It's typically the people behind the scenes that are the driving force of true cultural, political, and social shift. Often, those people are Black women. These powerhouses fight the good fight for effective change in ways that push the culture forward. When Black women take up the battle to fight for gender equality and against violence against women and girls, things happen.
Standing at the intersection of local and global change for women, Deborah Owhin is no exception; she's the rule.
"From a young age, I was an advocate, I did not know that was what it was called but I would stand up for other girls who wa being bullied in school. At an early age, I was exposed to domestic abuse as a result of the extended community I belong to. I would see my maternal aunt and my mother's friends come to our house with bloodied faces full of tears and voices filled with pain."
Witnessing the effect of bullying and the aftermath of domestic violence as a child, Deborah found her calling and career in becoming a fervent advocate for women and girls. As a sought-after global strategist with McKinsey & Company, the #1 consulting firm in the world, she fights gender inequality and violence against women and girls on multiple fronts and is doing it all with grit, grace, and gravitas.
Her global commitment is woven throughout her life story. With degrees from Spelman College and Oxford University, Owhin has held strategist positions where she led the charge for the rights of women and girls through programming and policy. In 2013, she was invited to join the United Kingdom's delegation to The United Nations' 57th Commission on the Status of Women in New York City. Recognizing the extreme lack of diversity within the delegation, she founded Made Equal that same year, a nonprofit that empowers first generation professionals to end gender inequity and violence against women and girls on both a local and global scale.
Her current work with McKinsey & Company has put Owhin in the company of advocacy and entertainment giants like Malala Yousafzai, Angelina Jolie, and Meryl Streep to secure rights, protections, and opportunities for women and girls across the globe. xoNecole chatted with Deborah about her career trajectory as a Black woman in global strategy, the importance of women speaking up for themselves, and her advice for pushing forward the fight for the rights of women and girls.
Having championed women for so long and now in a global setting, what is your ultimate goal?
One of my major goals is to share the things I have learned and educate women with non-academic skills, which I believe will serve the opportunity to connect women globally. I have always believed I would create a global platform to teach women and girls how to develop their dreams, their leadership vision and the communities they want! I believe this will change nations by giving them the tools to use their voices.
What does all of your well-earned acclaim mean to you?
It means that I can be the image for other young women and people of color that I did not see growing up. It means that others can believe they can because I am daily pushing to achieve my dreams. It means that it's never too late to pivot or change into a career or industry that you have an interest, we no longer live in a world where people stay in jobs for 20 years. The role I expect to do in 10 years has not even been created yet... I am still working on it!
"It's never too late to pivot or change into a career or industry that you have an interest, we no longer live in a world where people stay in jobs for 20 years. The role I expect to do in 10 years has not even been created yet... I am still working on it!"
What advice do you have for women who want to assert themselves, to ask for what they are worth but are afraid of rocking the boat?
Stop short-changing yourself! The very worst that could happen is a person says "no" at that point. You then have a decision to make and reflect on the reason for that "no". Was it a premature ask you made? Are you being undervalued? Could you go somewhere else and get a "yes"? I learned a lot about negotiating during my MBA and also about going for things that I did not think women like me would achieve, such as the Skoll Scholarship, which I was the first African, first Black woman to receive at the University of Oxford to fully fund my MBA. Secondly, find other people who you believe have rocked the boat and taken a risk in their careers... Listen to their journeys and I hope you find the courage to see no limits!
What has been the largest challenge you've faced as a Black woman strategist in the global space? How did you overcome that challenge?
Being visible. I have sat in rooms where physically I am the only person who looks like me— a woman or a black person— and you would expect that to create a space to participate but if often does not. It's as though being different from those sitting in the room and at the decision tables makes it easier to ignore.
Firstly, as Michelle Obama has shared in her intimate talk in London last December, I must work harder. Secondly, I find allies who naturally are leaders who naturally make space for my voice to be heard. They give credit to my work in front of partners and clients and often open the floor for me to share my ideas.
"I have sat in rooms where physically I am the only person who looks like me— a woman or a black person— and you would expect that to create a space to participate but if often does not. It's as though being different from those sitting in the room and at the decision tables makes it easier to ignore."
Who inspired you to launch your current career path?
I was inspired by the lack of representation of women of color in leadership positions in government and the private sector. I was inspired by the young women who desired to also become champions of humans rights work but could not even get an opportunity to volunteer, as the UK government had made some many cuts in budgets affecting services that supported women. I was inspired by the women I have met from around the world, championing an end to violence against women and girls in their villages, towns, cities and nations. I was inspired because I believe I can make a difference. Spelman College propelled me to believe that every day I can 'make a choice to change the world'. That's our legacy!
If you are interested in learning more about how you can help fight for women and girls, check out these resources:
National Sexual Violence Resource Center