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The power of one

Release date:
18 June 2020
Employee Kav Bhamra has been recognized for his work as an ethnic minority role model. He shares his mission to shift the balance towards a fairer world and how we can all play a part in the struggle

When Kav, a member of bp’s information technology and services team, found out that he’d made this year’s EMpower 100 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders List, he says he was ‘taken aback’ by the news. Once the surprise had passed, though, he knew that this was a special moment. “Being recognized on a list like this for the effort I’ve made to help shift the dial feels like a real achievement,” he says.


Initially postponed because of the COVID-19 pandemic, the 2020 EMpower Ethnic Minority Role Model Lists couldn’t come at a more important moment, as racial injustice protests continue around the world. “It’s timely,” says Kav, “not just for highlighting role models, but in opening up what has felt like a taboo subject for so long.”


In fact, says Kav, this is a conversation he’s been preparing for his entire bp career, adding: 

 

“I joined 23 years ago and at that time it was very difficult to navigate the organization. There weren’t many people in the office who wore a turban or looked like me.”

 

Traditional bhangra dancing at PEN's Diwali event in Sunbury

Last year, Kav led the Positively Ethnic Network (PEN) team organizing an event at bp’s International Centre for Business and Technology (ICBT) in Sunbury, UK, to celebrate Diwali, the festival of lights observed by Hindus, Sikhs and Jains. An array of activities included live entertainment, henna tattooists, traditional festive food and music, and a dance workshop.

A bp employee has a henna tattoo applied during the Diwali event

Things began to change in 2006, with the formation inside bp of the Positively Ethnic Network (PEN), designed to increase the representation, inclusion and advancement of UK-based ethnic minorities, as well as change the attitudes and language of bp. Kav got involved almost immediately and today is on his second stint as co-chair. 


“It’s been a long, sometimes painful journey,” he says. “We’ve had to host a lot of lunch and learn sessions, educate a lot of people and approach senior leaders directly to come along to listen and support. Our new executive sponsor, Simon Hodgkinson, has made a huge difference in the past couple of years.”


That said, Kav is the only one of all previous co-chairs still working at bp, suggesting the organization has some way to go. “I think bp does a lot of good stuff, but there’s always room for improvement,” he says. Which is why Kav was particularly excited to see Bernard Looney’s recent email to all staff on racial injustice


“I had to read it twice, I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “In the past two weeks since that note, it feels like the whole of bp has become a more open safe space to talk about ethnicity and race. That shift has to come from the top and it’s exciting to see. It’s not just me or others from a BAME background anymore. We’re getting the support and people can see real change happening. It’s been an emotional couple of weeks.” 


Spend any time talking to Kav and his passion for this issue is evident. And it’s because he’s faced the very prejudices that he’s spent two decades fighting. Early in his bp career, one senior leader declared surprise at the fact that he “didn’t sound Indian” and it wasn’t the first or last inappropriate remark he heard.

But, he says, “I believe you can either sit down and not do anything, or you can take the bull by the horns and help to create the role models so that you do something positive for the next generation coming through the organization.” 

 

With his inclusion on the EMpower list, Kav’s position as a role model has been cemented both inside and outside bp and that matters. Without role models, that next generation will simply go somewhere else, he says. Worse, the talented people who do join will quickly disengage and leave. 


“I wanted to work for a company that had a clear career path, but I also wanted to work somewhere that took diversity and inclusion seriously. That means seeing senior leaders that look like me sharing their experiences. It also means members of the Caucasian community standing up and demonstrating that this matters to them too. I love working at bp and I’d like to make sure I continue shifting the dial.” 


And there is plenty to be done – people from the BAME community remain under-represented at the most senior levels of bp. “The US team has conducted a series of ‘listening lounges’, which have been brilliant and we’re about to run our first in the UK,” Kav explains. “I’ve also led unconscious bias training workshops to encourage leadership teams to change their recruiting and promotion practices to include ethnically diverse candidates.”  

 

Now, Kav is working with colleagues to build on bp’s established gender-based ‘rules of the road’ – a set of principles that support the company’s goals for improving diversity. “They’ve proved very effective in terms of gender equality,” says Kav. “Now, we want to do the same for ethnicity.” 

On the EMpower list

Kav is one of four bp employees to feature on this year’s lists compiled by INvolve, a membership organization that champions diversity and inclusion in business. The annual lists are intended to showcase business leaders breaking down barriers at work in the UK, Ireland, Europe, US and Canada.


Who else from bp has been named?

 

EMpower 100 Ethnic Minority Executives List 

Aleida Rios – head of engineering, upstream.

Carey Mendes – head of bp reinvent, trading and shipping. 

EMpower 20 Advocates List 

Robert Lawson – global head of mergers and acquisitions. 


The full Empower Ethnic Minority Role Model Lists can be found here.  

Kav, standing second from right, joins the panel, his PEN co-chairs and PEN leadership at the Big Conversation event

Last year, PEN hosted the ‘Big Conversation’ with a panel from across bp and beyond to discuss the value of diversity, what works to build and sustain ethnic diversity and what we can personally do to promote change. Kav is joined in the picture above by members of the panel and the PEN leadership, including PEN executive sponsor for the ICBT Martyn Smith (seated, far left) and Simon Hodgkinson (seated, second from right), who takes up the role in July.

He adds: “We can’t brush this under the carpet anymore. Companies like bp talk about bringing your whole self to work. But imagine what that means for someone who looks like me living in London immediately after the 2005 bombings, for example. Someone travelling on the Tube, maybe carrying a rucksack. Someone who might then have to face inappropriate comments or behaviour at work. And they can’t take it home because they don’t want to upset their loved ones. So, you carry this on your shoulders all the time.” 

 

“I wanted to work for a company that had a clear career path, but I also wanted to work somewhere that took diversity and inclusion seriously.”  

 

The global racial injustice protests may be a pivotal moment in cultural history – an important one where voices that have been suppressed for so long aren’t just speaking up, but being heard, finally engaging in the conversations that many have pushed for over decades. But if that moment is to turn into real, lasting change, then those conversations must continue, every single day. You get the sense from Kav that that is a conversation he will always be glad to have with you. 

Kav’s pointers on how you can make a difference right now 

  • Listen… and I mean really listen to others when they are speaking to you about their experiences of being an ethnic minority.
  • Privilege is learning about racism; lack of privilege is living it. 
  • If you are in a position where you hire/promote people in your organization, ensure that you have a diversity and inclusion lens over the recruitment process. 
  • Don’t shy away from having open conversations around race. 
  • Make a conscious effort to engage with people who do not look or sound like you (you will be amazed at what you can pick up).
  • Change comes from the top, you need to ensure that you demonstrate the values and behaviours you believe in – others will follow in your footsteps.
  • Become an advocate/ally for a business resource group like bp’s Positively Ethnic Network. 
  • When thinking about D&I, consider that diversity is perceiving difference; inclusion is valuing it.
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