Inspirational Woman: Margaret Casely-Hayford CBE | Chancellor, Coventry University

Margaret Casely-Hayford
Copyright 2017 Mike Sewell (tel: 07966417114) Photograph by Mikey Sewell.
Coventry University graduations November 2017. Pictured is new Chancellor Margaret Casely-Hayford
(Commissioned by Hannah Smith)

Margaret Casely-Hayford studied Law at Somerville College, Oxford University, and was called to the Bar in 1983.

She joined Denton Hall Law Firm (now SNR Denton) four years later to specialise in planning law.

She spent 20 years at the firm and in 1998 was made partner – becoming the first black woman to hold the role at any City law firm. For nine years until July 2014 she was Director of Legal Services for the John Lewis Partnership.

After 30 years as a lawyer, she retired from executive roles. She now advises young entrepreneurs, organisations on governance and those embarking upon board careers.

Promoting board diversity, she’s a Board Apprentice ambassador; chair of the Advisory Board of Ultra Education which teaches entrepreneurial skills to primary school children; and co-manages rap artist and digital media entrepreneur, Kelvyn Colt.

She was elected to the Board of the Co-op in May 2016; and in June 2016 was appointed a Trustee on the Board of the Radcliffe Trust which is a 300 year old organisation that funds arts and music projects. In 2017 she was appointed to chair a diversity review for the Carnegie and Kate Greenaway awards.

As a Freeman of the City of London, she served on the Metropolitan Police Oversight Panel to investigate corruption; and spent eight years as a Government appointed trustee of Great Ormond St Children’s Hospital Charity.

From 2012 to 2016 Margaret was a government appointed non-executive director of NHS England, sat on the boards of the British Retail Consortium, the Geffrye Museum, and the Young Vic theatre.

In 2014 Margaret was named by the Black British Business Awards as Business Person of the Year, and holds an honorary doctorate from the Business Faculty of Middlesex University.

In 2017 she was appointed Chancellor of Coventry University as it was ranked second in the national Teaching Excellence Framework (TEF) and will lead the university’s work on corporate responsibility, social mobility and engagement with the local community.

Find out more about Margaret here:

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

I grew up in London with my parents and three brothers. The Cold War was a dominant theme and as a result I became very political from a surprisingly young age. I attended Oxford University and went into planning law where I worked my way to become the first black woman to become a Partner in a City law firm; and later as Director of Legal Services for the John Lewis Partnership. Since retiring I’ve been involved in diversity review panels; promoting the teaching of entrepreneurial skills to children from primary school upwards; and increasing diversity on leadership boards. As Chancellor of Coventry University I am also working to increase diversity and inclusion and ensure education remains accessible to all which is a huge passion of mine.

Did you ever sit down and plan your career?

Law, politics, education and journalism run in my family and I fact I am the third generation to enter the law and it isn’t all that surprising that I have been interested in rights or that I’ve been a champion of equality or promoter of education.  My grandfather was a barrister, politician and writer, and his wife was the founder of a girls’ school in West Africa in support of which she went as far as America to fundraise.  Since I retired from the legal world, so much of what I’m doing has enabled me to dive more wholeheartedly into what I love doing; and each project has opened new doors and presented new opportunities but interestingly following to an extent along the same sort of route as my forebears,  But whenI was young, I harboured an ambition to be

Secretary General of the United Nations so although I can’t say that I always dreamt of being in law, there was a focus on human rights even then, and becoming Chair of ActionAid UK was such a wonderful part of helping to promote and champion the rights of women and of the most vulnerable people. And now much of my work now is engaged with helping others reach their potential, and addressing disparity in all sections of society, so although I’ve never reached that high ambition, I think my younger self would  it be too disappointed!

Have you faced any challenges along the way?

Oh, of course. I have at times faced challenges that many face:of being a woman, of being black, of being a mother, of being a certain age – they come in all forms and what I have learnt is that it’s not about what’s in front of you but what the voice inside is telling you. For example, I’ve met people who clearly felt that a black person would never amount to anything and who would make that very clear. But this made me more determined to prove them wrong, and to fight not just for myself, but for the rights and opportunity for others who perhaps wouldn’t have had the ability to counter that sort of opposition.

What has been your biggest achievement to date?

I’ve had the great good fortune to be appointed to work with the leadership of organisations that I greatly admire and respect, that have sound ethics and values, like Great Ormond Street Children’s Hospital Charity, NHSEngland, Co-op Group, Actionaid, and Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre and it seems astonishing and wonderful that I got rewarded with a CBE for the privilege!

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

I think that would be my family and my inspiring parents. Growing up, both intelligent and diligent, they recognised that everyone has a responsibility to society and undoubtedly instilled in us their family values and their reverence for education. My mother taught me never to give up, and my brothers showed me that competition can be a good thing. They helped me see what was possible and how to believe I could make it happen for me.

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

I think mentoring is excellent, and it is so necessary to give others the benefit of your experience and to show others what’s achievable. I mentor a number of young people including the wonderful founders of two young enterprises: Ultra Education and Grant Fairy and I am an ambassador for the Board Apprentice scheme that enables board ready executives to shadow board chairs so they have sight of the way in which a board operates.

What is the focus of Ultra Education and Grant Fairy?

Ultra education takes the teaching of entrepreneurial skills into schools and it is quite moving and very inspiring to see children develop their passion into the innovation of a product or service that through its development enables them to develop teamworking, leadership, marketing, accounting, presentation and resilience skills and characteristics that will help them whether or not they establish their own business or work for others.

GrantFairy was founded by someone who left university early for lack of funds.  He then set about developing an App that marries university courses with information about available scholarships and bursaries and he has free und over £1bn worth of funds that would be available to potential students

It is a privilege and pleasure to work with and advise young entrepreneurs such as these.

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

Very early on I realised that boys had more freedom and opportunity than girls, and as a result I’ve been a feminist pretty much all my life with a constant questioning of the lack of opportunity for so many in society. But this is where things can and are changing. The more we start to see more women represented on boards, in offices, as judges and as leaders; once it becomes the norm for young girls to see other women in those positions – that is when we stop seeing people as the first woman in any space, but as an active participant and a success in her own right.  The #MeToo movement is great because of how international it is, it’s reaching people all over the world and the impact of that is staggering so I believe that too is having a major influence on how we are beginning to think differently. But the way in which so many religions subjugate the position of women is fundamental to so many of our ingrained limitations, worldwide.

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

I would tell myself to do more; you’re young for such a short time; you can pack so much more in and achieve so much more if you use the precious time you’re given. Basically, that you can just sit and drink coffee later!

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

Ha ha! Perhaps I could one day be Secretary General of the United Nations!

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