Don't be an Andrew! Lessons Salesforce UKI CEO Zahra Bahrololoumi has learned as a person of color in tech
- In a long career, Zahra Bahrololoumi has run into barriers due to her heritage. Today she's a national CEO at Salesforce and committed to making big changes in terms of equality and diversity.
Zahra Bahrololoumi is well aware of how somebody’s heritage can hamper their life goals. After studying management at university, she was rejected from her dream profession of representing the UK working for the Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO).
With Iranian parents who came to the UK in the early 1970s, Bahrololoumi wasn't eligible for the role. Under the rules of that time - the 1990s - you had to be a second-generation immigrant or your parents had to have been in the country for more than 30 years to work for the FCO. She recalls:
I kept applying. I went to all the career fairs, and I got turned down because of my heritage. I remember at the career desk with the Foreign and Commonwealth Office, I just said, 'I am not a terrorist, I want to represent the UK. Now I think, you need me now - I'm a Farsi speaker, look at how the world's changed'.
In the face of this rejection, Bahrololoumi joined Andersen Consulting – now Accenture. During her tenure at the consulting company, she faced another obstacle due to her heritage:
I looked around me and of the five business heads, three of them were called Andrew. They were all of a certain demographic, they all had the gray hair, and they were all really seasoned.
I remember my boss sitting me down and saying, ‘Zahra, look around you, you've got to be more Andrew’. And I'm like, ‘How do I be more Andrew?’. He said, ‘I think you should be a little less colorful’.
How do you cope with that kind of feedback? I'm never going to be a 57-year-old white male with gray hair called Andrew.
Bahrololoumi was left wondering whether that meant she wouldn’t be able to succeed at the firm, but between them, her husband and parents helped to convince her to focus on her strengths:
I remember going back and I said to my boss, 'I don't understand what I can do with your feedback, but I know I'm approachable, I'm relatable and I can bring teams along with me. If that isn't Andrew, then I'm not in the right place.'
The response worked. Her boss apologized, adding that he realized what he had said was wrong. But the experience is one that Bahrololoumi carries with her.
I'll never be an Andrew. Be authentic, that's the differentiator, and I'm proud of that.
Unsurprisingly on the back of these experiences, Bahrololoumi is totally committed to the values of equality. Under her leadership, Salesforce UKI has already uplifted its gender and ethnicity representation. When she joined the firm 18 months ago, hiring was just over 30% female; at Q1 2022, this has increased to 54% female. Of the nine members of her senior leadership team, six are women, and three are ethnic minorities from Ghana, South Asia and Iran, she points out:
It's not a token gesture. We are the top performing geography. People are looking at us going - why? This is why. I'm over the conversation now about why it's a good idea. I don't want to win anybody's hearts and minds anymore. I am relentless in that.
At Accenture, Bahrololoumi was responsible for the firm’s UK and Ireland technology business managing a very large team, and was also the equality and inclusion leader for technology globally, overseeing a quarter of a million people. This experience has provided many insights, she suggests:
I've heard every excuse about why can't I hire this person. The excuses I got in Japan compared to the excuses I got in Germany, I've heard it all. I've learned that the thing that matters is representation and inclusion. And the data.
At Salesforce, she is focused on four key data points when it comes to her people and DEI - hiring, development, progression and experience. Her next objective is around the gender and ethnicity pay gaps, which Bahrololoumi wants to close even before it's a legal requirement. The company is trending in the right direction here with all Salesforce top executives having their pay tied to certain equality metrics:
I was really for that. That's happened in the last six months, and everybody is pushing for that globally.
Bahrololoumi has some sage advice and words of encouragement for young people who want to get into technology. Salesforce and its partner eco-system will create 271,700 jobs in the UK by 2026, according to an IDC report, so there is huge opportunity out there for anyone wanting a career in tech, she says:
Not just Salesforce, but in the UK, there are now more jobs than people. It's about getting the right skills, getting the right access, seeking the opportunities. If you haven't got tech experience, do not let it hold you back. I'm living proof - I'm about music, diplomacy, the arts. If I can convert and apply myself and learn new skills to lead in tech, that background and that context has made me stronger and more differentiated. Find people that have got openings or opportunities.
Case in point: when Bahrololoumi wanted to join a project within Accenture that required people to have an engineering degree, she didn’t take no for an answer, going through every backdoor possible to get in front of the right person and have that conversation to prove herself.
Taking opportunities to try out different roles and projects, and not turning away from the difficult areas is another piece of advice, she passes on:
Any role is a key to a door. I've taken so many roles that I didn't actually like but I maximized the opportunity, I got my head down, I delivered results, I got myself known. That's how the word of mouth spread and I got staffed onto different projects.
I ran towards things. Every time somebody ran away from an opportunity saying, 'It's too hard', I ran towards it. That's what differentiated me.
As to what her secret to success is, Bahrololoumi points to something learned after many years and conversations with people who were not being recognized or getting an opportunity or promotion:
I say to them, 'What was the biggest need around you in that moment - more sales, fix a delivery, fix the morale?'. If you can identify that in any job you do or any opportunity you have, and you align yourself to that biggest need and you deliver that, you are automatically differentiated.
“I call that the 'currency of success'. Any job you do, there's a beast that needs to be fed. Even now I'm a CEO, I have to deliver growth, I have to deliver sales, that is my currency of success. If I can feed that, then I'm free to do whatever I want to do, however I want to do it. But if I don't feed that, then I'm under big scrutiny.