As part of our ongoing ‘Clarity in Conversation’ series for Women’s History Month, Rachel Gilley, Clarity London MD, sat down with Melina (Mel) Jacovou, Founder & CEO of Propel London, to chat about her experiences making her own space as an LGBT+ woman in the male-dominated tech and recruiting world, her thoughts on what recruiting and hiring practices are needed to attract and retain diverse candidates, and her advice for up-and-comers.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.
Rachel: How and why did you get into recruitment?
Mel: I got my degree in graphics and new media — I used that when I graduated and went to work for organizations that were building and developing CD-ROMs. I enjoyed it, was doing well working as a designer and a producer, but had a bit of a life change after a few years, did some soul searching about myself, what I want to do, my identity and my sexuality, and fell into working for a recruitment company building out their new media division. I ended up on their board within 18 months, worked there for a few years and helped them grow their new media immensely. And that was a great experience. I was with them for about four years. But undoubtedly, their culture wasn’t aligned with me, nor their values and mission. So I left and set Propel up.
That whole mission piece was almost a bigger driver than anything else. Values are so important. I mean, the reason I did very well at recruitment [prior to creating Propel] is because of my network and the people and the collaboration, and meeting people and understanding, etc. I’ve always been obsessed with technology and human beings and putting them together and matching. So I just did well in recruitment almost immediately. But being in an organization, even being on the board of an organization, and not having any real levers to change the values of the business and the beliefs – it’s not going to work. You’re not going to hire the right people, you’re not going to build the right teams, you’re not going to be authentic. So basically, I left and set this up, which was 20 years ago.
R: Gosh, and did that feel brave at the time, setting up your own company?
M: I was super frightened, because I set up in a downturn in 2001. And, you know, [September 11th] (9/11) had just happened. So it was it was very challenging, but I mean, I suddenly became in charge of my own destiny, and I was really, really up for that. I was really up for change. I realized that there was a massive gap for people that really understood this [the tech] space. And we were excited for it, and could match people into different jobs. It was just alive and booming as it is now.
So that was the early 2000s. All of eBay just been set up, Expedia, I mean, it was such an exciting time.
R: In the technology sector, where do you predominantly work?
M: We help VC and PE backed scale ups/ startups – disruptive tech businesses that are potential Series A and beyond that. If they’re about to raise and they need teams, we go in and we help them find their teams just before they get the funding, but when they know they’ve guaranteed it. So they’re all disruptive. Traditionally, [we’ve worked a lot in] FinTech as you can imagine, it’s been around for a long time. [Today it’s across] all technology, a lot of work on lots of work management platforms, mobility, etc. – all [tech companies that are] disruptive or making changes and scaling.
R: Okay, so tech industry, as we know, struggles with diversity and passivity. Expand on that for me, why do you think it struggles and continues to struggle?
M: So many reasons, and they’re very practical, and they’re very obvious, but unless you keep confronting them, you just don’t keep asking yourself the same questions. So there’s that educational piece at the beginning, really giving the opportunity for everyone to be educated in the space, whether they’re women or their people of color, or they’re LGBT+, or working class, giving them the opportunity to understand and learn technology.
From a venture capital perspective, only 7% of decision makers and VC firms are women. 1% of those decision makers identifies as Black. Investment in female founders is 2%. Moreover, there’s a lack of diversity within the existing personal/professional networks – majority of the networks are white middle class men. Never underestimate the power of your network – women don’t go to pubs, they don’t stay out late at night, they don’t go to the golf course because invariably, they are still are seen as the family caretaker. LGBT+ candidates don’t have enough groups within the industry to support them either. We need to be building more groups. Plus, there’s a lack of access to STEM education for diverse candidates, and unconscious bias on the part of the hiring too.
We like to see people that look like us and feel like us. And we’re not good at getting out of our comfort zones. We’ve got to give opportunities to people — don’t look at salaries, don’t look at education, sometimes go into those CVs, and just take everything out, including the names, and just meet the people. Even if it’s on Zoom or in the real world, just meet them and try to understand if there’s a culture fit, if you share the same values, etc., and if you can train them. But because we constantly blockers in this process, we never have anyone at the top making the decisions to hire, right? We hire the same people in the same vein, we’re always hiring copycats of ourself, you know? Don’t look at backgrounds, just take that person on their own. It’s a brave thing to do. And it’s a bold thing to do, but it will make change.
R: What knowledge or experiences do you find yourself imparting to female or indeed any ethnically/gender/sexuality diverse candidates you’re looking to place within the industry?
M: The kind of knowledge and experiences and advice I’ve always put on to everyone just in life, is you have to be yourself, right? It’s easier said than done. But you’ve got to be authentic. If you’re not going to be yourself, then you can never perform, because you’re always guarded. You need to put being who you are in the center of who you are, and then pay it forward. Pay it forward to people always, anything you can do to collaborate or help people pay it forward, you’ve got to do that. So be yourself. Paying it forward, believing in yourself, these are not easy things to do. Build a network around you, have trusted mentors and people that can advise you, right and empower you. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and support.
Another thing I think that it’s really important, is to have a very clear vision and a mission of what you want to achieve. And be focused. Because if you’re a creative, or you’re an entrepreneur, or any of those things, or you’re building the business or building your brand, it’s really easy to go off point. What do you want to achieve? Why do you want to achieve it? How are you going to get there? It sounds simple but it’s not, because you can keep going off off pace — but always be really focused, write things down and come back to them. Definitely find role models of people that have attributes that you like, that you see, that make you feel at home, that you’re inspired by.
And be bold. You have to be bold, because to be authentic, you have to be bold; you have to go out there and be strong and believe in yourself.
R: It’s well documented that women have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, with thousands leaving the workforce…what responsibility do employers have in helping to address this?
M: It’s well documented that women have been disproportionately affected. The stat was absolutely horrific, I think 150,000 or something women have dropped out of the workforce just in the UK alone through the pandemic. Unbelievable.
Responsibility starts and stops with the employer, simple as that. It starts with the diversity and inclusivity plan – your code of conduct, etc., your thing that tells you exactly what you need to do and how you need to do it to really be diverse. Whether that’s hiring or retention, you need to be really clear on what that plan is so that – not just women – everyone from a minority group can be not only hired but then kept within the organization. That ensures that you’re hiring the right people, but also that you’re hiring the right people in the organization to hire the other right people you want. If you don’t have women that are at the top, or LGBT+, or people of color, how are you going to hire those people?
R: It’s clear that we need to be intentional if we want to continue making progress on gender equality in the workplace. Do you think making it a reality happens top-down or bottom-up? Who do you think are the people that can really influence it?
M: It has to be from the founder, the CEO, the leadership team, it needs to be super authentic. Because people are smart – if you say one thing but do another, this talent pool will not hang around, they will go. “Don’t display it, actually do it.” Make sure you’ve got some business values, real values, in your business blueprint. Because that’s really key. It’s really key to get those values outlined. And the actions below them, not just the values, but outlining what is good and what isn’t good, and then pushing that down forever. You’ve got to be acting it and living it and doing it yourself.
R: Do you believe men can/should play a prominent role in empowering women in the workplace?
M: 100% – we need allies. The overall message here is, we just all need to work together, and support each other.
R: If you had one ask or call to action for people who will read this, what would it be?
M: Be true to yourself and then others will fall in love with you. Collaborate, pay it forward, be positive, keep your energy and anything is possible. Celebrate the small wins, too.