Tessy Ojo is a multi-award-winning social change advocate, philanthropist, civil society leader, brand ambassador, wife, mother and Chief Executive Officer of The Diana Award, a charity foundation instituted in honour of the Late Lady Diana, the Princess of Wales. At the heart of her work is the belief that, with the right support and investment, young people are the best instigators for achieving real, sustainable change in their lives and communities.
Tessy was recently awarded the Commander of the British Empire (CBE), the biggest national honour in the United Kingdom in recognition of her immense contributions towards empowering and supporting children and young people in the UK.
The British-Nigerian national who is an inspirational speaker and regular consultant and
commentator on issues around youth participation, charity growth, diversity, women in
leadership and other social issues affecting young people, grows her kitty that already has
other eminent awards including The Precious Award, Inspiring Leader 2015, Women in Business Rising Star 2015 (London Region), Excellence Award from Eva Longoria’s Global Gift
Tessy share her inspiring journey with Esther Ijewere in this Inspiring Interview.
Growing up, my parents taught us the value of leadership without a title. It was the principle of ‘if you see something that needed doing, just do it, without waiting on someone else to fix it’. This was pretty much the principle that underpinned my childhood. When you have a diplomat father and a mother who is a headteacher, you’re often drafted in to support one cause or the other, especially through their networks such as The Rotary Club etc. Generally, giving back in any capacity was the norm in our household. I remember at the age of 14, my Mum drafted me in to lead on various children’s clubs in her school. I was running a reading club, dancing club, all afterschool, so being a leader was very much a part of my upbringing.
What Inspired me to work at The Diana Award
When the Princess of Wales was tragically killed in a car crash in 1997, it was a defining moment in my life as like thousands of others, I placed a note with words of condolence alongside flowers to honour the Princess at Kensington Palace. That note, simply said ‘You rocked my world, I will honour yours too’.
Just two years later, at the time a very successful executive, I had my youngest child and an eureka moment when I realised the vulnerability of childhood and how as a committed mother, I would always champion my children, yet not every child had a champion or an advocate.
That moment was a defining and life changing moment as I made a commitment to devote the rest of my career to advocating and championing young people, building young people’s capacity for leadership and creating social equity that ensures young people can overcome the disadvantage of birth.
A few weeks later, I responded to an ad in the newspaper to help set up a new youth charity being formed. Unaware, at the time, that this was the beginning of The Diana Award, the only charity across the world set up to continue the legacy of Diana, Princess of Wales. I responded to this ad as it was very much in line with my passion.
More about my journey is in a book that I am writing, which will be published next year.
The Journey and It’s impact in Britain
Twenty years on and with over 100,000 young people who have been supported through this charity, through our three core programmes; many of whom are young leaders across nations, the charity has grown from strength to strength, through a combination of strategic clarity and innovative approaches.
Having said that, our world is changing rapidly with the current Covid-19 pandemic which means that there are significant societal and environmental challenges ahead. It is incredibly important that as we rebuild our communities across the world that young people are at the centre of that work, as they are the long term victims of covid and they must be empowered to help shape the future. I was particularly proud to see the participation and leadership of young people during the #EndSars protest! For us at The Diana Award, we have always believed that young people can change their world, with the right support and we remain committed to building the capacity of young people to be at the heart of this rebuilding work.
Being awarded the commander of the British Empire Award
It was and remains an incredible honour. Twenty years ago when I gave up a promising career and a lucrative pay to join the third sector, it was completely out of the need for service. Twenty years on, to receive the highest honour from Her Majesty, The Queen is just mind blowing!
Your work cuts across Anti-Bullying, mentoring and capacity building, any plan to bring your work to Nigeria?
You know what, we would love to! With the right level of investment and sponsorship, we would love to do much more across the Commonwealth and of course Nigeria, given my connections to the country! Just find me the right sponsor and we can talk!!
Other projects and activities
You know what, I am involved in so much across the charity sector; I am on the board of Comic Relief and we are making some incredible moves about how we support global communities build capacity. I am also the co-chair of the #iwill Leadership Board, which is a board of funders who are committed to ensuring young people are supported to create the change they want to see.
More about my work will also be in my new book so look out for it!
Challenges of my work
Pushing for change is never easy. No one likes change, yet it is inevitable. The biggest challenge is always educating on the ‘why’. The other challenge is ensuring that we are well resourced to create the change we are advocating for. Resourcing a charity is a huge challenge but it is one that is so desperately needed. A recent stats in the UK showed that young people are more reliant on the support provided by the youth sector than ever before, yet the sector has less resources than ever before! That is the challenge.
3 women who inspire me to be better and why
- Firstly, Rosa Parks – her quiet strength inspires me. She saw a need and demonstrated her strength and paved the way for generations to come.
- Next is Oprah Winfrey, purely because growing up in Europe, I barely saw anyone like me on TV. Oprah made me visible. Watching her on telly allowed me to feel visible and made me realise that impossible is nothing and seeing Oprah day in day out helped me see that.
- My third is absolutely Michelle Obama. She demonstrates leadership with integrity, authenticity and with grace. To me, she shows the balance between leading with a title yet remaining authentic to who you are. I loved seeing how she brought fun to her role, even as the First Lady. She was unafraid to do things different and that really inspires me. Like going on TV and dancing!!
The Nigerian society and it’s awareness with issues surrounding bullying and oppression
I think society as a whole needs a lot more education about bullying, oppression and the misuse of power. There are so many historic things that were allowed to happen in the past, that today’s society is rightly saying NO to and that change in attitude needs to be talked about again and again, until we are all on the same page.
I do not believe this is exclusive to Nigeria because there are people in the UK who still brush bullying off as ‘banter’ or ‘character building’ which is absolutely wrong. We define bullying as any behaviour, either verbal, physical, cyber or indirect, that deliberately and repetitively undermines another, makes them uncomfortable, upset and unsafe is bullying.