Moderated by two of our three Allison+Palette co-leads Adina James and Pearl Xu, the panel spoke about Fatou‘s career journey and advice to help people of color thrive in PR. Read about Fatou’s thought-provoking point of view in this abbreviated Q&A.
Pearl: Fatou, you've had an amazing career so far as a cultural strategist, the founder of PR Girl Manifesto and the co-founder of Hold The PRess, along with many other titles. To kick things off, could you give us an overview of your personal, academic and professional background that led you to where you are today?
Fatou: My story starts in this small coastal country of Guinea in West Africa, a coastal country tucked away between Senegal, Mali and Sierra Leone. I was born there, so that makes me an immigrant. I ended up coming to the United States after my parents passed away and my mom's sister, who was living in New York at the time, adopted me. So, I grew up in a pretty traditional West African immigrant family where the expectation is that you're going to be a doctor, a lawyer or an engineer. Needless to say, that's not what happened.
I have always been really attracted to PR, marketing and comms-adjacent experiences, without necessarily understanding that that was what I was in. But I didn't set out to be in this space. I actually attended the University of Buffalo, where I studied fashion merchandising and creative writing. I ended up hating both programs immensely, so I talked to my counsellor about what made sense. At the time, comms sounded like it would give me the most options in terms of what I could do postgrad. It was also aligned with a few of my personal interests… work with people and creative writing.
As is common with a lot of immigrant first-generation students, you are expected – even with scholarships – to lean into helping your parents pay for your schooling. So, I worked throughout my entire college career. I was a resident assistant, had on-campus jobs, was an intern and was part of several student organizations. I bring this up because I think it really is the foundation for a lot of the multi-dimensional approaches I take to the work that I do. For example, I currently run a PR agency, but I am also the founder of a non-profit and an advocacy group. I also sit on numerous boards, and I facilitate nationwide conferences. There is a lot that I love doing, and knowing that I can do it is heavily rooted in that college experience.
When I was in college, I landed a pretty sweet deal which I credit for being able to have an easier trajectory into the communications industry than most people. I got approached by a men’s fashion house at 19 throughout my entire collegiate career. It was amazing because by the summer before my senior year, I had developed such a close relationship that they offered me a job postgrad.
About four years later, I felt like I need change. So, I made move to a denim brand in their PR and communications department. It was French-owned, which I loved because it actually gave me an opportunity to speak my first language. I also gave me my first experience working for a brand with global scale.
And then this great opportunity landed in my lap, just off a chance encounter, to work with an authentic Italian restaurant group. I stayed there for about two years before taking the leap and finally listening to the voice that had been in my head for the last five years say: “Try starting your own thing.”
Fast forward to now: I am the founder of my own agency, have a non-profit, co-founded an advocacy group and am in the process of launching a media platform. So, I don't want to say my journey was linear – as there has been a lot – but I think it has really all shaped where I am at now and the things that I enjoy doing.
Adina: I love that! What inspired you to start your own non-profit and your advocacy groups? More importantly, what was that motivational factor?
Fatou: Of all the experiences I have had in my career, unfortunately none have come without a struggle to be seen, heard, respected and valued – particularly as a female Black Muslim immigrant. Throughout my career, I’ve had to adapt to functioning within a system that is not built for me to be successful. In the past, I found myself constantly having to make up the shortfall between what I am handed in this world – whether it be personal or professional – and what I want from it.
I started to develop this feeling that the spaces that I found myself in weren‘t meant for me to be in – not because I wasn't qualified to be in them, but because I wasn't wanted in them. This showed up in many ways, regardless of the position or the company. The microaggressions and the lack of external resources that would help me grow in my career or would just feel comfortable still existed.
With PR Girl Manifesto, I really wanted to create a safe space that other PR professionals could turn to and feel that they could be part of a community with people that celebrated comms professionals of all backgrounds. I wanted to create a sense of belonging, where knowledge and mentorship didn't feel transactional and where you didn’t have to look a certain way to get the support that you needed and deserved.
Hold The PRess didn't come into fruition until two years ago. That was initially brought to life as a response to PR agencies and firms publicly sharing words of solidarity in response to the murders of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery and police brutality protests. But in practice, Black employees were under-represented and marginalized. I was tired of the lip service. From my own experiences in the industry, I knew that PR had a longstanding diversity issue that many organizations and industry advocates had been up against for years. It felt like an opportunity to call people out on false statements.
We would ask for the data so we could finally start to have an honest conversation about the diversity make-up of the PR industry, but also to start the conversation about agencies’ action plans moving forward.
The reality is that whether it is PR Girl Manifesto or Hold The PRess, anything that I create really is inspired by what is lacking. I had to think about 19- or 20-year-old Fatou. What resource would have made sense for her? What did not exist that would have helped her tremendously? How can I bridge the gap for her to ensure that the next generation feels supported and has the resources they need.
Adina: Have there been any moments in your career where your multifaceted perspective of sitting at the intersection of so many different identities have benefited your approach to PR?
Fatou: Absolutely! Since deciding to work for myself and going on my own, it has been one big declaration of my intersectionality and of all these things being my superpower. Not only my diversity of background, but also my experience and the things that I have acquired. It’s actually why people seek me out. They want somebody who can provide the viewpoint as a Black woman, as a Muslim woman and as an immigrant woman. And it is valuable beyond just tokenism.
My unique upbringing and the things that I have experienced allow me to see things differently. When I am looking at a campaign, I think to myself: “How can this benefit people like me? What about those who might not have the same privileges and advantages that we have?”
I definitely think it is a superpower now, and it has allowed me to provide an insight. And while I am not the expert on being a Muslim immigrant Black woman, there is a new point I am now able to provide, and I think people see value in that tremendously.
Adina: You briefly touched upon tokenism. Do you have any advice for the wider agency on how to avoid potentially making somebody feel like they're being tokenised?
I think the biggest thing to understand is that your one employee who falls under a certain identity doesn't represent everyone in that identity.
When we're trying to avoid tokenism, first, don’t rely on your one employee who falls under a specific identity to be the end-all be-all of research or asking a question. Secondly, be very mindful of the language that you use and how you reflect someone's value back to them.
Pearl: How did you start to build that sense of belonging early on in your career? How were you able to affect the broader environment around you?
Personally, the biggest thing for me is the internal work. I needed to learn to make space for my own belonging. People are not always going to accept you are or make space for you. I probably would not be where I am now if I didn't accept myself fully for who I am. My biggest advice is: “We can't really control external factors all the time, but we can control how we see ourselves and how we choose to feel about ourselves.” This own sense of belonging will carry you through the times that external sense of “Oh, I don't belong here” is reflected back at you.
Adina: What three pieces of advice would you give to new PR practitioners just joining the industry?
Firstly, I would ask all the questions. I wish asked more questions earlier in my career. The fear of being wrong, or feeling inexperienced, definitely made things harder than they had to be. If I had just asked the questions, I probably would have been able to get to where I needed to quicker. Some might perceive it as a dumb question, and that is fine. At least I personally would have walked away with knowledge that I didn't have before. So, no matter the stage of your career, asking questions gets you places.
Next, I think it is so important to be a lifelong learner. I might have been afraid to ask questions, but I was not afraid to teach myself or learn something I needed to. I am quick to get on Google, sign up for a course or scour a message thread. I think it’s something that has really been paramount for my personal growth. No matter where you are in your career, there is always something to learn. At the executive level, you can learn from your employees – For example, I continue to learn so much from Gen Z!
Lastly, I think a lot of people probably hear, but might not necessarily understand, relationships are paramount. Relationship-building has crucial to my own career trajectory, so I can’t stress this enough. My ability to connect with people and be a person who generally cares has landed me in rooms that I would have never entered. One of the great things about my immigrant upbringing is that I was raised to look at everyone the same, regardless of where they come from, what they do and what they have. Being able to foster a relationship with people from all walks of life has brought me to places – maybe not in that moment, but a month or even years later.
Pearl: How can managers, or executive leadership teams, across agencies and brands better support people of color within their teams?
Fatou: We have been in the era of listening and learning since 2020. I think it is so important to identify who you are listening to and learning from. Managers and companies in the industry as a whole need to listen to the people they claim they want to make experiences better for. What feels supportive for one person is not going to feel the same for another.
In terms of better supporting people of color, I think it is important to understand support is not a destination. There is no real perceived checklist -- it is a lifelong practice. We should always check in on our practices, we should always and regularly ask our employees of color how they feel about work.
Then also stand in the gap. I know there have been times where someone on a senior level has been the catalyst for me being able to fully voice what I am feeling. They created that space and they bridged the gap between me and wherever I was feeling a sense of unease or discomfort.
The goal of Allison+Palette is to increase awareness of racial, cultural, and ethnic differences within Allison+Partners, as well as the global community at large. We strive to recruit a diverse workforce and empower an inclusive environment to support it. This employee advocacy group (EAG) creates a safe “home base” for people of color to ensure their needs are met and that the various cultures are openly and fairly represented internally as well as reflected in the high-quality client work we provide.