In recognition Black History Month, the Find Your Flex team wanted to speak with a black business leader. One who might be able to share some insights on what a journey from childhood to employment was like and if they ever faced conscious or subliminal adversity impacted by differing cultures.
But we got so much more than this from Robert Upright: Public Speaker and Founder of Empowered Communicator; a company dedicated to helping others overcome struggles with public speaking and gain confidence.
Robert shares his inspiring and impactful journey from childhood to adulthood. He sheds a light on moments when cultural diversity did and didn’t play a part in his journey. And how how mental health presented some barriers and how he overcame them. And finally how he came to help others overcome their barriers and how helping and inspiring others is the greatest of gifts.
What was it like growing up in London?
You know, it’s interesting. We can only ever inhabit our own skin right? And therefore you have the perspective you have. And it’s only by comparison that you realise things, otherwise you’re just living your life.
I had a very happy childhood, family oriented. My family moved here from West Africa, from Ghana, when I was very little and you only know what you know right?
But definitely, what was interesting was the embracing of the two different cultures. For example; when I was little, my parents never spoke our mother tongue too us. Because they were told it would hinder our progress and our growth.
So back then, that was the recieved wisdom. So therefore, although it was spoken in the house amongst themselves, they would speak English to us.
That was quite an interesting dynamic; that we were from a background that wasn’t from this country, hearing a language. But then that language not being directly spoken to us, and then going into school and elsewhere and speaking English.
Things like your foods which were different and which I retain to this day; a love of the West African foods and a love of the British foods. I think it was having that perspective of seeing different worlds and existing in different worlds I think was a very interesting time.
You mentioned different cultures, in terms of your education did that present any barriers or achievements?
What’s interesting is that there is a very very high premium placed on education, certainly from the West African culture. That’s not to say that there isn’t anywhere else. But I think the mentality that I inherited from my parents was that; there may well be barriers that we’ll face.
And we could see certain barriers growing up; the way people might respond to you. I could see the way they might respond to my parents. But that wasn’t ever anything that they would allow to be used to prevent us from excelling.
I think that was the overriding message; to say that it doesn’t actually matter whatever anybody else does or what anyone else thinks, or thinks of you. It was drilled into us that education was the biggest weapon or tool to fight against any kind of inequality.
And so from that perspective, for my family; it was incredibly important that we were very well educated; that we respected education and we respected study and that was really drilled in from a very early age.
I think being in a society whereby obviously you are identifiably different- obviously there are lots of differences in society, but when you are identifiably different, people can look at you and say; ‘well you’re different to what we’ve seen and what we know’. In such circumstances, there’s potential for people to judge you or pre-judge you, and that’s kind of an unfortunate truth, but it’s a truth non the less.
So you have to quickly demonstrate that you are at least on par and worthy of being taken seriously. Otherwise you risk automatically not being taken seriously, and I think that’s something that was drilled in to me at a very early age:
That you can overcome any direct, indirect, overt or subliminal differences or discrimination shall we say, and education is one of your biggest weapons to do so.
Did you embrace the pressures that came with this: the importance of education and overcoming the cultural obstacles you talked about?
Your life is from a perspective that is obviously your own and that was just the norm, that’s just what we did and what we do. It wasn’t a case of looking and comparing to see ‘oh, we do have this or we don’t have this’, it just is the way it is.
And I think that’s an important point in terms of an attitude, that I think I adopt and one everyone can adopt. One that says:
‘If this is where you are, then this is where you are. There’s no two ways about it.‘
If you’re sitting in your front room or your kitchen, there’s absolutely no point in going: ‘Oh I wish I was sitting in Hyde Park right now‘ because you’re not. So the only issue is how are you going to get from there to Hyde Park if that’s where you want to get to.
In terms of a nine-year-old, I probably wouldn’t have articulated it like that. But on reflection now certainly. However, I think as any nine-year-old, all I wanted to do was run around and watch Metal Mickey, Rent a Ghost and things like that! But behind that, I knew I was from a disciplined background, a disciplined household. But that’s just what it was.
When making the transition from education to employment, was there any discrimination from employers?
It’s an interesting one, because if they did it, they did it well enough that I would never know! To be fair, I didn’t get a sense of that and I didn’t feel that on my employment journey. But again, I think that might go down to my attitude. I’m very very pragmatic about certain things and I think that is a very important point to take away.
Because life’s experiences will give you a certain armour, I think that it will either break you or embolden you. To a point where at times you can be oblivious to certain things because it’s simply what you do and you simply get on with it.
The problem is; if you are to notice everything, it can just get too overwhelming. There is this thing in life called habituation isn’t there? Like when there’s a really bad smell in the room, you’ll notice it immediately, but the brain goes; ‘well I can’t be focusing on this all day’ so the smell just blends into the background and you don’t even notice it.
And I think in life it perhaps is one of those things where that because of my upbringing, background and therefore mentality, there’s a certain amount of armour that gives you.
If these things were going on to some extent, I just didn’t notice or it wasn’t something I would focus on. Because it wasn’t necessarily that helpful to do so, it was more helpful to carve out the path I wanted to carve.
What did you do between education and starting your own business?
I worked in the publication industry. I did my degree in psychology, which is quite interesting because around that time in my teens is when I started struggling with agoraphobia and panic attacks. It was quite a difficult period and that went on for many years.
A lot of that will inform much of my own personal experience. Which isn’t necessarily race-related per say, because anybody could struggle with that, but that was just another thing to factor in.
I was very conscious about how I would show up in places. Very conscious, being a black male that there may well be a narrative or a stereotype that wasn’t necessarily that positive, yet that’s out there in society, in the media etc. I was always aware of that from a very early age and felt that wherever I went I had to show up in a way that would combat that narrative.
There is that on your shoulders and that is something I took upon myself. But the problem with being agoraphobic and having panic attacks and anxiety and all of that suddenly coming along is:
How do you still show up that way? At your best and trying to combat a narrative?
So that was an additional kind of pressure, that I think exacerbated things at the time, and on reflection I possibly didn’t have the life experience to be able to cope with that as well as I can do now.
And in my work, where I engage with people who might struggle with things around confidence or how you show up. Because I have an intimate understanding of what they’re going through having lived that for so long. It’s the nuances around that, that you can really pick up and start to help them address their challenges.
What led you to become a Public Speaker, in spite of having phobias and mental health issues that would make this career path difficult?
Interestingly, in the workplace, what I would find is that I was functional and I could get on with things. The panic attacks and so forth, I found that I could manage them well enough that I could function and people wouldn’t really know, I would hide in places etc. But what it did mean is that for a long time I wouldn’t pursue career advancement.
I didn’t want to be in positions whereby I’d have such authority that I would be responsible. Such that, if I had a panic attack, I couldn’t show up and therefore it exacerbates the whole; ‘well you’re not showing up at your best. You’re affirming a narrative that is not very positive‘. And it wasn’t anything about who I am or what I am, it was what I was going through and that was kind of like a silent struggle.
So, that was an interesting thing, for a long time that would be going on. And then that goes into areas around; when/if you are struggling, who do you turn to? Where do you turn? That’s true in society anyway, I think everybody has their own struggles with that regardless of who you are.
There’s just that extra little bit of salt on it whereby certain communities have no space to have those conversations around your mental health. It’s just not the ‘done’ thing. So that was probably quite a bit of a pressure cooker that lead to me avoiding trying to get advancement for quite a while.
But I think the way life goes and the way it unfolds, I started looking into things around self-development, going to seminars and reading more around that subject. I studied psychology, but that was more an academic exercise, as opposed to informing how I lived my life or coped with everything. So that was a really interesting experience, that even though I studied psychology, it wasn’t that that was necessarily the breakthrough thing for me.
How did you transition from that to actually becoming a Public Speaker?
The transition I think, came when I did start to look at things around self-development, around self-empowerment. Ultimately, when you can be in control of who you are; your mind. I have a saying you know that I love, it’s one of my favourites:
“Stand Guard at the Gates of Your Mind.”
I’m always saying that because it’s so important. You’ve really got to be aware of what you feed your mind and what you allow to get in. It can really start to shape your opinion of life. What you think shapes your outlook. It’s like the whole garden and the farmer analogy; what you plant, you will grow. Basically, you can’t plant a lemon seed and expect and orange tree to grow.
So realising that, there was an opportunity to go to a training on public speaking. And it was a real decision to make, thinking; ‘well I have this history, I have this background and I know I struggle with this kind of thing.’
But it got to a point whereby, your biggest opportunities and your biggest successes lie on the other side of your personal fears don’t they? And although that might be something people read and think; ‘yeah, yeah’, it’s actually so true. In that, if you remain within your comfort zone and you remain within what you know, all you will ever get is what you know. Something pushed me towards doing that training.
On the day I recall I woke up at about 4 AM for the training I was going to and I woke up in sweats at the thought of going to this thing. And I was looking for every single excuse not to go. But fortunately, I went and was able to get through it, and from there my training continued and I just really became a lot more. And then was able to then transition to who I have become today.
What is your experience of running your own business that helps people overcome some of the same struggles?
Do you know it’s the greatest gift, without sounding sounding sort of “woowoo” about it. But it really is. The thing is everybody has something extraordinary within them and about them. And the biggest shame I think in this life, in this society, is for people who don’t ever get to realise that, or see it or embrace it.
And if you can shine a light on somebody’s gift, so that it reveals it to them, then that moment is one of those incredible, beautiful and most important moments in a person’s life. It’s not that there are violins playing out there or doves flying in the air- it’s just this moment of realisation that somebody who perhaps feels like they can’t, suddenly realises that they can.
Now of course there’s work to do, it’s not a magic wand. But if you don’t believe it, if you don’t believe in you, then how likely is it that anything that you dream of will ever happen?
Once you do believe in you and once you have a kind of road map and some steps, guidance, support and belief. Because there will also be days when you don’t believe in yourself and days when you slip back a bit. So it’s really important to surround yourself with the right people; mentors, friends, your inner circle; who understand that particular journey you’re on.
But it is incredible to do and having known what it’s been like to feel quite lost, out at sea, a little bit in the dark. Now it’s like being able to perform that function of almost as a lighthouse isn’t it? Which really helps to illuminate the environment for others as to what’s possible. And then perhaps give them some tools in order to embrace that and show up in a way that is more confident, more empowered, more impactful.
What’s interesting about self development is, it’s not just about the thing that you think is stopping you, it never is just that. It’s all of the other things that radiate off that. It’s everything about who you are and who you become.
Often at times, what you find is people are existing with a kind of a shield or a front right? You don’t want the world to see you at what your perceive as your weakest. So a lot of the time people may show up as an image of themselves as opposed to as themselves.
One of the things I talk about is being confident and natural. That word natural is so important as it really goes back to; if you can just sit alone and be yourself with yourself, then you can be yourself with other people. That’s the important part of the journey that a lot of times is missed. Often times people look at the external and its not just about the tools; ‘okay do this and say this at this moment. Put up this slide or stand in this way’.
It is really a journey of self-discovery, of self-realization and of self-love really. And recognizing all the warts and the things that have happened have actually happened in order to serve you.
I know that can be a very emotive and for some people may be a triggering statement. So it is not to in any way dismiss or discount anything that has happened, or anything you may have been through. I know there’ll be people who have been through extraordinary traumas and I have worked with people that have been through extraordinarily difficult things.
The thing is, at this moment in time, are those things going to continue to disempower you? Or is there a way that by shifting one’s mind, by embracing who you are and taking those things and using them almost as fuel to empower yourself in whatever direction you wish to go. But to be empowered is the most important thing so that you don’t end up living a life of regret.
What advice would you to someone trying to reach a goal and how to overcome any barriers along the way?
Ultimately I think there is the practical side and then there is the personal and internal side. A lot of times with goals or destinations, people are quite vague about it. And if you were to articulate or tell someone your goal, could they easily repeat it back to you? Because there is that thing about; if you can make something understandable by a 7 or 8 year-old, then it’s clear.
To be clear and concise is very important, because fate, loves clarity. And if you can be clear on what it is that you want, it’s the first step in helping you to reach it. So there is that; be very clear on what it is that you want.
Then it is about milestones, there will be certain milestones that you will need to hit, referring back to the Hyde Park analogy. So for example; you might just say, ‘well just get up and go’ but, have you put your clothes on? Have you showered? Have you brushed your teeth? So they’ll be the steps, and there will be bigger steps and milestones so you need to map those out, so that you can actually see a road map.
By simply putting up a kind of map of your journey, suddenly it allows the mind to rest, and be reassured and it brings a certain element of reality. Because what you’re doing with a dreams is that you’re dreaming and there will be a part of your mind that may fight that dream, particularly if you’re struggling in this moment. So what you need to do is to bridge that gap between your current reality and the dream that you have.
And it’s those practical things that you can do and which is why it’s so important not to miss those steps. Because a lot of the time people will throw them away and think; ‘well what’s the point of writing it down? I’m here, I’m struggling, it’s never going to happen. What’s the point in putting in my milestones?’. And so once you understand the way the way that crafting your future works, then you’re a lot more likely to embrace it and do it.
From the personal side, number one: stand guard at the gates of your mind. Who have you got surrounding you? And when I say who; that could be people, it could be the media that you allow in, the messages. What messages are you allowing into your head and are they ones that support you?
Often times, this is why people go to coaches, or get help from consultants, or do various courses etc. It’s so important because what that does is; it shifts your mind and it shifts your environment. You start to surround yourself with people who perhaps believe in you more than you believe in yourself.
It’s like crabs in a barrel; you be trying to crawl out, but if you’re amongst the wrong people, they will drag you back down. So it really is about auditing your life; who you surround it with- it doesn’t mean you throw them away or anything. But recognise what impact certain people are having on your dreams. Then doing something actively to put yourself in an environment or around people who will genuinely lift you, push you and support you, towards a goal that is now crystal clear with a map to guide you along the way.
Thank you so much Robert for sharing with us your personal journey to a successful career!
We hope our readers find your story as inspiring and uplifting as we did. And perhaps gained some perspective on some of the issues, barriers and achievements you mentioned. If you want to learn more about Robert and what he does or even if you relate to some of the struggles he mentioned and require some help and guidance, you can reach out to him at Empowered Communicators here.
Robert touches upon differing cultures, to read more about this topic take a look our article on whether Culture Change starts in Schools.