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20 March 2023

Meet... 'Funmi Olonisakin

In celebration of International Women’s Day, and looking ahead to Global Day of Service, we talk to inspirational female leaders, who share their personal journeys and top tips for success.


In celebration of International Women’s Day, and looking ahead to Global Day of Service, we talk to inspirational female leaders, who share their personal journeys and top tips for success.

Next up, meet Professor ‘Funmi Olonisakin Vice President (International, Engagement & Service) and King’s alumna who reflects on the importance of embedding these ways of thinking all year round and not just on specific days or months. She also shares insights into navigating the corridors of power at the United Nations, seeing the world through the eyes of another person and the evolution of King's ethos of being in service to society.

Hi Funmi, great to meet you. You have a very chunky portfolio at King's and I understand you are also an alumna. Could you share more about your personal journey and how you ended up the woman you are today?

So, a key thing for me is the duality of my identity. Like everyone, I have many personal identities, but I feel defined by both Africa and Europe in fundamental ways. My parents studied in the UK where I was born, but I was raised in Nigeria where my grandmother shaped my formative years as a first born in the family - with the traditional leadership role and values that are often placed on that child.

Being raised by a woman holds significance for me both emotionally and intellectually because of her wisdom that shaped my training and defined my world view and values. I had to be well-grounded as there are many gendered norms in that environment, and I realised that girls and women can easily be underestimated. Though living in a patriarchal society was a good leadership lesson; it was not without its pains.

The latter part of my education was shaped at KCL in the late 80s. I honestly didn’t think I would last that long and expected to return to Nigeria to influence societal change and follow my passions as a student union leader, but here I am still at King's after all these years.

Another duality is that of being both an academic and a policy practitioner. King’s has given me the opportunity to think about global issues through the lens of my war studies degrees but I have also been incredibly lucky and privileged to test these theories in the field. I’ve also been given the opportunity to move around and embed leadership studies and practice leadership in terms of problem solving.

My worldview was shaped in significant ways when working at the UN alongside Olara Otunnu, the Under-Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict, in the executive office of Secretary-General Kofi Annan.

The UN taught me a lot about ideals and about the gap between the ideal and the reality, but I love what the United Nations stands for.

On returning to King’s, I had the opportunity to start the African Leadership Centre, training the next generation of Africans to lead and design solutions for peace and security issues in their communities. We piloted this initiative for three years and it was the project of my life.

How will you personally be supporting the Global Day of Service?

I hope my new role will help us cement how we think about service to society which has been a defining ethos of kings since our foundation since 1829. That mission has evolved and means something different today. I would love us to think about service in an integrative way that is wrapped around our core business of research and education, so we engage with the world through the lens of service to society.

In the same way, on International Woman’s Day we should not just be thinking in terms of a day or a month, but something embedded all your round that shapes our thinking and is a symbol of greater aspiration and achievements. A social contract with society, whether at home or abroad, needs to be more than just successful for the individual.

To create a more peaceful and stable world, that’s the message I want to send – all year long we should keep our eyes on our ethos of service to society in all that we do.

What do you think King’s does well in the gender equity space and where is there room for improvement?

We have come a long way in the last 3 decades I’ve known King’s. We’ve seen a lot of movement in terms of women rising through the ranks, with many more opportunities than before to become professors. However, I would like to see even more equity in the professional services space, which is of course the other side of the coin at King’s.

When moving away from a binary discussion and checking in with our multiple identities, we still see differentiation for black and minority ethnic women and King's needs to support those nuances.

On gender pay gaps the big picture is that we are doing better than we were, but we still need to disaggregate the data and see where the imbalances are. It is a work in progress but the benchmarking institutions we work with like the Race Equality Charter Mark and Athena SWAN allow us to see black women's progress in particular ways as we continue to aim for equal representation.

Are there any lessons in diplomacy and holding space in the corridors of power that have served you well?

Working in a global institution hugely broadens your worldview. At the UN almost every single country is represented and being a part of this secretariat means many differences in language, communication styles and cultural and social contexts. The realisation that what works for person A does not work for person B makes you very thoughtful about how you communicate to people across the board and that exposure was incredible for me.

I learnt from seeing the Under-Secretary-General work firsthand in war affected countries where he would negotiate with rebel leaders. They had committed atrocities against children and innocent people and yet still retained his authority to speak directly with them to release thousands that had been kidnapped.

It’s helped me try to see a situation through the eyes of another person and find the language to ensure a meeting of minds. Imagine the extreme of looking at warlord, sitting across from them and trying to get them to release children. You don’t share the same values with those violent people, but there are children behind the rebel lines that you need to bring to safety.

Negotiating that complexity has helped me manage to bring about agreement when people think they are on different sides. Part of my own mission is to bring us to a place of shared experiences and approaches that shouldn't work better for one group of people than for another. It taught me deep lessons about diplomacy and about holding the space.

Because failure to hold the space means that peace may not come to people at a particular point in time. It might even mean in my general life, marginalizing people in particular ways. That matters to me a great deal.

Which woman is your greatest inspiration?

I have many so If I can pick TWO I would really appreciate that. Sadly, both women are not alive anymore.

Firstly, I would choose Professor Margaret Vogt from the Nigerian Institute of International Affairs who influenced me hugely during my PhD. She did everything possible to open doors for me during my field research in Liberia (which was at war at the time) and she really exposed me to her networks. She later moved to the United Nations and I figured out that I owed to her (in part) the phone call I got from the Under-Secretary-General to come and join him to work on peace and conflict in West Africa. That’s what it can mean to hold someone's hand, to mentor someone and to hold the space open.

And finally, my grandmother as the woman who shaped so much of my life.

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Vice President (International, Engagement & Service)