Podcast transcript: How can understanding social mobility bring us together

27 min 38 sec | 1 February 2023

Mona Bitar

Hello everyone, and welcome to this podcast episode. This is part of the series of a podcast that we are running on our DE and I strategy. The aim of which is for us to talk about and be a disruptive voice and tell the stories that matter to us on DE and I.

I’m Mona Bitar, I’m one of the two UK&I vice chairs. I also sit on the DE and I council. And I’m absolutely delighted to be hosting this series.

In these podcasts we want to encourage conversations to spotlight the things that are important to EY, to our speakers, and to society. And in doing so, really be a disruptive voice.

Now, today’s topic is around social mobility. Social mobility is a priority for EY. And today’s podcast is going to explore and debunk some of the myths that exist around the topic of social mobility.

Now before I get going, sometimes we can confuse social mobility or conflate it with race or ethnicity due to the historic and unequal distribution of economic capital. Now clearly, while these issues are interconnected, they are for different and often unrelated reasons and identity.

So, for this second podcast, I really want to focus on social mobility. And I’m absolutely delighted to be joined by Helen Kelly, who is a manager from our UK&I DE and I team. Mudassar Choudhry, who’s a manager from our sustainable business team. And Jacob Ayenamayi, I hope I’ve said that right, Jacob, you can correct me if I haven’t, who is a consultant from our people advisory team.

So maybe without further ado I’ll start asking you to share a little bit about yourself and what social mobility means to you. We want to get your personal stories here. So, Mudassar, maybe I can start with you.

Mudassar Chaudhry

Thank you, Mona. My name’s Mudassar Chaudhry, I’m a manager in a culture diversity and inclusion business which sits within our wider climate change and sustainability strategy business. I’m also the global chair of our EY Muslim community which is an employee relationship group of one thousand members in 50 different countries. So lots to keep me busy.

Social mobility is quite personal to me. I come from East London, Newham. I grew up in what you would term now as a really rough area, or as I used to say as a teenager, it was the ghetto. I had lots of friends that are or were in crime, friends that have passed away because of the way they lived their lives, friends that are in jail.

And for me, social mobility always meant class, personally. It was we’re working class, we’re stuck in this hole, and the whole world is something else. And it didn’t matter regardless of your race, face, gender, ethnicity, whatever it may be. But as a teenager I always saw it as we’re poor, the rest are rich. And that’s how it was for all my social circle, all my friends.

So to me, it’s quite personal, because obviously I’ve gone through the journey. I joined EY through the Smart Futures Programme. I joined as a school leaver in 2014, which is eight years ago now. So I’ve sort of seen myself and my friends that have made it out of the ghetto, so to say, go through that journey of changing their social status in essence.


Thank you, Mudassar, I’ll come back for the reflections. But maybe I’ll ask Jacob to share first.

Jacob Ayenamayi

Of course, I would love to share. So, I’m Jacob Ayenamayi. I am a consultant in our people advisory services service line. And my day-to-day job is all about helping businesses solve their people problems.

And looking at social mobility, Mudassar really hit the nail on the head. So, quite like Mudassar, I also come from East London. So Barking and Dagenham. And I guess what Mudassar would call the ghetto, me and my friends called the ends. The exact same thing, the idea of trying to make it out of a situation that just looked impossible to get out of.

For me, it was always hard to think about ambition, about success, because I just didn’t see it. Success was dealing drugs, success was robbing houses, success was getting into a life of crime. If you wanted money, that’s what you needed to do.

And because I didn’t want to follow that path, it seemed like success would always be out of my reach. Even thinking about smaller things, like I had never seen an office until I joined the EY Smart Futures Programme age 16. And that was my first introduction to a completely different world. And I think that is really the essence of what social mobility means for me. It’s about changing paradigms, it’s about moving from one situation all the way to another.

And I look at my current role now, and I’m lucky to have had that chance. I don’t have to worry about some of the things my parents had to worry about simply because I’m in this role. At the minute, things like finances, things like social circles, I’ve had experiences that they weren’t lucky enough to have. So that is really social mobility to me in a nutshell.


Thank you, Jacob. And Helen, your turn now. And then I’ll maybe reflect back with on your openness, thank you.

Helen Kelly

Thank you. So, yes, I’m Helen Kelly, my pronouns are she, hers. And I am a manager in the DE and I team. And within my role at EY I support on social mobility. So I would say my background is very different to Mudassar’s and Jacob’s. I’m from Northern Ireland, originally. I live in England now and have done since university. So around ten years.

I’m from quite a rough area of North Belfast. But I went to a good school. And it was quite interesting because everyone from my area would think I was posh. And they would say, oh, you’re so posh, you go to this school. And then in the school I was seen as really rough. So I had quite a duality to that. But I’ve never considered myself to be from a lower socioeconomic background.

But I also think there are things that are… There’s stigma around social mobility, and it’s often overlooked because it’s more largely invisible. It’s not something that people can see. But I do think peoples’ biases can come out in really subtle ways.

So an example where I kind of experienced a bias like this is when I moved to England for university. And I’d say that accent bias is really large. And when I was in university there was a lecturer who would call on me during class and then pretend that he couldn’t understand what I was saying, which made me feel so othered, and made me not want to speak out or even bother engaging with the lecturers. And I think that that is something that people wouldn’t even realise. Like making fun of somebody’s accent and pointing it out is like it is a social mobility issue because you’re pointing out differences between other people.

But yes, social mobility for me as well, I started my career in ICAW, so I always supported the EY Foundation Smart Futures Programme in my first job from university before moving into a role in student recruitment at EY before my now ED and I role. So I’ve always been really, really passionate about the access to opportunities being available to all regardless of someone’s background. And not everyone has the same privileges in life.

And I truly believe that we need to work to help to level the playing field. Whether that is helping to just get information about careers at EY and how they’re open to all, and how people can start there. Or helping to support progression for all within the firm as well.

So yes, I’m hugely passionate about trying to level the playing field for everybody. And just make our opportunities accessible to everybody.


Thank you. Thank you all of you. And thank you for being so open about your experience. I took away a few things from that. And maybe if I try and synthesise. I mean, Mudassar, you talked about how you saw this in the prism of a class kind of conversation, and actually how that made you feel different around it. And I think, Jacob, you eloquently talked about how does one imagine a different future when you can’t see that around it. And Helen, you really brought home how is it that we get the level playing field.

So if you put some of those things together, part of that is education for people who don’t necessarily imagine that future to be able to. But also for people of privilege to understand that actually there is a different way of behaving that does level the playing field. And I don’t necessarily like the language of barriers, but a lot of these are barriers or distances. Some intentional, some non-intentional. But nonetheless are barriers around it.

And at the heart of this I think is equity. And I was so delighted when we did the refresh of our DE and I strategy to include equity as part of that. I often jokingly say, I think it should be IED, because I think if you create an inclusive culture, that actually is probably the first step that will help drive equity, which then helps drive diversity. It’s almost in reverse order. But all of those things are really important.

So maybe for those listening to us, maybe we can explore a little bit in your opinion what works in practice to level that playing field and remove some of those barriers. So Helen, maybe I start with you.


Yes, no problem. So speaking in practical terms about what EY are doing at the moment. So, we’re founding members of Progress Together, which is a new membership body which is focusing on increasing progression rates for people from lower socioeconomic backgrounds once they’re in their careers. This is specifically for the financial and professional services sector.

So we actually recently contributed to a report which lists five recommendations for building a more socioeconomically diverse sector.

So there’s five of them, and the first one is leadership. So that’s assigning responsibility for making the progress. The second one is assess, so collect data and look at it, and measure it. The third one is act and analyse. So start taking action, and then monitoring what works. And if things aren’t working, think of new things to do. If things are working, keep doing them and see how you can continue to progress those. Four is ambition, so set goals, goals that are really ambitious targets. Which EY are pretty good at doing. And five is accountability. So publicly publishing your performance. So I think things like that really, really work.


Lovely, thank you, Helen. Jacob?


So, I think there’s two ways in which I can really answer this question. So firstly from my own personal experience as someone that’s actually quite young in their career and trying to break into a space that can sometimes not feel as accessible as we would like it to be.

I think the thing that’s really helped me is finding a mentor. Somebody that can really relate to your experiences. Someone that’s just a bit further on in their career, and someone that you can look up to in a role as a role model. So I was lucky, my very first mentor was actually also from East London as well, now works in the civil service. Somebody that gave me the confidence to think that I could make it to the same level that he did because I noticed that he did having the same sort of path.

The problem is, and the issue is sometimes these people are just few and far between to find. Especially if you don’t have access to the same networks that people that are more privileged have. If you’re not in the same spaces that they are.

And I think from a personal perspective it does take a lot of… I guess the word I’m looking for is internal motivation to go out and try and find somebody to help. So using social media, trying to be in those spaces as much as you can. Even people take it to the extremes of walk around Canary Wharf and places like that with signs saying help me. That’s the sort of level you need to push yourself to in order to seek that sort of help.

But looking from another perspective, what I’d love to see businesses do to sort of alleviate this, having also worked in student recruitment, something that I’ve seen that’s worked really well is businesses making themselves available in those spaces. So putting on events, putting on networking events for people that won’t have those networks otherwise. And helping them to build their confidence. And putting them in touch with the right people can go a really long way.


Great. Thank you, Jacob. And Mudassar, I’ll come to you, and then I’ll share my reflections on what you’ve said.


Thank you. I really resonate with both what Helen and Jacob have said. I think mentorship is absolutely essential. But I think the next step is allyship. And I’ve been incredibly lucky to have had incredible allies in my tenure in the business.

When I joined as a 16 year old in Smart Futures, but as an 18 year old in school leaver programme, my English was entirely East London slang. I couldn’t construct more than a couple of sentences in proper English, as you say. And I really felt out of place, because I would say… I wouldn’t know how to use a certain word to describe what I’m feeling. In slang I could say it colloquially brilliantly. But in proper English I couldn’t.

And instead of being frowned upon, and instead of being disliked, what I found were incredible allies. Including some brilliant partners that I’m still best of friends with. Who just took me under their wing and taught me that, look, it’s okay to be who you are. They didn’t want to change me. And I haven’t changed. So when I still talk to my friends that are in the ends, I speak like I would speak as a teenager, because that’s who I am, that’s my authentic, true self.

But when I’m in a professional environment, when I’m in an environment where I need to portray a certain view, and certain representation, I’m able to switch into a way where I can be more eloquent. I can be more proactive, I can be more constructive, and I can speak as I need to be spoken with.

And even simple things, I remember I tell all my mentees this story. Using a fork and knife, I used to hold a fork like you hold a knife, because that’s how we did it in our area, right? And being taught how to do that, but not from a, oh, you’re doing it wrong, let me teach you. But more of, hey, this is how we would do it normally. This is the benefit of it, this is how it’s going to help. And it’s been incredibly helpful.

Even till today, I reach out to my allies all the time. And I think those allies, especially leaders and senior leaders, they have the ability to level the playing field by getting rid of the judgement and just being available, accessible, and open and honest with everyone.


Again, thank you all of you for just wonderful responses. I’m struck by, although I think I’m relatively well versed in this area, how much I learn every time I have a conversation. Because actually, the personal stories and experiences that you bring, bring to life the importance of this. So mentorship, allyship, actual specific initiatives that businesses can take to level the playing field.

And I actually think, I feel actually sometimes quite bad because I didn’t contribute to this agenda in the way that I contribute to it now. Because I sort of hid in my own little bucket, with my own little identity for so long. And I actually realise the importance of mentorship and role modelling. And I feel like I came too late.

So my call to all leaders is how important and what a difference it makes. One of the things I do is I’m a mentee with a bunch of 16 year olds who come from different socioeconomic backgrounds.

And actually, I had a call with my mentee recently who was really into maths, really into biology, really into medicine. Wasn’t sure whether she wanted to be a doctor or not. And these aspirations were so different for this girl from the background that she came. And we actually ended up talking about biotech, because she likes computers. And I was able to connect her to someone in my personal network who is a bioengineer. And now, whether it ends up or not, but she’s so excited about this space that she didn’t even know existed.

And that’s a tiny, little example of a difference that you can make through allyship and mentorship. So I think we are at EY doing a lot of things. And we’ve recently launched our social mobility network. And a number of things come to my mind in the investments we’re making. But, again, let me ask you, what investments, and what are the things that we are doing that you think makes a great difference? Maybe you can highlight, because I know a lot of you are involved in this. So maybe, Jacob, I can ask you to talk a little bit around the Social Mobility Wavespace, etcetera.


Of course, of course. So I’m actually going to take a slightly different tack and start in a different area with the EY Foundation and the Smart Futures Programme. So, this, I think this programme, a three week work experience placement for students from underrepresented backgrounds of low socioeconomic backgrounds.

So for me this was something that was life changing having done it as a 16 year old. Like I mentioned, this was the first time I ever saw an office. This was the first time I was ever in a professional environment. And at 16 being able to say that I worked at EY opened so many doors in my career that I feel so lucky having had that experience. And it allowed me to come back to the firm as a graduate. And it’s something that I’ll always hold close to my heart. So it’s something that I’m really proud of the firm for doing.

And it was also part of the reason why I wanted to come back, because it was clear the firm invested in social mobility. And I wanted to be part of that investment. So actually now having come back as a graduate, I volunteer for the EY Foundation with some of their other programmes, like the Smart Futures Programme, like their Beyond Your Limits Programme for care leavers. To give people the same experiences that I had, and hopefully they can have a similar journey to myself.

Speaking about things that we’ve done internally. So Mona mentioned the Social Mobility Wavespace. So what that was was essentially a blue sky thinking event that we hosted at our London Bridge office where we were challenged with the question, how do we improve social mobility in the UK?

So I felt honoured to be part of that wavespace, and part of that thinking. So we had leaders from across industry working in the social mobility space. Leaders within the EY that were working on this. Representatives from the EY Foundation, and then myself. So I felt absolutely privileged to be part of that space. And again, really showing off what the firm is doing in this space, and how passionate they are.

And then finally, I’m just going to wrap it up with something else that the firm is doing at the minute called EY Outreach. So this is a programme for students that are on what is called the school to prison pipeline. So students that have… Maybe they’ve got in trouble at school, maybe they’re not connecting in the right way at school. And maybe they’re taking steps towards a life of criminality, towards a life that could end them up down a bad path.

And what we’ve done is step in with a creative arts programme to help unlock their skills, and unlock their ambitions, and teach them that they have skills that don’t need to go towards criminality, but can be used in a different pathway, in a different light.

So we’ve managed to run this in quite a few locations, in Birmingham, in Jersey. We’re looking at running the programme across the UK. And once again, it’s just a demonstration of how much the firm does in this space.


Wonderful, wonderful, Jacob. And I’m sure lots of people will want to hear, and maybe you can do this outside, is tell people about how they can get involved in some of these initiatives. But maybe, Helen, if I come to you next.


Yes. So, just building on what Jacob said about the wavespace. So one of the outcomes from it was the development of a social mobility network. So basically every group put that as their top priority for us.

So, I led on a working group that was made up with people be it from all over the firm and from the EY Foundation who all had an interest in the social mobility agenda. So we created basically a business case and a plan for launching the network. So it will be called the Uplift Network.

There has been a Daily News article that went out the other day. We’re looking for co-chairs at the moment, and then it will officially launch properly in January. So, yes, very, very excited about that.

We appointed Chris Woolard as the partner sponsor for social mobility. So going back to that leadership piece. He’s published articles on LinkedIn, openly discussing his background and his experiences. And I think that’s a really great thing for people to see. And, yes, basically he’ll be holding us to account with everything.


We won an award recently, didn’t we, Helen, with our social mobility.


Yes. Yes, we have. So hopefully we’re going to start entering a few more awards. I think we’ll be entering the Social Mobility Index as well this year. So yes, loads of exciting things coming up. So, yes.


Lovely. Good. And, again, thank you for all of your efforts in making that a reality. Mudassar, over to you.


Perfect. I mean Helen and Jacob have mentioned so many great things we do. But for me personally, I think one of the best things we do and we’ve done is launching the School Leaver Programme, or the Business Apprenticeship as it’s known today. I know for me it unlocked a whole new world for that loud, confident, bubbly teenager, cheeky teenager who said anything and everything under the sun.

To be able to go through a programme where I didn’t have to pay 30, 40, £50 000 in university fees. I got a job, I had savings, I could enjoy myself and learn, and do things. And now at the age of 26 become a manager at EY, become a chair of an International Muslim Network. And just earlier this month, or last month I got told that I was shortlisted in the top 100 influential Muslims in the UK with some really big names like Mo Farah, and Mo Salah, and Moeen Ali, and Rizaam. Really, really big names, household names. And none of that would have been possible without the School Leaver Programme, and the Smart Futures Programme that I did.

And I’m not the only case. I know so many of my friends who went through the School leaver Programme and now are doing wonderful things both inside of EY, and those that have left EY. And that really levels the playing field, because when you teach a person how to fish, they just don’t feed themselves, right? They feed their whole family, they feed their whole community.

I know for nearly everyone that comes from a similar area like me that’s made it out of the ends, so to say, they always want to give back. They always want to help others.

I mentor over 50 students every year. And the reason why I do it, it’s not because it’s a fun thing to do. It’s because I feel it’s a communal duty for me to do it, an obligation for me to help those that when I didn’t get help, but they should have got that help. And it makes such a difference. And every so often I get a message from someone random that I completely forgot. And he says, hey, we had a call a year ago or two years ago, and now I’m at this place doing this wonderful thing, and just thank you so much. And that means the world to me. That means more to me than any other career success could.


Thank you, and congratulations, Mudassar, on what you’ve achieved. I mean, look, again, very inspiring listening to all of you. The one thing I think I would probably say that I take away from all of this is, it’s wonderful that some of the things that have helped you on your trajectories. But the one thing I should also point out is actually your own personal resilience, motivation. Because none of you would have got where you have without being such special people.

And the fact that you’re all giving back already in your careers, and helping others, and making a difference to this business. All I can say is, thank you. I feel so privileged to be amongst you as a group, because actually, you’re walking the talk in terms of what we’re trying to do. All of you in your own way. So for that I’m very, very grateful. Thank you very much.

Maybe if I can just summarise with some of the practical recommendations that Helen talked about from our Progress Together Report. This is such a wide topic and we’ve got so much to do. But just the key takeaways that came out, if I remind you of them.

The first step is leadership. And that’s for all of us, not just for people in leadership positions. Assess, understand where we are, take action. It’s not just talk. Set goals, goals actually, you get what you measure. I think that’s quite important. And publish, hold yourself to account. So these are really important aspects of taking forward.

So we’ve talked a lot about social mobility. And if I remind you back, this podcast series is about telling our personal stories. And it’s really all about the common thread of belonging, and strong where we belong. Or when we belong, in fact.

So let me end on a personal note and ask each of you to end this sentence in a very short way. I belong when. And Mudassar, I belong when.


I belong when I can bring my whole true, authentic self to work every single day.


Lovely. And Helen?


I belong when I feel comfortable sharing personal aspects of my life with my team and getting the same back from them.


And Jacob?


I belong when I’m able to be my full self, in the way I speak, in my ambitions, and the experiences that I share.


Great. Thank you. And we are definitely stronger as a business, as a society when we’re all, when we’re strong when we belong together.

So, look, thank you, I’ve had a wonderful time talking to you guys. And I really appreciate the investment that you’ve made in your busy schedules. And once again, thank you for the leadership on this topic. Look forward to speaking to you again soon.


Thanks, Mona.


Thank you, Mona.


Thanks everyone.


Thank you.