NNEKA ABULOKWE HONOURED BY THE QUEEN OF ENGLAND
I’m still reeling and haven’t quite come to terms with my OBE. It is the greatest achievement of my life. To be recognised at such an esteemed level for my hard work and contribution to business, I am indeed humbled and eternally grateful. It is a stamp and badge that I wear with pride and the utmost respect for The Order of the Knighthood and Her Majesty
Awarded the distinction of Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) by Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II for her services to Business, Dr Nneka Abulokwe is a Digital governance and Tech entrepreneur. She is the founder and CEO of MicroMax Consulting, a management consultancy firm that specialises in board and executive level advisory services using technology and governance to foster organizational cohesion and drive positive digital cultures.
Nneka is also one of the first black female professionals to sit on the board of a multi-national tech company in the UK and has received many distinguished awards for her numerous achievement in the tech field. She was ranked number four of the Financial Times Top 100 Black, Asian, Minority, Ethnic (BAME) Tech Leaders in 2018 and was also in the 2019 Powerlist 100 most influential black business leaders in the world. And to top it all, Nneka is a Nigerian doing us proud on the global stage which is why we celebrate her achievements. Collecting a medal from the Queen of England is no small feat by any standard. FUNKE BABS-KUFEJI speaks to a woman who is not just an expert in her chosen field, but is also very passionate about mentoring and empowering women. You obviously come from a very close-knit family with both your parents still alive well into their 80s as well as your five siblings. Can you tell us a bit about your parents and also some fond memories of your childhood?
Indeed. My parents have been married for 64 years. They met at a ball as young students in London in the early 1950’s. They both love dancing till this day. My father was an Economics and Accounting scholar at the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE) and my mother a nursing student at the Rush Green Teaching hospital. I am the last of their six children.
I was born in the UK however I have incredibly fond memories of my early years growing up in Lagos and Port Harcourt and being doted on by my parents and siblings in a happy household full of laughter and love. My mother was the stern disciplinarian whose look alone could tell us when we were out of line. My father was the ever present, indulgent dad. I’m a daddy’s girl, especially being the baby of the family. (Laughter). I also have very fond memories of school. I went to Port Harcourt Primary School, Federal Government Girl’s College Abuloma and University of Port Harcourt.
My parents and all my siblings remain healthy and we are all very close, for which I feel very grateful and eternally blessed. They have all been with me throughout my journey, including the ups and down. I have certainly not walked this road alone, and I am very thankful for that.
Your father is Nigerian and your mother is Jamaican. How were these two cultures imbibed into your life whilst growing up?
I would say the two cultures melded into my life very well. I think there is this misperception that the Caribbean and African cultures are like oil and water, especially when it comes to marriages between Nigerians and Jamaicans. Far from it. My dual heritage has had a very strong and rich influence on my life. Nigeria has been the stronger of the two cultures. I spent most of my formative years in Nigeria growing up in quite an extended family with cousins, aunts and uncles. My mother never lost her Jamaican roots though, and our food was heavily influenced by the Jamaican cuisine. Mum remains famous for her homemade Jamaican drinks and bake, a West Indian style bread. I grew up with knowledge of Jamaican folklore and was regaled with stories of my mother’s childhood. I also visited many times as I grew up. My siblings and I were always encouraged to get to know that side of the family intimately. I feel a sense of kindred spirits whenever I visit Jamaica. Early last year, I was pleased to return to the island, where I hosted almost 60 friends for my 50th birthday.
What propelled you to get into tech, digital and governance?
Although I struggled with the sciences academically, I always had a natural and innate flare for tech and the sciences. This is my natural leaning and I understand the underpinning principles of how technology works. As for governance, that is very much congruent with my nature. I believe in the principle of law and order but more so, I believe in the will and free will of man. That is why I have introduced an innovative form of governance that is very much ‘people centric’. I do not suggest that we jettison rules, regulations or compliance. Far from it, especially in the highly regulated industries such as financial services, health and safety. I argue for human oversight and the empowerment of people as a compliment to regulation and compliance. I am a firm believer in commitment as a stronger currency over compliance.
You founded MicroMax Consulting. What are your core values and what service does the organization provide?
MicroMax Consulting is a boutique consultancy firm that provides board advisor services on governance, tech and digital. It provides a new lens through which corporate and operational governance can be viewed by challenging the status quo, conventional governance, and shinning a light on the ‘people’ element of governance. This is a core ingredient that is often overlooked in the corporate environment.
This has a very personal resonance. As I rose from the rank of analyst to the boardroom, I took on greater responsibility for leading large strategic and highly secure outsourcing tech projects for public and private sectors clients. I experienced many ills. Especially in the work practices and operations of multinational corporations across several geographic locations. I decided to pursue a business-related executive doctorate in business administration – the highest level of professional qualification attainable. I thus enrolled to undertake my doctorate at a leading business school, the Cranfield School of Management. I undertook this while working full time. My goal was to find robust answers to the critical business problems I had encountered and to equip myself to effect strategic change on a global scale. My solution was ‘people centric’ governance, which is taking ground, especially in the boardroom. I then joined one of the leading multinational tech companies as an executive director at the board level. This was another first in my domain. There, I introduced my novel perspectives on how to govern multinational operations to achieve excellence and brilliance. This was a very successful endeavour – so much so, that overtime, the company’s external assessors used our practices to inform industry standards and set markers for good practice.
That signalled my readiness to transition into independent consulting and board advisory services in 2017. My sole purpose in making the transition was to create a platform to have a voice in the industry and to influence business positively. I have since been called upon frequently to advise, speak at academic and practitioner conferences and provide direction on governance matters across the industry.
Alongside this, I serve as a non-executive director on several boards. I was most recently appointed to serve as a non-executive director for the audit and risk committee for University of Cambridge.
You are passionate about using technology and governance to foster organizational cohesion. This in return, is directly or indirectly, lessening physical human labour as the years go by. Some might see this as a worrying trend that their services or courses might become obsolete. What is your take on this?
The world we live in today is evolving at such a fast pace. The digital revolution is real. Smart businesses should exploit the value that technology and digital bring as business enablers. They shouldn’t fear them.
I’m all for leaving the repetitive and mundane tasks to technology and automation and elevating human capability to a higher level of being – in essence putting humans at the forefront of the tasks that require our intellect and creativity – aided by technology. We must elevate our level of thinking. The bigger question is our ability to govern the automation process in a conscionable manner, that provides human oversight and greater control over our decision making. We control machines. Machines do not, and should not, control us.
It has been said that out of the top 500 CEOs in the world, only 33 are women. Tech and governance are also fields dominated by men, have you ever encountered gender bias in your climb to success and if so, how have you been able to make head ways and stand out regardless?
Gender and racial bias will always be there. It is one of those inalienable facts, regardless of geographic region. It has never stopped me or bothered me particularly, as I believe there is a complimentary and symbiotic place for both genders to coexist. I don’t play to the divisive rhetoric of gender imbalance, which can often times cloud the issue of one’s advancement. I have always had to take ownership of my career. My formative years were spent in Nigeria and that, in itself, helped me immeasurably. I grew up as a first-class citizen, safe in the knowledge that I was just as good as the next person, regardless of the fact that I was female and a black female. These were some of the core values that my upbringing and schooling in Nigeria gave me. I was brought up by well-rounded parents and siblings. The fact that I am black was never an issue. Or perhaps Ishould I say I never ‘felt’ I was black until I returned to the UK to settle and work at the age of 21. Being UK born, I saw myself as no less a citizen and never lost sight of that. If anything, it buoyed me. I was tenacious, driven, conscientious and worked hard, and with the utmost of integrity. The competitive spirit instilled in me