FEATURE10 June 2021

In conversation with Colour of Research: ‘If you're passionate about something, you can do it’

Features Inclusion UK

It’s been almost one year since Colour of Research (CORe) was founded to address the lack of ethnic minority representation in the research industry. Research Live spoke to two of the group’s co-founders, Theo Francis and Sia Najumi, about how it has grown to a network of over 500 members and what more needs to change in the industry. 

Sia najumi and theo francis CORE_crop

Colour of Research (CORe) launched last summer. What’s the background to the group?  

Sia Najumi (SN): Among people of colour, the assumption was always there when we were at events, looking around and not seeing it being so diverse. It was always a topic of conversation. I’ve been in the industry for about three years now, so not long to be having these types of conversations. I think it was Bob (Qureshi) or Theo who said ‘Let’s just act on these conversations, why do we keep acknowledging the lack of diversity but not doing anything about it?’ So, we decided to start a group.

Theo Francis (TF): We launched in July 2020 but our first Zoom call was in March. We finalised the shortlist at the Impact conference Research Club after-party. It was about a week after that we did our first Zoom call, when lockdown first happened.

It was very organic. It was a problem that we had all realised was there, and we tried to figure out why no-one had done this before. Then we thought, well, if we’re talking about it, why don’t we do it?  

Then George Floyd’s murder happened, and the world woke up to this sort of thing. We thought that this would be a slow burner, a soft launch, and all of a sudden, the whole world was looking at us. So, the first year has been a bit crazy. There are big expectations, but I think we’ve done really well. There’s a lot going on and it’s just the beginning.

What has the response from the rest of the industry been like?

TF: The response has been amazing, not just from people of ethnic backgrounds, but people who can sympathise – allies who put their hand up and say ‘this has been long overdue, what can we do to help?’. There’s been a massive wave of support, more so when Black Lives Matter was getting a lot of attention, so it was at the top of everyone’s mind. That has dipped down a little bit now, however, it’s coming up to a year and conversations are starting again in terms of what companies have done since posting black squares.

For a lot of people, it’s still relevant, it’s still an important topic and something that people know needs to change. It’s gone in ups and downs.

SN: But that’s been good for us because when we first started it was really overwhelming. We thought, ‘Oh, what do we do?’ We had ideas but we really had to start picking up our pace – every day was meetings after meetings and ideas and it was difficult to keep up, so I think the pace that we’re going at is good – it allows us to do what we actually really want to do, thoughtfully.

Have your aims changed at all in the past year?

I wouldn’t say the mission has changed or that it will ever change. But how we get around to doing it has definitely changed – it’s had to evolve. We started off pretty much as a mentor programme, which is a great thing, but it’s just a mentor programme.

What we’re talking about now goes outside of market research – we’re talking about policy change, approaching governments and dealing with some of the biggest brands in the world. It’s gone from one or two initiatives to spinning about 30 different plates. We’ve had to bring in more people; we’re up to about 20 people after starting with eight.

When I look back at what we’ve done, I’m proud, but I always have this anxiety that much more needs to be done. It’s not happening fast enough, and there’s a responsibility – we’re not dealing with something that’s just about money or a ‘nice to have’, we’re dealing with people’s lives and there’s a lot of people who look to us and are relying on us to represent them.

SN: At first, we were just talking about diversity and inclusion – there weren’t really that many solutions, and we’re now providing more insight into communities of people of colour, for example, I started the Asian Amplification series on the back of Asian hate crime. There was a lot of talk about this from companies but there were no stories, voices weren’t being heard from these communities, so we’re sharing this insight from within those communities. We’ve just started a partnership with Lila – they provide training courses for diversity and inclusion.

TF: For too long, D&I training as been a sort of ‘one and done’ tickbox exercise. The reason we’ve paired with Lila is because it’s a long-term subscription training programme that’s measurable – it’s like an app that the employees can use and continually develop. 

Have you seen an interest from market research companies in working with you on that?

TF: This was one of the reasons why we had to find the Lila partnership, because all we were getting for a while was requests for help with D&I training, and we never put ourselves forward as a D&I training organisation.

A lot of the initiatives we’ve put in place have been based on demand. We went out and spoke to companies about representation within their organisations, and the topic of nat-rep and the representation of the research being done was continually thrown at us – that wasn’t something we were initially really thinking about. 

It’s been over a year since the Black Lives Matter movement gained more awareness last summer. What, if anything, has changed in the research industry since then?

TF: The awareness is definitely changing. The understanding of anti-racism and real allyship, what that looks like, people looking into their companies and truly putting the mirror up and saying ‘how do we actually measure?’, that willingness to have the hard conversations – I think that has changed, and it has had to change. Because anyone who isn’t acknowledging this stuff is being left behind.

I think the intentions are pure for most people, but whether they’re pure or not, if you’re not talking about this stuff now, then you’re in the past.

SN: A lot of interest that we’re getting seems authentic. It’s not just people sharing our posts and liking them, but there’s a real interest in getting involved and knowing how they can help and change their own businesses to be more diverse. That’s been really nice to see within the industry.

CORe has undertaken lots of collaboration, working with different organisations including MRS. Do you think there’s enough industry collaboration generally to tackle these big challenges?

SN: No, there isn’t. There are a lot of reports published but I don’t feel like there are any solid partnerships. Equally for us, something that we haven’t been doing much is partnering with companies and businesses. The short answer is no. There’s a lot more that can be done.

TF: There’s mixed intentions across the industry when it comes to this topic. For some people it’s about the cause and doing the right thing, for others it’s a chance for their organisation to be the first to say this or do that. The competitive nature of business – we’re all businesspeople – can get in the way of progress. If it’s going to be more effective for two or three organisations to partner on something to really make it happen, but this one wants to be the one to have done it and have the name, then that’s in the way of progress. It’s not any particular organisation but it exists and it’s a problem. There has been some decent collaboration but more is always going to be better.

What are you most proud of having achieved?

TF: Figuring out real solutions to the problems. Putting the pieces together. We’ve done quite a lot so far but we can now see the true vision of what needs to be done and we’ve got the right people in place to start actioning these things. For me, to help put together an organisation that has the potential to end this problem – something that is hundreds of years in the making – to have done that in the year, that’s huge for me.

SN: For me, it’s not specific to any one initiative, but maintaining importance and Colour of Research still being relevant and talked about and people still wanting more from us – I think that’s a big achievement. Companies still want to be diverse and inclusive and they’re coming to us for that.

TF: I don’t think people realise that none of us are D&I experts. It’s a group of people taking the initiative to step into something and educate themselves as well. I can now comfortably give people consultations on this stuff – a year ago I couldn’t. People often think ‘I can’t do that because I don’t have the experience.’ We didn’t have that experience, and we’ve done it. If you’re passionate about something you can do it, it just might mean you have to read quite a bit.

What’s been the experience of launching CORe during a pandemic?

SN: We haven’t all met yet, believe it or not – we haven’t sat down and had a face-to—face meeting, although a lot of us had met each other previously. We haven’t had that moment where we’re together and can acknowledge and reflect on the work that we’ve done. It’s been really challenging. It’s been a rollercoaster but it’s been fun.

We’re all volunteers. We have full- time jobs and if it wasn’t for Covid we would not have the time because we have our meetings in the evenings and started off having a lot of them on the weekends. We are juggling two jobs and it can be really difficult. 

TF: To be honest, I don’t know if it could have happened if it wasn’t for Covid. There’s a certain freedom of not being in offices and spending time commuting that gave us time to be able to do something like this. Also I think that isolation gave a lot of people in the industry the chance to really reflect, and really think about this stuff, not just sit at a table with people spending any little bit of free time talking about what you watched last night.

What’s next for CORe?

TF: There’s a big project that we can’t say too much about, but it has to do with nat-rep and has potential to solve the problem entirely.

We’ve started ramping up our events. We’ve got round tables to talk about big issues, a public speaking presentation, and Know Yourself, a new series on cultural history. The first is on 14th June and we’ve got Tony Warner from Black History Walks giving a presentation on the unnoticed inventions and everyday appliances that you would have no clue were brought to market by black people.

We’ve got our research arm Spotlight as we see a lot of reports coming out and a lot of the time the results are very surface level or have problems like low sample sizes, or not having people from that community building the research themselves. The research we’re doing will feed us the information we need to create actionable initiatives.

We’re holding webinars with different ethnic group communities as part of an initiative to building the candidate pool for recruitment. Agencies want to do the right thing and hire people of colour but if the problem is industry-wide, someone moving from one company to another doesn’t do anything to solve the problem.

Is there anything else you’d like to say?

TF: To people who are passionate about this, whether you’re a person of colour or not, join us. There’s so much happening, we’re trying to do some world-changing stuff but we’re not a closed group by any means. Anyone reading this, if this is something that you’re passionate about and you think you’d like to get involved in creating that change, get in touch. We’re building a nation, there’s a place for everyone.

SN: We’re not exclusive. We want everyone to be involved, we need help and new ideas and we need everyone to want to be a part of that. Not just people of colour, but allies. We need you. 

Sia Najumi is market research account director at One Global Solutions and Theo Francis is founder and managing director of GuineaPig Fieldwork. They founded CORe in 2020 with Bob Qureshi, Melissa Gonsalves, Natalie Samuel, Graham Idehen, Charlene Adamah and Tatenda Musesengwa.