From being featured in the Guardian to making headlines in her hometown’s local newspapers, Victoria Azubuike is an enthused 21-year old who founded the Us programme which inspires and educates young girls with disadvantaged backgrounds from all across London. Since its beginning, the programme has gained enormous success, which has led her to being named one of the top 10 black students in the UK. Intrigued by her story, I wanted to find out more about her journey around warm cups of tea in the Notre-Dame café in Paris.
As the founder of the Us Programme, tell us the story behind it and how it turned into a success.
The Us Programme was born because of the struggles I faced when I was growing up. I didn’t come from a wealthy background, but I always aspired to do great things. When you come from a disadvantaged area and when you see that opportunities don’t come around as easily as they do elsewhere, it’s so difficult to materialize having a successful career or think that it’s even possible to achieve your goals.
Since I’ve always been quite active outside of my studies, whether that’s being a youth counsellor or helping out my Youth Club, I’ve always known that I want to give back to my community. When you’re part of an organization like London Youth, you learn that where you start in life should never affect where you’re going. During this experience, I asked myself what I could do to help other girls who had a similar background to mine. I saw that my brother was part of a programme called the Amos bursary, which helped and encouraged young men to achieve their goals. It made me reflect on the opportunities that us girls have, what was lacking and what I could do to help.
When I was in Foundation year at the Warwick business school, I went to a conference held by Women in Consulting. This was great, but I knew other girls back home who needed opportunities like these. I said to myself, I’m going to bring something back. This resulted in creating the Us programme, which is all about unity and gathering young females from London with disadvantaged backgrounds, showing them that it’s possible to become what they aspire to be. The programme is tailored to 14 to 19 year old girls from low-income families where they would be the first generation in their family to go to university. Then, I gathered a panel: a lawyer, a consultant, an entrepreneur, a Youtuber and a doctor, among some turned out to be mutual friends. One of them was actually on the panel for Women in Consulting who also experienced difficulties as an ethnic minority in the workplace, and she said to me that she was more than happy to get involved.
From there, we organized our first event which featured the panel of 5 at my Youth Club, and amazingly 115 girls turned up. It was a lot of work, and many local newspapers caught on, so they started publishing articles about this initiative which really helped us get our name out there. We had another CV workshop in London last December, then we organized She Who Develops, a partnership with LinkLaters, a law firm in London where I was doing a programme, and it just happened that when I was speaking about doing a partnership with them, they wanted in. It’s really all about using your contacts and building relationships. When you’re passionate about a genuine cause, people will listen. Especially when you want to help others.
What was your most touching moment in this experience?
Most people think it’s when I get awards, retweets or some kind of recognition. I’m very grateful for the awards that I’ve received, but what means the most to me is when you receive a message from one of the girls telling you how they were able to overcome their struggles from being in the programme. We had one girl who came to the She Who Develops workshop, who was very shy. A few months later, she sent me a message thanking me for the session, and said that she was able to develop her confidence and body language because of it. She said that I was a role model for her, and I keep it as a screen saver to remind me why I do what I do. So when times get hard, that’s what keeps me going, seeing their progress.
“Where you start in life should never affect where you’re going.”
What was it like participating in the All Party Parliamentary Group meeting about body image and anxiety?
I was invited along to represent London Youth, and I was able to share my perspective as well as learn from a handful of opinions. It was a great session. Body image and anxiety is definitely something that us females struggle with, and it is an important topic that the Us Programme will need to tap into. Although it’s sometimes swept under the carpet, it’s so essential that we talk about it. Body image is something we need to address and find solutions for. Especially now, for the black community, in terms of body image it’s all about being ‘thick’. That’s definitely stemming down from celebrities like Kim Kardashian and young girls nowadays are looking at her thinking that they want to aspire to be like her. You don’t even realize if this goal is genuine, or if that’s really what you want.
Who is your role model in life and why?
My mom is my biggest inspiration, because she instilled in us that if you worked hard at school, education can “break the cycle” and help you achieve anything. I took her advice and worked my hardest in school. She always told me that you can be anything you want to be. My mom is very hard working and she doesn’t accept no for an answer. One thing that I love about her is that she knows her worth. Even if she’s not good something, she’ll say ‘I’ll get it one day!’
Do you think everyone is being fairly represented in the workplace? Do you face any challenges in particular? What are the challenges that black women face in the workplace?
We hear nowadays that they put diversity quotas in a lot of places. At least 25% of the board room needs to be female, and you need to have at least one ethnic minority. There’s still a lot of work to be done and we’re not where we should be, but at least it’s being more acknowledged now. There are many schemes to include diversity, which is great. Mackenzie did a study about organizations that are ethnically diverse are more likely to improve its performance by 35%. Diversity is great in the sense that there’s an impressive range of ideas that come together, with different cultures putting their own spin onto things.
“You can turn a disadvantage into an advantage.”
I’ve done internships in the city and I’m viewed as a minority in the room. They are some things that people think it’s acceptable to say, whereas for us it’s not. But then again, if you’re the minority in the group, you stand out – but you can use this as an advantage. If you’re doing well as a minority, then you’re more likely to be recognized. It’s knowing what game you want to play and how well you want to play it.
How did it feel to be named one of the top 10 black students in the UK ?
At first I was like, wow. It did take me some time for it to sink in. I really wasn’t expecting it. It felt surreal and overwhelming, above all else! This is what I’m learning though, you have to be proud of what you do, and you just have to OWN IT!
That’s an amazing achievement at 20. What is your advice to someone from a disadvantaged background who is a bit discouraged and wants to start in the workplace?
I would say never let that be your downfall. Your mind is so powerful. Your body will get physically tired, but you can dream and aim high. And if you work hard, you achieve anything. I would say start now, seek opportunities, speak to the right people and ask the right questions. But just know that it’s possible to do what you set out to do. In the Us Programme, how I like to see it, we’re preparing everyone for a race. Everyone’s at the start line, and we want to help girls run their race at the same pace as everyone else in society. Although others will classify them as underprivileged, these girls that come out of these sessions will understand that their background shouldn’t discourage them in any way. Instead, they are judged on the basis of their work. It can outperform anything. That’s why they know that they can be successful.
How has Warwick helped you in supporting you achieve your goals? What opportunities did Foundation Year give you?
Warwick is amazing. I love Foundation Year, because it’s a small cohort of only 24 students, and you build a close relationship with your seminar teachers and lecturers. They’re so supportive of the work I’m doing and of the Us programme. I’m so lucky to be able to access these opportunities and to be at one of the best universities in the UK. It’s great to meet people from all across the world doing amazing and inspirational things. It’s filled with so many innovative people and go-getters. They’re definitely going places.
How do you have time to start your fashion blog, the Sister Wardrobe?
I love fashion and clothes and I love how you can express yourself in what you wear. Clothes have definitely played a big role in my life. In terms of how I organize my time, you only have 24 hours in a day, but you can definitely make time. I normally wake up really early and go to bed late, so I sacrifice a lot. I don’t do a lot of things that normal students do because I have a lot on my plate. But I do love to travel and that’s when I take my time off, like now, just to relax and unwind.
“You can become anything you aspire to be”
What is your dream job?
I want to become a management consultant. I love talking to people, and my gift lies in my interpersonal skills and solving people’s problems. So being a consultant will mean that you’re solving businesses, issues and a whole range of problems as well as coming up with different strategies to help people. Then I want to build my own business. Like working with female empowerment and expanding the Us Programme worldwide.