Q&A with Anita Bhalla OBE, Chair of Performances Birmingham Ltd, Town Hall and Symphony Hall
As well as other notable positions, Anita Bhalla OBE is currently Chair of Performances Birmingham Ltd (Town Hall and Symphony Hall), board member of the Greater Birmingham and Solihull LEP and Chair of WMCA Leadership Commission which was set up by Mayor Andy Street and WMCA to research and comprehensively report on the deficit in the diversity of Leaders in the West Midlands. Anita also enjoyed a successful 26-year media career with the BBC.
Why did you initially choose a career in the media?
I did not choose a career in the media, it found me! I was involved in setting up one of the first Asian Women’s hostels in the country and this became a very controversial issue. Some Asian men demanded my sacking for daring to set up such a hostel and racist groups insisted that the hostel should not open. I offended them all but for a good cause! My work was featured in a BBC programme which then followed with many offers for radio presenting roles. Initially I turned them down but eventually I took up a freelance radio offer and learnt my skills on the job.
What’s the best piece of advice you have received (in life or work) and from whom?
There are two pieces of advice I value. The first is to always have a plan but don’t let your plan shackle you. Remember if plan A doesn’t work then be prepared to go to plan B or C and if necessary the rest of the alphabet until you succeed. This combined with generosity, humility and a sense of humour are what matters the most to me. These values have been instilled in me by my parents and from my childhood friend’s mother.
How do you think Birmingham has changed over the last decade?
I grew up in Birmingham and I’ve seen it change over time but in this last decade, the city has ‘grown-up’. Physically you cannot ignore the infrastructure and the amount of investment that has gone into the city. This has had an impact on our psyche and aspirations and we have stopped seeing ourselves as a poor relation to other cities. We are beginning to have a pride in our place and people, despite the many challenges which still face us around social disadvantage and cohesion. We are increasingly defining ourselves and not letting others do it for us.
How important do you think creativity and the arts are to our city?
Arts and creativity have played a great role in the regeneration of our city. We have attracted millions in inward investment with companies relocating here because they recognise the quality of life that is on offer in Birmingham, and the arts have certainly contributed to that. In Birmingham, our culture and creative sectors punch well above their weight not only locally and regionally but also on the global stage. For example we have a rich musical heritage.
Not only do we have the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra (CBSO), our heavy metal scene is still buzzing, built on the tradition of the 70s with bands such as Black Sabbath and Led Zeppelin. Birmingham’s popular music heritage includes the likes of UB40, Duran Duran, Steel Pulse and we still have a strong underground music culture. We also can't forget Bhangra, we grew it here and then imported it across the world, even India! We must continue to make our arts accessible to all our communities and not just those who can afford it.
Why do you think there is such a significant leadership diversity gap in the West Midlands and why is it important to change this?
Our Leadership Commission identified a range of barriers which stand in the way of diverse and inclusive leadership. These barriers can be found at societal, organisational, Institutional and individual levels. We found a tendency to recruit and promote in one’s own image, stereotyping, exclusion form informal networks, lack of mentoring and role models and a lot more. I recommend readers look into the full report on this issue on the West Midlands Combined Authority website for a more detailed insight into the issue.
What barrier (if any) have you ever faced in your career and how did you overcome this?
In my early years at the BBC, being a woman was not easy and being an Asian woman was even harder. When I started broadcasting, the only Asian women we saw were on the Hindi/Urdu Asian programmes so there was a real lack of role models. The newsroom I entered into was male dominated with no women in editorial positions or positions of power. I was also carrying a brief, Community Affairs, which was unpalatable to some. The wider BBC also had an Oxbridge bias which in a small way I helped to break when I set up the Asian Network in the West Midlands, I recruited people who were like me.
If there was any piece of advice you would give to your younger self, what would that be?
You may find this hard to believe but my younger self was not at all confident. I wish I had been earlier on in my career!
Finally, what is the best or most memorable concert, show or event that you’ve enjoyed in Birmingham during the last year?
I couldn’t possibly name just one! In April, during the snow, I went to Symphony Hall to see Satinder Sartaj, it was terrific. Satinder, the hall and the people made it a very memorable event. My other event took place in June at the Town Hall which was packed with school children performing for the Windrush Celebrations. They were so energetic and it was great to see them take ownership of the hall and stage!