, really careful to make sure affinity bias doesn’t get in the way.  I would say we haven’t totally smashed up the interview.  We’ve just trampled it quite a lot. 

Manisha: One of the other things I’m interested in, is because all of these people are – you’re activists, if you like as well.  And it takes time and work and even if you have the right person, it still can be quite daunting work and quite tiring work.  So do you think a lot about selfcare and what are some of the things you’d think about in terms of how to do selfcare?

Nadya: Yeah, such a good question.  So because previously, I worked in marketing agencies, the work was hard in that the volume was high, the clients were demanding.  But fundamentally, we were doing similar things every single day and we didn’t have to use ourselves to do the work. We just had to use our knowledge and skill of marketing to do the work.  So one of the things I had to learn really carefully with Utopia is that when you’re using yourself to do the work, the impact is huge.  So we’ve had to implement so many things in order to create an environment where people feel safe, where they feel like they are in a structure that they understand, and also where we build in rest and recovery in lots of different ways, and we’re still learning.  For me, there’s not – there’s no manual on this stuff because it’s such a new piece of work.

We have a triple tier system.  So we have all the things that you should have around competencies and growth mentors.  Everyone has access to a coach, has access to regular meetings with their – we call them growth mentors, but they’re line managers.  So we have the basics.  We then have the middle tier where everyone has access to therapy and supervision sessions. And supervision sessions to me are really important.  You have that conversation that really leaves you feeling depleted and you’ve taken – it’s got into your head that you’ve taken it personally.  You could debrief with a professional in order to process what you’ve learnt or heard. 

So how we’ve set up supervision sessions at Utopia is it’s with a third party.  So it’s very important it’s not someone within the organisation who’s running it, because the things people might share about why they found the session challenging could be deeply personal to them.  So it’s run by a third party.  It’s run by someone who is a trained psychotherapist.  They have a deep understanding of the mind.  So again, they can support in a very powerful way and they themselves are a professional who have to work in this space. 

We have a whole set of them that’s available and every month, we encourage people to say, “If you’ve had a difficult session, please debrief through a supervision session.”  It’s an hour long and they can bring into the room what they found difficult and why, and talk it through with somebody. 

So the third tier is proper wellbeing.  So we do lots of things around this.  So first of all, people can work the hours they want to work, as long as the work is done.  So there are obviously core hours, but we’ve got people on different time zones as well.  So if a member of the team who likes to work from lunch until 8:00 or 9:00 at night – we have some members of the team who like to start at 6:00 and they want to be done by 4:00. And if anyone ever at any moment feels like they just need a break because the work is so hard, then we just plan that in.  So we’re really aware how trying and testing this work is in this space, because you are using your lived experience in order to the work.  So the care we try and put around that is absolutely critical.

Manisha: And some people would argue and might hear you say that and think, “Well, you can never run a business like that,” or they might say, “Utopia is a small organisation.  They can do that, but we couldn’t possibly do this in a large organisation.”  What would you say to them?

Nadya: I would say it’s really hard.  It’s really and we 100 percent haven’t got things right, yet.  So we’re struggling with the balance of accountability versus that total emphasis on care.  And that’s something we’re just working through now because we have people who can just fall out the business for a week because their mental health isn’t great.  But then that leaves lots of people going, “Well, now I’ve got to pick up that work.”  So we’re just working on how we get that transfer right.

Manisha: Yeah, as we’re talking about your staff as activists and yourself as an activist, it’s where do us activists get our food from, our thinking from.  I’m really interested in your thoughts when it comes to – we talked earlier around the idea of who listens to a podcast, but I’m really interested in what we think is good learning and good training, and what is not so good training when it’s actually disrupting all the time?

Nadya: Yeah, I love your phrase, “Where do we get our food from?” and I think it’s two questions.  It’s where do we get our food from and when do we have the time to get our food, because for me, that is the real challenge.  The work that we do is exhausting.  It is absolutely exhausting and if I was to try and do this and then part time study, which it’s not possible.  Even reading a book is like really, really challenging sometimes when – especially when you’re working across multiple time zones.  We work with the States.  We work with Australia.  We’re based in Europe, so you’re doing early morning, late evening. 

So for me, the question, I don’t feel like I’m an expert on where we can get our food from, because I think there’s lots people who are.  But I think what I’ve started to realise is it’s actually the first question is: how do you create the discipline to make sure you’re getting all – you’re growing your mind, you’re growing your knowledge and you’re growing your understanding, because something someone said to me once is: people often go, “I’m too busy, I’m too busy,” and actually, it’s what they’re choosing to prioritise is the problem.  Now again, I’m saying that from a position of privilege.  If you are just having to work three jobs, then it is not about prioritisation.  It’s that you’re having to work three jobs. 

So for me, it’s about how do we create the space and the discipline within a small company so that everybody can get time out to learn and to build their thinking?  And then once we’ve worked that out, it’s a case of, “How should they get that?” because some people don’t like formal learning environments.  Some people don’t feel safe in university and academic environments. Some people don’t read due to neurodiversity.  Some people love books and they’re inhaling a book every single week.  But for me, the first thing is just how do we create the space for it when there’s so much noise all the time? 

Manisha: To wrap this up, you talked about working internally in organisations and disrupting organisations from within.  When we think about activism, we often think about young people.  I’m really interested, when we gaze into the future, where you see the workforce of businesses in the next 20 or 30 years, and whether those activists will actually still be activists or not, or whether this will all be status quo.

Nadya:  I am very, very hopeful about the future, because language which didn’t exist is now every day.  And when things go into language, then you know change can happen.  So I’m going to be a little bit UK centric for a moment.  Five years ago, if I had a conversation with my friends who don’t work in inclusion and diversity at all, that set of friends, and tried to have a conversation about race, they would’ve – they are, by the way, my uni friends and this again comes down to lots of systemic things that are all white.  If I had a conversation with them about race, they would’ve panicked.  They would’ve been a look of like total like, “What’s she doing?  Why is she doing this?  This is a bit awkward.” 

Those conversations are every day now, every day.  They’re in the media and obviously they’re handled really badly.  It’s the same way that you think about how we’re talking about being trans; it’s in the media every day.  When I see the fact that these conversations are on the surface and not underneath – and when my mother-in-law who is 75 is having these conversations – that’s the first stage.  If we can talk about it, we can debate it and we can move forward with change. 

I also think that we’ve got to focus on the micro actions and I’ve been saying this quite a lot.  There are some people out there who have the ability, the headspace, the privilege, the dedication, the focus to just do macro actions, and they are probably in the community and they’re doing really cohesive joined up actions to drive very systemic change.  And they need to continue forever, “Please keep doing this work.”  If you’re in a business and you’re a manager, and you just take a look at the last five people I’ve hired all look like me, I’m not going to do that next time. I’m going to push really hard on my TAs, on my recruitment partners, and I’m going to have a diverse shortlist.  Or I’m looking at how I’m promoting and all the people who are in the pub every Friday, they always seem to get promoted.  I’m going to look at that and I’m just going to try and do something different. 

If we’ve got the language to talk about it, and we give people the confidence to try those micro actions, I really think things can change.  Of course, I have to be hopeful, because if I don’t have hope, what have I got?  But I look at the signs and I go, “I have to have hope,” and do you know what?  I do have hope.

Manisha: That’s fantastic.  So it’s really a journey, isn’t it, rather than a destination.

Nadya: I do think that’s why we’re called Utopia, because we’re never going to get there, but we’ve just got to keep trying.

Manisha: So thank you so much, Nadya.  It’s wonderful having you here today.  Thank you for your time and sharing your stories.  I know that there are people out there who are activists themselves, who will really resonate with the things you’re talking about, the things you’re grappling with as well, and the journey that you’re on and the people that you help and the companies that you help as well. 

Nadya: Thank you so much, Manisha.  This has been such a privilege because you’ve made me think.  Your questions have really expanded some of my thinking on things.  So I really appreciate it.  I feel like I’ve been in business therapy for an hour, so that’s awesome.

Manisha: Our own little supervision here. 

Nadya: Yeah exactly.

Manisha: And for all our listeners, thank you for being here with us on With, Not For.  If you’d like to learn more about how you can make the world more inclusive, contact us on www.cfid.org.au or see the show notes where you can find out more about Utopia and the work that Nadya does.  Until next time, this is Manisha Amin for Centre for Inclusive Design.