As the first daughter of a Nigerian family, Sally Ogbonna understands expectations. School took her around the world, and work has taken her across continents. She’s worked in hospitality, run a number of business and done her time in corporate for one of the biggest FMCGs’ in the world. Her work has taken her across the Atlantic and put her in rooms with people she’d never expected. Through it all, she has never lost sight of what matters to her, finding the right balance of personal and professional fulfilment.
We sat with Sally to discuss her recent pivot into the beauty industry, the lessons that can be learned from working in a structured environment and why women should always put themselves first in their careers.
As the first daughter with 4 younger siblings, did you ever feel pressure to choose the ‘right’ career growing up?
I thought I would be an entertainer. As a child I performed a lot, I did drama, dance, debates, etc. I’ve been comfortable presenting to a crowd because I have been doing so since I was a kid.
Then watching the Olympic games (Sydney 2000) I wanted to be a track athlete and started training for longer distance races at school (800m and 1500m).
I have had varied interests, always put myself out there and I won a lot of competitions (writing, debate, cooking), so I always wanted to be something else every other week and I still do.
For instance, I still want to be a writer.
What career path are you in now?
I’m in finance – qualified management account (CIMA) and I currently lead commercial finance at a beauty start-up.
How does a finance analyst end up working in the beauty industry?
I’ve been on this path now for 7 years, 8 in April.
I studied Economics and Statistics so while there are similarities, it is very different from what I do now. I had tried a couple of jobs after I left university, did youth service in the head office of a bank, which I really did not enjoy, then I worked in PR, logistics, club promotion, even at a record label, after I quickly realised that I didn’t want to work in entertainment anymore.
I applied to multinational companies, did a lot of tests and interviews and got into the management development programme at Unilever under sales. As part of the programme I had to do a 6-month stint in finance and I’ve been in finance ever since.
What’s a typical day in your work life like?
My position in the company is to provide information and make recommendations that influence better decision making. So my responsibilities vary from sending out daily reports to modeling business cases for new proposals or strategy.
My typical day involves video and in-person meetings with internal & external stakeholders, sending and responding to emails, a lot of time spent on spreadsheets doing data analysis (I have a love/hate relationship with Excel and SQL), research and writing.
What’s the culture like for women in finance?
I’ll describe it as progressive. I started this career in Unilever, which achieved 50% global gender parity across management level positions by 2019. When I joined there was a conscious effort by the company and the consumer goods industry to hire more women especially into roles that women didn’t traditionally work in (e.g Supply Chain, Sales).
For instance, I saw finance change from a male dominated department to having more women and with a woman at the head. At my current company, we have prioritized hiring women and people with a passion for beauty from the beginning. The consensus is that if women make a large number of consumers for your product, then you should hire them to contribute to bringing that product to market. While more women are being hired at entry and mid-career levels, there are increasingly more women founders, CEOs, CFOs, not just Marketing/HR.
What is the rewarding part of working in finance?
I enjoy problem solving and data analysis and this is because I was always good with maths, so a lot of it comes naturally to me. I also enjoy communicating my ideas which I do a lot at meetings or in presentations. While it can be challenging to find the right words or the right amount of information at the appropriate forum, I find that by effectively sharing information I am able to truly understand it. My role places me in a position to communicate across the company so I can have diverse audiences on a particular project.
Are there any parts of your job that you wish you could hit the delete button on?
The politics. It is not enough to do your job and be good at it if people don’t think you are doing a fantastic job. You must market yourself within the company and must manage people’s perceptions of you. For example, this is why in the workplace some people spend longer hours at work so others think they’re working very hard.
If politics are such a big deal, and women are ‘allegedly’ much better at managing relationships, why do you think they often get the short end of the stick?
Perhaps it might be a result of not having advocates in the workplace, at least not in the way that men do. This is changing because companies are working towards having more women at the table, however I think this can get even better if we encourage collaboration between women much earlier, such as at school, entry level roles, etc.
Mentor-mentee relationships are much different for women because women can be very critical and rightfully so. For instance, I’m not likely to vouch for someone because we go to the same salon but if we’ve worked together in any capacity, I will recommend you whenever I can.
As someone from a large family, do you feel there is more support for women who want to advance in their careers and still have an involved family life?
There is still unfortunately not enough support for women to have the best career and start a family. Women have accepted that they will be passed up for promotions while they’re having kids and preach to other women that there will be a period of stagnancy in their career due to time off for maternity leave.
As a consequence, not every woman will continue in their career trajectory because of this. Even when women manage to pursue both, they are forced by the current structure to project themselves as superhumans, who have babies and go right back to work. Some women can do it, but for a lot of women there is a lot more support is required to realise their dreams for their families and still develop their careers. That is one of the reasons I support paternity leave and more than the 3-6 weeks norm.
Is there any way being a woman in your field gives you an advantage over your co-workers?
Not necessarily because the path to the top is very competitive for everyone involved. I do think women have a lot more hurdles to cross in the workplace even in the beauty industry.
Is there any personal anecdote that you have from work that you think best illustrates what it is like working in your field as a woman?
Are you really a successful woman if there are no rumors about how you achieved your success?
For successful women, there is usually a lot of chatter that serves to discredit their achievements. A high-flying career woman usually has sacrificed a stable family life for being selfish. If she is divorced then she must have been the cause. It doesn’t even matter that the stories have no basis or are not rooted in reality. It also doesn’t matter how you choose to ‘carry yourself’, these stories are an attempt to diminish your efforts.
Do you believe in work buddies?
Absolutely. There is the psychological safety of having friends at work and looking out for each other. The worst year in my career so far was in 2019 where I was dealing with pressure from my family life and a difficult business environment in Nigeria, and I am grateful I could lean my colleagues/work buddies. It was a very stressful time for most of us, but we would still share a laugh and we talked each other off the ledge so many times.
Sometimes, work buddies become friends outside of work and you get to build deeper relationships with them. However, to get there, you have to draw boundaries between work life and home life, so you don’t get in trouble. Please, do not share anything with work buddies that you wouldn’t feel comfortable sharing in a companywide email. Remember that it is still a work environment so you must remain professional.
Can you give us a tip you swear by for successfully managing a work/life balance?
Relentless time management. Understanding how long it takes you to complete your tasks and maintaining strong boundaries for yourself. If you can do so with yourself, others will fall in line.
Do you have any advice for younger women who want to do what you do?
Do the work because your strength lies in what you are able to do. People come and go; bosses always change but your knowledge and skills are yours forever.
Reflect on your actions and achievements. Every month, take an hour to write what you have done in the last month. You will find the confidence to advocate for yourself if you can recall your accomplishments.