Interview : Funke Abimbola
Funke has worked as a corporate lawyer both in the City and within regional law firms. She joined Roche in 2012 and is a recognised legal expert. A role model to many, she regularly speaks at conferences and is a real champion for up and coming talent in the legal sector.
It’s been quite a year for Funke and she has been recognised for her awesome work at numerous awards initiatives – well done Funke. We’re delighted that she’s also shortlisted for the ‘Inspiring Member of the Year’ award at our inaugural Inclusive Networks Awards.
What does an average day look like for you?
There is no typical day for me because of the variety within my role at Roche and the scope of my interests and activities outside of work. As well as leading my legal team, I also have a commercial role as deployment lead for England on a market access project. In addition, I am data privacy officer for the UK and company secretary for 18 companies. So my day could involve advising on any one or more of the areas of law that affect our pharmaceutical business (for example, general commercial law, data protection, competition law, intellectual property law and corporate compliance and company secretarial matters). Coaching, mentoring and motivating my team is a key part of my role – I take a real interest in my team members and dedicate time to supporting, encouraging and developing them in any way that I can.
Outside of work, I devote a lot of my spare time to campaigning for and championing more diversity within the legal profession and this could involve speaking to 300 women solicitors at the Law Society about the importance of networking and visibility or addressing a group of 150 school children to share my personal story and my journey to where I am or speaking to University students considering a career in law. I mentor and coach students and solicitors outside of work.
I am also raising a 12 year old son and will sometimes have to go to his school in the evening for a parents’ evening or school concert as well as making sure he has done his homework and not forgotten his PE uniform. As you can see, it is very difficult to describe a typical day!
How do you juggle your career and family life?
I have learnt to juggle life commitments more effectively by becoming much better at saying no without feeling guilty. The reality is that there is only limited time available to me and I have constant demands made on my time. Time is our most precious resource and I am careful to spend my time wisely. When my son was younger, I needed an au pair living in to help with after school care. Even now that he is older, I still aim to limit evening networking to one event a week at most, for example, so that I can spend quality time with my son in the evenings. I have also taken my son to several of my speaking engagements in London which he has really enjoyed. He has certainly learnt how to “work a room”!.
I am careful to devote my weekends to family and friends and rarely work on weekends. I think I get the balance right most of the time but there are, of course, occasions when an unexpected “curveball” is thrown at you and you just need to “roll with the punches”. I have a strong support network with my family and also other working mums that I have met through my sons school, all of whom have boys in the same year. We regularly help each other out with childcare cover, for example, and meet up regularly as friends to discuss the challenges of bringing up boys. Raising pre-teen boys is not easy! My support network of other mums has been invaluable.
Do you think having a positive work life balance is important?
This is crucially important – I see it more as a “life balance” than a “work life balance”. What we are all trying to do is to find a balance in our overall lives. Because I am a mother, I have turned down several job opportunities that would not be compatible with family life. The way I see it, I will never get the time back with my son so want to be able to spend as much time with him as possible now whilst he is growing up, needs clear direction and supervision and is still living with me. I have seen time and again what happens to colleagues who put everything into their careers, neglecting family, friends and outside interests. I believe it is important to have many sources of fulfilment and happiness in life and think it is unrealistic to expect any one area of your life to meet all your needs.
You’ve achieved so much. Are there still things you aspire to achieve in your professional and personal life?
The main thing I want to achieve in my personal life is to raise a confident, well-adjusted young man who knows right from wrong and will reach his full potential. No other achievement will matter if my son suffers and goes off the rails! In my career, I am aiming for an even more senior leadership position which will have a wider impact within the healthcare industry. In the wider community, I want to increase the reach and positive impact that my diversity initiatives have, not only within the legal community but in the wider business world. This is a very topical area and I want to continue playing a key part in creating a more diverse work place that is reflective of the diverse society in which we live.
“I have learnt to juggle life commitments more effectively by becoming much better at saying no without feeling guilty. The reality is that there is only limited time available to me and I have constant demands made on my time.”
What has been the biggest professional challenge you’ve experienced and how did you overcome this?
By far the biggest challenge was when I returned to work full time after maternity leave. I was the only junior solicitor who had a child at that firm – there was a dearth of junior solicitors who were also mothers. I worked in corporate transactional law at the time so there were real limits to the extent to which I could work flexibly. I remember feeling constantly tired and as if I was neither parenting well nor being a good solicitor. I really struggled with getting the balance right and, ultimately, had to leave that central London law firm for a regional law firm in the Northern Home Counties. Once I left London, my life balance was much better and I did really well at that firm and was promoted. I lived much closer to work, making it easier and quicker to get home at the end of the day. There was no long hours culture at the regional firm I moved to so I had more time and energy for my son (who was still only a toddler at this stage). So I overcame this professional challenge by basically leaving London, moving to Hertfordshire and working for a regional law firm. I have realised that part of growing older is realising, recognising and respecting your limits and making life changes to accommodate those limits when necessary.
“Because I am a mother, I have turned down several job opportunities that would not be compatible with family life.”
Has being a part of a network provided you with any personal and professional support?
Definitely! I have been a member of the Association of Women Solicitors for over 15 years. I am also a member of the Women Lawyers’ division of the Law Society and play an active part in supporting the development of women solicitors. In addition, I am a member of the Black Solicitors’ Network, the WILL Network (Women in Law London) and the network of Professional Ambassadors as part of Aspiring Solicitors.
All of these networks have not only played a key part in supporting me but have also become an important avenue for me to support others. My network of working mums has been a huge source of support and encouragement through the ups and downs of parenting, as has been my personal network of friends and family.
Do you enjoy networking?
I enjoy networking tremendously because it is an opportunity to meet new, like-minded people, to learn from each other and to support each other. There are a couple of events that are real highlights for me. The first time I spoke to over 200 women solicitors at the Law Society about the importance of networking and visibility was extraordinary. I felt so privileged to be in a position to share my personal experiences and to motivate and inspire others. The other event was the launch of the WILL Network, an excellent event where the key note speakers were the 5 members of the WILL committee as well as Dame Fiona Woolf and Mary-Ann Wright, Chair of the Women Lawyers’ Division. The event was well attended, well organised and there was a real buzz and sense of optimism about the launch of the network. It doesn’t get much better than that really!
What advice would you give to someone sat at home thinking they’d love to attend a networking event but don’t really have anyone to go with or may be a bit nervous about what to expect?
I would say be brave and go on your own if necessary! Provided that this is a networking event you are genuinely interested in attending, go with an open mind. You are unlikely to be the only one who is coming alone. When you get there, start a conversation with someone on their own or ask to join a group of people – they won’t say no! Talk about general things – current affairs, hobbies, sport etc. – and focus on getting to know others as individuals rather than seeing them purely as future clients or customers. For example, my love of rugby (my son has played rugby since he was 5 and at one stage I was helping with coaching his rugby team) has led to more introductions and business opportunities than the fact that I am a lawyer known for what I do! Don’t aim to exchange business cards with 50 people but aim to exchange a handful of business cards with those you have had quality conversations with and can then follow up with afterwards. Show a genuine interest in others and ask them what they do. And remember – you have just as much a right to be there as anyone else in the room so make good use of the opportunity.
What’s your idea of a relaxing day off?
Spending time with my son is very relaxing. It wouldn’t matter what we did – saw friends, family, went to the cinema or to a show in the West End – it is just lovely spending time with him and talking to him. And it goes without saying that work tends not to feature when I am having a relaxing day off!
What has been the proudest moment in your career?
By far my proudest moment was being appointed to my current role at Roche. The role was newly created, there was stiff competition for the role and my boss appointed me on merit – it just so happened that I was also a black woman and a mother. It is a real privilege working for a company like Roche and the increased visibility this role has given me has meant that my diversity work has far more impact. I respect and share the company’s values and it has been wonderful to experience the career development opportunities available not only to me but also to members of my team. I have also had the privilege of working with a truly diverse range of colleagues for the first time in my career and believe this has played a key part in my success at Roche.
Did you have a Role Model growing up? Do you think Role Models are important?
My parents were both my role models when I was growing up – both very hard working and exceptional doctors who were driven and ambitious yet supportive of my goals and ambitions. They both supported me to reach my full potential, believed in me and what I could achieve and made tremendous sacrifices to educate me and my siblings privately. Role models are essential – they give you your frame of reference and show you what is possible. Had I not had my parents, I might have really struggled to see what was possible for me, especially as a black woman and a mother.
What does the rest of 2015 have in store for you?
On the family front, my son starts a new year at school and becomes a teenager later this year, both of which will be very interesting. There are a number of diversity initiatives that I have been working on all year that will come to fruition during the rest of 2015, including the launch of a research-based social mobility report focusing on the legal profession (that I sponsored in a personal capacity). I also have some exciting developments at work so watch this space!
Inclusive Networks Awards :
We’re thrilled that Funke is shortlisted for the Inspiring Member of the Year award at our inaugural Inclusive Networks Awards.