Just Keep Going
Finding treasure in the storm.
Courtesy of Philip Olagunju - Partner at PEM Corporate Finance LLP
My mum and dad had just emigrated to the UK from Nigeria in the early ‘80s when they had me. My dad had started his research project for his doctorate at the University of Southampton, but, as time went along, he had to stop the academic journey and start looking for paid work to support his young family. Aside from the challenge of income being low to begin with, there was an extra challenge of us being immigrants in the UK and of African origin. Even though some local people were welcoming and loving, the overriding environment growing up was one of suspicion. After we moved to north London, for example, as a youngster I remember seeing National Front posters on the wall around my area including one which read ‘No Dogs, No Blacks, No Irish’. Being threatened and chased by racist gangs was a regular occurrence for me growing up. In response, my dad reinforced the pursuit of two things: academics and religion (i.e. Christianity).
Fundamentally, my dad wanted to provide for us and equip us with the tools to be able to thrive in our environment. Because he was in a foreign place, he had to work out very quickly what he could give us for us to not just survive in our surroundings but thrive in them. Firstly, he focused on spiritual aspects - pressing into church and community. Being part of a wider group of Nigerians in north London was helpful, as we would all come together on a Sunday morning and Wednesday night at church (Christ Apostolic Church, near Tottenham) and, through the conduit of religion, experience community.
The second component of my dad’s equation was education. He had a mantra growing up which he would repeatedly say to my brother, sister, and myself: ‘Your lives must be better than my life.’ He very quickly worked out that the route to ensuring the realisation of that mantra was via education. So, right from the jump, we had home-schooling to get us above the national curriculum level. We would go to primary school as normal but come home to lessons in spelling, mathematics, and complex reasoning amongst other things.
Similar to a lot of the elders of my generation, my dad had a few careers in mind that would bring cultural pride and financial freedom for his children. My dad initially wanted me to be a medical doctor or some sort of surgeon, and thus, he encouraged me to lean towards the sciences rather than the arts. However, medicine wasn’t really what I wanted to do.
From an early age, I was fascinated with the world of business and financial markets. For instance, I would be glued to BBC2’s ‘The Money Programme’ whenever it came on. I would also feel inspired whenever I spoke to one of my uncles who set up his own accounting practice in Nigeria after initially training here in the UK.
Even the subjects I enjoyed at school such as Maths and Economics tilted towards finance and business. Leaning into those subjects, I decided to leave London to study Accounting and Financial Management at Loughborough University, which has one of the top business schools in the UK. I pretty much knew from my university experience that I wasn’t going to go into formal accounting training as a graduate. However, I really enjoyed the idea of mergers and acquisitions (M&A) and the concept of businesses coming together and leveraging their synergies to become greater than the sum of their parts.
Around 6 months after graduating, I got a call from a recruiter saying that a national practice was looking for graduates to provide support on research and analysis projects. I was told that if I worked hard and demonstrated a strong inquisitive nature, there’d be a chance to forge a career path. The role would also be based in Nottingham, which wasn’t a problem for me because I went to nearby Loughborough for university. Plus, my dad had set an example of leaving everything he knew and the comfort of family and friends in Nigeria to throw himself into available opportunities in Europe, and he passed that willingness to explore down to his children.
Looking back, that early opportunity in Nottingham gave me the chance to work on transactions directly from day one, achieve two promotions and get the corporate finance diploma backed by the Institute of Chartered Accountants of England and Wales. Even more importantly, my experience in Nottingham helped me grow immensely as a person.
During my time in the East Midlands, I was the only black guy in the team, and typically the only black person in the “boardroom” working on either the buy or sell-side of a transaction. Being the only person of colour in this space did something on the inside of me. I grew in confidence and became resilient. The experience helped me know that I could do this and that I was not inferior to any of my Caucasian counterparts. Secondly, it gave me the determination that I could overcome any challenges that came my way and provided a strong platform to move forward.
I always say that life is an accumulation of experiences. They all go into somewhat of a “bank” that we can draw upon when situations hit us. I’ve heard it said that in life you are either a) about to go into a storm, b) currently in a storm or c) coming out of a storm. So, when you’re going through the difficult challenges, it builds resilience within you, so that when you go through situations later on in life that may be similar to what you’ve faced previously, you can draw upon that wealth of experience to help you get through it. I’m hugely grateful for the years that I spent in Nottingham, by myself, looking and sounding quite different to everyone else in the corporate finance community, because it built my internal strength and knowledge of self.
That resilience, however, was tested later on in my career when it felt like I had hit a ceiling. I knew within me that I had the skills, experience and capability to make it to partner within the different firms I had worked in later on in my career. However, I just couldn’t see a way forward - the barriers to entry just seemed too high for me. From my lack of a traditional accounting qualification to continual baseless requests to change and “be more like” people I was the complete opposite to, I was met with several blockages when the topic of my progression arose.
After initially deciding to move away from M&A completely, I found myself in a place of uncertainty, where my pathway into a new career hit several significant challenges beyond my control during a new role. This was when faith and Christianity played a huge part in my story because I was asking myself “What do I do now?” It’s at times like these when you really begin to pray and seek guidance from God, friends, and family.
Thankfully, I got the opportunity to join PEM in 2017 under the leadership of Lake Falconer, who is a partner and head of PEM Corporate finance. From the first day onwards, there was never a moment where I felt like the fact that I looked different to him or had different qualifications or experiences would be held against me. Quite the opposite!
Even when I felt I needed a supplementary qualification to further certify my experience, Lake happily backed the business case for me to do an MBA and has supported me right the way through to partner. If you’re in an organisation and you haven’t got a sponsor - someone who’s backing you all the way and is ready and willing to pin their reputation on you as an individual - you’re simply not going to get to where you want.
Knowledge of this has come from my own personal experience and as such, I try to make myself available and open to anybody. Over the past twelve months, for example, I’ve helped mentor four young black men in preparation for finance-related roles. I’ve also been an active member of my church’s Rework Programme (run via Jubilee Church London), designed to support people who’ve been out of the labour market to regain employment. Most recently, I’ve also joined The Aleto Foundation, a formalised programme for graduates and young people to buddy up with a mentor over a summer period or across nine months.
I need to share my experiences across different platforms because when I made my journey to Nottingham in 2005, social media didn’t exist in the way it does today. So, I didn’t have access to a network of black or ethnic minority leaders to plug into and ask for support. Furthermore, when I looked around the East Midlands, there was absolutely no one within the professional community who looked like me or had shared lived experiences. I remember what that felt like, so now that I have access to the relevant platforms, I’m happy to use them to amplify my voice appropriately and help anyone coming through who needs it.
And as I close this piece, I would like to share one simple lesson that my experiences have taught me: just keep going. Whether you’ve got trials, setbacks or blockages, it all feeds into your experience, into your sense of resilience and strength. I had been told numerous times during my career that I just didn’t have the necessary skills to make it in corporate finance and yet, here I am, a corporate finance partner. That should be enough to tell anybody who feels like or has been told that they’re not good enough to just keep going.
And what does “keep going” mean? It means finding that sponsor. It means having people around you who will be brutally honest with you and you being brutally honest with yourself. If there are gaps within your artillery, then upskill. Do everything possible within your power to make yourself the outstanding candidate for that promotion. If at the point of exhausting every single opportunity, the answer is still “no”, then maybe it’s time to look for opportunities elsewhere. The other thing I used to say to myself is “if I can’t do it here, I can do it elsewhere”. I didn’t start my career at PEM, but by God’s grace, I’m at PEM today because it was the right environment at the right time to unlock my full potential.
Philip Olagunju - Partner at PEM Corporate Finance LLP
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