Calling all creative working ladies out there: Do you ever feel like you’re sort of winging it when it comes to freelance? Do you feel like you’ve been pushed out to sea without anyone to talk to? Do you feel like you spend most of your time chasing invoices more than you do any actual work? And more importantly, do you feel like you’re worth much more than all of this? (The answer obvs being YES.)
Enter Otegha Uwagba. While working in advertising, the London-based writer felt herself feeling creatively unfulfilled, and so decided to take matters into her own hands and go freelance. In 2016, she launched Women Who, a network which involves weekly newsletters, panel discussions, masterclasses, and networking events that work to build an environment where like-minded, innovative women can come together, interact, brainstorm, and feel supported by one another, while getting clued up on how to make their creative dreams a reality. It became a big success, and soon afterwards, Otegha created Little Black Book: A Tool Guide for Working Women. The guide is brimming with practical tips on everything from how to get over the fear of public speaking to how to make sure you’re getting paid what you deserve, and can be put to use whether you’ve just become freelance, or already well into a self-made career. The advice is delivered in a straight forward, no bullshit format, and backed up with quotes from a few other powerhouse women who are busy kicking professional ass out there. I talked to the author about overcoming the gender pay gap, seizing opportunities, and knowing your self-worth.
Can you tell me about Women Who? What inspired you to build this platform?
I started it about a year ago, so that’s July when I launched it, and I essentially was inspired to create it by my own working experiences working in creative industries. I started out working in advertising and found myself after a couple of years starting to feel like I wanted to do my own thing and didn’t feel like what I was what I was doing was fulfilling. So I quit my job when I was still working at VICE and went freelance about two years ago, to write and focus on my own creative projects, and quickly found myself feeling isolated. I didn’t miss working in an office, and I still don’t, but I missed having people to chat to and bounce ideas off, so that was one thing I did miss about it. That was the reason, and I basically just decided to do something about it. I knew that I couldn’t be alone in this. In conversations I was having with friends and ex colleagues and peers at the time, I felt like there are a lot of women, both in London and further afield, who just wanted a way to connect to other creative women who I think aren’t necessarily doing the kind of I guess traditional thing career wise, so they’ve kind of started their own projects or doing side work along with their main job. But yeah, there are a bunch of reasons, but that was one of them.
I have a few friends myself who are freelancers and you’re so right when you say that it’s very much an isolating world. You kind of have a few clues on how to do things, but there are loads of little bits you don’t know anything about. This is why your book is so great, because it literally covers everything.
To be honest, I think I was quite lucky in how I went freelance because I’d always had a lot of friends who were doing that, and I felt well informed and I had done my research. But there was still a lot I had to learn, also I know that from talking to people who’ve done that that they don’t know really basic things, so I felt obliged to share with them this information, like how to handle clients, invoices and stuff like that.
Can you explain how that led onto your book?
In the run up to launching Women Who last summer, I decided that I wanted to make a physical item as part of the launch process, which ended up being this book. So I wrote and self-published Little Black Book initially last summer, and I did a print run of 250 copies which sold out in two days. It got featured on It’s Nice That, but I didn’t have a huge social media following, it was definitely less than a thousand. But it just went, and I was really, really stunned. I was about to go away on holiday for a couple of weeks, so I was like okay, I’ll do another print run when I get back. In the meantime, someone who bought the book, who I didn’t know at the time, messaged me and said, “I have this friend who works in publishing, do you want to meet her? She can give you some advice on how to market the second print one?” because I did a slightly bigger one. I was like, “Yeah that’s cool, sounds good. Sweet.” I turned up to the meeting and it was with the publishing and PR Director of 4th Estate, and within five minutes into the meeting she said, “I’d like to publish this book as a 4th Estate book.” Which is obviously incredible. That was last summer, and I was thrown a book contract in December. It was really funny; they wanted it pretty much exactly as it was, but because I’d sat with this book for like 6 months, I was like, “No no no! There’s so much that I want to do to make it better, now that I have a proper book deal, I want to do a lot more to it.” So, I sort of re-wrote the book over the start of this year and added chapters and extended it, got more contributors on board. The amazing thing about having a publisher like 4th Estate is that they’ve published people like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie who contributed to the book, along with some other women that I really admire. So yeah, that was what happened. It’s a very strange story, because that’s not usually how people get book deals in publishing.
How is your book different from other career guides?
The main thing for me, and something that I was very conscious about doing –and it was a bit of a gamble, but it’s seems to have paid off well – is that it’s completely neutral in the way that I’ve written it. There isn’t any personal antidotes in there of my own experiences in there, that’s not to say that my experiences aren’t in there because it’s all based on my experiences, but I didn’t make it about me. It’s very much about you, the reader, just because I felt like there are so many career guides where, not to slate any of them, they’re really interesting, but you end up having to shift through what feels like loads of antidotes about stories that aren’t relevant to your own personal life just to get the pearls of wisdom, and I thought, none of that for me, I just wanted it to be all killer no filler, so I stripped it. The first draft I wrote was written a bit more in first person. I stripped all of that out and made it so that every single sentence is practical advice, and that’s seems to have paid of really well from the response that I’ve had, people have really appreciated that.
An important section of your book is the chapter about money. You’ve mentioned that you want to encourage women to open up and talk about how much they’re earning – a subject which can be pretty awkward to discuss, but an important way to defeat the gender pay gap. Can you talk more about this?
I think it’s really unfortunate that talking about money in a professional context is seen as a really taboo thing, I used to find it really uncomfortable, I used to not talk about it at all. I was the person who if a friend would ask me my salary, I’d be like, “Absolutely not, I’m not telling you,” because I thought all that information was sacred. Then I realized that’s only doing us a disservice. I was in a situation myself where I found out I was being really underpaid, and I put that down to not having told people what I was earning and what I was being offered, and when I did eventually tell people afterwards, and it was long after I had moved on from that job, one of my best friends just laughed in my face because he was so shocked. I then asked a couple of other people and they were like, “Yeah, how did you not know that wasn’t enough?” and I was like, “Because I didn’t talk to anyone about it.” That really changed my perspective about discussing money. And also, like you say, it’s really awkward to talk about, but that again only benefits the employers, if you find it awkward to ask for more money, nobody is ever going to offer you more money, they’ll get away with what they’re giving you. You need to push for every penny that you get. I think a lot of that awkwardness is because people don’t understand how to do it, so I like to think that the way I’ve broken it down in the book is basically like a script, like –this is how you address this issue, this is what you say if they push back etc. It’s been really well received; I’ve had women message me to say that they’ve gotten pay rises as a result of it, which is really nice to hear.
You dedicated Little Black Book to your parents, who “taught you the meaning of hard work.” Do you think that freelancing and creating a self-made career is for everyone, or for a particular personality?
Yes definitely. I don’t think being self-employed is for everyone, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing. We live in an era where there is a tendency to kind of glamorize self-employment and look at being self-employed as the only route to career fulfillment. I think for some people that is certainly the case, I’m finding that after years of working in a more rigid corporate system, I’m really enjoying the challenges of being self-employed, but it’s not for everyone. I think you can be equally as successful if not more so within a company structure where you’ve got a team around you, you’ve got support, resources, you’ve got HR, and all of the other things. With the book I very much split it between people who are self-employed and people who work 9-5, because I want to be really clear that it’s not for everyone. I find it really difficult to see the narrative to focus purely on self-employment as the route to success. It is for a very specific type of personality. You have to have oodles of self-motivation and be able to withstand under pressure and stress, and I don’t think that’s for everyone and I don’t think that that’s necessarily a good thing or a bad thing, it’s just the way you’re built.
If you could give your younger self one piece of advice before you embarked upon your career, what would it be?
I’d tell her not to wait around for someone to give me the opportunities that I want, and to just go out and make opportunities for myself. That’s what I’ve done now but I wish I had realized that sooner. I had certain skills and they weren’t being put to use in the right way and I have discovered now that if you build something and its good, then people will respond to it. Don’t wait for approval.
I really enjoyed the closing chapter, which is filled with advice from other powerful, creative women. Is there one particular piece of wisdom that stands out to you personally?
One of my favorite quotes was the quote I opened that chapter with, which was by Jo Fuertes-Knight, who is a journalist, she used to work at VICE and that’s how we met, and she’s so brilliantly outspoken, book smart, and a bit of an activist. The first thing that she says is, “Know your worth and assert it.” She’s really vigilant about young woman in creative industries, and in any industry, to just not take any shit from anyone. I learn a lot just by observing the way she conducts herself. That’s why I have a chapter about it, because that’s the best advice I’ve received.
The book has been really positively received. I’ve seen it everywhere; it’s all over Instagram! And as you mentioned before, you’ve gotten a lot of women thanking you for helping them get a pay rise. What’s been your favorite response or feedback that you’ve been given so far?
I think it is when women tweet and email me, there’s been lots of different comments, but the ones that get me emotional is when people say that they’ve been in a bad situation or a career rut and that my book has changed the way that they think about it, because that’s something that I can really relate to, feeling stuck career wise and not having had the resources or something that could change my mind in that way. I’ve had a few women say that it has inspired them to go on and do something different, quit their job, or to make a change at work. People saying that it has inspired them to make changes to their careers is what I find really moving and touching. It’s quite humbling as well. I do feel to an extent, like its really nice to get the compliments, but I do feel like the information is all out there, it’s just not in one place. But yes, it feels really good.
Have you ever read a book that has impacted your own life, whether that be professionally or otherwise?
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s book “We should all be feminists”. That book has been really informative to me. I think it really solidifies the fact that you can be really proud to wave the feminist flag. I give it away as a present all the time. I think it’s a really nice thing to be able to say that message. There’s also Roxane Gay, who wrote “Bad Feminist”. You’re probably seeing a bit of a theme. That is a really excellent collection of essays about modern gender dynamics and modern feminism, and I think she’s such a brilliant writer. Those are the two books I go back to again and again.
Amazing, they sound really interesting! What do you want your readers ultimately to take away from your book?
I want them to close the last page and feel more in control because they’ve got the knowledge they need to go and ask what they want to advocate for their ideas, because I don’t think that I’m the person inspiring people to do these amazing creative ideas, because people already have the ideas, they just don’t necessarily know how to go about make them happen. So, if women go away feeling more in control and feel like they have the knowledge, the know-how, and the tools now to go away and make what it is what they want to happen happen, then I will feel that the book is a success.
I think it’s so great how you’re not only working to empower women in a professional context, but you’re also building a platform where women can feel supported by one another, by relating to each other and swapping notes. I feel like there is so much comparison and competing going on out there, so it’s great that Women Who and Little Black Book is working against that.
Thank you. I suffer from it as much as the next person. That’s another thing I’m quite keen to spread. A lot of times people kind of look to me as like the career guru. But there are still things I’m figuring out myself. In terms of career comparisons…I don’t want people to think they can’t ever achieve what I’ve done. I don’t think I’m a special person who was like really well connected or anything like that. If you have a good idea and you work towards it, you can also achieve what I’ve done or more. That’s something that I want people to know and to not feel intimidated by any of it.
So, so much. At the moment, it’s been such a busy summer with the book promotion. I’m just focusing on more events. Generally, my goal is to scale Women Who. Obviously, it’s London based, it’s focused on those women. But I’d say that when I look at my newsletter subscribers, or the women who message me who buy the book, they’re from all over the world. Currently I’m trying to figure out how I can access more women across the world, because it’s not just Londoners who need this information. That’s definitely a goal of mine, to make it more global. I feel like I’ve really only scratched the surface with what I want to achieve. I have really big plans with what I want to do. I want it to be the go-to place for women who are struggling career wise, who can log into our website or download whatever it is that we’ve got going and know that it’s the place they can go to get help. That’s the 5/10-year goal. Right now, it’s just about scaling it, posting more events, coming up with more formats and different channels to access women, and keeping it fun also.