Interview with Sheree Atcheson

A passport is an opener to opportunities that are there for some people and not for others. I am lucky to have two; one is British as I was adopted in Sri Lanka under the British Adoption Register - and I recently received my Irish one too as my parents are Irish.

I have always seen myself as Irish – it’s my family and my culture. I learnt the language at school and spent many a time at Irish dancing competitions… I’ve lived there my entire life. That is my identity. However, I had to jump through so many hoops to get my passport. This included having to reach into my network in Sri Lanka, where I was adopted 30 years ago, and finding a lawyer that was well-versed in both Sri Lankan and Irish Adoption Law. Interestingly, I can now help my brother, who was also adopted, to get his Irish passport. Luckily for him, I’ve done all the hard work already!

My civic journey has been a balance of different things. I talk a lot about being under-represented but privileged. On one hand, I grew up in a poor area, on free school meals. My family ended up on benefits due to disability. On the other hand, I’m an award-winning leader, a published author, who – at the age of 30 - holds senior leadership executive roles, and I am phenomenally proud of that.

Being self-aware is key. The passport is a great example; we may think that opportunities are there for everybody, but access isn’t. I’m the first one in the Atcheson family to attend university. I went to Queens in Belfast, which is a Russell Group university. This is also another privilege that I have and while feeling really grateful in this beautiful, historic establishment - which makes me think of Hogwarts from Harry Potter! - I’ve faced and continue to face a lot of biases.

Firstly, as a woman in technology, people didn’t expect me to be in the spaces I was in. Secondly, as a woman of colour. Thirdly, my thick Irish accent has meant some assumptions of the level of my intelligence, especially in ‘London-centric’ and ‘southern’ English spaces. Access Bias Britain do some great work in analysing this.

You can both be privileged and under-represented, but what is key for me is that we do something with that; as individuals, in organisations, and corporate spaces. This has shaped the approach I take in my work.

When we talk about young people, I think it is important that we mean all young people from all different backgrounds. It is easy to roll out strategies and initiatives, but we need to take a data-driven approach and consider who we are reaching. Some great organisations do this, including the Stemettes and  Black Girls Code. I’d always recommend working with the Social Mobility Foundation, as well as 10,000 Black Interns. I would love to see more people partnering with organisations that are doing this incredibly well. We don’t need to reinvent the wheel, we need to research and listen.

Actively using your own credibility to help new and fresh talent coming into (or trying to get into) the industry is so important. In my book, Demanding More, I talk about how to create a strong sponsorship framework. Sponsorship is important as it’s direct intervention; it’s active. Putting yourself directly with a person to help them progress builds trust and should be part of the employee proposition.

I see the future of young people as the future of everybody. We don’t exist in a bubble, the last two years have proved that. Young people are going to be our future leaders, and we need to nurture  talent. We have an ability to create more empathetic leadership, the ability to create governments that care about everyone and are more impactful for wider society. What do we want their future to be and what do we want our future to be?

Sheree Atcheson is the author of Demanding More

Sri Lanka to Coalisland: 'We felt like only people of colour in our town' - BBC News