This week, we speak with Funmi Ayeni of Lagos State Public Interest Law Partnership. "LPILP" for short! I look forward to this chat with Funmi and i can promise you, there are gems here.
Funmi is bright and bubbly. We "met" on telephone and instantly clicked while discussing work and a partnership with a foundation i co-founded (MeetANeedToday). It is clear Funmi connects easily with people and a conversation with her feels very refreshing. I find her work with LPILP to be so inspiring and impactful. I'll let you all hear it directly from her. So, let's get into it!
Maria Ro: Funmi! Thanks for doing this. Before we get into it. You know the drill, tell us. Who are you, and what inspires you?
Funmi: Thanks Maria. I'm actually honored. Who is Funmi? Let's see. I'm a very positive, upbeat and friendly person. I consider myself to be quite laid back yet super driven. I think most people who know me will probably consider me as one of the most sociable people they know.
Although I enjoy hanging out with friends and meeting new people, I can also be quite introverted and genuinely enjoy my own company by just spending time relaxing at home. I also love to travel, to learn and explore new cultures. When it comes to what inspires me, as cheesy as it may sound, I'll say love inspires me. Love is my biggest driver in life. The love of God, love for myself and love for people motivates me in all aspects of my life.
Maria Ro: I connect with that response, and it is so unique. Love is an interesting phenomenon. Before we continue, love might mean a lot of things to a lot of people. What does love mean to you, Funmi?
Funmi: I'll say Love is more of a verb than a noun to me. It's acting in the best interest of God, and trying to advance His will. It's acting in the best interest of myself and others. Many of us forget to take care of ourselves and it prevents us from being able to take care of others. So loving yourself is a part of God's will and will allow you fulfill His command of loving others as yourself.
Maria Ro: Tell us, Funmi. What’s your story, how did you get to the point where you become an Executive Director at a leading institution offering pro-bono legal services to low income communities with LPILP. What led you here?
Funmi: For as long as I can remember, I've always been someone with an innate desire to see everyone around me being treated with fairness and respect. I've always been vocal about my thoughts on inequalities. Even my parents still joke about how bemused they were when I uttered at the young age of five that “life is hard o!”. So although I had a wonderful childhood, I was always sensitive to the plight of people around me. My parents are also empathetic so this re-inforced my nature.
You know, once you are a good speaker, like to defend people, and sound smart, everyone says you're a lawyer when you're young. (laugh). Well, it eventually led me towards a law degree from Warwick University in England. After graduation, most aspiring lawyers in Nigeria would typically attend law school before NYSC but I did the reverse and I'm grateful for it. I first got to experience almost two years of corporate law practice at one of Nigeria’s leading law firms, Banwo & Ighodalo where I honed several skills including my analytical, advocacy, research, written, and oral communication skills.
After I completed law school and was called to the Nigerian Bar, I had a sense of reluctance to return to the corporate law scene but applied to my old firm anyway. The waiting period to hear back from the firm gave me further time to reflect and be honest with myself. I began discussing with both my mum and my boyfriend at the time (now husband), that I would love to develop the community in some way, perhaps by starting out working in government to eventually setting up an organization that provides free legal services to people who couldn’t afford lawyers. I didn’t know how any of this would be possible at the time but it just seemed like the most attractive path for me. I guess God was laughing at all this since He already had His plans laid out for me because this is literally what eventually happened.
One day, while discussing my interests with one of my friend's mum, she tells me she could arrange a meeting with the then, Lagos State Attorney General (AG). She asked me to be open-minded because it might not be what I expected. I didn't think too much about this advice at the time, but of course, in hindsight, it was all part of God’s providence. I applied to the AG’s office to join the corporate and commercial team because of my corporate law background believing this was where my strengths lay. The AG informed me that while there was no vacancy in that department, there was a small project his office was developing but i was probably overqualified. I remembered my aunt’s advice and told him that as long as it provided an avenue for me to contribute to developing the State, I would be happy to embark on the task.
So, this is what LPILP came to be. The project was being conceived around the time I was being called to the Nigerian Bar and the project aimed to increase access to justice through a public-private partnership. This is how I found myself in a position to build an organization from the ground up based on an idea that only a month prior seemed like a pipe dream.
In hindsight, it is crazy! I truly believe that this opportunity only came through grace. Since 2012, I have developed the Lagos Public Interest Law Partnership into the foremost access to justice NGO organization in the country with over two hundred partner law firms and NGOs, providing free (pro bono) legal services to the low-income segment who cannot afford legal representation. It is truly impactful work and i'm excited that this is my reality.
Maria Ro: More and more, i see a pattern that most things make sense in hindsight and it is important to do your best, but trust the process. You've done amazing work as a leader with LPILP building it from the ground up. Tell us, What does leadership mean to you, and who would you consider a leader?
Funmi: I think leadership is the ability to motivate people to work towards transforming a vision of an improved future into a reality.
I have learnt from some really good leaders and they have influenced my leadership style. Although the second part of the question asks who I consider a leader, I will focus on who I consider a “good” leader. I consider a good leader to be someone who is able to strategically rally people towards a common goal while uplifting those people at the same time.
Maria Ro: Funmi, If you had a time capsule and you could go back to the beginning of your leadership journey, what would you tell yourself, and why did you need to hear that at the time?
Funmi: I would have told myself at the time to keep working hard, but manage stress much better by staying calm and knowing that no matter what, all will be well in the end.
It would have been good to hear this at the time in order to realize that failure is not all bad and I can come out of what seems like a catastrophe even better, wiser and stronger. Perhaps if i knew this, I would have saved myself a lot of unnecessary anxiety. (laughs)
It’s actually great to know now that everyone makes mistakes at work and I mean everyone but what separates winners from the pack is the ability to learn from past experiences.
Maria Ro: Isn't this apt! I think we all suffer from this perfection syndrome, but being imperfect is actually liberating. It allows you focus on being a better person each time, not the perfect person. Thanks for sharing that, Funmi. You mentioned earlier that people have shaped your leadership styles. Share with us. Who is one person, what one experience or pivotal moment in your journey shaped you to being the leader you are today.
Funmi: Okay, i'll break it down into two. The first boss I had when I started working for government, Mr Ade Ipaye. He is a former Lagos Attorney General and the current Deputy Chief of Staff to the President. I consider him to be a humble, empowering, effective and God fearing leader.
A lot of opportunities for leadership which I and many other young professionals got while working in Government were as a result of his inspirational leadership.
In terms of experience, one that stands out is a night before one of my Governor’s Pro Bono Awards Dinner. (laugh). So, this dinner was a big deal. The dinner marks the last event of our week long pro bono week which as you can imagine is quite a demanding program to organize, and my team and i had done a great job. I mean, we had everything ready for the event the day before and the Governor was set to attend the event the next day at 6 pm.
So, that night imagine my horror when i find out that the venue which had been given to us as a donation by one of our stakeholders was actually not going to be available for our event. It made no sense to us. We did everything right. Had a contract, had sent invites to this donor with the venue written on it, weeks before.
Yet, somehow, our donor had mixed up the dates all along and only realized the night before that our event clashed with another event which had been scheduled prior to ours. (laugh). So you see how this shaped me? Apparently there was nothing that could be done about it. We had twenty four hours to make something happen. All I can say is that the devil tried it that day but my God will forever take all the glory (laugh).
After placing a million calls and having a sleepless night, we somehow managed to get another venue which was previously unavailable for our day but had now miraculously became available. Thanks to technology, we were able to inform all attendees and vendors of the venue change before the scheduled commencement time.
Why I use this experience as my pivotal moment is because it is one of the examples of scenarios that could have broken me and made me just throw my hands up and give up. But by God’s grace, we were able to pull through as a team and end up with a successful event. Such experiences definitely build you as a leader and I think I’m much calmer for it now, no matter how dire the situation seems, I know it’s never the end of the world and it will all work out someway somehow.
Maria Ro: I had anxiety just hearing this story (laugh), my goodness but i love this experience. It's funny how in the moment you think it all is burning but somehow you pull through, and that gives you the confidence to face many more challenging situations. Thanks for sharing that! Now, let's go into how you handle biases. What is your go-to response to those awkward situations when people might downplay your authority or competency just because you’re a woman?
Funmi: I think I’m one of the lucky few who hasn’t had too many of these types of experiences and if I have, I probably didn’t notice. Interestingly, the type of biases I have suffered is from older women in power who are unfortunately not very supportive of younger professional women and can sometimes resort to petty measures to tear younger women down. I’m grateful that I have also experienced the opposite with some inspirational, uplifting and motivational women such as the Chairman of my Board who is a woman I really look up to.
What I will say is that in any situation where one faces some form of bias, I think it’s very important to control your reaction to other people’s shortcomings. Try to realize that it’s not about you but instead, it’s all about their insecurities or the unfortunate cultural norms that need to be torn down.
So, for me, my response to such situations is to maintain a tunnel vision by preventing myself from being distracted and instead focusing on achieving my goals. When the opportunity does arise though, I do find myself engaging in discussions with people on the issue of the lack of and the need for gender-equality.
Such social interactions can be quite useful in creating awareness on such issues with those around you who would then go on to educate others, thereby leading to a ripple effect.
Maria Ro: Thank you, Funmi. For that African Woman on her leadership journey, who is ambitious and hungry for impact, struggles with believing that these big goals are possible, what do you say to her?
Funmi: I’ll tell her to remember that we are all human and even the people she may look up to have also had similar doubts at different times in their careers.
But as my Dad always tells me, never give up, keep going and the hard work will eventually pay off. I would also advise that she should be flexible with the avenues that may become available to her in achieving her goals and never believe that she can only reach her end goal via one singular route.
Maria Ro: Being a leader is very difficult, I'm certain you have faced challenges. There are times where it might have seemed so rough, quitting was tempting. How have you tackled the rough lows in your leadership journey?
Funmi: I think I owe a lot of my ability to stick out the tough times to my spiritual life. I’m sure different people have different ways of coping with challenges, but for me it’s primarily through my prayer life, ensuring I take time off for myself when I need it and I continue to work on improving my delegation skills. By learning to stop trying to do it all by myself and getting the right people working with me, I have been able to better tackle work challenges.
Maria Ro: Being a leader can be tough and support systems and coping mechanisms are important to stay centered. What is your go to activity of rest, and chill? How do you de-stress?
Funmi: My ultimate rest and chill activity is to travel and explore new cities and cultures. When I’m not booking a flight to a different part of the world, then I’m usually unplugging from technology and enjoying some quiet time or I catch up on my tv shows, game shows and cooking competitions like “Family Feud”, “Pointless”, “The Great British Bake Off” and “Chopped” amongst others. I also enjoy just catching up with family and friends over a good meal and drinks.
Maria Ro: What’s your favorite TV Show, Podcast, and Book in that order?
Funmi: My favourite TV show is an amazing law tv drama which has concluded now, it’s called The Good Wife. It was really well written. As for podcasts, I feel really uncool for admitting that I don’t actually listen to any. I wonder if my Bible In One Year Daily Devotional by Nickey and Pippa Gumbel counts? It should as I listen to this daily on my Bible App and a new one is released each day, just like a podcast! It’s quite the motivation and good news I need to start each day. My favourite book of all time will have to be the Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis. This is probably the most impactful book I’ve ever read even though I first read it as a child.
Maria Ro: I love the Good Wife! Tell us, what is one leadership mistake/pitfall you see is very common from your experience, and how can one avoid it?
Funmi: Probably wanting to do everything by yourself and not trusting others enough to stop yourself from micro-managing them. I think one way I’ve worked on overcoming this is by ensuring we hire the right people who understand the vision and by further learning to more effectively delegate tasks to them. Ensuring that everyone has their standard operating procedure and knows what is expected of them each day. This helps prevent a leader from burn-out which often occurs from trying to undertake all tasks.
Maria Ro: We are now close to the end? Funmi, what is one fun-fact, not a lot of people know about you?
Funmi: I really wanted to be a hollywood actress when I was younger and would actually practice my Oscar award winning speeches. (laugh).Thankfully my parents didn’t take me too seriously. In time, I’ve come to realize that I don’t think I would have enjoyed the celebrity life after all.
Maria Ro: You just dropped a gem i'm not even sure you realize! There is a whole conversation around how we probably would hate what we think we would enjoy, or we think is our "life's purpose". Funmi, what will you leave with us as your parting word, a favorite quote or something you find profound?
Funmi: Here's one i love.
“The future is no place to place your better days”
Maria Ro: *drops mic!* Thank you so much for doing this, Funmi. It was great to have you!
Funmi: It was my pleasure, thank you Maria.
To catch up with Funmi and her work with LPILP, connect with her on Linkedin here, and check out the website here if you're into legal representation for the underserved. To get notification on each now released feature, subscribe here
Reminder: We have decided to move the series to once a week to give you lovely readers some time to read one post every week. I'm excited for next week. See you soon!