Ken Olisa: The most powerful black man in Britain has Nigerian origin
He’s the Queen’s escort in London who locked horns with John Bercow and has a library named after him at Cambridge – not bad for a boy who grew up without a loo in Nottingham.
Today Ken Olisa is officially named as the most powerful black person in Britain, not that any of the commuters on the 8.10am from Hampton Wick would know it.
Unassuming and usually dressed in the commuter’s favoured uniform of suit and raincoat, the only thing that hints at his influence is his trademark bow tie – he owns more than 100.
Otherwise, there is little to suggest that Mr Olisa is, according to the annual Powerlist – which names the most influential black people in Britain, more important than Sir Lenny Henry or Mo Farah or the Oscar-winning film director Steve McQueen. How could anyone know that this quiet man from Nottingham wields more power than Lewis Hamilton or Baroness Lawrence?
But wield power Ken Olisa does. The 63-year old was the first British born black man to serve on the board of a public company (Reuters), has his own merchant bank (Restoration Partners), and a library named after him at his Cambridge alma mater (Fitzwilliam).
He is a keen philanthropist (the library came after a £2 million donation), a former governor of the Peabody Trust, a chair of not one but two charities (Thames Reach, which deals with the homeless, and Shaw Trust, which helps the disabled), and is on the board of the Institute of Directors.
And as if all of that weren’t enough, in April, he was made Lord Lieutenant of London, appointed by the Queen on the advice of the Prime Minister. The title gives him an office in Whitehall, a staff of 90, and puts him in charge of all visits made by the royal family within the city – with him even standing in for them on occasion.
So he escorted the Queen to the Home Office last week, and had the miserable task of accompanying the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge to the Spectre premiere last month, along with Prince Harry. The next morning he was up early to spend yet more time with the Duchess – this time, on a charity visit to Islington Town Hall.
“I do a lot of calming down in the moments before their arrival,” he explains. “People tend to get very wound up and stressed.” Not so Olisa, who is as cool as the proverbial cucumber, even when wearing the heavy military-style uniform of the Lord Lieutenant.
“He hates the idea of quotas, thinks that they humiliate the people that they are intended to help”
All of this is a very long way indeed from his humble beginnings in Nottingham, where he was brought up in straitened circumstances by his single mother (he never knew his father, who left them to return to Nigeria when he was young).
The loo was outside, and the bath tub too. ‘I was probably one of the very few black people in the entire district, one of the very few black people that anyone had ever seen for that matter.” How did that feel?
“Well it just felt like being a seven year old boy, really. There were trees to be climbed and dams to be built. I remember someone asking me how I went to the toilet, but I suspect a lot of people get asked those questions irrespective of what they look like.”
He always refused to be defined by the colour of his skin. At school his headmaster taught him that everyone was equal, once handing all the children caviar on biscuits while playing Mozart in the background – it was this kind of upbringing that taught him the only limits were in his own head.
He got a scholarship to Cambridge, where he studied Natural Sciences and fell in love with fellow student Julia, whom he has been married to for 40 years and with whom he has two daughters and six grandchildren.
Julia is white but when I ask if they have ever experienced any prejudice his answer is a simple ‘no’. “It was Cambridge, quite enlightened. But we lived in America as well [he went on to work for IBM there] and to the best of my knowledge we didn’t experience much there either.”
“He thinks we have always been a multicultural society – from the 25,000 Caribbean soldiers who volunteered to fight for us during the Second World War to the Polish pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain”
He hates the idea of quotas, thinks that they humiliate the people that they are intended to help. “Because what happens is, a black man walks in to a meeting and everyone thinks he got his job because he’s a black man, and not because he is any good.” Has he encountered that attitude? “Oh yes, because we all tend to stereotype. When a black bloke comes in people make assumptions, and he either does or doesn’t challenge those assumptions.”
Olisa chose to challenge those assumptions – assumptions that I would call racist but Olisa wouldn’t because he point blank refuses to play the victim. “I’ve met with lots of prejudice over time, but it’s mild prejudice, not the Klu Klux Klan. I got into a lift at Fortnum and Mason a couple of years ago, and I am looking like this,” he says, pointing at his suit.
“I probably had a raincoat on, was carrying a briefcase, and she stepped back and tucked her handbag towards her. I just thought ‘oh dear, poor lady. What on earth is going through this woman’s mind? What a sad life she must live!’ So the answer is yes, [I have encountered prejudice] but one mustn’t over play that, one mustn’t behave like a victim. But I’ll spare you that rant this morning.”
Please don’t, I say. Does he think we live in a culture of victimhood?
“Well I think it’s in the interests of a lot of people to get others to feel downtrodden, so that they can claim to come and raise them back up again.” Disaffected minorities seem now to be a majority, but Olisa sees no reason for why this should be.
“This Powerlist, it shows that black people can do everything. There can no longer be an argument that if you can’t get on because you are black. There are lots of other reasons you can’t get on – you’re incompetent, you can’t speak properly, you can’t spell, you don’t get to work on time. But it’s not because you are black.”
Yet he detests unfairness, something that became apparent after a clash with the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, back in 2011. Olisa had been appointed to the board of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA), the MPs watchdog, after the expenses scandal.
This, he says, is the only time he has felt victimised. “They [the MPs] appeared to hate us [the board] viscerally. We were shouted at from the very first meeting. It was absolutely dreadful. It didn’t matter what we proposed, because there was very little interest in rational argument. MPs were saying that they suddenly had to do things like sleep in their offices, which was just nonsense.”
He stepped down when Bercow announced that the board had to reapply for their jobs, with the Speaker being accused of rigging the appointments in revenge for the crackdown on what MPs could claim.
“I only met him [Bercow] at the end and he said ‘I think you have done a creditable job under very difficult circumstances, not helped, if I may say so Mr Olisa, by some of the remarks you have made in the newspapers which demonstrate your lack of understanding of parliamentary process’. I have to say I was uncharacteristically speechless, as all I’d done was to say that they didn’t have to sleep in their offices.”
He pauses and starts to laugh. “But none of this was to do with me being black, so that’s the good news.”
Does he think we will ever have a black prime minister? Or a black member of the royal family?
“There is no reason why there shouldn’t be. There’s a Lord Lieutenant who isn’t white now.” But he thinks we have always been a multicultural society – from the 25,000 Caribbean soldiers who volunteered to fight for us during the Second World War to the Polish pilots who took part in the Battle of Britain – and he says we would do well to remember that – especially in light of the Paris attacks and the recent furore over refugees.
Adjusting his bow tie, the most British of symbols on the most British of men, he says: “We are a philanthropic nation, and we are lucky to be one, lucky that people from overseas have given their lives for us. We squander that at our peril.”
• Culled from The Telegraph