Nnenna Ilomechina was a fresh graduate working at a prominent and growing IT consulting firm when the company’s chief operating officer asked how she was enjoying the new job.
The truth was, she wasn’t crazy about it. Dropped in the middle of a technology implementation project for a banking system where everything had been designed, all that was left for her to do was code.
“Uh, it's all right,” she remembers answering. “But, you know, I really didn't come here to just go straight into coding. I wanted to talk to business people. I wanted to understand what the issues were. I wanted to design the solution and then take it through to building it and implementing it.”
“Okay, all right – well, that's interesting,” was the response. Then he walked away.
She kicked herself. “You just spoke to the COO and you are an analyst from college – and you just told him that you didn't want to do what you're doing.”
Two days later he came back.
“We're opening an office in Atlanta,” he told her. “And we want a startup team to go and design a portal project. So you can go and do what you want to do, which is talk to the business executives, figure out what the business need is, drive a project end to end, and then you can also open up the new office.”
“I was like: ‘Yeah!”
She moved to Atlanta and from there went on to be a core member and lead geographic expansion client projects in London and Munich for the firm. From there, she joined a restructuring-specialist consultancy where she also opened their Dubai office and drove turnarounds in businesses where technology was key globally. Now a Managing Director at Accenture, she’s a finalist for the 2020 professional services senior leader in the Black British Business Awards.
She tells this story to younger colleagues and says speaking your mind in difficult situations is never easy. “I still beat myself up because I still do it,” she says. But the risks of not speaking up are even greater, she says: “You'll end up in a place, or doing a thing, or in an environment, where you can't be yourself, because you don't really believe in what you're doing. Because you've hidden your true feelings.”
Nnenna learned how to find her way nearly anywhere early. Her Nigerian parents met studying in Britain and they had moved back to Nigeria briefly before her father got a job at the United Nations – just as war was breaking out in Nigeria. Nnenna was born six years into an assignment in Rome. From there, his job took her family to Ghana and at 16, she moved to the U.S.
Growing up, she was exposed to a range of cultural influences, but her parents wanted Nnenna and her four brothers and sisters to have a strong connection to Nigeria. They spent summers there with grandparents and extended family in Lagos, Ibadan, and her father’s village in the east.
This instilled in her a sense of resilience. “Just keep going, you can survive anywhere, get going,” she says, describing how she’d push herself. “So you're in a village with no electricity, or running water, in those days, just keep going. So, you're in an amazing palace and somewhere in England. Keep going.”
She also naturally defied stereotypes. Drawn to studying physics, chemistry and math, she was often the only female member of her study groups. At the University of Massachusetts, she was the lone woman in her graduating computer engineering class. Later she worked in restructuring – another traditionally male-dominated field. There, she focused on making an impact and embracing times when she could offer something unique.
“I love to laugh and I love to have a good time, in whatever I do,” she says. “I think that often helps teams to get through really difficult periods because I'm not going to not have fun, no matter how difficult the project is.”
She’s brought that spirit to Accenture, which she joined in 2016, where she’s now a Managing Director and Partner. She rebuilt and expanded a strategy practice focused on the telecoms, media and high-tech sectors in the UK. She is also the sponsor for Inclusion and Diversity for the UKI’s Strategy and Consulting Practice at an important time.
“The start of the whole Black Lives Matter really impacted me a lot more than I thought it would,” says Nnenna. “I felt suddenly that I had lived in a lie, believing and assuming that everything was okay, that everybody treats everyone well and that racism doesn’t really exist in the workplace.”
That lie was debunked and it’s changed the way she mentors – more than ever she acknowledges everyone’s experience is different.
“We have to be a lot more, conscious and careful, and we have to still assume positive intent for the most part when people ask questions. It's important that people ask questions and that we answer as honestly and as openly as we can.”
Honesty, openness and understanding are key for anyone who’s embracing change, or just making sure they aren’t held back.
“It’s important to speak up, right? Because in the end, you have to believe in what you do and be authentic and true to yourself.”
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