WYLDE Women

Each month, WYLDE MOON will be shining a light on women doing inspirational work in their field.

This month’s WYLDE Woman is Dr Funke Abimbola MBE, whose astounding career Holly has followed with interest since they attended the same school, albeit in different years. Funke is one of those rare bright lights. She’s honest, strong, passionate and seriously intelligent – a true WYLDE Woman. For as long as she’s been in the working world, Funke has been passionate about driving change through the rage that she was left with after being discriminated against for everything from her name, to her gender, to the colour of her skin. Here, she talks to us about her personal experience with discrimination, setting up her own consultancy firm to drive change across big companies, what she finds most frustrating, receiving an MBE when she least expected it, and so much more.

  On the piece of advice she’d give her younger self.

“This one is easy: do not care so much about what other people think. I have wasted a lot of time and energy obsessing over what people thought about me and ultimately, the older you get the more you realise you have no control over people’s opinions. Remember, what someone might think of you in the morning may change by the afternoon. People’s opinions are very fickle.”

 On her childhood and dual heritage.

“I was born into a privileged Nigerian family – my dad was incredibly sophisticated, going to medical school in Germany and speaking multiple languages. We would always have a lot of expats coming to our house in Lagos and I think it’s important to give that context because when I came to the UK, my perception of anyone who was white was that you were equally as privileged. The white people that I knew in Nigeria were all expatriates and on a tax-free bonus and the like. I was shocked to arrive in the UK – where I came to boarding school with my sister and brother – and see poverty. I was very cocooned at my school in England, despite the fact that it was actually a very progressive one. So it wasn’t until I started at university that my dual heritage became something that I was aware of and that I felt conflicted with. Because I wasn’t British born, my story is completely different to a Nigerian who was born here, for example. I was also privately educated so I felt a bit of conflict there, too.”

“…do not care so much about what other people think. I have wasted a lot of time and energy obsessing over what people thought about me and ultimately, the older you get the more you realise you have no control over people’s opinions.”

 On the experience in the workplace that fueled her desire for change.

“I really started to realise that there was an issue when I hit the workplace. I became acutely aware of the downsides of having what was quite obviously an African name. From the outset, I suffered from blatant name discrimination and it was clear that it really was to do with my name – I had top grades, a Russell Group university degree and yet my friends with Angliscicsed names (and worse grades) were getting job interviews and I was not. I had to make 150 phone calls to even get to my first job. After that experience, I was so angry. It really catapulted what has now become over 20 years of campaigning for more diversity in the workplace. What’s amazing now is that I do a lot of talks in schools and afterwards, I will have Nigerian students telling me that before my talk, they were considering Anglicising their names because of the discrimination that they are already receiving. I tell them to be proud of their strong African names.”

 On the battles she’s had to fight at work.

“This happened in 2000 and then I finally got my first job. I assumed that once I was in the job, I’d just be able to carry on – which I was able to, for a period of time. But two years into the job, I got pregnant. I was married, so it wasn’t exactly unusual for me to be pregnant! After having my son, I took a year off for maternity leave, something that I was legally entitled to. But I was a corporate lawyer, and in the legal profession taking a year off – even for maternity leave – means that you’ve effectively lost a year’s post-qualification, valuable experience, pay reviews and things like that. At the time in my firm, I was the only black solicitor. Not just black female solicitor, but black solicitor – full stop. It wasn’t until I got back to work that I realised how strategic a female lawyer had to be about when to have children. I had my son in my late 20s but realised that the other women were waiting until they were promoted to partner before having their children, typically in their mid to late 30s and sometimes early 40s. I clearly didn’t get the memo about this! It was incredibly isolating at the time and actually, it’s what eventually pushed me out of the central London law firm that I was working at. All I wanted was to continue working full time, but with regular hours. Even my suggestion of arriving at work at 8am, leaving at 5pm to pick up my son and working into the evening at home wasn’t workable because fundamentally, the system didn’t enable that. There was this very patriarchal assumption that the person doing the kind of corporate law work that I was doing was not also the principal caregiver with responsibilities at home.”

 On maintaining a continuous drive for change.

“For a while, I was able to stay in that job. It took a lot of support: from my husband, an au pair, and our families. A lot of women were driven out of the workplace at the point that I was at and this is part of what made me so angry. These firms were investing at least a quarter of a million pounds in training these women to become solicitors and then just letting them walk out of the door. We moved out of London and I started working within a regional firm in the Northern Home Counties. I then started to hear all about other forms of discrimination; discrimination based on accents, socio-economic background, sexual orientation and so on. I had colleagues who could not come out as gay because they were worried about how it would affect their careers – and on and on and on. It made me realise that this wasn’t just about me. If it was just about me, I would have just gotten on with it. But when I started hearing all about these other forms of discrimination, I would get so angry. The motherhood penalty attached to having a year’s maternity leave is what really kickstarted it all for me. The legal profession remains ‘male-shaped’ and until that changes, which it slowly is, these issues around diversity and inclusion will remain the same.”

“It made me realise that this wasn’t just about me. If it was just about me, I would have just gotten on with it. But when I started hearing all about these other forms of discrimination, I would get so angry.”

 On starting to notice progression in the workplace and how it has led to her current role.

“The legal profession has made huge advances. As a solicitor, I am a member of the Law Society of England and Wales which now has a fully resourced diversity and inclusion team looking after multiple diversity strands. When George Floyd was killed in May 2020, I received an onslaught of requests for help from my network. People realised that they needed help around race diversity and inclusion in particular and there was a realisation that this remains an incredibly challenging aspect of diversity and inclusion. There was such a high demand for me to provide my expertise in this area, and people were offering me so many amazing opportunities, that I actually decided to set up my business, the Austen Bronte Consultancy, and not return to legal practice. I wanted to work with the companies that were serious about long-term change and not those companies who are all about just box-ticking. The companies and firms that are serious are implementing strategy, signing up to diversity commitments, holding themselves accountable to actually making change happen in the workplace. The companies within the ‘box-ticking’ category will do things like use their social media accounts purely as a PR exercise, making very bland statements about diversity and inclusion when, in fact, they are doing very little to move the dial.”

 On working with global companies towards diversity.

“I work with companies to improve leadership by leveraging the impact of diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity across the business world. So I build those four elements into day-to-day leadership – diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity – but it’s worth noting that a leader isn’t just someone who has a team, it’s anyone who can influence change within a company. These big firms have commercial targets that they can get swept up in so it’s very easy to allow diversity, inclusion, belonging and equity to all become ‘nice to haves’. To safeguard against this, I like to empower my clients – no matter how big the company is – to integrate the four elements into their day-to-day through a range of structured programmes provided through my business. I also drive change through public speaking and I always share my own personal story, mentioning my son and the things that have happened to me, because it’s more emotive and relatable for the audience that way. I also sit on the board of a company and I do pro bono work and have a medical scholarship scheme that my siblings and I set up in my father’s memory to support minority ethnic UK medical students, an under-represented group within UK medical schools.

I believe that it’s the heart and mind connection that makes me different from others within this field. My clients will say that I bring my whole self to the table and that’s what makes people so invested in me personally. We are all human; we all cry, we can all wake up in a bad mood, no matter our colour, accent, name. Everyone has the same fears and I just wish more of us accepted and embraced that human aspect of it.”

 On the ‘we’ versus ‘they’ mentality that many companies take on.

“I get very angry about the ‘we’ versus ‘they’ conversation. I know a lot of leaders who have achieved a lot but can’t be bothered to raise their head above the parapet to be part of the solution. Instead, they take on the mentality of ‘why should it be me when it could be someone else?’ People often message me and ask me what I’m going to do about things instead of thinking about what each of them could be doing to drive change. If everyone is saying ‘they’ and expecting others to drive change for them, then no one is going to do anything at all! I’ve had some very blunt and direct conversations with leaders around this and firmly believe that if all of us, no matter who we are, committed to just doing one thing to drive positive change, the ripple effect of this would make a real difference in shifting the dial within the workplace and across society.”

 On gaining enough recognition to be awarded an MBE.

“Receiving an MBE was the most surreal thing. When I received the letter, I genuinely thought it was a tax demand! I had to keep the news confidential and wait six weeks before the actual honours list was announced, so I couldn’t tell anyone during that time. Once the list was published – which was on my birthday – I was inundated with messages of congratulations. It was so overwhelming and it still is now. It’s been an experience that just never ends and has definitely led to more visibility for what I’m doing, elevating my work and giving it more credibility.”

“All of this came about because I saw a wider issue in society and I decided to do something about it.”

 On what we can expect from her and the Austen Bronte Consultancy next.

“I’ll be elevating my influence even more in the next year, particularly when it comes to what employers can do. I want to continue to build up the corporate side of my business because that’s what drives my ability to give scholarships and all of the other things that I want to do. My work with young people is ongoing, and I love it. But my hope is that everyone reading this can think about what they can do as an individual. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but it’s the ripple effect of each of us taking action as individuals in society that makes big change. I want to see more people become stronger allies, more people standing up for what’s right. We can all be a part of the solution and if I’ve managed to do this from what just started off as me having a moan to colleagues at work, anyone can do it! All of this came about because I saw a wider issue in society and I decided to do something about it. My rage drove change. And I really believe that anyone can do the same.”

Thank you, Funke, for sharing your powerful story with us.