Educating Ally: Brixton Finishing School founder on introducing introverts to the office

Morgan with her mother and sister / Image courtesy of Sylvia Morgan

In her column, Ally Owen catches up with individuals from backgrounds underserved by our industry to understand how she can become a better ally. Her latest guest is Sylvia Morgan.

Morgan shares her experience of helping to raise her younger sister and talks about the lessons needed for executives in the industry to help them include more introverted members of the ad industry.

Ally: Hello Sylvia, would you like to introduce yourself and tell us a bit about your experience finding your way to the industry?

Sylvia: Hi, I’m Sylvia. I was born and raised in Ghana. I never lived with my birth parents but lived with a few family members here and there. My dad was in France and my mother lived just an hour from where I was. From a few months old until I was six, I lived with my grandfather, grandmother and aunt whom I loved very much. They were my whole world at that age. My grandmother came to England when I was six so I moved to live with my older aunt.

In between that time I moved a few times among family and that changed my personality from being outgoing and outspoken to quiet and reserved. It was almost like being in foster care, but it wasn’t the same because they were my family and I felt I couldn’t complain. Moving to England a few months before my 15th birthday was a huge culture shock and attending high school was also very different.

After school, I studied psychology at university but had to take two years off and look after my little sister while I was at home. I moved in with my sister’s family after living with my dad for a while and I like to think that I got a new adopted family overnight with a mum, sister, brother, aunt and grandparents. Over the years I’ve built such a strong bond with them and know that they will always be in my life.

In between the time that I was at home with my sister, I was volunteering for different organizations and I was actually in charge of the websites for a theology college, running the advertising for their campaigns, the brochures and flyers – that kind of thing. Although not perfect, that was really my first taste of advertising.

Could you unpack what it was like to be a young carer and how that worked? I would say people in this industry don’t appreciate that caring responsibilities are actually a big part of a lot of people’s lives.

I was 19 when I took the time off to look after my two-year-old sister. There was a time when she used to call me mum because I was with her from the moment she would wake up to the moment she went to sleep. I had the responsibility of getting her up, ready and fed, and then taking her to stay and play and then later nursery. I was almost like a full-time mum. I would get her ready for breakfast and dinner, and make her packed lunch while Mum had to work.

As a mum myself, to be 19 and have that much responsibility, I tip my hat to you. I don’t believe raising a child is taking time out – it’s just part of life, isn’t it? How did you find that experience navigating friendships?

It can be quite lonely being at home with a two-year-old, but I love my sister a lot and would not change that for the world. I’m really quiet so I tend to keep to myself, but really I had two good friends to lean on during that time. I was helping one with her psychology degree and would proofread her work while she was doing her dissertation. That was actually a really low point for me because I felt like I should be doing that and looking forward to graduating. When I went to her graduation, I almost cried because I wished I was on that stage but I wasn’t yet – it hurt.

That is tough, and an experience very few people would have had. So, what happened next? How did you find your way to us at Brixton Finishing School (BFS)?

Someone that graduated from the theology college, who found her start in the media industry with you, wanted me to come and work for her. But I felt that I needed to do something else to boost my media experience and knowledge. So I got in contact with you and the rest was history. I saw BFS and was really, really excited about it. It just skyrocketed from there knowing I have a chance here to work for some amazing organizations.

I remember going home to tell Mum after every session we had at BFS, telling her about every agency and the amazing work they’ve done. She was really supportive and excited with me as I told her these stories. Her excitement for me was really something else, and I was just glad every day to be a part of BFS.

Obviously, we know our industry is an extroverted place and the structures within serve those with ‘loud voices.’ Do you want to perhaps reflect on your experience of this?

For me, my creativity is within. I’m not like others who are confident in sharing their ideas. At BFS, everyone was more open and willing to speak up and collaborate. But BFS was amazing – the teams I had were amazing at drawing me out. My creativity is rooted in the stories. I love creating alternative worlds and narratives, but I’m perfectly happy for somebody else to draw that for me. I would never put myself out there like that for fear of being judged. But I think my BFS experience has made me a lot more confident in telling those stories.

You’re right, unfortunately, the whole of our industry is very performative, isn’t it? We are essentially a giant circus in which every one of us is an act. So what can we do to help introverted people more?

I think what is helpful for me is being given the opportunity to speak. When there are so many people around, that kind of hinders me from speaking out. So it was helpful to have one-to-ones at the school with the partners as I had the space to talk. But yeah, it hinders you in a way where if you’re not outspoken, you don’t get that chance. I’m always trying to read the room and find an opportunity to say something, but someone will get their shot in first and then the openings close.

So perhaps organizing group sessions where everybody gets a certain time to speak, and is then asked to pass it on?

Yeah, sometimes it’s useful. Sometimes it puts you on the spot. But I think having someone there who is very aware that not everyone has spoken, that you haven’t said everything you wanted to say and they say, ‘No, you haven’t finished.’ It’s having that open support.

I think it’s also important to be aware of introverted people in interviews. For me, when a business seems really excited to meet me, that just makes me want to open up a lot more. I’m a naturally smiley person. So, when they come in smiling, I smile a lot more. I need that facial feedback because I feed off of people. I’ve always had that empath trait. I can always feed off people, but when you’re neutral or stoic, it’s difficult. I think people don’t recognize that in this industry because everyone expects you to automatically be an extrovert.

So how can businesses create safe spaces for introverts to be themselves and ask questions in their own way?

It’s really on an individual basis – not every person is the same. I’ll say the standard or the bare minimum for anyone is to just be approachable. Even if you’re having a bad day, just smile. It doesn’t hurt. I’m always smiling because I want people to feel comfortable around me because it’s my nature. I can’t help it. If they haven’t spoken to you before, just go and say hi to help make it easier for others who may not be confident enough to engage first.

I’m excited to see what you do next. Do you have any idea of what that looks like yet?

I want a job in the industry that makes me feel like I’m part of a family. I want to experience that family culture. But the goal is to move into account management or client services because I understand people. It seems like a good fit for someone like me to push me out of my comfort zone while allowing me to do what I do best – empathizing with others.