Equality, Diversity & Inclusion

Black History Month: Inspirational leaders and technologists

26 October 2020 by Heidi Marshall

Black History Month 2020 feels more poignant than ever before. Corndel is committed to open conversation about tackling inequality and exclusion in the workplace and wider society.

While these conversations need to be continuing long after Black History Month has ended, the focus this month prompts us to look back at how our areas of specialism – leadership and technology – have been shaped and defined by key, often lesser known, players from the black community.

In this article we will focus on two leaders and two technologists – Tessy Ojo CBE, Charles Spaulding, Valerie Thomas and Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE.

Tessy Ojo CBE, civil society leader, humanitarian and campaigner

Tessy Ojo is the Chief Executive of the Diana Award - a charity with a mission to foster and develop positive change in the lives of young people. Tessy played a key role in setting up and growing the charity, which was established as a legacy to Diana, Princess of Wales’ and her passion for empowering young people to change the world.

Ojo is ‘an inspirational and creative leader experienced in driving change and redefining outcomes for children and young people through innovative approaches to age old problems.’ She has more than twenty years’ leadership experience in the third sector with a former employee describing her as ‘always taking great care to listen to all opinions, weighing them up from the small to the bigger picture, then acting decisively.’ She draws on her influencing prowess as a passionate humanitarian and campaigner. Her reputation is growing for work around social justice for the young. At the heart of her work is ‘the belief that with the right support and investment, young people are the best instigators for achieving real, sustainable change in their lives, their communities and the lives of their peers.’

In January 2019, Ojo became the first British recipient of the prestigious Coretta Scott King A.N.G.E.L Award. The award recognises individuals and organisations that exemplify excellence in leadership and have demonstrated a commitment to the principles and philosophy of Dr. Martin Luther King.

Ojo’s successes mean she is a sought-after keynote speaker and sits on a number of high-profile Executive Boards such as The Royal Taskforce on Cyberbullying, The UK Council for Child Internet Safety and Comic Relief.

Her reputation as a civil society leader continues to grow and in 2020 she was presented with a CBE Award in the Queen’s Birthday Honours.

Charles Clinton Spaulding (1874–1952), recognised by Harvard Business School as a ‘Great American Business Leader of the 20th Century’

Charles Clinton Spaulding was a visionary leader who believed in gaining equality through achievement. He knew that only with African American business excellence would the black community achieve acceptance and citizenship.

The father of management theory is understood to be Henri Fayol, who in the 1940s, identified five basic management functions: planning, organising, co-ordinating, commanding and controlling, the focus being on what a manager does rather than how. (J.Gold, 2010).

Yet, twenty years before Henri Fayol, Charles Clinton Spaulding wrote an article in a U.S. newspaper on “The Administration of Big Business,” in which he shared his views on running a major firm. He identified eight fundamentals of operations that demanded a leader’s attention and set out a philosophy of management which included, “an unrelenting call for cooperation and consensus-building within organizations, and an emphasis on the symbiotic relationship between a company and the world outside its doors.” (MacLellan, 2020).

Spaulding influenced a generation of African American entrepreneurs, devoting many efforts to the growth of the black middle class. He also served on several boards for African American colleges and universities as well as the national executive committees of the YMCA and Boy Scouts of America. He used his influence to obtain jobs for the black community and to lobby against discrimination.

Spaulding's management approach is rooted in an Afrocentric philosophy of 'communitarianism and cooperative economics' (Prieto and Phipps) which touches on concepts we might attribute to contemporary thinkers such as Simon Sinek. One hundred years on it is Spaulding’s vision that good leaders are encouraged to emulate. His contribution to the field of management is finally being recognised.

Valerie Thomas, scientist and inventor, creator of early 3D technology 

Despite a clear talent and interest in maths and science at a young age, Valerie Thomas was not encouraged to explore these subjects by her parents or teachers, attending a high school for girls that downplayed maths and science.

At university, Thomas finally got a chance to explore her interest and was only one of two women at her college to major in physics. Upon graduation she accepted a position as a data analyst at NASA.

Thomas’s career highlights included developing real-time computer data systems to support satellite operations control centres, and overseeing the creation of the Landsat program,  the first satellite to send images to Earth from space. In 1976 Thomas attended an exhibition that included an illusion of a light bulb that was lit, even though it had been removed from its socket. The illusion, which involved another light bulb and concave mirrors, inspired Thomas. Curious about how light and concave mirrors could be used in her work at NASA, she began her research in 1977. This involved creating an experiment in which she observed how the position of a concave mirror would affect the real object that it reflected. Using this technology, she would invent the illusion transmitter – early 3D technology.

This technology was subsequently adopted by NASA and has since been adapted for use in surgery as well as the production of television and video screens.

Over the course of her career, Thomas contributed widely to the study of space. Her success as a scientist, despite the lack of early support for her interests, inspired Thomas to mentor countless students and youth through the Goddard Space Flight Center, National Technical Association, Women in Science and Engineering, and the National Technical Association and Science Mathematics Aerospace Research and Technology Inc program.

Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE, computer scientist, STEM keynote speaker and social enterprise leader

“Anne-Marie Imafidon is a woman on a mission… campaigning to get more women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths.” Forbes

Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon MBE is using her exceptional academic and professional track record to inspire the next generation of women into Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) roles.

At just 11, Imafidon was already making waves as the youngest girl ever to pass A-Level Computing. She went on to become one of the youngest ever to earn a Master’s in Mathematics and Computer Science from the University of Oxford, aged 20. She developed a wealth of experience at major corporates including Goldman Sachs, Hewlett-Packard and Deutsche Bank before going onto set up ‘Stemettes’, social enterprise aiming to ‘show that girls do STEM too’ through role panel events, hackathons, exhibitions, and mentoring schemes. Stemettes has exposed almost 45,000 young people across Europe to Anne-Marie’s vision for a more diverse and balanced science and tech community.

Imafidon has received numerous Honorary Doctorates - Open University, Glasgow Caledonian University, Kent University & Bristol University and an Honorary Fellowship at Keble College, Oxford. Most recently she was awarded Honorary Fellowship by the Institute of Engineering and Technology. “As a technologist who loves what we do, and wants so much better for the field, I hope this Fellowship signal a step forward for the Institution – here's to more Anne-Maries being accepted, respected and celebrated across technical fields.” Dr Anne-Marie Imafidon, 2020. This year also saw her recognised by ComputerWeekly.com as the ‘Most Influential Woman in UK Technology'.

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