Over the past year through movements like Black Lives Matter, it has become very apparent that there are people in society who through no fault of their own join the game of life from a position where they are less likely to succeed. The factors behind this go beyond race and into other areas such as socioeconomic background, disabilities, and gender. A critical reason for the differences in success rates, particularly later in life is a lack of network and access to mentorship. Many people from these backgrounds that want to succeed don’t organically possess the network someone coming from a more privileged background might have, so are unable to access advice from people who have a similar lived experience. One senior tech industry executive who has realized this issue and set up a non-profit platform to connect underrepresented candidates to mentors is Karol Ussher, founder of BLIX.
Ussher grew up in Ireland in a single-family household. His parents separated when he was young but both had an important role in instilling the importance of education in him. His father moved to Ireland from Ghana to study where he met his mother. Opportunities were few in Ireland in the Eighties and being Black meant access to those opportunities were limited. His parents decided to move to London where his father had secured a job but this was a difficult time for “foreigners” in England. It was a time when signs were posted in windows stating “No Blacks, No Dogs, No Irish”. Karol’s mum took a brave and difficult decision to return home believing she would have better opportunities in Ireland for her two sons. Growing up in Dublin he would see his Dad’s book manuscripts around the house and his Mum always put a strong emphasis on education. Whilst he grew up in modest circumstances he was taught education and knowledge were key to achieving more in life. Ussher was a hard-working student who achieved top grades and competed at the highest level in Ireland for athletics and football. He knew the importance of hard work, focus, and commitment to improvement. When the time came to choose a subject for university he had many choices but gravitated toward the Sciences with an ambition to specialize in Biotechnology. At university, he took Mathematics and Computer Science modules and loved the logical way of thinking those subjects required so decided to specialize in these areas. Ironically, his final year project was building the intelligence for a search virtual assistant, something similar to Amazon’s Alexa many years before it was a household item. A foreshadowing that would come full circle later in his journey.
A Career In Big Tech
His first role was as an engineer at Symantec tasked with fighting off spam attacks from hackers. After over a year here he enrolled in the highly regarded AISEC International program which focuses on leadership development whilst allowing you to live in and learn new cultures. What was initially intended to be a 3-month internship in Sweden turned into 3 years where he learned to speak the language, worked as a developer for a tech startup, and completed a Master’s Degree in Hi-Tech Entrepreneurship from KTH and Stanford University. After his time in Sweden, he took on a role as a Management Consultant in London. Whilst he enjoyed learning about business, structure, and systems he realized he wanted to be closer to tech and not be required to wear a suit.
This led to a role at Microsoft where he would work as a Solutions Architect which would utilize both his technical skillset and the commercial skills he had developed working abroad and as a Management Consultant. He quickly progressed in his career looking after search solutions for the UK, Middle East, and Africa. Soon after he went to work for Google as the U.K. Solution Architect lead. Again, he accelerated up the ranks building new products and pioneering ecosystems for their search and cloud technologies. He was nominated as one of the highest performing employees and selected for the prestigious internal Google Business Academy which took him to a variety of global offices to solve problems and learn from top-performing business leaders.
His next role would see him at Amazon where he initially joined their fast-growing AWS division before becoming the UK Country Product Manager for Alexa Information, working on solving some of the same problems he worked on in his university final year project decades earlier. During his time as Alexa, he pioneered inclusive features including knowledge on Black History, information to guide people with visual impairments in collaboration with The Royal National Institute of Blind People and a “Give me some good news” feature to serve as a positive mental health antidote during the pandemic. Most recently, Karol has taken on a product leadership position at Apple, a company that he has always admired and aligns with his values on inclusion and sees diversity not just as an advantage but as a necessity in an ever-evolving world.
BLIX (Business Leaders advocating for Inclusion & knowledge eXchange)
It’s very rare that people work in such senior positions at so many leading companies during their career. It’s even rarer for someone who has come from Ussher’s background. He is very aware but not held back by these disadvantages he had growing up. He has always acknowledged he “needed to be better to overcome biases both conscious and unconscious”. In his words, “everyone will go through tough times, failure and resistance. If you get to exercise those muscles early in life it builds resilience and unwavering fortitude”. However, he is also aware that along the way he has been fortunate enough to have met mentors who have taken bets on him or offered words of advice and guidance.
In 2020 he launched a non-profit called BLIX, a platform connecting senior leaders in business with junior employees and university students to offer mentorship, workshops, and expert knowledge events. Effectively, Ussher has built the network he wishes he had access to when he was an ambitious kid growing up with no advantages nor access to a network. Whilst the organization was launched as a response to the Black Lives Matter movement, anyone from a disadvantaged background be it race, socioeconomic class or disability can sign up directly on the platform. “We all have both disadvantages and privileges whether we like to admit it or not. Being a Black person can have its disadvantages in today’s society, but so too can being a White working-class person. Our mission is the same. We both want access to equal opportunities without prejudgment and without discrimination.” To join BLIX there is no commitment, no cost and you’re free to schedule the meetings at your own convenience.
In the year since launch, they have held a number of Knowledge Exchange talks from industry experts, delivered practical career workshops with leaders from Google, Amazon and LinkedIN and offered hundreds of hours of mentorship to students to help them get hired and get ahead. In May 2021, Karol’s work with BLIX was recognized, winning him a position on the EMpower 100 Ethnic Minority Executive Role Models 2021 list. “The biggest reward is having a Mentee tell you they got the job or the promotion in small part to the help they received through BLIX. There’s no accolade more rewarding than knowing someone’s outcomes might be that little bit better thanks to your help”.
BLIX is currently offering free mentorship, career workshops, expert talks to promote diversity and build more inclusive teams across tech. You can find additional information on BLIX or sign up as a Mentor or Mentee here
This article is part of a series featuring underrepresented people making a difference. To submit ideas for features or keep up to date with new releases you can find me on Twitter – @TommyPF91