My Coffee Interview

I am a third generation, British Asian woman, I have a degree in Philosophy from a top ten university, a career spanning experience in fashion, politics, finance and software industries, so, what am I missing?

It all dawned on me a week ago. I had a final interview with a financial firm headquartered in Switzerland. They create bespoke algorithms for traders specialising in futures, options, equities, otherwise known as LIFFE in the trading world. It was a coffee interview in Liverpool Street, as usual I arrived 20mins early, sipping on a bottle of San Pellegrino and feverishly reading the day’s Financial Times. I skimmed quickly over the day’s news in Companies and Markets, whilst checking for any new Bloomberg updates on my iPhone.

I check my phone again, they are almost 10 minutes late. I send the director a WhatsApp message “I am sat inside” just in case they were outside. He comes online, the ticks went blue, and he appears offline again, no response. 17 minutes have gone past the agreed time to meet, the waitress comes over to me again, “can I get you anything else?”, “no” I replied politely. As I look around I noticed a few groups of people, they must also be having a ‘coffee meeting’. One of the older guys in a bespoke suit catches my eye, looks at me up and down and gives me a sleazy smile, I quickly divert my attention to the time on my phone again, consciously avoiding looking in his direction again. I begin to get nervous, reading the news quickly but not absorbing anything I had read. I began to debate in my head, would it be worse getting stood up for an interview or for a date? Would it feel different? As I started to think of a funny way to text this on my WhatsApp group with a meme to match, I felt a draft come in, looked up, and there they were. Suited and booted as my mother always says.

Quick, stern, formal introductions, (very) firm handshakes and no apology for being late, we go over to another table. This was the CEO of the company, he was tall, broad, the buttons straining on his shirt, he sat down opposite me, after looking at me thoroughly up and down and there it was that look where the other person has a window of 1-3 seconds to guess what you are. I always think of terminator when Arnold Schwarzenegger scans people with his robotic vision and items in vision are vetted immediately. I could almost read what was on his screen

“Indian? - No. Arab? - Maybe. Brown? - Obviously. Woman? - Yes. Hire? – uh NO.”

I was just about to ask about his flight, where he cut me off abruptly and asked impatiently with a roll of his eyes “SO, why exactly are you here?”.

I answered his questions professionally and politely, the usual jargon- my skill set, experience, what I can offer, peppered with a few jokes so they can see my personality, I even joked about them ticking a lot of diversity boxes if they hired me (there are no women or people of colour in this company). He cuts me off again and says “look - I don’t want to waste anyone’s time but you’re out of our budget”.

I asked him what his budget was and again he cut me off, stuttering slightly with his poor thought out excuse “well, you know uh, it’s just, well, we JUST can’t afford you, ok? You seem young, bright, successful, you should be grateful. Look, why don’t we just keep in touch, we have a meeting with BNP now anyway so we must get a move on” to which I replied without thinking “ah, BNP, the bank I hope” he shot me a confused look, probably thinking did I hear that properly? She couldn’t have said that? Or perhaps wondering how I knew…. Before his terminator screen could verify, he quickly bid me goodbye and walked out.

I sat in my chair for a good hour, replaying the conversation in my head and wondering, what just happened. In the previous interview which was an hour long, they seemed very keen. Loved my experience, my network of contacts in finance (in particular the Buyside) said they really needed someone with my skillset, and of course they would put me in a senior position. We discussed what my day to day would be, who I would be reporting to, I don’t normally think this, but I was certain I had the role as they weren’t really interviewing anyone else. They knew what my salary is and what my expectations were, which is well within industry standards, I was even lowballing, so it was surprising to see the CEO be so surprised about my expectations as this was where he decided to draw the line. Then the other thing which really irked me, was not just his condescending, impatient or patronising tone, it was the fact that he said “I should be grateful”. Huh. Ok. I put on my earphones and listened to Kendrick Lamar’s new album. I decided to walk from Liverpool street back to London Bridge, I just couldn’t get that comment out of my mind:

“I should be grateful”

What exactly should I be grateful for?  I’ve been working since I was 14 years old, I studied hard to get in to a good university, worked for free to get experience, did internships, did everything ‘by the book’. Should I be grateful for my own hard work? Or should I be grateful for the 15 mins of your time? Which one?

It’s 2017, I would like to think that we live in a society where the colour of your skin shouldn’t matter, your gender shouldn’t matter, neither should religious, political beliefs or sexual orientation matter. But then I look back in all the corporate places I have worked in, in politics, finance, and tech, I looked back again and really thought about the makeup of these companies. Let’s start with my most recent place, less than 5% people, the company before that, 2 South Asians and 1 black person, the company before that, 1 black person and 1 South Asian (me).

I must admit I have been watching Mad Men and Dear White People on Netflix. Despite it being set in the 60’s, the character Peggy constantly has to work harder than her male counterparts to get ahead. Similarly the main character in DWP struggles with being labelled and marginalised in an Ivy League University just for being a person of colour.

I went home and told my sister what had happened, and she sighed, and said “ oh….well don’t worry it’s not you, they probably just wanted a white dude”

I had another look on LinkedIn and lo and behold the person who was hired, well you guessed it.