Moving from in-house lawyer to business founder

Professor Funke Abimbola shares why she founded her own consultancy and how she prioritised diversity and inclusion while working as an in-house lawyer.

Professor Funke Abimbola MBE, is the CEO and founder of the Austen Bronte Consultancy, a global consulting firm whose main goal is to improve leadership by leveraging the impact of diversity, inclusion, belonging, and equity across the business world. Clients include many global household names, including Levi Strauss & Co., Johnson & Johnson, Macquarie Bank, and Sky.

Funke’s professional career began in the legal sector where her roles included being General Counsel and head of financial compliance at Roche, the world's largest biotech. She has held various operational and commercial roles within the global pharmaceutical industry and has held solicitor roles in private practice. Funke won numerous awards as a leader and innovator in the legal sector and in particular for her work as a champion for diversity and inclusion. She received an MBE in 2017 for services to diversity in the legal profession and to young people.

Since 2020, Funke's been focusing on her consulting and advisory business.

Overcoming barriers to become a solicitor.

Funke says becoming a solicitor was a landmark moment in her life and it was a particularly tough journey to get there. In 2015 David Cameron endorsed name blind recruitment, but in 2000 when Funke finally qualified as a solicitor in England and Wales she had experienced first-hand what it was like to be looked over for roles despite having top-grades.

She says she suffered name discrimination, which meant despite graduating from a Russell Group University and having the necessary work experience she struggled to get her foot in the door.

Funke is the oldest child within an upper middle class Nigerian family. Her father (who, sadly, passed away in 2012) owned and ran a private hospital in Lagos, Nigeria and had hoped that Funke would study medicine and become a surgeon. She was privately educated and studied in the UK as an overseas student. She went back to Nigeria after university and qualified as a barrister and solicitor there. Funke then returned to the UK as a foreign qualified lawyer. She did not have to get a traditional training contract because of her work experience gained in Nigeria and only needed to pass the qualified lawyers transfer test and gain six months of pre-admission work experience in England and Wales to qualify as a solicitor in England and Wales.

She says she just couldn’t get the 6 months’ experience, despite sending out reams of applications.

Funke’s husband at the time worked in marketing and told her to see herself as a brand and told her she needed to convince potential employers over the phone about her unique selling point. She drew up a list of the top 100 UK law firms for corporate work, found the names of the team leaders, usually the senior partners of the overall firm, as well as 50 in-house lawyers, General Counsels, and legal directors. She cold-called all of them over a 2-week period. She had a 30 second elevator pitch and said that is how she arranged the meetings that would eventually lead to work she needed to qualify.

She said it was a big celebration when she was finally admitted to the roll of solicitors.

Becoming a parent and balancing a career

Funke was in her twenties when she had her son while working as a corporate solicitor for a corporate firm in Central London. She says no other female solicitors were having children at that stage in their career. She says everything about the business model within law firms was skewed against the principal carer for a child being able to work in “that hectic environment”. An environment where clients expect lawyers “to stay awake for 48 hours” to get deals across the line. She says she was “blissfully unaware of this” before she had her son and only realised how dire the situation was when she returned to work after a year off on maternity leave. Following her experience, she decided to leave London altogether.

Moving in-house

Funke worked in private practice for 12 years as a corporate finance lawyer across 4 different law firms. When she moved in-house to work in a healthcare setting, she says that this felt fitting because she comes from a family of doctors. She worked for global pharmaceutical company Roche whose UK pharmaceutical business is based in Hertfordshire. Funke says being promoted to General Counsel for the UK, Ireland, Malta and Gibraltar within the multinational company was a career highlight for her. She was also the Diversity and Inclusion lead for the Roche UK pharmaceutical business and used her position to drive tangible change. After a 12 month career sabbatical, in 2019, Funke became Global General Counsel at Cycle Pharma, a company based in Cambridge which delivers treatments and services to people with rare medical conditions.

Making diversity and inclusion a top priority in her GC role

Funke says when she was at Roche she had a “healthy budget for external law firm panels” and she ran some panel reviews during her seven years at the company. She insisted that only firms that signed up to The Law Society's Diversity and Inclusion Charter were eligible at all. Without that they couldn’t pitch and couldn’t get onto the short list. She says once firms were awarded work there would be regular reviews and one of the key questions was to ask about where the firms were with their D&I action plans.

She was also involved in GC forums, both within the pharmaceutical industry and more broadly for in-house lawyers. And she encouraged others to do the same.

Starting her own consultancy firm

In early 2020, before the first UK lockdown, Funke handed in her notice at Cycle and started studying online at Wharton Business School. When the lockdown happened, her plan was to finish her studies and then to get another role as a GC. However, in May 2020 when George Floyd was murdered, Funke says she was inundated with requests for help. She says many people in her network requested her help with race initiatives triggered by the resurgence of Black Lives Matter and the murder of George Floyd.

It was during this time that Funke started the Austen Bronte Consultancy. She officially launched it in September 2020. Funke initially thought she would run her business for a short while before she would start looking for a new permanent role, but her business is doing extremely well and she is now used to being self-employed. She says even though she didn’t plan to run her own consultancy firm, doing it has been rewarding and she is able to leverage all the contacts she has made over the years to drive her business forward.

Her advice to others who want to start their own business?

Funke’s advice is to “start with why, as Simon Sinek said ‘’. Her advice is that people need to have a compelling reason for why they want to do something. “What’s the point? What’s your focus? Because it’s very rocky. The first 12 months, it’s quite a transition to make from being a full-time employee with a salary and all the benefits. The first 12 months are really, really tough for any startup. And you do need to keep reminding yourself throughout the 12 months why it is you’re doing what you’re doing” Funke says.

She says people then need to think about the practicalities, like working capital. How are you going to fund the first 12 months? Because you’re not going to suddenly jump into making the same money that you made as an employee. You need to think very carefully about your business structure. Is it going to be a private company, sole trader? How are you going to set yourself up? Your brand name is also critical including registering your trademarks.

Funke was recently interviewed for the latest episode of Crafty Counsel’s podcast The Crafty Show.