“Diversity is a verb – you have to get up and do it”: in conversation with Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, CEO at 10,000 Interns Foundation

Monday marks the end of Black History Month in the UK. Like many organisations, we’ve spent October celebrating Black cultures, sharing art, music and literature from Black artists, and learning from experts in the field of diversity, inclusion and belonging.  Interestingly, LocalGlobe (where I am privileged to be a Special Advisor) have a monthly event called ‘black out Tuesday’, dedicated to discussion, listening to talks, and educating their guests.

Each year, the event is a reminder of the importance of celebrating individual cultures and communities from across the spectrum of D&I. The same can be said for driving up representation – we know from years of research into diversity that targeted approaches aimed at specific groups are far more effective that broad-stroked policies around inclusion.

One person who knows this keenly is Rebecca Achieng Ajulu-Bushell, CEO of the 10,000 Interns Foundation, a non-profit whose mission it is to change the face of British business by offering paid work experience to students and graduates from underrepresented groups.

Over the past year or so, it’s been a privilege to partner with 10,000 Interns – both in a search capacity and through hosting an intern – and getting to know Rebecca. She must be one of the few people who can say they’ve been an international athlete and a CEO before the age of thirty.

Rebecca grew up between Malawi, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa.

Last week, it was a pleasure to sit down with Rebecca and discuss her priorities for the charity, her thoughts on how to promote inclusion, and her experience as the first Black woman to swim for Great Britain. Like all my interviews, our conversation started at the beginning. “I was born in the UK but grew up between Malawi, Uganda, Kenya and South Africa,” she told me. “My father was an academic, a political activist and freedom fighter, who was very involved in post-colonial struggles across Africa.”

Not long after Rebecca was born, her father left his job as an academic in the UK to support the post-Apartheid liberation movement in South Africa, where she and her mother moved when Rebecca was still a baby. “I guess that world – of charity and humanitarian aid work – has always been part of me,” she reflected, “it’s engrained in my values system.”

“I guess that world – of charity and humanitarian aid work – has always been part of me. It’s engrained in my values system.”

But by ten years old, it was sport that was the defining feature of Rebecca’s life. “Up until I was around 16, I was a professional athlete. It was swimming that brought me back to the UK from Africa. I needed to be in a place where I could train at the highest level.”

Back in England, Rebecca attended a sports-focused school in Plymouth, swimming forty hours a week in a year-group of ambitious young athletes (Rebecca tells me she sat next to Tom Daley in maths). In 2010, she became the first Black woman to swim for Britain and went on to compete for England at the 2010 Commonwealth Games.

But by 2012, Rebecca had withdrawn from competitive swimming, and made the decision not to compete in the London Olympics. Rebecca tells me that her decision to quit was two-fold. “First, I was really quite horrified at the prospect of having to defer my A-Levels. Education had been so engrained in me by my parents as a pathway for opportunity and I couldn’t reckon with the idea of not finishing.

“But second, it felt like my career was becoming less and less about swimming and more and more about the politics of my body. Swimming was a very white sport, it was hyper-racialised, and people didn’t have the language to talk about diversity in the way we do now.”

Rebecca tells me she received intrusive levels of press attention, recalling one instance of being described as having a ‘cut-glass British accent’ in the papers, despite being born in the UK, with a British mother and a British passport. “What did they expect? The whole thing felt like a spectacle. There was a high level of fetishisation around the idea of a Black person swimming. And being mixed race, having grown up in South Africa, I was simultaneously trying to understand my own relationship to Blackness.”

In 2010, Rebecca became the first Black woman to swim for Britain.

So, putting professional swimming behind her, Rebecca attended Oxford University, before moving to Paris to work in comms strategy. “It wasn’t until 2018 that I entered the third sector,” Rebecca said. “My father died, and that triggered a real moment of reflection in my life.” Pulled back to charity and impact work, Rebecca founded her own communications and media agency, NKG, focused on interventions in the third sector, and in September this year, was appointed as chief executive at the 10,000 Interns Foundation.

The charity’s mission is to change the profile of the UK workforce. The organisation partners with multinational corporations, professional firms, startups, and public bodies to provide paid work experience to people from under-represented groups. I asked Rebecca what she thinks success looks like. “It’s about opening doors that were previously closed and ensuring that companies develop the capacity to embrace diversity,” she says.

“It’s about opening doors that were previously closed and ensuring that companies develop the capacity to embrace diversity.”

Since being founded, the non-profit has been through multiple evolutions, starting life as 100 Black Interns, before being rebranded to 10,000 Black Interns (“by the end of the first day of the website going live, there was such a clamouring for more interns that we changed the name within the first year”), and now finally the 10,000 Interns Foundation. On Monday of this week, 10,000 Able Interns was launched, offering internships to Disabled students, and there are plans to introduce a third programme in the next few years.

Key to the foundation’s mission is a targeted approach. “It’s something we do really well,” Rebecca says. “We’ve got the research, and we know how to create opportunities for specific groups. We want to fundamentally evolve what the UK workforce looks like.”

This is an important and ambitious goal – and one that won’t be achieved without long-term commitment from firms in the UK. After all, we agree, diversity is not just about getting people through the door, but about creating an environment where everyone can succeed.

“We can’t put interns into spaces that aren’t ready to meaningfully include them,” Rebecca reflected. “So, I say to businesses: are you going to change your assessment processes? Are you going to meaningfully shift your structures and systems towards this new talent? Are you going to meet them where they’re at? Diversity is a verb – you have to get up and do it.”

I ask Rebecca what she’d say to business leaders looking to drive change. “If you want to make a difference, then own it. Commit to hiring a woman or a Black person into an open role. Commit to favouring candidates from lower socioeconomic backgrounds. It’s a business imperative – we need those different voices in the room.”

Quick-fire questions

Where were you born?  Warrington, a town between Liverpool and Manchester
Where did you go to school? Plymouth College then Notting Hill and Ealing High School (GDST)
Who is your mentor? I have had and still have many
Who is your role model/icon/someone you admire? Harper from Industry
What is your favourite book? The Kingdom of This World by Alejo Carpentier
What is your favourite film? Hyenas by Djibril Diop Mambéty or The Great Beauty by Paolo Sorrentino
What would you like your legacy to be? I want to improve our collective cultural literacy, I want to leave behind empathy.

Moira.benigson@thembsgroup.co.uk | @TheMBSGroup