Black History Month: Debbie Tembo, Obelisk Client Relationship Manager

As October and Black History Month comes to an end, Debbie Tembo reflects on her career journey and the importance of identity and diversity in her work.

Life in Cape Town

I grew up in the beautiful Mother City of Cape Town in South Africa. I went to the University of Cape Town to study a BA in Cultural and Literary Studies with a major in Film and Media Studies. I became really interested in marketing and brands, which lead me to study a postgraduate diploma in marketing management for another year.

From a young age I have always been the child that would push boundaries, whether it be convincing my parents that I absolutely needed to go on a Gap Year straight after school (which had never been done in our family) or being the first black prefect at high school or being voted “most likely to succeed” in my postgrad class at university. Our family was the very first black family to move into a fairly well to do white suburb in Cape Town, circa 1993 (very shortly after the release of Nelson Mandela). My dad was the head of an international seafaring NGO, which meant that I was surrounded by people of such different and international backgrounds to me, and this has fuelled my subconscious distancing of homogenous groups from an early age. My parents, like most black folk are religious people, but what they imparted to me more than religion was a deep sense of spirituality and authenticity, and I carry that in my professional life. I would definitely forego business if it meant that I needed to act against my better judgement and compromise my integrity. Authenticity is such an important value to me and when you’re a black female professional, I think it matters more.

British American Tobacco – From Cape Town to London

I was recruited into British American Tobacco’s global graduate recruitment training programme where, after an 18 month program, I was successfully offered my first managerial role. Despite a heavily male-dominated industry and work environment, I did well in my roles and it was clear that I was on a fast track path within my career. I had great support from sponsors and mentors within the business and I benefited from a strong coaching culture in the business. Interestingly, my sponsors, mentors and coaches were all men who believed in shifting the balance of female representation in business and they gave their best in support to myself and the many more talented women in the business.

Debbie at a British American Tobacco innovation conference

I also studied for an Honours degree during this time in Communication Science. As a result, in 2006 I moved with my husband to London on secondment to work at the global HQ in a new area of marketing within the business that was focused on innovation and how to do things differently, more efficiently and essentially push the boundaries in marketing. Here, I was the youngest member in the global marketing team and again, I got a massive amount of support – you don’t succeed in such an environment without being good at what you do and having bosses that have your back at every turn. After a year of piloting an innovation process globally, it was time for the next challenge, the one that ultimately lead me to bow out of corporate.

Taking a Corporate Break

My next role involved me being based in London, but travelling across the Middle East and Africa region every 2 weeks in a team that was just not ready to embrace different ways of working and challenging the status quo. The travel became too much and ultimately, I became someone in this role that was so far away from my core and who I am as a person that I was deeply unhappy.

After exploring alternatives to this role and personally deciding that I wanted to stay in London, I decided to leave BAT and take some time out for me. I don’t think anyone could really wrap their heads around why I would leave a promising career because of some sort of identity crisis, but it felt like the right decision. In that time I had my first child and 2 years later, my second and I was privileged to spend 6.5 years of their young lives mothering them.

During those years, I dipped in and out of work for a marketing events company, a strategic brand innovation agency, as well as partnered on a few start up businesses inputting into their marketing strategies so I was active in work in a non-conventional way, which is more common these days.

Finding a Work-Life Balance

I wanted to return to work, but I knew that I wanted to come back on my own terms and I knew that this was going to be difficult until I saw an ad for an Obelisk Support Marketing Manager. I was immediately drawn to the ethos of the business and thought, I can do this. In short, I didn’t get the marketing job, but Dana felt that I could contribute to the business in a different area and here I am 1.5 years later and I think we’re doing well.

I work with a team of not only smart, but nice people and that makes such a difference to work. There is no hierarchy in our structure, everyone can contribute, try new ways of working and get on with their work in the best way that suits them, provided we are all focused on the same goals and have the will to succeed. I really enjoy that no two clients are the same, even if they’re in the same industry! Diversity is a big current in my life and has been throughout my career and I enjoy working with the different clients that we do and tailoring solutions to suit their individual needs within their respective ecosystems.

Working in the legal industry is and challenging and there is always something to learn everyday. I love that Obelisk exists to change the way of working in the industry and I’m privileged to be a part of shaping the future of legal in this way – it certainly makes for some surprising conversations, but I can honestly say that more clients are coming round to this way of working and embracing the change, which is fantastic and hugely rewarding and matters not only now, but for future generations of lawyers.

Reflecting on Work during Black History Month

Looking back on my career, I have always had roles that were focused on growing a business, a brand, a category, a service in a different way that challenges the status quo and forces a different perspective and I love that about work.

For me, Black History Month is a celebration of black excellence, of which there are many examples all around us of men and women who are doing amazing things in the world to change the status quo for the generations coming behind them. Our Obelisk CEO and Founder Dana Denis-Smith always says, “that you cannot understand the present without understanding your past” and I wholeheartedly agree. Black History Month is also an opportunity to pause in the busyness of life and take a moment to reflect on the many, what I like to call, warriors who stood up for us, who self-sacrificed for us to be where we are today.

I would simply not be here right now in this moment, if it wasn’t for the many South African freedom fighters who fought for the end of segregation, including my dad who left high school to boycott an inferior education and later went on to finish his high school as an adult and to complete a theology degree in a democratic society. Those hero men and women changed my life and made today’s opportunities in the workplace possible for me. Yes, we have a long way to go to equality, but there are enough opportunities for me to seize and make a success in business and I don’t see the fact that I am black and a woman as an excuse or a barrier to that success – it’s the fire inside that fuels my willpower to succeed!

Advice to Her Younger Self

This is the same advice that I give my daughters – if something doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. That’s your intuition, God, the universe guiding you, trust it always. Also, don’t justify yourself to anyone to make them feel better about the decisions that you make. Wait for them to ask you and then decide if it’s worth explaining. I think women spend way too much time trying to justify themselves and their decisions when they really shouldn’t have to!