‘Bringing your whole self to work includes your values and passions’

Kené Umeasiegbu was recognised as Black British Business Person of the Year 2022 - SIMON J HARVEY/SIMON J HARVEY 2020
Kené Umeasiegbu was recognised as Black British Business Person of the Year 2022 - SIMON J HARVEY/SIMON J HARVEY 2020

Kené Umeasiegbu, responsible sourcing director at Tesco, was named 2022’s Black British Business Person of the Year last September. He speaks with The Telegraph about receiving the award, his work on sustainability at Britain's biggest supermarket and how to pursue your passions as a career.

What did winning the Black British Business Awards’ Business Person of the Year mean to you, personally and professionally?

It was such a surprise and I still can’t quite believe it.  I tend to think about it less as “winning”, as that suggests a competition. I think of myself as the recipient of the award – which could legitimately have gone to any of the other fantastic finalists.

I am grateful to be given this award and consider it a recognition of my career of more than 20 years in sustainable business. It has encouraged me to work even harder in translating and scaling inspiring concepts of sustainability in the real world of business.

What kind of obstacles have you encountered in your career as a Black person, and how have they impacted you?

I’ve been lucky and feel like I’ve received more support than obstacles in my career. I consider myself a beneficiary of the decades of equality campaigning, and testament to the journey that successive UK generations are undertaking.

Some obstacles remain, of course. For me, having grown up in Nigeria, some of these are to do with cultural and personal style differences.  I’ve also experienced what people call “soft bigotry of low expectations” – which is when others may expect less from you as a member of an underrepresented group. This can unwittingly limit your aspiration, and potentially lead to self-doubt.

What has changed for the better since you began your career?

Since I started my career in the UK in 2003, a lot has changed in the wider societal outlook on equality and inclusion. Some examples are Baroness Lawrence’s relentless campaigning that changed UK policing and laws, more black voices across the political spectrum, huge strides in gender equality, offering a template for driving diversity across other dimensions and more people becoming allies for under-represented groups.

Additionally, recent social movements such as Me Too, Black Lives Matter, and trans rights movements educate us all about less-heard voices and galvanise young people to play a role in social change.

At Tesco, we have signed up to the If Not Now, When? campaign and launched our Black Action Plan to improve Black inclusion across all levels of our business. We have longstanding colleague networks for underrepresented groups and our allies – sponsored by leaders on our executive team.

And Tesco is not alone in these endeavours. In my opinion, these are all positive changes that support those from underrepresented groups to develop their career further.

Conversely, what are the biggest challenges for Black people in the business world right now?

Whilst there is significant change in overall sentiment, there is still work to do to root this in the details of policies, practices and lived experiences.

Talking specifically about the business world, one big challenge is representation across all levels and its knock-on effect on aspiration, talent attraction and retention – career aspirations are much enhanced when you are able to seek inspiration from someone who looks like you.  Most Black children don’t know or see business leaders who look like them, as much as they do sportspeople, musicians and actors. And this can limit their aspirations when it comes to their careers.

There could also be some challenges in regard to organisational culture or processes. For instance, recruitment practices, where some employers continue to recruit only from a select few institutions with little diversity. It’s important that employers address this and Tesco is working hard to reduce the gap – I’m proud to work for a company taking these essential steps.

Black entrepreneurs also need more businesses to support and mentor them. To address this, Tesco supports black-owned businesses through the not-for-profit accelerator Add Psalt and helps bring their products to market.

What motivates you at work?

I am most motivated by the positive social and environmental impact that a business such as Tesco can make. I am also motivated by the opportunity to work with really talented colleagues on some of society’s most crucial problems.

How do you react to setbacks and failures?

As an introvert, my first instinct when I face setbacks is to step back and review what has gone wrong. I will then reach out to a core support group of mentors from within and outside Tesco, as well as close family and friends to help provide a sense of perspective. I then try to take a longer term perspective, and work with colleagues to tackle the setback using a different strategy and outlook.

Your work clearly means a great deal to you – what advice do you have for others trying to marry their personal passions with what they do to earn a living?

Bringing the whole of oneself to work includes one’s values and passions. The starting point to marrying one’s passions to making a living is ensuring no conflict between one’s core values and the day job. So, it’s quite important to articulate what these core values are and compare this with the purpose and objectives at work.

Most people go through a career stage where they might feel they are building their capabilities more than they are making an impact on the issues they care about. This is a necessary stage that equips for greater impact in future. In the meantime, there is always the opportunity to volunteer in the community or initiatives where existing capabilities can make an immediate difference.

What would you say to people who see green business initiatives as harmful to the bottom line?

There are many green business initiatives which offer clear business opportunities – some in the short term and others in the long term. My approach is to encourage individual businesses to prioritise opportunities with immediate benefits.

For those with longer term economic and wider societal benefits, it is important for business to advocate with policy makers to create a level playing field, incentivise early adoption or co-invest where business cannot act alone.

For instance, writing in the Telegraph in May last year, Tesco chief executive Ken Murphy highlighted some key food system innovations that can boost UK food security, support economic growth and help UK achieve its net zero targets. Such initiatives are great for both the business and wider environment and should have priority attention.

The awards recognise plenty of entrepreneurs – would you ever be tempted to strike out on your own? What kind of business would you start?

The awards are great at recognising the contributions of people working across a range of organisations, both big and small. The UK economy and society benefit a lot from the vision, passion and creativity of entrepreneurs.

But established businesses also need a healthy number of “intrapreneurs” – those leaders working within who bring the same qualities as entrepreneurs. I am relishing the opportunities for impact that Tesco provides, as well as the opportunity to be an intrapreneur here.

The Black British Business Awards is celebrating its 10th anniversary this year