Burgess Hill Girls gave me the strength and moral purpose to achieve my dreams, diversity champion and high-flying lawyer tells pupils

October 11, 2017

Lawyer, diversity champion, social mobility campaigner, mentor, and all-round inspirational role model Funke Abimbola MBE returned to Burgess Hill Girls School to thank her teachers for giving her the determination and self-belief to achieve her dreams – and to instil in today’s pupils that same drive to succeed.

“The school really motivated me through many obstacles in my life to overcome struggles and to realise that success was mine and what success could look like for me,” Funke told the Open Day audience.

Coming from a medical family, her father insisted that Funke, who joined Burgess Hill Girls as a border in 1986 at the age of 13, should become a doctor.

But Funke, who is now a lawyer for a leading pharmaceutical corporate, said that a career in the law was always her dream: “I was obsessed with the legal system and how the law could be used as a force for change,” she said.

And once her father learnt of Funke’s subject choices at A-level, the cat was well and truly out of the bag.

“Let me tell you, when my dad saw English literature, economics and history on the A-level options form all hell broke loose.

“The school – including the current Head Liz Laybourn  – played a key role in persuading my dad that the school had not ‘corrupted’ his daughter but had unlocked that potential in me and discovered very early on where my strengths lay and were prepared to fight my corner.”

But even after gaining her father’s approval for her career choice, there were still obstacles to overcome. Funke studied for the Nigerian Bar, but once back in the UK found it very difficult to get the experience she needed to qualify as a lawyer here.

“I was sending off my CV and getting absolutely nowhere,” recalls Funke. “I became aware of discrimination, something we would call unconscious cultural bias now. It’s not blatant, but the fact that I had an obviously African name was a real issue for law firms at the time. I cold-called every single firm. I was only in my early 20s, but that boldness came once again from knowing that I could do it, and I had people willing me on from school.”

Even after qualifiying in the UK, the challenges kept coming. After having a baby – her son is now a teenager ­– Funke was off work for a year.

“The firm I worked for did not know what to do with me. I was the only person amongst my peers who had a baby. I was angry that yet another obstacle had been placed in the way of my progress through no fault of my own. All I had done was have a baby.”

Recalling her school career, Funke says she left Burgess Hill Girls with a very strong sense of moral duty. “Because of the barriers I’d faced, I became passionate about eliminating discrimination,” she said. “I do a lot of work around social mobility, because of course not everyone is privileged enough to be privately educated.

“There have never been any guarantees along the way, but coming to this school gave me the boldness, the courage, the sense of identity about who I am, to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I can truly look back and say, I am probably half way up that mountain. I have a few more heights that I would like to scale!’

This year, Funke was awarded an MBE for services to diversity in the legal profession and to young people.

Head Liz Laybourn said: “Funke is living proof of what a Burgess Hill Girls alumna can achieve.When life has put obstacles in her path, she has hung on to that incredible sense of self-belief and determination and overcome them, time after time. We always believed that Funke was destined for great things, and how right we were. It has been a privilege to have provided support and encouragement during her formative years, and it is thrilling to hear that the ethos of the school, and the school community, has had such a powerful impact on her life.”