Let’s Talk…with YEMI ADEOLA
In continuation with my last post regarding Black History Awareness and celebrating the achievements of Black individuals while they are alive, in this post I had the pleasure of interviewing Warwick Alumnus Yemi Adeola.
Yemi Adeola is a Legal-Tech Intrapreneur and Future Trainee Solicitor at Clifford Chance. He founded a social enterprise called Project Access (PA) Midlands, which fights inequalities in higher education by widening access to top UK universities for untraditional students, through a tech-enabled mentorship platform and in 2019 he helped launch the charity’s Ed-tech intervention in the US Ivy League. As a Coordinator at Big Voice London (an independent social mobility charity supported by the UK Supreme Court), he continues to empower young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to understand their rights. Through amplifying their voices by equipping those aged 16-18 with knowledge of the law and legal policy. Recently, Yemi joined the Grant Committee as an Advisory Board Member of the Youth Futures Foundation, working alongside Lord Woolley to support young people furthest away from the labour market into sustained meaningful employment during Covid-19. He has been identified by Google as a Top Black Talent and by UNDP as an SDG Global Talent.
The first thing that I thought was important to ask, particularly in this current social climate was how Yemi found his experience at Warwick;
Q: Can you talk about your experience as a black student here at Warwick…
Yemi : My experience as a black student at Warwick was a paradox. Academically, I felt seen and listened to in workshops/seminars with professors like Dr Meleisa Ono-George and Dr Bo. Kelestyn proactively engaging in my course and entrepreneurial endeavours. This created and protected a space of collaborative community among students, where individual opinion and potential is valued. Moreover, whilst I thoroughly enjoyed the opportunities to immerse myself in the extracurricular societies which were inclusive and enabled me to thrive. Prior to arriving at university, I was erroneously classified as an overseas student on UCAS due to my Nigerian name which almost made me withdraw my application to the university. This and 2 further racist incidents black friends I made at Warwick endured all had slow and inadequate responses. As such it is no surprise that I, and many other black students feel like imposters, not belonging in an elite institution which, at times, takes for granted microaggressions black students face and deprioritises tangible actions to address concerns. The university has been a place where race has not been acknowledged as relevant to the whole intellectual experience of being at Warwick. This needs to change not only by joining charters but through active anti-racist campaigning at all levels of the university and structural changes to the way, faculty and staff tackle racial discrimination.
And his response was one I sadly found unsurprising. Any black students reading this I’m sure can relate to the feelings of being ignored. It is not an issue at Warwick alone but instead a running theme in a lot of higher education institutions. Education is often valued above welfare and especially in situations regarding race. I can, however, say with confidence, that Warwick is improving- arguably the student led initiatives have had more impact in this area than the University itself but change is happening and I wanted to get Yemi’s thoughts on this as well.
Q: What changes, if any, did you see throughout your time at Warwick regarding racism and being a Black student from first year to graduation?
Yemi: In my final year, Warwick launched a university strategy which put social inclusion at its centre to ensure students have access to equal opportunities to progress. This coincided with an important timebound goal to close the Black Attainment Gap at the university by 2025. However, the most important changes came from student-led grassroots movements like Warwick Decolonise Project founded by Larissa Kennedy (the then SU Education Officer now NUS President) and Black Women’s Project set up by Jessica Agboola. Both of which have worked with Warwick to leverage the power of community and research to improve the eclectic sources for departmental curriculums and representation of black leaders in academia. Representation matters. If a black student is able to identify with relatable authors that look like them, they will be more likely to engage. Although, there is a lot to be done, the university has since taken steps to scrutinise module content, books and journal articles to ensure the curriculum is more inclusive for all students. From overlooking incidents in first year, when I graduated in 2019, I felt that Warwick took steps to listen to experiences of racism by minority students and alumni. The importance of dialogue cannot be ignored. However, more systemic actions are necessary to view student-led initiatives as collaborative partners, involving young black students at Warwick who know most about the problem in decision making, if institutional racism is to be tackled.
It can be very disheartening and quite painful watching things progress so slowly because it really does feel as though some of the actions that are being put in place now are long overdue and that is simply because they are. One thing that I always seem to notice in institutions of education is that your achievements and success are your currency. There is often a switch in how you are viewed and received by the world and by your community when you start making a name for yourself. So, with Yemi being a prime example of a successful Black man I had to ask him if he noticed any changes in how he was treated once the ball started rolling and how the University helped his career if at all.
Q: How would you say your success has impacted the University or the World’s perception of you- do you ever feel labelled or feel there is something to prove?
Yemi: A few eyebrows were raised when I decided to run a virtual campaign as a new Fellow, to join the RSA’s Council (part of the governance body). Having recently been elected the youngest Councillor of the RSA in their 265+ year history at the age of 22, it can sometimes feel like I am representing my whole generation as the sole representative in decision making from within. However, I have found that the best way to counter stereotypes of youthful naivety is by taking up space and leveraging the platform of renowned organisations to formulating policies and driving initiatives to catalyse positive change in society. There is a perception that young people lack experience, but my endeavours to date challenge these assumptions and prove that anyone can make a difference. My successes are testament to the fact that if you are intentional with your time, energy and ingenuity and channel these towards causes they are passionate about; you have agency to improve people’s lives and make a valuable contribution to your local community!
Q: How did going to university help shape your career, what elements of university life impacted you the most?
Yemi: Definitely proactively engaging in extracurriculars. I took on many leadership roles as Warwick Entrepreneurs President, Treasurer of Warwick Debating Society, Editor of Warwick Emerging Markets Society and founding an ed-tech social enterprise (Project Access Midlands). All of which developed a lot of transferrable skills, enabling me to pursue a non-linear career path. The most important was developing my confidence to persevere and not allow setbacks to prevent me from bouncing back. Having to juggle so many responsibilities during finals cultivated a lot of resilience to see failure as a learning opportunity validating that I was pushing my limits and embracing a growth mindset to overcome adversities. The amazing people I was lucky enough to work with within societies and faculty, motivated me to go above and beyond in all I set my mind to at university! Since graduating, I have prioritised learning and optionality in my early career. This has entailed focusing on working with great people that I can learn from rather than optimising for the role, title or brand name of the company I work for. If you work with exceptional people who want to develop you and make you successful, you will grow personally and professionally.
With that said;
Q: Do you feel like your time at Warwick has helped you prepare for working life?
Yemi : My time at Warwick made me realise, your career is what you make of it. Surround yourself with people you can learn from every day and who motivate you to be the best version of yourself. If you don’t build your dreams someone will hire you to help build theirs. Similar to ‘wearing many hats’ at university, I continue to do the same and I am training to be a Future Trainee Solicitor at my dream firm in 2021.
From the description of Yemi above, I’m sure you all were just as amazed as I was by how much he had accomplished in such a short amount of time. However, more specifically the aspiring solicitors (like myself) reading this probably saw the ‘Future Trainee at Clifford Chance’ first and zoned in on that. Breaking into law especially at a big magic circle firm is already a tough plight but as an ethnic minority there are added microaggressions working against you as well. It was very inspiring to see that not only is it possible to break into law as a Black student but you can also do everything else you wanted to.
Q: As you have worked so hard with Project Access Midlands and Big voice London to help students access the legal sector, how was your own journey breaking into Law and getting a training contract?
Yemi: The people. Cultivating an amazing network of mentors who kept me motivated and gave me invaluable advice. Paying it forward by individually mentoring others who have secured internships and graduate roles in the legal profession. At Warwick, a highlight was setting up a peer-to-peer mentorship platform to redress information/network asymmetries, preventing access to elite tertiary education regionally, and since graduating joining the central team for 6 months to help to launch Project Access’ ed-tech intervention in the US Ivy League!
Top tip/ piece of advice you received and would like to give?
Yemi: Don’t obsess over outcomes, focus on the process. Use university as a time to try lots of different things out and concentrate on finding ways to solve problems you care about. But most importantly perfection is not something to be aimed for, just start doing!
I think that is genuinely some advice more of us should take. It almost feels like sometimes we are so programmed to be perfectionists in many ways especially in elite Universities that we forget that sometimes its just about the experience. It’s sometimes very valuable to receive that rejection and learn from whatever you did to develop yourself and grow. It is often a very tough pill to swallow but it is part of the journey of this career path. I think it is often also the assumption of many of us that it is either Law or something else – there is never really an in between or a collaboration of passions but Yemi is living proof that that is not the case.
Q: What is the end goal for you? Are you continuing with your work with youth or are you focussing on your legal career and ‘passing the torch’
Yemi: Both! That’s a false dichotomy, I think young people starting their careers care about the purpose behind the work they do. We are increasingly aware of the challenges ahead- the climate crisis, poverty, education and much more. Purpose is almost always derived from making a difference beyond yourself and I intend to continue pursuing my entrepreneurial, volunteering, and legal endeavours for the foreseeable future to do just that!
To round off, I wanted to end talking a bit more about Yemi’s volunteering work and what he has been doing since graduating last year.
Q: What work have you been involved in since graduating and did your experiences at Warwick influence your decision to help empower young people from disadvantaged backgrounds?
Yemi: After leaving Project Access to go to Law School, I wanted to continue working on access so I joined Big Voice London as a Coordinator, (a social-mobility charity supported by the UK Supreme Court), which seeks to empower young people from state schools aged 16-18 to scrutinise legal policy and democratise access to information about their rights and the legal profession, thereby increasing the diversity of Qualified Solicitors and at The Bar in the UK. I also sit on the Advisory Board of Youth Futures Foundation’s Grant Committee, to increase access to funding of social enterprises. At YFF, we support young people furthest away from the labour market (NEET) into sustained meaningful employment. I am on the Founding Team of YFF’s Youth Advisory Panel to ensure young people are central to everything we do. Lastly, in my new role as a Fellowship Councillor at The RSA, I am on the Catalyst Grant Committee to increase pipeline funding of minority-led third sector initiatives and represent 10,000 Fellows based in London to build a more equitable world through turning ideas on pressing social issues into local action.
Q: How can our students get involved with any of the projects you are part of?
Yemi: Here are links to all of the amazing projects I am part of!
All are doing amazing work on education, social mobility and/or youth unemployment so don’t hesitate to contact them directly or myself on LinkedIn or via my email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’d like to get involved!
Q: How does it feel being recognised for your efforts being an OSCA winner as well as being identified by Google as a Top Black Talent and by UNDP as an SDG Global Talent.?
a. Do you ever get used to it?
Not at all! I have a lot of amazing people in my circle (most notably my mum!) who keep me grounded. In Black History Month, it’s important to be cognisant of the fact that we stand on the shoulders of giants.
b. Did you expect it?
I’ve never expected to win awards- but I am very grateful for these accolades. However, these awards aren’t who I am and I think it’s important to celebrate not just the big wins but the everyday ones with family, friends and the heroic networks that enabled me to be radically optimistic about my capacity to effect change!
c. Do you ever feel the pressure of being a Black role model for younger people?
Quite the opposite – Growing up I learnt the importance of being present, leading with authenticity and making decisions that I care about. I think that it is vital for anybody that is starting their career to be able to look up- and be able to see people that look like them and speak like them. If people don’t see themselves at the top, they cannot see themselves aspiring to that level. This is why at the non-profit I lead: Circle of Intrapreneurs, I launched an initiative called the Black Intrapreneurs Project (YouTube Videos interviewing black leaders at FTSE 100 Companies) in the aftermath of BLM to provide visibility, challenge stereotypes and utilise our platform to amplify underrepresented voice. Being a black role model is so important and I am happy to own the perception as it is crucial to enable diverse talent to thrive. Dr Bo. Kelestyn has invited me to give a Guest Lecture to Warwick Business School students on why it is imperative to spearhead such intrapreneurial initiatives to hopefully inspire students to do the same in their future careers!
And finally, on the topic of role models and inspiration;
Q: As it is Black History Month, who would you say is your biggest inspiration within the Black Community?
A: Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon who founded Stemettes, a social enterprise promoting young women in STEM careers and Fred Swaniker, for his transformative work in training the next generation of African leaders. Both have empowered me to realise that social change can happen locally and at a macro-level, but only if you harness your agency to make things happen! Both inspired my passion of utilising digital scalability to bridge the gap between underserved talent and opportunity.
I want to thank Yemi Adeola for taking part in this interview and on behalf of the Law School we wish you endless success and continued growth in your personal and professional journey’s. I would also like to thank the Law School for organising this and hope you all enjoyed reading what Yemi had to say. I hope you have all had a great and informative Black History Month but please remember that Black history is continuous and keep celebrating even if it’s not October.