British/Nigerian lawyer, diversity leader and mother, Funke Abimbola (nee Akindolie), has been recognised by Her Royal Highness Queen Elizabeth II in her 91st birthday honours list for 2017.
Nigerian-born Funke has been awarded the M.B.E. (Member of the Order of the British Empire) for services to diversity in the legal profession and to young people.
The Queen has recognised the long-term, significant impact of Funke’s outstanding service to the legal community and to the next generation, serving as an example to others.
Commenting on her appointment as M.B.E. Funke said:
“I was absolutely stunned when I received an official letter from the Cabinet Office informing me of this in early May but have had to keep this news confidential until now”.
“The letter explained that, having taken advice from the Head of the Civil Service and the Main Honours Committee, the Prime Minister needed my permission before submitting my name to the Queen and recommending that I be awarded the M.B.E. It is incredible to think that campaigning for equality in my personal time (having experienced both direct racial and gender-based discrimination myself) and supporting young people to reach their potential has led to me receiving a Queen’s honour.”
“I am still taking it all in and feel very humbled and proud to be receiving this honour. More than anything, I am extremely grateful to everyone who has supported my journey and played a part in shaping and developing my vision – my parents, my family, friends, teachers, mentors and mentees. Mine has not been an easy path at all and I still face many challenges but I am very thankful for the support and encouragement I have received along the way”.
“My aim is to use this recognition as an elevated platform to open more doors for under-represented communities and to further advance the equality agenda by demonstrating that we are all bigger than the box that either society or the workplace chooses to put us in. I will be carrying as many people along with me as possible and continue to drive lasting societal change”.
Currently working full time as a solicitor, compliance professional and senior leader for the world’s largest biotech company, UK-based Funke was educated at Burgess Hill Girls School (an independent school in West Sussex) before studying law at Newcastle University. She now leads the legal team supporting her organisation’s pharmaceutical operations in the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar. In addition, she heads up the financial compliance function for the UK, ensuring and safeguarding the integrity of the organisation’s financial systems and other financial controls. She is the most senior black lawyer working in the UK pharmaceutical industry and is consistently recognised as being a leading lawyer within the life sciences field by a number of independent legal directories and publications.
Alongside her day job and parenting her 14 year old son, Funke has used her annual leave and volunteered significant amounts of her personal time towards influencing and improving diversity (with a focus on gender equality, race diversity and social mobility within the legal profession). She is a widely-cited authority on diversity, commentating on issues for a range of organisations as well as being a volunteer world news reviewer, appearing regularly on BBC One to a weekly global news audience of 320 million people.
For 5 years, Funke was a board director of City Growth Luton, a government-funded economic regeneration initiative aimed at creating more opportunities for those from a socially deprived background. She currently holds a number of voluntary, board-level roles across a range of organisations within the diversity space including Aspiring Solicitors (the UK’s largest organisation supporting diversity in the legal profession with over 25,000 members and volunteers), Women in Law London (WILL, a 2,400 strong network established to support the career progression of women lawyers) and First 100 Years (a project creating a digital library to celebrate the history of 100 years of women lawyers).
She volunteered her time as an expert contributor to Tottenham MP David Lammy’s review of the UK’s criminal justice system and is Patron of the Precious Awards (celebrating women of colour), Power Up (empowering professionals from an ethnic minority background) and University College London University’s Leadership and Management Society (the fastest growing student society at UCL).
Funke is also part of DRIVE (Diverse Recruitment Institute of Value and Excellence), an initiative aimed at creating 150,000 more diverse hires over a 5 year period, meeting at the House of Lords and the Cabinet Office. In addition, she has advised the Justice Secretary and the Ministry of Justice by providing recommendations on how to make the legal profession more diverse. Her contributions and influence have impacted decision-making by a broad range of stakeholders, shaping government policy.
Partnering with legal PR firm Byfield Consultancy and journalist Jon Robins, Funke personally sponsored the award-winning 2015 report, ‘Opening up or shutting out? Social mobility in the legal profession”, a report that has made a significant contribution towards highlighting the ongoing challenges surrounding social mobility within the profession and influencing impactful social change. The report has been shared with over 3,000 young people and presented in Parliament at the House of Lords, at PRIME (the UK’s principal platform for advancing social mobility across the legal profession) and at the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission (chaired by the Rt Hon Alan Milburn).
Funke volunteers regularly at Law Society events, supporting both the Women Lawyers Division (a division that represents over 88,000 female solicitors on the solicitors’ roll) and the Ethnic Minority Lawyers division (over 25,000 solicitors) with a range of initiatives. She has partnered with the President of the Law Society on improving race diversity across the 175,000 solicitors on the solicitors’ roll, driving the business case for diversity across the whole profession.
Having twice served as a school governor (at Sandridge School and Uxbridge College), Funke has since empowered thousands of young people to overcome obstacles and maximise their potential by providing free motivational leadership talks, mentoring, careers advice and work experience opportunities both as a voluntary speaker for Speakers4Schools and independently of that organisation. She shares her personal leadership story with approximately 2,000 school children annually, empowering them to become more resilient in overcoming obstacles. Funke recently received the 2017 Mary Lou Carrington award from the Worshipful Company of Educators in recognition of her significant contributions to the UK’s education system and her contributions towards bridging the gap between schools and businesses.
Together with her siblings, she founded the Akindolie Medical Scholarship in April 2016, a privately funded annual bursary awarded to an outstanding UK-based medical student from a minority ethnic background. The scholarship was established in memory of her late father, Dr Frank Olufemi Akindolie, a gifted, German-trained doctor who tragically died of liver cancer in 2012.
October 2016 saw Funke presented with a ‘Point of Light’ award by the Prime Minister, recognising the impact of her voluntary diversity work.
In a personal letter to Funke at the time, the Prime Minister wrote:
“You have become a role model for thousands of young people, inspiring them to believe that race or gender should not be a barrier to achieving their potential. By speaking so passionately to groups in Parliament, the Law Society and, most importantly, over two thousand school children and university students, you are supporting the professions to become more diverse.”
Funke recently met the Prime Minister who personally congratulated her on the positive impact of her voluntary diversity work at a reception at number 10 Downing Street.
Currently named in several lists that recognise influential and impactful contributions to British society, Funke features in the 2017 law section of Debretts 500 as being the most influential black lawyer in the UK. The Debretts 500 list recognises those who inspire, influence and instigate change beyond expectation. Also listed in Debretts’ law section are the Attorney General, Jeremy Wright and Supreme Court judges Lord Neuberger (Supreme Court President), Baroness Hale (Deputy Supreme Court President) and Lord Sumption.
Funke’s leadership is recognised by both the Financial Times (who ranks her as being one of the top 15 minority ethnic leaders in the UK, US, Canada & Ireland) and in Powerful Media’s Powerlist (where she is listed as being one of the 100 most influential African/Afro-Caribbean leaders in the UK).
Commenting further on her M.B.E. appointment, Funke said:
“Although the dial has shifted in some ways, there is still a shocking lack of understanding or, indeed, awareness of the importance of diversity, inclusion and equality in the workplace and across society as a whole. I experience the consequences of this lack of understanding on a daily basis and campaigning for equality has, at times, come at huge personal cost. Raising my head above the parapet and being ‘front of stage’ has not been without its downsides – challenging and changing the status quo to level the playing field is far from easy. I am very visible and vocal in the diversity space and have, unfortunately, been personally attacked, criticised and unfairly judged with a small minority questioning my motives for doing what I do to advance equality”.
“It would seem that this criticism is often rooted in resentment, fear, ignorance or jealousy and is directly related to me having a high profile, being visible, being vocal in calling out discriminatory behaviour and being recognised for the impact of my work (including receiving award nominations). Disappointingly, the fact that I am black and female has also been a major factor for some – being black means that I am already very conspicuous, added to which I am female. Cultural and gender biases do exist and I have been a victim of either or both countless times. I am not silent, I do speak up and speak out and I have an uncompromising, unapologetic stance in standing up for what is fair and right. Regretfully, there is a small minority who would rather I kept quiet, stayed out of sight and did nothing to advance equality”.
“To me, the criticism that I (and, indeed, many other campaigners) have experienced shows a disappointing lack of awareness or appreciation of the gravity of what is at stake and the reason why we are campaigning at all. Visible, accessible role models who have the courage to speak up and speak out are vitally important in changing the narrative for under-represented communities. The need for visible role models has been highlighted in countless research papers and government reports and we will never achieve equality without their courageous contributions”.
“I am the proud mother of a 14 year old, black boy and I am particularly concerned about outcomes for young black men in British society. My son is fortunate to have been born into privilege and will be the fourth generation of graduates in our family – his future is bright. However, a friend recently shared with me that he had heard a speaker at an event tell the audience that young black boys can expect one of three career paths: sport, music or prison. The future for so many black boys is not bright and we absolutely must work together to change that trajectory. This is just one example of what is at stake if we do nothing to drive societal change. There are, clearly, many more options open to our young black men than sport, music or prison”.
“Visibility of accessible role models is crucial for supporting and encouraging under-represented groups in general and in fully maximising potential. This applies to all under-represented and disadvantaged groups across all diversity strands, not only to black boys. The lack of social mobility remains a real issue in Britain today with the ‘poverty trap’ consistently identified as being the ultimate barrier to progress by the Social Mobility and Child Poverty Commission, Sutton Trust and other organisations. Visible role models are essential in creating opportunities for others whilst also giving a more representative picture of what it is possible to achieve in life – you can’t be what you can’t see.”
“Being a visible and vocal spokesperson for a cause does not, therefore, mean that one is self-promoting, over-promoting or bragging yet this is something that campaigners are regularly accused of by some. I have no doubt that there will be those reading this press announcement, once again judging me unfairly. However, the simple truth is this: campaigning for equality is my calling. I will not be distracted, discouraged or dissuaded from pursuing my calling by those who choose to form incorrect and unfair judgments about me and others based on biased and flawed perceptions that have no basis in reality. I am working for a cause and not for applause and am yet to meet a campaigner who is silent and invisible”.
“Together with other campaigners, I make significant personal sacrifices to advance this cause by volunteering my personal time and other resources on top of a demanding full time day job and parenting my teenaged son. By far the easier option (and the choice made by most) would be to complain about the status quo and yet do absolutely nothing to improve it. It takes tremendous courage, commitment and sacrifice to do what we, as campaigners, do to drive societal change in the face of (at times) deeply personal, biased, unfair criticism and attack”.
“I feel incredibly privileged to be awarded the M.B.E. by the Queen and will wear this honour with pride and dignity. I am truly overwhelmed with gratitude and deeply humbled. This is hugely encouraging to me, not only confirming that my hard work and sacrifice has been valued and appreciated by the Queen but, most importantly, that my voluntary work is having demonstrable, lasting impact and must continue no matter what”.
“This year marks 100 years of the Order of the British Empire and I feel extremely proud to become a Member of the Order in its centenary year. I cannot thank my supporters enough for nominating me for a Queen’s honour and for supporting my calling. I remain absolutely committed to advancing this cause, levelling the playing field and driving significant societal change”.
Funke received her M.B.E. medal from HRH The Prince of Wales at an investiture ceremony in Buckingham Palace on 7th December 2017.
Culled: Funke Abimbola