Born to Surinamese parents, Julien had quite the culturally diverse upbringing in the city of Amsterdam. His friends came from different walks of life, which impacted him in ways that serve him to this day. He found himself absorbing and unpacking different behavioural traits from a very young age. This is where the foundation for the cultural awareness he possesses was laid and it has helped him throughout his career.
How did you extract value from your multicultural upbringing?
I think it has made me more inclined to listen to others. I am very aware of my own opinions and approach to things. So, I try to be as open minded as possible; especially in a professional setting. Everyone thinks they have the best idea, but there are many roads that lead to Rome.
Can you take us through what those early days were like in your career?
I want to be upfront and unambiguous about this subject. Being one of the few, or sometimes the only person who has a culturally diverse background in the corporate world has made it quite a lonely trajectory. I strategically took on a thick skin approach at the beginning of my career, solely committing to work and keeping a part of me private. I was never myself fully, which worked to a certain extent. I did thrive, but it was also to my own detriment. Instead of confronting unpleasant situations head on, I would often ignore things and keep all my frustrations on the inside. In the end, it didn’t bring me a lot of joy or happiness and I realised that there is no better purpose for me than to simply be as authentic as possible.
How did you thrive despite these challenges?
One of my sponsors was a person of colour who could relate to the personal struggles I was going through. Do not get me wrong, I had – and still have – great caucasian role models who have helped me tremendously in my career. However, seeing someone who looks like me attain a senior position in a company was very inspiring to me. It gave me purpose and made me realise I didn’t have to adjust my own ambitions. On the other hand, this person – along with others – were also advocating for me, which made room for me to climb the corporate ladder.
Is it fair to say sponsors were pivotal in your career?
I want to take a moment to acknowledge the importance of sponsors in organisations. This is truly key for career growth. Working your socks off and delivering quality work will get you far, but you will eventually hit a roadblock. I can attest to the fact that at a certain point I was feeling stuck in my career. I couldn’t quite understand why, until I realised I had lost some of my key sponsors along the way due to changes in the organisation. The reality of it is, you can deliver excellence, but still struggle with visibility and being acknowledged. Unless, there are senior level sponsors advocating on your behalf. I call them your personal megaphones and you are going to need them in order to grow in a company.
It worked out for you! So, is the diversity gap due to a lack of sponsorship?
The reality of it is, sponsorship grows from personal connections. People are going to be pulled towards someone they see themselves reflected in. That translates into senior level personnel connecting with juniors who look like them or have a similar background – and/or move in the same social circles. So, this explains why if people of colour are a minority at a company, they are easily overlooked. This isn’t ill intended, but leaders need to understand that this leads to inherent inequalities in terms of opportunity and visibility. It is frustrating to be at the receiving end of this, but still stay motivated to go on. I know many people who have unfortunately given up or readjusted their ambitions, because of this.
How do we mend this gap?
Well, people need to feel they are in a safe space to have some awkward conversations. It’s about leveling the playing field. For every single person to be afforded the same opportunities and visibility, it should come down to expertise, social skills and a healthy work ethic. However, this is not how it works in reality. So, if we want to eliminate this imbalance, we need to admit it is there in the first place. Leaders need to understand the unique situation a person of colour finds themselves in at a company where they are in small numbers. In fact, I want to inspire leaders to be inclusive and think about making everyone feel welcome, I say this because this was not always the case for me. I got through it, because of my thick skin, but this is not the way things should be and it is simply unfair to those who are not willing or able to take on a thick skin approach.
What makes a great leader?
Someone who is open minded and willing to embrace those that don’t exactly fit the same mould. Someone who takes time to truly listen to the concerns of people and addresses them. It is very important for those working at our office to feel welcome. That is what a leader does. I encourage inclusivity in terms of teamwork and truly invest in getting to know everyone, not just people with a similar background. This is my ultimate aspiration, for all organisations and society to make each other feel welcome. It is the single most important element for building trust in a corporate environment.
How do you inspire your mentees to stay motivated?
I tell my mentees and other young professionals of colour to rise to the challenges as they come and try their mightiest not to get demotivated. This means accepting that life is not always fair, which is a tough one to swallow. On the other hand, I also advise anyone on the come up to be very clear about your ambitions and what you want to achieve. Disappointments will be there, but every single one is a lesson. Identify them and learn from them, it will only make you grow. Most importantly, connect with people on a senior level, whether they want to give you a fair chance is up to them, but you know you have done your part.