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Catching up with ‘Old Girl’ Funke Abimbola MBE (nee Akindolie)

I left Burgess Hill Girls in July 1991 to read law at Newcastle University.

After graduating with my law degree in 1994, I went back home to Nigeria and studied towards the Nigerian Bar exams. Following my call to the Nigerian Bar as a Barrister & Solicitor of the Supreme Court of Nigeria, I returned to the UK and studied towards the Transfer Test to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales. Unfortunately, I faced racial discrimination when applying for an entry-level role and, for the first time, my obviously African name proved a real barrier to my progress. I struggled to secure interviews and, in desperation, cold-called the top 100 corporate law firms in the UK, speaking to the senior partners at every firm to convince them to give me a job. I did the same with in-house legal departments and was successful in securing interviews and job offers this way.

Following my qualification as a corporate solicitor at a large public company in September 2000,  I then worked for 2 Central London law firms. During this time, I had my son and found the return to work incredibly difficult – no-one else seemed to have had a child at that stage in their career and the firm I worked for were unable to support my return to work in the way that I needed. In the end, I left London altogether and moved to regional law firms, adamant that the moment I was able to make impactful changes within law firms (in terms of racial and gender bias) I would do so.

I spent 6 years working at firms outside London until a role came up at my current organisation, Roche. I joined Roche as Managing Counsel in January 2012, leading the legal team supporting the company’s pharmaceutical operations in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar. I have been promoted twice since and my current position is General Counsel & Head of Financial Compliance. I look after legal risk, corporate compliance and financial compliance and am a senior leader within the organisation.

My experiences of being discriminated against have made me passionate about campaigning for more diversity within the legal profession, something I have been doing for several years. I have over 10, voluntary board level roles in the diversity space covering 3 main diversity strands – race, gender and social mobility. I also do a lot of public speaking, especially to school children, providing leadership talks, mentoring and work experience opportunities to over 2,000 children annually. On top of all this, I am a regular presenter on BBC 1, commenting on world news stories as part of the news review.

My legal work, diversity work and my leadership have been recognised with numerous awards and recognitions. I have worked with the UK government, advising on diversity within the legal profession, having met both the Prime Minister and provided recommendations to the Justice Secretary and the Ministry of Justice. My mission is to level the playing field by eliminating discrimination in all its forms.

In October 2016, the Prime Minister honoured me with ‘Point of Light’ status, recognising the positive impact of my voluntary diversity work. I was then 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.

Going forwards, my aim is to increase the impact of my diversity work to drive societal change not only nationally but globally.

Being a student at this school gave me a very strong sense of who I am, where my strengths lay and what I should be doing in future. My father wanted me to become a doctor and, but for the school’s support and intervention, I would have been forced to do medicine. I am forever grateful to my teachers for fighting my corner and convincing my dad (who happily and proudly supported my legal career) that law was the best option for me. The school’s motto ‘I am, I can, I ought, I will’ has really served me well and continues to do so.

 

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