Rebellious Optimists – A People Podcast
In the summer of 2020, the death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis sparked a wave of protests felt across the world. This period also marked a watershed career moment for Hannah Mercer. Growing up in multicultural South London, Hannah always celebrated diversity. But as a teen, she saw how racism affected her friends. Now Vice President of Retail Activation & Merchandising at adidas, Hannah works tirelessly to ensure that the brand’s 34,000 retail ambassadors work in an inclusive environment and culture. Because, as she explains, Diversity, Equity and Inclusion shouldn’t be the responsibility of just one department.
In this Rebellious Optimists episode, Hannah shares why leadership is integral to effecting change, how we can all make our voices heard and the importance of using our privilege to get others a seat at the table.
Twiggy Jalloh 02:48
Hannah, I’d like to start by asking, do you remember when you first became aware of issues of inequality and injustice?
Hannah Mercer 02:56
when I was 16, so that was 1986, I encountered a racist attack by police on a friend of mine. He was handcuffed in the back of the police car and physically assaulted. I was always brought up to try and do the right thing. I have to, I have to represent, and I have to force things through. And what I did then is wrote to the Police Complaints Authority at that time, and many years after that, I’ve you know, gone into employment tribunals for racial injustice and won against big corporations. And that was a massive learning curve for me. But what I was doing, I was teaching myself that to make sustainable robust change, you have to go through the system, and you have to break the system of systematic racism. And so I’d done all of that outside of, outside of my work. When I’d just been in work, I tried to represent and do the right thing, and make sure that my teams were diverse, make sure there were diverse, diverse thought, cognitive diversity, and all the different levels of intersectionality, but represented in the teams that I worked in. So for me, it was doing the right thing in my job, as well as then fighting all the injustices outside in the world.
Twiggy Jalloh 04:04
Let’s go back to summer of 2020. This was during the height of the Black Lives Matter protests, and it was a pivotal moment in your personal journey in DEI. Can you please tell us more about it.
Hannah Mercer 04:16
As I, as that summer arose, it was a pivotal point for me. I was, you know, a couple of years in at adidas, and a new company, and I was doing the right thing at adidas here, I was living in Germany. And the moment, that world paused for me in that that summer, when horrific incidents happened and, and Black Lives Matter – there were marches and movements, and it it massively affected me because I think the world, you know my husband’s a Black man, my kids are dual heritage, and so for me it was a moment of grief. And I think any company around the world at that time was in shock. It was everybody self-reflecting, thinking are we doing enough? You know, are we making change? Are we representing in the right way? are we hearing the right voices in the room? Are we making sure that we’ve got plans and focus to keep this, this – what was a pivotal point – keep moving. And I think at that time, you could either be apathetic as a company or you can take action. And at that point I wrote to the board of adidas and I said, I’ve, this has been a journey for me, since I’ve, since I’ve been a little, a little girl growing up in London, I want to see change, I want to be part of this movement. And I want to help in any way I can. I want to make sure that we’re holding hands and doing this together. And I remember the company then putting together, very quickly putting together an acceleration committee and standing in unity against racism. And so on that, on that evening, before the first committee, I went home to my husband, and we live in Germany here. And I said, if I go into that meeting tomorrow, and it was led by Kasper, which was a huge, huge feat for the company, for the CEO to take a stand and lead this full charge for the company. But I didn’t know the true culture of then company then, two years in I don’t think you do, I think you’re still fathoming out the matrix, and how the company is stands and building your own network. And, and so I went home that evening to my husband, and I said, you do realise that this first meeting tomorrow that I have, if I don’t feel it’s really authentic, I’m gonna have to resign, because my principles and my values are very, very important to me, and I can’t work for a company that doesn’t match my values. And I went into that meeting, and it was the hardest, but probably the best meeting in my career, because – I’ll get emotional – because there was emotion in that room. And to see the emotion from senior, senior leaders from all different backgrounds, of wanting to do the right thing, but also hearing stories of hardship and of challenges individuals had faced at a very senior level. And what we were going to do about it as that closed group was truly, truly empowering.
Twiggy Jalloh 06:58
Hannah, that was honestly the perfect – if I could say perfect answer. I feel as though I can relate in many ways, especially when you speak about, you know, going to work and feeling so emotional and almost trying to separate your grief and your personal, and your work, almost wanting, or needing, or feeling and that you need to separate that. And it was impossible at that time. If you really cared, it was impossible. And I think one of the best feelings, or it was, it was so cathartic. I remember feeling so free to finally speak about how I felt for such a long time. Of course, there’s been many, many murders and so much going on in the UK and the US that I haven’t, I haven’t been able to speak about at work. There’s been many times I’ve been to work, I’ve been very sad. I’ve been grieving about things that have been going on, and I haven’t been able to express myself and I’ve had to continue and go on as though things are normal when my heart is breaking. And this time was different. I felt as though for many people, especially Black people, it was a chance for us to finally just bring the two together, bring the grief and the, and my professionalism together and just truly express myself in a way that feels very natural. And and yeah, I can definitely relate to that. And honestly, it’s so, it’s so beautiful to hear you bring you know your personal feelings and especially from your experiences when you’re younger and finally be able to, you know, make a difference at work, and to stand strong and say no, if the company doesn’t align with my values, I might just have to go. And I can only assume that it’s a job that you didn’t want to leave, but you felt, you felt, you know, you felt as though it was very important to do that. So I want to dive into your personal journey I know we touched on your, you know, your past and, but I would love to know more about your personal life. I know your personal life is a big factor in why you choose to speak up. Could you please tell us a little bit more about what drives the fire in your belly for this DEI work.
Hannah Mercer 09:09
Growing up in London my, I obviously had my kids and I grew up, like, I took them to Kent thinking out of London Kent would be a safe environment for my kids, and I quickly learned that diversity, you know, it builds strength and it builds unity, and it builds allyship by having you know those communities around you of which I had growing up. And in Kent it was a predominantly white area and I realised very quickly my son – his first day at school age eleven, got on the school bus and they, everyone was making monkey chants and they wouldn’t let him sit down on the school bus, that was his first day, age eleven. By the age thirteen, in that secondary school, I was advised to take him out by the education board because they couldn’t guarantee his safety, because people waiting at the school gates with knives. So I had to take him out of school. And like I said before, I had to try and look at systematic racism in a way that was challenging me personally, now. I’d represented other groups, this is my family. This is my little boy and my daughter. And, you know, although he was the victim, he was made to feel the perpetrator. And that, to me, is just so wrong. And I went into school, I remember speaking to the headmaster, and he said, Anna, we don’t know how to deal with it, we just, can you help us try and deal with it? And in the end, I wrote to the Education Minister, I networked, I got hold of his telephone number, and I actually got him moved to a safe school. And took him out of that school and the education authority, but I made sure that education on how to deal with racism in schools was brought in, and that to me was really, really important, you know, going to that school, and seeing the lack of education and awareness in England, in the UK, you know, in the in 2011, 2012. I mean, that is, that is something to me that, that should never happen. And remember growing up in London, and the Stephen Lawrence, you know, murder, but it was a horrific incident in London when we were growing up, and just those instances don’t go away. And you just never know if that might be your door, your phone call. When we talk about privilege, I am so privileged because I don’t have to have that, you know, I, and I, but I use my privilege for the platform to make sure that I get a voice on a table. I try and get to the biggest seat on the table to make the biggest difference. And that’s what I say to my kids, climb your way, get your, get those doors open, leave them open for everybody else, get representative, get, make sure that you’re, you get a senior seat at the table, so you can make true change for others. So you’re constantly helping others on their next step. And I think that cycle, and that’s why it’s so passionate to me, is if I feel wrongdoing, I feel it to my inner core that I have a responsibility not just to fix that, that issue or that challenge or that, you know, one person that has, you know, a racist, or sort of bias or the way that they deal with things is to break it down and make sure that we build in processes that we make sure fair and equitable systems, that we make sure that equity is front and centre. Inclusive environments, psychological safety, so that people feel they could truly show up as their individual selves. Like I said, you know, making sure we don’t have to separate ourselves coming into work environments, or personal environments.
Twiggy Jalloh 12:28
Your professional background is, of course, in fashion retail. And your title is actually, you wouldn’t actually think it from our conversation but, your title is actually Global VP for Global Retail. It’s not necessarily where you’d expect to find the roots for DEI work. Why is it so important for DEI to be a focus in more departments than just HR?
Hannah Mercer 12:53
Yeah, to me, it’s funny, because when I, when I talk about my background, I was like, but why don’t you go into DEI, and it’s like, but why? Why do you have to have a title to do what’s right? And for me, I think it’s more important that it sits outside the HR function. I think it’s more important that leaders that have an accountability on people understand DEI. Because if you understand and you champion change, and you champion to do the right thing through an inclusive culture, by making sure your recruitment hires are right, making sure that people have a different seat at different tables, and you’re listening to that, to that diverse group. I think that’s how you enrich an organisation. It’s not from building a DEI function, the DEI function should be there to build in the processes to underpin what’s right for diversity, equity, inclusion in the company. But actually to lead with that lens and to see the world through a different, a different view, I think is ultimately much more powerful. Because then you start to filter into the middle of the organisation, that it’s not an HR function, that becomes a behaviour, it actually becomes leadership, and leadership creates change, and leadership should create the right opportunities for different groups and underrepresented groups to make sure that they become the next generation of leaders of companies. And, and I think that’s why I’m more, I feel more empowered to make bigger change from the job I’m in, but just doing it with the right lens and the right focus, with DEI front and centre.
Twiggy Jalloh 14:27
With DEI committees, the burden often falls on employees of colour to speak up. But then there’s also the issue of organisations with a lack of diversity and therefore all-white committees. So how do you tread the line between allyship and leaving the right people out of the conversation?
Hannah Mercer 14:47
I think allyship is a really important topic. Allyship is a, is a word, but really it’s having, you know, a voice in the room of underrepresented groups. And I think, you know, it’s in everybody’s accountability to make sure that they represent in the right way. And in companies, and big companies where lack of diversity is there, it’s making sure that education and training and understanding is sort of Paramount. or built into how companies operate. See, educate your workforce on what inclusion means. And inclusion is having an ally in the room and speaking up for underrepresented groups, until that diversity is really brought in. And I think, you know, companies in the past and companies now think that representation is enough. And racial representation enough. And it’s not, it’s only enough if you hear the voices of the underrepresented. And I think that’s what I’ve tried to do in every part of the employment that I’ve had, but also all the way through my life in personal aspects as well. So yeah, I think employee resource groups are critical, because they’re empowering and to listen to those voices is very important, but not for them to educate everybody else in the room. It’s actually I think that burden of, of education through experience isn’t always the right format, or the right way that we should go. So yeah, I think employee resource groups are a fantastic way to, to be a voice in the room, but also be highly empowered to create change.
Twiggy Jalloh 16:09
Lots of your work in this space is actually outside of your job role, as you just mentioned, and on a voluntary basis. How hard was it to step outside of your lane and to make your voice heard on this?
Hannah Mercer 16:23
I think, if anyone knows me, I don’t have a lane. I don’t, I think when you deal with people, you shouldn’t have a lane, you have an area of expertise and a lane of expertise, sure. But you don’t have a lane. And I think, you know, I represent the 34,000 teams that we have around the world, those individuals and, you know, my team does. And we’re lucky enough to have a fantastic people leader in Amanda on the board, who totally focuses and is inclusive on our retail team. And I love that, because I think if we all have our arms around all our employees, we can only get stronger. So yeah, I don’t, I never have a lane. I think if you, I think if you stay in your lane and you see misjustice or wrongdoing, that’s wrong, you have to step out of that and actually try and do the right thing. And I don’t see this as voluntary, I don’t see it as doing it outside of my job, I just see it as Hannah. And if Hannah sees where she can try and make a difference, then go get it, and go make that difference. And I do a lot of things outside. I do mentoring circles, I do talks, I actually work with the Stephen Lawrence family as well. I do lots that, that we’ve just connected with different people over the years, and people that have gone through terrific challenges in their life. And I think that has brought us together in terms of unity, and that’s allyship. And so I have this great sort of community that I work with, in and outside of adidas that, that are tremendously inspiring people that are trying to create change for others. And I, I’m inspired by them.
Twiggy Jalloh 18:00
Wow. So Hannah, people have been having these conversations across so many companies and organisations. And at one glance at social media, social media told us how hard these conversations could be. How hard are they to keep having? How did you maintain the momentum and the energy to keep talking about it during what was a really, really tough time, an emotionally tough time?
Hannah Mercer 18:27
Yeah, I think, I think it’s a really good question. And I, and I have seen companies, you see them sort of toned down or I speak to other colleagues and other companies, and they’re like, wow, we’re not doing anything like that. Or companies that perceived from the outside as a consumer you think would be, inwardly they’re not. And I think, for us, we actually took time as a company to educate, to listen, and listening was very important, first of all, is to have all those listening sessions, everybody did them around the world. It wasn’t just me. Everybody started, when we started the Acceleration Committee Against Racism, we know we had to pause and listen, because there’s nothing worse than a company going out talking about actions if they haven’t actually looked within their own company about what they need to do to create change. And that creates trust. And it creates a trust and an allyship with all the individuals in the company that the leaders are doing the right thing, because that’s what everybody wants, like I said at the beginning, you want to mirror your own values. And so I continued the listening sessions along with everyone else, to make sure then, you know, how does then listening become action? And I think that call to action, that bias of action and getting things moving was pivotal for the company. So it wasn’t just seen as a sponge absorbing all this grief and acknowledgement around the world that things weren’t right. And social injustice and racial injustice was out there in the communities. It wasn’t about adidas at that point. It was about listening. And then, within adidas, we started to make sure that we took action, and that’s when training started happening. mandated training. We did it within three months. Very, very proud of the completion and the appetite of the company, of the individuals that, that did it all around the world. And I think then the appetite was there for the company and people like, what’s next? What’s next? Then we’d continue this cycle and journey and put in pillars, and put in practices and anti-retaliation policies and, and all the different ways to protect employees to create psychological safety where trust was there. And I think trust was built through listening, trust was built through having those open forums where you could be your true self, where it was okay to cry, and you were still a leader, and it was okay. And people acknowledge that. So you build that allyship. And that unity across the world, of vulnerability, and vulnerability is good. If you show your vulnerability as a human, forget your title, if you’re vulnerable, you know that everybody needs support, and everybody needs to lean in. And I think with adidas, everybody did lean in and have continued to lead in. So I think, you know, a few years on now, we are still in that ilk, we’re still talking, we’re still looking at training sessions. We’ve built it into onboarding, we’ve we’ve, you know, championed the change through doing the right thing in different communities across the world. What’s relevant to those communities, in different countries, it’s different according to what the different diverse demographics are.
Twiggy Jalloh 21:15
Oh, it’s definitely a new way of working. Vulnerability really is at the heart of all of this. It’s made many people more open to listening, to learning, to really learning and from that learning, taking action for the people that are on the backhand of racism, and in everything similar to that, it’s also given them the chance to also be open about their feelings. And it’s brought many people together. And I can only hope that it continues to bring people together and that momentum and energy continues and that people continue to rally for one another, because that’s the only way that true change is going to be made. But definitely vulnerability is definitely at the heart, heart of this work and of making true, a true difference. So I’ve got another question for you. If you were to offer advice to employees, at any level, who feel like speaking up on issues of DEI, are outside of their job descriptions and comfort zones, what would you say to them?
Hannah Mercer 22:15
I would say if there’s a specific issue that’s happening to them personally, and they feel victimised or discriminated against, raise it. Raise it through, through you have, I mean, if it was talking adidas, I would want people to fully raise it, because I know they’re, they’re safe, they’re in a safe environment, and they will feel protected. And I think it’s very important that, that people feel safe. And psychological safety is a very easy word, but it’s very hard to build. And I think, you know, we have to make sure that there are safe environments for people to speak out. And that’s not talking just to HR and the different functions there to support, but be able to talk to their, their natural leader – their, their person who who is their safe space, or speak to somebody that they feel they can really support their, their cause in terms of, of challenges they’re having. But I think if you’re, if you’re, if you’re seeing, you want to make a difference, and you feel that you want to champion change within the company, and it’s not a specific personal issue, you just want to be part of a movement and have a voice and feel how you can direct it, join our employee resource group that backs an area of the view that you’re passionate about, that you want to make the real difference in. Because by having a seat at those tables, gets you, gets your voice. And I think having a voice in a company is very, very powerful, because you can become the voice of many that aren’t speaking up.
Twiggy Jalloh 23:45
You touched earlier on which areas you wanted to see change in. But what does that look like in practice? How have things actually changed in retail?
Hannah Mercer 23:55
Yeah, and it’s still in progress. I would always say there’s no finish line in this, it’s looking at our feedback survey that we’ve just had, and building in what we need to do and and do differently. And, you know, training has come out again, that people want more training. So we’ll definitely keep looking at how that would happen. But I think what we did was we built even to part time members of staff that work on a weekend or, we made sure that the things that company was doing towards DEI was filtering through to our employees that maybe had just worked six hours, to make sure they had huddle training. So if they, how they get together in a store in the morning, and you know, that half an hour of training was about discussion, it was about openness, it was about transparency. It’s about just you know, forums where people could come in and and have, you know, listening sessions or different debates of topics that we knew were relevant at that time, and continue to be relevant. Then we have training and more mandated more formal training. We’ve built in diversity, equity, inclusion training for all onboarding, so that all our new hires know where our company stands against all our principles to make sure that we’re hiring and embedding those behaviours from day one. We make sure that when we’re celebrating, we’re celebrating Pride. We’re, you know, celebrating Black History Month, and we’re celebrating those moments of, and that creates awareness. It creates, you know, international Women’s Day, celebrating, it’s celebrating women and women that have created change over the generations. And we’re doing that at adidas, and that filters all the way through to our retail teams.
Twiggy Jalloh 25:24
how hard is it to implement these changes in a timely manner? Of course, things can’t change overnight. But I know you’ve been really ambitious with your goals.
Hannah Mercer 25:34
Yeah. And it’s a great question, again. I think a lot of companies get hung up on, we have to wait and do it when we can. And it’s like, no, sometimes we have to be scrappy. Sometimes, you know, we have to be agile about how we get communication out there, or how we make, how do we sort of track training of six hour members of staff? You know, how do we do that when we don’t have the system to do it? How do we – you have to think out the box of, of how do we make sure that everybody has the same opportunity? And is that a, you know, making sure that we have, empower the store managers to make sure that they have a check and make sure their teams have had the time to invest in staff training or self- development? Or how do we, how do we set up those processes, near short term, but also long term out, so things are sustainable? But if we hold ourselves, so, you know, high up on being perfect, we’re never going to get there. And I think what I’ve loved about adidas is, is the agility, you know, what can we do? How are we going to get round it? How can we make sure that okay, it might not be perfect, but how do we celebrate those wins as well, to show the company are actually moving in the right direction and don’t go quiet. I think the worst things companies can do is be apathetic, and be quiet about what they’re doing. And just talk about it in certain forums.
Twiggy Jalloh 26:50
You, you mentioned that you have a programme that allows staff from the shop floor to possibly work in the in the corporate section of the company, which I think is absolutely amazing. What have been the most notable benefits of the changes so far?
Hannah Mercer 27:06
The benefits, I think, are on the corporate side. You know, we have these fantastic individuals that come from big cities around the world that know our consumers so well that have served our consumers, they are the voice of the consumer. And when you work in head offices away from the voice of the consumer, you are more detached. And I think it’s really important that the voices of our consumers and our communities, and our diverse communities are represented within these corporate head offices. And so I think we’ve seen that enrichment happen. So we’re, it’s not a, you know, and then, then people say, well I can do it, and they’re representing and they’re opening doors for others and getting other people to apply and making sure that we’re looking at our members which are our staff that work for us in our stores as the future and the next generation into these key roles. In whether it’s from design, and I’m not just talking into retail, you know, we have had some key successes of recruitment from stores into, into product design, in from fashion, so that people are designing product for their communities. And some have come into retail, some have gone into other functions as well – into, into the you know, the archives or all different aspects of the business because if you work in retail, it doesn’t mean that you’re just in a lane. And that’s what’s really important. I think when you said early, you know, how do I stay in my lane? I don’t want us to have lanes, I want us to go after our expertise and our passion. And if you get into a role that you’re passionate about, be it design, being it service, being it retail, being it, you know, into the history of the product, of the company, then great because those enrich personalities and enrich people coming from those diverse groups and in key cities will only enrich the company better.
Twiggy Jalloh 28:47
So Hannah, finally, this series is all about rebellious optimists. So in that spirit, how do you keep the energy alive? What’s your best advice for making change and keeping the momentum going?
Hannah Mercer 29:03
I think, I think that’s the nature. And I think if passion drives you, I always have, people always say to me, how do you have so much energy? I always have. I never, because because, to me, this isn’t a job. It’s my life and so I think the, I’ve never thought of my job as a job and then I go home and I’m Hannah. And I, so for me to have me at work, and loving what I do and the people around me are fantastic. I have a fantastic team and I have fantastic team around the world in retail. I have a great leadership team here at adidas. It’s a pleasure. And I think if you, if you take every day where you think what difference can I do today? What can I do that would change something or be better or raise the bar, or whatever capacity that is, it just keeps you championing for that change. Otherwise what’s the point? For me it’s about you know, you have to love it. And there’s so for me, there’s no division between I come in to do my day job and then I volunteer on the side, no. It’s just me, it’s just Hannah turning up, and with a different focus. And it might happen to be a work environment, might happen to be online doing some mentoring, or it might be helping on LinkedIn, helping people write their CVs, so that they can get a job. Or just trying to do my bit and trying to do in any way I can to represent. And I think if I can sleep at night thinking I represent in the right way, they’re the things that would keep me up at night if I feel I didn’t. And that’s why I said in that pivotal moment at adidas, you know, would I stay? If I didn’t, I wouldn’t have been able to sleep at night. So I think having that conscience, and that authenticity, vulnerability, as well, I often reflect, I reflect in the evenings about my day, and have I, have I done enough? Did I do enough? Could I have done things differently? I think is a good way then to sleep at night and start a fresh day with a fresh perspective. But continuing doing what you do. And as like I said, it’s not a, it’s not a work and an afterlife and an evening for me. It’s my life and how I live my life and I truly champion change and rebellious optimist? Yeah. Love it.
Twiggy Jalloh 31:03
Hannah, this was such a great conversation. This is such a great conversation. I feel like we’ve touched on so much from vulnerability to the importance of bringing people from the shop floor up to the corporate world. From your experiences with racism and discrimination and, and your family and just we’ve really, really touched and explored on, explored so much. And I really am grateful for the work that you are doing. And thank you so much. Thanks, this was great. This was honestly great.
Hannah Mercer 31:31
Thank you. Great conversation.
Twiggy Jalloh 31:37
I really enjoyed speaking to Hannah. And really, really appreciate her sharing her powerful, emotional and inspiring story. If you haven’t yet heard my chat with Amanda Rajkumar, board member for HR at adidas, then scroll back in the series feed to find that. She also has some really interesting insights on how adidas are focusing on DEI. Also, on the blog, there’s an article about why creating a sense of psychological safety at work is important for tackling racism. All that and more at gameplan-a.com. Thanks so much for listening to this series of Rebellious Optimists. We hope you’ve been inspired and have learned something new. Until next time.