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“Every disaster is an opportunity to start afresh, and that’s the story of my life”

Lara Oyedele, President, Chartered Institute of Housing, and Chief Executive of Black on Board.

“I’m impressed with myself, because I never thought I’d be in this position all those years ago when I was a homeless teenager.” Lara Oyedele gives an arresting beginning to her conversation with Rim Adem, so incongruous with her current position as president of the Chartered Institute of Housing.

The story of how she got there and has a career in housing started when Lara was 19 years old. Lara came back from holiday, she found herself homeless because, in her words, her ‘crazy landlord’ evicted her from her bedsit. What followed was a time sleeping rough in the bus station, in people's back gardens, but eventually she was given a council flat, which saved her life and meant she could go back to do A-Levels, then to university.

She found out first-hand how a decent home can make such a difference to people’s prospects in life.

After working as a journalist for a short time, she wanted a career where she could help homeless people: she wanted to be that person who gave someone the keys to their affordable flat. After her master's, Lara started with Notting Hill Housing Trust as a participation officer and with Hammersmith and Fulham as a housing officer.

Something she noticed, reflecting back, is that Lara only ever got promoted by leaving an organisation, never getting promoted from within. So she always looked for the next progressive role, even if it required 21 interviews. Eventually she took on the role of CEO in Odu-Dua Housing Association.

It was luck, she says, that she was a first time CEO in a black organisation, a BME organisation. This was the first time she had a black boss; she'd listen to Donna Summa and think, "If she can do it, so can I".

The role allowed her to flourish, even though the job ended badly, following a board disagreement over strategy in 2013 for buying properties at auction. It was embarrassing. It was a shock to Lara’s ego, and to her personality. So much of her identity was linked to her job title. (This is something she doesn’t feel now, she has 4-5 job titles and shifts her responsibility from one to the other.)

At the time, Lara couldn't function due to the upset of being sacked from a job that she was good at. For a few years she sank into depression, but resurrected herself in 2017, and moved to Bradford. In doing so, she sold properties she’d amassed, so she didn’t have to work. For the first time she was at liberty to consider what she actually wanted to do.

Now as president of the Chartered Institute of Housing, she is the first black female president of a body that's over 100 years old, and the second black person to have held that position in that time. Her philosophy stands, that with every disaster and every time something ends, there’s an opportunity to start something new - it opens the door to a new life. She doesn't think she would be president of the institute, had she not gone through her experiences.

Sitting in the role has been a great opportunity to push issues in the sector that are important, such as a lack of diversity in leadership roles. Specifically, she is talking about racial and ethnic diversity in the executive, the C-suite, executive rooms, and more importantly, the boardroom. She has taken an opportunity she never thought she was going to get to campaign for challenges that affect the sector, and that makes an impact. Her aim for her presidential campaign is for change in the industry - to get more [black] people in leadership positions, in leadership teams, and into the boardroom.

On dealing with the realities of being a black woman working in a white male dominated industry, she says it's fortunate the world is post-2020, where Black Lives Matter demonstrations have brought the reality of being a black person in a white space to the fore of the universe. It has delivered a world where there are more networking groups, and opportunities within most organisations to communicate with the other black and brown people in that organisation.

“Take advantage of any opportunity to be with the people who sympathise or empathise with a person’s particular status in society”, there are, she says, often lots of other people who are the only [black people] in their teams and their departments. Get together, she advises and "use the opportunity and this sort of generosity that's there currently", because she doesn’t ‘know how long this is going to last’. But for now those opportunities are there.

However she warns, “Don’t be the whistleblower if you want to stay in the organisation...Don’t say they’re not treating you fairly unless you’re willing to leave; it’s difficult to stay once you’ve said those things". Choose what’s more important: how a place makes you feel, or how the organisation is perceived and how you and how you want to be seen. Choose the former, she infers. Having made decisions based on ego rather than mental health, Lara suggests seeking a job elsewhere if you’re ready to go and that Black women are generally overqualified for what they do. Some fear moving on if they’ve stayed in a job too long, but there’s a shortage of (black women) in the professional spaces.

Lara notes that black women struggle to ‘sell’ themselves, and advises on interview skills training. She says, “Imagine you’re a bottle of Coca Cola. What would you say about yourself? You can focus on how it makes you feel - it reminds you of Christmas, the holidays, reminds you of America, and fizziness. Or it can rot your teeth, be addictive or use you to clean the toilet. It’s the same bottle of Coca Cola. So what is fabulous about you?”

In her work life, Lara is also a non-executive director of a large housing association Housing21 and the Chair of a local homelessness charity called Hope Housing. When not doing either of these roles, she runs a property development company called Lara Homes, that is trying to create affordable housing, but using private finance.

Finally, she runs a training company called Black on Board. Its mission is to get as many black and brown people into the boardrooms of UK organisations. And that, she says, with a sense of irony, is all she does.

Lara Oyedele’s podcast episode will be released in September 2023 as part of Black Women in Real Estate’s Phenomenal Women campaign.

The Phenomenal Women campaign is sponsored by the RICS


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