The industry needs a “Bake-off” moment – By Bola Abisogun OBE

Keep thy heart with all diligence; for out of it are the issues of life

Proverbs 4:23, 24

Growing up as a black professional in the UK has had a profound effect on my perception of what it takes and means to be ‘good at what you do’. The constant denial of ‘career opportunity’ in the UK, as described here has often led to frustration and much disappointment. Notwithstanding, at the time of writing, such frustration and disappointment has never been strong enough to quench the fire in my passion, both for what I do and the wider sector itself. It is always worth noting that both the surveying profession and the construction industry, are and always have been intrinsically linked; this in itself, has often proved challenging for many BAME professionals, to navigate at Senior Level. As Building Magazine has so clearly affirmed in its 5 April 2019 edition, the industry needs to ‘take a good look’ at itself. I interpret this to be ‘an uncomfortable truth’ that warrants an industry wide, ‘bake-off moment’. Yes indeed, think of that highly successful BBC programme in which all the contestants [industry professionals] are given fair and mutual access to the same ingredients [academic opportunity] the same advisors [clients / industry networks] the same equipment [technical tools] the same amount of time to bake [to progress and excel] and all asked by the same presenter [the industry] to produce something amazing [i.e. build a successful career]; BUT, if only it was that simple.

Building Magazine Cover, 5th April 2019

However, the need to address the aforementioned ‘bake-off criteria’ in sole recognition of our #NextGenTalentPool and future leaders, became part of my DNA and has been since I qualified in December 1999. It was during my first attempt at the APC in 1998 that I realised that breadth of knowledge is great but detailed knowledge of application is even more critical. I was fluent in all things BIM following my graduation five years earlier, in QS/CM where I gained ‘a genuine’ Dbl 1St Class with Honours for the topic of my thesis which talked about hypertext technology and relational databases in conflict management. This later become a model, publicly deployed by tech giant Google, which has since become far ‘too intelligent’ for some; thankfully I’m not there yet with regards tech disruption; there is much more required before I call time. However, back then, in my quest to address the two-man APC panel, I think I was ‘far too intelligent’ on some matters requiring specialist knowledge, the same knowledge that was still largely unknown and overwhelmingly misunderstood by the surveying profession. 1998 was an incredibly difficult year, and admittedly not passing the APC on my first attempt was not only soul-destroying, but more importantly, was the first time that I failed an academic pursuit. That failure was a huge blow and a massive learning curve for me personally, but was only an indication of what would follow less than a year later.

Historically, a fluent, straight A-student, I won the Student of the Year ‘SoY’ Award [offered by a London based Top-10 firm of Quantity Surveyors] whilst studying at Wolverhampton, during 1992 and 1994, (my first and final years respectively). I was then offered an opportunity to join the same firm in London, during my post-grad return back to the family home, which initially, I took as a superb boost of confidence. It transpired to be a huge error of judgement on my part, due largely to my innocence and naivety, thinking that ‘being gifted and talented’ was enough to make it in the real world. However, thankfully I left that firm within 18months as it was just too much effort for me to try and fit in. Just as I was pleasantly reminded and have recently observed, on LinkedIn “why try and fit in when you were born to stand out – Dr. Seuss”. Needlessly ‘trying to fit’ in has since my teenager years, always been a challenge for me, back then opting to ‘move with the Big Boys in Hackney’ and then deciding – very quickly, that my Parents were right – and creating ‘my own lane’ to ride solo and at my own speed. Knowing that I have been blessed with many gifts and copious amounts of actionable grey matter is a fact that is truly humbling and one that I never forget. It’s also why I am absolutely convinced that ‘talent has no colour’ such that I remain keen and committed to share my journey and myriad experiences, with as many young people as possible. Anyway, after that miserable introduction to QS’ing in the mid-nineties, I set about getting chartered without delay as advised to me by my ‘life-long’ mentors Professor Issaka Ndekugri and Professor Paul Olomolaiye. From December 1998 to November 1999, I studied extremely hard for my second APC sitting, which also demanded a much wider portfolio and another change of employer; just to ensure that I had the right breadth and balance.

RICS Elevate – profile of Bola Abisogun (2005)

So it was that ‘fateful Friday’ on the 14 May 1999, when I came into contact with an edition of Building Magazine that seemed to be an informed and honest attempt to openly address and discuss the issue of racism within the construction industry. I’d had a taste of ‘the industry’s culture’ from some of the ‘mature’ students that left the industry at the height of the recession and returned to study in 1991, which is when I left London to commence my first degree at Wolverhampton and for the first time in my life, live outside the M25. Little did I know, that my interaction with this magazine [and topic], in 1999, would engender a wider awareness of what others – that look like me – may also be going through in the construction industry, the surveying profession and [quite possibly] the wider built environment. What happened to me on that day [care of a Senior Surveyor], remains the lowest point in my professional career [in fact, many call it my ‘career’ trauma]. And although I struggled to hold back the tears, I read the article outside in the office car park, which also made reference to the experience(s) of other professionals in the sector, including George Rock an experienced Site Manager at Irvine Whitlock. All of a sudden, I simply couldn’t believe what I was actually reading and as I began to wipe the last of my tears away, it all became crystal clear to me. The 14 May 1999 became the day ‘Bola was reborn’ and I suddenly realised that it was up to me to help others achieve their excellence too. Ironically, George was the same man that had given me a chance [when no-one else would] to carry the hod on site, during my summer vacations – the objective being to keep my bricklayers watered and fed, with muck and bricks. This ‘practical / hands-on experience’ on site, gave me a clinical 3D perspective on everything that I was exposed to whilst studying at University. George did that for me and I simply had to give back to those coming behind me; it was simple……or so I thought!

Cover of Building Magazine; 14 May 1999

Having qualified as a Chartered Quantity Surveyor in December 1999, I left the UK frustrated during mid-2000 and returned from Atlanta in August 2000, having met Mr Herman J Russell of HJ Russell, based in Atlanta, Georgia; who simply reminded me of just how talented I was [and explained how successful I could be in the USA]. I was empowered and humbled in the same breath, but felt that I had unfinished business in the UK, so returned to London to prove to myself, that change could happen in the way I knew it could, if I diligently applied myself. I was definitely inspired by my conversation with Mr Russell, but what on Earth was I thinking…………..? So, I set up my first company Accessable Advice, in November 2000, which was later profiled by RICS Elevate in 2005 as one of only two ‘independently owned’ black led firms in London. The venture failed due to unfavourable UK procurement policy [and a systemic lack of Supplier Diversity for micro-businesses] which simply forced me to want succeed even more [and try again]. A consistent lack of opportunity for BAME Surveyors was also the common denominator with others, that ultimately led to the formation of DiverseCity Surveyors, which in 2006, was no more than ‘a whinge club’ for a handful of black surveyors that were constantly denied or overlooked for career progression in any meaningful way.

Today, and as a direct consequence, most of my peer group reside overseas, mostly in the Middle & Far East, but also Africa and more recently Canada and Australia too. I was the ‘dreamy optimist’ and naturally I became a serial entrepreneur in my desire to use my mounting losses and failures to define my future gains and successes. With no intention of giving up, I ploughed every penny of my savings into a NewCo and set up Urbanis as an ‘educated community builder’ in 2003. The plan was to engage with public sector landlords [i.e. local authorities and housing associations] who were procuring very large packages of construction work [via 4 or 5yr Frameworks] and who were all seeking better ROI via ‘social value’ on their CapEx and OpEx spend from the appointed Tier 1 Suppliers. In stepped Urbanis who was a ‘community builder’ fully conversant (as a PQS) in the corporate language of both the client and contractor, as well as the local language and dialect of the diverse communities, often found in the urban inner city areas. Urbanis upon [sub]contract award from the appointed Tier 1 Supplier / Client, would engage with local and often hard-to-reach groups to ‘inform and offer’ them a genuine opportunity to participate on these large scale, long term construction contracts the most common being the Decent Homes programme. It just so happens that my biggest cohort happened to be young people and specifically, young black men. In fact my biggest and most humbling career achievement was in March 2016, when I took ten [10] young black men – that society said, had no future – all living in Hackney and flew them over to see what life in business could be like in the City of Atlanta, USA. They met a couple of ‘dollar billionaires’ and quite a few multi-millionaires, all real people that looked like them and who told them how they pursued and executed their dreams, to achieve their success. For a week, all of the young men stayed at the same hotel that I had stayed in during my first trip to Atlanta, albeit it had been fully refurbished and expanded, but was still in the same location and now directly opposite Porsche USA.

After a ‘life-changing’ experience of engagement and corporate exposure, that even the London Borough of Hackney positively recognised, by awarding us a Mayors Business Award in 2016, all ten [10] young men returned to London, with me and have never looked back since. Notwithstanding, the ‘Urbanis Delivery Model’ was deployed successfully across the whole of London, starting in Ealing in 2006 and included Enfield, Islington, Hackney, Hammersmith & Fulham, Haringey, Lewisham, Southwark and Westminster, over a 15year period. However, due to forces and measures beyond our control, the business has met with significant turbulence and, at the time of writing, remains in ‘intensive care’. The granular detail of this harrowing situation could very well form the body of my next contribution. But on a positive note, the ‘Urbanis Delivery Model’ has created a successful pan-London legacy – with and for thousands of ‘local’ young people – both witnessing and benefitting from the Urbanis legacy process, and which in December 2018, was ‘listed and placed on record in the London Gazette’ see here. This formal acknowledgement, was publicly recognised by HM Queen Elizabeth II at an Investiture hosted at Buckingham Palace and conducted by HRH Prince of Wales on 7 February 2019; see here.

To end 2018, which was by far the toughest of my 48years; with the honour of an OBE, advised to me via phone call from the Cabinet Office [on the same day that I locked the door of our London office, where we had been for 15years] was perhaps a sign that, I really needed to take a step back and just reflect, for a moment, on what I had actually achieved during my 25yr industry career as a Construction Manager and Community Builder, with a PQS bias. In fact, I have also been advised, that I am the only Black Fellow of the RICS to have achieved an OBE and remain under the age of 50years young. For this, I take no credit as that sits squarely with my parents, my young family, the thousands of young people that I have met along the way and the charitable / third sector organisations who have all supported me by taking a leap of faith in my demonstrable leadership capabilities.

And as if to further endorse the combined ‘Urbanis / DiverseCity Surveyors’ legacy of working with young people in the construction industry, the compelling evidence as shown at a recent and targeted event co-hosted last week with London Mayor, Sadiq Khan [on Monday 15 April 2019] and held at the Institution of Civil Engineers – has proved not only to be a huge success, but one that was actually over-subscribed by some 200%; see here. Deputy Mayor for Social Integration, Social Mobility and Community Engagement, Dr Debbie Weekes-Bernard, thanked me for my rousing and inspirational opening and further commented that “it was so important for those young men to see you standing there, sharing your story of success but also reflecting on your journey. So necessary for them to see that it’s possible”.

Bolo Abisogun OBE and Deputy Mayor Debbie Weekes-Bernard at the Mayor of London WIN Job Fair at the Institution of Civil Engineering, Westminster, London. 15th April 2019.

Admittedly, whilst it may appear on the surface that – with the adornment of an OBE – I have reached a successful level of career progression, both personally and within my own profession; my current reality is at complete odds with that perception and has come at a huge price. To be completely honest, I am now grossly over-qualified and recently a victim of ‘ageism in the UK’ at just 48years young. My unfailing Executive Search Consultants [Tom, Carla, Anthony and Daniel] have all been with me on that rocky road of compounding rejection, only to draw blank after blank [no after no, after not now]. How can this be, given the presence of a so called ‘skills crisis’…….? In fact, in the full knowledge of my darkest hour and in consideration of my contribution and relevance to the profession, I have on several occasions begun to question the relevance of the profession / RICS to me as an individual, in their current form. I say this due to the lack of any reciprocal support – aside from the obvious benefit(s) of the five letter moniker after my name. Completely unable to secure and develop into a Senior / Director Level position within the industry itself, has for me, crystallised the dismissive culture, prevalent in the industry today (as of 21.04.19).

Despite this personal challenge amidst the myriad and daily micro-aggressions, I will continue to push for that much needed ‘bake-off moment’. It is vitally important that we, as a profession and industry ‘once and for all’, break the cycle of wasted and under-employed professional talent, specifically for the #NextGen BAME talent pool. Anything less than that, could potentially lead to a prolonged and dare I say it, exponentially perverse ‘period of leakage’ from a badly maintained, culturally incompetent pipeline, the form of which has clearly been manufactured to remain impervious ‘to difference’. But please, don’t take my word for it, just look at page 2 of my 7 page PowerPoint presentation that was delivered at the recently held GLA led ‘WIN’ Jobs Fair [held on Monday 15 April 2019]. Please refer also to the link above, which clearly shows two (2) covers of the lauded and well-publicised Building Magazine. The first cover was published on ‘that fateful’ Friday 14 May 1999 and the second on Friday 5 April 2019. Despite being virtually twenty (20) years apart in their print date, both copies are conclusively saying EXACTLY the same thing about the well documented experiences of BAME professionals amidst the ongoing and ‘shocking levels of industry discrimination’, prevalent on their respective date of issue.

As a seasoned, professional PQS with 25yrs of technical project delivery, I have been particularly inspired [and guided] to share this piece following my review of recent contributions by three of my esteemed colleagues Sara Cameron, Amanda Clack PPRICS and Marion Ellis, all of whom continue to inspire me [from afar, and possibly without knowing!]. Admittedly, I am no stranger to publicly fulfilling my purpose and expressing my passion, so let’s start baking, properly. Be it a standard or gluten / egg free, loaf of bread, iced-cake or well-seasoned savoury, let’s simply make the ‘life-long’ career-development process ‘totally inclusive’. Yes, you guessed it, I enjoy cooking which has become therapeutic over the years. It is also time to call for the industry [and all of the allied professions] to become ‘fit for purpose and accepting’, of every single individual, who is both willing and courageous enough to step into the kitchen and produce something amazing!

5 thoughts on “The industry needs a “Bake-off” moment – By Bola Abisogun OBE

  1. Barrington Billings

    Having been on a small part of that journey with Bola when I was President of the Charteted Institute of Housing, I know precisely what Bola has so openly and honestly shared in this amazingly brutal and honest account of his experience and journey as a BAME professional within the surveying profession.

    There are so many facets to this article that it would be an injustice to try and adress them all in this short comment.
    What I can say though is that this article is an inspiration to us all and shows someone who is driven and committed to helping others who like himself are coming up against brick walls of racism, discrimination and other barriers in the surveying profession.

    I am inspired by Bola’s journey and hope that all who read his article is equally inspired to continue the fight against such injustice. The well deserved OBE is cold comfort as it’s not stopped the disgraceful injustice that Bola and orhers lije him continue to experience.

    Bola nay never really know just how much he has really achieved in both his successes and disappointments. However this he can be assured that his journey is part of the ongoing struggle that people of colour continue to experience and his account of his own struggle is a critical part of this journey. In time history will show just important his account has been in shaping the future of the surveying profession in the UK. Keep the faith Bola you are one in a million.

    1. Dear Barrington,

      Thank you for your kind words. You have omitted to impart upon the reader, one key criteria, within the pivotal role that you played in my journey.

      As the ‘first’ Black President of said body, the Chartered Institute of Housing ‘CIH’ was privy to ‘your vision’ of a more diverse and intellectually endowed profession, which hopefully, has remained intact and further embellished the current CIH corporate plan. Know that I was inspired to join the CIH, solely from your presence and our myriad discussions. My framed certificate of Corporate Membership (dated August 2005, with your signature as President), remains one of my greatest possessions.

      Thank you for being you.

      God Bless.

  2. I’m enormously proud to have been on part of that journey with you. First at Wolverhampton where we turned up on that October morning for the first lecture, as the only two black young men on the course (though you were always more advanced – almost supernaturally gliding above the rest of us!)… but also laterally, in all the policy work to diversify the industry and achieve equity from the authorship of our shared built environment… As I’ve told you often, you in particular were always destined for great things. I’m sure Prof. Issaka and Dr. Paul saw it then also.

    We’ve come a long way.

    Mayor’s Design Advocate

  3. David,

    My brother from another Mother……..thank you!

    Having left Wolves in the mid-90’s, we both spent time overseas – in particular, the Middle East – but yet, we both came back to London. And after almost 25 years apart, we reconnected only last year in 2018. We have come a long way, so let’s build together [again], but this time, in reality.

    Looking forward to our next project; demonstrating that Architects and QS’s can work together without contention….!!

    Time to raise our game.

    1. Surveying sister

      All of this is what the #surveyorhood platform was built for. We are so honoured to have such amazing voices speaking out thank you to everyone that has contributed and read these incredible blogs #allinitogether #raisingthebar ✨

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