Deborah HarrisVisible Start Graduate

“The world says it’s changing. Let’s prove it.”

Debo Harris always considered marketing to be the ‘dark arts’. So what better place to now try to make a career: in an industry that has for so long felt unfathomable. And at a time when technology is taking its greatest leaps. After all, “digital is where everything is.”

And if it doesn’t happen, it’s been a learning experience.

An accountant with a portfolio of risk management clients, Debo’s role saw her consulting on progression pathways for senior executives with ambitions to become board directors. Then during a contract with the NHS — to help diversify leadership — her VC head, enquiring mind, analytical brain and ability to ask a great question caught the attention of the hospital Chair. He suggested a young —  far younger than was expected to sit on a board — Debo apply to become a NED. The support of an ally gave her the push she needed to realise she had nothing to lose. And Debo has never looked back. A senior board director, corporate governance advocate, strategic executive coach and critical friend: Debo’s brain is at its happiest when it’s busy asking questions.

She’s also a natural champion for women in senior leadership. For years, she’d sat on interview panels where all white male shortlists turned up. No women. No diversity. No reason other than  lack of confidence. So after reading Lean In, she took it upon herself to make things change. She set up a Lean In ‘circle’ with just one challenge to the women: “What would you do if you weren’t afraid?” The circle grew. Really grew. 4,000 women. 80 locations in the UK. With Debo behind them, building their confidence. And so her formal executive coaching was born.

‘The Confidence Vault’ does what it says on the tin: builds confidence in ambitious senior business women in order to vault them into board leadership roles. Debo is both a mentor and a sponsor, getting them a seat at boardroom tables they’ve never had the chance to sit at before. Maybe not even known about. After all, 85% of the roles aren’t even advertised.

We talk about the power of three. What with consulting, a NED portfolio and her ‘Vault’, Debo had plenty to do. But that was before the 25 May 2020 incidents: the shooting of George Floyd. And the actions of Amy Cooper: when a liberal white woman chose to weaponise her privilege, Debo recognised that attitude. It was the attitude of many well-meaning people she’d come across before – people in organisations where their attitudes embedded bias and discrimination into the very fabric of the company policies. Three was no longer enough. Once again, Debo saw something that needed to change.

Debo sits on boards and chairs their committees, so is used to finding ways to ensure the systems that deliver services are genuinely robust. She’s used her experience to create ‘The Impactful Allyship Playbook’: a process that takes businesses on a 7-step transformational journey; steps beyond the many ‘awareness raising’ discussion based corporate courses that sprung up in 2020. Corporates apply the playbook to help them identify where their culture has invisible ingrained barriers to entry that are preventing skilled people from accessing opportunities to achieve their full potential. You don’t need to be a DEI expert to be a DEI ally. Debo knows the right questions to ask.

“When you add diversity of thought and diversity of identity to a business, great innovation can really happen. The communities that are often unheard in decision making are invaluable. Especially in times like these, when the challenge is to consistently be doing more with less.”

For Debo, the opportunity offered by Visible Start was an electrifying call to action. She’d seen so many mid-career — midlife — women becoming invisible, a younger face showing up where they’d been before. You cannot age in front of the camera. You cannot age in front of a career. You cannot age in front of a board, but somehow Debo has done just that.

She never needed to break the glass ceiling as an executive. At a time when her peers were climbing the investment banking ladder, Debo was navigating a career jungle gym. Had her path been more conventional, would the doors have been opened? Looking back — at the evidence of other women, at the challenges faced by her Black peers — it seems very unlikely. But she can test it out as she takes up her next challenge. Build on what has been done as a far more experienced her. As an executive, starting from the bottom to see if the conversations she’s been having with businesses — in her position on boards, with her mentees, through her professional networks — have actually worked. Debo missed out on her career ‘childhood’. This is her chance to get it back. To pivot into an industry that is new to her. To make her mark this time as an executive. To make herself proud. And to really make a difference while she’s at it.

The dark arts are about to get a bit of a shake up. Because in Debo there’s more than a bit of magic.

“The world says it’s changing. Let’s prove it.”

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Dawn NealeVanessa Caribe