Priya Aggarwal Shah, founder of BAME in Property

Setting up BAME in Property as a networking group
I started BAME in Property in late 2017 out of a frustration of seeing little diversity at events, panels and in my project teams. Being quite junior in my career as a stakeholder engagement consultant, I was keen to network and build those all-important connections. But going to networking events was daunting. The lack of diversity was one thing, but most of these events were centred around alcohol, which wasn’t always my cup of tea. My day-to-day work involved engaging with diverse communities, but how could we understand their housing needs if we didn’t represent their lived experiences and cultural sensitivities in our project teams? Even on the client side, the lack of diversity was apparent when I got called an ‘Indian Princess’ by someone I worked with. Even if it was supposed to be banter, it was still inappropriate.

There came the idea to create a networking group for Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic (BAME) professionals. Inspired by the success of Charlotte Morphet’s Women in Planning network, I set up BAME in Property to create a safe space for BAME and non-BAME professionals to come together, network, socialise and share their concerns. I’m grateful there was interest from colleagues across the industry who offered support in the early years and beyond – thank you Bhavini Shah, Amrit Singh Bahia, CJ Obi, Zara Din, Abraham Laker and many others for being my sounding boards.

The first couple of years
Following a successful launch event in March 2018, BAME in Property gained traction. There was clearly a gap in the property and real estate market for a group like this and the sponsored events rolled in. We had BECG, K&L Gates, Knight Frank, Cushman & Wakefield and LandSec sponsor major events throughout 2018 and 2019, helping to bring together BAME and non-BAME professionals in the industry together and start the necessary conversation about ethnic minorities often facing challenges in their careers.

As the face of BAME in Property, the first two years were incredibly busy. I was speaking on a panel event nearly every month, primarily running the social media platforms for the organisation, replying to emails from interested people, and looking for the next sponsor, all while having a full-time job! The advocacy work happened during lunchtimes, evenings and weekends but being in my mid-20s, and hungry to build this organisation, I probably wouldn’t have had it any other way. I was really inspired by all the people I met and all the stories I heard. In establishing a networking group, I built my own network too and met numerous people who opened doors for me.

Dodging the necessary conversations
The events were great, but I always wonder what lasting effect they had. Many people still shied away from having the difficult conversations about race, microaggressions and discrimination. I even met people who couldn’t say ‘Black’ to identify or describe someone who was clearly Black. But how could you have a meaningful conversation without candidly talking about these issues. It wasn’t a lack of desire to effect change, it was lack of understanding and fear of saying the wrong thing; being culturally insensitive. However, it was important to continue the conversation beyond events and establish a community where people could lean on their peers and seek advice and guidance.

Just as we were about to launch in Birmingham in Spring 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic struck, and all in-person events came to a standstill. Having dabbled into online events in the early days of lockdown, I quickly abandoned these, as having our work and social lives online became all too much. Instead, I focused on developing a community online through social media. I ramped up content, blogs and posts across all social channels, resulting in over 374,000 impressions in the first 100 days of lockdown.

But with regards to employee progression, things just slowed down. People got furloughed, promotions went on hold, and we often lost visibility and connections with our colleagues. Not having networking events was challenging because no doubt many people lost out on key opportunities and confidence building, that could have enhanced their careers.

I think that some of the progress we made with promoting diversity in our industry prior to the pandemic somewhat stalled during the lockdown periods.

Black Lives Matter
Then in May/June 2020 we had the tragic murder of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement taking over our screens. What could have been a watershed moment for the industry ended up being rather tokenistic. Many companies put out a black square and statements on social media, without engaging with their Black colleagues for input. More importantly, many companies didn’t check in with their Black colleagues to see how they were doing through this challenging time.

Admittedly, a lot of companies simply didn’t know what to do. The BAME in Property inbox was inundated with emails from companies asking for help and guidance on how to respond and do better. That’s when I started offering workshops and lunch and learns about ethnic diversity in the built environment.

Commercialising BAME in Property
In the midst of the pandemic and the online growth in followers and requests for support, I saw my opportunity to expand BAME in Property’s services and evolve it into a company. In starting this as an extra-circular activity, I quickly realised a growing passion and interest in EDI issues and wanting to make some positive changes. Using my background and skills in comms and PR, I was able to create engaging content, host events, and build an organic social media following of 10,000+. I started small, I launched a Jobs Board, initially asking a few companies how I could operate this to benefit them – the response was a ’hosting platform’, as they wanted potential candidates to end up on their website. So, I did this, and the demand increased. The Jobs Board, alongside the workshops and lunch and learns, was the beginning of BAME in Property Ltd. I never started my career with the idea of running an EDI company, I kind of just fell into it.

Juggling the full-time job, the side job, and my personal life
The energy I had in my mid-20s to run a side ‘hustle’ alongside a full-time job was starting to chip away. As I progressed in my comms career, naturally my workload and responsibilities increased. 2021 was also the year I was buying a house and getting married, all during COVID-19 lockdowns. To say it was quite stressful was an understatement. I started finding I couldn’t commit as much time to BAME in Property as I would have liked and the resentment towards my main job and my side passion was real. I persevered though and will always look back at 2021 as a year of personal achievements.

Making the side hustle the main hustle
Despite my time being stretched, the need for EDI in the built environment has remained. With no wedding to plan in 2022(!), I could redirect my focus and time to growing BAME in Property Ltd. I spent some of my spare time doing courses on diversity and inclusion on Future Learn. The passion had been ignited again; I just didn’t have the courage to leave my full-time job yet.

A string of conversations inspired me to take that big step. Many people I met already thought I was running BAME in Property full-time, while others kept saying “it’s only a matter of time before you do!”.

Having started commercialising BAME in Property two years ago, in summer 2022, I was finally in a position financially and mentally to take the leap. As scary as it was to do this, it was my ‘now or never’ moment to see what I could achieve with this organisation.

Looking ahead
Now, two months into running BAME in Property full-time, I am truly encouraged and grateful for the support I have received. My clients, previous and current, include the likes of Mount Anvil, Thirteen Housing Group, NLA, Turley, Pocket Living, Forsters LLP, and Trident Building Consultancy, with many others using BAME in Property’s Jobs Board.

Looking ahead, a potential name change is on the cards. When we started five years ago, ‘BAME’ was the known term, but times have changed and even I have disclaimers about the term.

Utilising my comms background, I will continue to grow BAME in Property online, through engaging content, social media and events. The area that I’m particularly interested in is culturally sensitive community engagement, especially in light of the 2021 Census data. This is a huge growth area and something I have always enjoyed, so watch this space. More about this here.

I love what I do, helping companies in this space, and making a difference.

The last five years have been a journey, I’m excited for the next five.

This article has been reposted from The BAME in Property website: