In this Building Better Business, we meet Shereen Daniels whose book, The Anti-Racist Organization, is out this month.

Shereen is Managing Director of the anti-racism advisory firm HR rewired, and Chair of the African Diaspora Economic Inclusion Foundation (ADEIF).

In 2021 HR Magazine named Shereen "HR Most Influential Thinker 2021" in recognition of her work on racial equity and helping organizations become actively anti-racist.

In 2022 Shereen launched the Anti-Racism Innovation Community, a professional development, invite-only community on Guild for people championing anti-racism in their organizations.

Shereen kindly gave us some of her time to talk about her advisory work, the book, her foundation for Black female entrepreneurs and the Anti-Racism Innovation Community.

Welcome Shereen. Your Guild and LinkedIn profiles make incredibly impressive reading! Can you tell us what you do and why you were named 'HR’s Most Influential Thinker'?

"Well, I'm going to answer the question in reverse. I have no idea what I did to be HR’s most influential thinker, because I sit on the periphery of HR and lots of different things and my work has never really been embraced by the HR profession generally. But yes, I specialise in anti-racism.

I run my own HR advisory company that specialises in anti-racism and as an individual anti-racism is pretty much everything I talk about in some way, shape or form.

I just want us to all be better and do better.

So I think that's probably where the influential status came from - I'm consistent, I'm very consistent on that."

Human Resources permeates every single element of any organization. Being recognised as an influential thinker in such an influential sector is  a brilliant accolade. Can we dig a little bit more into that?

"There is something in that.  I've been part of the HR profession for many, many years, too many to count. If I ask - is HR on the progressive side of issues like the future of work, changing expectations of society, really thinking about how businesses can operate in a completely different way? Broadly, I would say no.

Do I see a lot of HR professionals going out on a limb, putting their heads above the parapet publicly, on really pertinent and important issues that impact on colleagues within the workplace? Probably not.

And there are lots of different reasons. That's not a criticism; I think it's just the way it is.

So I think the fact that I do have a HR background, but I'm outside of the organizational structure by running my own company, probably gives me a lot more freedom to say things that people wish they could say, but they can't.

And even people that sit on the periphery of organizations still wish they could say what I say, but they can't.

Because I've dedicated so much time and effort to help bring as many people closer to the issue of systemic racism, you can't question my commitment to the cause. That’s not just in the UK, but all over the world, and I create content, I've written a book, I've got a podcast, I've done a crazy amount of videos. I think if you look at my body of work, it’s not difficult to see the heart of why I do what I do.

I'm not out there pushing my business every day – in fact some people don't even realise I've got a business – they just think I’m a full-time influencer creating videos and posting on LinkedIn.

So yes – there’s my commitment to raising awareness of anti-racism and I also run my own foundation that supports Black female entrepreneurs.

In every way, shape, or form I'm trying to do as much as I can, bearing in mind I'm one individual and a mum of two children.  I think the fact that I'm still here when a lot of people have fallen by the wayside has an influence.

If I'm honest, like everything, people get very excited when something traumatic happens but I think the true test is: how much are you still doing?

As an individual or as an organization we need to ask - how much are we still doing now that an issue is not always so front and centre? I'm still here regardless. So I think that the “HR’s most influential thinker” accolade is partly down to people seeing that long-term consistency and commitment."

You mentioned to me before that you have “three pillars” - your personal brand as an expert in anti-racism and in HR. Your advisory firm, which helps organizations you work with tackle tough challenges. Your "third pillar" is your Foundation. Can you tell us about that?

"It's the African Diaspora Economic Inclusion Foundation - ADEIF for short. It’s about recognising the missed opportunity that Black female entrepreneurs offer as part of the business and entrepreneurial landscape within the UK.

In essence, we support them to realise some of the opportunities that can help them scale or take their business to the next level.

It’s less about what I call the “deficit narrative” - we're not putting them under a microscope and saying, “what is it that you're not doing?” - instead, we’re saying, how can we help?

We're also not asking what the barriers are, because I think we all know the barriers that Black people face in business, never mind Black women.

What we are saying is, what are some of the things that will massively make a difference for you? What are the opportunities and how can we support that? So it’s answering questions like: who can we connect you to? Who can we leverage support from who is already doing the work in this space?

But we’re asking *them* what *they* need and not assuming we can dictate just because we think we know this landscape."

ADEIF is a brilliant initiative with an innovative approach and that's true for your advisory work too. You help organizations to "Build Better Business" by tackling difficult issues. Can you tell us more about that?

"It's interesting, because just before this interview, I had to email somebody we won't be taking on as a client. You don't often hear that – you often hear people say they’ll work for everyone but  we don't.

Organizations are embarking on difficult work because they've never had to really tackle race and racism before. They're not comfortable. They don't know what to do and they don't know how to do it.

And part of them is just hoping this will all just go away – as though they’re saying “if I close my eyes, it's all going to just mysteriously disappear”.

One of the things that we’re quite deliberate about is that we actually call ourselves an advisory firm, not a consultancy. We call ourselves an advisory firm because our job is almost to sit behind the scenes.

We don't come in and fix. We don't go in there and do action plans. Our job is to help give context to the issue of systemic racism, and help organizations understand where there is alignment and misalignment - particularly with their board and senior leadership teams. We help them make informed decisions and provide the tools and the resources and the infrastructural support.

So think support like helping with board alignment, creating tools and resources, coaching, analysing data or specific interventions around listening, to help them then understand where does the issue of systemic racism show up in their business? And therefore, what is their problem statement? And what can they do?

So, this premise of better business for us is about trying to eradicate assumptions. Particularly with CEOs, they assume that everybody wants to do the work, and that everybody wants to progress to be anti-racist.

Leaders can assume that everyone has the knowledge, and they assume that everyone is comfortable. What we're saying is those assumptions are dangerous because you're making business decisions without strong foundations.

So when we're thinking about better business, we're thinking about how you can build up strong foundations to ensure that all the actions that you're taking to address something that actually causes colleagues harm, comes from a place of knowing and sense checking. Rather than a knee jerk “I think…therefore, yeah, let's just get on with it”.

In essence, we just help businesses ask better questions. We don't give them the answers, because the context is different for each business."

Shereen Daniels is author of The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace, published 12 May 2022 by Wiley
Shereen Daniels is author of The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace, published 12 May 2022 by Wiley

You've written a book The Anti–Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace (Wiley, 12 May 2022).  Why did you write it, are you happy you did and should we buy it?

""Yes, you should definitely buy it! I'm very pleased I wrote it and it’s finally going to have its outing into the world.

The backstory is that I recorded 100 videos, pretty much in 100 consecutive days, following the murder of George Floyd. Somewhere around video number 27, one of my LinkedIn followers wrote in the comments: “Shereen, I think it's time that you started thinking about writing a book”. I said, “Imagine if I get to 100 videos – if I do that, I'm definitely writing a book.”

I think I started it when I got well past 200 videos...but the premise of the book that I thought I'd write at that point, and what this book actually is, are probably two different things.

It’s partly because it joins up my HR experience with the very specific experience that myself and my HR Rewired colleagues have had, supporting all of these organizations, and at the same time trying really hard not to give people a blueprint.

I'm not trying to convince anybody that racism exists, because we've gone beyond that.

But the book is to help you recalibrate if you’re starting from a point like: “I want to do something, but I'm not sure what” or “we've done some stuff and we're not sure it's the right thing” or “we're not sure we're doing it in the right way” or “we're not seeing the impact that we thought we would at this stage”.

It's very challenging, because I'm very direct and candid. One person described it as “a short, long read” because it's a short book, but there's a lot in there. I like short sentences and full stops, because we haven’t got time to waste.

So I convey that and you can hear my voice - it's very conversational. It's not an academic business textbook, but it is a business book about racism. The aim is for people to be able to use it, pick it up and go to a specific chapter and “see what does Shereen say about this stage that we’re at”.

It’s meant to be well-thumbed through, for people to make notes and references. I feel like saying “highlighters sold separately” because you will need your highlighters – there are lots of moments where you’ll go “Ooooh” and want to make sure you can come back to a point."

Shereen Daniels founded the Anti-Racism Innovation Community, a community on Guild for people working to make their organizations anti-racist
Shereen Daniels founded the Anti-Racism Innovation Community, a community on Guild for people working to make their organizations anti-racist

You host an invite-only community on Guild called the Anti-Racism Innovation Community. Can you tell us more about that community and why you chose Guild?

"It's a safe online space for people that are doing the real work of trying change workplaces to be more anti-racist and equitable. There will only ever be about 150 members at any one time and that’s to keep the membership focused and intimate.

Part of the reason why I'm where I am is because of the way I've used LinkedIn, but it's a bit like a big festival - providing you've got your ticket you're in. It's great for amplifying and broadcasting messages but sometimes you need a smaller, more reciprocal community.

People who are working on making their organizations anti-racist, in any guise - sometimes want to ask questions or share experiences in a safe, private space. Starting a more intimate, gated community gives people a different way to work together and particularly to help each other out.

The challenge with social media communities is that it can be tempting to just listen in silently and passively to a conversation. Sometimes that's just what you need to do, but I wanted to build a dedicated community with some reciprocity and give and take. The idea is that people can put what they're learning into action, and share what they've learned. "

Read more about the Anti-Racism Innovation Community here

It's great to hear how community fits into your own work. Do you think it's possible to build a business or any organization in 2022, without thinking about how community will support it?

“That's a really good question. Let me think - I'm going to say it is *possible* but I’ll caveat it with - it depends on the type of business you want to build.

There are so many people that get into the world of business from a transactional perspective. They’re concentrating on things like “how big can I grow the business? When am I going to sell it? How much money can I make?”

I think if you're if you're purely thinking about a product or service, stack it high, sell it, get out - then 100%, you can build a business without community. But does society need more of that? Haven’t we got enough of that?

I personally think if we took a more community-spirited approach to business, thinking about ecosystems, we’d be able to achieve more of the things that really matter to us.

A lot of my work helping people think about anti-racism is not just about what happens within the four walls of their companies, but also about the positive influence they can have on their entire value chain.

So think about how you operate as an ecosystem. One example from my own life – I gave a copy of my book to my youngest daughter's childminder. I wrote a message for her in the book to thank you for her support and also to acknowledge that it’s through her doing what she loves that has enabled me to do the same, knowing my daughter is well taken care of. That’s the extended community in action.

From that point of view of an extended community - no man or woman is an island, and that’s equally true for any business. The pandemic has shown us how much further you can go, but also how a lot of businesses have been able to survive that because of community.

I just think we've collectively had enough of transactional businesses and transactional relationships. And the community aspect is not about everybody's being in each other’s pocket but what I call the interconnectedness of us all, as human beings.

We're probably more connected on a foundational level than we think. And I think the community aspect helps us tap into that.

I talk about things like vibrations and frequencies – my work attracts certain people who oscillate on a certain frequency. That's the bit that connects us, not ethnicity, or skin colour, or gender and all the rest of it. That's why I have followers from all over the world – it’s not only Black people or allies that follow me, it’s people all over.

I think when you think in those terms, and then you think in terms of network effect, then you also think about how ripples and positive impact can go in lots of different directions.

Thinking like that forces you to think more expansively about what it means to operate as a business - your responsibility but also what you can get back from that.

You get a constant bouncing backwards and forwards between giving and reciprocating, and that's just how we're wired.

But I don't think that everybody gets that and for some people, that's not important, it never crosses their mind. They’re concentrating on how many customers can I get, what's the cheapest way I can hire people, what’s the cheapest supplier I can find? Everything can be very transactional."

Are you a fan of business books or podcasts, and if so what would you recommend?

"That is a hard one – where to start.  I know this is a Marmite recommendation but I have learnt a lot from Gary Vaynerchuk. I know that some people don’t like him but what I do appreciate is that he doesn’t care what people think about him.

I have found myself moving away from traditional business thinkers and moving towards people that have found their niche or their pockets, and they settle into it.

And this is another controversial one - Tony Robbins. I’m not recommending we all buy his books and I’m not a fan of everything he says, but there is something about that fundamental self-belief - I can see how his confidence makes other people feel confident.

So I’d say what I learn from thinkers I don’t necessarily agree with is that it’s good to have clarity -  find your “pocket”, be clear about what you believe, and don’t be afraid to be Marmite. I’m a Marmite kind of person myself – not everyone loves me or my work but I’m OK with that.

I actually think congeniality might be the death of us all. Pleasing everybody and niceness doesn’t get anybody anywhere."

What advice would you give to your younger self or any young entrepreneur starting a business today?

"I would say be really clear on why you’re doing what you’re doing.

I left the corporate world because I was fleeing. I didn’t have clearly defined plans and I just thought “I’ll start a consultancy”. However, what I did was to base it on my profession, using my expertise.

So I would say be clear on your reasons for starting on the path you choose. And I’d also say - don’t underestimate the value of learning and doing at the same time. I do that all the time, and it’s important to do them at the same time."

Finally, if you weren’t doing what you’re doing now, what would you be doing and where?

"I’d be a part-time DJ, and I’d also be huddled up somewhere, writing romance novels. Paranormal romance novels with vampires, shapeshifters and all that kind of thing – I’ve got all the stories in my head and I still maintain I’ll do that one day if I can carve out space.

It’s actually what I wanted to do when I was about 14 – when I gave a copy of my book to my mum I actually wrote in it “I thought my first book would be a romance book”.

So there you go – romance novelist and part-time DJ."

The Anti-Racist Organization: Dismantling Systemic Racism in the Workplace by Shereen Daniels is published 12 May 2022 by Wiley

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