Leyla Okhai is the CEO and Founder of Diverse Minds UK Ltd. She is a third generation Asian, born in the USA, but moved to the UK aged 9. Her life experience has been shaped by racism and exclusion, which is how it’s led her to the work she does. A speaker on panels addressing mental health and wellbeing in the workplace, she regularly delivers training programmes and workshops on mental health for the private sector. Leyla has also developed and led on bespoke leadership programmes, that have resulted in increased talent retention and 33% increased income generation. She is a Council Member of the University of Leeds and a School Governor.
Tell us all about yourself and what you do.
I worked in higher education in Oxford and Imperial College London for 14 years in equality and widening participation. I created my own business Diverse Minds in 2016. My business creates happy, mentally healthy and equal workplaces through speaking, coaching, training and consultancy.
What inspires you?
Change for the better. People making changes in their professional and personal lives for the better through knowledge and learning. Not just for themselves, but for others too.
What are the books that have greatly influenced your life?
1. The World Unseen by Shamim Sharif all about gender and race politics in South Africa. I was a teenager when I read this and it helped me growing up in a very white area.
2. Nervous Conditions by Tsitsi Dangarembga another book that just blew me away. It’s all about decolonisation, gender and race politics again
3. Iran Awakening by Shirin Ebadi a book that dispels myths and explain how the revolution happened and how it all went so wrong.
What purchase of £100 or less has most positively impacted your life in the last six months?
A pair of very good headphones with a microphone for webinars, podcasts and Skype calls!
How has a failure, or apparent failure, set you up for later success? Do you have a “favourite failure” of yours?
When I was very unhappy in a job in 2011, I applied for 45 jobs. I only had three interviews and eventually got a job 9 months into this process. I felt like a real failure, as well as trapped. However, what it did give me was resilience, experience with job applications and knowing if you keep going you do get there in the end. It has also really helped my coaching practice as I know how to ask the right questions to support people with their career goals.
If you could have a gigantic billboard anywhere with anything on it — metaphorically speaking, getting a message out to millions or billions — what would it say and why?
Always be kind and considerate on the way up, as you never know who you may meet when you are on the way down.
In the last 2 years, what new belief, behaviour, or habit has most improved your life?
Things happen and will happen when they are meant to.
What advice would you give to a smart, driven student about to enter the “real world? What advice should they ignore?
I would say:
Make sure you have a support network around you and people who can support you when you have tough days
Find a sponsor and a mentor to enable you to plan your career.
I think it’s a good idea to ignore the thinking that you have to stay in a job for a year. If it’s not working for you, get out!
When you feel overwhelmed or unfocused, or have lost your focus temporarily, what do you do?
Take a break and do something I enjoy to refocus. Going to a museum, walking, seeing friends or going to see a show.
Tell us something that would surprise us about you?
When I was a student union officer in Leeds I was on Radio 4’s Food Programme and featured in the Daily Mail talking about student employment!
What has been the biggest challenge you’ve overcome?
I have experienced a lot of bullying at school and in the workplace at the start of my career. It’s hard for anyone to overcome bullying quickly. It takes time to rebuild yourself and understand people’s motivations. I think it’s a case of learning what and how you could do things differently and accessing support as soon as possible.
What would be your message to the AWMB community?
It’s never too late if you want to do something. If that’s a change in career, trying something new or learning something new. Follow your heart and you will find a way.