Azeem Rafiq - My personal experience of exclusion

The ED&I Leaders Summit kicked off in earnest with warm introductions from Change the Race Ratio’s CEO, Richard DeNetto, and Bhavin Kotecha, VP HR of Shell UK – our hosts for the morning. Both set out their stall for what each organisation is trying to achieve on inclusion. Bhavin made clear that ‘while there is no silver bullet’ to solving the inclusion challenges of any organisation, the event would prove a great opportunity to learn and listen from top leaders in the field.

There could be no better start to the sessions than welcoming our keynote speaker - Azeem Rafiq, a former cricketer and now passionate ED&I campaigner. Held up in his now home Dubai, following the almost unprecedented floods the day before, he was no less compelling on screen as the audience heard his powerful first-hand account of not only suffering exclusion at Yorkshire County Cricket Club – but facing direct racist and Islamophobic abuse in his time there. 

Playing cricket was his dream from a young age, securing a professional contract with his county and ‘walking into a dressing room of his heroes’ was living that dream. But ‘day-by-day it became a living nightmare without me realising’ which in the end almost cost him his life. 

For a long time Azeem did not want to raise the problem – he wanted to keep his head down and carry on. He didn’t want to believe that the taunts and isolation suffered at the hands of some of his team-mates was racist and Islamophobic. He was worried if he raised his voice, it could be career ending. 7 days after he plucked up the courage to do so, his contract was terminated.

Azeem appealed to the leaders listening intently in the room; people just want to be heard, understanding what it means to be excluded is the first step to finding genuine solutions. ‘Be human in your response and such issues can end in a far more positive result with trust built’. 


His journey since his experiences has seen him learn ‘a hell of a lot from different leaders and the challenges they face’. There are huge opportunities to stand up for people who can’t yet get in the rooms where decisions are made. He outlined three areas for attendees to consider:

  1. Don’t confuse representation with inclusion - Yes, it’s vital that kids see role models of people like them, but diversity of thought is perhaps more important – allowing your colleagues to feel valued, included and heard, are key to building an inclusive culture. So truly understand your recruitment processes and how they are working or failing in meeting this objective.
  2. Inclusion is not just about stats in presentations and questionnaire survey data - you have to live inclusion as an organisation.
  3. Accountability - make a mistake in what you say and lose your job? Absolutely not, but the need for red lines for managers is crystal clear. Learning will only prove authentic and long-lasting if it is accepted that change is needed.

In closing, Azeem urged businesses to show much they stand behind an ED&I agenda this year as the culture wars continue to rage. Invest in it, double-down – and reap the rewards for your business in the years to come. 

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