After enduring discrimination and struggling to get an entry level role in corporate law, to a point where she was told that corporate practice was ‘too competitive for a black woman’, Funke Abimbola, First Woman of the month, is now the most senior black lawyer working in her field.
She is currently general counsel for Roche, the pharmaceutical company, as well as the organisation’s UK diversity champion.
Here she tells First Women how the setbacks earlier on in her career has been the catalyst to her accomplishments in the legal sector, and why she won’t stop until there is a level playing field across all diversity strands.
Tell us about your background. Where did you start your career and how has it evolved?
I’m of Nigerian descent, but I grew up in England. After studying law at Newcastle University, I initially returned to Nigeria for a summer holiday, but three years later I was enrolled at the Nigerian Supreme Court having studied the Nigerian Bar exams. When I returned to the UK, I completed the transfer test and began work in an entry level role as a corporate solicitor.
For twelve years I worked as a corporate solicitor within four different law firms, both in London and around the UK. In 2012, I joined Roche as managing counsel where I led a team of commercial lawyers.
In my current role as general counsel, I have additional leadership, corporate compliance and company secretarial responsibilities.
I am the most senior black lawyer working in my field.
Tell us more about your position. What is a typical day for you? What does your role entail? What general challenges do you face? Are you involved in other projects?
I love working at Roche. It’s a truly incredible company and I feel privileged to be in a position to empower, help and support others.
Roche is the world’s largest biotech company and last year invested £6.6 billion in research and development. I am proud to work for a business that prioritises patient care and strives to make a real difference to patients’ lives.
I can’t say that I have a typical day. As general counsel and company secretary, I am responsible for advising the company on legal matters across the UK, Gibraltar, Malta and Ireland.
This could involve commercial contracts, employment proceedings, regulatory issues, litigation and IP or data protection. I lead a team of eight, but I am part of various leadership teams to oversee areas like site-wide compliance and company governance.
Outside of work, I do a lot of voluntary work to improve diversity in the workplace, focusing on race, gender and social mobility. A lack of diversity and inclusion isn’t just limited to the legal profession; I believe that more needs to be done within the wider business community.
I was recently recognised by Audeliss as one of the Top 100 business leaders driving forward diverse change, and also received the ‘Point of Light’ award from Prime Minister Theresa May for the impact of my voluntary efforts.
What are your company’s biggest achievements to date and what excites you most about what you do?
I believe that achieving a balanced and diverse workforce is a fantastic achievement. In the UK, 57 per cent of our leaders are female and we’re represented by more than 35 nationalities.
In 2015 Roche delivered 197 clinical trials in the UK covering nearly 17,000 patients, and 29 medicines developed by Roche are included on the World Health Organisation (WHO) Model Lists of Essential Medicines.
What excites me most is that Roche is at the core of innovative healthcare. I come from a family of doctors but chose to pursue law rather than medicine: I enjoy my career because it combines both passions.
What are your priorities as a business leader? And how do you intend to ensure the business continues to thrive?
I want to ensure that we are committed to our company’s mission statement: doing now what patients need next.
To achieve this, it is vital that we have people working in the business who have a strong diversity of thought. This is only possible through a diverse talent pool that reflects the patients and societies whom we service.
If we want to thrive as a business, we need to remain committed to hiring from a diverse talent pool and developing skilled employees from all backgrounds.
Diverse teams are proven to be much more successful, and the combination of a wide range of experience and a variety of viewpoints enables teams to better understand their patients and customers.
What do you identify as some of the prevalent issues that women face in business and in senior positions?
We simply do not have enough visible role models and real-life examples of what a good female leader looks like. In fact, according to recent research by Audeliss, only 34 per cent of those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities can name a business role model from their community. It was even more worrying that only 12 per cent of the role models named were women.
I want to see more women being their authentic selves in their leadership roles, talking more openly about the challenges we experience and importantly, how we can overcome them.
Women are too often judged on their looks and appearance rather than for their competencies as a leader. We are also judged harshly if we are assertive or labelled ‘difficult’ when in fact we are making sound, beneficial decisions.
Business is full of double standards, which I have experienced myself and which I know can really wear you down, which is why it’s so important for women to support each other more in the workplace.