Posted on February 01 2017
Janet Oganah: I was a tiny girl with a strong sense of who I was. I was aware that I wanted to lead an interesting life and I tried to do things differently where I could. I have always had an entrepreneurial spirit - I was selling cupcakes at 13 years old (and getting 60% of the profits because we were using my mother’s gas cooker!) as well as selling birthday cards and sweets in boarding school.
I performed above average in school, always hovering somewhere near the top of the class (much to my mother’s frustration). The moment a boy in my school told me that I should not bother to apply to Cambridge was the point at which I told myself that I would get the highest mark in my International Baccalaureate (IB) exam to teach him a lesson. I went on to obtain top marks not just in my school, but also across all schools in Kenya that taught the IB curriculum. I have no time for misogyny or inequality; I am a huge supporter of women and the empowerment of girls.
With my IB result, the world was my oyster and I was offered a part-scholarship to study law in Bristol. Becoming a lawyer, doctor or engineer is the ‘done’ thing in the part of the world where I am from. I always knew that I was good at talking and writing and I wanted to use my advocacy skills to help solve problems. I wanted to use the law to help people put things right, and I wanted to help them put together a framework for moving forward. That is the specific reason why I chose family law, which is very forward looking, over other areas of law, which tend to look back (and work out where to allocate fault).
By the time I was graduating from university, I had a place to train as a barrister and I had been offered a pupillage in chambers in London. I joined chambers in 2007 and practised in all areas of law, but I was certain that my interest was in family law. As the years rolled on, I became a specialist family law barrister.
Then at the beginning of 2013, I started thinking about the possibility of life outside the Bar. I felt that the world was becoming more digital; the landscape of work was changing and I could not see this reflected in my profession. On a personal level, I felt that my world view was getting narrower the more I specialised and I had very few opportunities to be creative. In addition, I was not in control of my time, which I have since discovered is very important to me. I also started to question what contribution I was making - I remember being involved in care proceedings to remove the tenth child of a family (all the other nine had been put in care). It seemed to me the issues we faced at the family Bar were deep-rooted and systemic.
So I decided to take a working sabbatical in late 2013, mainly to give myself more information about life outside the Bar and explore what else I could do. I also wanted to look into some of the systemic issues I mentioned. I started an MA at Kings College London specialising in child studies. At the same time, I was offered a consultancy at the NSPCC (part-time) in the Policy Unit. I worked on a project that resulted in new legislation, which means that it is always illegal for an adult to send a child a sexual message. This is one of the things I am most proud of.
At the same time, I was doing more on the social media side as a result of being offered a fantastic opportunity to manage a celebrity’s social media presence. At one point I was juggling an MA, a part-time consultancy and a social media business, which was intense but great. By the end of my working sabbatical, I felt that I had enough information to enable me to make the decision to leave the Bar and focus on the digital and social media space.
Newnham: What prompted you to start your own business and what has the transition been like?
Oganah: You know that nagging annoying friend who is always trying to get all her friends on social media? That is me. I was an early adopter and even whilst I was a barrister, I had been helping other people navigate their social media. I saw it as a fun thing to do but had never really seen it as a future career or business ambition.
Whilst I was on my working sabbatical, a number of people asked me to help with their social media strategy and they were prepared to pay me to do so. At the same time, I had been part of a two-person team managing a celebrity’s social media (she won an Academy Award during that period!) and it was incredible seeing the power of digital and social media first-hand. I started to see the possibilities: being in business, working with women who are doing niche things, being in control of my time, being able to work from anywhere. I decided to leave the Bar for good - I thought if the worst happened, I could always go back to being a barrister but if I did not take the opportunity at that point then that would be it... I have not looked back.
There are few people like me in the social media world i.e. people with strong professional experience who are able to understand and navigate the world of social media which is a nice place to be and it's always good to have a niche skillset. I really enjoy working with women and businesses and I feel like my world has expanded so much and I have learned so much about myself in the past three years.
Newnham: What are some of the obstacles you have faced in your career and how did you overcome them?
Oganah: When I started my career at the Bar, I did not look or sound like what my clients expected. I had to prove myself continuously, which was difficult but ultimately useful as it meant that I always had to be at the top of my game. At the start (because I looked very young) my opponents would sometimes try to take advantage of me because of my perceived inexperience. Although this was very stressful at the start, it turned out to be a real asset when I had some experience under my belt and I was underestimated for the same reasons. Largely though, most of my opponents at the family Bar were lovely.
As I have one foot in business and the other in an employed part-time role, it can be quite a challenge to juggle the two. I would not label this as an ‘obstacle’ - it is of my own choosing and it’s a setup which is hugely rewarding. For me the key has been to sharpen my effectiveness and to try to work in a very efficient way. I have learned how to work smarter rather than harder, how to try to kill two or three birds with one stone at all times, how to embrace the madness when it happens (invariably both sides of my life get extremely busy at the same time!) and crucially how to set out my boundaries clearly. This setup has also required me to be more strategic about who I work with and what projects I take on.
Newnham: What are your personal and career goals for 2017?
Oganah: My aim in 2017 (and my aim in life really) is to achieve growth and progress in the key areas of my life: love, health, knowledge, work, money and networks/ connections.
My partner and I would like to have a lot more fun this year with scheduled time for rest, relaxation and time with family. We both lead busy lives and 2016 was a hectic year for us with an extremely delayed house move. On the health front, I would like to run my first half-marathon in 2017 and maintain a consistent practice of yoga and HIIT (Rumble at Rebel anyone?). I also would like to read at least two books a month (books with actual pages that turn, rather than looking at screens). Screens are the bane of my life and I spend too much time looking at them. I would also like to meditate 3 times a week (ha!)
On the work front, my target in 2017 is to do at least 12 public speaking events to support my strategic communications business, rebrand and start building a team. I also had a target to create my first product for fun and I achieved this already in the first week of January. I do a Facebook Live video segment every week called #ProductivityMinute where I help others lead productive, thriving and efficient lives by sharing weekly tips. The first one of the year was on goal setting and I could not find a wall planner, which combines key dates with space for goals across all of my aims. So I went ahead and created a wall planner and worked with a designer to bring my ideas to life. Others liked it so much that they went ahead and bought it!
Newnham: If you could go back in time to the start of your career, what advice – if any – would you offer a young Janet?
Oganah: Interestingly, I think I would do everything I did more or less the same way. I would tell young Janet to:
- Always trust her gut and not stay too long in situations that do not serve her
- Take opportunities when they present themselves
- Embrace the things that make her different rather than seeing them as hurdles in her professional life
- Appreciate the hustle of working two part-time jobs whilst doing a full time law degree – this is an important step in building capacity, resourcefulness and ability to get on with people at all levels (a crucial skill for a barrister and for someone in business)
- Enjoy her twenties a lot more than she did – I spent too many late nights going over submissions and too many happy occasions mentally preparing cross-examination instead of living in the moment
- Build her financial literacy, learn everything she can about money and how it works, savings, pensions the whole lot.
- Finally, I would tell a young Janet to watch out for that ‘inner critic’ which can manifest as perfectionism, or worse, procrastination. Work on that quiet calm inner voice that helps you to get scary stuff done.