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Ali Hanan of Creative Equals: “Measure what you treasure”

Measure what you treasure. We run our Equality Standard, which gives a deep dive into hundreds of insight points across a company to show where deep inequities lie, including simple things like accessibility on your website. To show how companies show up in their work and products, we also audit media and communications for representation […]

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Measure what you treasure. We run our Equality Standard, which gives a deep dive into hundreds of insight points across a company to show where deep inequities lie, including simple things like accessibility on your website. To show how companies show up in their work and products, we also audit media and communications for representation (including tropes and stereotypes), plus we audit supply chains for diversity. Most importantly, this needs to be tied into your business strategy, which DEI underpins


As a part of our series about “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Ali Hanan of Creative Equals.

Creative Equals started as a side hustle by the award-winning Creative Director Ali Hanan in 2015.

Throughout her 20+ year career, she’d seen the impact of the lack of diversity within the industry, and set up Creative Equals as the change we need to see in the wider creative and tech sector.

She left her role in 2017 and focused all her efforts into growing the business. Five years later, the business is an award-winning global consultancy partnering with clients across the sector from creative, media, PR, recruitment, technology, brands and the UK government on inclusive culture change.


Thank you so much for doing this with us! Before we dig in, our readers would like to ‘get to know you’. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

Kia ora — I’m from a windswept city on the coast of the deep south of New Zealand called Dunedin, South Island, where the main tourist attraction is an albatross colony. I grew up in an era with no WiFi (I’m 52 — yeah!) in a clapboard house with a corrugated tin roof where there was an abundance of time and space to create. Coming from such an isolated place on the edge of the world, I wanted to travel. My early career wish was to become an investigative journalist, like John Pilger.

Do you have a favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life or your work?

Once you hit 50, the universe looks you squarely in the eye and says ‘you have no time to waste.’ So for me, everything goes through the #F*ckItFilter, which I promise you can use at any age. As I’d experienced bias in career progression and maternity discrimination first-hand, I knew what happened to women’s careers, so I started Creative Equals (but we now work with all dimensions of diversity) to challenge the sector to do better. The first year, I made so little money that I hit the point where I couldn’t afford the mortgage or family food shop so I went back to work to do PR. I took a job working for RARE Google, and I won a grant for £5,000. I took this income and invested this in pitching for a bigger bid of £65,000 from the UK’s Government Equalities Office to set up the creative industry’s first CreativeComeback programme in the UK. Thanks to our powerful partnership with change-makers Diageo and our training partner D&AD, we are now in our third year, with programmes set to change women’s lives and the industry in NYC, London, and Mumbai.

In my work, I often talk about how to release and relieve stress. As a busy leader, what do you do to prepare your mind and body before a stressful or high stakes meeting, talk, or decision? Can you share a story or some examples?

It’s simple. If I’m feeling a little anxious or nervous before a meeting, I’ll find a quiet spot and throw my arms back and say ‘yesssssss,’ like I’ve just won the lottery. I’ll hold my arms up in this ‘victory’ pose like a gold medal winner and feel expansive, elated, and full of possibility. This changes the hormones in your body from a ‘fight or flight response’ to feeling on top of the world. People reflect how you show up, so supercharge the energy in the room.

Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. The United States is currently facing a very important self-reckoning about race, diversity, equality and inclusion. This is of course a huge topic. But briefly, can you share your view on how this crisis inexorably evolved to the boiling point that it’s at now?

Yes, this merits a whole book, but I’ll keep it short. First, let’s look at the context of 2020 and the pandemic. Confined to our homes (in the UK, for months) with the threat of uncertainty, illness, loss and death, I believe we all had to face ourselves in a deep, existential way. Life became hyper-localised, news-focused and life as we know it irrevocably changed. Amidst all of this, we were (and are) fixated on social media. On May 26, 2020 George Floyd was brutally murdered. On that day, the world stood still and watched in horror, anger, and revulsion. This could have been a friend’s father, brother, uncle, and son. At that moment, we all had to ask: who are we as humans to live in a society where this happens? Why was this moment possible? And how do we stop this from happening again (and again)? How do we dismantle structures of racism and social injustice across the globe? What is the role organizations play? Are we are racist or anti-racist?

Inclusion starts with leadership. Trump has departed, and with the new Biden-Harris administration, a sense of hope now prevails with the US’s most inclusive government. I write this from New Zealand where Jacinda Ardern, a young female PM, leads with courage, compassion, and inclusion. Her handling of events in New Zealand has hit the world stage. In her first year as PM, there was a horrific mass murder in Christchurch where a gunman stormed a mosque and murdered 51 Muslims in a hate crime. She came in close, reaching out her arms to hold mosque members as they grieved. She stood in front of the crowd and said: ‘we are you.’ Four days after the crime, she banned all semi-automatic guns, made hate speech a crime in 10 days and refused to mention the shooter’s name in public.

Can you tell our readers a bit about your experience working with initiatives to promote Diversity and Inclusion? Can you share a story with us?

Here are five things we’ve done over 2020.

After George Floyd’s murder, we worked day and night to get an open letter out, #AdlandCommits, now signed by 400+ businesses. We have provided this CEO group with monthly webinars, monitored their data and are committed to supporting them to make real change.

We know 97% of CEOs in the UK are white, so we set up Accelerate, a six-month bootcamp led by Lydia Amoah, our Cross Cultural Director, to create the next generation of leaders. Many attendees have gone on to be promoted and gained top jobs.

My colleague Roxanne Hobbs and I saw no one was talking about neurodiversity, so we launched a conference, DiverseMinds. At the Win 2018 conference, a woman talked openly about her ADHD for the first time ever — and set up a thriving network, The Future is ND.

We saw diverse junior creatives didn’t get budgets to access their training, so we set up the Be Awesome Night School. We’ve now trained 1,200 juniors in skills like resilience, brand building, writing kick-ass copy, and more.

Only 17% of Creative Directors in the UK are women. We know many leave to care for children, elderly parents or others, so we set up CreativeComeback in 2019. In our 2019 pre-Covid-19 cohort, 4 out of 5 gained employment. One team in 2021 even set up their own agency.

This may be obvious to you, but it will be helpful to spell this out. Can you articulate to our readers a few reasons why it is so important for a business or organization to have a diverse executive team?

Here’s what I know from hard insights and data from our Equality Standard. The bias of leadership teams filter down into organisations. The C-suite’s collective blindspots, privilege and perspectives shapes who they hire, who they promote and their products/services. Ultimately, this shapes their audiences and revenue streams too. When the leaders are inclusive, we see teams that are happier, win more awards, and are more productive. We see less mental health challenges, better communication and strong long-term retention rates. Ultimately, if every business goes on this journey, we can expect society to be fairer, richer and more inclusive.

Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. You are an influential business leader. Can you please share your “5 Steps We Must Take To Truly Create An Inclusive, Representative, and Equitable Society”. Kindly share a story or example for each.

1. Leaders have to be 100% committed. One C-suite team we recently worked with initially referred to I&D as a ‘project.’ Once they looked under the bonnet of their organization, they realized this is deep long-term work, involving difficult conversations and uncomfortable truths. Changes involve multiple programmes of work across all aspects of the organization to rewire it — and investment. They found it tough-going and the CEO remarked she had no idea it would be so ‘messy.’ The team moved through this stage, gained self-knowledge, changing their behaviours and writing the strategy and are now overhauling all their practices and processes. The journey takes time and deep commitment, but already they’re becoming a magnet for talent and a hotbed for creativity.

2. Co-design the system. To break down systemic bias, we have to redesign the whole system from the ground up. To create true inclusion, we have to consult those within a system that it currently doesn’t work for or who we don’t currently have in the business but could include (for example, people with autism). We work to the principle of ‘nothing about us without us.’ If the organizational system is designed by those within it (and those we want to attract), it works for everyone.We have to understand the dominant groups. Like any system, it needs constant tweaking and updating. How we’ve done this with one company is taken the whole organization through a series of open sessions and group-specific workshops, so everyone has a chance to input, then distill these inputs into a set of tangible strategies with action plans.

3. Create psychological safety with inclusive behaviours. This is paramount, because if people have to come to work in their armour, they carry a heavy load with them. To create this, we need environments where people are valued, heard and respected. This means giving people ‘equal voice’ in meetings — research from Alex Pentland at MIT shows this is critical for meaningful work. Micro-aggressive behaviours — like someone who continually talks over someone else, or crack inappropriate jokes need to be addressed and properly corrected to enable long term change and impact.

4. Measure what you treasure. We run our Equality Standard, which gives a deep dive into hundreds of insight points across a company to show where deep inequities lie, including simple things like accessibility on your website. To show how companies show up in their work and products, we also audit media and communications for representation (including tropes and stereotypes), plus we audit supply chains for diversity. Most importantly, this needs to be tied into your business strategy, which DEI underpins

5. Unpack bias across an organization: even if we do the work of inclusion, the blockers of bias and privilege often get in the way of innovation. Every organization needs to understand how bias shows up. It impacts who we recruit, promote and retain. Most importantly, bias in the design process means we create products and services which aren’t inclusive. For example, when Apple launched their first health tracker, they didn’t include a period tracker. Why? There can only have been a collective blindspot in the team. Equally, we run inclusive communication audits for companies, looking at representation in their work (publishing and media). What we have seen is the direct impact of the bias of editors in the content they create — and with it, who is represented in the imagery and narratives.

Is there a person in the world, or in the US, with whom you would like to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them. 🙂

Hah! Of course, Karmala Harris or Michelle Obama (dreaming!), but just maybe my own home country leader Jacinda Adhern.

How can our readers follow you online?

Follow us on @creativeequals on Twitter, Instagram or LinkedIn.

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