We caught up with consultant, writer and creator of the platform Women Who, Otegha Uwagba, over breakfast at Dishoom.

In the latest of our series of intimate breakfast events hosted in the comfort of Dishoom’s Carnaby Street conservatory, we heard from the inspiring writer, speaker, brand consultant and founder of Women Who, Otegha Uwagba

Otegha has substantial experience working within the creative industries – from time spent at Vice and creative agency AMV BBDO, through to speaking and hosting events for organisations like The Guardian and It's Nice That. However, during this time Otegha found that she was not working with many women, and given that her "most rewarding professional relationships have almost always been with other women", she found this troubling. Otegha founded Women Who in 2016 as an initiative to engage with, connect and drive the careers of other creative women, highlighting their universal, shared professional experiences – something that recently landed her a spot on Forbes' 30 Under 30 list. 

Otegha joined us to talk about the new edition of her Sunday Times bestselling career guide, Little Black Book, her personal and professional experiences, and to discuss future projects. 

Here’s what we learned.

Otegha’s Little Black Book is now in its third edition, since she first published it in 2016 to coincide with the launch of Women Who. She says the book, which she wrote in just three months while working full-time at her job in a creative agency and self-published with her own money, was something “to make the platform stand out”. Her goal was to create “something practical, something physical in a digital age”. The latest “deluxe” edition, published by 4th Estate, is a pocket sized, gold covered book of concise, practical advice, complete with extra chapters added by Otegha this year.

An alternative career guide

Although she has crafted a respected personal brand, Otegha described her “deliberate choice” to keep the book as informative and concise as possible. “All my experiences are wrapped up in the book but [...] I don’t think [the audience] need to hear my story. They just want the information.” Little Black Book sets itself apart from other career guides, where “you feel like you’re sifting through looking for the parts applicable to you”. The first drafts were full of “first-person language, I think this, I think that”, which she “stripped back” to make it more concise: “I didn’t feel like people needed an opinion piece about why the world of work is so difficult for women”.

The story of Women Who

Otegha was inspired to launch Women Who, she said, after five years working in advertising, in “a really challenging environment… just agency life generally but also specifically as [...] a young black woman”. Although the work was interesting, she was frustrated by how “senior strategic levels” were dominated by men: “I wanted to channel my energies into something that I had ownership of – a creative endeavor that I could control without a million layers of sign-off” and something that would “combine [her] interest in feminism” with “creativity – something I didn’t get much time to explore in previous agency jobs”. Having had the idea for Women Who at the back of her mind for almost a year, she left her job, giving herself “2016 as a working gap year”, for freelancing, travelling and getting Women Who off the ground.

Filling a gap in the market

“The aim of it was to connect and support working women… That’s the thing I’m really passionate about.” She wanted to create something “that wasn’t stuffy and corporate”, or “pay lip service to empowerment without actually doing anything”, but which mobilised women in junior positions (“they’re the ones that need the help”) and gave them the “tools” to effect change. At the time of launching, Women Who didn’t yet have a completed website, but was “essentially a holding page” full of digital content – blog posts, a weekly newsletter, digital resources, events and a podcast.

Being a brand

Otegha says it’s important to “admit” that she is “a naturally confident person”, whose experience of public speaking and pitching to clients have made her “feel okay in the spotlight”. She accepts that, although she didn’t want to be the focus of the Women Who platform, “people don’t like nameless, faceless entities” and “people need a face to put to the brand”. Her advice for the less experienced among us was that “no one is looking for you to fail. People want you to do well… remembering that is important for personal branding”. The same goes for your digital presence: “start small”, Otegha advised. “You don’t have to be on every social media platform”. If you’re uncomfortable with networking, just “speak to someone you’ve never met before”, and “remember that it’s not always going to be this difficult… you have to start somewhere”.

Navigating success

Scaling and expanding is an exciting challenge for any new business, and although Otegha “cringes” at the question (“I don’t want people to think I think I’m Oprah”), she has had to adapt quickly to her fast growing success. She says the key to managing her time lies in prioritising her workload and establishing “boundaries” by “learning to say no – even for things I want to do”. She continues to feel “a lot of responsibility to the Women Who community, and a lot of pressure to deliver new things”, which has meant that she has put other commitments, such as writing for magazines, on hold while she completes her next book. She confesses, “work is my life”, and coping with the pressure is a matter of putting it into context: “no one’s going to die if I make a mistake”. 

Forget the “sell out” narrative

Otegha recalls that one of the first Women Who panel events was focussed around the relationship between creativity and commerce, “and how you balance and navigate them within the creative industries”. “I hate the narrative of ‘you’ve sold out’, because it’s so hard to make a living as a creative anyway, so if part of that involves working with a brand or a big corporate company in order to subsidise or fund your endeavors I think [those are] opportunities people should take. Unfortunately creative work just doesn’t seem to pay these days.” She says she is “very pro chasing the money”, something that “women get stigmatised for” and are “expected to be content with ‘soft measures’ as opposed to actual hard cash”. This view doesn’t make Otegha any less discerning as to who she chooses to work with. “I’m really protective over Women Who, because there’s a lot of integrity that’s gone into building it and I don’t want that compromised.” 

Don’t forget your values

While she says “no to most brands who are just looking to jump on the ‘empowerment’ bandwagon”, Otegha is nonetheless in the process of “trying to turn [Women Who] into a sustainable business”, expanding and scaling it in order to reach more women. “It’s a real frustration for me that there’s more demand than I can cater to at the moment,” she said. Scaling is again something that carries the threat of “compromise” but, fortunately, Otegha’s past experience working for bigger organisations has taught her the importance of building an ethics and value system into a growing business.

Back yourself into a corner

Touching upon one of the book’s topics, Otegha spoke about the battle between “getting stuff done” and making sure it matches up to her “really high standards”. “I just have to go for quality over quantity”, she said. Although “there’s a level she’s not prepared to compromise on”, she says she’s had to “dial down my perfectionism”. She says producing regular work means setting strict deadlines for herself. For the launch of Women Who, for example, “I booked the venue and agreed various things that made it difficult for me to delay that launch day”. It meant that she was forced to follow through: “it sounds awful but just backing yourself into a corner, sometimes that’s the only way to get stuff done”. Less extreme methods include telling a friend, colleague or relative about your plans, just to “keep yourself accountable”.

Tackle the imposter syndrome

It’s well documented that women are less easily self-assertive in working environments, and Otegha is not unfamiliar with the feeling of “imposter syndrome”, particularly during her time in the “hierarchical” agency world where she “felt nervous about making mistakes”: “you really just have to be prepared to make mistakes… your value when you’re working in creative industries is as much your ideas and opinions as it is your technical skills”. Her top tip for confidence during meetings is simple: “break the silence” at the beginning of the meeting, to make your voice heard – “even if it’s inane chit chat”. 

“Money is something we’re obsessed with but don’t talk about.”

Otegha’s next book is going to be all about our relationship with money – already the focus two chapters in the Little Black Book – and it’s clearly something she feels passionate about. She starts by saying that “women are at a disadvantage in the workplace when it comes to pay. There is a uniform, global pay gap [...] so for us to not talk about it does us a disservice. That secrecy and silence is where the pay gaps breed. Without transparency it’s just allowed to continue”. Since becoming self-employed Otegha feels “so much more confident talking about money” and is determined to challenge the “British stiff upper lip” attitude that stands in the way of transparency and equality. The nature of her work means she is “constantly negotiating fees”, and since her work is “hard to quantify”, the only way to value it is “by asking other people what they’ve been paid”.

In Good Company

If you didn’t know Otegha for her writing or Women Who, you might have heard of her through her hugely successful podcast, In Good Company: “a podcast for working women”. Each episode sees Otegha sit down with fellow business savvy women, discussing issues women face in the workplace today. She says she started the podcast (on NTS radio, “I know the founders, they’re a dream to work with”) after she realised she “was having a lot of interesting conversations with women over coffee and [she] wasn’t sharing them with anyone”. It quickly became “the thing [she] most enjoys doing now”, because “you get such a sense of a person” on a podcast. She says, “I’ve been really lucky to be able to sniff out women who are really open to talking about money and their businesses” and has “made some really great friends”. Otegha’s dream guests include Glossier founder, Emily Weiss, and writer, Roxane Gay.

Otegha’s best practice

Not included in the book is a piece of advice Otegha got from her mum: “not everyone is going to clap for you”. It’s “tough love”, she says, but worth remembering: “the sooner you embrace it the better. I’m so much better at dealing with setbacks than I was two years ago”. We opened up the discussion to the audience, who had questions about future planning (“set goals, visualise what those goals are, then map out a dream CV and work backwards from there to see what the steps are to get there”) and public speaking (“practice makes you feel more comfortable and that makes the audience feel more comfortable”). Otegha also touched upon work-life balance (at the first signs of burnout “I booked myself a long holiday”, and “got used to the cyclical way of working”) negotiation (“don’t try to match the competition, don’t devalue your work”) and creative feedback (“there’s no easy way to deliver bad feedback. It’s a lot about tone, doing it in person and focussing on what you like about the work. An email full of criticism gets people pissed off”). She concluded on a message that applies to all of us, freelancer or not: “don’t sell yourself short. Reduce your deliverables, not the value of your work. It’s possible to meet in the middle without compromising your value. Or values”.

All photography Sam Bush.

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