Honouring UK Black History Month
To celebrate Black History Month 2023, we sat down with our UK-based Managing Director of Digital & Data, Ryan Skeggs, to talk us through his career, what Black History Month means to him, and the importance of allyship and community both inside and outside the workplace.
You have been with the Digital and Data team for four years. Tell us a little bit about your journey to where you are today. What were the defining moments in your career that stand out?
I fell into finance at the age of 19 after studying sports science. I always wanted to work in sport, but after a chance meeting with an area manager for one of the big banks, she saw something in me and fast tracked me for their Champions program.
After some great years in the industry, at 29, I decided to switch from the financial sector to the media world. I took a pay cut because I had zero experience with digital media and marketing and was of course, a touch apprehensive.
Unfortunately, at the first business I joined, the owner was deeply discriminatory. I lasted around five months before getting a job in London and from there I never looked back! It was here that I began to work with blue chip tech companies, and that’s where my love of technology started. I moved from there to head up several commercial departments before joining Greenroom Digital (which later became acquired by CSM).
What helped me was probably the people I’ve had around me. I had a great mentor at the first media company I worked for in London. He was excellent to me. Also from a minority background, he was a fantastic ally, pushed me in all the right directions, and always offered himself up as a brilliant sounding board.
Continuing on that theme, would you say that leadership and mentors were a key factor to your success as you looked to change career?
Yes, I do. I took a leap of faith. I am a confident person by nature and I totally believe if you plan something out, you’ll be able to find a way of getting to your desired outcome. However, my mentor really helped me navigate the change.
I’ve also had a few others along the way but he’s the one that always sticks out for me. Even when I was at other companies, he has and still is at the end of the phone.
Interestingly, we are completely different characters with different ways of approaching certain situations. Having that different mindset to bounce things off was so helpful. I probably wouldn’t be here today if he hadn’t given the time to speak to me.
Do you have a mentor from the Black Community who you admired growing up?
Where do I start! A lot of people influenced me, for many different reasons. I grew up with music all around me and people like Marvin Gaye really resonated with me. There’s someone that looks like me, sounds like me, who was a political poet. Through his music, he was educating audiences on what it was really like being a young Black man. His pain and struggle resonated with me as I was confused on why certain things had happened to me and my family at the time.
Sport wise, Serena Williams was an unbelievable force on and off the court. A girl from Compton synonymous with gang culture, substance abuse and police brutality rising to become the best woman tennis players of all time in my opinion. If there is a beacon to look up to then she shines brightest, dominating a sport which was known to be predominantly white. I followed hers and Venus’s careers closely because they were someone I could relate to. A black girl of similar age, coming from a tough background, faced with adversity but somehow beating the odds to win 23 grand slams. I remember watching an interview with some black kids in Compton both boys and girls saying that they want to play tennis and be like Serena. I don’t think her influence off the court gets the recognition it deserves. Serena gave hope to black communities and reminded them if she can make something of her life, then why can’t they. The GOAT on and off the court.
I’d also say Muhammad Ali. He truly stood up for what he believed in, refusing to go and fight the Vietnam War because Black people couldn’t even vote, yet that same country wanted him and others to fight for their flag. The way he stood up to the bureaucracy and the racism directed at him was incredible. When he was the champ, everyone loved him, but when he refused to go to Vietnam they hated him. But he spoke up. He did interviews on talk shows where he spoke to what he believed to be true. You can’t help but admire this guy outside of the ring and what he did to help the Black community have a voice during the civil rights movements of the 60’s and 70’s.
I guess the people I’ve mentioned are pioneers, really. And that is what Black History Month is about to me – understanding the history and celebrating it, because we’ve got some rich stories to tell across the globe.
But it’s not just about looking back. They helped forge a pathway, or at least build a platform for my generation, and the younger generation coming through today, to feel more confident in asking for things or making a change. You can even link it to breaking into a sector that you didn’t think possible. We have all these pioneers around us, whether it be from music, politics, sport, who have shone through and given us that pathway forward. Real, inspirational, pioneering, and ridiculously brave people.
How important is representation and allyship to you in the workforce and community?
We need allies and I’m not just talking about from the Black community. My dad, for instance, was a fantastic ally and he was White. I was adopted, along with my siblings, out of the care system and my dad was an unbelievable support for my brothers and sisters, because he instilled in us the values of hard work, perseverance and being brave.
He taught us how to deal with racial abuse and how to rise above that. Most importantly, how we could help educate and inspire people in our community.
Funnily enough, a lot of this occurred through sport. We were all quite naturally gifted, and that gave us an entry point into the community, as opposed to just being that ‘Black family with two White parents’. From there, we played county cricket, football and rugby. He really helped changed the whole outlook of a community of nearly 5000 – 6000 people. We were not strangers anymore and we became their brothers, sisters and friends. We were finally accepted by the community. All of a sudden, we were part of their family and we still are to this day.
Allyship is a tough one to answer if I’m honest. I think you need allies whatever shape, colour or religion they come in. People that recognise that maybe the system isn’t right or fair, who can use their power and position to influence change.
When I joined CSM, it was Tom and the D&D team. They completely took me in, accepted me for who I was and never made me feel like the ‘Black Managing Director’. I’m just Ryan who’s good at his job, the same as what I did on the cricket or football field.
But you do need allies to help break that glass ceiling. You can find strong allies around you in the workplace and on the sports field because you’re aiming for a common goal: to be successful. We can’t change history but what we can do together, now, is shape the future. That, I suppose, is what allyship means to me – shared values, a common vision with common goals.
Sport and entertainment provides a powerful platform to advocate for change, be that through events or partnerships. If we were to fast forward to 2030, give us a few key things you hope will have changed by then, and how you think the industry we are in can help achieve that.
For me, one of the saddest things is that racism is still very prevalent. In an ideal world, by 2030 it would be great if sport, as an industry, has been utilised as a genuine vehicle to eradicate racism. I don’t think it can do that by itself, but it can certainly help.
I think the sporting bodies have to be a lot more accountable, because at the moment it is a lot of crisis mode and PR firefighting being rinsed and repeated. It would be great to see more action taken in and out of stadia.
I’d also like the big tech players – the social platforms, for instance, to take a lot more accountability on when things, such as racism, do happen. They have artificial intelligence that can help them commercially, but why not also leverage this technology to recognise trigger words or behaviours?
We also need more diverse minds at the top end of sports; people who come from different backgrounds with new ideas. These are the people who can be allies for change, creating that pathway to enhance opportunities for people from all backgrounds.
It’s rare that people from my background get to the level that I’m at right now in sport or any other sector for that matter. I’d love to see that change. It may not happen by 2030, but I think we can lay the groundwork now, like what CSM is doing through its own grassroots programs.
What advice would you give to young Black professionals who are looking to get into your field?
I would say this advice is for any young professional. I always saw rejection as an opportunity, not as failure. You need to take ownership of your own pathway and set clear milestones on how you will achieve your goals. You may be born into a certain environment, but that doesn’t define who you are. To be perfectly frank my twin sister and I, were born into destitution, but here I am today, 44 years later, having a great crack at life, doing some amazing things, meeting some extraordinary people and travelling the world.
I honestly believe this comes from hard work, planning out my career path, believing in myself and having the support of those allies along the way who helped me to get there.
When not at work, what would we find you doing?
Whenever I’m not working, I’m hanging out with my wife and our little boy. My boy gives me a clear perspective on what life is about which is having fun!!! I’m often playing cricket or football with him (most mornings). He has a great left foot and an unbelievable cover drive.