Ronke Lawal works to promote the achievements of people like herself who were born in the UK, but whose heritage lies abroad.
As founder of Ariatu PR, Ronke - whose parents are both from Nigeria - has been acting as ambassador for high-performing black organisations and individuals for 13 years, because she feels that gaining recognition is so much harder when one is black than white. She says: “Part of my mission is to share a narrative about inclusivity. We cannot carry on living in silos - we need to enjoy each other’s stories.”
Ariatu is clearly more than a business to Ronke who admits ‘It is part of me’. The agency name is related to the Nigerian word for ‘free flowing’, which she says is a good reflection of her approach to life. Working as a sole trader, she gets her biggest buzz from seeing her clients’ stories feature in mainstream media outlets like Marie Claire and Red, where she thinks they deserve to be.
She made a small piece of history at the age of 28, by winning the job of CEO for Islington Chamber of Commerce.
“It was a really big deal as a black woman,” she recalls. “There was a very powerful old boys’ network. My race and gender should have held me back, but when I got there I could prove that these things did not matter.”
Her stance won her the Inspiring Leadership Within the Workplace award in the 2011 Precious awards, which are dedicated to women of colour in business. This three-year CEO role made her determined to keep focused on acting as an ambassador for businesses when she resumed her role at Ariatu after her time with the Chamber.
Discussing race with Ronke is stimulating, because she can deal with curious questioning without feeling challenged. She attributes that ease in part to her time at Lancaster University, studying alongside young people without very much experience of other cultures, but with a real curiosity to learn about hers.
Ronke was so comfortable with her dual Nigerian and English heritage, that it was a surprise to find that most of her fellow students had never had the opportunity to interact with a black person before. Because Ronke was open to questions, she found herself constantly quizzed about her culture and views, but she was always made welcome.
“Despite the fact that there was a minority of black people at Lancaster, I always felt safe,” she says.
Born in Hackney to Nigerian parents, her bright spark was spotted whilst doing her A Levels at City of Islington College. She was attracted to Lancaster University by the high reputation of the Management School and the fact that the course included a year abroad. At that stage, she had her mind set on a career in investment banking.
She immediately fell under Lancaster University’s spell. She says: “It felt exceptional, modern and accessible.”
Academically she was in her element. She liked the practicality and relevance of the course (BSc International Business (Economics), 2002), with lecturers who were leaders in their field. Being part of the international programme bound for a year at the University of Richmond, Virginia in the USA also made her feel special.
“Lancaster gave me the chance to see the other side of the world and a different side to learning,” she says. The most significant learning from her year abroad was the commitment to building networks in a way that she had never encountered before in the UK.
But she felt that standards of teaching and academic demands were higher in Lancaster than in the USA. Lancaster was where she was challenged to use and test economic ideas and really to learn to think.
After graduation, Ronke realised the world of investment banking was not for her, but after a couple of temporary positions, she landed a job in charge of finance and personnel management for a fitness company. This taught her the basics of management and gave her the confidence to set up her own PR business at the age of only 23.
It was hard work and after five years she applied for, and won, the position of CEO for Islington Chamber of Commerce.
She had been working for herself for more than 10 years when she decided to rebrand and dedicate the company to media communications and PR, rather than the previous broader marketing agenda. She runs Ariatu PR from home and enjoys the flexibility and lack of distractions.
On top of her business, Ronke also gives her time to Voluntary Action Islington, the National Employment Savings Trust and to mentoring young black women trying to break into the media.
“Post Brexit, there is a narrative that pushes aside the contribution of second-generation immigrants to the British community,” she says. “I don’t think that their stories are told enough.”