Griselda Togobo was hugely influenced by the entrepreneurial spirit of her mother and the businesswoman is now putting those ethics into practice in her life. She spoke to Ismail Mulla.
The first thing that strikes you about Griselda Togobo is that she is a natural ‘people person’. Whether that is her delivering a speech at a business event or sitting down for a tête-à-tête.
But when you delve into her backstory it becomes clear why she is so at ease in unfamiliar surroundings.
Ms Togobo was born and raised in Ghana. She grew up in a “big, happy and blended” family.
Her mother, called Comfort, had three girls from her previous relationship, while her father had five boys. Together they had four other children, including Griselda. Both parents also had their own respective businesses.
“My childhood in a lot of respects, now that I look back, was not typical but it was very happy,” Ms Togobo says.
Ms Togobo runs Yorkshire-based women’s business network Forward Ladies. She also has her own consultancy that helps small and medium-sized businesses grow.
Ms Togobo also studied at Cambridge and is currently working towards a PHD in entrepreneurship.
The biggest inspiration for Ms Togobo has been her mother. Comfort’s story is nothing short of remarkable. She grew up “dirt poor” and her own mum was a single mother.
Ms Togobo said: “She was the first daughter but at the time society didn’t believe that educating a girl was a good investment so her brother was sent to school and my mum was sent off to work as a house help.
“But she always wanted more for herself. Even though she wasn’t taught to read or write, she just worked hard and she was entrepreneurial.”
The entrepreneurial instinct saw her establish a factory manufacturing textiles, as well as dabbling in construction.
Ms Togobo said: “We lived in the city but the strange thing about my upbringing is that my mum came from the village and settled in a big slum. It’s one of the biggest slums in Accra. She was determined to get out of the slum but when she got her money she stayed there and built this huge mansion.
“I have friends who used to go to the local comprehensive who could barely afford a meal and I was going to a private school in Accra. It was difficult as a child because on the one hand you were friends with a CEO’s son and daughter and then on the other hand you had friends who could not buy shoes to go to school.”
Her mother also used to open up her house on Fridays and feed the neighbourhood. As well as taking in refugees from neighbouring war-torn countries.
“I got interacting with so many people,” she said. “It was quite interesting.”
Ms Togobo added: “I saw her spirit, her caring nature and I saw her hard work as well.
“That really set me up to be the sort of person that just connects people from all social backgrounds because I’ve been in all those spaces.”
Today, Ms Togobo is a big champion of diversity in business. She acquired Forward Ladies in 2014 from Etta Cohen OBE.
While progress has been made on gender diversity in particular, Ms Togobo says that a lot more needs to be done, in particular when it comes to women of ethnic minority backgrounds.
She said: “There isn’t enough diversity and that is costing the UK. Now that Brexit is happening and there’s new markets that need tapping into, how are you going to find the people and the businesses that understand those markets?”
Ms Togobo has herself experienced racial bias. She says often it’s little things that are designed to make minorities feel that they don’t fit in.
There’s also a lack of access to networks for ethnic minority women to help them break into industry in the first place.
Ms Togobo says: “If I’m a black woman in Harehills, who went to Leeds Beckett, and I have no network in a professional services firm I am not going to get a job there.
“The recruitment needs to be tailored and targeted at the different networks that people of BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) would feel more comfortable in.”
At Cambridge University, Ms Togobo did a masters in industrial systems, manufacturing and management.
“I did engineering manufacturing end management because my mum had the factory and we had construction,” she said.
Ms Togobo has found that STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) ambassadors that go into schools are not effective with many children struggling to relate to them.
She said: “I believe one of the reasons this happens is because companies are sending in male, white ambassadors and children of different backgrounds look at them and say this is the sort of person that works in that company. It is not for me.
“Rather than changing the narrative and inspiring different people it reinforces the same biases.”
The Forward Ladies owner says that Brexit is a distraction from the real issues that the country faces. Is Brexit likely to make it even tougher for ethnic minorities to succeed in business? I think ethnic minorities are resilient because it has always been tough for us,” Ms Togobo said.
She added: “As much as Brexit puts another spanner in the works, it’s not taking it to the point where people can’t live and thrive.
“Immigrants are one of the most resilient groups and they will do well, irrespective of Brexit. It’s a shame that people in Europe are feeling the same stigmatisation that we have faced.”
Despite this, Ms Togobo remains “excited” about the future. She is working on a project with Lancaster University that is looking to solve global challenges by showing PHD students, professors and academics, in countries like Ghana, how to turn some of their research into entrepreneurial ventures.
Since coming to the UK, Ms Togobo has made a big difference but she isn’t done yet. She said: “My kids are growing so I have more time and head space to really think of some fantastic things to do.
“I’m really just grateful for where I am at the moment and I’m open to opportunities. I don’t think I’m the sort of person to do one thing and close the chapter. You’ll be hearing more from me.”