Onilien - The Lady Powerhouse interview

In Conversation: The Lady Powerhouse CIC


Editor Dania Akondo sat down with team members behind The Lady Powerhouse CIC, for a conversation about empowering female entrepreneurs.

Dania Akondo: Thank you so much to the both of you for making time today to meet with me. I really appreciate it. Mayo, would you please introduce yourself and tell us a bit about what it is that you do.

Mayo Ajimobi: Yes, so I am Mayo, the CEO and founder of The Lady Powerhouse CIC, which was originally founded as a limited company in June 2020. But in January of this year we officially became a community interest company, a social enterprise, which is really big for us. For the next three days I work as an account executive for a company that is trying to connect black professionals to corporations and really just creating opportunities and networking spaces for black professionals to connect. But after that I am going to be fully self-employed working on The Lady Powerhouse. I’m also a virtual assistant, and I’m the COO of a marketing agency.

Ebony Kamugisha: I get so excited whenever I hear you say you’re doing it full time.

Dania: Of course you get excited – this is huge! Now you’re going to be able to dedicate all your time to this.

Mayo: Exactly. And the specific time of day. I think it’s one thing to build your business outside of work when you finish at 2:30 pm – like I did in a previous admin job – but I now finish at 6pm and I’m trying to reach people who are looking at the emails between 9 and 5. So I think it’s really going to open doors for us to reach more people so much faster and in ways that we haven’t been able to so far.

Dania: Oh, that’s absolutely brilliant. Ebony, what is your role?

Ebony: I am the Director of Communications and Research for The Lady Powerhouse. I’m really passionate about what’s going on in the world and stuff that we can help people change from the inside. So, I’m looking into who we can talk to and finding out where people are needing a bit more support. All that good stuff to help drive the next steps in our planning and identifying what we need to focus on. But outside of The Lady Powerhouse, I’m currently working part time at a bank which offered flexible hours. Like Mayo said about doing stuff in the day rather than the evenings, I just work from 4pm into the night. So, I get the daytime to focus on TLP and other commitments. Then I help my mum run her pub! She’s got a kind of community pub really fueled by the community, locals and events around here. I just love community spirit.

Dania: Wow! You weren’t lying when you said you have your hands in different pots. You have a lot on your plate at the moment.

Ebony: Yeah, I love it. All of it just feels like fun, so it doesn’t really drain me. Kind of fuels me and keeps me going.

Dania: So, from what you’ve both said, it seems that you’re passionate about the community. And ensuring that you’re impacting different people in the community. Specifically, people who may not have much of a voice. Would you mind sharing how you arrived at the idea of The Lady Powerhouse?

Mayo: The Lady Powerhouse was something that came to mind during the 2020 lockdown. At the time, I was working on an events company (because I love doing events) and I also encountered a lot of other people who were starting up businesses, trying out projects that they had wanted to launch for a while. But then, months later, I was seeing these same women who were either becoming less engaged or they weren’t posting as much, especially as we started to emerge from lockdown. And I realized that, after speaking to quite a lot of different people about why they stopped their businesses, it was either they didn’t believe they could do it full time or they didn’t know how to balance life and work they. They didn’t have confidence, basically, in its success, even though they had a vision: they could see it going big, see it running throughout their lives and being their main source of income whilst enjoying what they do. I think just, due to a lack of many different things the confidence wasn’t there.

After two weeks of planning, I just felt “I need to get this out.” So, I started the community and straight off the bat we had 50 women join. At the time we were giving bi-weekly tips. just to try and regain that motivation for a lot of people. Reignite the flame. But then we found that the community was a really big thing. It wasn’t just about getting the tips in the group. It was about, “How is this person been able to help that person?”, “Hey, guys, I’m looking for this”, “Oh, I do that”, or “I’m going through something”, “Don’t worry, I’ve been through that, too. You’ll get over it.” Those interactions, those conversations, really made the difference.

Ebony and I have known each other for about six years now, and she reached out when she saw what I was doing, offering to help. So she came on, part time in the beginning, but her passion for it grew. So, she’s almost like my right-hand woman.

Dania Akondo: Very important to have a right-hand person.

Ebony: I’m lucky that she had space for me to share the vision and grow the dream together. So, I’ve been through a few different roles, because in the start phase you don’t really focus on the role so much, because there’s just so much to do. So, it’s nice to have been able to be involved in new areas. And yeah, to just have the trust and respect that Mayo has given me.

Mayo: I also have to give a shout out to our third musketeer – Emily. She is doing more of the project/program management side of things and when we have events, as well as just supporting of the overall vision. So, I have to shout out because it’s not just us that is making this work.

Dania: Brilliant. Ebony do you mind sharing what appealed to you specifically when you saw Mayo posting her activities online? What inspired you to reach out and ask about her vision?

Ebony: Well, as I said earlier, I kind of get my fingers in all the pies. And I’ve mentioned just before that I wanted to start my own business and be my own boss really. So, I had a few ideas of what to go into. But I couldn’t really think of what I wanted to do, what I was good at, or if I was going to make it. There were a lot of confidence issues with my ideas and whether I could actually make something happen for myself. As I was going through this research phase and trying to work out my entrepreneurial journey, I gravitated toward people with the same mindset.

Dania: Interesting. I think what makes you two so special is the fact that you’ve quickly recognized that there’s an issue when it comes to self-esteem right and confidence. And it seems that at least you, Ebony, have also gone through that experience. Is that right?

Ebony: Oh, yeah. Still do sometimes.

Dania: Well, I think most people do, you know?

Ebony: Yeah, somedays you wake up and you’re like, “I can take on the world!” Other days, you wake up and you’re like, “Oh, I’m not ready.”

Mayo: I think that’s what connected us to this issue – the fact that we, ourselves, are female founders. We’ve experienced what our community are experiencing, and we’re not just doing things randomly – randomly pulling up to events. Instead, the events we create and workshops we put on are all focused around “How can this benefit a community member?” We run so many surveys to ensure that everything we put into this is based on the actual need of the community, rather than a guess.

So, we’ve been through the lack of confidence and, unfortunately, the way of the world dictates that a lot of the time women grow up feeling like they just can’t. They lack confidence in themselves. They lack trust in themselves. And a lot of it comes from not being put in situations, or not having opportunities to be in situations, where they can build their skills and their knowledge. Sometimes, they already have the knowledge and skills, but they don’t have a network which reaffirms that in them.

Ebony: Or they don’t have the experience behind them, because they haven’t been given the opportunity to take on those challenges. And this could be because people in the business world may not have confidence in a woman to do the same job as a man. So, it’s all about getting that experience behind them so that they feel assured of their own capabilities,

Dania: Absolutely agree with that. So, given the context, how could you describe The Lady Powerhouse in one sentence.

Ebony: The Lady Powerhouse CIC is a social enterprise that works to help under-resourced women to improve their business literacy and knowledge, to help build on their skills and be a successful entrepreneur.

Dania: That’s absolutely brilliant. It’s truly amazing what you’re doing to really empower women – and we need it.

Ebony: Oh yeah, our mission is really to support one another. I think that’s the main thing. It’s the difference between someone saying, “Are you sure you can do it?” or “Are you sure that’s for you?”, rather than someone saying “If you want to do it then go ahead. Why not?” And we want to encourage more of the latter.

Mayo: Something that I’ve got drilled into my head recently is that confidence among women is actually a privilege. So, we’re also trying to combat that. It shouldn’t be the case where if you’re one of the lucky few, who have been through a life that’s allowed you to be confident in yourself, then you can succeed. And the people who aren’t confident in themselves and haven’t had that opportunity can’t succeed. It should be that every single woman has access to understanding that strength they hold within themselves. And that’s why we’re called the Lady Powerhouse, because all of these women are powerful. Sometimes we think, “Some women are powerful and some aren’t,” but it’s really about “How can I tap into my own strength and drive?”

Dania: Absolutely. And this opens a can of worms as well, because often the people that have the privilege to build their self-esteem are from different socioeconomic backgrounds, specifically the most privileged ones. So, there’s a question about race. That’s not to say that every rich or white person is confident, but it definitely is a factor that we see reflected in society right now. So, I’m glad that you are taking the right step forward in order to make sure that things change.

Mayo: Things do need to change. There’s no reason for things to be this way and the facts show it. A recent study claimed that if women were given access to the same knowledge, banks, and opportunities that men in business are given, they would be earning more. Their return on investment is higher too. Yet women still get chosen second for funding, opportunities, and grants. This is not just about instilling a sense of worth in women but educating the rest of society too. Making sure that this isn’t a fight we’re fighting alone, but that everyone should be fighting.

Dania: Thank you! So, moving ahead practically, then, how does this all work? How do you help women to gain skills and knowledge, hone what they already have, and create networking opportunities between them and their communities?

Mayo: We have a few angles from which we approach it. To start off with, we have something called House Group Chats, which are groups of up to 30 women. We don’t just put you into a huge group where your voice is going to be overshadowed, like many other support networks do. So, you’re in a group of up to 30 women. and it’s really just a place to network, share how you’re feeling, your experiences, hold each other accountable, but also to help promote each other. A key point for us is not just celebrating the good times only, but also creating a safe space where women can share the hard times. It’s not roses and daffodils, you know?

And then we also have Monthly Family Meetings. These family meetings are a place where you can be held accountable and celebrate anything that’s coming up. We discuss topics or experiences that, as female entrepreneurs, you might go through or might not go through. When people sign up, they can actually write what they want to be held accountable for in the meeting, and we always go over that. So the day after the last family meeting we encourage people to enter it in, and then they have a month to work toward that goal.

Ebony: Accountability is a big thing for me, and I love seeing it work in The Lady Powerhouse. As I touched on before, I had a lot of ideas and I’d start quite a few things and just not finish it. I found it much easier to work for other people than myself. So, I really love that part. One of our members had actually been writing a book for a couple of years before joining. She started coming to the meetings, and when we start the accountability process, she said, “Okay, I want to finish a chapter. And when she came back shortly after that she was like, “I actually finished the first draft the book!” So, it works. And it was just such a heartwarming moment. Having people around you saying, “Yeah, you can do this”, and you have to report back to them is much more helpful than getting in your own head.

Mayo: And then we also have events programs and workshops that we do. These are events that are basically meant to help the women learn, develop their skills, and network with one another. We’ve got one coming up in November (fingers crossed), which is focused on dreaming big, brainstorming with one another, and supporting people with their idea development. I think sometimes you can have a vision but not know what the next steps are for that vision to be realized. For example, if you were to tell us, “I’ve got this magazine and want it to reach X amount of people by organic promotion.” There will be marketing people in the room who might have done something similar and able to give you tips and hints. Or even people who have never done it but can still give you fresh ideas.

We also do 101 sessions like working on your brand or answering, “Where to begin with finance?” So all of those are what we provide, just making sure that women feel equipped to either do it themselves, when they aren’t able to bring other people on board, or able to start building a team and to work with other people, managing the different areas of the business.

Ebony: There is such a range in the community. We’ve got a few members who have no idea what they want to do. They just know that they want to do something, But I feel workshops like these and just being able to talk can unlock that potential. One I’m really looking forward to – and I hope this isn’t too much of a spoiler – is the elevator pitch workshop. I think that’s going to be such a groundbreaking experience for a lot of people, including myself.

Dania: That that sounds absolutely amazing I love the family aspect of it all; the fact that you are creating a space where, like you said, it feels like you’re not just partners, just colleagues. You’re actually a unit that can help each other out. You know you don’t just dwell on the positive. It’s also very important to give constructive criticism.

Mayo: Yeah. Because I think, a lot of the time, the aim is always to be positive. Right? To celebrate positive experiences, to go through the positive motions. But a lot of the time, when you’re starting business, it is negative. And so, we’d rather you tell us when you’re feeling negative, you tell us when you need help, even if it’s just a listening ear. Yeah, sometimes that’s what you need to make you feel better. So, we want to celebrate those good moments, but we also want to ensure that our community feel safe and welcome when they’re not feeling their best.

The whole community really started on a family-like basis when I found out what having those conversations was doing for people. Now we’ve got a family tree where we encourage people to pass the ladder back down. If you’ve gone through it before, share your experience, share your learning, share how you got there. Because, once you’ve used that ladder, maybe someone else can use it.

Dania: Very interesting. You mentioned that “safety” is a key word here. How do you ensure that the ladies who join this family feel safe?

Mayo: A lot of it is based around our values. We are a judgment free zone. Doesn’t matter what you’re going through, what you’re doing, what your status is, where you’re from. It’s literally just about us being able to provide something for you. It’s about asking questions and prompting ideas. We’re also member-centric; everything is based around our members. So really showing them that we’re not just a business, and that’s why becoming a social enterprise was so important to us. Because we’re not trying to make money off of you. We want to see you grow. We want to see you develop. That’s what excites us. That’s what drives us. I think that’s really what makes our community feel they can be safe, and they can open up is the fact that we rep for our community. I try my best to get to know each and every lady, and if they need me on a call, I’ll call them, I’ll go through it with them. And as we grow and develop, we want to still be able to keep that sense of the tight unit. You are an individual. You’re not just a member of the group. You, as an individual, bring something.

Dania: Yeah, I like that. You bring something, and you can get something. I think it’s always noticeable when organizations are just wanting to get money out of you. But from what you said, it sounds like your team really are ensuring that you put the values into the work that you’re doing. Okay. Now for the loaded questions. Obviously it’s quite a hard question to answer, but what do you think are some of the biggest challenges that women, particularly non-white women, face in the world of business?

Mayo: Yeah, I think there’s too many to list. But I think one of the core ones is a lack of trust, especially when it comes to female entrepreneurs. A lot of it is based on people not believing that they can succeed, even though the idea is incredible, even though the business plan is on point. Because it’s a woman that is in front rather than a man, there’s that lack of trust. And obviously, with women of color, that is something that tends to be faced a lot more. When a woman is assertive and decisive in the workplace, or when it comes to business decisions, people can look at them and think, “Oh, you’re just trying to be like the man.”

Not being heard or listened to is another one. Sometimes your idea/point/suggestion/rebuttal can be so valid, and it’s almost like it goes in one ear and comes out the other. And that doesn’t allow women to take the next step to progress because they aren’t given the same courtesy other people are given.

And also feeling like you have to fight harder than everyone else. As a therapist, you know it’s mentally draining to wake up every day and think, “I have to fight today. I have to do more than the person next to me. I have to struggle harder to get to the same place.” And sometimes you just don’t want to do it. I think that that creates an unfair boundary for women where either I sacrifice my mental health, or I don’t get what I want and deserve. And I think that all leads back to the lack of confidence and self-esteem. Because you don’t want to walk in the room sometimes, you don’t want to raise your hand. You don’t want to want to say “No.” Life is already hard enough before you get to the point where you feel like there’s no chance your “No” is even going to be accepted.

Dania: Yeah, it’s so demoralizing.

Mayo: Exactly that. And a lot of what we focus on is, even when people say, “You can’t do that”, or “This isn’t you”, or “How dare you speak?”, remain steadfast in yourself and be confident in what you’re doing. To either respond with, “I don’t even want my work in your room because you haven’t got what I’m bringing.” Or to stand against those doubts; stand firm and not give in.

Dania: Oh, yes, and I have to agree with everything you’ve said. It is true. unfortunately, that the people at the top usually tend to be straight white men as a result of various factors – because of whatever their views may be, or even unconscious bias as well. We then end up being put down. We’re always put down. Or to be told “I’m not sure about your idea.” But then, if a man raises it then they say, “Oh, it’s brilliant.”

Mayo: I get this way too often. I’ll raise an idea, it’ll be put down. And then the next day someone will come in with that same idea and it’s accepted.

Dania: Oh, my gosh, it’s crazy, isn’t it? It’s almost a sitcom moment – when you want to look at the camera like, “Did this actually happen?”

Mayo: And that shouldn’t be the life that we live. As you said, sometimes it’s unconscious bias. Sometimes people don’t even realize that they’re doing it. A lot of people are raised in environments where, when a woman is speaking, this mentality kicks in where they think “Don’t listen.” If a woman is speaking, it’s too much. If a woman is speaking, she’s complaining. If a woman is speaking, she’s just getting at you, and there’s no point hearing her out and just trying to change that narrative.

And I think we live in the world as well where unfortunately, especially when it comes to people of color and women of color, sometimes it’s hard to distinguish when someone actually doesn’t like your idea. And then, you know, they’re holding you back for an unbiased reason. That in itself is unfair: having to question whether it was bias or whether my idea wasn’t good enough. You shouldn’t have to second-guess that. It should just be a case of “Okay, cool. My work wasn’t good enough. How can I improve it?”

Dania: Absolutely. I think it’s extremely unfair that, unfortunately, we’re still faced with this today. We’re still left wondering, “Is it because of my gender? Is it because of my race? Or is it actually that maybe I need to tweak certain ideas?” It’s really unfair, because men don’t have to go through that. White men, specifically.

Mayo: I think, especially when people don’t go through things, sometimes they find it hard to believe that other people do. So, there’s this opposite perspective, where some people see everything as simply “You weren’t good enough.” They don’t see that there’s bias, they don’t see any of that because they themselves have not experienced it. So, they don’t know how to pick up on it.

Dania: Which is infuriating. Again, it goes back to them not hearing us. They just believe that “if you work hard enough” you’ll get to where you want to be.

Mayo: Okay, and if my working hard enough is two times more than the other person? What level is enough?

Dania: Exactly. And sometimes that’s still not enough. Right? You could be working tremendously for years and years, and that may still not be enough.

Mayo: And then you hear the stories of those who try to do things so anonymously. They would love to put their face out there, but if someone knew that they are a woman, or they are a person of color, then they wouldn’t buy from them, or engage, or they would knock them down. As a result, people aren’t able to celebrate your wins. And then you’re in it alone, isolated. You’ve created such incredible things, but no one can acknowledge you for it. They can only acknowledge the brand or the project.

So, we’re really trying to break that down for the women who work with us. No matter what you’re doing, tell us. We want to praise you. We don’t want to scold you. We want to let you know that what you’re doing is incredible work. Like even me saying that I was proud of you earlier. A lot of people feel uncomfortable hearing that from someone that they don’t know. I know the adversity that women go through, so to start up your own business and to be doing it for X amount of time is a big deal. You shouldn’t have to feel uncomfortable, or feel strange or question if I’m being genuine, just because you haven’t heard it from others

Dania: Oh, yes. You’re making a lot of sense. I see many, many clients and so many of them, especially women, when they have quite low self-esteem, they really struggle with hearing that. It’s quite sad.

Mayo: Yeah, and a lot of us go through this. Even me – sometimes people say they’re proud of me and I’m like, “Okay, sure. Sure you are. What have I done?” But I really encourage people, when you say you’re proud of someone, when you compliment someone, when you celebrate someone or praise someone, express what you’re praising. Express what you’re proud of. Express why they’re being celebrated. If you can tell me why, I can’t deny that.

Dania: Yeah, that’s really good. Because that’s also what I do with my clients. I always say to them, once I end this session, tell me three positive things/qualities/traits that you think you would employ in the week and give me a reason why. It consolidates it a bit more.

Okay, so another loaded question. Last one, I promise. As a society, what could we, or should we, do in order to ensure that women are able to get opportunities in business, succeed, and get to where they want to be?

Mayo: Well, to start off with, I am a very big advocate of mentorship. I think it’s so important to be able to pass on the baton, to educate someone on something that you’ve experienced. I’m not a big fan of the “Because I suffered, you have to suffer” mindset. Instead, I suffered and I learned my lesson. Let me share the answer with you. But it’s also important, once again, to explain. You don’t want to just give someone the answer, and then they can’t apply it to other things. So that in itself is a really big thing, and that’s how I was able to launch the company as a CIC. My mentor helped me, guided me through the process, and gave me the tips and made me understand what it really means to outwardly be a social enterprise.

Also, what we were saying earlier about not just about educating the women but educating society and challenging stereotypes. When you see people actively shutting someone down because they’re a woman, saying they can’t do it, being brave enough and confident enough to step out and challenge that person. But also not embarrassing people for it, instead pulling them aside and saying, “Did you know that this is what you were doing? This is the way you could have done it better: maybe ask questions first before you make your decision.”

Increasing role model visibility is very important. It can be so hard to find one, especially for female entrepreneurs. Being able to highlight the people, being able to highlight the story. Because a lot of female entrepreneurs did not come from a lot. So, it’s important to highlight how, even though they were under resourced and didn’t have what they needed at the time, they found it. That’s a lesson to share that someone else can then take motivation from. Or, you know, just to get out of your rut. To know that someone else could do it. Someone else went before me.

And I think also encouraging the women in our community that, just because someone is in your industry, doesn’t mean that you can’t do it too. Instead, you can lean into the space because if she’s in there why can’t you be too? It’s just about finding your niche or finding your USP. There’s too many people in this world for everyone not to have enough customers.

Those are just a few things that I think anybody in any situation can do that would assist women trying to start their own businesses. Because that’s where a lot of the hurdles stem from. The questions isn’t “Is there a lack of funding?” It’s “Why are they lacking funding?”

Dania: That was a fantastic answer. I definitely think mentorship is extremely important.

Mayo: Also, not feeling like, you can only have one mentor. It’s applies to different areas of your life. And sometimes that’s even better because then you’re gaining the maximum amount of knowledge for different places that specialize in it. So, I have a mentor for life, a mentor for business, and a mentor for work. And they all know about each other. They all feed into those areas of my life, but they all also have a kind of holistic approach where they ask about the other aspects and it all merges together. So, it’s great to have multiple touch points and just being able to learn from different people.

Dania: Absolutely. Learning from each other, applying that knowledge, and then giving that same advice to other people. I definitely agree that there needs to be work done in terms of debunking all of these stereotypes and tackling unconscious bias. To be fair, some steps have been taken. I know that there are workshops that are conducted in companies, but it’s not enough.

Mayo: It’s not. I also think too many people feel like it should be left up to someone else. They’re waiting for the next person, who’s waiting for the next person. Actually, everyone’s a teacher. Everyone is supposed to take this. It’s effects everyone. And I think sometimes we need to be a bit more selfless and just put ourselves in those shoes. What if it was me? What if it was my sister? What if it was my daughter? Would I’d be okay with hearing what I heard or experience what they experienced?

Dania: Very true, very important. So, is there anything else you’d like the readers to know about yourself, or Ebony, or Emily? Or The Lady Powerhouse more generally?

Mayo:  I think the main thing is just that we are a supportive community. We encourage every woman from every background. We are here to support. We are an open door. The community is free. As I said, we’re not here to make money off of you. We literally just want to see you grow and flourish, so that I think is a really key and important thing. I think it’s important to know the we as the team are also very accessible. if anyone has any questions, if anyone needs us to get involved in anything. Especially in this space where we are now, knowing that we’re working with startups. Even if it’s like you need a volunteer to help you with your event. I will come and help you.

And finally, no matter how you feel now, you always feel better after you’ve done it. And so, even if you don’t decide to join The Lady Powerhouse, I encourage you to take the step towards your dream. Take the step towards your vision. Ask for help when you feel like you need help. If someone says no, that is okay. Ask someone else.

Dania: Exactly. Eventually there will be somebody who says yes to you, and that’s a promise.

Mayo: Don’t ever feel like, because it hasn’t worked so many times, it’s never going to work. Because it could just be that you give up before that person is able to step in. And I don’t want any woman to do that to themselves, because we all deserve the life that we dream of. We all deserve to work on our passions. For some people, that is in the corporate world, being employed by someone else. Go for it. And if you are planning on starting your own business, or you have something that you want to lean in, do it.

Dania: Just do it. And we’re here to support you.

Mayo: Exactly. We all about championing women. So, if anyone wants to sign up, you can join the family at www.theladypowerhouse.co.uk/join. And don’t forget to follow us on Instagram @theladypowerhouse.


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