A Conversation with Kim Smouter

Kim Smouter, Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee for ESOMAR, sits down with Eyes4Research CEO Rudly Rapahel in a wide-ranging conversation about the lessons he has learned in his career, his role with ESOMAR, and his mission to achieve racial equality in Europe.

What did you want to do professionally when you were younger? How did you end up on your current career path?

When I was young, I wanted to be a cardiologist. When I was a teenager, I realized that I get queasy with blood and I hate dead bodies. And at that point, I decided I want to be an ambassador. I felt like my international background, my mixed-race heritage, and the fact that I lived in different places, probably made me suited to the role of an ambassador.  I moved back to Europe and ended up learning a bit more about that.

I ended up doing European affairs and European public administration as part of my studies and ended up in that space essentially. So I started working for the European Parliament and then moved on. I was also quite committed to the concept of non-discrimination and making sure that those that are left behind have a central place, politics, that type of stuff. So I started there. When this role was announced, it sounded like the kind of role for me. So, I’m doing what I always hoped I would be doing in later years and I’ve already reached a significant career milestone. I’m very happy about that.

What has been the most important lesson you’ve learned in your career?

Learning to listen– really listening to others.  Whichever role you are in, you’ll always have a variety of stakeholders you have to work with. And the thing I’ve learned is to find a way to understand where different stakeholders are coming from and to be a neutral interlocutor so that each of these different perspectives can be heard and valued for what they bring to the table. That’s really what I’ve learned in all of my roles– the importance of diplomacy, in essence.

Is there someone you consider to be an influential figure in your life?

There have been many.  My father for sure. I still refer to my father a lot for advice, and as a sounding board. So he has been a strong influence.  My mother as well. I feel that my sense of diplomacy and my sense of purpose very much come from her and her life experiences.

But I’ve also had some incredible mentors throughout my life. When I was a teenager, I started a  nonprofit organization, and people with a lot of experience supported me. There was a guy named Glenn who passed away from cancer about five years ago. He taught me about strategic planning, how to organize and run a charity, how to go through all the legal aspects around it, how to build a good statute, how to run a board of directors, and those types of things. I’ve had a lot of people like that throughout my career and in life who have helped to build my skills and to help me get to where I’m at today.

How do you deal with failure?

I spent a lot of time in the U.S. In the U.S., you learn to celebrate failure and actually admit it. The U.S. has a culture of trial and learning. So if you try something, you fail. You try again. Fail, try again. You learn from it, and you fail again. And you know, it’ll take 4 or 568 times, but at some point, you’ll get it right. And none of those failures is anything to be ashamed of. It is something to learn from, and that’s something that is addictive. I was in Silicon Valley, and it’s baked into the society there. And it’s also baked into the education system there, as well. It really influenced me in terms of how I design projects, how I execute them, and how I have no fear when I try to do something.

And on the flip side of that spectrum, how do you measure success?

I take a lot of pleasure in what I consider to be the real moments where I succeeded in what I’m trying to set out to do. It goes back to my commitment to making sure that people who are left behind are at the center. So whether it be with ESOMAR,  for example, or other places, success has always been about whether I can help people who would have otherwise not been in the room.  For me, it’s about creating bridges between worlds that may not understand each other, and ensuring that each of those worlds learns to understand each other and learns to respect the value that they can bring to other people’s work. Success is when you can bring these different worlds together towards a common purpose, a common understanding, and a real willingness to move forward together.

What is your superpower in business?

I’m allergic to trends. Just because something is trendy, doesn’t mean that’s where we’re gonna go. I’m probably gonna say okay, so we’re gonna go the other way, which is completely different. I guess maybe that is my superpower.  I’m always the person who will be an early adopter of new things, who will try to find new ways of doing things, trying to find new ways of engaging people, new projects, etc. That’s really what I love to do. And I love to kind of push people towards being more innovative, being less fearful of change– embrace it, and perhaps it won’t work out, but that journey will make us grow so much altogether. Yes, that’s my superpower- seeing gaps where people might not even notice them and filling them with something new.

There’s a saying that most people you’ve made a career in the MR industry sort of stumbled upon it. In your case, did you stumble upon being in the space?

It was less of a stumble and more the fact that I was headhunted.  The weird thing is that the role had been advertised, and I remember looking at it and thinking that it felt very research-oriented and very academic. I originally passed on it completely, and then I was re-contacted. I discovered ESOMAR, which is at such an interesting intersection between promoting doing business, promoting how to read the market, how to make more money, how to sell more, etc. However, at the same time, having a strong ethical backbone as well. It’s this idea that we’re here not to screw people. We’re here to empower people. And we’re here to try to find the right balance between commercial interests and the interests of people. I have to find that thing that fits my moral compass, but at the same time, it is interesting as well.

For those who don’t know about ESOMAR, give us a little bit of background, and how has it benefited its members in market research?

ESOMAR  is an organization that was established in 1948 after the war. For those who don’t know or might not remember the war, one of the things that made the Holocaust possible was this collection of data by the states, which was essentially us against lots of communities. And so, when the war ended, there was a need to understand where people stood on things.  The market research sector grew out of that. But there was a huge piece of work to do to build public trust and confidence that the data isn’t going to be used against them. That’s essentially the role that ESOMAR played in the early days and continues to play today. It was a place for the industry to discuss how to maintain public trust and confidence as an essential ingredient to making successful market research work.

Fast forward to 75 years later, and that mission still stays true. And I think it’s probably more relevant than ever before– to maintain public trust and confidence. Digital tech players are undermining that trust, and there are all kinds of scandals about how data is being misused. ESOMAR is trying to guide businesses to state it just right, and at the same time have a safe space to exchange new ideas and innovations. The fact that ESOMAR is global, also enables global best practice sharing to happen and there are very few organizations around the world that can do that.

Describe your role with ESOMAR. What part of it do you enjoy the most?

I left ESOMAR earlier this year as a paid staff member, having worked for 10 years as the Head of Public Affairs and Professional Standards, and then later on as Head of Marketing. And for me, what I’ve always found enriching is making the case on behalf of the industry as to why the industry matters to society. And that was always a reality, it was always great to be able to educate stakeholders like public officials because I thought about what market research brings to society, whether it be helping businesses to succeed, keeping employment going, and helping governments understand what citizens are looking for from them.

Being able to bring the voices and the challenges that market researchers are experiencing day in and day out into the public sphere is always powerful. Now we have a new role at ESOMAR, which is the Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee. So I’m still in the same space, but I have a slightly different role and my role as Chair of the Legal Affairs Committee is to make sure that our Legal Affairs Committee operates and monitors legislation, and we guide the industry to remain legally compliant, but also to anticipate new discussions which might impact the way we do research in the future.

What has ESOMAR done to boost the rules of people of color in the market research industry?

That’s the reason I originally left ESOMAR– this is an important topic.  I went to work for another organization, the European Network Against Racism (ENAR). It’s the Pan-European voice for communities, which are racialized. That means you need to speak up for Black communities, Jewish communities, Muslim communities, Roma, and Muslim people. So, really, a broad range of people, who are what we call racialized. Basically, society ascribes to them certain characteristics to the detriment of those communities. The reason I came back to those roots wasn’t because of that. It’s about the work that we were doing at ESOMAR around DE&I.  We were getting more interest from the membership, to start exploring and looking at how we could support some of the Black Lives Matter momentum within the understanding of what we as a global industry could do in this space.

Together with the council, we organized a whole series of community circles, for open discussions within the industry to talk about the challenges that we as an industry face, but also we have been pleased to help move the discussions forward. We had discussions on things like how we do inclusive research, how to properly execute the questions you ask, how you ensure a nationally representative sample, and stuff like that. But we also then look at things around how we make our companies think. Things like recruitment strategies, and retention strategies, to ensure that the organization has a safe space for people, but then we also explored things like how we as market researchers explore and collect all kinds of information about the state of our societies. What role can we play to raise awareness around where society is on DE&I topics and to make the information available for advocates representing these groups to be much more present?

So I think about how research can be a useful ally in the cause of anti-racism.  We have to deal with the fact that countries are at very different stages of computation. And you also have models of how to do diversity inclusion. So as a global community, we’re trying to balance out different best practices and to collate and share as much as we can, not just from the usual suspects of the U.S., and the UK, but also the rest of the world as well.

Outside of ESOMAR. What should companies do to help people of color gain entry into market research?

I think there’s a whole range of things that businesses can do. Some of it is quite simple. It’s looking at your recruitment strategies, it’s looking at your personnel profiles– having a hard look and not accepting a workforce that is 98 percent white. And clearly, that means asking where are we recruiting these people from. What are the questions that we’re asking? Who is sitting on the panels that are selecting people? How do we ensure that we’re not recruiting people that look like, sound like us and have the same profiles as us? Because that’s the kind of thing that leads to exclusion in businesses.

We also have things around people that we call quality data collection. So companies are taking time to track the performance of their DE&I strategies. Having a DE&I strategy in the first place must be a starting point, but also making sure that they have performance measurements attached to each metric, so you’re keeping track of how things are evolving and moving forward.  One of the things that keeps coming back again and again at conferences where we talk about how we tackle systemic anti-racism is that we lack data. We lack information about people, the composition we’re experiencing, etc. And I think here there’s a real role that the industry can play in making more data available. It’s even studies that somehow address the topics of diversity and inclusion, making that available to everyone and highlighting that this is accessible. Those are the kinds of things that will solve our equality gap. This is preventing a lot of anti-racism policies to be put forward.

The last point I would say is also reaching out within your local communities to organizations that are working on anti-racism because they need help. They’re under-resourced. They often lack funding and lack the manpower to do the important work that they do. But secondly, I think, from a self-interested perspective, it’s also a good way to build your pipeline. So if you are in the 98 percent white, middle-class male workforce, having these contact points within local communities and building that relationship of trust can also mean that the organizations can help you and your recruiter share information of profiles that she may not even have access to. So I think that long-term investments in local community engagement can also be invaluable and can help ensure that we have strong resilient communities.

What do you think needs to change in the workplace? There’s change at the organizational level and is there change at the individual level.

So you have interpersonal racism, you have structural racism, and then you have systemic racism. To tackle all three of them, you need action on all levels. And when it comes to interpersonal racism, it’s interesting. I was speaking to Google yesterday about this. We were discussing the fact that some people are just scared of it. You get very much to a point where you feel like you’re walking on so many eggshells that you don’t speak up because you’re worried you might offend.

That’s the moment you as an individual, as an ally, can speak up and say, “Wait a second. Before we continue this conversation, there are people missing from this room for whom this is a direct concern. How do we get them into this conversation?” Challenge your bosses to improve that situation. So I think speaking up is important. Researching, learning and exploring, and providing that support is very important. Also, find ways that you can support those who are from these communities to be heard, and heard often. It’s being aware of your privilege and using it in the service of those who don’t have that privilege. That’s a thing that individuals can do. It really helps.

You talk about speaking up, but do you think that people of color in these organizations sometimes have a fear of speaking up?

I think so. I think there is fear, absolutely. How do you create safe spaces for people who have always been in fear? In our societies, you never know when you’re allowed to speak up and if you speak up how much backlash you’re gonna get.  If you have colleagues who are people of color, you should be aware of the kind of reality that they face, outside of work and inside of work, and that often, they have three responses– fight, flight, or freeze, and very often, we will choose the flight or the freeze aspect.  It’s important to be sensitive to that silence and not let that silence fester, or assume that the silence is agreement.

I would also say the challenge, in particular, is also this assumption that this is something that has to always be driven by those who are directly concerned. So this idea that it’s up to the victim to somehow solve this problem. It’s unfortunate that, often, the people who are in charge of DE&I programs will always be racialized people who have to do it on their own. They’re often under-resourced, and somehow, a one-person shop is supposed to magically fix this problem for companies, and I think that’s an unfair expectation. So, again, if colleagues see that these programs are under-resourced, speak up about the fact that they’re under-resourced, or at least offer to provide some helping hands. Be so active on this basis. That’s something that can make a difference.

What is ENAR doing to address some of the problems regarding diversity and inclusion in the workplace?

Quite a lot. It’s similar to ESOMAR. We do a lot of lobbying and advocacy work at the European level to try to see if the ban on discrimination in the workplace can be further strengthened and extended. We also do a lot of lobbying work around what are called National Action Plans Against Racism. So across the entire European Union, each country is expected to adopt the National Action Plan, which is a comprehensive action plan covering all different spaces where racism exists, and to develop actions to solve problems that systematically address these points. So that’s on the advocacy side.

On the workplace side, we launched a program called Equal at Work–  it’s nearly 10 years old, and is essentially our efforts to build a bridge between the anti-racist movements and business. And what we do in Equal at Work is provide the expertise of the anti-racist movements for businesses to inform, strengthen, and critique the DE&I  programs that the companies have.  We bring companies that have those programs together to learn from each other as well as work together. We do it on behalf of companies. So Equal at Work is a mechanism for that. And one of my priorities as Director General of ENAR is to grow this program and take it to the next level. Using the knowledge that I have gained from the U.S. and the UK.

Is there anything specific that you are most proud of when it comes to your work with ENAR so far?

We’re doing some really interesting work at the moment on trying to help foster new partnerships between the local and regional authorities and for local regional grassroots organizations. It’s interesting to create these lofty pan-European ideals, but how do you actually translate them down to a neighborhood level where they become national action plans and become tools that local communities can use to empower themselves and to force a change in their communities? That’s something I’m very proud of.

The other thing I’m very proud of is the way we reacted very quickly to what was happening in Ukraine. So you might remember that in the early days of the war, when you had the first wave of refugees– there was a very different kind of reaction from the EU, to a white Ukrainian refugee, compared to refugees, which were from African origins, being locked up at the border or even being sent back into Ukraine, because they somehow weren’t entitled to the same levels of protection. In our work, we focused quite heavily on making sure that first of all, this reality was being seen by the media. And second of all, making sure that politicians are being held to account to ensure that the borders were not proving to be new sources of racism, quite overt, blatant racism. So, those were two things that I’m very proud of.

What is your favorite book?

It’s a book called Rainbow High. It’s a coming-of-age story written by a guy named Alex Sanchez, a Latin-American author. It’s a story about coming out in high school. And it’s the story that had a huge impact on me because back at that time, being a gay teenager was very difficult. And there were so many positive stories about it. And Rainbow High was talked about a few times. And I have to say I also had a very supportive school that allowed me to invite Alex Sanchez to come to our school to talk about his book. It was a book that had a huge impact on me and I still remember it fondly. So that’s kind of a more identity-forming kind of book. It’s a nice read as well. It’s a nice easy read. The other one is called Team, it’s more science-fiction, military kind of stuff. I like books for entertainment and escapism.

If you had to step back 20 years, what would you have done differently, knowing what you know now?

That’s a good question.  I think I would have had perhaps the guts to launch a startup. When I was a teenager, I think I had this idea that business was evil, making money was evil, and therefore I never wanted to go into that space. And, so, I quickly turned away from business. Still, I think I could have potentially been a good entrepreneur and I had some interesting ideas around technology that we probably could have made. I think embracing my entrepreneurial side sooner would be something I would change. I’m so happy with my career and the employees I work with. I’ve had the opportunity to grow and learn. I wouldn’t change those things.

Finally, who is Kim Smouter?

Kim is somebody who likes to laugh. Somebody who loves passionately, somebody who feels immensely, and somebody who regardless of what it is, has to be 150% in it. So I’m the type of person who can’t just be passively involved in something and I’m more than committed to whatever it might be. So whether it be sports, whether it be activism, whether it be in work, that’s the kind of person I am, and I think I’m the product of globe-trotting, multi-ethnicity, and all those types of things. I’m very much a product of being an individual melting pot.

As we conclude our interview with Kim, we are reminded that DE&I is an important issue in every industry, including market research.  As should also be the case in every industry, the workforce needs to reflect the world outside of the offices, and there is a lot of work left to be done to achieve that goal. Work that will need to be done by all parties involved, starting with the C-suite.