Otegha Uwagba has so many impressive credentials to her name, it’s hard to know where to begin. Since launching Women Who, the network she founded for creative women, she’s gone on to write a Sunday Times bestseller, as well as hosting her own podcast, In Good Company, and featuring on the prestigious Forbes “30 Under 30” media list. It’s quite the roster of accolades, one that’s been achieved in the short two-year stint since she first launched Women Who. Looking at the timeline, it would be easy to think her success effortless. But to simply describe Uwagba as a wunderkind would be doing her a disservice. On meeting Uwagba in her hometown of London, it’s eminently clear that she’s pursued her goals with passion, direction and a whole lot of hard work from the start. You could say she’s quite literally taken a leaf out of her own book — the bestselling Little Black Book, a guide for creative women, whose millennial-pink cover has become something of a mainstay on the Instagram feeds of career-minded creatives, emerging and established alike.
Prior to launching Women Who, Uwagba worked full time in advertising for big names such as Vice and AMV BBDO before setting up as a freelancer in her mid-twenties. Going it alone, she wanted to connect with other creative women but found a gap in the market instead of the network she craved — so she decided to build her own. When speaking about her career path, Uwagba gives no air of precociousness, nor will you hear her say she simply “fell into it”. Instead, she’s refreshingly straight up about the grind that goes into growing an initiative like Women Who and the nitty-gritty of building her platform, her influence and — for want of a better term — her personal brand. She makes no bones about the difficulties and insecurities that come along with self-employment but, far from discouraging, her frankness is a healthy reality check for anyone who’s suffered career FOMO after a toxic Insta-scroll of their colleagues’ and competitors’ accounts.
The clarity of vision behind Women Who is directly fuelled by one of Uwagba’s firmly held beliefs: that women fundamentally work well together. Throw out the old-fashioned notion that women view each other as competition; Women Who is a testament to how women are collaborating to make the working world a better, fairer and safer place, not only for their contemporaries but also for the generations to follow. Meanwhile, on her podcast In Good Company, in which she delves into the specifics of professional life and doles out career advice, Uwagba actively seeks to raise the profile of other successful creative women, providing her listeners with aspiration and inspiration at the same time. In short, Uwagba is the careers guidance counsellor you wish you’d had in high school. INDIE caught up with her in Notting Hill to chat about what work means to our generation, how to build your confidence and how to demand what you’re worth — both creatively and financially.
How did you start out with Women Who?
I started Women Who in the summer of 2016, so just under two years ago. I’d been working in advertising and I really enjoyed it for a while — it was a fun, young industry with lots of interesting challenges. But after a couple of years, I had itchy feet; I wasn’t doing the kind of creative work I wanted to be doing, so that was one of the things that prompted me to leave and become self-employed. I also wasn’t working with many other women at the time which I really missed and I also just wanted to start a community of like-minded women. The fact that it became quite careers-focused happened naturally because when I left my last role at Vice in 2015, I became self-employed and had to try to figure freelancing out on my own. At the same time, I had the idea for Women Who percolating at the back of my mind for maybe a year before I left. So it was all kind of a perfect storm, combining the problems I was trying to navigate with the things I was interested in — women, feminism, creativity, careers.
When did you know that you wanted to be in this field of career guidance and networking?
I’ve always been quite career-minded and I always knew it would be focused around creative women. Such a huge part of being a creative woman is figuring out how to make it work, how to make a living and pay your bills and monetise your skills, as well as the fun interesting stuff. But the business side of it is indivisible from the very active creative side of it. So I think it was partly a personal influence because I was navigating this new way of work-ing — suddenly working on my own from home and feeling a bit isolated from time to time. So I wanted to connect with like-minded women who maybe had done similar things to what I’d done, who maybe left the corporate world to build their own paths. And I also wanted to take the opportunity to write more, so it all came together.
In your experience, in what ways does the younger generation conceptualise work? What does it mean to us?
Without wanting to make sweeping generalisations, I do think our generation just has completely different values. We place so much more value on career as identity, career as defining your sense of self and a career as needing to fulfil you in a way that I don’t think our parents’ generation necessarily did, or a much smaller proportion of our parents’ generation did. You don’t just work to live now: the boundaries between the personal and the professional are so blurred that young people want to make sure their job really represents who they are. It’s not just about making money from it — making enough to pay the bills — you really have to believe in what you’re doing as well. But I think the main thing is how much we place personal fulfilment and satisfaction at the centre of what we expect from our job and I think our standards for that are a lot higher than they were in our parents’ generation. Certainly for most people I know in that older generation, for them it’s all a bit new-fangled. For millennials, there’s this risk of being seen as the snowflake generation but I don’t agree with that at all; I think that it’s great that our standards are higher in terms of what we expect from work. We’re going to spend more time working than ever before so it might as well be something you enjoy.
A lot of your work focuses on “personal branding” and marketing yourself. How important is it now for people to have that online identity?
I think the phrase “personal brand-ing” — I’m still looking for a better alternative — is quite buzzwordy and jargony. But if you think about it, we’re in competition with far more people than we were maybe twenty years ago before the advent of the inter-net. Now, thanks to globalisation, if you’re an editor in New York, for example, you can commission someone from around the globe as opposed to the small pool of people you know within New York. You’re competing with far more people which means you have to find a way to make yourself stand out more, to differentiate yourself and make people want to come to you above other freelance writers. You want to stick in people’s minds for all the right reasons. And in some ways you want your reputation to precede you and I think having a personal brand is a really strong way of marketing yourself. It gives you more leverage as well. Whether you’re working full time or you’re self-employed, it means commanding a higher salary, it means negotiating job offers, it means more inbound traffic, more clients and so on. Especially in an age now where, when someone approaches someone for a new gig, they do tend to look them up and evaluate them as a whole person as opposed to just looking at what they have on their CV. Whether or not you like the idea of personal branding, I think it would be a mistake to pre-tend it wasn’t crucial to your career.
Personal branding is one major shift that’s come out of work migrating online. What other advantages do you see for our generation with that change?
I think the internet is a real blessing and a curse. It’s a blessing because it makes it easier to create your own platforms and get the word out there. If you think about it, people’s social media accounts are like mini individual media platforms and you can do well out of them — and not just in the sense of being an influencer, also in terms of communicating your ideas and thoughts, and sharing your work. If you’re a visual artist, for example, you don’t need to rely on traditional industry gatekeepers, you don’t need to get your work placed in a magazine or written up about anymore, you can just put your work out there. I have so many creative friends who find that their primary source of work and interest comes through these accounts that they run themselves. So in some ways I think it’s made things a lot more democratic. But on the flip-side, it’s a curse because it’s harder to track your work. I’m always really conscious about intellectual property rights and just protecting your work in that way. It’s also de-valued creative work to an extent. If you think about writing, for example, rate per word has dropped massively since the seventies and that’s because a lot more people are putting their words out there, so the value of writing, the value of journalism has dropped. In some ways, though, you might see turning a blog you write in your spare time into a career as a good thing. It’s swings and roundabouts but I like to think the internet is generally beneficial.
As you mentioned, our generation relates their self-worth so much more closely to their work but when you’re on Instagram it’s easy to get the impression that everyone else is enjoying more success than you. How do we walk the tightrope between self-worth and “public” worth?
Obviously the thing to remember is that a lot of what you see on Instagram is fake. I fall into that trap myself but you do have to remind yourself that it’s very much a curated highlight reel of what’s happening with people. It’s also really important to craft a skill beyond simply having followers — it might be speaking or writing or building a community, like I’m doing. Personally, I see it as a bit of a bubble. It has to end at some point. Well — maybe it won’t! But I do think that you have to remember firstly that there are a lot of smoke and mirrors when it comes to social media and followers, and secondly, if you’re good at what you do, then it doesn’t really matter whether you have that follow-ing. That’s a cherry on top. It might mean more to certain brands, yes, but generally if you’re good at what you do, that will be what wins out, particularly when it comes to creative work. Take it all with a pinch of salt, really.
So how do you go about creating a personal brand online without setting too much store by your “reach” or worrying about your number of followers?
I think it’s about making yourself accessible and easy to find and explaining exactly what you do. A personal website is good for that, as is your Twitter or Instagram. Part of it really is just sharing the work that you’ve done and the work that’s been successful because, especially if you’re self-employed, what makes you in demand is that you’re working with other clients and potential clients will want a piece of that. So share the work that you’ve done as opposed to just filing a piece, having it published and then never talking about it again. You do have to be in self-promotion mode a lot when you do creative work. I know that many people create a round-robin email newsletter. It doesn’t have to be sent every month — even every quarter is good — but you can send it out to past clients, potential clients, with all the work you’ve done over the last interval, just so you’re top of mind when it comes to commissions. It is a lot about recency, so if they’ve seen or heard from you recently then they’ll think of you. If they’ve seen all the commissions, bylines, gigs you’ve done, clients will think, “This is someone who’s working and in demand, she must be good at what she does.” I definitely know it works like that with people who are in positions to commission creatives, so I think that’s a good shout.
Even five or ten years ago, when leaving university, the expectation seemed to be to get onto a grad scheme or something similar, whereas now that pathway feels far more blurred and unconventional. What would you say recent graduates can do to get a foot on the career ladder?
It’s really dependent on what you’re interested in and what you want to do, of course. If you don’t get onto a grad scheme, it’s not the end of the world, though I do think there’s still space for them. Something a lot of people approach me about, because they know that I’m self-employed and a brand consultant, they ask how you become a freelance brand consultant. Well, you have to have experience first, so I think a lot of people knock the idea of doing a nine-to-five but I do think it’s a really valuable experience to do that straight out of uni. For me, that allowed me to build a network, to learn how it works from the inside, how to get along with people and how to navigate people I didn’t get along with, office politics, clients and so on. I’m not saying everyone should go into a nine-to-five as soon as they graduate but I do think there’s this kind of fetishisation of self-employment. In some ways, that’s great and I think it’s a great path, it’s worked for me. But I just think not dismissing out of hand the idea of working for other people for a bit because you learn so much from that and it’s a softer landing into the working world.
With Women Who you’ve built a really valuable network of women and with your podcast, you’re really raising the profile of women creatives. But even a decade ago visibility for women in those roles was so lacking. How important is representation?
It’s that old saying of “if you can’t see it, you can’t be it”. I think having women — particularly women of colour, black women — in positions of power within any industry and having them be visible and successful, and having them share their stories is so important. The thing I really try to do with Women Who and In Good Company is to share stories and go into detail and depth. There tends to be a bit of a glossy veneer cast over a lot of careers and people say, “Oh, I just fell into this job.” But I really think it’s important to share the truth and share the ins-and-outs of it because those are the sorts of insights that allow people to make informed decisions, and to emulate and use similar tactics to build their own careers. Women who are doing well sharing that information is really important and I see myself as a conduit for those women, so I go and find those women and share it with others.
The internet has lowered the barrier to access for many creative fields. How do you see that affecting things for the younger generation?
Entry, I think, is far less a gender issue than it is a race and class issue. From what I’ve observed, it’s definitely predicated more on class and race. Where I’ve worked, people have gained entry through connections which comes more with being middle class. If you are of means and you can do an unpaid internship, which is apparently necessary these days in London particularly, then you have more opportunities. As far as I can see, those barriers are still as high as they’ve ever been.
There’s a huge conversation going on about the gender pay gap at the moment and in creative industries, particularly for freelanc-ers, information on rates and pay is perhaps even less transparent. How can women make sure they’re being paid as much as their male counterparts?
Talking to other people and talking to other men. I literally WhatsApp’d someone today because I was approached for a gig and I knew she’d done something similar, so I discussed what they offered me with her and we tried to figure out if it was equal. I asked for a higher rate and I told her I’d let her know if they said yes, for future reference. I do think that building a network of people who do work on a similar level to you and discussing rates and salaries with them is so important. We’re so squeamish when it comes to talking about money — especially Brits — and it’s such a disservice to women because we’re the ones on the sharp end of the pay gap. There are loads of tactics and strategies about how to do that effectively and tactfully. I always ask people if the rate I’ve been offered is fair or if they’d accept it and that usually makes them much more forthcoming with their own rates, as opposed to baldly asking them their salary which can make them clam up. I’ve become so much more open about talking about money; previously, I’d never share my salary but then I found out I was really massively underpaid in one of my old jobs simply because I didn’t know what the going rate was. I was devastated! Not that it was my own fault but I wasn’t completely blameless; I thought it was kind of fine and then I found out I could have been earning way more and I was so annoyed at myself. And after that I just completely changed my attitude and now I’m so open about what I get paid. I wouldn’t tweet my salary but if someone asks me, it’s no skin off my nose: if everyone else is getting paid more, that works well for me because it raises the going rate so discussing it is altruistic and self-serving at the same time. If people know what the going rate is and won’t accept anything below, then that means I won’t have to accept something lower in the future.
Are you able to negotiate rates then in the case where a client offers you something too low?
I have a sense of what I want to be paid for certain things and how long it will take me, and if someone isn’t going to come very close to that or meet that then I’ll walk away. I feel quite lucky now that I’m more in a position to do that because I have more experience and I have a certain level of leverage because of my Little Black Book and things like that but I do tend to go into situations knowing what I’d like to be paid and my final fee isn’t necessarily dependent on their budget, it’s dependent on how I value that work and my time. So things come up all the time where the rate is fair enough but it’s not enough for me. If people can’t meet it, then I think great because I then have more time to spend on Women Who. The thing that really taught me a lesson is that if you say yes to something badly paid, something good might come along tomorrow that’s well paid which you can’t accept because you’ve taken something else on. In my head, that’s my logic: if I say yes to the badly paid thing, then that reduces my ability to earn more on my time. It does even out, generally. I have a minimum rate for my time and I work to that. It’s also worth saying, it does take a little time to get there — it’s not something you can do straight out of the gate. I don’t think people should feel bad if they have to accept a lower rate because that’s just how it is when you’re starting out.
Younger women can tend to have less confidence when starting out in the working world whereas guys tend to feel entitled to more or broadcast their successes more readily. How can young women find the confidence to own their work and view it as valuable?
Absolutely. I think some of it does come from experience and time. In my case, for example, becoming self-employed gave me more leverage because suddenly I wasn’t beholden to one person to pay my bills, I was beholden to lots of people. That meant I wasn’t scared of being fired because if one person fires you, hopefully you have lots of different people who will pay you. That might not necessarily apply to everyone because being self-employed can be fraught but certainly that gave me more confidence. I think it is just little by little, flexing your muscles and it gets easier the more you do it and then it becomes more like second nature, standing up for yourself and demanding what you’re worth. The first time you do it in one of those situations and it doesn’t blow up in your face, you think, “That wasn’t so bad, I can do that again”. For me, the first time I pushed back on something I got an apology and I realised I could do it again. So all of a sudden it becomes easier and now it’s second nature to me. And I have a really high sense of self worth: you do have to remember that you are good at what you do. If you weren’t, then people wouldn’t approach you to work or want to work with you. A lot of times, you’re made to feel a dime a dozen, but you’re not — it’s actually quite hard to find people who are good at what they do, are reliable and polite and pleasant to work with. So if you’ve got that going for you, remember that actually it’s something a lot of people don’t have.
Right—base level politeness is weirdly rare.
Yeah, there are some real shitters out there and if they still have their job, why shouldn’t you! It’s not that you should get arrogant or complacent, but I think if you’re someone who is consciously thinking about your career and trying to improve then you’re already doing quite well as it is because a lot of people just coast through and aren’t thinking about their careers in that way, so you have to bear that in mind.
Traditionally, women have been taught to view other women as competitors. Women Who is actively combatting that and bring-ing women together. How important is it for women to lift other women up and fight internalised sexism?
I wrote an article recently talking about the fact that there’s a myth that women can’t get along or work well together, even though for me most of the most productive and fulfilling professional relationships I’ve had have been with other women. And I’ll leave the stories about the men for another day [laughs]! But patriarchal structures are invested in pitting women against each other because it’s divide and conquer. And of course, there are some women who are jerks to work with. There are also men who are jerks to work with — but it’s never ascribed to their gender. A woman who’s unpleasant to work with is called a bitch but a guy who’s the same, it would probably go kind of unnoticed. So I think there’s a huge amount of sexism there and it’s just trying to remember that and overcome it. If the situation was reversed and men were told there was only one seat out of twelve at the table for them, you can be damn right they’d be pretty fucking bitchy to each other, but that’s the message, implicitly or explicitly, that women are being told every day. I do think fundamentally women work really well together; we really value community, we value communication, we’re kind, and I wouldn’t have started Women Who if that wasn’t the case. Roxane Gay has this great saying, from her book Bad Feminist: “Abandon the cultural myth that all female friendships must be bitchy, toxic or competitive. This myth is like heels and purses — pretty but designed to SLOW women down.” It’s a complete construct.
“Talent isn’t afraid of talent” as my mother used to tell me!
Right! “Lift as you climb.” “A rising tide lifts all boats.” All those clichés are true: if you support other women, you will benefit from that as well. It’s not a zero-sum game — we can all win and if we’re helping each other, we’re all likely to win. That’s what I think is happening with Women Who. Instead of ten women struggling through these scenarios on their own, why doesn’t one woman struggle and share her learnings with the other nine and then they don’t have to go through it. We’ll all progress quicker. That’s how I see Women Who: sharing information so that we won’t have to struggle separately. I really believe in strength in numbers in the work-place for women.
Photography LISA MARLEEN MUELLER
Taken from INDIE NO 59, THE WORK ISSUE – get your copy here.