The Big Interview with Saffron Demel-Espeute

For Procurement Heads‘ latest Big Interview Saffron spoke with Hayley Packham and shared more about her career and why she created Black in Procurement.

I currently work in the public sector, looking after business process outsourcing as a Category Lead.

Prior to that my experience was in banking where I was a Sourcing Manager looking after the management consultancy category. 

So, my relatively short procurement career has been mainly based on professional services.

I have been in procurement for just over three years now but have really enjoyed my time in it and have learnt so much and am very excited to see where my career goes.

Watch Hayley’s conversation with Saffron here

How did you get into procurement?

I think my story is relatively common in that I fell into it. 

I was on a graduate scheme in my time in banking. 

On my fourth placement, I wanted to take charge of my own career and said that I wanted really specific experience working with external stakeholders.

Before that, I had been in internal risk, colleague engagement and very specific anti-money laundering teams. 

It was all very niche and very internally focused and I wanted to ensure that I could engage with people outside of the bank and represent the brand and ensure I put the right information out to the right people. 

I took that to one of the Directors and said I wanted to get that external stakeholder management experience, they said that sourcing sounded like a great place to do that – I had no idea what it was! 

I turned up on my first day and my Manager was talking to me about RFPs, RFIs and RFQs and I was like, ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about, I have a lot to learn here’, but actually the role was really interesting and it is a testament as I am still in the procurement environment now. 

I really enjoyed my time; I joined the team as an Assistant Sourcing Manager and was then promoted to Sourcing Manager and worked my way up to Category Lead where I am now in the public sector.

How have you found the difference between banking and the public sector as they are very different domains?

They are very different, but also very similar in that the risk management, the complexity just how big it is. 

I mean, of course, nothing could have prepared me from going to a bank, which is quite a big establishment to the public sector and government, which I hadn’t really appreciated how big it was before I was in it! 

The function of government and how everyone makes decisions within it I hadn’t really appreciated that either, so I did have quite a steep learning curve in terms of picking out everything in terms of how it works but at the same time understanding procurement regulations as to how things are bought in government is not the same as how things are bought in the private sector. 

That was interesting and I think I had a big responsibility when I came in as it was quite a lot to learn in the six months I was in the role but it was really interesting. 

I am a person who learns by doing anyway so it was a great experience.  I am still in the team now and still have a lot to learn but I am sure that will continue wherever I go.  

What are you most passionate about when it comes to procurement?

For me, it is all about building relationships with both internal and external stakeholders and obviously, internally you know the whole of government really so it is really understanding what the Buyers’ requirements are. 

In my role I act as more advisory in terms of supporting people with their requirements and their procurement so it is just getting a detailed understanding of what it is, supporting them with that and providing them with good advice. 

I am passionate about upskilling and ensuring that I am an expert in the area in which I work. It is about being able to sell the knowledge and experience that I have gained with internal stakeholders. 

I think the key to good procurement is external stakeholder relationships as well I am really passionate about building those relationships and making sure we are working with suppliers in the best way possible way to ensure we are working in a strategic manner.

How was that throughout the pandemic?

I actually joined this role during the pandemic, so I joined in September 2020, which was an experience in itself, there was a lot to earn. 

Before the pandemic, and this role, I had always been in person in terms of relationship-building meeting face-to-face, a lot of it was done virtually as well but there was a lot more face-to-face interaction which makes things easier. 

Coming into this role in the pandemic did test my skills in terms of relationship-building in a virtual environment., but I think because of the technology we have at the moment and everyone just pulling together and getting stuck in I found that actually, it has been quite easy to build those relationships in this virtual environment, because we have had to essentially! 

It was for the greater good so I personally found it a lot easier. 

I must admit I don’t miss waking up at 5 am and getting on a train! I do like the flexibility of being able to meet people online like yourself and having this conversation.

What are your key achievements in your career to date?

I would say it has definitely been in this role in particular in relation to one of the procurements I have delivered in this role. 

I think coming in completely new to the public sector without that prior experience but getting on board with all of the information, processes and working with a tight-knit team to get something quite high profile and quite complicated over the line has personally been one of my biggest achievements.

I mentioned it in the recent International Women’s Day blog in a quote about imposter syndrome, having the feeling that you’re not good enough or that something is going to go wrong but actually when you deliver something you have got it there tangibly done it is over the line and people are using the framework that you have put in place essentially it is just a really validating feeling and I know you shouldn’t seek that all the time. 

But, for me, it confirmed that I do know what I am doing, I have the skills and the knowhow to do my job. That is my proudest achievement.

What advice would you give someone starting out their procurement career?

I think my biggest thing is just the networking piece, I wouldn’t have gotten into procurement without having built a relationship with my Director who said to me I should try this role and see if it is something that would give me the skills I wanted. 

It is all about meeting new people, trying different things and seeing where your passion lies and what you are good at. 

Procurement is so flexible because you can try so many different things, there are so many different categories. 

If one category isn’t floating your boat you can go and try somewhere else. That might be exactly where you see your career progressing, there are such a wealth of opportunities even if it isn’t on the actual buying side there are so many different things you can try.

I am obviously yet to do lots of different things, but I am so excited in terms of trying different roles and broadening my experience.

It is just network, talk to people and see what it is you would like to do and go for it!

You are the founder of Black In Procurement an online community, could you tell us a little more about it?

Black in Procurement is my brainchild which was launched in October 2021, during Black History Month. 

I’d had the idea for a while but my internal imposter syndrome held me back from going for it and seeing where it goes.

The network itself has key three aims, one is to connect people in the community. There is a number of black people working in the procurement scene but from my experience sometimes I have been the only black person in the room. 

So it is a safe space for people to come together in the community to share knowledge, share experiences and ideas and challenges and have those conversations in a virtual room of people that had similar challenges or can learn from each other. 

The second point is that I really want to raise awareness of what procurement and supply are. At a school and university level as you say there are some universities that do good courses on it but actually before that everyone goes out and buys stuff but people don’t realise that actually you can do that as a job. 

I want to raise awareness that procurement exists as a career choice and it is a really good job, there are so many skills you can gain here and particularly in my community when I try to explain what I do for a living to people I do get quite a few blank faces and I really want to change that and ensure people are aware of the opportunity. 

I think the third key aim for the community is to inspire people – whether that is through mentoring programmes or sponsorship, things like that are really key to progressing in your career. 

That is a key focus for me in terms of that inspirational piece, supplying role models to people in the community as well so that they can see that other people have done it and I can also do that too. 

A while ago I heard the quote, ‘You can’t be what you can’t see’ and to some extent in terms of that quote it does make it harder or people have a journey to go on to be the first person to go on but if you can see that someone else has done it, brilliant. 

You can see that someone else has been on that journey you can ask them how they did it, get that insight and get that knowledge and incorporate that into your own journey and make it easier. That is really what I want to do in terms of the inspiring piece.

In terms of the idea for the community, I came across it as I was looking for a network and I couldn’t find one, not in the UK anyway in terms of a community of black people specifically working in procurement.

I know procurement is a bit of a niche but I couldn’t find something specific to the black community and professionals working in there so I thought I may as well create something that I can benefit from too.

And that can actually benefit the entire community. 

It is still in its infancy; it is about six months old and it is only me at the moment I am involved in so many other things in terms of Inclusion and Diversity I am passionate about it from a working perspective as well. I do a lot internally at work and am doing this outside of work, I am doing my CIPS currently as well as the day job! 

There are a few plates spinning at the moment but it is one of my passions and I am excited to see where it goes this year. 

How do people join the network?

You can find us on LinkedIn we do have a membership form that you can complete and you will be added to our distribution list and you will be invited to our events. 

We also have an Instagram page, it is @blackinprocurement, those are the two main platforms that we are using at the moment in terms of expansion of the network I would like to be on more platforms but that is what I would like to do in the short-medium term that is what I would like to do to get our message out there much more but for now LinkedIn and Instagram. 

Can you give us a taste of what is to come?

Yes, we have events throughout the year I had a really interesting conversation about an event I am looking to put on, it has come off the back of another event where a conversation steered towards supplier diversity. 

In terms of other things that we are going to be doing, we would like to ensure that our emails are valuable to people so sharing interesting content and also collaborate with other networks and career development platforms as well to ensure we are sharing knowledge that everyone can benefit from. 

What are you doing in terms of business regarding ED&I, and what advice would you give people looking at where to start?

I am not an ED&I expert, to be honest, I do it as a passion but where I am at the moment, I am the race equality network chair and I am also leading a development programme designed for individuals of ethnic minority heritage in the commercial space. 

I think in terms of diversifying procurement teams it is all about not being afraid to make mistakes really, I think because it is so taboo people are scared and back away from having the conversation. 

I think if we can just be open, honest, and transparent you know ask the questions and have the conversations and ensure that others feel comfortable having that conversation and then you start to build that inclusive environment. 

I always say that inclusion should come before diversity. You don’t want to have a diverse workforce that doesn’t feel included.

It is about building that culture where people feel comfortable to bring their whole self to work and then implement metrics around what you are looking to do from a diversity perspective then including those people within your organisation who are passionate or want to make a difference in that journey as well to make sure you have different viewpoints and different people who are able to support that journey through to a more diverse workforce. 

That is my personal opinion. 

Action needs to be taken so we are not just waiting for it to magically happen.

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