Paul Sesay Meets: Dr Heather Melville OBE


To mark Black History Month specifically ‘Celebrating our Sisters’, I spoke to Dr Heather Melville OBE about her incredible journey that has seen her go from being a teenage mother, to landing her first job straight from school by impressing the work-experience team, rising through the ranks of leading UK banks, to being headhunted by a number of FTSE 100 organisations. Heather’s ‘can do’ attitude, positive thinking and drive for equity within our workplaces and society shine through all she does.  Very early in her career, she was praised for her attitude to her work.  Her authenticity, passion and honesty have seen her go far with interviewers and employers clearly seeing her potential to not just fulfil her role but to lead and bring others with her.

Inspirational and talented in equal measure, Heather returns again and again to the support she has had from her family, mentors and network.  Learning on her feet, using her initiative and intuition and not being afraid to stand her ground, have seen her impress employers and colleagues. While forging her career, she has ‘given back’ at every stage: encouraging others and breaking down barriers. More than once she found herself one of only a few women and often the only black woman in a workplace scenario. But she didn’t let that faze her: drawing confidence from her success and finding strength from her network, Heather has, in her own words, ‘got on with it’ time and again.

Having a drive and desire to succeed are only part of the story: authenticity is critical as well.

With a career spanning over 40 years in banking, finance and professional services, Heather has succeeded in sectors at a time when women and particularly black women were barely represented. As she admits, this and her hard work helped to get her noticed.

Heather holds roles as senior advisor for TENEO, Chancellor of the University of York and Chief Executive and founder of Clarke Smith Advisory. She is convinced that working with senior leaders and employers to create a culture that welcomes an inclusive community of talent will help them to support their agenda on championing success stories, innovation and inclusion both within their respective businesses and overall organisations. Developing a business that has access to all the talents will, in turn, help them flourish and be fit for the future.

Heather shared with me news about her exciting new project Nebular which is a programme specifically focused on black female leaders who are two years away from a C-Suite role. (You may like to know that ‘nebular’ are the particles in space that create the stars). This is very much in line with the directives from the FCA (Financial Conduct Authority) and the PRA (Prudential Regulation Authority).

We spoke for just over an hour and I urge you to listen to the webcast in full to appreciate Heather’s journey and learn from her experience. Meanwhile, a taster of what we talked about is here.


Take me back to the start of your career: how much of an influence were your parents?


Absolutely massive.  They wanted me to be successful in whatever I wanted.  When I told my mother that I wanted to go back to college, she immediately agreed and completely supported my decision.  My upbringing was amazing; there is not a shadow of a doubt that it shaped the way in which I brought up my own children.  It is from my upbringing that I have got my focus: my drive and determination.

My parents, the Windrush generation, had to endure a ‘No Irish. No blacks, no dogs’ society.  Like so many other Windrush parents they sacrificed so much to give me opportunities. I am not special but I am driven.

The close support and empowerment given to me by my parents was absolutely invaluable in shaping the way I approached what I can now term as my career. It was my first experience of what, in work terms, you’d call a trusted network.  I cannot underestimate the importance of support and having a trusted network.


You were a very young, single mother, Heather.  How did you manage to juggle work alongside this?


I was inspired by my mother’s tremendous driveShe worked extra shifts at anti-social hours, but made it work and was there for us.  I took exactly the same approach with my own two boys.  I was absolutely determined that if they wanted to go to university then they would be able so to do.  It gave me a focus and determination.  Having a focus is very important.

Also important is the power of positive thinking.  Even when I have worked hard but it hasn’t turned out how I wanted, I have never seen it as being a bad thing.  I see these experiences as something to learn from.


Who were your role models growing up?


Firstly, my mother, who was truly inspirational and supportive. On a wider stage, I’d say Oprah Winfrey and Michelle Obama – both of whom I have been fortunate enough to meet.

Oprah overcame early adversity – she was fired from her early career presenting job – and it instilled a drive in her.

Michelle for not only being the First Lady, but for being the first black First Lady. She stood very strongly and proudly beside her husband and is a highly successful woman in her own right who continues to work for a better world for everyone.


Do you see yourself as a role model?


No.  That feels more than a little awkward, a bit of an ego thing.

Instead, I see myself as a good disruptor – I talk to people, push and poke to find out why they are hesitant, until they realise that the only person stopping them is themselves and/or their support structure.

I think we should all take responsibility in helping the next generation along their journey.


What is the best advice that you’ve been given?


‘If anyone can do it, it’s you.  That’s why we asked you.’ I’ve been told this a few times in my career and their trust gave me confidence and empowered me.

Also ‘believe in yourself because we believe in you’.

Such trust replaces any negative thoughts with creativity.  So, for example, if you’re a young mother, don’t have the ‘can’t do it’ mentality; turn it around.  Think positively: ‘Whilst I have been on maternity leave, I’ve learned and done this.’  I’ve juggled responsibilities and still learned new skills.  It is about repositioning the way we think about ourselves.


What advice would you give to a young black woman trying to make her way forward in the workplace?


Your main priority is to extend your network and take your trusted support with you wherever you go. As I moved forward, I developed this network of people whom I could trust and from whom I could seek advice.

To find this people look at aspirational figures and connect with them.  Contact their Press Office/PA/through Linkedin.  There are many ways.  Ask for 10 minutes of their time  – most will give you 30 minutes.

Also, choose carefully where you work – remember the organisation has to be good for you, not just you good for them! Look at the websites of organisations to see how culturally diverse they are and review recruitment and development policies to see just how inclusive they are as an organisation.


That’s a powerful statement: employers better watch out!


Yes, but it can certainly be done.  I’ve recently taken the position of Chancellor of the University of York.  I accepted this on the understanding that it would not simply be a title or a figurehead position; I accepted the role on the condition that I could help to bring change by being a disruptor and a changemaker.  Our university leadership team has done just that in a very short space of time.  And we’re working to achieve so much more and across all the disciplines of diversity.  We want to create a culture whereby we attract all students from different socio-economic backgrounds, different cultures as well as talented individual who are neurodiverse. We want to create a welcoming environment that will support them to be the best that they can be and, at the same time, make the university truly inclusive.

So, before you accept a job, look closely at the organisation.  Who do they employ?  How far do they get?  How long do they stay?  Check out the culture and try to find out why people leave. Do your homework!


What do you think needs to change in the workplace to enable black women to achieve their potential?


Put bluntly, we all need to stop talking about it and start taking action.

Senior Leaders need to know their organisation.  Really know it.  I’m currently working with the Executive Leadership Council helping to engineer and change the mindset of business leaders to ensure they seek out the talent that already exists within their organisations.

It’s not, ‘I want a black person on the Board’ – it’s ‘I want access to all the talent/best talent…and make my choices and judgements from there.’

Not everyone wants to be on the Board but there should be a platform where they can bring their experience/opinion to help influence what occurs.

Businesses need to wake up to the fact that tomorrow’s talent will not suffer poor cultures in the workplace.  They will look at talent, ethos, personnel, pay, graduation and the opportunity to bring their innovation to the table… all before they agree to an interview.  Businesses need to get their houses in order before they even enter the fight to get the best new talent.

Prospective employees will look at how diverse and inclusive the workplace is.  Businesses must give access to all of their talent; but do it with integrity, tokenism will not wash.


What is the proudest moment in your career?


I have several to be honest but two more recent ones really stand out for me because they are recognitions that come from seats of learning.  Education is key throughout our lives, so these resonate strongly with me.

Firstly, my inauguration earlier this year at the University of York which I realise was not a privileged position but one of influence to create change.

Secondly, this year Warwick University granted me an honorary doctorate for my contribution to banking, finance and other business sectors. Hearing the details of the citation filled me with great pride. I know it would have made my late mother proud for all the achievements of her pregnant teenage daughter.


How can we encourage more change for good?


Change starts at home and in schools – we have to create a ‘can do’ culture. We have to educate parents for them to understand that education is not just for the privileged but for everyone!

Universities and businesses must review their recruitment processes to make sure they have access to all the talent that exists and not just pockets of privileged individuals.  There are too many places which are not diverse and inclusive.  The problem becomes self-fulfilling.  Why would you want to go somewhere where you are very different?

Another change I’d like to see is making university more accessible to a wider community taking into consideration that people make decisions based on what the culture feels like as to whether they apply. We must also encourage apprenticeships as an alternative route to attracting talent into our universities and businesses.

As a society, we should look at the whole picture.  We need a society which is truly inclusive and equitable.  Ensure people have the opportunities to be the best they can be.


As always, Heather, it is so inspiring to speak to you. A clear take away is having that ‘can do’ mentality: I’m sure this will resonate with many people. 


Thank you for inviting me, Paul.  It’s made me think and to look at how and why I made certain decisions.  And you’re right to end on that ‘can do’ message: it has the potential to take people far.


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