Meet lollipop founder Maria McDowell and join her in the mission to drive real actionable change in the industry
It is a sad truth that to this day, Black women are one of the most marginalised groups of people in society. According to figures reported by Business in the Community in 2019, only 1.5% of managers, directors and senior officials in the UK are Black. Even less are Black women. And when it comes to earning power, Black women, on average, earn £20k less than White men despite similar education levels.
Following a successful career in digital but fed up with the lack of Black female representation in leadership roles, Maria McDowell founded lollipop Mentoring in 2020 to address the inequity by putting Black women in touch with experienced mentors who have lived experience or are firm allies committed to seeing real actionable change.
“I have always been aware of the dearth of Black women in advertising and marketing,” Maria says. “I knew that the pandemic and the resulting redundancies were disproportionately affecting the already low numbers of Black women. I wanted to create an unambiguous space where if you are a Black woman you could come to be matched with a mentor and find community. I also wanted this space to be where ALL people could come and support Black women and enjoy themselves in the process. It is possible to find connections, have joy and make the world a bit better. I think lollipop proves this.”
Having been in the industry for more than two decades, Maria has plenty of experience in cultivating teams, developing a deep passion for mentoring and coaching. “I love people and I enjoyed the connection and satisfaction of guiding them in their careers. I was often the only woman - very often the only Black woman - in the room. This intersection is something you deal with and question all of the time. It’s not something you can speak about, and this is on top of already stressful work environments. I didn’t realise it at the time but I was actually having what I now know as panic attacks regularly at work.”
Aware that her experience was not a one off, Maria wanted to create safe spaces for people to speak on the issues that affect them alongside a qualified advocate who truly understands what they are going through. And so, lollipop was born.
Alongside her were Leontine West and Anna-Marie Uzokwe. “Leontine was volunteer number one,” Maria reveals. “She was responsible for the foundation of the admin and social systems for lollipop and is a good friend. She has had to take a back seat more recently due to work commitments but she will always be a part of lollipop. Anna-Marie helps out with our social output, we work together to create our campaigns and she is a former mentee too. Anna-Marie rocks, I love her to bits.”
Today, the community is made up of over 300 mentors and mentees - something Maria is hugely proud of. “When we launched I would have been happy to have had five pairs of mentors and mentees. 300 (and growing) is crazy.”
lollipop has also cultivated many partnerships and collaborations with companies such as LBB Online, M&C Saatchi Sports and Entertainment and Soho House. Most recently, lollipop has partnered with BFS and Digilearning to give four mentees the opportunity to attend Cannes Lions in 2023.
“It's great how much we’ve grown but also sad that so many Black women are finding navigating the workplace so challenging. I have heard some heartbreaking stories and I am happy about the support we have been able to provide so far, but this comes at a cost. It is not sustainable for me to fund this on my own. This is an industry problem, everyone recognises the issues but we are asking for people to be brave and stand with us.”
Become An Ally
While there are several initiatives that focus on employing junior talent, lollipop is one of the only initiatives focused solely on mid-level Black women. Research shows that Black women are not progressing in their careers at the same rate as other groups. They often do not have mentors and do not have access to networks outside of their organisations who can support them. That’s why, through workshops, networking events, masterclasses and inter-company events, lollipop supports Black women to hone their skills and improve their network to prepare them for leadership positions.
Companies can work and partner with lollipop in a variety of ways:
- By becoming mentors
- By putting forward mentees
- By providing space for lollipop events
- By helping fund lollipop’s mission
- By providing access to resources to help them produce content
- By providing opportunities for lollipop mentors and mentees to speak and participate in panel events
lollipop is always looking for more mentors and allies to help drive real change. “If you have at least five years of experience in the industry then you could be a great mentor to one of our mid-level mentees as ideally you would have managed someone before,” Maria states. “We read through application forms carefully and pair mentors with mentees based on values and expectations. A lot of these women have no sounding boards, we like to describe the relationship as a big brother, big sister pairing. Often we need someone to be accountable to, someone to give them support and guidance. Mentors can be any race or gender.”
To help guide mentors and mentees through the programme, lollipop holds training evenings, including a mid-chort check-in as well as a wrap up evening or event. “As long as you are nurturing, you are self-aware and you are not doing this for clout, then lollipop is for you.”
Current mentors include the likes of Reprise Digital’s Martina Lacey, The Barber Shop founder Dino Myers Lamptey, City HR Association’s Monique Brown, Shell’s transformational change consultant Cherie Williams and investor/entrepreneur Barnaby Cardwell.
“Our ethos is to be accepting to all but also to be able to be the voice of mid-level Black women. We are open and honest. We want to be able to call out bullshit and advocate for ourselves. When Black women win. Everyone wins.”
Looking to the future, Maria shares that “we want to be fully funded so that we can curate retreats for mentors and mentees, provide formal training for mentors, scholarship bursaries for mentees, and expand globally. We have BIG plans…”
If you’re interested in becoming a mentor, putting forward your mentees or supporting lollipop with event spaces or sponsorship, please contact Maria here.