Dr Kavita Powley, Head of Equality, Diversity & Inclusion at City, University of London

Dr. Kavita Powley is a distinguished senior leader with extensive experience in creating significant cultural transformation within complex, large-scale businesses worldwide. She is passionate about driving equitable change for society and advocating for human rights and social justice. Her goal is to promote equitable opportunities for all to thrive in every aspect of their life journey. As Head of Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion for the Office of Institutional Equity and Inclusion, Dr. Powley leads the development and implementation of the ED&I Strategy for over 2,000 staff and 20,000 students. Her approach to ED&I is intersectional, and she is accountable for the success of major culture change initiatives.

In addition to her leadership role, Dr. Powley is an award-winning writer, practicing Child Counsellor, and a qualified Personal Trainer. Recently, in an interview with Higher Education Digest, Dr. Kavita shared her valuable insights on diversity and inclusion, her professional background, personal inspiration, her definition of success, and much more. The following excerpts are taken from the interview.

What are your reflections on the concepts of diversity and inclusion? In your opinion, how crucial is it to engage in genuine discussions with leaders, professionals, and changemakers to foster greater acceptance on a global scale?

Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (ED&I) are at the heart of my core values, and I am deeply committed to promoting them. ED&I is instrumental in driving engagement, creativity, diversity of thought, and innovation, which ultimately leads to respect, a true sense of belonging, and positive outcomes. As an advocate for human rights and social justice, my goal is to promote equitable opportunities for underrepresented groups throughout their life journey while empowering individuals to become ED&I champions and allies.

Authentic and at times uncomfortable conversations with global leaders are vital to galvanize them towards caring and committing to ED&I. Leaders serve as our role models, and their endorsement of ED&I can lead to positive, tangible, and sustainable culture change. When leaders embrace ED&I, it encourages others to follow suit, and work towards creating change within their own areas. I am passionate about supporting leaders, managers, and early-career colleagues in their ED&I journeys, and my approach is compassionate, meeting people where they are and supporting them to reach their full potential.

Dr. Kavita, could you please provide insights into your professional background and your areas of expertise and interest?

My academic background and work experience have always been focused on advancing equity and social justice. My undergraduate degree explored creative influencers and support for Neurodiverse authors, while my Masters thesis analyzed the impact of Islamophobia and proposed banning of the Niqab for Muslim women. My PhD research was the first UK study to explore how social media and social and cultural norms can influence positive behavior change. These experiences have heightened my self-awareness in the field of Equity, Diversity & Inclusion (ED&I) and led to a successful career in this critical area.

As a former Project Manager and Global Programme Manager, I have managed and delivered significant change projects and programs, including crisis management across eight different countries. I have also been recognized as an award-winning writer, published author, and scriptwriter for television. Even in the entertainment industry, I have prioritized diversifying storylines and representation on-screen.

I am also a child advocate and volunteer as a practicing Child Counsellor, working to safeguard children and young adults and providing support for victims of abuse, violence, and neglect. Additionally, I have volunteered as a support worker at a Centre for Women in harmful situations, helping vulnerable women build self-confidence, safety, and providing support on various equality issues.

My passion for advancing equity and social justice is my personal and professional vocation, and I strive to empower people from underrepresented groups to have access to equitable opportunities and create a sense of belonging where everyone can be their authentic selves and become leaders in their own right.

How engrained is diversity and inclusion in City, University of London’s culture and values?

City, University of London is a renowned institution dedicated to excellence in business, practice, and the professions. Our institution proudly serves a diverse student body of approximately 20,000 individuals hailing from over 150 countries, and a faculty and staff of over 2,000 members representing more than 75 countries. We are deeply committed to supporting our students in securing quality employment opportunities, while our research is characterized by its high-impact, engagement, and trailblazing nature.

City’s academic offerings are diverse and inclusive, with prominent areas of excellence in business, law, health sciences, mathematics, computer science, engineering, social sciences, and the arts, including journalism, dance, and music.

Recently, we have worked collaboratively to develop a new and unique Vision and Strategy, which places Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion at the forefront. As Head of ED&I, I am responsible for executing the ED&I Strategy for the entirety of the organization, including all 20,000 students and over 2,000 staff members, throughout every level of the institution and the employee lifecycle. It is my mandate to ensure that every individual thrives, feels a sense of belonging and inclusion in their place of work and study.

To further our ED&I agenda, I have established the ‘Office for Institutional Equity and Inclusion’, a new and innovative initiative aimed at centralizing and overseeing all ED&I-related efforts for the entire University. The Office is a significant achievement for City, University of London, and a testament to our unwavering commitment to ED&I principles. I envision the Office as a catalyst for inclusive excellence and culture change, renowned for successfully promoting greater equity, inclusion, and diversity through an intersectional lens for our staff, students, and the broader community.

What are some significant challenges you encountered during your professional journey? Can you provide examples and offer advice to female entrepreneurs on effectively surmounting these obstacles?

Throughout my professional journey, I have encountered numerous obstacles that have undoubtedly shaped me as a person. For instance, during my PhD, I was diagnosed with a chronic illness, which required me to undergo surgeries and intensive treatment while simultaneously studying. Additionally, I was the primary caregiver for a seriously unwell family member when I first started my career. And to top it off, I had a baby during the pandemic’s peak. Life’s unpredictability can be overwhelming, but it also puts things into perspective, reminding us of how precious every moment is.

Despite these challenges, I’ve come to learn that perspective is everything, and how we approach roadblocks can make all the difference in how we overcome them. I’ve learned to reframe challenges as opportunities for growth and innovation, and I welcome them with open arms. Overcoming adversity has given me valuable experience in resilience and problem-solving. So, to all the female entrepreneurs out there, don’t shy away from challenges. Embrace them, for they may lead you to greater heights than you ever imagined.

What are your most career-defining moments that you are proud of?

Gaining my PhD was a true turning point in my career, and it’s a moment I’ll always cherish. Juggling illness while studying for a PhD was a daunting challenge, but it taught me that I’m capable of handling even the toughest of situations. That experience has given me the confidence to take on new opportunities fearlessly. After returning from my maternity leave, I applied for a more senior role as Head of ED&I within a month, and I was ecstatic to secure the position following a highly competitive process. Being a new mum and a senior leader is a balancing act, but it’s also incredibly rewarding.

I’m also proud to say that I’m a nationally acclaimed writer. I won a writing competition amidst thousands of entrants, and that success led me to writing storylines for television. It was a thrilling experience and a testament to the fact that hard work and dedication always pay off.

But perhaps my most exciting achievement to date was being named one of the top five D&I leaders in 2023 on International Women’s Day. This recognition has been a career-defining moment for me, as it acknowledges the vital role I play in driving cultural transformation every day. It’s given me the confidence to keep pushing boundaries and to keep fighting for inclusivity and equity in all aspects of life.

If you could give yourself one piece of advice at the start of your career, what would it be?

If I could go back and give myself one piece of advice at the start of my career, it would be to take more risks. To be bold, dive in, and follow my dreams. I’d tell myself to ask, “what’s the worst thing that can happen?” and if the answer isn’t catastrophic, to go for it. Life is short, and playing it safe won’t lead to the most fulfilling experiences. Some of the most rewarding and successful moments in my life have come from taking adventurous, disruptive, and uncomfortable leaps out of my comfort zone. So, to all those just starting out on their career path, take risks, and do what truly makes you happy, listen to your gut; it’s always right.

In your opinion, what qualities constitute a good leader?

Exceptional leaders have the ability to inspire others through their bravery, unwavering dedication to a purpose, and genuine connection with people. They unlock the full potential of those they lead and cultivate an environment where creativity and authenticity can flourish. Most importantly, they make their team members feel valued and appreciated.

As a senior leader, I wholeheartedly embrace Maya Angelou’s famous words: “People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” This philosophy guides my leadership approach, as I strive to empower people and celebrate their individuality by creating an environment that fosters personal and professional growth. It’s vital that everyone feels comfortable being themselves and can realize their full potential. By doing so, we can create a culture of trust, respect, and excellence.

How do you define success? What is your take on the ways to achieve long-term success?

Success to me is feeling fulfilled. Success is feeling joy and pride in what you do and making a tangible positive impact. Working on and improving yourself is the way to achieve long-term success; I am committed to being the best version of myself every day. I am a keen learner, and my development is a life-long journey. No can ever have too much knowledge or new skills, and they are imperative to success in all aspects of life.

Who is the one person you look upto and why?

I look up to one of my closest friends, Zai, who heartbreakingly passed away too young in June 2020. Zai’s outlook on life was incredibly inspiring; he was bold, courageous, and lived life to the fullest. He exuberated optimism, loyalty, and authenticity, and I will always look up to him as a true spirit of motivation that continually guides me in life. Whenever I am unsure of a major decision, I find myself thinking, ‘What would Zai do?,’ and he never fails me.

What piece of advice would you give to aspiring professionals across the globe?

My advice to aspiring professionals across the globe is to believe in yourself, even when no one else will, have faith in your potential and your uniqueness; there is only one YOU.

Advocate for what you believe in and do something that brings you joy, fulfilment and makes a true impact and positive difference. And above all, be kind to yourself, and others.

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