Growing up black was something I’ve only been able to truly reflect on now, as a more mature black woman.
Before that, I was caught between people reminding me I was black and people telling me they don’t see colour – both of which I could never fully understand.
But, over time, I have come to understand what being black has meant for me and my identity growing up.
That is why Black History Month each October is one of my favourite times of the year. The significance for me personally grows each time it comes back around annually.
I can only speak from my own experience but being black and proud is truly a liberating thing when you remind yourself that you are, in fact, great.
I think growing up a lot of us share similar experiences of being told to work twice as hard or to “tone it down” because we might not come across as appropriate (whatever that means) to the majority, especially in the workplace.
But I think once you cast away that mentality, you start to really discover what your potential can be.
Discovering my mentor was not what I expected
The black experience is not just one experience, and never forget that.
I started my career in advertising at an agency called Iris Worldwide in 2016, after doing a traineeship at youth marketing agency Livity.
It was at Iris that I met my mentor Dan Saxby, the former chief executive, who is, just to paint the picture, a middle-class, white male with 15-plus years’ experience and who was much more senior than Shanice Mears, a 21-year-old intern at the time.
Which is why what I’m about to say is important: I spent a lot of my time in search for someone who looked like me, sounded like me and had the same, or at least similar, lived experiences as me in a senior position – someone in my industry. And I struggled.
Dan himself helped me to look for someone who could have been that for me too – because the motto is: “If you can’t see it, you can’t be it.” But I can’t say I think that is entirely true.
As time passed, Dan and I built a rapport, which became a mentorship and reverse-mentoring on some occasions – made up of great conversation, awkward moments, unlearning, while opening up, and new discovery.
The organic building of our mentorship allowed me to realise this is how we can change the game.
More often than not, it’s easier to accept something as a fault than it is to accept it as a learning, and that’s what my initial thoughts were.
Is this real? Is there truly a mutual benefit? Can we help each other long term? And the answer turned out to be yes.
I thought I needed someone like me to feel better about myself excelling in new spaces.
But what I needed was someone who could empower me and care about who I was becoming – regardless of what I thought of myself.
Young black people need to be empowered not only by their inner circle but also their senior employers, their colleagues and everyone else that they encounter during their professional and personal development.
From mentor and mentee to business partners
When Dan proposed we start our own company, The Elephant Room, it was (at first) challenging for me to look at this as a partnership, because I didn’t fully understand the value that I brought to the table.
There are some days when I still feel like that – more than three years after we went into business together at the start of 2017.
But the most important thing is that I trust our relationship. Both of us want to contribute back to this industry and create long-term value.
We know the value of mentorship because it is what led to the birth of The Elephant Room and we trust the process.
This is why we decided to launch “One Month Mentors”, an initiative to match 10 mentors with 10 young, black creative mentees during Black History Month.
I am so excited that we have identified a wide range of both mentors and mentees – from the agency world to music, from the West Midlands to London.
Empowering young black talent
It is important for me as a young black woman to continue to work towards uplifting other young black people, particularly those navigating predominantly white spaces, but I know that growth can only happen when you are empowered to do so.
I feel it’s valuable to share my experience. I also think it’s extremely important to have black people in roles where they can be an inspiration for young people who are looking up and able to say: “I can do that.”
But if they are not there – and often they are not – we have to remember that we can still be whatever we want.
They say it takes a village to raise a child. Which means to me that multiple people contribute to our learning, which leads to our growth and ultimately success.
Considering everything that black people have striven to do, it’s important to acknowledge there are also boundaries.
It is OK to talk about emotional labour, the idea of white privilege and/or white saviour complex.
To be frank, if you are a white person reading this and feel uncomfortable, you should also attempt to unpack that.
The sooner we embrace our differences and the things that we don’t understand, which includes our history and present-day reality, we will be greater together.
We say at The Elephant Room, “we’re not here to just do advertising, we are here to change it”, which is absolutely true.
It starts by building unity between us as colleagues and as partners.
This is not about "see it, be it". This is about who will support you to become the best version of yourself and everyone else after that.
Shannie Mears is co-founder and head of talent at The Elephant Room