The Fold Woman: Janet Oganah

The Fold Woman: Janet Oganah
May 15, 2014 The Fold

Could you give a brief description of your career to-date?

I grew up in Kenya and came to England in 2003 to study law.  I am now a specialist family law barrister and mediator based in London.  I am currently on an academic sabbatical, with the aim of broadening my career skillset and indulging in all my other interests.  In particular, I wanted to return to the world of academia (I am doing an MA in Child Studies at King’s College London), build my fashion consultancy (Fashion Democracy), take up public speaking engagements and engage with children’s charities like the NSPCC, who do the most incredible work.  I also wanted to get published and I am writing a book on the issue of professional image in the workplace.

What would you consider to be some of your biggest accomplishments so far, and which ones do you feel most proud of?

I will never forget a High Court case where I acted on behalf of a baby to prevent the publication of his family history in the media.  It was vitally important for this little child that I was successful; it was his only chance at a ‘normal’ life.  It was a complex case, I was instructed very late (Friday afternoon for a Monday start), my opponents were very senior barristers and I was petrified.  The proceedings went well and the Court made this far-reaching decision, which it had only made once before these proceedings.  It was my first reported case and a pivotal moment in my career.

More recently, I am particularly proud of straight distinctions in my MA so far (my first written assessment after years away from the classroom was torture!).   Another moment of pride for me was giving a talk to over 100 women in the Goldman Sachs’ Women’s Network on the issue of professional image in the workplace.

Being invited to work with Lupita Nyong’o (Academy Award Winner of ’12 Years A Slave’) as part of her social media team has been surreal. It has been fascinating to work with a celebrity on the rise.  Lupita is such an inspiration.

You seem to have a very active and busy lifestyle – between your job as a lawyer, your blog and your volunteer work – what is a typical day like for you?

I do not have a typical day.  That is the beauty of being a barrister and having lots of other projects going on.  When I am in Court, the day before the hearing and the day of the hearing are dominated by the court proceedings and there is little time to do anything else as court proceedings always take priority.

Recently I had a whole day in Court followed by a movie premiere and the two parts of that day could not be more different.  Just to give you an idea of my day today, I woke up early to review a journal article, I attended classes for my MA, I am now at this amazing photo shoot and after this I am going to attend an event with the British American Project.

Janet Oganah_eaton Dress White

Janet wears The Eaton Dress in White

You’ve worked as a lawyer as well as a blogger and stylist. Do you have any advice for someone who is thinking about moving towards a portfolio career?

It is important to get solid experience in both of the different careers you would like to juggle.  As a barrister, we often work on weekends and it has always been a juggling act trying to balance that with volunteer work at Smart Works.  However, I love the work Smart Works does and I recognised the skills that I was gaining in styling and it was worth it trying to balance the two.  Juggling two different careers requires a huge amount of discipline and organisation; I have had to streamline other areas of my life and find ways to do things more effectively.  It is also important to try and find ways to obtain more than one output from any project that you are involved in.  For example, last year I did the 30 day bikram yoga challenge but I used the experience to research an article that I eventually wrote on yoga apparel and what to wear to bikram yoga.

You volunteer as a stylist for a charity that helps women to get back into work. What advice would you give to someone that is going to a job interview?

My volunteer work is an important part of my life and the last four years that I have been involved with Smart Works have been incredible. Smart Works (formerly known as Dress for Success) is a charity that provides high quality interview clothes and training to help women secure employment.  I have been inspired by the women we work with at Smart Works, who have taught me a lot about strength, resilience and never giving up.

My advice for anyone who is going to an interview would be:

  • Go the extra mile with your interview preparation.  It is important to ‘know’ the role, the company, your application form and your CV inside out.
  • Practice the questions that you might be asked and record your answers (smartphones make this possible!)  As cringe worthy as this sounds, watching yourself talk is a good way to observe the way you come across and make changes where necessary.  Test both the ‘style’ and the ‘substance’ of your responses.  The same applies for public speaking.
  • Smile, make eye contact and allow the interviewers to get a sense of who you are.  Angela Ahrendts put it brilliantly when she said in an interview with MAKERS: “Know who you are and what your expertise is… someone in an interview in one hour should be able to figure this out.   Know what drives you to get up in the morning, what thrills you and make sure, in the industry, that you are putting yourself in the right box at the right time and then you will thrive.  It will be innate, it won’t be a job.”  The interviewers want to like you as much as you want them to like you.  Instead of telling them that you know your stuff, show them that you know your stuff by providing responses that include tangible examples of your achievements.
  • First impressions matter and it is important to dress in a way that reflects the organisation and the industry that you hope to join.  Aim for a look that is comfortable, fits perfectly and is smart.  It is better to be overdressed than to look too casual.  Try on your interview outfit before the day of the interview. Good grooming is essential.
  • Leave enough time to get to the interview and allow extra time for travel holdups.  No matter how good your preparation and presentation is, there is nothing worse than being late and flustered at an interview. This I learnt from experience.  At one of my pupillage interviews I ran like mad, in very high heels, from Holborn station to Chambers.  I arrived at the interview 10 seconds before I was called on and I could feel beads of sweat running down my back as I launched into a presentation about the Human Rights Act.  Thinking about it now still hurts.

Do you think the way you dress can have an impact on your career?

Absolutely.

The way people present themselves in the professional environment is a form of communication.  The challenge is that it is much harder for women to get the balance right, as there are no ‘rules’ about what works and what does not work in the professional environment.

The energy that goes into harnessing the power of style at work should be aimed at enhancing the role that you are doing.  When you truly harness the power of style at work, you do more than simply looking the part.  What is needed is flexibility that allows you to ‘dress up’ or dress down whilst retaining your own personal style.

My view is that people should aim to achieve the perfect balance between their professional ability, the dressing norms of the industry and their personal style.  A signature look can be an asset if it helps one to stand out for all the right reasons.   I have heard women say that you should always dress for the role you aspire to in the future and I agree.  You must not let your professional image hold them back from opportunities to progress in the workplace.

That said, dressing the part is only one side of the equation; at the end of the day success in the work place is consequent on other factors such as being effective, analytical, full of ideas, progressive, a good communicator and a person who maintains good professional relationships.

Janet-Oganah_The Cavendish Dress

Janet wears The Cavendish Dress in Silver Grey

Fashion is a very important part of your career. What would be your top tips for styling your work wardrobe?

  • I think that it is important for women to analyse all the different roles in their lives (professional and non-professional) and think about their wardrobes in wider terms.  As is the case with many busy professional women, life and work often intersect and one’s wardrobe should reflect this as far as it possible to do so.
  • Seek inspiration from powerful women in real life, movies, television, blogs and books.  I love Christine Lagarde’s wardrobe and Claire Underwood’s Wardrobe in ‘House of Cards’.
  • Dress in a way that reflects the role that you are doing and aim to achieve a happy balance of style and substance.  Having a ‘signature style’ allows you to retain a sense of who you are in a largely homogenous work environment.  In my case, my glasses and red lipstick are a constant in my every changing wardrobe.
  • A well-organised work wardrobe is key.  Remove any items that have not been worn in a year.  Plan 5-10 full outfits in advance as this takes the stress out of getting dressed in the morning and saves time.  For example, 10 minutes saved each day as a result of planning your work wardrobe gives you back close to 1.5 hours every fortnight that can be used to indulge oneself or do something meaningful.

What are some of the ways you take time out of your busy schedule and unwind from work?

I love reading books and magazines.  For the last three years I have blogged about fashion and cool things to do in London, which is always good fun. Bikram yoga is a big part of my life.  When I go back to Kenya I always find time to travel down to the South Coast, lie on the beach and do very little!

And finally, which is your favourite style from the collection and why?

My absolute favourite is the Eaton Dress in white.  My white Eaton Dress gives me life, happiness and joy.  It is my favourite item of clothing in my wardrobe at the moment.

Photos from Amelia Allen Photography.

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