I’m excited to be conducting the first Meet-At-Tribe interview series which will feature people in my community who are doing amazing things. I seek to understand the successes, barriers, good times, lessons that those I admire and look up to sometimes face. Their strategies for ascending through the organisations they work in, businesses they have setup, the joys and pains but most importantly what led them to be who they are today. In the series, we find out the tools they used to manage significant change efforts to navigate this thing called life.
The moral case for inclusion is strong but there’s also a strong economic case – study after study has shown that more diverse organisations outperform others.
Black women are underrepresented in leadership roles in in the in the United Kingdom and around the world. Despite this underrepresentation, black women have found success as leaders and play key roles in driving organisational and societal change. Thank you Ngozi Lyn Cole for giving me the pleasure of being the first person I’m featuring in the series. Ngozi is a self-employed coach and leadership catalyst. She is a director of GLT Partners Ltd, which is a support agency for charities, social enterprises, community businesses, public and private companies. In addition, Ngozi holds non-executive positions including deputy chair of the appointments committee of the general pharmaceutical council; South Tyneside NHS Foundation Trust; EY Foundation and Millfield House Foundation.
Who had the greatest influence on you during your childhood?
Ngozi: There’s an African proverb that says, ‘it takes a whole village to raise a child.’ In addition to the very positive influence of my parents, I had a whole tribe of very strong women around me – my grandmother and my aunties including those who were not all related to me. Together they instilled a sense of pride in myself and ambition to be who I wanted to be.
If you could have dinner with five famous people from history, who would they be?
Ngozi: Only five? It’s so hard to choose. There are lots of people that I would love to chat with, to understand how they overcame adversity and how they managed to thrive despite an environment that was far from supportive. My list would include Nelson Mandela, Maya Angelou, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, James Baldwin and Oprah Winfrey. How interesting that only one of them is still alive!
As an African woman, is it (still) necessary to decide between career and children, and what advice would you give to young women today?
Ngozi: Unfortunately, gender inequity continues to persist in today’s society and it’s not just in Africa. Women make an average of 20 percent less than men, according to a release from the United Nation’s International Labour Organisation. Women carry a greater burden of care, not just of children but of elderly parents too. Whilst there have been improvements through the work of bodies like the 30% club, a campaign group seeking to increase the number of women in Board and executive seats all over the world, we still face inequity. And this is even more severe for women who sit at the intersections of race, age, disability, sexuality etc.
Back to the question – is it necessary to decide between career and children? No, definitely not. This should never have been the case and should certainly not be the case now. However, in order to succeed, every woman needs her tribe – her partner, her family, her friends and other people that are willing to offer support. My advice to young women is this. First, Wonder Woman only exists in the movies. Second, ask for and be prepared to accept help whenever you need it. Third, to juggle children and career, you need to look after yourself mentally and physically. Self-care is a necessity not a luxury. Finally, when you juggle balls, you will drop some now and again. Be kind to yourself when that happens.
How important is it for women to empower fellow women and what does that mean to you?
Ngozi: Hugely important. It breaks my heart when women tear other women down. The world is standing ready to tear us down, they need no help from us! Women often understand the unique experiences of other women and are in a good position to offer advice, guidance, mentoring and practical support. For example, older women in positions of power should ensure that family friendly policies are in place to support younger women.
Women should use their own privilege to help others. Every woman reading this piece holds some degree of privilege. How can we help those who are more marginalised than we are? As an able-bodied woman, I should be acting as an ally to disabled women. As a cis-gender and heterosexual woman, it should be my job to stand up as an ally for transgender women and women who are lesbian or bi-sexual.
When you think about your own life experience at what point did you start to raise awareness of diversity, inclusion, and social justice – and why?
Ngozi: Very early in life. I was born in Nigeria, a country with very deep socio-economic divides. I noticed the rich/poor divide very early on. My parents were not members of the super elite but they had good jobs and lived a very comfortable life compared to swathes of the population suffering extremely poverty. It seemed totally unfair.
I also noticed the power of the patriarchy very early on. With only a handful of expectations, women were expected to know their place when I was growing up and this always seemed grossly unfair. I remember challenging a student society during my university days where all the elected officials just happened to be male, and successfully leading a movement to get them to make space for women.
My awareness of these issues all came to a head when I arrived in the UK in 1989 and realised that I was black! We need another interview to discuss my experiences! A large proportion of my work is now focussed on increasing awareness of equity, diversity and inclusion and engaging with organisations to consider how they can create a work environment where people feel included and valued and able to contribute as their true and authentic selves. The moral case for inclusion is strong but there’s also a strong economic case – study after study has shown that more diverse organisations outperform others.
How did you get involved with the third sector and funding bodies?
Ngozi: My first job in the voluntary sector was in inner city London where I worked with residents living in very deprived communities to first survive and then move on to thrive. It was there that I first understood the power of charities to do good and since then I’ve always been involved in charities either as a volunteer, worker or Board member. I currently chair the Justice Together Initiative for the North East, a body that brings together organisations working to support refugees and people seeking asylum. Their work is even more important now given the hostile government and yes some hostile communities that we have in place at present.
I first went to work at the now National Lottery Community Fund (TNLCF) in 1998 and held 9 different roles there ending as England Director with overall responsibility for distributing £500m to £1billion of lottery money per year depending on rollovers. It was a great opportunity to do something to help alleviate social inequities and I will be forever grateful for the opportunity to do this. Many funders such as the Lloyds Bank Foundation have been on an journey to address social inequity meaningfully but others still have some way to go.
I remain involved both with funding bodies as a consultant or advisor and with charities.
Looking back on the last five years of your career, what’s the highlight?
Ngozi: There are far too many to choose from. For me, every successful engagement with an organisation to help improve something is a highlight. It could be carrying out an equity, diversity and inclusion audit or evaluation; helping to develop an organisational strategy; facilitating a journey to enable Boards and leadership teams to define and achieve their ambition; or helping to set up a new social justice organisation from scratch. It all makes my life so fulfilling.
What would you say is your biggest accomplishment at the moment and why?
Ngozi: Wow. I’m not sure this is an accomplishment but the first thing that springs to mind is my family. I’m blessed to be surrounded by a loving and supportive family – my husband, children, daughters-in-law and grandchildren. The accomplishment that I’m driving towards is to be the very best I can for them. My work accomplishments come a very distant second!
If money was not a factor, where would you travel to and what would you do there?
Ngozi: I would stay right here. Despite reports that suggest that the UK is one of the most inclusive countries in Europe, the experience of minority groups is very, very different. I would stay right here and keep trying to change hearts and minds one conversation, one interview, one person, one organisation at a time so that our future generations can grow up in a more inclusive world than the one that you and I live in at present.
What’s next for Ngozi Lyn Cole?
Ngozi: Continuing to fight the good fight and doing my very best to help make the world a better place.