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Rebellious Optimists – A People Podcast

From the meeting room, to the boardroom, feeling included can empower us as individuals. For Amanda Rajkumar, representation is vital to achieving diverse decision making in a global brand like adidas. As the Executive Board Member of Global Human Resources, People and Culture, she’s passionate about diversity too, rallying for more women leaders in senior leadership positions. In this episode of Rebellious Optimists, she discusses the ambitious targets for gender parity, and how she’s helping shape the way adidas thinks about DE&I in the workplace.

Twiggy Jalloh 02:53 

Hello Amanda, it is lovely to have you on the podcast today. I’m really looking forward to our conversation. We are going to be diving into many things surrounding D and I, HR, women in senior positions, and I honestly can’t wait to hear what you have to say. 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 03:11 

Hello Twiggy, it’s wonderful to be here. Thank you for having me. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 03:14 

We are here to talk about all things DEI, I would love to know more about where your passion comes from, and why it is so important to you. 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 03:24 

It’s important to me, and I think that the biggest, the biggest facet for me is around creating an equitable environment. We know, Twiggy, that society is not equal - people aren’t born equal, people aren’t raised equal, and life is not equal. We know that. What we want to make sure is that here at adidas, we’re not replicating that. We want to make sure there is an equal starting line for everybody. And that everyone will get the same fair opportunity and chances. It’s really important to me; it’s important to me from my core because I’ve seen inequity in action. I’ve seen what it does. And I’ve seen unfairness prevailing in organisations. And that, for me is abhorrent, and it’s something that I’ve always, it just something inside just resists it and absolutely wants to change it. So this tragic murder of George Floyd, of course, was a huge catalyst for change. And I, I’m hopeful, I’m hopeful that change is going to be sustainable now, I really am. But the fact it has to take for something like that to happen for the world to finally, on an incremental basis, let’s be really honest, but incrementally change. I think I have some hope, and I really hope for 2022 we will continue to go down this path. I see so many positive signs of progression though. And, and so I don’t want to be all bleak because obviously we are, we are in a progressive society. But I definitely see that companies like adidas, we have a huge responsibility because yes, we are a sporting company. Yes, we make fantastic product. Yes, we have fantastic employees. But we also have a duty and a conscience to society. And the image that we portray externally has to replicate the image we have internally. So these are some of the reasons I’m passionate about this. I had a lot of experiences growing up in a very provincial town where there wasn’t much racial equity. And always was led to believe by my parents that I was special. So I never felt different, I always felt special. And then when I got to London, I went to went to do my degree in 1990, or so many years ago, at the London University in Goldsmith’s, Goldsmiths College in New cross, for the first time in my, I guess, 19 years, or 20-21 years, I was suddenly surrounded by people that looked like me, for the first time in my life. And I remember thinking, wow, I feel so different. This is, people aren’t staring at me, people aren’t asking me how to pronounce my surname, not as often. And this is a, this is my hood, I felt, I felt it was like an amazing experience. And I think, for me, that really gave me a very early contrast of how you can perform better, feel better, feel more belonging, when you are in, in a diverse, a diverse environment where people around you reflect your own image. And it was such a very early important stage of my career and learning. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 06:31 

My journey has almost been the complete opposite. So I grew up near New Cross. So I’ve always been in diverse environments, have always seen people that look like me. But of course, growing up, going into the corporate world, going into the creative industry, I found that there weren’t so many people like me, and I think that’s my drive. And that’s the reason why I route so much for diversity, equity and inclusion, because I haven’t seen what I’m used to seeing in the workplace. And I just know that as more, more diverse and people are being hired into companies, we’re seeing more women, just more diverse hires in general, it’s, it is of great importance to make sure that those people who come in are catered for, or at least listened to, and it’s great to know that a company is, is not just hiring you for the diversity hire, but because they believe in your, your, your source and what you bring to the company, in your experience, in your culture, whatever it may be. It’s just um, yeah, it’s been the complete opposite for me, but I think it’s had a great influence on both of us. 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 07:36 

We’ll have to talk, we’ll have to talk about New Cross later. Definitely.  

 

Twiggy Jalloh 07:39 

Definitely 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 07:40 

But I think you’re right, I think it is, it is, it is about, you wouldn’t believe how many, nearly on a weekly basis, someone says, comes up to me in our, in our lovely headquarters, or emails me and says, you don’t know what it means to have someone like you on the board. And, and that really is, it never fails to, you know, have a short shock in my heart again, because I remember suddenly, the responsibility I have, and now I’m in this, this very lucky role, I have to make sure that I am really doing the right things to ensure that I can bring other women up as well. And, and remembering that I’m a role model in some shape or form. And that my actions, anyway, are going to be judged more harshly, or more critically than my counterparts. But I also have to remember that I’m a role model for others. And that’s important. And I think there are those various stages, Twiggy, where company talks about diversity, equity, inclusion, yes, we want to do it. They start working on – okay, let’s look at hiring. Let’s see how we do. Then you hear from recruitment agencies – oh, we can’t find those people, were not able to. I mean, this is something I heard ten years ago in my former industry, you wouldn’t even say that anymore now in investment banking. But I still see it in corporates today – oh no, we can’t find the diversity. This is not an acceptable statement, because it is out there, you’ve just got to look harder. You’ve got to widen the gate. And you’ve got to absolutely have a strong focus that those people exist, they do. And also other companies are very good at keeping them. They’re very sticky at keeping them, so both diversity, from a diversity perspective. So we talk about gender. We talk about race, we talk about LGBT, for instance. And then I think you get to the point where you’d start to bring more diversity and more of individuals from underrepresented communities. And suddenly you see groundswell you start to see the groundswell over time, you start to see that they also think in a more diverse lens, they will bring in people that look like them, but also from different races too, and you start to see change. And that’s what I’ve experienced in banking over, over the last 25 years. In my new industry, now, I believe we’re starting to do that. But we need to get a bit more acceleration on this as well. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 09:54 

Please tell us more about adidas’s vision for DEI. 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 09:57 

I think it’s three key things. Firstly, we need to ensure that the internal environment is the most inclusive atmosphere that we can possibly generate to make all of our employees feel that they belong. Secondly, it’s important that the brand we project as adidas, which is a huge, very well known and established brand, is also reflecting that reality of aspiration to be the most inclusive brand. And thirdly, the suppliers that we use, our communities, the individuals that work with us are down, down the supply chain, making sure that they’re also sharing our DEI aspects. So there’s three pillars into that. And then I if think about the first one, talking about how we make our environment as sticky as possible. It is ensuring on a number of levels, that inclusion is absolutely embedded into everything we do here at adidas, that goes from recruiting, it goes from selection of individuals, the onboarding, the way we promote people, and also the way we make decisions about people, even thinking about having diverse decision making committees, and really ensuring that it is embedded into our people processes. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 11:16 

Amanda, I love that adidas has such a, such a holistic approach to diversity. I know that you’ve recently launched a new initiative called the Diversity Dimension Data Project. What is it? And what are your goals for it? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 11:32 

Yes, it’s quite a mouthful, isn’t it, Twiggy? It was important to actually have a title that that really reflected what it is. So people could understand that this is something that is around data, it is around the dimensions of that data. And it is the first time we’re doing it. So we’re calling it a project, but I suspect it will be a much longer initiative. When I got to adidas, Twiggy, it was very clear to me that we were unclear on our own demographics as a company. We have an understanding of gender, of course. But we have very limited understanding of our ethnicity, LGBT+, people who are carers, individuals with ability issues. So that whole remit of demography, we have we have very, very little feedback or understanding. In some countries, we have a little bit more. For instance, in the US, we are allowed to ask around ethnicity and race. But in other European countries, it’s been something that has been not yet ventured to. And the reason I talk about ventured is because having come from a previous European global investment bank, the mantra always was, oh, you can’t ask those questions in France, you can’t ask those questions in Italy, or Germany, and so and so forth. But actually, if you start to really look at the legal implication, and the reason for doing it, and if you have a very good reason for doing it, you can move forward on a voluntary basis. So having broken that myth already, I feel, I felt, coming into adidas, very confident that we should be able to move in the same direction, and ensuring that we get a global understanding of our demographics of our company. Now, why do we want to do that? The reason we have to do this is so we can measure progress. Some people get very worried when we say we’re going to ask about individual status. Number one, it will only be voluntary ever, it will never be mandatory. And secondly, we need to explain to our employees why we’re doing it, because we want to understand how progress is being made and where it’s not being made, how we help those areas improve.  

 

Twiggy Jalloh 13:44 

So how do you think having better data around diversity, equity and inclusion helps make companies like adidas more diverse? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 13:53 

I think it really helps line managers, those individuals who are managing big teams, it helps them crystallise for themselves, you know, are they bringing in only white males in terms of their hiring? Has the last seven hires out of ten been one demographic over another? They can start to see the trends. And you know, sometimes you have to paint a picture for people and bring them on the journey. And data is a, is a fantastic lever for being able to do that. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 14:22 

Most of the time, most line managers most people in HR, anyone who hires in the company may not even realise the biases that they have when they are hiring people. But if you put the numbers in front of them, there’s no way to deny it. And I think it’s also a way for them to learn about themselves and the way they think, and their, their thinking and thought patterns.  

 

Amanda Rajkumar 14:43 

We know that there is groupthink. And if you have a majority leadership team, just say in a company of all one demographic, they will hire in their own image, they will hire in their trusted circles of people that they know. This is human nature – there’s there’s nothing sinister or wrong with that. But it’s unfortunately flawed. And it’s flawed, and it’s been happening for decades upon decades in big corporates and multi-corporates, and also banks. And I’ve seen it with my own eyes for 25 years in investment banking. So you have to open up the dialogue, you have to give data so people can start to see. And then you also have to help coach and bring people on the journey. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 15:28 

So Amanda, I know you’ve been championing increased representation of women in senior executive positions at adidas. What’s the current situation that you’re working with? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 15:38 

Sure. Here at adidas, we’ve made a very clear commitment as part of our people strategy that we want to exceed 40% for senior leadership in the company. So we want to exceed 40% for all senior females, and that’s a certain grade and above in our company. At the moment, we’re around 37%. So we do have a little way to go. And it might sound easy, oh, it’s only 3% we’ve got to go. But actually, it’s much more. Because we need to also think about the rate at women are leaving, the pipeline of how we bring women up, and ensuring that we retain those individuals in the company. In addition, we need to also find the visibility of those roles, how do we ensure that there is a visible opportunity for individuals to aspire to? And how do we coach them and give them that succession conversation about how they can get there? So, so that’s where we are at the moment. We have a number of initiatives around that. And the the Global Diversity Equity and Inclusion Council is also working on what are the global projects and initiatives we want to put in place, so we continue to increase the pipeline. I also think though, in time, we will have more demographics we can start to work with. And we can start to meaningfully increase other facets of diversity as well.  

 

Twiggy Jalloh 16:59 

Thinking specifically about women in senior positions, why is it so crucial to have a better gender balance at the top of the company? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 17:08 

We have to have a diverse executive board, supervisory board, that people can look up to and see themselves. If we can have those positive role models, individuals will feel they belong in this company, and that they have a future here. So that would be the first thing. The second thing is we need difference. Difference creates different opinions, different decision making and different paths that we take as an organisation. If you only have one demographic deciding on all decisions around the organisation, or which directions we go, it’s going to be pretty staid. And we, and what I find is that even if I’m in my team meeting, or in a group of diverse individuals, the energy produced is phenomenal. The energy, the direction, the drive, the ideas, the creativity – multiculturalism really, for me brings innovation and inspiration. And so for me, as a minimum, we should be looking at that from a company perspective. Lastly, we should reflect our, our local community. You cannot have an organisation that doesn’t reflect the demographics of the local community. And that, of course, that’s different in every single geography, city, region. But that is really what propels when we talk about diversity. This is what we should be looking at when we’re thinking about, you know, making sure that here in Germany that we are reflecting the local community. And then we also have to think about how do we increase that? And how do we make our, our organisation attractive at a global level as well. So there are so many layers to it. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 18:56 

I want to touch on allyship for a moment. How important is allyship and mentorship when it comes to supporting a more inclusive workforce? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 19:05 

Allyship is, is being a friend, a support to individuals who are different to yourself. That’s the most simple explanation. And I think if we talk about gender, the importance of male allies cannot be underestimated. You know, Twiggy, I’ve run many, many women’s leadership programmes across my 25 years in human resources. These programmes are phenomenal because there’s such community when women come together, such magic is made. And there’s such learning, and care, and compassion. And that kind of feeling of camaraderie, which is very, very unique. And I think also, of course, male counterparts have that too. But but when I see it with, working with women, and helping women become better leaders, they are benefiting greatly from it. However, when they go back to their day jobs, they’re facing the same environment. So they’ve learnt all this great stuff about female leadership; how to get ahead, how to raise the bar, and how to raise their voices, yet, they’re sometimes going back into the same ecosystem, which is not allowing them the trajectory or the space. And this is where we have to also affect the environment and get male allies working actively for women, helping them also understand the lived experience of women in corporations and in organisations, and helping them bring women up because women are fantastic at bringing each other up. We’re great at it. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 20:32 

Oh yes  

 

Amanda Rajkumar 20:33 

But I think, yeah, but I think we need also male allies help and, and, you know, it’s not unusual that when you start this work, be it on any of the demographics – be it gender, be it race, that the people who, people who are in the majority feel worried, they feel concerned. I can confidently say males, male colleagues are still in the majority, but we need their help, we need their help to, to help us address that gender balance, and to also have them being the best advocates for all employees, including women. Mentorship is almost wider, mentoring should be for everyone. Everyone needs someone to speak to, and it should be someone that they can speak safely to, know that they have a confidence and, and have that kind of psychological safety, understanding that whatever they say is not going to be held against them, and actually will be something that will give them some comfort in being able to be open, and and tell how individuals feel. I think mentorship is so important as people come into a company in their first year. And then as they move in the organisation, and I have mentors, still in my life now that I’ve had for over, I would say 15 years, and I’m mentoring people from all different walks of life. And I think it is, there is something amazing about mentoring, because it is having a different perspective. It’s, it gives you the space than having to go to your line manager on everything. And it, it also is a great two way ability to, to have a lot of ideas, to not feel like you’re bothering individuals in the organisation, but you can have that conversation in a safe way. So mentoring also helps on many levels, and particularly around leadership.  

 

Twiggy Jalloh 22:19 

There is something very beautiful about mentorship. I think whether you’re the mentor or the mentee, you can both learn from each other. And I think, I think just seeing someone progress is the most amazing feeling. Now, I know you’ve worked mostly in financial settings before joining adidas last year. Amanda, why did you decide to make this transition? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 22:40 

I think 25 years in one sector is, it has been so interesting, so developmental for me and a huge amount of learnings and experience. But I felt it was time to do something different and adidas was a company that had always attracted me. It’s phenomenal. The DNA is hugely embedded in sport. And there’s this lovely story about, you know, one man’s vision and how he built up this company. And, and I also think some of the challenges that adidas has had in the last year or so, a couple of years, have been challenges that I have faced, and I’ve been very excited to help tackle. So it was, it was a complete change of sector. But I think I was attracted to the challenge, attracted to the opportunity, and to this phenomenal brand, helping create it and keep it as prime, and as well known as it is. And I think we have so much opportunity to continue that here at adidas. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 23:38 

Let’s go back to the beginning of your career. What was it about HR that appealed to you as a psychology graduate? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 23:46 

Well, it’s all about people, Twiggy. It’s all about people, their behaviours, their motivations, their actions. It fascinates me even today. You know, if I have a meeting and it doesn’t work out, I always think, what went wrong? How, what was the motivation? What did I miss? I love analysing situations. I’m intellectually inquisitive. And for me, HR gave me that, that, that kind of avenue of being able to work with people, being able to affect change. And also, I think, I think that I’m a just a people person, I’m an extrovert, and it you know, it’s phenomena, Twiggy, in my years in HR, I have seen HR professionals who really don’t like people. And the question is why are they in HR? So, so I absolutely believe that. You have to love people, you have to love getting to meet new people, understanding what is their motivation and drivers, and then how do you help them reach the very best version of themselves? And that’s why I love HR. It’s why it’s the career I’ve always done, and probably will continue to do, because it is, it is it is evolved so much. If I think about the last, you know, 30 years in HR generally, things have changed dramatically from a very much, you know, 50 years ago it was very much pay in rations, bringing someone in, hiring them and paying them. And now we’re getting to employee advocation, employee engagement, wellness, ensuring people feel comfortable in the office, psychological safety. All of those elements, as well as health and safety, if we talk about the pandemic, it’s such, such an important area now and has really come to the fore in my view. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 25:23 

Amanda, if you could only offer one piece of advice to a young woman at the beginning of her career today, what would it be? 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 25:32 

make bold choices. I think it’s too, it’s too, it’s too easy as we, as we move in our careers to be safe. And we want to be safe, because sometimes we don’t want to raise our head above the parapet too much. And I’ve seen so many times, senior women and junior women, mid- level career women believe if they keep their head down, they do what they’ve been asked to do, that the rewards will come. And I’m sorry, that doesn’t work. Because if that did work, we would have a very different demographic at the top of the houses at all companies, right? So we know that doesn’t work. So it’s really important to be bold, and to be vocal, and to, and to be your best advocate for yourself. And it means sometimes having that difficult conversation – I would like that promotion, I would like to go for that role, I would like to be considered for this grade. It’s so important. So be bold with your ambitions, and be vocal about it as well. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 26:33 

Thank you so much, Amanda, you’ve given me such amazing answers, and just a better idea and perspective into what adidas is planning to do, and bringing more women, and more diverse people into the company, you have very, very clear action points. And I really do look forward to seeing it all happen. And I can only hope that many other companies adopt, adopt to your format and take on this approach. Because this is really the only way that there is going to be a real difference or make a real difference in, in the corporate world, whether it’s for companies, whether it’s for consumers, whether it’s just for individuals that work at the company, as well. So thank you so much for your work. It’s been an absolute pleasure speaking to you today. And yes, I hope we can speak about New Cross soon as well. 

 

Amanda Rajkumar 27:20 

Yes, absolutely. And thank you, Twiggy, and, of course, I should, I should have said you know, I have a fantastic team of individuals. And it is, it’s a company effort. It takes a village and, and I believe that everyone is aligned and working towards this, this goal. So thank you, it’s been a great conversation. 

 

Twiggy Jalloh 27:41 

What an inspiring conversation with Amanda. It’s always so good to share some South London New cross memories. On the blog, you can find lots more content about DEI, and how adidas are working to create a diverse, equitable and inclusive workplace for all of their staff. There is also an article that Amanda wrote last year about why she thinks International Women’s Day is so important. There’s a link in the show notes or go to gameplan-a.com. Thanks so much for joining me. Until next time. 

“Allyship is being a friend, a support to individuals who are different to yourself.”
Amanda Rajkumar, Board Member for Global HR, People and Culture at adidas

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