Inspired by a simple speech given by one of her mentors, Sonia Brown MBE created her ideal job by founding the National Black Women’s Network in 1999, now running alongside its online social network, SistaTalk. Driven by her belief in the power of obstacles, Sonia talks to Myriam O’Carroll about the mission of both networks, the people who inspired her along the journey and pays tribute to her Jamaican family.
You founded the National Black Women’s Network (NBWN) in 1999 – why that?
I wanted to create a forum where women could come together and talk about their route to success and share that knowledge with other women less fortunate than themselves.
With the support of talented and accomplished professionals, I was able to set the network up in 1999 and I have not looked back since!
Did you ever feel that the colour of your skin stopped you for achieving a goal?
It is not just about stopping, I think it is a barrier just being a woman and you have to learn very quickly that it’s all about building resilience and the bounce back factor. We need to understand that life is tough and no matter what, there are going to be challenges.
I look at life like there will be continuous hurdles and until the finish line, you’ve just got to get your rhythm, keep running and jumping.
In 2008 you also founded SistaTalk, an online social network, what is its mission?
When we set up the NBWN at the beginning, it was really about black women. What we found was that we would get lots of calls from people saying ‘I am not black, I am not a woman and I would like to attend your meeting’! It became very clear that the subject matters we were talking about hit a cord for a lot of people. So we eventually set up our mainstream arm, Let’s Talk Business, where we run additional events. We then found our members wanted to network online, so I decided to set up SistaTalk, which I didn’t wanted to be as serious as LinkedIn, but not as frivolous as Facebook either. We now have over 3,000 members from 27 countries and it’s actually doing really well.
Who has inspired you along the way?
I will start by my parents. We always think we have the worse parents in the world, but I now realise they taught me really good lessons for life. Baroness Howells of St David’s was really key for me professionally. She was the chair of a voluntary sector organisation I worked for and she was amazing. I remember approaching her to mentor me and she said ‘just create your ideal job!’ That simple statement was all I needed – and that’s how the network was formed.
The next person after that was Sir Nicholas Montagu. He was very instrumental in helping me on how to strategically position the network. Today, I am inspired by so many amazing women, including Theresa May, Baroness Verma of Leicestershire; India Martin Gary; Brenda Trenowden and of course Vanessa Vallely. Just go on to the SistaTalk newsletter and you will see some of the most amazing women I have met through this journey.
You believe in the power of obstacles and in trusting the universe – are you that positive?
Some of our greatest lessons come from some of our most painful experiences. I am grateful to my first boss for being horrible to me; if he hadn’t, I would still be there and would have missed out on all the great opportunities I have experienced since setting up the network. I look at some of the struggles of being a second-generation immigrant and think it has given me some great life skills.
I am resilient; I am determined and I am not easily put off by challenges.
I think that it is really important that when an obstacle comes your way, you stay quiet, be still and listen. Always remember the power of obstacles should not be seen as a punishment, but as a lesson the universe is trying to teach us.
You have been awarded an MBE title – how do you feel about this?
I had never expected it and I don’t’ think consciously I believed I would get this honour. When the letter arrived, I read it and I thought it was a joke. I did not believe it and when I realized it was true, I was stunned! There is that moment when you say ‘who do I tell?’ It’s an amazing feeling, but it is very important because my parents saved £75 to come to this country and offer a better life to their children. So being able to say to my mum ‘come to Buckingham Palace and see me being recognised’ was incredible.
It was a tribute to my parents, their vision, their hard work and their passion. This is a great achievement and that is why the MBE is important to me and my family.