In 1986, Lara Oyesanya packed her bags and left her home in Lagos, Nigeria. After four years as an advocate at the commercial bar up to the court of appeal, she moved to the UK. There, she had the opportunity to become a member of one of the four Inns of Court in England and Wales, to practise as a self-employed barrister.
At the time, the Inns of Court were very male-dominated and it was generally believed that the right connections were requirements for success.
“I wanted to enjoy my family and maintain a career so I chose to become a solicitor instead”, Lara Oyesanya explains. “I made the challenging choice of taking the full qualifying examinations (‘the Law Society Finals’) and a 2-year traineeship. It was a challenging choice because as a barrister from a common law jurisdiction, I could have had a few dinners and some nice chats at my chosen Inn of Court! I qualified as a solicitor in February 1993.”
A new professional path
After that, she worked as an in-house associate at The British Railways for nine years. The legal department was managed as a full-service practice, supporting 93 businesses and 25 train operating companies that made up British Rail prior to privatisation in 1996.
“There were a lot of landmark cases in employment, personal injury and commercial disputes, which are to date cited as case law precedents. The exposure and experience in such a fertile environment for resolving various legal issues were the building blocks for my in-house career,” Lara Oyesanya remembers.
She later pursued a career in commercial law with leadership positions at large corporations such as Barclays, BAE Systems, Halifax and Bank of Scotland prior to joining Klarna in February 2018.
“I was motivated to leave my role at Barclays where I had been for over 7 years to join Klarna so that I could work in the high growth disruptive fintech sector rather than continue working in traditional banking finance. I liked the idea of being the first London-based lawyer for Klarna as I take a lot of satisfaction in working at the forefront of new, rapidly expanding sectors.”
What did you dream about doing as a kid?
“I wanted to go to university, have a career and be a mum so I could enjoy a similarly comfortable lifestyle to the one provided by my parents.”
What role models did you have?
“My mother and big sister who taught me resilience, love, kindness and a strong work ethic. I very much admired my sister for leaving home at 17 to study abroad in the United States and making a success of it.”
Did it end up the way you thought?
“It did, and better than I dared to dream of. I have a satisfactory career as a solicitor and raised five incredible hard working children, including twins, concurrently. They studied at the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. We are a family of three medical doctors, three corporate lawyers and a Mckinsey associate. I also have a grand-daughter who’s 11 months old trying to run around, though she has only just started walking!”
Awarded for her stunning career
When asked to mention her biggest career achievements, Lara Oyesanya has a long list of milestone events to choose from. For example, she was a part of the team at British Rail that began the initial consultation for the construction of Crossrail, a new 117-kilometer railway line being constructed at an estimated cost of £15.4bn. It was later approved by the UK Parliament in 2007. She has negotiated countless multi-million pound-deals as well as contributed to The Encyclopedia of Banking Law, working alongside Sir William Blair, a former Judge in charge of the London’s Commercial Court.
“I’m also proud of my role as a Non-Executive Director at an international children’s charity called Plan International, where I was recognized for my contributions by being invited to the Queen’s Summer Garden Party in 2018,” Lara says.
In December 2018, she was awarded the Outstanding Business Woman of the year 2018 by Forward Ladies leaving the judges “amazed and highly inspired” by her “stunning career”.
What did that mean to you?
“I’m still processing the feelings, but the recognition is huge” Lara says. “I have always aspired to be a business lawyer and receiving this accolade from the business community feels like a vindication of the career path I chose. Winning the award was not something that I thought was possible and I’m grateful to Forward Ladies and its judging panel. I’m also thankful to Klarna and my previous employers, such as Barclays, BAE Systems, HBOS, RAC and Lex Autolease, for providing me with the platform to build the legal and commercial competencies that made me eligible for this award.”
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Not letting stereotypes bring her down
Have you ever been discriminated or experienced injustice?
“Yes, but I did not allow myself to be distracted by those experiences. Instead, I focused on extending my knowledge to enhance my personal development. I also derived pleasure in confounding the gender and ethnic stereotypes which I was sometimes confronted with in my career.”
What did that look like?
“A judge referring to me as the woman with the most “unpronounceable name”, mistaken assumptions that I was not a lawyer, and people failing to fully acknowledge my experience. I felt that some struggled to fathom how I could balance my career obligations with raising such a large family. Consequently, it seemed my range of legal expertise was sometimes not completely acknowledged.”
How can we create a more equal and including business environment?
“We are all different and our strengths lie in our differences which contribute to the success of the business. We spend most of our waking time at work and the business environment should promote the flourishing of all employees regardless of background. Open communication and genuinely equal opportunity should be a basic aspect of business culture and not a privilege or aspiration. Above all, respect regardless of one’s position within the business should be de rigueur.”
How can you help others to pursue their goals and dreams with your experiences?
“As a diversity advocate, I will continue to support young women to navigate the corporate landscape in financial services to grasp opportunities and realise their ambitions. Also, I’ll use my experience of working in different sectors and influence in the profession, to remind women of the possibilities that lie ahead of them. Through my work at Plan International, I will continue to advocate for diversity, social justice and women’s rights.”
What is your best advice?
“Everything is possible and all problems have a solution. Work hard, keep focused, and maintain perspective. Do not place any limitations upon yourself and go for gold every time. If you don’t get the gold it wouldn’t be for lack of trying!”
This interview is a part of the series “Behind the Business”. Read more about it here.