Based on the virtues of honesty, hard work and determination, Aneela Ali’s childhood was one that also recognised the importance of equality. Now, as a member of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Race, Ethnicity and Discrimination Commission, she is using the lessons gained from her formative years to drive positive change across the region’s business community. Here, Aneela, who shares her commission role with work at London North Eastern Railway, tells Steven Hugill of her aspirations for a commercial sector with greater diversity and inclusivity at its heart
Our lives are shaped by many things.
From the environments in which we live, to the people we know and meet, and our exposure to national and global incidents and events, we exist in an almost flux-like capacity, constantly learning and re-evaluating both ourselves and the wider world.
Our formative education plays a crucial role too.
Acting as a gateway to social and cultural understanding, it shapes our morality and instils in our psyche significant virtues and philosophies.
Aneela Ali knows all about the importance of such a strong grounding in life.
From a very young age, she absorbed through her father the values of honesty, hard work and determination.
She was also introduced to equality and the right of everyone to be treated fairly and have the opportunity to succeed.
Today, as a member of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Race, Ethnicity and Discrimination Commission, Aneela is channelling those principles to shape pivotal change across the region’s business environment.
At the crux of the commission is a drive to tackle racial and ethnic inequality in the workplace, by removing racism and unconscious bias to increase diversity and inclusivity across offices and factory floors.
Furthermore, the commission – which is chaired by Nagma Ebanks-Beni, commercial director at Seaham-based Prima Cheese – aims to eliminate discrimination around gender, age and disability, by compelling businesses to become more egalitarian across pay and recruitment.
“Change is only going to come if we adapt and do something ourselves, which is why we have formed the commission,” says Aneela, who works as a regional commercial strategy manager for London North Eastern Railway (LNER).
“We have some really great people on the commission; Nagma is a fantastic chair and we also have St Oswalds Hospice chief executive Steph Edusei and Northumbrian Water’s Alix Bolton, who additionally chairs the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Leadership Forum.
“The ultimate goal of our work is to raise awareness and change behaviour, to create safer and more accepting environments where people can come through and be successful by truly being themselves.
Aneela continues: “The more cross cultural and diverse we are, the more successful we will become as a business community.
“We need to look at race, ethnicity, discrimination, inclusivity and diversity as a whole collective area.
“Everybody should be judged for a job on the basis of their skills, rather than the colour of their skin, their gender, age or disability.”
For Aneela, who describes herself as a “full-on Geordie” having grown up in the Fenham area of Newcastle, the aims of the commission can be traced all the way back to the days of her father’s early guidance.
“Growing up, I was very fortunate in that I was never made to feel like I was different to anyone else, and my father was a huge inspiration,” says Aneela.
“He had many jobs, which included working in a bread factory, that eventually allowed him to buy and run a local convenience store.
“He served the community for many decades and his endless hard work funded my education at La Sagesse School, in Jesmond, and for my three brothers to get a good education at Durham School too.
“He couldn’t read or write English, but he was very determined to succeed,” continues Aneela of her father, who also managed a successful property portfolio.
“He taught me hard work and determination are the key recipes for success, and that if I wanted anything in life, I just needed to believe in it to achieve it.
“One of the biggest things I learned from him was to always have a positive mindset and that the worst that anyone could say to me was ‘no’.”
As if to prove the value of her father’s advice, Aneela, who studied accountancy at Northumbria University, has built a strong career, despite the challenges of dyslexia.
Now helping propel positive commercial change at London-to- Edinburgh train operator LNER, her employment journey reflects the positive attitude imparted by her father.
After graduating, Aneela, who says she discovered a passion for business and entrepreneurship from a young age, worked in the public sector at organisations including Newcastle City Council and the Gateshead and South Shields primary care trusts.
However, spurred by the motivation instilled during childhood, Aneela vividly recalls the moment she kickstarted her career.
“I’ve always got on with my dreams and gone for it,” she says.
“I remember sitting across the room in one of my first jobs from someone who had been there for years, and I just thought to myself, ‘I can’t be like that’
– I’ve always been too ambitious to be that way.
“After those initial posts, I got an accountancy job at Alstom Power and then moved to GE Oil and Gas as a financial analyst,” continues Aneela, who is also a member of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Women’s Leadership Forum.
“I stayed there three years and while I was there, I finished my accounting exams and got my Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA) qualification.
“I’ve always got the job I’ve wanted and succeeded in what I’ve done, which I think comes from my positive approach and belief that I can achieve anything.”
After leaving GE Oil and Gas for a role with power sector operator ContourGlobal, Aneela then joined Cramlington-based label and packaging maker Avery Dennison before switching to Sage.
However, after three-and-a-half years with the Newcastle-based software operator, Aneela left in 2016, in a move that marked a new route on her career map.
Joining LNER in a commercial capacity, Aneela – who works out of the operator’s Newcastle Central Station offices when in the region – was challenged to think differently and more creatively to strengthen the rail firm’s offer.
Once again, she benefited from the lessons learned during her younger days.
“I remember my interview and being given a rail pass and being asked to come back in a week with a 90-day plan on areas to improve LNER’s service, so I jumped on trains, went off on lots of journeys, worked hard and put my ideas together.
“When I returned, they loved what I had to say and told me I had the right positive attitude.
“Some of the things I put forward, such as free wifi, were already in situ or coming into service, but I also spoke about LNER being a local business.
“When I started, working closely with local businesses and passengers to ensure that we had the right strategy in place was a big part of my role, and that remains the case today.
“One of the highlights of my career at LNER is that I got the chance to build a business case for a fixed-price ticket project, which was about getting families out of their cars and on to trains, and I’m now responsible for a lot more, including how we can bring our customers back to rail safely in the post-COVID-19 world.”
Another element within Aneela’s role at LNER is her support for the business’ ongoing campaign to deepen its talent pool through a number of initiatives, which aim to create a more diverse, inclusive, equal and gender-balanced workforce.
These programmes include a target to raise the number of women in the company to at least 43 per cent of its total headcount by 2022.
Furthermore, LNER works with external partners to promote career opportunities directly to diverse groups, ensures its adverts are gender neutral and uses blind screening to remove bias from the application stage.
It also partners with schools to nurture the next generation of talent, offering T Level work experience placements and an apprenticeship programme.
For Aneela, working for LNER and being part of the operator’s ongoing commitment to diversity and equality means she is perfectly placed to support the future policies of the North East England Chamber of Commerce’s Race, Ethnicity and Discrimination Commission.
“We can do a lot more as a region around diversity and be positive about it,” says Aneela.
“There are so many people who come from different backgrounds and offer so much, but who are not often given the opportunity.
“As a commission, we want to encourage children from a young age to think big and aspire to be good leaders.
“We also want to give people from the black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) community – who often come from deprived backgrounds and don’t have the opportunities to explore their talents – the chance to succeed.
“Additionally, we are looking to mentor the youth to ensure they can fulfil their potential too.
Aneela continues: “The high-profile events over in America, and the resulting campaign that captured the world’s attention earlier this year, have given us all time to pause and think about what we are doing and what we want to be known as, and I am so excited for what we can achieve with the commission.
“Inclusion is about everyone, and through the commission we need to create an environment where we make all opportunities available to everyone, so they can learn, grow and become the best versions of themselves.
“We’ve already had lots of people reaching out to us to say they want to help deliver change through the commission.
“We have great diversity in this region, but to ensure talent comes to the surface we need to nurture it and to do that, we need to hear different views.
“Our blend of cultures here in the North East is fantastic, and I want the commission to be a driving force in celebrating that while championing real change.”