In our latest spotlight, we catch up with Tahlia Gray , entrepreneur and longstanding diversity advocate. As well as running her own fashion line designed for women of colour, Tahlia is also currently a Project Coordinator on Somerset House’s Black Business Incubator programme, alongside Akil Benjamin, Director of Mentor Black Business.
Home to more than 2,000 makers and creators, Somerset House is one of the largest creative communities and as part of its wider Anti Racism Pledge, has introduced the incubator programme to support Black entrepreneurs. Tahlia tells us more about how the 12-month initiative is going so far and its ambitions for the future, as well as tapping into her own perspectives on the state of opportunity and access.
Fed: Can you tell us more about where your passion for empowering diversity traces back to?
Tahlia: My career started in learning and development, working in investment banking. Then I had the opportunity to work on several diversity initiatives, which really emphasised the need to promote Black and ethnic employees in the workplace. This was through high-performance programmes as well as diversity initiatives.
I also started my hosiery business, Sheer Chemistry, which is all about redefining beauty standards so that women of colour feel seen, feel celebrated and feel gorgeous in their own skin. It’s attached to what I’ve experienced throughout my career within the corporate world. When I graduated from university, I had the opportunity to work in New York, which is a very cosmopolitan city where I thought there would be a lot of representation. Unfortunately, there wasn’t and that was one of the reasons why I felt the need to be constantly pushing for greater diversity in the workplace – and in fashion, which is where my more entrepreneurial side comes in.
Fed: You’re a well-travelled entrepreneur – how have your travels shaped your professional perspective?
Tahlia: I’m of Jamaican heritage but grew up in Sydney, Australia so I was always, throughout my schooling, one of very few Black students. I have a twin brother so there were always at least two of us! Moving to London with my family at age 15, I was excited to be immersed in such a beautiful multicultural society where there were so many people that looked like me but then going into the corporate world, it was very different to what I saw on the streets of London.
I was fortunate to live in the South of Brazil, as well as New York and I think having grown up in a city like Sydney, I had expectations of what diversity looked like. Unfortunately, in all of my corporate settings, it just didn’t translate in the way I wanted it to. So, throughout my career, I really wanted to create environments that reflect the society I saw and that I experienced while living in London, Brazil and New York.
Fed: Can you tell us more about your current work on the Somerset House Black Business Incubator?
Tahlia: I’m currently a Project Coordinator of the Black Business Incubator at Somerset House. It’s a 12-month programme that started in May, for early-stage Black-created businesses, which has been developed by Mentor Black Business and Somerset House and is sponsored by Morgan Stanley. The aim of the programme is to help these entrepreneurs create sustainable, thriving businesses and we do that through several ways.
Firstly, we give the entrepreneurs access to six months of mentoring with Somerset House residents. Secondly, by giving them access to personal and professional development through skill-building events and masterclasses led by Black professionals in the industry. We also give them access to free hot-desking space and meeting room space at Somerset House. By doing all this, we really want to integrate these businesses into the Somerset House community and provide them with business and collaborative opportunities.
Since starting the role in February, I have been tasked to get the programme up and running while working alongside Akil Benjamin who’s the Director of Mentor Black Business, and whose design studio Comuzi is also a Somerset House Studios resident. Through this partnership we’re able to combine their expertise of successfully engaging Black professionals and entrepreneurs to provide mentorship and professional development workshops with Somerset House’s creative ecosystem.
My role has involved marketing, recruitment, onboarding and programme design to facilitate our goals of providing Black businesses with the foundation to unlock their full potential and create economic empowerment.
Fed: What are the main ambitions for the Black Business Incubator?
Tahlia: We want these creative businesses to be able to sustain themselves by the end of the programme. How the Black Business Incubator differs from some other similar programmes is that there isn’t really a focus on investment. We want to be able to give these entrepreneurs the tools to be able to pay themselves and sustain themselves, as well as, hopefully, some other team members through their own product, service offering.
In London, there is more of a focus on tech businesses for these types of incubators and accelerators but we are providing a unique opportunity for creative businesses. There also tends to be a focus on the under-30 group but we don’t have an age limit so there’s quite a broad range of entrepreneurs on the programme, from those who are still at university, all the way up to people who have adult children. We also have a range of creative disciplines, including AkomaAsa Performing Arts Academy (pictured above), a community arts and education organisation offering African dance and performing arts training to young people; Storymix, a publishing company that puts children of colour at the centre of the narrative; and Newco, an app for founders to find hourly work in exchange for equity.
By the end of the programme, we hope they’ll increase their revenue, that they have more people on their team, that they’re able to pay themselves, and by being part of the Somerset House community, they’ll have built collaborative relationships with other creative enterprises. We just want them to be able to flourish on their own two feet really.
Fed: Has it been a success so far?
Tahlia: Yes! It has only been running for two months so it’s very early days but we’ve had quite a robust feedback structure in place so that we can constantly hear back from our cohort. We’ve had two masterclasses led by Black professionals in the industry so far, the first being ‘Sharpening Your Value Proposition’ by Rob Scotland who works as Head of Brand Marketing for McCann London. The second was ‘Creative Business Strategy’, led by Sabrina Clarke-Okwubanego who is Managing Partner of a company called Build Global.
At this stage, the entrepreneurs have been introduced to the mentor they’ll be working with for the first six months of the programme and the feedback has been great. They’re enjoying getting an outside perspective on their business and being able to work with someone that has a broad network they wouldn’t otherwise have had access to. Most of them have only had one session so far, so to get that kind of feedback so early on is very powerful and speaks volumes about what can come of this relationship.
Fed: Why do you think it’s so important for diverse entrepreneurs to have platforms like this within the creative community?
Tahlia: London’s creative community is very diverse but when it comes to some of the institutions, that diversity is not necessarily reflected. That’s why it has been important for us to work with organisations like Mentor Black Business. They were established last year on the back of everything that was going on that sparked the Black Lives Matter movement. Akil wanted to do something to support Back entrepreneurs and Black businesses, so he created Mentor Black Business to provide a platform where they would be connected with mentors, with the aim of mentoring 500 people within a year. It’s very near that target already. Akil and Somerset House then started talking about how they could come together to create a physical manifestation of the platform, focused on the creative industries, that makes the most of Somerset House’s unique creative community and experience of running its own talent development programmes.
Within the creative community, we want to reflect the society we’re living in and ensure that creative entrepreneurs have opportunity and access. I think access is the real, central word because a lot of these entrepreneurs have been operating in their bedrooms, underfunded, and they don’t necessarily have access to the resources that will help them achieve their business ambitions. But they have the passion and the talent to get there – they just need access to the network, the knowledge, the community and lastly, the opportunity. The Black Business Incubator is bridging this gap.
Fed: Can you see a future where programmes like this don’t need to exist?
Tahlia: Hopefully. I think that’s the ambition for us all but the reality that we are in, there is still disproportionate access and opportunity for Black professionals and Black entrepreneurs. I hope that in the future, the creative industry comprises of truly diverse artists, entrepreneurs and businesses that are being paid fairly for their work, that are given funding and valued for their contribution to society and culture at large. . Until such disparities no longer exist, it is important that these programmes continue to provide opportunities for Black creatives in order to level the playing field.
Fed: What do you believe are the next steps that need to be taken to improve life for Black professionals in the creative industries?
Tahlia: Providing funding and investment opportunities for Black creative businesses as in the last decade the stats have shown that only 0.24% of venture capital went to Black founders. The next step is also about ensuring they can showcase their work, win contracts and get commissioned in mainstream spaces. We want them to be visible and I think that’s one of the great things that has come out of Somerset House.
That’s not to say they can’t achieve without being part of the community but it will definitely propel them into the stratosphere. Just being part of a community that acknowledges the work of Black creatives and allows them the opportunity and the visibility to then go on to do amazing things is extremely important.
To find out more about the Black Business Incubator, head to somersethouse.org.uk/bbi.