What was life like growing up for you?
I grew up in Lagos in Nigeria and when I was about six or seven my mum left to move to the UK for work. I joined her when I was 12, and before the move, I had never actually left Lagos let alone Nigeria, so it was a big adjustment.
High school was a bit of a struggle for me. I wouldn’t say I was outwardly bullied, but I didn’t feel like I belonged as I was one of two African students in the school, and my strong African accent didn’t make it easier.
It was during college and university and seeing that there was such a diverse group of nationalities among the students, that I really felt that I started to feel more comfortable in myself.
What were your experiences of the workplace when you first started out in your career as a CA?
I wanted to be a chartered accountant since I was 12, so that was always the path for me.
It wasn’t until I started my first role at one of the Big 4 in the UK that those feelings of not belonging started to creep back in again. Out of over 250 new joiners who started with me, there was only one other African.
Walking into the office on my first day was a bittersweet experience for me. On the one hand, this was the first day of the career I had worked towards since I was 12, and on the other, I was very aware that no one else looked like me. I didn’t feel I could fully live in the moment and enjoy it.
However, I spent six years in that role in London and I enjoyed every second of it. I had an amazing team and managers, and this was during a time where there wasn’t as much of a push towards diversity as there is today.
You are now based in the Middle East, working in a senior role for a bank. How does that environment compare to the one you had in London?
Throughout my career in London, I had a sense that I deserved to be where I was.
I think I received the shock of my life when I moved here.
I am an African woman in a senior position; that is really unheard of here.
Whilst in my current role, I am treated as an equal within the organisation. However, when I first moved here, I was in a consultancy role and the attitude towards me was very different.
In this part of the world, quite a lot of the black and African women who live here have certain jobs such as domestic help (nannies/maids) so I’m often stereotyped as a result. I have been in situations where my male clients in senior roles have assumed I have attended a meeting in a secretarial capacity, only for my male colleagues to correct them stating that I am actually their boss. And that is not necessarily down to the colour of my skin, more the fact that I am a woman and in a senior position.
I have had people say to me “Why are you working? Shouldn’t you be at home with your children? What does your husband do?” alluding to me working or choosing to have a career is for financial aid only.
How important is it for black people to have role models within the world of businesses?
This is something that I have consistently struggled with throughout my career as it is very difficult to aspire to be more in an organisation where there is a limited amount of people who look like you. I think that is something that a lot of minority people could relate to.
This makes it difficult for me, as a black woman, to find a mentor who can truly understand and relate to the experiences I have had and the challenges I face due to my race and gender.
I’ve gone through phases in my career where my motivation has faltered. I feel that if I had a mentor that I could relate to then those times would have been easier for me to navigate.
Have there been times in your career where you have felt that you had to suppress your authentic self?
There definitely have been times in the past, and still to a certain extent now, where I have changed my appearance to ‘look the part’.
An example of this is when I started in the corporate world 14 years ago and would dress and look a certain way i.e. straight long hairstyle and unfortunately, this is still something that I do now subconsciously. I find myself being freer with my natural afro hair when I travel back to the UK to visit family or when I am on a long holiday. But, as soon as I return, I straighten it again as this has been my understanding of what looks ‘professional’.
No one has ever told me that I had to dress or style my hair a certain way, it was just what I was seeing around me and didn’t want to stand out from the crowd.
This is an area that I am currently working on especially as my daughter recently started asking me if her hair can be straight like mine. It’s difficult when you are trying to raise a girl and instil in her that she is beautiful and does not have to conform to the world standard appearance but rather be true to herself and in the meanwhile, I am suppressing my authentic self to fit in.
Have you had to make considerations when building your personal brand and promoting yourself that is unique to you being black?
Black women definitely do need to make careful considerations, not only about the way they look but the way they present their personality in the workplace due to certain misconceptions that could lead us to be unfairly judged.
For instance, if I am unhappy with something I need to be conscious about the way I communicate that at the risk of being told that I am being aggressive. Whereas it often goes that males in the same situation are seen as being assertive.
I have worked with a coach on my personal brand and I believe that having a strong personal brand is something that is so important for women. It is a fantastic way to gain confidence in yourself and your abilities.
As a black woman, I would say that it is imperative to consider your personal brand, especially if you are in a senior role.
This year the theme for Black History Month is ‘Proud to Be’. What is it that you are ‘Proud to Be’?
I am proud to be the only African woman at the table because it allows me to showcase why I deserve to be here. I feel that, hopefully, by me delivering, it can change people’s perceptions and open the door for someone else.
I am proud to be different.