“I want to make a difference in people’s lives. I want to level the playing field.”
With admirable experience and expertise in several areas of law, public speaking, presenting and more, we speak to Funke Abimbola, a multi-award winning lawyer and ‘proud mother’. As a senior leader within the global pharmaceutical business and the most senior lawyer in the UK & Ireland pharmaceutical arm of Roche, the world’s largest biotech company, Funke not only excels within her profession, but is also an award winning diversity campaigner; receiving both national and European recognition for her efforts on improving diversity within the workplace.
Could you tell us about your career and how you came to your current role of General Counsel and Company Secretary at Roche UK?
I was very fortunate to be born into a privileged Nigerian background and was privately educated at a girl’s school in the Southern Home Counties. After my A-levels, I studied law at Newcastle University. When I graduated, I returned to Nigeria (where I was born) for what was a planned summer holiday but, due to a series of events, ended up staying in Lagos for almost 3 years!
During that time, I studied towards the Nigerian Bar exams and was called to the Nigerian bar, promptly returning to the UK soon after being enrolled at the Nigerian Supreme Court. I later did the UK transfer test for qualified lawyers, eventually getting an entry level role to qualify as a corporate solicitor over 16 years ago.
I spent the next 12 years working as a corporate solicitor within 4 different law firms – 2 Central London firms and 2 regional firms. I joined Roche in 2012 as Managing Counsel, managing a team of commercial lawyers. In 2016, I was promoted to my current role of General Counsel and now have additional leadership, corporate compliance and company secretarial responsibilities.
Roche is an incredible company to work for and I feel very privileged to be in this position which has also given me many opportunities to empower, help and support others.
Could you tell us a bit more about what Roche UK aims to do in terms of improving healthcare and medicines for a range of diseases such as cancer, arthritis and hepatitis?
Roche is the world’s largest biotech company with a mission to do now what patients need next. We invested £6.6 billion in research and development in 2015 and remain the biggest investor in R&D within the healthcare sector globally and amongst the top 5 across all industries. We also had 197 Roche clinical trials in the UK in 2015 with over 17,000 patients, a real commitment to patient care. I am proud to work for a company that so clearly prioritises patients, researching areas of unmet need. Our aim as an organisation is to continue to do this, making a real difference to patients’ lives across a broad range of therapy areas.
“Have a strong sense of who you are, where your strengths lie and your areas for improvement.”
What made you want to study law at University and consequently pursue a career in this profession?
This is a valid question as I come from a family of doctors – both parents, 3 younger siblings and several aunts, uncles and cousins are doctors! Bucking the family trend and announcing that I wanted to pursue a career in law came as a real surprise to my father at the time. However, I was passionate about law because I have a very strong sense of pursuing justice and was fascinated by the legal system. I also really loved words both written and spoken. At one stage when I was younger, I would read at least one book a day. I loved public speaking and debating and would enjoy long debates around the family table over a meal. All of this clearly pointed to a career in law for me.
You are keen to further your leadership, knowledge and expertise outside of your role too (in terms of governing schools, speaking at public events, presenting on TV and supporting and campaigning for more diversity within the legal profession/wider business community), but what is it that drives you?
Much of this is driven by personal experience and simply wanting to make a difference in people’s lives. I want to level the playing field.
I experienced racial discrimination when entering the legal profession – despite going to a private school and Russell Group university, I struggled to get an entry level role in corporate law. One recruiter told me that corporate practice was “too competitive for a black woman”. Infuriated by this, I drew up a list of the top 100 UK law firms, did the same with the top in-house legal departments within the UK’s largest companies, found out the names and telephone numbers of each team leader and cold-called each and every one. This led to interviews and job offers for me over 16 years ago when I started my career. I have experienced gender discrimination as a mother returning to work – when looking for a role outside London, negotiations for a job offer ground to a stunning halt once the firm realised I had a child. I have also been incensed to hear stories from several friends and mentees about the prejudice they faced coming from a working class background, irrespective of their gender or race.
Because of all this, I am determined to see things change in all three areas – gender, race and social mobility – within my life time, not only within the legal profession but also the wider business community.
“Act confident even if you do not feel confident – your confidence will grow over time.”
As a senior woman within your profession, what advice would you give to other women looking to progress within your field?
Have a very strong sense of who you are, where your strengths lie and your areas for improvement. The world will constantly try to put you in a box and define you, forever forcing you to conform – the best advice I can give is to be your own person, play to your strengths and work on your improvement areas. Focus, determination, persistence and tenacity are what have gotten me to where I am today.
If you are wanting to become a mother, think carefully about practical things such as childcare options as these will either help or hinder your ability to return to work after your baby. Be realistic about this – you can’t expect your employer to make all the compromises on your return to work so be prepared to meet your employer half way.
Act confident even if you do not feel confident – your confidence will grow over time. Make the most of every opportunity that comes your way – see all opportunities and challenges as an avenue for growth, learning and increased visibility. A world of opportunity awaits the visible so stand out (for the right reasons), develop your personal brand and make sure the world knows that you are not only here but have a role to play in shaping the future.
How do you maintain the perfect work-life balance as well as spending time with your son?
Having commuted long distances to and from work, 5 years ago I decided to find a role much closer to home. This proved to a big turning point. For me, commuting is exhausting – I find I have much more energy for everything due to my short drive to work.
I maintain careful boundaries around managing my time which is really important with a demanding full time role, family commitments and external voluntary commitments that are a full time job in themselves! I stick to a simple set of rules – for example, I will generally only limit myself to one speaking or other engagement outside of work every week, I limit myself to a maximum of 2 mentoring sessions a week and so on. When I do any more than that, I really do feel the impact on my wellbeing, become resentful and clearly need to rest properly. This does mean saying no to a lot of things – I have to decline nine out of ten of the opportunities that come my way – but at the same time also means that I have learnt to really prioritise what I contribute to.
I also make good use of technology and avoid having to travel as much as I possibly can. I find travelling (whether in the car, on the train or on a plane) utterly exhausting and, for me, a real waste of energy.
What has been the best piece of advice you have received in your career?
My father always used to say that “tough situations never last but tough people do” and he was spot on. To me, this means being tenacious – really hanging in there and not giving up, no matter how tough the situation. Life has thrown all sorts of challenges my way, many of which were unexpected and all of which have knocked me sideways. More recently, my father sadly died of liver cancer quite unexpectedly 4 years ago which hit us all very hard as a family – last year, we also lost 2 family members to cancer.
“Tough situations never last but tough people do.”
Despite the acute sense of loss I experienced after my father’s death in particular (and having taken proper time to mourn his loss), I still kept going – in fact, I became even more determined than ever to progress my career and make a success of my life after my father died. I recently founded a medical scholarship in his memory, a befitting way to honour my father which has also presented an opportunity for real closure.
As a mentor and sponsor yourself, who inspired you the most? Did you have a mentor?
I was very inspired by my parents. My father went to medical school in Germany as a scholar, learnt to speak fluent German and then returned to Nigeria after he graduated to start a thriving medical practice in Lagos. My mother is an extraordinary lady – so bright yet very humble, with 2 successful medical careers behind her. Through them, I saw first hand that hard work and persistence always pay off.
I do have a mentor who is a scientist and a global leader within the life sciences industry. I am so inspired by this incredible lady’s drive, creativity and leadership. We are now really good friends.
I am also inspired by historical female leaders – for example, Queen Elizabeth I. For almost 45 years, she ruled a divided England after her mother had been beheaded. She wasn’t the preferred ruler and remained a single woman throughout, devoted to her country. I would love to have asked her how she felt and what kept her going when she had to make tough decisions during her reign.
How do you like to unwind outside of work (when you’re not spending time with your son or campaigning/publicly speaking at schools/conferences etc.)?
I love spending time alone and really enjoy my own company, simply because I spend so much time around lots of other people and am constantly giving. My ideal wind down would be watching ‘Grey’s Anatomy’, ‘Dickensian’ or another good box set on DVD, completely taking my mind off work or my voluntary diversity work. Switching off all gadgets really helps too – there is always someone trying to reach me on the phone, by email, texting, via LinkedIn, Twitter or Facebook.
“If I have a big day ahead, I will almost certainly wear something red and will wear high heels – this works for me psychologically, making me feel courageous and bold”.
Do you think the way we dress and present ourselves in the workplace can have an impact on our career?
It definitely has an impact because of the image you project and the assumptions people make of you. This has a direct impact on how you are treated. If I have a big day ahead, I will almost certainly wear something red and will wear high heels – this works for me psychologically, making me feel courageous and bold. People tend to take me very seriously at work when they see me wearing red and in heels!
Do you have any go-to styles for your 9-5 wardrobe?
I love A-line, fit and flare style dresses in classic colours like navy or black, often with textured fabrics for days when I have important meetings and want to ‘power up’. I also like to accessorise and love wearing unusual, statement necklaces. Alternatively, because we have a dress down policy at work, some days I will simply wear a denim skirt with a classic top and flat shoes.
And finally, what are your favourite pieces from The Fold’s AW16 collection?
Hair: Easton Regal
Photography: David Nyanzi
Accessories: Funke’s own
Shop Funke’s Favourites