Funke Abimbola

Funke is a solicitor and senior leader for Roche, the world’s largest biotech company. Her team provides legal support to Roche’s pharmaceutical operations in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar. In addition, she also leads the financial compliance function for the UK pharmaceutical business.

Outside of her day job, she is a notable diversity campaigner, mainly focusing on campaigning for more gender equality, race diversity and social mobility within the legal profession and wider business community.

Currently the most senior black lawyer in her field, she is ranked as being a top 15 BAME leader globally (Financial Times), one of the 100 most influential leaders of African/Afro-Caribbean heritage in the UK (The Powerlist) and the most influential black lawyer in the UK (Debretts 500 list).

Funke has received both national and international recognition for her legal and diversity work and is an experienced public speaker, sharing her personal journey with large audiences ranging from school children to senior professionals including regularly speaking and campaigning in Parliament. She holds a number of board-level voluntary leadership roles across a range of different diversity organisations and appears regularly on BBC 1 as a news reviewer to an estimated global audience of 320 million.

A proud working mother, an expert mentor and sponsor, Funke is passionate about the law, diversity, education and healthcare. She is a regular media commentator, a keen fundraiser for various charities (including Cancer Research UK) and has twice served as school governor and as a board director. She founded the Akindolie Medical Scholarship in memory of her father, Dr. Frank Olufemi Akindolie. This is a privately funded bursary and leadership mentoring initiative aimed at supporting future UK doctors from a minority ethnic background.

Funke was honoured with a ‘Point of Light’ award by UK Prime Minister Theresa May and the UK Cabinet Office in October 2016, recognising the positive impact of her voluntary diversity work in improving workplace diversity and in supporting the next generation of future leaders.

In June 2017, she was awarded the M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) in the Queen’s 91st birthday honours list for services to diversity in the legal profession and young people.

Anecdotes – First 100 Years Project Race

I found it extremely difficult to secure an entry-level position when I finished the QLTT (now QLTS) transfer test and needed to gain experience before qualification. To get my foot in the door, I drew up a list of the top 100 law firms specialising in corporate law and did the same with the top 50 in-house teams. I then proceeded to cold-call the heads of department at all 150 organisations. This lead to several interviews, including one with a major, fully listed PLC. At that interview, the head of legal (who is English but whose partner is of Asian descent) asked me if I thought my race had been a factor in me not getting interviews with other organisations. That was, honestly, the first time I had even considered race as being something that could inhibit my progress. Thankfully, I was offered a role by her and was able to qualify as a solicitor in-house. Soon after qualifying in 2000, I vividly remember waiting in reception for an interview at a top 30 City law firm for a corporate solicitor role. I reported into reception, telling the receptionist the name of the corporate partner who was interviewing me for the vacant role. The receptionist remarked, “How odd. I didn’t realise that he was looking for another secretary!” I calmly told her that I had no idea about his secretarial situation either but was there for the solicitor role. She was visibly embarrassed when I said this and did apologise but this is a good example of the barriers posed by unconscious cultural bias.

Gender

Fast forward to October 2014 when I was challenging a male, senior equity partner at a top 30 City law firm on why they only had one female non-exec on their senior leadership team. His response was that none of the female partners at the firm were good enough to lead, this despite the fact that there are a number of female partners at that firm who are recognised leaders in their field. It is incredible that these views still exist in this day and age but, sadly they do. Further on gender, I was in negotiations with a firm for a corporate solicitor role about 10 years ago and mentioned the fact that I was a mother. Soon after that conversation, negotiations cooled significantly and, eventually, the offer was withdrawn. When I asked the firm why things had changed, the reason I was given was that the firm was “looking for slightly different experience”. I am convinced that the reason was because I revealed that I am a mother but was unable to prove this at the time.
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