Want to get ahead at work? Then let us introduce you to Otegha Uwagba, a freelance writer, brand consultant and founder of Women Who, a platform for creative working women founded in 2016. For the launch of her career guide, Little Black Book: A Toolkit for Working Women, we caught up to talk about freelance life, the creative industries and how to negotiate a pay rise…
What prompted you to start Women Who?
It came out of my own personal experiences; how being a woman in the workplace is ultimately just a different experience than being a man – for better or worse! I just wanted to create a platform, a space and series of events that actually cater to that difference, and to provide a space for people who may feel at a disadvantage in the workplace to find the tools and resources they need to further their careers.
How can we get involved?
Come to events! There’s a Women Who launch party for the book on 22nd June at Libreria. Sign up to the mailing list to receive the weekly newsletter I write called The Round-Up, which is usually a list of things I’m reading that I think will inspire you or help you work better. Also, check out the blog on the website for other work-related content.
What is the aim of Little Black Book?
It’s quite broad in its aim. It’s for people who are perhaps just starting out, but is also recommended as a refresher for people who have some experience under their belt on how to do certain things, like negotiate a pay rise.
How is it different from other career guides?
A lot of career guides are quite fusty, often telling us to ‘fail better’. What does that even mean?! Give me some actual practical advice about what I need to do in this scenario! There’s a chapter in the book on how to send a cold email to someone… I’ve had so many bad ones sent to me and I’ve sent so many bad ones myself, essays that don’t ever get read. And when you’re a freelancer like me, where so much of getting ahead depends on being able to hustle a little bit, emails are so important. So I feel like that section offers really good, descriptive advice that no one actually teaches you how to do.
Ultimately, it’s forward-facing, catering to self-employed women and freelancers, as well as 9-5ers. I read a statistic somewhere that, during the last UK recession, 80% of the newly self-employed were women. That’s massive! And it’s a shift that I don’t think is really being reflected by a lot of the career advice out there.
There’s also no personal commentary in the book. I felt like a lot of the time, when you read those thick, hefty career guides, a lot of it is only relevant to the specific situation of the person who wrote the book. So you might read something like ‘here’s how I negotiated my stocks and shares’ and I’m like ‘I’m just trying to get paid!’ Those guides can often focus on a very corporate narrative of success that doesn’t help those trying to set their day rates or score their next freelance job. I felt like I wanted it to be all-killer-no-filler. Every single sentence is a practical takeaway, something you can use that day or that week to immediately improve your working life.
Why focus on the creative industries?
I feel like with creative industries the boundaries between professional and personal are so blurred and, in some ways, that’s great because it means you can bring your whole self to work and you don’t have to worry about being formal – putting up a front and wearing a suit. But, at the same time, it makes it harder to navigate a professional relationship because you’re also friends with that person and you might see them outside of work occasionally. So, with the book, I really wanted to create a guide that actually reflects the way workplaces operate now.
How did you go about choosing the women who feature in the book?
I’m quite lucky in that I already had quite a good network of very successful, creative women – Zing Tsjeng, the editor of Broadly, for example. But essentially, I tried to choose women who I knew would have interesting things to say, women who I admired and who wouldn’t just have trite advice, but proper nuggets on how they got to where they are.
With the more high-profile women, I just made a bucket list: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie (a fellow 4th Estate author); The Gentlewoman’s Penny Martin; Piera Gelardi of Refinery 29; the artist Quentin Jones. People whose careers I’ve followed for a really long time and who have navigated the creative industries really well.
You used to work in advertising and have recently gone freelance – what made you take that decision?
Advertising is a really young, fun industry – there’s great perks and you get to work with smart, intelligent people. I worked at advertising agency AMV BBDO first and then Vice, so I’m lucky that I got to work in the best places to do it. But, when I looked upwards, I knew that I didn’t want my managers’ jobs. That’s not a diss on them, but it just wasn’t what I saw myself doing long-term. I also didn’t feel that creatively fulfilled as I was always dancing to the beat of someone else’s drum. I want to focus on my writing and have the freedom to pursue my own projects.
What was the scariest thing about going freelance?
It hasn’t been too bad so far. I did my research and made sure I saved up money – something that doesn’t get talked about a lot. I would definitely recommend freelance, but I don’t want people to think that it’s something you leap into – you have to plan and have a financial cushion for when the work isn’t coming in as much. But I do think the scariest thing was not knowing whether this move would stall my career, whether I’d be taken seriously or that, if it didn’t work out, I wouldn’t get a full-time job again. Now that I have created something and built something, that fear has lessened!
What are your favourite places to work in London?
I love working in the British Library! It really fosters a productive state of mind for me – it’s so nice and quiet, and the wi-fi is nice and fast. The Ace Hotel lobby is my other go-to if I happen to be east and have some time to kill between meetings.
What are your top tips for networking?
There’s a whole chapter in the book about it. Most people would rather drink cold paint than network – people think it’s really slimy and I understand why, but it is so important. Everything that I have ever got in my career has been through networks.
So, try not to just think about what you can get out of it. If you make networking feel really transactional, than it will be. Just be genuinely interested in what other people are working on. Think about every scenario you’re in as an opportunity to meet new people and make new friends.
Also, be a connector. If you know two people who would probably benefit from knowing each other, then introduce them. Don’t hoard all your contacts. It’s good karma and people are more likely to look favourably on you if they see your relationship as mutually beneficial, not just you looking for stuff.
What is the biggest lesson you’ve learnt?
This is actually something that has taken me quite a while to learn, but it’s that you are rarely overstepping the mark. I feel like that’s something all people, especially women, worry about – ‘am I being too pushy or too demanding?’, particularly when it comes to negotiating pay. That’s a whole other issue that I’ve written an entire chapter on! I did that because I had a situation where I negotiated really badly, I didn’t know what I was doing and I ended up being quite underpaid. And when I realised that, I felt so strongly that I never wanted that to happen again and I really don’t want other people to have to go through the same thing.
How would you define workwear?
I think workwear needs to feel comfortable, because that sets up your mood for the day. It also needs to project the person you want the rest of the world to see. Human beings are such visual creatures and first impressions are made instantly, and a huge part of that is through your aesthetic and your style.
If you have an important meeting or are giving a talk and want to feel confident, what piece do you reach for in your wardrobe?
It’s actually a pair of Topshop shoes! They’re grey with a mid block heel – very smart, but so easy to walk around in all day. I always get compliments on them. They make me feel really pulled together – I can wear jeans and a casual top, and if I finish off with these shoes, I look really chic. I wore them when I went to meet my editor for the first time.