Becoming a “Rebel” and Champion for Change in Communications
I recently had the pleasure of sitting down for a Zoom chat with Advita Patel. In addition to being a confidence and visibility coach, communicator, podcaster and DEI advocate, Advita is the founder of Comms Rebel, an internal communication and employee experience consultancy based in Manchester, U.K.
Comms Rebel encourages businesses to take the leap and revolutionize the way they communicate within their organization by using effective measurement techniques and creative tools. Advita is also co-founder of A Leader Like Me, a 12-week program and annual subscription service that helps underrepresented women and non-binary people of color progress in their careers and achieve their leadership goals.
Yes people, she does it all!
CAN YOU TELL US A BIT ABOUT YOUR BACKGROUND?
I grew up in a home where both of my parents were entrepreneurs and owned their own businesses. There were a lot of benefits to that but I also saw the downside of owning a business and the challenges that came with it. I remember as a teenager thinking, “I want to work in corporate and earn a salary.” My ambition was to work in information technology, which is what my degree is in. I wanted to compete with Bill Gates and create the next Microsoft. That’s the benefit of being born to entrepreneurs – everything seems possible.
When I graduated, it was right at the dot-com crash. People weren’t hiring: they weren’t hiring in the U.K., they weren’t hiring women and they definitely weren’t hiring women of color. I got a job inputting data and hated it. I quit that job and I contemplated getting my masters in human resources.
I was being mentored by a woman, Katherine, who recognized my potential in marketing and communications, so I pursued my master's in strategic marketing. The first job I got after getting my masters was in internal comms, and that’s where I’ve spent the last 15 years of my career.
HOW DID COMMS REBEL COME ABOUT?
At one company I worked for, I was in the high-potential pipeline and was ready to take on a leadership role. There was talk of a Head of Internal Comms job opening up and I really wanted the opportunity. As women, and women of color in particular, we tend to do a lot to demonstrate our worth. We get certificates, we volunteer, we stay late and work on weekends to prove ourselves.
I was told a few times that I would have to interview for the position, which I was comfortable with as I wanted to make sure I got the role on my merit. But then the role was put on hold and I was told it was unlikely to come to fruition anytime soon. I had another opportunity with a different company, so I gave three months’ notice and began transitioning. On my last day, I received a message to say that they had reinstated the Head of Internal Comms role and appointed someone internally who didn’t have to interview.
I was devastated. I immediately rang up the HR Director and said I need to know why I didn’t get that position. I asked what the person who got the role had that I didn’t have and got no answer. In fact, it was confirmed that the person who got the role was more junior than me – not only that, but it was also someone I had mentored and coached. It was then I realized that no matter how many qualifications, certificates or courses I complete, I will never be good enough and my face will never belong.
What happened after this experience?
I hit a low point. Imposter syndrome was screaming at me for quite a while after that. I convinced myself that I wasn’t good enough. But after a few months I decided I had enough of feeling rubbish. Luckily, I have an amazing community around me so with their encouragement I started to look into imposter syndrome and confidence.
It was during this research that I recognized that if I didn't take control of how I was feeling then it will hinder my chance to succeed and progress. I had just finished a book by Shonda Rhimes called Year of Yes, and realized that I had spent a lot of time saying no.
I decided the next time I was offered an opportunity, I would say yes. And that’s what I did. I was being presented with a Future Leader award in the U.K. and was asked to speak at the event about my experience being a woman of color in communications, and I said yes. The event was on June 18, 2018, and that’s the day I made the decision I was going to work for myself and never let anyone make me feel like that again.
For the next two years, I worked on me – I investigated what being a consultant could be, where I could add value and I developed my unique selling proposition.
HOW DID COMMS REBEL LEAD TO A LEADER LIKE ME SO QUICKLY?
When I launched Comms Rebel in January 2020, I asked Priya Bates to be my mentor. She had been in my shoes and had lived similar experiences. Priya said, “You know what’s missing? The fact that we don’t see leaders who look like us, who can sponsor people like us and can recognize the talent and support we can bring.” We decided right then and there to create something that we wish existed while we were going through our turmoil.
A Leader Like Me began as a 12-week program for underrepresented groups. We knew it was going to be pretty powerful, but didn’t realize how powerful until we got halfway through the first program and assessed the metrics. It’s having a bigger impact than we could have imagined. A year later, we now have a subscription model for those who want to join and network with our community, along with an all-inclusive coaching program for senior practitioners.
CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT A LEADER LIKE ME CONFERENCES?
The conferences were created specifically for allies and sponsors who want to understand all of the listening and education they’ve done over the last 12 months and how to put it into action. We hosted the Diversity in PR Conference in October, and the Diversity in Action Conference is taking place on March 23, 2021.
ON THE TOPIC OF CONFERENCES, YOU’VE BEEN VOCAL ON SOCIAL MEDIA LATELY ABOUT THE LACK OF DIVERSITY IN SPEAKER LINE-UPS. CAN YOU TELL US ABOUT THAT?
Having an event with 30 speakers and no people of color isn’t representative of our industry. As communicators, we need to do better and hold organizations accountable, because the talent exists.
To help remedy this issue, I’ve started compiling a list of communications and marketing speakers from under-represented backgrounds that we can all pull from and socialize. If you know anyone who would like to be added to the list, fill out the speaker form to help make sure that we hear from different voices across our industry.
HOW CAN WE DO OUR PART?
If you’re going to attend or speak at a conference or event, take a look at the speaker line-up. Is there diverse representation? If not, speak up. Ask conference organizers why they’re not promoting diverse voices. Provide the speaker list for suggested additions.
If you work in an organization then make sure your policy says that if you’re speaking on behalf of the company then you’ll only do so if there’s fair representation on the panels/conferences/webinars. Simple fixes like this can make a big difference.
You really have to check in with your bias, and if you’re uncertain, go and speak to someone who’s not part of your community and ask for their opinion.
WHAT HAS BEEN THE COST OF SPEAKING UP?
Asking allies to ask these questions of conference organizers has turned into veiled threats to “tread carefully,” and I know I’m not alone. I’ve received DMs from women of color, men of color and people with disabilities who are afraid to step into the conversation because they’re scared of what future employers would think of them. This is the value that A Leader Like Me brings – it’s safe place for people to have these conversations.
WHAT’S THE COST OF NOT SPEAKING UP?
The past year has showed us the cost of staying quiet. It’s time to find our voices. I would say that every single person has an area they need to learn more about.
We need active allies who aren’t afraid of getting it wrong and making mistakes. You have to cross that minefield because if you don’t nothing will change. Be curious. Ask the questions. Be open to learning and committed to changing behaviors.
WHOSE ROLE IS DEI IN AN ORGANIZATION?
Diversity and inclusion belongs to everyone and every person has a role to play. However, in terms of creating real change in the business, it has to come from the top. Leaders must demonstrate the behaviors to create change.
Internal communicators on the other hand, hold the pen on the language in the business. We’re the ones brought in to write the blog or develop the messaging. We have an umbrella view of the business and carry a responsibility to call out inequities.