Intro: Dr Mena Fombo is a global speaker, diversity consultant and co-founder of Blak Wave Productions. She is a speaker for TedxBristol with her impactful No You Cannot Touch My Hair Campaign, and is also both the founder and director of the Black Girl Convention, which is the largest convention in the South West for women of African and Caribbean heritage. Her work supporting women and young people has been widely recognised, receiving a nomination for the West’s Woman award, and featuring on the BME Powerlist 2018. In 2019, was awarded the Honorary Doctorate of Business Administration from the University of West England for services to Gender and Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic equalities work.
When did it first become apparent to you that something needed to change for representation in the creative industries? What made you realise you wanted to be a driver of that change?
I actually originally studied acting, but I found myself watching British TV and films back in the late 90s and early 2000s and realised as a black woman of size, no matter how good an actress I was, there were no parts being created for women who looked like me! It was then I made the decision to move behind the camera and study filmmaking at UWE – I decided I would be the person to write those parts or black women.
Your campaign, ‘No. You Can Not Touch My Hair’ has been a big subject of your highly-acclaimed TedxBristol talk. As a woman of colour, with such power in your industry, how do you cope when faced with adversity?
It’s funny because depending on where I’m sitting depends on how much power I have. Prior to lockdown I could walk into a meeting room with lots of senior leaders and people would come to me to let me know the milk had run out – they assume in a room full of white people the only reason I’m there is because I must be part of the kitchen staff. I love to see their faces when I later open up with the keynote. I’ve done a lot of work on myself over the years. I’m very aware of what triggers me, what motivates me and where I need to invest my energy. This knowledge is all a result of overcoming adversity.
I’ve learned how to pause, reflect on my options and make decisions based on my instincts as they usually ring true for me. Lastly, I have amazing friends and professional networks who I can call on when I need them and vice versa. I invest in building positive long-term relationships – and certainly don’t keep people around me who try to pull me down.
What would your advice be to other women of colour who hope to succeed in the same industry?
The advice I would give to young women is don’t let anyone tell you what you can and can't do – if you’ve never done something before, there's no reason why you can't learn. In terms of success in any industry, I would say back yourself, do the work, learn from your mistakes, surround yourself with people better skilled than you and learn from them and most importantly don’t be afraid to be a maverick – you don’t need to fit in if you were born to stand out!
In some of your writings, you have discussed your experiences of losing your job, your home, your self-confidence, and relocation. This is a situation that many young people can relate to, especially those in minorities. How did you get yourself out of this rut and reclaim your self-confidence?
I have the most amazing friends! In life, you only need 1 or 2 brilliant friends, who will have your back no matter what. Invest in these relationships – because they will help you through anything.
In practical terms, I just kept applying for jobs. At one point, I did lose hope but I had friends who believed in me and helped motivate me. Eventually, I found a job and I did a coaching training day as part of the role, which changed everything for me – it helped me to unlock something in me and I was able to reset my life goals and get back on track!
Coaching and mentoring is clearly a pivotal part of your work. What is the most important thing you want your students to take from your mentorship?
“It’s completely in my hands” is the saying I came up with as a way to stay motivated and take control of my life at a time when I felt like I was out of control. I would say the two most important things I want everyone to take away are that you always have choices, even at times when it feels like you don't – and if you're able to own every choice you make – impossible and amazing things can happen. Secondly self-belief – find it and if you can't find it, find people who believe in you until you're able to believe in yourself.