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Sadi Khan on her MBE and Improving Diversity

14 September 18 interview: Summaya Mughal

Entrepreneur, single parent, undercover supermarket employee, and recent recipient of an MBE: Sadi Khan is a force of nature. Earlier this year, Sadi was awarded for her contribution to Cultural/Religious Awareness Training and Services to Vulnerable Women by the Duke of Cambridge himself. But her success has not come without challenge. We caught up with Sadi to hear her story…

You received your MBE for your contribution to Cultural/Religious Awareness Training, and Services to Vulnerable women. I understand that you suffered from domestic violence yourself. Can you tell me more about that?
I had an arranged marriage when I was 19; it wasn’t forced, I was just really naïve. He was a PhD student from UCL, but within days he beat me up for making him a cup of tea and the next day I got slapped across the face for not making one. I knew it was wrong, but he started crying and saying things were wrong with him because his mother died when he was young. I was pulled by my hair, kicked in the head, and I remember making chapatis instead of rice and having a plate thrown at my head. I’ve had a knife to my throat. I was literally in the corner half the time. I thought of jumping out of the window so many times. You become so immune to it you just don’t know what to do. But I was never bruised on my face and I’d be the light of the room. I’d lie about my marriage and I put up with it for 5 years.

How did you get out of the relationship?
I had a chip-pan fire in Central London. During my last year at King’s [College], my ex-husband ended up moving away. One evening I put the chip pan on and went into the other room to talk on the phone. The next thing I saw was smoke, and I’d set the whole kitchen ablaze. I had the number of a friend I met the night before in my back-pocket, so I called him and, before I knew it, he was there. He phoned my husband up, and from that conversation he said “you’re not staying with him”. My husband didn’t even ask if I was alive, he was more interested in the flat. After he spoke to my husband my friend told my dad everything and before I knew it, my dad had got me a divorce. That young man’s courage is what got me out of that marriage.

Tell me how your company, Noble Khan, came about. I hear you went undercover in a supermarket…
I set up Noble Khan because my husband at the time, who was from Kashmir, was working in a supermarket and was struggling in the workplace. The supermarket had lots of great policies which said he could take time off at prayer but, despite this, he’d come home really upset that people were nicking his prayer mat. None of his colleagues were talking to him and it started to affect his mental health. He didn’t want to get up in the morning, he didn’t want to go into work - and this is a man who was really excited when he came to England.

I felt really responsible and sensed that I needed to find out what was going on. So I left my job as a VP of a diagnostics company in Holland and got a job undercover in this supermarket. When I was there, I started to take a load of festivals off, and not one manager questioned me. No-one realised that one of them wasn’t even a festival and that I had taken time off for three different religions…

I realised that the company was very behind when it came to diversity training. There was a lot of tick-boxing and you came out of the training with neither an engaged nor useful skill set.

So I started to ask people: what do you know about Asians and what is it you want to know? I noticed that a pattern emerged, and that the knowledge gained from asking these questions was transferable. So I designed a course and put my husband on a British cultural programme. I made him watch EastEnders and took him to the pub to adapt his behaviour in a way where he could still be Muslim and South Asian, but also very British.

England is my home, and I thought “why am I just walking around with this knowledge”. I felt like I had a responsibility for both British and South Asian communities; that’s really why I started Noble Khan.

What’s unique about what you do at Noble Khan?
I think it’s the content and the way we deliver it. We don’t use political correctness on our courses, we don’t tell you how to behave, and it’s very fun and practical. The big thing about this is fear. We have a fear of people who are different to us, who we don’t know anything about, and we aim to break that fear in a really fun way. If you eventually touch and feel things that are different to what you’re used to, it feels less foreign, so you feel more comfortable. What we do is make the uncomfortable, comfortable.

How much of an impact do you feel your training has actually had, and how can you quantify it?
We know from the feedback and the fact that our clients come back to us and say “we’ve done this in our community”, or “we’ve had this feedback”.

There are plenty of ethnic/disabled individuals out there that are talented and just need the opportunity.

Have you had any unusual experiences with Noble Khan?
Yes - The British Army were some of the funniest people I’ve trained. We had loads of different saris, and the officers had to get a name badge and dress themselves in the national dress. Every officer went for the pink sari, so I had to give them extra marks.

What has been your greatest challenge when setting up Noble Khan?
When you leave a really well paid job and say: “I’m going to be a single parent - because my husband has left me- and I’m going to set a company up”, the biggest backlash I got was from family. They thought “why is this woman going to leave a well-paid job, get divorced for a second time, with a child, to set a company up?” That backlash was really hard.

What do you think organisations in Nottingham can do to improve their awareness of diversity and inclusivity?
Unconscious bias is a massive thing. It’s important to look at your staff and understand what communities and markets you are going into. Do you need to broaden those markets to different communities? Ask yourself, how diverse are your best 5 friends?

The South Asian community in this country have over £32 billion in disposable income, if not more, and we’re not tapping into it. Also look at the policies. Think about disability groups and sexual orientation – ask yourself “do we have someone with autism working with us?” If not, why not? Who are our recruiters? How diverse are their recruiters bringing those candidates in?

What are your views on positive discrimination?
I’m not a fan of positive discrimination; I’m all for representation but it needs to be the right talent. If you’re advertising in the right places, then there’s no reason that you shouldn’t be able to get the right candidate. There are plenty of ethnic/disabled individuals out there that are talented and just need the opportunity.

Have you ever faced any challenges given your ethnicity?
Yes. I remember getting my first job in Cambridge and I was the only brown face. My job was to get 2 machines, worth £80,000, into the international market within a year. After 6 months I had nothing. There was a young engineer there and he was terrible. This engineer would say “we wasted money on the Paki”. In the 9th month I brought in 12 machines. The company had to leave the building within 3 months because they couldn’t manage the in-load I was bringing in.

Tell me about your MBE
So I get this letter saying “S. Khan” thinking “is that for my sister?” So I phoned up and said “have you got the right person?” They then said “is your name Sadi Khan? Do you have a company called Noble Khan?” and I said “yeah”; they said, “we don’t normally get it wrong, we know all about you”.

I asked who did it, and he said “we’re not allowed to say, but what we will say is that it's more than one person”, and that they had a whole file on me. I did mention that I felt quite violated they had a whole file.

What do you have planned for the future of Noble Khan?
I think at some stage I need to hand it over to someone that understands its potential and can take it to the next stage. I recognise that someone else can do more that I can with a lot more resources.

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