In Conversation: Gymshark’s Elfried Samba on social media, diversity and making a legacy | Leah Mahon
Since it’s humble beginnings in a teenage boy’s bedroom in 2012, Gymshark has catapulted to become Britain’s fastest growing fitness apparel and accessories brand. With communities across an array of social networks, like Instagram and Tik Tok, they have grown their following of 1.5 million to over 12.6 million engaged consumers across 131 countries.
In a time like this, as we waver on the edge of a revolution, and where diversity policies become an epicentre of the path to equality, the Gymshark brand only continues to appeal to millions of people around the world without one.
Amidst the follower counts, perfectly framed pictures and tongue and cheek captions, is their Head of Social Content, Elfried Samba. He tells me that he was always striving for something special in the topsy-turvy world of social media marketing. - “I had 15 or 20 interviews after graduating, and the reason that I didn’t get those roles was not because they didn’t think I was adequate for the role,” he says.It was because I told them that social media was going to be a thing, and that they needed to stop doing that current way of working and start to consider that the world is going digital. But they didn’t want to change…Gymshark was born in an era that had the same mentality to the change in digital.”
That teenage boy’s bedroom was Gymshark’s founder, Ben Francis, who was just 19 years-old when the brand came into fruition. Through him, Elfried tells me that implementing diversity in the organisation has never had to be a thing, because it was just always a thing.
But before joining the social media tide, Congolese-born Elfried almost embarked on a once told “African son story,” as he considered becoming a doctor similar to his dad, and a career in investment banking before the economic crash in 2008 took hold.
But after graduating from the University of Wolverhampton with a first-class degree in Marketing Management, Elfried’s vision and what he wanted to do was clear.
“I was actually really inspired by a keynote by Steve Jobs,” he recalls. “He is still one of the most inspirational and influential people till this day; when he presented the iPhone for the first time and the way that he did it,” I said to myself that’s what I wanted to do. Shortly afterwards, the Mark Zuckerberg story came out and I was exposed to the world of social media.”
Somehow, he took these two worlds and felt there was a niche somewhere in between that he could collide together. He set himself on a path to becoming the best social media marketer on the planet, but soon learnt that along the way he needed to be a part of the best social media marketing team on the planet for a legacy to be made. At Gymshark, the team has always been highly diverse and that has since been forever evolving; it has always been about hiring based on talent. As the organisation develops, Elfried has made peace with the fact that at 28-years-old, he can no longer be the voice of the target audience as Generation Z takes precedence, especially in the realms of social media. Young university graduates with fresh, and alternative perspectives are the organisation’s newest and most frequent recruits.
Elfried concedes that, “As we’ve grown, every single department and that every single entity of the business requires different skills. Particularly in the social media marketing team; the people in that team have to reflect the people that are going to be receiving that content - we can’t have somebody that’s not involved in the culture if you could say.”
For Elfried and the rest of the team, having a “world view as opposed to a local view” is one of the biggest forces behind Gymshark’s inherent diversity successes.
As the Covid-19 lockdown set in, they changed Gymshark to Homeshark and shared their commitment to supporting the black community as the Black Lives Matter movement gained momentum across the world. In a time where organisations are having some difficult conversations, and others engaging in performative ally-ship, Elfried understands that achieving true diversity – or now being called anti-racism - can be a long and slippery slope. “It goes twofold,” he tells me, “just because you have a stamp of approval [with a diversity and inclusion policy], it’s there because it’s probably been paid for and that suddenly means that you’re the real deal. I feel that there are people that care about it, and people that are there for positive PR and don’t care about the topic. I don’t agree that somebody should get a role because of the colour of skin, but I do agree that people should be given the opportunity to get into the room.”
The room had four black people in it during the early days of Gymshark, and Elfried was one of them. The organisation realise they need to do more; they have donated $125,000 to BLM, they now have a community calendar and not just a commercial one, staff education is now a priority and they continue to work on diversifying the entire organisation by ensuring that more BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) people can get into the room. Conversations with black staff members about personal experiences with racism have ensued. It’s something that is rather a systemic strategy for long term impact, rather than a reactive one, says Elfried. It’s a refreshing alternative in the weird, world of social media impulsivity.
As a black man that is leading the department for one of the biggest brands of the last eight years, Elfried tells me that he’s holding himself personally accountable to make that change for everyone. Though experiencing racism through something he calls at “face value,” and of course indirectly, experiencing the pressures of not feeding into the angry black person trope or the race card throughout his life, to continue to be “the people’s brand”. He is also working on uplifting and representing other marginalised groups such as in gender, sexuality, age and men and women’s body image as the organisation grows.
His one message stands out the most. As the followers increase and the revolution simmers, Elfried is clear on what he wants to see change:
He wants the black community to come together and support each other. Buying from each other’s businesses and words of encouragement on the way to the top. He wants us to not keep having the same conversation, he says that we’ve been having for the last 40 years or so, but for the black community to start taking things into their own hands when no one wants us in the room.
To start having the real, hard conversations with each other, and the sheer self-belief in our talents to exude and excel. “I’m proud that I was able to be open-minded enough and naïve enough to think that I could do something with myself. My personal goal is for people to look towards me and not see me, but see themselves. To remove any beliefs or barriers that people have and go do it themselves.”
He makes sure to tell me that doesn’t make him special in any way -“I just believe in myself,” he says. “You can do the same for yourself, and if I can light that spark for someone, that is more than I could ask for.” With over 12 million followers across 131 countries and counting, Elfried’s sparks are just beginning to dazzle.
This article was wrriten by Leah Mahon, a budding writer, Journalism graduate and blogger.