Inspirational Woman: Debbie Tembo | Managing Director, The Black British Business Awards

Debbie TemboDebbie Tembo joined the BBBAwards in January 2021. Since 2016, she has worked with FTSE100 clients, Top 100 Law Firms and one of the Big Four as Client Relationship Director & Board Member at Obelisk Legal Support Solutions.

During her tenure, she was a key driving force behind the successful running and operations of the business, in particular the client and sales function, with critical input into long-term strategic development and goals. Debbie has always had a very strong interest in diversity and inclusion (D&I) having extensively advised FTSE100 and professional services firms about the strategic importance of D&I and its position as a critical enabler of long-term sustainability, from a people and profit perspective. Additionally, she provides key involvement in the procurement and RFP processes of large institutions, with D&I as a critical component. Consistently recognised as a stand-out performer, she was the youngest member of the first international innovations approach in a global HQ and first female manager appointed to a previously male-dominated Africa and Middle East team. Debbie is the Managing Director of the BBBAwards, a Non-Executive Director at Obelisk legal Support Solutions and a member of the 30% Club Race Equity Group Steering Committee.

Tell us a bit about yourself, background and your current role?

I grew up in the beautiful mother city of Cape Town in South Africa. I come from a large, loving, loud family. I am the youngest, so I was allowed to test the boundaries and that I certainly did! My dad was a chaplain of a seafaring mission station, which meant that I was surrounded from a young age by people from all over the world. In hindsight, what this did for me was build up an appreciation of multiculturalism and somewhat of an ability to navigate those spaces. This has greatly influenced my career decisions and why I seek out workplaces that reflect that back at me.

I started my career at BAT South Africa, growing in different roles until my secondment to the global headquarters in London where I also did a few roles, until I found “living on an aeroplane” and not having enough female role models around me challenging. So I decided to leave to study a Masters, which ultimately did not happen, because I became a mother instead…for 7 years out of my career!

Then I met this awesome female founder who quite frankly took a chance of me and decided that my career break did not diminish all my experience and potential. I will forever be grateful to her for the opportunity and for allowing me to soar in my career ever since.

My current role as the MD of the BBBAwards is focused on building the business and expanding the advisory services that are focused on the advancement of minority ethnic talent, as well as advocating to systemic change in organisations as we push for race equity in our workplaces.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Only at the very beginning. I was very clear about the fact that I wanted to work for a multinational and that I wanted to be seconded at some point in my career. The early to mid-years of my career went exactly to plan, thereafter, I made some unconventional career decisions and life has led me from there to more of a portfolio career where I have been able to transfer my skills into roles that I would not have ordinarily planned for myself. That being said, these roles have pushed me out of my comfort zone, where both doubt and growth co-exist.

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Honestly, I think that I have been lucky not to have faced very many challenges. Since I started my career, I have had sponsors, mentors and coaches. Likewise, BAT was way ahead of its time when it came to the development of its people, and I benefitted greatly from it. Some of the challenges have been more about “one of the few or only” in a room, whether that be gender or race based. In these instances, I have learnt that you’ve got to find your voice and push through to be seen and heard. I actively encourage others to do the same.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

There have been many achievements to date, and I don’t think that any one of them trumps the other. Perhaps, my biggest achievement therefore is still to come, which means that I still have a lot more to give and achieve! Having said that, I will always be proud of the teams that I have worked in and led. Seeing people achieve great things and having had a hand in their success, will always be what it’s all about for me.

What one thing do you believe has been a major factor in you achieving success?

My courage. Courage has allowed me to be open to opportunities and to take on roles that I have had no business taking on. Quite frankly courage has constantly pushed me out of my comfort zone. I am strangely comfortable with the unknown – I trust that the universe has my back.

How do you feel about mentoring? Have you mentored anyone or are you someone’s mentee?

Mentoring has its purpose. I have not mentored anyone per se – my introverted self doesn’t see itself as a role model. I’ve learnt so much throughout my career that I would love the opportunity to mentor young people (especially young girls) and share with them that everything can be solved through hard work, integrity and by ensuring you don’t take yourself too seriously.

If we’re talking about what’s required for women in the workplace, I believe that what is more important than mentorship, is sponsorship. Sponsorship is the key that unlocks the growth opportunities for people to be seen, heard and advanced – it did for me, and I believe that everyone should benefit from it.

If you could change one thing to accelerate the pace of change for Gender Equality, what would it be?

Stop asking women questions that you would never ask men. Can we all just pause for a second and think before we ask women some of the questions that we do.

If you could give one piece of advice to your younger self, what would it be?

Don’t be afraid to be wrong. You learn so much more when you’re not chasing perfection.

What is your next challenge and what are you hoping to achieve in the future?

When I know, I’ll tell you! I am not entirely certain, other than to say that I would like to get more involved with charitable work around young women, perhaps do more of my own thing…watch this space!

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