This International Women’s Day, we spoke to Chinwe Odimba-Chapman, Partner at Clifford Chance and Larissa Joy OBE, Chair of Social Business Trust about purpose, society and what they #ChoooseToChallenge.

Chinwe is the partner champion for Clifford Chance’s ethnicity network (REACH), which she co-founded. She has been named as Future Leader in one of EMpower’s top 30 Ethnic Minority Future Leaders for 2018 and as one of EMpower’s 100 Ethnic Minority Executives for 2019. Chinwe was shortlisted as a BAME Future Leader for the Investing in Ethnicity Awards and named as one of 50 Women to Watch by Cranfield University. She has been appointed at the Global Partner For Talent and a member of the Clifford Chance’s Executive Leadership Group from 1 May 2021.

Larissa Joy is Chair of SBT and Chair of the Foundling Museum. In 2020, Larissa received an OBE for services to the Charitable, Voluntary and Social Enterprise Sectors. She is Non-executive Director of law firm Charles Russell Speechlys LLP, executive search firm Saxton Bampfylde and Non-Executive Director of Helpforce. Larissa was formerly a Partner of emerging markets private equity firm Actis LLP and Vice Chairman of WPP’s Ogilvy UK.

What has made you so purpose driven?

C: A couple of reasons. First, I genuinely think it is the right thing to do. I feel incredibly privileged because I have been given many opportunities and I have a skill set which means that I can help others – I therefore believe I have the responsibility to do it for the next generation. There was a time in my career where I had lots of ideas about how things could change in relation to diversity and inclusion, but I was waiting for someone else to do it. Fortunately, I have a lot of self-drive and ambition and therefore I realised I was actually best-placed to achieve change and I couldn’t wait for others. It came relatively late in my career, but once I had that realisation – the rest followed.

Second, I also believe a business with purpose will perform better. The research shows that profit with purpose is a successful model. My new role as Global Partner for Talent means I am the executive sponsor with responsibility for ensuring Clifford Chance has the best team. That is the pretty challenging objective and we need to ensure we have a clear compass for achieving it.

L: I am really fortunate to share a strong sense of purpose and commitment to social impact with the whole team and the board at SBT – and in the other organisations I work with. The pandemic has cast an even greater spotlight on the inequities and inequalities in society.  I truly believe that anyone who can help others, whether in small or big ways, regularly or every now and again, is making a better world for us all.

Have you seen female representation change over the years in Senior Leadership Teams?

C: I have seen the change within CC and with our clients. Statistics are important, but actually I am not focussed on the statistics in answering this question. Female representation for me isn’t just about putting women in leadership positions and on boards. Yes, that is important, but the more important thing is to ensure women have a voice in the room and the men in the room actively listen. We don’t want token appointments. We want women in positions of influence where they really have an opportunity to contribute to strategy and decision making. That has been the big change for me at Clifford Chance and with our clients.

L: I have been thinking about this a lot recently  – it is an issue front and centre on the minds of the boards and leadership teams of all the organisations I work with. As the Hampton Alexander Report has shown us, there is still a long way to go in listed businesses, especially in female CEO roles in the UK,  but there has been progress and in other fields outside listed businesses in the UK and I do believe there has been tangible, rapid, sustainable and genuine change. From my perspective, so many more organisations are thinking and acting in a more thoughtful and purposeful way to make sure that organisations have diversity, equity and inclusion at the forefront of their mind when they make hiring, promotion, retention and pay decisions. We need to keep the pressure up on the pace of change. But in just a single generation of women, and 101 years since female suffrage in the UK, such a huge shift has happened. I feel very privileged to be part of a generation where I grew up feeling that I had genuine choices about how to run my life, and plenty of role models to shine a spotlight on the road ahead.  

What’s one big societal change you’d like to see in your lifetime?

C: The change needs to start with the educational system. There is little benefit in changing things in the workplace if our sons and daughters are being conditioned about societal norms from a young age. We need to ensure we are not reinforcing stereotypes from the moment our children enter the system. A lot of work has been and continues to be done, but I know from personal experiences with my own children that the stereotypes are still being enforced. To give an intersectionality example, when my daughter started at her school, the 4 “houses” were all named after white women (e.g. Florence Nightingale) giving my daughter and her peers the clear impression that their inspirational role models were white women. The school has recently renamed all of the houses so there is an ethnic mix including, for example, Rosa Parks. Our society isn’t static and our educational system needs to reflect that. This is an example of a simple change at the grassroots level, but an impactful one that will have a long-lasting impact on my daughter and her friends as they grow and develop to be our future leaders.

L: On International Women’s Day,  I think I am duty bound to mention something that affects women! I would like to see a more systemic, joined up approach for families and children in the Early Years. The human brain develops at its fastest rate in the first few years of a child’s life. Parents – whether mothers or fathers – need more joined up support to ensure they can do their best for their children in these crucial years. Being involved through SBT with London Early Years Foundation (LEYF), has shown me at first hand what a difference high quality early years education for children from 3 months to 5 years can make, but not everyone is fortunate enough to have access to the help they need, and so many parents struggle to access support when they need it.  Trying to address this nationwide is something that I am personally very committed to right now – I think having a joined up, locally responsive early years system in the UK would make a huge difference to this generation of women and have a tangible impact on the next generation of adults.

What woman has inspired you the most?

C: My mother. She raised five children who all recognise the importance of respect, privilege and ambition. That for me is inspiration.

L: Oh – that is an impossible question to answer! There are just so many!! Sabine Meyer, the first female clarinettist in the then all-male Berlin Philharmonic. Carolyn McCall and Judy Gibbons for being professional role models and showing the art of the possible. Stephanie Childress, the brilliant young female conductor – the ultimate Renaissance Woman. Sade Banks, founder of Sour Lemons. And, like Chinwe, no collection of inspiring women would be complete without my mum, a strong and determined person who has always encouraged me to believe that with hard work, determination and a bit of good luck, anything is possible.

What do you #ChooseToChallenge?

C: I will challenge myself to ask the question that nobody else in the room dares to ask.

L: I will challenge discrimination, which too often still goes unchallenged.