"People can't be what they can't see!" - Salesforce UKI CEO Zahra Bahrololoumi on leveling up representation

Stuart Lauchlan Profile picture for user slauchlan June 20, 2022
The tech sector needs to broaden its recruitment net as part of its efforts to bridge the skills gap and boost inclusion. Salesforce UKI CEO Bahrololoumi can point to progress being made.

Salesforce UK
Zahra Bahrololoumi

Last week the UK Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, Nadine Dorries, used a speech at London Tech Week to issue a call for tech businesses to widen their recruitment policies to encompass “any walk of society”:

In those council house streets where I grew up, you will find individuals with those very skills…really look hard at the people you’re employing – you’re giving those people, who deserve a chance, the chance to go on that journey with you.

Regardless of your political stance on what Dorries has to say in general, on this particular theme she may well have a point to make, one that ties back into the wider, long-running problem of the digital skills gap. For its part, the UK last week announced the creation of a new Digital Skills Council as part of its latest national Digital Strategy, which will explore ways to upskill people across the country.

The UK’s not alone here, of course. Last year the European Commission set up a 2030 vision of having 80% of the European Union’s population having basic digital skills. But a new report from Public First, commissioned by AWS, finds that this ambition looks set for failure, with the actual percentage by 2030 likely to be around 61% at best.

So, while governments must lead the charge, Dorries' point about tech businesses playing their part has clear validity.

Skilling up

With nice timing, Salesforce’s World Tour conference in London set a good example with the announcement of more funding aimed at skilling up individuals. At the event’s keynote address, Zahra Bahrololoumi, Salesforce UKI CEO, told delegates that research showed that 90% of the population need to acquire new digital skills by 2030 in order to be proficient:

We are so committed to closing that skills gap, irrespective of your age or your background. We are absolutely determined to equip people with the right skills to succeed, the skills that will make them more flexible, more adaptable and more resilient.

To that end, Salesforce is funding Ada, the National College for Digital Skills, to deliver a two year project to attract and support young adults from underserved backgrounds in London and Manchester in high quality entry-level digital apprenticeships. The program will also look to tackle bias in recruitment processes and influence more equitable recruitment and hiring practices from employers.

Such grants are essential as Bahrololoumi later expanded on the how urgent tackling the skills crisis is:

I've said it before, I'll say it again - I think we're heading for a national crisis. I think we're in one already around digital skills and there is a level of urgency that really does need to be recognized and observed. We did some research and three out of four people don't feel ready to operate with the digital skills that are needed even in today's society. That's appalling.

And it's not just a case of people who can't log on or are not very technically savvy, she added:

There's a layer of people that are technically savvy, but aren't necessarily savvy with the business tools that they need to be effective in employment. And then you've got a whole suite of folks, especially refugees, that come through, and they've got high degrees of technical skills and yet again they're still finding that that pathway is closed...The digital economy is still growing. We cite just in the UK and Ireland 271,000 jobs by 2026, and we need talented people to fill those. We've all got a responsibility. We've all got a role to play


Still on the recruitment theme, Bahrololoumi turned to progress made in achieving better representation within Salesforce, an ongoing commitment across the company as a whole:

On my executive leadership team, we have the eight of us that are execs. Five of us are women, we have two ethnic minorities and one person from Ghana. So I think we've got a really brilliant spread within my immediate leadership team. My extended leadership team, there are 18 of us, 10 of us are now women.

We're bringing that diversity to the top table because people can't be what they can't see and we need to set that tone. When I started our hiring was just over 30% female and at Q1, we were at 54% female, so it can be done. With excellent partnership with our recruitment teams and our business leaders, we really turned the dial. We're by no means done. We've still got so much to do. Recently we announced our gender pay gap results and we're closing that gap. We've made an improvement to the tune of ten percent. With the next iteration I'm expecting it to be much better, given we've got much more women in senior positions.

There have been lessons learned along the way, she added, noting that while the firm was attracting a proportionate and equal number of women and men, it had been losing women candidates at the very last point of the recruitment process, which took the form of a panel. This panel format also impacted on ethnic minorities with a different cultural upbringing which made them less inclined to, as Bahrololoumi put it, “broadcast or shout about their achievements”. She noted:

It's not necessarily conducive to all aspects of diversities. Nobody really thought [about it]. It's a fair process, it’s a wonderfully robust process, but we had to tweak it. What we did is, every woman who was rejected or declined at that stage, we set up a 'decline council'. We examined each and every one and when we thought about it, we reflected and we looked at next best alternative skill sets. The numbers really shot up and that that's what we saw in in our results at the start of the quarter.

For her own part, as a female leader, Bahrololoumi admitted she has sometimes felt like a fraud when talking about equality and diversity challenges as she hasn’t felt like she’s hit a lot of glass ceilings in her career. That’s not to say she can’t empathize with the challenges faced by others:

I will tell you this, when I came into my tech career, I didn't have a tech background and I was typically the only woman in the room, and I'm a brown woman being being told that you have to work harder and more productively than anybody else. I think that's the voice in my ear and I'm sure is the voice of many, many people like me.

What's been really interesting is myself going through that journey and saying, 'I can help. I can bring people up'. I am legitimate in that, even though I perhaps haven't necessarily felt some of the struggles or some of the closed doors that other people have felt.

In a related article, diginomica gets a US perspective on the digital skills and recruitment challenges from Salesforce Chief Marketing Officer Sarah Franklin.

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