Read below to hear from our Trustee Elsa Zekeng, who has recently been recognised as BCA Heritage “40 under 40 Future black leaders”, about what Black History month means to her and her work at Smart Works Greater Manchester…

  1. You have recently been recognised by @bcaheritage as one of their ‘40 under 40 Future black leaders’ – What would you say is your most pivotal moment of your career to date?

In 2015, I was in the second year of my PhD and 2 experiences occurred that highlighted where my passion would lay for the years to come. Experience 1: The biggest Ebola virus outbreak in West Africa. I deployed with the WHO, Public Health England and the European Mobile Laboratory to Guinea, Coyah to support the testing and tracking of the Ebola virus. I spent 6-weeks in a team of 5 where we tested samples for Ebola and Malaria. We worked 12–14-hour days, 7 days/week and frequently lost track of days. The results we obtained were directly fed to the epidemiology team for further tracing of potential contacts. As a fairly young scientist, this experienced established the crucial role scientists play in outbreaks and as we have recently experienced through the COVID19 pandemic. My passion and curiosity to play an active role in this sector was ignited although it has taken various forms, it has never changed.

Experience 2: As a result of a series of unfavourable events that happened in Guinea, I begun blogging about the role policy has to play in either creating a new favourable reality or perpetuating unfortunate realities especially for people experiences from being on ground during the Ebola outbreak to a high-level panel at the European Development Days 2016. This included decision makers such as Mark Dybul, former Global fund director and Christiaan Rebergen, then Deputy Director for International Cooperation, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, The Netherlands. The discussion was under the framework of sustainable development goal 3: Universal healthcare for all. While this was a very broad topic, I leaned specifically on my experience in Guinea. I highlighted the role of policies in; a) Creating equal partnerships between organisations in Scientific R&D, b) Encouraging inclusion of stakeholders who would be directly affected by the outcomes of these partnerships, c) Increasing access to funding for scientific R&D especially for institutions in the ‘Global South’ (Africa or Latin America) in an equitable manner and so much more.

The rest is history as they saysince then, I’ve been invited by organisations to advocate or speak on topics around Equality, Diversity and Inclusion in science and policies.

  1. What does Black History Month mean to you/why is it important?

Black History Month provides a time of celebration and recognition of the innumerable talents from black communities who continue to contribute in all sectors from science to the arts. It allows us to listen and acknowledge stories that would otherwise go unseen and learn about the realities of people who experience life differently due to social inequalities. Learning about those who paved the way for the world we see today, and those working to ensure the future is even more equal than it is now. 

  1. You joined the Smart Works Trustee Board in the summer of 2021, what attracted you to Smart Works Greater Manchester as an organisation?

Of course, there are several groups that are marginalised, but over the years, I found myself advocating for women, black and ethnic minority communities, and youth. I would speak about access to opportunities, freedom of choice, the limited access to investment women entrepreneurs faced, which goes even dimmer when you look at the intersection of gender and race. Essentially, the foundation was recognising the power financial freedom (be it through employment or entrepreneurship) has to change the choices a woman makes. Clearly, when the opportunity came to join Smart Works, I applied without hesitation as it felt serendipitous. I truly believe in Smart Works’ mission to change the lives of women through coaching and supporting them in their career journey. Goes without saying that it does help that I love fashion, it is the best combination. I have purchased several pieces throughout the SWGM sales.

  1. ‘Time for Change: Action Not Words’ is the 2022 BHM theme, what change would you enact for black women within employment?

It is the responsibility of institutions and organisations to ensure their internal policies can support the inclusion of black women in the workforce. Examples of questions for organisations to consider are:

1-       What are your recruitment policies?

2-       What type of employment contracts do you provide? (Short term or long term?) and is there equal pay?

3-       What is the culture of your organisations? (Would everyone feel included and are employees legally protected in the case of any incidents?)

4-       What steps do you take to ensure there is no bias during the reviewing of contracts, grant proposals and grant making process?