Funke AbimbolaFunke is a solicitor and senior leader for Roche, the world’s largest biotech company. She is currently the most senior black lawyer working within the UK’s pharmaceutical industry and one of the most senior globally. She has been recognised by the Financial Times as being one of the top 20 BAME leaders across the UK, Ireland and US (UPStanding100 2016 Powerlist) and is ranked as being one of the top 100 influential leaders of African & Afro-Caribbean origin in the UK (2017 Powerlist).

A multi award winning solicitor and diversity leader, she has received both national and international recognition for both her legal and diversity work.

An experienced public speaker, Funke speaks regularly about her personal journey to large audiences ranging from school children to senior professionals. She also holds a number of board-level voluntary leadership roles across a range of different diversity organisations and initiatives. In 2015, she founded Women Leaders in Life Sciences Law, a network supporting the international pipeline of female legal talent within the life sciences sector. She is a Committee member of a House of Lords-based diversity recruitment drive and is also part of the BBC’s volunteer team of world news reviewers, appearing regularly on BBC 1 and BBC World News.

Funke is a proud working mother juggling the demands of career and home. An expert mentor and sponsor, she is passionate about the law, diversity, education and healthcare, is a regular media commentator, a keen fundraiser for various charities (including Cancer Research UK) and has twice served as school governor and as a board director. She recently founded the Akindolie Medical Scholarship in memory of her father, Dr. Frank Olufemi Akindolie. This is a privately funded bursary and leadership mentoring initiative aimed at supporting future doctors from a minority ethnic background.

Funke was honoured with a ‘Point of Light’ award by the UK Prime Minister and the UK Cabinet Office for outstanding voluntary work in October 2016, recognising the positive impact of her voluntary diversity work in improving workplace diversity and supporting the next generation. She was awarded the M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) by the Queen in her June 2017 birthday honours list for services to diversity in the legal profession and to young people.

Can you tell us about your background and career to date?

I was born into a privileged background in Nigeria and privately educated in the UK from a young age. Despite coming from a family of doctors (with the full expectation that I would also read medicine at University) I chose to buck the family trend and instead pursued a career in law. I qualified as a corporate lawyer within a large, fully listed PLC in the entertainment field and then worked for 2 central London law firms during which time I had my son, a game-changer in my career. Soon after having my son, I moved out of London to a regional law firm where I had a much better life balance.
Almost 5 years ago, I joined Roche as Managing Counsel for the UK & Ireland, leading the legal team supporting Roche’s pharmaceutical operations in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar. I was promoted to General Counsel & Company Secretary in December 2015, taking on additional leadership and compliance responsibility. I was promoted again in January 2017 to General Counsel & Head of Financial Compliance with additional responsibility for financial compliance matters for the UK pharmaceutical business including overseeing and leading on internal financial audits, internal financial testing (ICFR) and other financial controls that maintain the integrity of the organisation’s financial systems. As a solicitor, it is very rare to take on financial compliance responsibility of this nature. I consider myself privileged to be working for an organisation that invests so much in developing its talent.
Outside of my day job and in a voluntary capacity, I am a recognised diversity leader and have been campaigning for more workplace diversity for several years. My main focus is on the legal profession but I also work with a number of corporates around gender, race and social mobility issues. I am regularly invited to speak at events where I share my personal leadership journey and practical tips about improving diversity and inclusion. I have spoken in parliament on numerous occasions and currently sit on a diversity committee at the House of Lords. I also speak to approx. 2,000 school children every year, motivating and inspiring them to overcome challenges and to maximise their potential. In addition, I volunteer for the BBC and regularly appear on BBC 1 as a world news reviewer with a range of BBC broadcast journalists.

What would you say are the main personality traits you have that helped you progress?

My tenacity is legendary – I never give up and have bounced back from countless setbacks and challenges in both my career and my personal life.
Being grateful no matter what the situation has also really helped my progress – things could always be worse so it is worth counting one’s blessings.
My sense of humour has also seen me through some ridiculous situations in life. Sometimes a bit of laughter can go a long way!

In your career, what has been the most difficult challenge and how did you overcome that?

Returning to work after a year’s maternity leave was an isolating and challenging time. I was the only ‘woman returner’ in my organisation and felt very alone and unsupported. I ultimately left the central London law firm where I was working at the time and moved out of London altogether, enjoying a much better life balance in the regions. I was very angry about this experience for several years but this has only fuelled my voluntary gender diversity work which is a positive thing. My aim is to see a fundamental shift in gender balance issues in the workplace within my life time.

What is the single, greatest instance of trade-off you have had to make in reaching the role you currently hold and, in hindsight, would you change it if you could?

I have turned down countless job opportunities that would not be compatible with family life and my commitments to my teenage son – for example, roles that involve a lot of travel or relocating to another country. With hindsight, I would not change this at all – nothing can give you back the years you have with your children when they are still living with you. My son will be off to University in just 5 years’ time so I am keen to enjoy the time I have left with him still living in my house!

What are the top 3 things you would advise people to do to manage their career growth?

Focus – have a very clear vision of who you are, what you stand for and where you would like to get to in your career.
Plan – it is essential to have a career plan with specified goals and time-frames.
Network – be as visible as possible and make those useful connections. A world of opportunity awaits the visible.

How can one ensure that they are a top performer in this competitive and ever changing environment?

By maintaining a dedicated focus to self-improvement, learning and development. It is so important to be open to constructive feedback and to take it on board, no matter how tough the feedback might be. I have worked hard to consistently ‘up my game’ throughout my career and remain committed to doing so. Having a learning mind-set is essential to maintain your competitive edge.

What does diversity mean to you?

Diversity is about differences – inclusion is about embracing those differences. I love Verna Myers quote about how diversity is being invited to the party where inclusion is being asked to dance. I would go further and say inclusion also involves having your drinks brought for you and enjoying a few cocktails! Diversity and inclusion must go hand in hand for overall effectiveness in improving culture within the workplace.

What observations have you made about the progress of diversity and inclusion in organizations that you’ve worked in?

During the course of my career, I have seen far more commitment to diversity and inclusion, something that was barely mentioned when I was a junior solicitor. Within the legal profession, I have seen real commitment to the D&I agenda with law firms and other legal organisations committing significant time and resource to fostering a D&I culture at all levels within the organisation. Thankfully, the business case for D&I is really gathering momentum, backed by current data that suggests the more diverse you are, the more profitable you are. I find these observations really encouraging but progress is still relatively slow in many areas. There has been a huge focus on gender diversity, for example, which means that the race agenda is some 20 years behind gender diversity.

What do you think is the key to unlocking the talent pipeline in women of colour that could open the door from middle management to senior management?

Confidence building is absolutely key. As women of colour, I have seen that we face a ‘double whammy’ in the sense that we have to overcome all the challenges that women already face in the workplace and in addition to that, we have to deal with cultural bias and discrimination. There are many ways to build confidence and a sense of self-worth and I think employers need to have a targeted approach combining a number of different elements to ensure success – mentoring, sponsorship, coaching and networking all have their place as do employee networks that are dedicated to raising visibility and showcasing accessible role models. There needs to be an element of early outreach programme as well, the earlier the better. I believe strongly in raising aspirations of black school girls and offering support (both in terms of bursaries, mentoring, sponsorship and work experience), tracking through that progress until the young ladies enter the work place and then supporting the pipeline to senior management. This takes time but is a worthwhile investment that can make a huge contribution to organisations maintaining their competitive edge.

Have you experienced any kind of discrimination in the workplace (consciously or unconsciously)? And how have you tackled it?

I definitely experienced cultural bias when looking for an entry-level legal role. Despite a solid education and a good law degree from a top University, I was struggling to get a job. I did get really down about it as it became more and more apparent that my barrier to interview was my obviously African name. I ended up cold calling a list of future employers to get interviews, making over 150 phone calls to senior lawyers and team leaders in corporate practices and companies. This approach worked, securing interviews. I secured my first legal role this way.
I experienced discrimination as a working mother when I was looking to leave my central London law firm for a regional practice. I was negotiating the terms of my offer from a leading regional law firm and was on the telephone to the recruitment officer at that firm who had called me at home. Hearing my son in the background (my son was then a toddler), the recruitment officer asked who that was. The tone of our conversation completely changed with the realisation that I was a mother – soon after, the firm said recruitment for that role was on hold. I later found out that the vacancy had been filled by someone without children. After this experience, if I was interviewing for a role, I would not mention being a mother at all. It made me so angry that this had happened. However, I am now very vocal about being a mother and encourage other women to do the same. Being a mum is nothing to be ashamed of!

What role do you think mentoring plays in career progression?

Mentoring plays a huge part in career progression. We all need someone who is an aspirational, accessible role model that can provide us with guidance and pearls of wisdom. I have had wonderful mentors throughout my career, many of whom believed in me even when I did not believe in myself. Together with mentoring, sponsorship is also incredibly important as it involves someone actively putting you forward for opportunities. Coaching is the third element that is important here – a coach is someone that you employ to give you specific training on how to overcome identified challenges in order to achieve your goals. I have had all 3 throughout my career – mentors, sponsors and coaches – and all have played a very important part in not only getting me to where I am today but in my continued success.

What advice would you give to someone beginning their career in any industry?

I would say remember my top 5 tips for success:
1) Focus
2) Stand out from the crowd
3) Keep learning
4) Support others
5) (if all else fails) keep calm and keep the faith!

You can follow Funke on Twitter @diversitychamp1