Having left the corporate finance world to launch a podcasting business, Michelle Akhidenor is now taking on an even bigger challenge — using her everyday business practices to improve diversity in the whole media and marketing space. But, she can’t do it alone.
Akhidenor is the founder and chief of podcast production agency The Peers Project, which produces podcasts for brands.
The idea is to offer brands and businesses a way to “intimately connect with their audience”, she tells SmartCompany.
But, she’s also dedicated to showcasing and amplifying diverse voices, and tackling inequality in the huge media marketing sector.
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The way Akhidenor tells it, she “fell into podcasting”, almost by accident. She was working in corporate finance, but felt she needed a creative outlet of sorts.
“I’m quite an energetic person, I’m quite outgoing, and I love meeting and chatting to new people.”
She became interested in the stories of young and upcoming entrepreneurs — think Forbes‘ 30 under 30 list — and started a podcast, chatting to them about the businesses they were building.
“I took it very seriously as my side hustle for a while,” she says.
At the time, she was interviewing entrepreneurs in New York and London as well as in Australia.
She didn’t exactly set out to start a business, but the entrepreneurial spirit must have rubbed off on her, and she took the leap herself.
“I decided to make my business about the one thing I loved the most and knew the best. That was podcasting.”
Now, based in Melbourne, Akhidenor heads up a team of five, plus a few contractors, and The Peers Project produces podcasts for the likes of retailer Forever New and period underwear brand Modibodi.
Of course, the team also still produces the Peers2Peers podcast, hosting conversations with millennial entrepreneurs.
Opening up discussion
Akhidenor is also using her business to tackle a huge issue in her sector, and one that’s close to her heart.
“Put it this way — I’m usually the only woman of colour in the room,” she says.
“When I go and pitch for deals with Aussie brands, and some of the biggest brands in the country, there are lots of women around … it’s just women of colour and people of colour that are really so underrepresented,” she adds.
Naturally, it’s affected her experience as an entrepreneur, she says.
“I often wonder, if we don’t get that deal, is it because I’m different?”
But, with the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests around the world, those not usually directly affected by such inequality are being confronted with it, head on.
“More than before, it’s definitely come to light, which I think is so great. We can finally start tackling this issue properly,” Akhidenor says.
“I feel it’s my duty to step up and ask, ‘how can we even the playing field here?’”
When asked how she feels about carrying that burden of responsibility, Akhidenor admits it can be tough.
“This is going to sound strange, but you get used to it,” she says.
“This is the whole issue. We’re conditioned. It’s just how it is. This is something I live with, and I always have,” she adds.
“Especially when you’re trying to impact an industry … do people even understand what I’m trying to do here?” she asks.
“It’s tough. But I’m so glad that finally, now we have this open discussion. People are really aware, and I’m hoping that the meetings I have in the future are different.”
Story by story
So, how does one business even go about challenging systemic inequality in a whole industry? Bit by bit, and story by story, Akhidenor says.
“We really encourage the brands that we work with to showcase diverse voices and diverse stories,” she explains.
“That means showcasing people of different backgrounds, cultures, heritages.”
Akhidenor herself was host of the podcast The Peers Project made with Forever New, a client she says saw the value of having inclusivity as “part of their brand values”.
“It’s really about highlighting the different experiences and upbringings of the people on the podcasts you’re showcasing, in Australia and around the world,” she says.
For example, Akhidenor’s podcast with Modibodi featured everyday Australians sharing their unique stories of puberty and periods, and the different ways in which people experience those events.
To state the obvious, a podcast is not a visual medium. So, the case for diversity becomes less about the optics, and more about the diversity of stories and backgrounds.
For Akhidenor, that makes it all the more important.
“It’s looking at actually getting more people of colour and people of different cultures and backgrounds onto the podcast … and also having the diversity in the podcast concept and the stories that are told,” she says.
“The stories are from the perspective of a person, based on their cultural heritage and upbringing, so it’s so important that they’re clearly stated, and not just put to the background or left to the side.”
But there’s more work to be done, and it can’t all come down to Akhidenor and The Peers Project.
It’s also up to all Aussie businesses, organisations, brands and media outlets to consider diversity of representation, even when the headlines have moved on.
There’s a responsibility here, Akhidenor says.
“When you see magazine covers, or when you jump on social media platforms and when you go to the brands that you want to buy from … We look at certain brands we think certain things,” she says.
“They play a huge role in shaping our society.”
These organisations have to make a long-term commitment to long-term change, Akhidenor argues.
And that commitment has to be written down, as a real business policy or plan.
“With those measures put in place, and the brands and the publications and the organisations committing to long-term plans — a commitment that’s written down and mapped out — then it’s far more likely to be executed,” she says.
“It needs to be policy. It needs to be a proper, legitimised commitment, that the brand or the organisation is willing to make,” she adds.
“Once there’s a push for that written commitment, and a policy in place, then things will start to change.”