If there’s one thing that stands out in Dr Sandie Okoro’s remarkable career, it isn’t the lawyer’s determination or refusal to take "no" for an answer, or even the series of against-the-odds overachievements that saw her, the British daughter of first-generation immigrants, become Senior Vice President and General Counsel at the World Bank Group in 2017.
When it comes to the defining moments that set the course of Dr Okoro's life, context is everything, from her early years growing up in South London and the influence of her mother to her decision to enter the UK financial services industry. Okoro first trained as a barrister, then became a solicitor and rose from Head of Legal for Corporate Services at Schroders to become Global General Counsel at Barings, and then Global General Counsel at HSBC Global Asset Management. In 2014 City, University of London, awarded Okoro an honorary doctorate for her "outstanding achievements in the legal profession and financial services", noting that in her then role of general counsel at HSBC she was the only female lawyer belonging to an ethnic minority to hold such a position in the City.
“Everybody at work knows I’m from South London, even if they don’t know where that is. It’s something I’ve worn with pride, and it’s given me a bullish sense that I can do anything,” Okoro beams with a mischievous smile. “You really don’t mess with South London girls, and black South London girls in particular. We have to grow up pretty fast, and we have to grow up with a sense of turf.”
Discussion of Okoro's upbringing reminds her of a truly defining moment near the start of her career, when she was working at the multinational asset management company Schroders, in her twenties. It was then that Okoro realised the importance of being her most authentic self.
“I had to go and see Mr Schroder. I was only in my early twenties, but I had a sense of righteousness about a certain legal point," says Okoro. "He came to me and he said, ‘You’re not scared of anyone, are you? I like that.' That validated my sense of ‘It’s OK to stand up for yourself’, and I learned very early on that that’s what really senior people employ you to do.
Saying what you think – in a polite and respectful manner – is really important.Sandie Okoro
That sense of being your own judge and yardstick is a lesson Okoro learned from her mother, who came to the UK from Trinidad to study nursing. “She always told me to be the best version of myself, never a second-rate version of somebody else, and not to let someone’s poor opinion of you be your own poor opinion of yourself."
Okoro believes passionately that everybody has a voice and a sense of agency, but that we don’t always have the opportunity to use them. “That’s why I’m very lucky with the job that I have now,” she says, talking about her current role, not just as Senior Vice President and General Counsel at the World Bank Group, but as a leader within the organisation with responsibility for driving change on matters of equality and race.
Okoro has chaired the World Bank Group Task Force on Racism since June 2020, since when the unit has tabled 80 recommendations for change within the organisation globally. It is some of the personal lessons that Okoro has learned in the process that she cherishes most, though.
“It has completely changed my view. I thought people experienced racism in the same way but, even at this late stage, and in the post-George Floyd environment, that opportunity to challenge myself has taught me things,” she says. “It’s taken me back to my own childhood, because I hadn’t been aware of how racism had affected me."
Okoro recalls an early episode of racial abuse that she describes as her "bobble hat moment" and how this helped to determine her own strategy for dealing with racism. On a school trip to the British Museum, a young Okoro wore a long-coveted, cream-coloured bobble hat that her mother had spent many hours knitting for her; a boy from another school called her "Guinness". “I understood the racial slur immediately, and I took the hat home and threw it in the bin,” she remembers. “My mum never understood why. I saw the hurt look on her face, and that's when something clicked. And I thought I would never let that happen again.”
From that moment on, Okoro made the decision to ignore any racism that she might encounter. “It’s a matter of choosing what to focus on. You can choose to accept it or not to accept it, to see it or not to see it,” she says. “I don’t ignore it to the extent that I don’t think it exists, and I don’t ignore it in the wider world, but I’ve ignored the effect that it’s had on my life – and that’s very powerful, because you are then in control.”
Beyond the law, these defining moments have determined Okoro’s approach to management and mentoring others, one which puts culture, diversity and inclusion front and centre. “Don’t focus on the negativity, don’t let other people take the power,” she insists. “You have that power to be your authentic self, so do it."