THISDAY Style

NNEKA ABULOKWE HON­OURED BY THE QUEEN OF ENG­LAND

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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

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