Where are they now? We meet Sereena Abbassi – Independent Equity, Inclusion & Diversity Consultant, Facilitator, Trainer, Coach and Keynote Speaker. She talks candidly about her career to date, the powerful impact of social injustice she witnessed during her time in New York and her mission and drive for creating societal change through her own consulting business.
Day 4 of the #back2businessship 2023 programme hosted at VCCP – another inspiring day
@SereenaAbbassi is a loyal and brilliant friend to NoTurningBack2020. Whilst she was at M&C Saatchi trailblazing EDI across the Group, she hosted our 2019/2020 Lets Be Bold about the subject of Race events at the M&C Soho offices.
Here Sereena talks candidly about her career to date, the powerful impact of social injustice she witnessed during her time in New York and her mission and drive for creating societal change through her own consulting business.
Tell us about your earlier career after your first degree in Visual Arts & Performance. The Arts have played a considerable role in my life. As a teenager, I went to The BRIT School, majoring in Art & Design and minoring in Music. After graduating from my undergrad, I was a practising Artist and performer until I was about 29 years old (I’m now going on 37 years old). The Arts have been a powerful vehicle for me in understanding my own identity/ies. These days, I’m more of an admirer than a maker, though my partner, Pete, is both an artist and musician––so, I can live vicariously through him. Perhaps that’s why I chose him!
You worked in the US for a while – can you share a bit about your experiences there? New York was an eye-opener, from being one of the most beautiful and spiritual enlightening periods of my life to one of the heaviest: I learnt about extreme social injustice there; from sexism to racism. One of the best things to come out of the US is that it steered me onto the path I am now on. I don’t know if I’d be doing this work in this way if I hadn’t experienced living there.
Why did you decide to go into Advertising & Marketing as a career? As I believed, and still do, that advertising has the ability to create positive social change if it so chooses.
Tell us about your role in EDI at M&C Saatchi and the passion you have for a fairer world. What were you able to achieve whilst you were there? It was an incredible 2.5 years; I was given free rein to be creative and experimental. It’s the sort of place where you ask for forgiveness rather than beg for permission, which I loved! Lot’s was achieved, I felt that culturally we’d created a movement which rippled out far and beyond the industry. We became tighter, as well as a happier global network. Simply, that’s why we do this work, to create joyful people. I feel immensely proud of what we achieved. Though, as often is the case in EDI roles, they lack the most vital ingredient: power. Without power, you’re unable to change an organisations’ foundations. Influence can only take you so far.
You have recently moved to Bristol and started your own diversity and inclusion consultancy – can you tell us what has motivated you to start your own business? It’ll be 17 years ago this September that I first moved to Bristol for a semester of university, and the place never left my heart. It’s a city full of opinions, and I love it, and I knew that I’d be back one day. I moved back 1.5 years ago. I set up my consultancy for all the reasons I’d mentioned in my previous answer: EDI roles never, or very seldom have power, so, if that’s the case, I might as well be doing things on my terms. The other reason is that I thrive off having a diversity of experiences. It makes me better at what I do. Case in point!
What kinds of services/programmes do you run for businesses/organisations? Our offering is broken up into three parts, Equity, Inclusion and Diversity. The equitable element is about us getting under the skin of an organisation. We typically do this with qualitative research, so we’re able to find precisely where inequities sit, and if needed, a bit further down the line, we can create internal mentoring and sponsorship schemes. Inclusion for us is all about educational training programmes, sensitively facilitated conversations and coaching. Lastly, once our clients have done the work, we then introduce them to our network. I’m reticent to work with any business that wants to go on a massive diversity drive without having done the educational piece.
What are the types of challenges faced by businesses in 2021 re Inclusion? Firstly, how to make people feel included when you’re unable to lean on all the traditional social activities lost due to remote working. Secondly, how to bridge polarising views, which seem to be exacerbated by life stage differences––this has been further amplified over the past 11 months. And lastly, how to help people find the emotional and mental bandwidth for conversations around inclusion when many are just trying to get through each day; when people need support in creating a healthy work/life blend, homeschooling, couping with a lack of human touch and family losses––all whilst we try to manage our mental health, wellbeing as we try to hold onto our jobs.
What opportunity does the corporate world have for leading societal change – starting in the workplace and employment. Firstly, corporations need to view their people, as people, not resources. Once we stop viewing people as resources that we extract from, we’ll then be able to build meaningful connections. And it’s this strength in connection that has the power to create meaningful societal change. To transform the outside, requires us transforming the inside/ourselves, first. Corporations hold a lot of power, some might say too much power. Therefore, there is a huge responsibility, from sustainability to healing our world of its social divisions.
Tell us about your connection with Amanda and Adrian at No Turning Back 2020 I met Amanda and Adrian several years ago. Though what I do know is that they are hands down two of the most sincere and committed people I’ve ever met when it comes to amplifying the voices of those who are underrepresented. They were doing the work before it became cool.
What are your personal aspirations for the future? I couldn’t possibly tell you. Though all I will say is that it stays true to my purpose: creating a kinder, fairer and better-understood world.