Ken Olisa, businessman, financier and philanthropist, wears many caps in his busy corporate life. He received an OBE in 2011, he is the chair of the Powerlist Foundation which runs the Deloitte Leadership Programme, and his position in society was confirmed in May 2015 when he became the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London.
The Queen, as the head of the nation, is known for her sense of duty and her devotion to a life of service. To carry out her work in the community to reinforce people’s sense of belonging she appoints personal representatives – Lord-Lieutenants – in each county. Ken says he “upholds the dignity of the monarchy and sense of belonging”.
This means that whenever the Royal Family makes an official visit in London, Ken or one of his 100 deputies is there to greet them having made sure in advance that everything is meticulously planned and executed.
For example, if a Prince is going to visit a school, one of Ken’s clerks will have already looked it over and ensured every aspect of the visit will go according to plan. The Queen recently said of her approaching 90th birthday celebrations “I have to be seen to be believed”. Ken’s responsibility is to see that everything goes well at the functions she attends.
He is also involved in the honours system. For an MBE, OBE or CBE, the Queen or another member of the Royal Family hands out the medals at Buckingham Palace, but if it’s a British Empire medal then the Lord-Lieutenant handles the investiture. So far he has awarded around 45 medals at the Tower of London to community volunteers.
Ken is also president of the Greater London Reserve and Cadet Force Association. In uniform he gives speeches, hands out awards, inspects the marching cadets and performs other duties. “I do all the sorts of things that the Royal Family would do if there were hundreds and hundreds of them and they had lots of spare time.”
He admits it is “fairly demanding” and equivalent to a couple of days a week work and although unpaid it provides him with extra strength for his “strategy for social inclusion”.
In London he tries to find ways to help those who feel excluded from life. It can literally be anyone. “Whether they are someone who is going to be recruited to be a jihadist or an old person who has nobody coming to visit them.”
There are lots of charities and government agencies helping the less fortunate and vulnerable and as Lord-Lieutenant Ken is trying to “bring them together and to add value to them, to convene, perhaps to get more charities together in one room to solve a common problem”.
He recently went on a walkabout on a problem estate with other dignitaries in Brixton. By talking to representatives of the organisation that handles the estate, Ken got a better understanding of the residents’ problems and needs. “I can help them by introducing them to other people and making things happen by advocating for them with businesses, charities and government agencies.”
Being the Lord-Lieutenant for Greater London is extremely fulfilling. “If you care about society and communities it’s the most wonderful opportunity to do good.”
His OBE came for services to homeless charities. He has been chairman for many years of the homeless charity Thames Reach whose income has grown enormously as along with its influence in helping the homeless. “I was very flattered to be awarded an OBE for that.”
The creation of the PFDLP famously came about at a JP Morgan dinner Ken was attending. Michael Eboda, the Powerlist Foundation co-founder was there, as was Baroness Patricia Scotland who was Attorney-General at the time. She said that it was wonderful to be recognised “but with that comes an obligation and with that obligation we should do good for society”.
She suggested that each one of them make a pledge to help society. “I thought ‘that sounds like hard work’,” Ken says. “Why don’t we form a club where all the people on the Powerlist can do good in a structured way? She said ‘that sounds like a good idea’.”
Ken jokes that he went home that night delighted to have outwitted Baroness Scotland but the next morning he woke to realise that she had won hands down but as he was obligated to create something he had been left holding the baby! As a result, he began the Powerlist Foundation with Michael.
They focused on connecting lots of powerful black people with tomorrow’s leaders of whatever heritage. “That’s our mission and the mechanisms for delivering it are summer leadership programmes and one day a sixth form leadership college in London,” Ken says. Deloitte sponsored the initial PFDLP and has done so ever since.
“Our focus now, as with all charities, is to scale up,” says Ken. “What typically happens with a charity is that it starts out full of enthusiasm and delivers a service. Then it realises it hasn’t got any money and so tries to continue delivering a service whilst going out fundraising.
“At some point it decides it has to become sustainable and that means having a balance sheet which is the only guarantee of a sustainable future.”
He says that the Powerlist Foundation has gone through its first two stages and has to now reach its sustainable future. One of the objectives is to increase the summer programme from 50-60 delegates to up to 600.
For Ken, the most pleasing evidence of how the Powerlist Foundation has evolved can be seen in what the delegates are saying on social media, “without doubt the feedback from the alumni is truly inspirational, they are fantastic quotes”.
He adds, “We’ve changed the lives of young people in a positive way, that’s what we’re all about. We set ourselves up for that and that’s what we’re doing.”
He has numerous examples of how the PFDLP has positively affected alumni. “The problem with the kids that come to the summer school programme is that they are high fliers in their schools and then they get to university and discover that all the other kids were high flyers too. And then all the social differences kick in.”
Ken’s personal experience was exactly the same; when he went to study for his degree at Cambridge he discovered that “everybody had been Head Boy too”. He’d been the outstanding scholar at school but at Cambridge “so had everybody else, so that was no longer the defining characteristic”.
But it seemed that everyone around him had huge houses, fleets of cars and took international holidays. Ken, having been brought up modestly by his mother in Nottingham, had none of that wealth. “You then start to feel inadequate after arriving on a bubble of feeling absolutely superior and that blow to your self-esteem can prove to be fatal in terms of taking advantage of a university education.”
This is one reason why the PFDLP was created. “We try to correct for that because essentially, we have mostly inner-city kids and although their parents didn’t pay for their education, they’re in no way inferior,” says Ken. “They can catch up with everybody else. It’s about learning some techniques and having confidence.”
So far over 200 delegates have attended the PFDLP and Ken is enthused by the electronic feedback. “It would be invidious to just pick one out, everyone’s a wonderful story.”
The delegates are divided into teams at the PFDLP for a competition and the prize is to have dinner with Ken at the Oxford and Cambridge Club in Pall Mall. He says it is “really intimidating, a fantastic, huge building with big, sweeping staircases, chandeliers and liveried staff”.
He became a member in 1976 but it took him years to become really comfortable to visit “because it was just so daunting, even though I was a member of the club”.
When they arrive, the alumni tend to be timid and sheepish but with Ken’s encouragement by the end of the night they are comfortable and “stride out a foot taller than when they arrived, it’s just about giving people that one-off chance”.
He adds that when they have started work and their boss invites them to their club for lunch, they will know what it all entails. “The kids whose parents paid for their education probably know about it and it’s probably not exciting for them. So we’re just breaking down the barriers and unleashing the talent.”
Ken’s themes at this summer’s PFDLP are the same as ever – to always do your best and to share with others. “My personal motto is to do well, do good and I always talk about my own personal background and how I ended up where I am today.”
His recurring message is that every member of society carries a double obligation – to do our best in our chosen work and, at the same time to help others succeed too.
Born in 1951, his Nigerian father abandoned his English mother and she brought Ken up alone. He went to state junior schools, did well at grammar school and attended Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge University. In his gap year after ‘A’ levels he got a scholarship to work for computer firm IBM and is proud to say that he paid for his own degree through the scholarship, studying natural sciences for a year, then social and political sciences and finally management science in his last year.
He is married to Julia, has two grown up daughters and six grandchildren and lives in Hampton Wick, west London.
For over two decades Ken has been mentored by Norman Knight, who is in his early 90s and lives in Boston, United States. “Norman Knight is a big philanthropist in New England. He had the humblest of starts in life, made lots of money and gave it all away to hospitals, schools and universities,” says Ken. “He’s a wonderful man with gold-plated morals and ethics. He is a brilliant role model to us all.”
Ken is looking forward to the next PFDLP of 60 entrants in July. The entry level has been raised to 300 UCAS points. “It is sponsored by Deloitte again and at the end of the course they will go off, bam! With their lives improved.”
He praises all the other Powerlist Foundation trustees, “we’re all black people and you know what, we’re making a big statement that a) black is normal in 21st century Britain and b) our desire to help others is universal and not just tribal – we are helping all of society and not just ourselves”.
Ken adds, “I tell everybody that being black isn’t and mustn’t be allowed to be relevant – it’s not a defining characteristic in our country. Good guys are good guys irrespective of colour, race or creed.”