Building a business that challenges bias | Erica Wolfe-Murray

Four young strong women or girls standing together. Group of friends or feminist activists support each other. Feminism concept, girl power poster, Lulu Wood, bias

I first met Leyya Sattar, on a trip to New York in 2014.

Little did I realize at that time just how successful this fun, lively recent design graduate was going to be as we partied around town, networking hard alongside the other small UK companies also on the trip determined to win some of the Big Apple’s business dollars.

Shift the clock forward six years, and you will find Leyya talking, working, inspiring others as one of the founders of The Other Box, the award-winning diversity and inclusion company educating businesses about bias, empowering people to work and live more inclusively.

And what awards she and her partner, Roshni Goyate, have accumulated. From We Are the City Diversity Award in 2017, they’ve added a further 15-20 including Forbes100 Women Founders in Europe and Ad Age: Women to Watch Europe. But the awards are only the icing on the cake.

When they set The Other Box up in September 2016, they were both still working in full time jobs – Leyya in a design studio, Roshni in an ad agency. TOB was their side hustle. As it was the right offer at the right time, they received countless work proposals and speaking engagements, all whilst they were still creating their first iteration of their ‘Know Your Bias’ workshop.

It got so busy that early the following summer, both gave up their jobs, falling back on savings plus any evening and weekend work they could pick up. But soon they started to generate brand partnerships. They spent May and June working hard to building the business, driving it forward, honing their offer. Then in July 2018 Roshni went on maternity leave.

Leyya kept the ball rolling. It was hard, pressurized and many demons emerged from her past. Leyya admits that she finds being ‘an entrepreneur’ really uncomfortable. She is aware that no-one talks about the blood, sweat and tears it take to launch a successful business. ‘There is a lack of honesty about how tough it is. And constantly having to confront ourselves, our privileges, emotional, purposeful and impactful is hard, fucking hard.’ she explained to me. Building the 3,500+-strong TOB community she works with, dealing with its drivers and the varied personalities involved was never going to be easy. ‘Emotional intelligence is crucial as we all need to belong, society demands perfection, shame is hard to face too. No-one gives you a tool-kit.’ she adds.

But since 2019 the company has transformed from a brand to a proper business. Heavyweight strategist Sima Kumar joined them full time in March 2019 to help put a more sustainable commercial structure in place. With Roshni returning from mat leave shortly afterwards. And whilst they were still ironing out the kinks, Covid-19 threw them a curved ball. They had already planned a company blackout in April/May to move the business online. The pandemic just accelerated the process.

Leyya explains that unconscious bias is everywhere. She knows that coming from a working class background, she needs to develop an ‘abundant mindset’ because her default is ‘scarcity’. There is no safety blanket and the pressure can be a lot to handle. She may be fuelled by her ambition and work ethic but it is not necessarily a healthy mindset.

She knows that people are increasingly aware they have an unconscious bias but need to learn how to step back to identify oppression and understand privilege.

I asked her how we individually can start to unpack our own unconscious bias to ensure we become better allies to BIPOC businesses, colleagues and friends.

Her words have lingered in my mind… ‘Ally-ship is an on-going practice. You have to do constant work, every single day, just like you do with yoga or meditation. Stopping is not an option.’

She then listed these basic principles:

  • Understand your privilege and ask yourself how you can be a more impactful ally.
  • Be prepared to outgrow relationships. As you become immersed, you will see/hear things that you are uncomfortable with, so walk away from those people. You will find others who more aligned with your understanding.
  • Examine and identify ways that are used to uphold systems of oppression and call them out.
  • Unlearn – history and stories have often just been taught from one source – laden with unconscious and privilege-based bias.
  • Relearn – seek out education and information from people who are part of marginalized communities to hear first-hand.
  • Act – go through all these steps continually as otherwise you do more harm than good.
  • Empower yourself through education – fiction, non-fiction, podcasts and books. ‘There is so much information out there’ Leyya added.

I was struck by her final words of advice…

‘Imagine yourself as a child building a ‘memory box’ incorporating all the things you have seen and learned. This will include bias, so you need to go back to that box to take it apart to find out where and how the bias has impacted your life and those you know, love and work with. Encourage them to do the same.’

Leyya’s journey from our first meeting in the departures hall at Heathrow Airport has been extraordinary and inspiring. She has turned her experiences as she grew up and emerged into the workplace into a business that impacts thousands of individuals and organisations, initiating actions we can all take each day of our lives to weed out pernicious bias and ensure we do our utmost to become informed allies.

Erica Wolfe MurrayAbout the author

Erica Wolfe-Murray works across the creative, cultural and tech sector helping companies to innovate through imaginative use of their intellectual assets/IP.  Referred to by Forbes.com as ‘a leading innovation and business expert’, she is the author of ‘Simple Tips, Smart Ideas : Build a Bigger, Better Business’, finalist in the Business Book Awards 2020. It’s full of easy-to-use advice on innovative ways to grow your business and is available from Foyles, Amazon and all other good bookshops.


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