Empowering the Freelance Economy

From legal contractor to CEO – Solange Semedo of ETZ on realising her childhood dream, having a voice at the table, and coming across talent in the most unlikely of places (even a dance floor)

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Solange Semedo, CEO of ETZ Group, the international recruitment and fintech company, talks to The Freelance Informer about realising her childhood dream of becoming a lawyer (with a little inspiration from LA Law’s Blair Underwood), and how along that journey became a linguist, salsa dancing aficionado, and freelance legal contractor turned CEO of a tech company that embraces diversity.

What were some of your personal drivers or people – behind your decision to study and practice law? Which countries and areas of law have you practised? 

I grew up in Cascais, a prestigious seaside town in Portugal (30 minutes from Lisbon). It’s a beautiful town filled with miles of sandy beaches, amazing weather, food, architecture and of course wealth (it was the home to many kings and queens). But I wasn’t wealthy, quite the opposite in fact.

I was about 6 years old and I knew I wanted to live in a nice house like everyone else, and have ‘things’ like everyone else. By the time I was 9 years old, I’d made up my mind that I was going to go to university to read law, because I used to watch ‘LA Law’ and fancied Blair Underwood and because a legal career would afford me prestige and wealth, whereas I was used to feeling insignificant and poor. A couple of years later, my family moved to England. I couldn’t speak English properly but I applied myself, and continued my pursuit into the legal profession.

In terms of countries I have practiced in, I am a UK qualified Solicitor and therefore only practice in England & Wales. As regards my practice areas, I have advised on regulatory corporate investigations, general commercial law, EU/Competition law and litigation.

How did the opportunity with ETZ and working in recruitment technology come about? How has your role evolved since you started with the company?

I was a freelance contractor back in 2017 and was looking to secure a permanent role that paid me adequately. I pestered my agency all the time as was I told this was the way to keep you front of mind. My agency called to ask me about an interesting role as an in-house corporate investigator in a fantastic tech company. I went to the interview, believed what I heard and was excited about the role. The role evolved into legal counsel, three months later I became head legal counsel, then COO shortly after. In mid 2019 I became Managing Director, was subsequently promoted to CEO in January 2020 and have since been promoted to Group CEO of the ETZ Group (overseeing 10 companies including one in Australia).

In terms of how it evolved, it all happened organically. It really did. I found that once I had an area under control, I would be given responsibility in another area, then another and so as I stepped outside the legal team, I became more entrepreneurial and as the role grew, I grew.

You speak several languages – Portuguese, English, Spanish, French and Italian. Is there a story behind that? 

There is a story, yes! I am Portuguese, came to England 32 years ago, studied Portuguese Literature, English, Spanish, French and Italian at school. Then chose Portuguese Literature, French and Spanish as A’Levels, and at University I studied law and French. I have a gift for languages. I’ve lived in Portugal, Belgium and Italy and before Covid, spent the bulk of my free time dancing with my Latin American friends – where the only language we spoke was Spanish. There’s something liberating about being able to communicate to a good portion of the world.

If you could cram all your favourite things to do into 24 hours (no sleep, work or boring domestic chores required)- what would you get up to?

I would get on a plane to Italy (one of my favourite countries), with all my friends and family to soak up the sun, consume the culture and architecture, eat amazing food and dance all night (Salsa, Bachata, Reggaeton, Kizomba).

As a biracial executive, with many accolades behind you, are you still experiencing racial or cultural bias in daily life and/or the legal and recruitment industries? If so, how you are dealing with it?

I’m absolutely amazed and pleased to say that, I am no longer experiencing racial or cultural bias in my daily life (maybe because I now work from home). However, I’m very cognisant of the fact that racial and indeed gender biases exist and continue to permeate through many industry sectors.  To elaborate, I  have recently experienced alpha males trying to undermine me in my leadership seat. That didn’t go well for any of them. I’m very fortunate to have been able to implement an empowering culture, where everybody has a seat at the table and a voice, regardless of race, colour, gender or sexuality.  What matters is that our employees and contractors adhere to ETZ’s Mission Values, the cornerstones of which are integrity and respect. We have a workforce that’s so diverse, that anyone with particular biases would stick out like a sore thumb.

Despite being in a privileged role now,  I do recall various examples from early on in my career in City law firms, which highlighted certain biases. I experienced being asked by a trainee to assist her with a task that she was struggling with. I was a paralegal and I knew more. I’ve had lawyers looking down at me (not just because I’m short), because some lawyers really do think they are better than their counterparts with no proper explanation as to why, the only thing being that I’m not one of ‘them’ (not Oxbridge or some other snobby criteria).

In one instance, I worked in a law firm where an associate was discussing where she lived in London. She told me “I live in the posh part and you live in the poor part”. I’ll never forget that one.  There is some truth about the legal profession in Britain in that it still has some way to go to get past its stuffiness and need for conformity; to behave and do exactly the same things in the same way. This, unfortunately, translates to BAME lawyers suppressing their routes by concealing their ‘real’ accent, or eating mannerisms (eg: eating chicken with one’s hands rather than with cutlery). It’s just the little things. For example, you can mention that you like dancing salsa, but do not go into bachata – it’s too racy and ‘we must uphold the profession’. But I do feel things are slowly changing. That’s due in part to diversity and inclusion taking a much higher priority in corporate culture and this should, for the benefit of firms and clients, cross over into the legal profession.

Would you suggest more people from the BAME community experiencing bias in the workplace take their skills elsewhere and set up their own side business? For example, go freelance part-time to shape their own destiny before becoming fully self-employed?

If you are from the BAME community or any other community for that matter, and you are experiencing, living, feeling workplace bias, you must speak up. Document it, send it to HR and to your line manager. Watch how your concerns are addressed. If your concerns are genuinely addressed, great – it means the company wants to change and it’s taking steps to improve. If the company tries to brush your concerns under the carpet, you know it’s time to leave. It all boils down to culture. You can’t change that which does not want to be changed. But you can take your fantastic self and your skills somewhere where you’ll be appreciated. Whether you set up on your own or are directly employed, the choice is truly yours. You’re in charge (remember that nobody owns you), so decide on the goal and then go for it with all your might! The odds may be stacked against you but with persistence and determination, you can build your own table and force change.

How are you using your personal experience with bias to shape an unbiased and diverse team based on merit at ETZ and in the wider recruitment sector? 

I mentioned culture earlier. It’s all about culture – it’s the root that shapes the company. Every single person that works at ETZ was selected to their role on merit. We have three key metrics: Character, Competence, Creativity. Excellence for us does not mean top grades from a red brick university. Excellence for us is about life experience and job experience and displaying key traits we look for such as humility, passion, and a ‘can do’ attitude. We are disruptors and therefore we like looking beyond the norm. We search for the very best in the most unusual spaces. Our Group CFO, Ting Zhang, joined ETZ after I met her one evening at Bar Salsa in London. Talk is cheap, however, so let me give you our stats: The ETZ group has: 16 BAME employees and 6 white employees. Our Chairman/Founder is a white Australian man (with a Chinese bloodline) who entrusted two BAME females to run his company and we do it with pride.

The key takeaway: It all started with one person: the Chairman. Nick wanted great people. We have just hired on merit, not on skin colour or race or what’s perceived to be the ideal person that works in tech. There is no such person. We’re people and tech is tech. If you want to shape the future, disrupt. If you want to change perceptions, cast your hiring net wide and do not always think that the CV with the perfect grades, and educational institutions is the best option, because that CV is not going to do the job, the person is. Search for the outstanding, the different and those full of life. Then hire them, appreciate them and don’t let them go!

If you had the power of insight what key message would you tell your childhood self? 

You will be able to afford the £1.50 dessert you love, you will not have to endure people shouting abuse at you as you walk down the street because of your skin colour, you will have a voice at the table. But before all of this materialises, you’re going to cry rivers, be abused, be poor, be undermined, and yet you will carry on, never giving up, because goals are set to be achieved and you are an achiever.

What was your proudest moment?

Being admitted to the Roll in March 2006. I was now a Solicitor of England & Wales.  The goal I set when I was 9 years old finally came true. My sense of pride was twofold – I fulfilled a life long dream and paid for it all by myself. If this little black girl from Portugal can do it, so can you. Reach for the unreachable and you’ll attain it and then some.

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