Owhin’s ambitions changed after attending the PFDLP
Rachael Owhin attended the inaugural Powerlist Foundation Deloitte Leadership Programme (PFDLP) in 2011 and as a result of that experience, her academic and corporate experience has been a varied and eventful one.
“One of the biggest things I got out of it was the networking with super-ambitious, like-minded people,” Rachael says. “They’ve really helped me raise my aspirations. It gave me that push to go for things. It made me think about leadership in a new way. Thinking about service and giving back. It’s taught me a lot about myself and to do things differently.”
Ken Olisa’s daughter, Elinor, an art dealer, was one of Rachael’s mentors and she also learnt a lot from Veronica Martin, CEO of the Powerlist Foundation. Rachael has been a mentor on the PFDLF ever since which has been “mind blowing”. She will be in Lagos in July but intends to return for the 2016 PFDLP. Rachael has been appointed Global Ambassador for the Powerlist Foundation, a post she is extremely proud of. She intends to create mini-leadership programmes in Nigeria.
The 2011 alumni had a reunion in early May and relationships were reinforced. “I’m passionate about the Powerlist Foundation, what it’s done for me and what it’s doing for people now, and what it can potentially do,” Rachael says, who is helping with the consultation for the planned sixth-form college. She enjoys meeting potential PFDLP delegates and encouraging them to get involved.
Rachael turns 25 in July. She lives in Alperton, west London and is the youngest of three sisters and her siblings are both high achievers academically too. Rachael studied for her degree in Law with American Studies at Sussex University and for a year at Spelman College, the black women’s university in Atlanta, Georgia.
When graduating from Spelman College, Oprah Winfrey attended and Rachael was lucky enough to meet her. Rachael stood out from the crowd baying for the media queen’s attention by shouting: “Oprah, we love you all the way from London.” Impressed, Winfrey willingly gave her a coveted selfie.
After completing her degree she decided to go for a master’s in Migration Studies at Oxford. Being admitted was a joyous occasion, but finding money for the tuition fees was stressful as it was on short notice.
Rachael famously raised over £10,000 in 10 days to fund her master’s tuition at Wolfson College. She had worked hard and saved £6,000 and her mother Funmi donated £2,000. But she was still way short of the £18,000 needed just for tuition fees, aside from accommodation, travel, food and miscellaneous expenses.
A scholarship she applied for didn’t come through so with a deadline approaching, Rachael decided to try crowd-funding as a last resort to raise the shortfall. She researched extensively and decided to plump for Hubbub because it doesn’t charge any fees and specialises in crowd-funding for educational purposes. “They were really, really good and helpful in the process.”
Rachael was pleasantly surprised by the response, reaching her target by the eighth day and raising £15,000 in total, meaning she wouldn’t have to get a loan to pay for accommodation and other bills, although she did get a job while studying. One of the most pleasing donations was just over £1,000 from a black businessman who she had never met before. He simply wanted to help and they met some time later so that Rachael could express her gratitude. Piers Linney, the ex-Dragon’s Den investor, also chipped in some cash as well as helped her cause enormously by tweeting it to his many followers.
Rachael’s successful crowd-funding inspired another PFDLP alumni, Shani Page-Muir, to do the same for her master’s tuition fees at Oxford, only it was £21,000 in 21 days. Rachael has also helped others to crowd-fund for their tuition fees. “They need to start paying me,” she jokes.
After completing her master’s last summer, Rachael decided not to follow the traditional graduate’s direction of the corporate world. Having done an internship in Bangladesh working for a legal aid trust, she used that experience to decide whether she would pursue a career in law, where she did migration research for the organisation.
Rachael was there with another Brit from Oxford University, a white girl. The Bangladeshis asked only the other girl about life in Britain, they just could not comprehend that Rachael was British too. They asked her more questions about Africa and specifically Nigeria than about Britain. “I don’t know, you’ll have to Google that,” she would often say when asked about Africa.
During her master’s Rachael went on a field trip to Morocco where locals often thought she was American, shouting “Obama” to her. “People don’t know about the black British existence,” she says. “So to see someone who is black travelling there, they assume we’re all American.”
These experiences inspired London-born Rachael to find out more about her Nigerian culture by working there. Even though many people in her community were Nigerian and she was already immersed in the culture, clothes, food and music she wanted to become familiar with everyday experiences of people living there. It was an unpopular decision with her family who saw her as a shoo-in to a high-flying career in the corporate world, having just graduated from Oxford.
“I had no desire to work for a huge company and just become a tiny cog in a big wheel,” she says. “I’m more into human rights, international development or something like that. I want to do something more vocational.”
Rachael dipped her toe in the corporate world for a year after gaining her degree at Sussex University by doing a leadership programme for a political organisation and she interned in Edinburgh during the Scottish referendum.
After completing her master’s, she headed off to Lagos to work in secondary schools teaching English, partly because she is passionate about access to quality education and also to do her compulsory year of National Youth Service Corps, a requirement for any graduate who wants to work in Nigeria.
Her first stint in Lagos was at a private school, which went well. Then she moved to a government school which was more challenging because the curriculum was “so sparse” and facilities extremely basic. Interacting with other teachers was an eye-opener too, as Rachael had to defer to them, because respecting elders and seniors is a significant part of Nigerian culture. One day a week she would meet with other graduates and they would teach community development projects such as students’ rights when applying for housing and being stopped by the police.
“I’m just grateful to all the people who have helped me get here,” Rachael says. “I couldn’t have done it without the support of the Powerlist Foundation. I did the PFDLP at a crucial stage of my journey. Speakers such as Piers Linney, a Trustee of the Powerlist Foundation, Samantha Tross and Ken Olisa OBE, Chair of the Powerlist Foundation told us about their successes and failures and just talking to us about their journey and showing us that success is possible for people that look like us – That was really encouraging. “Then I went to Spelman which was a really rich and nurturing environment that is made specifically for black women.” Most of all, attending the PFDLP showed her that there were other options. And for that, Rachael will be eternally grateful.