Black History Month: Spotlight On Akua Opong25 Oct, 20215 minutes
Akua Opong is a Senior Analyst in the London Stock Exchange Group's Corporate Technology...
Akua Opong is a Senior Analyst in the London Stock Exchange Group's Corporate Technology team. She mentors new team members, including interns and graduates, and gives technological advice and guidance to her colleagues across the Group.
She is passionate about her role as a STEM Ambassador and the opportunity it gives her to coach and mentor young people, interns, and graduates in the skills they need to build successful careers, as well as increasing the visibility of women in the industry.
Akua is a strong diversity and inclusion advocate, a mental health champion on the LSEG Wellbeing Committee, and the community lead for LSEG's Women's Inspired Network outside of her primary position.
As a neurodiversity champion, Akua collaborates with the Change Ambassador Network at LSEG through the Accessible Network, researching and testing accessibility solutions and raising awareness about creating an inclusive environment for neurodivergent employees. She received the Inspiration CEO Award 2019 at LSEG in recognition of her charity initiatives and contributions and has been shortlisted for the Women in Tech Global Awards 2021 and Tech100Women.
We had the opportunity to talk with Akua about being a woman in technology and how she goes about taking down barriers and breaking new ground in the technology world.
How did you become interested in working in tech?
When I was growing up I initially wanted to be a paediatrician and then moved onto to looking at working in the army in emergency response but with an IT intelligence role.
I went on to study Business Studies with Sociology and Religious Studies/Philosophy, followed by a BSc (Honours) in Computing and IT (Sandwich Course) at the University of Surrey, which really sparked my interest in IT. My first job was in retail, however throughout all my experiences I made up my mind that I wanted a career in tech; I now have over 8 years’ experience working in IT in different industries from hospitality to consulting and financial services.
Can you tell us about your journey into tech as a black woman?
I completed a one-year industrial placement at Rolls-Royce as part of my degree course at university; but then I struggled to get a job in technology. This was a challenging period of time as I was informed that I didn't have enough experience or that I needed IT certifications, despite having an IT degree with a year in industry. My first IT position was assisting the Dubai Royal Family across their UK properties, followed by over five years at Rathbones, and now Desktop Services Team within Corporate Technology at LSEG.
In every job I've had, I've been the first or only black woman on the team, which has driven me to want to make a difference and promote diversity and I do that through participating and collaborating with many different initiatives and charities. When I first started out, I didn't see many women in tech jobs, especially black women, which I thought might affect my ability to grow in the future.
If you could go back in time to the beginning of your career in tech and give yourself or any black female entering the tech industry a piece of advice, what would you say?
There are four main areas in which I would give my younger-self advice:
1. Surround yourself with a group of individuals you can trust to be a sounding board for your ideas, to push you, to help you identify and grasp new possibilities as they arise, and to help you advance your career and grow both personally and professionally. Jennifer Burns, Rav Bumbra, Bev Shah at City Hive, Neelam Kaul, Jo Thackwray, and Anna Znachko are some of the wonderful mentors that have been there for me over the last several years. By having open talks and sharing similar experiences I've learnt so much from each of these wonderful ladies. This is why I mentor young people in STEM fields to help them advance in their careers - I want to pass on my skills so that others can be the best versions of themselves.
2. Continuous learning: Develop a growth mindset and acquire new abilities, even if it's only 15-30 minutes a day to learn a programming language. To progress, you must have a growth mindset, which is critical in the IT sector.
3. Fear of the unknown: You will encounter numerous obstacles and unfamiliar scenarios, such as hosting, facilitating, or being a panellist in public speaking situation. Some of these situations are unfamiliar, and they are there to push you out of your comfort zone. Take advantage of these opportunities – they indicate progress and the capacity to build and improve your skill set.
4. Be open to multiple possibilities, don’t allow imposter syndrome or a lack of confidence to stop you. Be brave enough to go for it! This also includes looking for role models in the industry and helping to set a benchmark for others. When we see others that look like us in a room, it gives us a chance and makes us feel like we belong. Never stop believing in what you can become in the future.
"For me, becoming isn't about arriving somewhere or achieving a certain aim. I see it instead as forward motion, a means of evolving, a way to reach continuously toward a better self. The journey doesn't end," Michelle Obama wrote in her memoir Becoming.
I chose this quote as I attended the Becoming book tour at the O2 in London. Michelle Obama is a massive advocate for young girls to be given a chance to succeed regardless of their background. Each person should be given opportunities, in a world that is fair and equal. It is about uplifting, empowering and not about competing with each other, but working for each other - for the young girl or woman's voice to be heard.
What can tech companies do to make the industry more inclusive of Black women and other people of colour?
More diversity across the group is a must. The world is a beautiful place because of all the different countries, cultures, communities, networks and religions – that’s why we travel – we want to explore and learn more about other people and places. We need to create an environment that lends itself to learn more about diversity of all kinds.
Secondly, encourage talent from within. Keep training and retaining talent within the firm. There are so many incredible black women that are incredibly talented, give them the space and tools to grow into these wonderful future leaders that we all aspire to become. Host events and webinars for colleagues to discuss important subjects. Create a fair and inclusive environment for women – especially black women - to thrive.
How can we encourage more women, especially minority women, to get into the industry?
To start with, in order for women of colour to join organisations, we must see other women who look like us at all levels of the organisation. What kind of diversity and inclusion networks, as well as mentorship programmes are there? Are there any organisations that promote women of colour? When I was younger, I was constantly looking for role models, and when I wanted to join a company, I looked at their Executive Team and senior leadership teams to see if I could progress.
BYP, Coding Black Females, Black Girls in Tech, CityHive's Talk About Black Mentoring programme, and Tech London Advocates - Black Women in Tech are just a few of the fantastic organisations that constantly showcase the many careers of black women in the sector. These organisations have helped me improve tremendously in the previous year. I've grown so much in the last year, and it's all because of the organisations with which I'm now affiliated.
Can you tell us about a challenge you have faced and how you overcame it?
This year, I found out that I have Dyslexia and ADD. I found a wonderful Neurodiversity coach through Wired Differently and learning skills coach through A2i Dyslexia Association who have helped me to study more efficiently. I am now close to achieving more than 12 certifications for the year including ITIL, Project Management, Prince2, Microsoft and Multi cloud. This demonstrates what you can achieve with the right support. I changed a challenge or obstacle into something very positive.
How have you helped to promote diversity and inclusion in the industry?
I want to help to drive organisations to change structurally and to look at black talent in a different way, to look at female talent in a different way. I want to see words get put into action.
In order to drive initiatives for diversity and inclusion, I have participated in mentoring with both City Hive and Like-Minded Females (LMF) mentoring schemes to help drive change in gender equality and diversity. At LSEG, I have participated in the existing mentoring scheme, Reverse Mentoring, coaching for black employees, unconscious bias training, organised a training session with Show Racism The Red Card and highlighted intersectionality across the business.
What has been your career highlight?
Seeing how my generation is questioning the concept of work/life balance and speaking out against injustice and inequality has been a professional highlight for me. For me, success is spreading awareness about neurodiversity and assisting young women in achieving their STEM aspirations.
A personal career highlight is being featured in the Tech London Advocates book – The Voices in the Shadows. This article showcases black women in technology and gives young girls and women hope for what they might achieve in the future.
Thank you very much to Akua Opong for taking the time to talk with us for this interview. Be sure to grab your copy of The Voices in the Shadows book and if you have the time to vote for Akua for the Global Women Tech Community and Mentor of the Year Awards.