Yomi Abiola empowers women to tap their potential and to follow their intuition.
Yomi Abiola has a soft voice, yet you can hear loud and clear the issues that matter most to her. When she talks about the need for women to encourage and empower one another, about tapping and activating their potential, about being generous and about striking the right balance between work lives and family lives, her words carry considerable weight. The Londoner has gone her own way since she was a teenager. Despite her family’s wishes, she realised her dream of being a model, and her pursuit of this career led to her becoming the first African-British woman to be featured as the face of Maybelline Cosmetics. Abiola’s journey includes stints in New York and Paris, where she studied journalism, as well as held a position as the US correspondent for the Italian Vogue. She founded the Stand Up For Fashion initiative in 2012, which is aimed at promoting responsibility and diversity in the fashion industry. These days, she is active as a media entrepreneur, adviser and women’s advocate. Her digital platform The Fem League is a place for women to share advice and support one another.
As a successful model, journalist, online personality, and founder of a community for women, you have continued to recreate yourself throughout the course of your career. How did this come about?
Moving to New York and working there as a model was a disillusioning experience for me. I was confronted with racism and discrimination to the point where I had to ask myself: “How is it possible that black models have it so much harder in the industry? Why is there such a huge discrepancy in the supposedly open-minded fashion world? And how can we change this?” I wanted to be a card-carrying authority on this issue and be in the position to ask such questions. So I studied journalism. Through my work with the Italian Vogue and Stand Up For Fashion, I was able to effect change that benefited young, black models. My main focus these days is on supporting women around the world as an advocate and founder of The Fem League.
Can you tell us about the idea behind The Fem League?
The Fem League is a way to take a step back and look at the lives of women holistically in all of their facets, instead of pigeonholing them. We have members from every generation pursuing a range of different goals, and The Fem League gives them a place to share their experiences and seek or give advice. We also work with experts who impart their wisdom in the areas of career planning, psychology, and finance. I want to support women in bringing out the best in themselves. Each and every one of us has great traits that, if used to their full potential, allow us to lead a great life.
How does that work?
I believe that listening to your inner voice is a necessary practice. It’s important to reach deep down and connect with your inner self. Meditating can help, and so can keeping a diary or spending time in nature. We need to be frank in asking ourselves what brings us contentment or fulfilment. We live in a world in which we are constantly being told how to live our lives. It’s easy to allow ourselves to be influenced by what other people say and what we hear in the media. But we also each have an inner compass. We just have to gain access to it and learn how to use it.
You mentioned wanting to be an authority for asking questions. Questions seem to be an important tool to you for navigating everything from our own lives to navigating society as a whole.
Absolutely. We can never allow ourselves to be afraid of asking questions. It is only by asking questions that we can really say why we want to achieve the things in life that we’re aiming for – what our motivation is and whether or not we can turn this motivation into action. But it’s also at least as important to learn how to say “No.” Especially for women. As a society, we tend to cling to the stereotype that women always need to wear a smile, that women are natural nurturers and can give until they are depleted. But if we continue to teach women to be submissive, these behaviours won’t help them to fully assume their power in the real world.
What can women do to support and encourage each other?
As women, we often get the message that there’s only enough room for one of us at the table. But it doesn’t help to get competitive. Instead of worrying about this one table, we need to build a house in which there’s room for everybody. That’s why I have a preferential focus on the word “greatness” instead of “power”. You can lose power, but nobody can ever take values like goodness, tolerance and generosity from you. These are values on which we should base all of our actions.
What was an important lesson you learned during the course of your career?
As an entrepreneur, I have learnt that you can create your own opportunities. I reject the notion of waiting to be chosen. I think a lot of women know this specific feeling of waiting and relying on somebody else to make decisions for you. So the best advice I can give is to just go out and do whatever it is you want to do or achieve in life. Never wait for somebody else to call on you. Set your own standards and markers for success. Create a life authored by you. Live your greatest life.
Women should no longer have to make the choice between pursuing a career and starting a family. You yourself are an entrepreneur and a mother of twins. How do you manage to reconcile that?
As a mother in particular, you need to openly communicate to those around you what you need. That could be anything from more support from your family to certain conditions at work. This is something I am still learning and navigating. We’ve cultivated a society in which many women are not particularly good at asking for what they need or even identifying their needs.
In your opinion, what do we need to change as a society in order for women, particularly mothers, to feel comfortable asking for the help they need?
We need to change the way we see women. That’s something I’m hoping to do with The Fem League. For example, I don’t think that doing everything by yourself is what makes a woman strong. In reality, that’s not feasible for anyone. In fact, just the opposite is true: that’s the fastest way to burn out. Integration is also important. We shouldn’t have to divide our lives strictly between career and family; we bring enough of our private life to work and enough of our work life home. What we need is to allow ourselves to be everything at once: professional, mother, partner, friend. If we all start thinking this way, we can change the way we think as a society. Just imagine if every university and every company had a day-care centre where parents could leave their children while they went to work or study. Not only would women be able to better integrate motherhood into their everyday lives, the needs of women who choose to have families would also be better integrated into society.