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How turbulent times can create moments of connection, opportunity and change

Sairah Ashman, Global CEO at Wolff Olins, explores how self-acceptance, making space for others and positive thinking are all essential in creating change in today’s world.

Sairah Ashman, Wolff Olins

Global CEO

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Against a backdrop of an energy and cost of living crisis, the fallout from the Pandemic, the war in Ukraine and not to mention continual political infighting, it might seem like a misread of the room to be talking about the positive outcomes of this period.

But it’s well documented that we’ve seen big creative moments emerge from recessionary times - from Hollywood’s golden era after the Wall St Crash in the ‘20s, to the emergence of the punk scene in the ‘70s in the UK - even the likes of gig-economy brands like Airbnb and Uber after the 2008 crisis.

Turbulent times can create moments of opportunity and it’s vital we have space to raise each other up as we keep pushing for positive change.

As Frances West, IBM stalwart and digital inclusion specialist, explains, while we feel supported in safe spaces such as these, the outside world is still ‘upside down’ - a fitting reference to Netflix’s Stranger Things.

“The world is very different to what it was three years ago,” she says,  pointing out that, at this time of chaos and change, we need authentic, intentional leadership more than ever. 

Turbulent times can create moments of opportunity and it’s vital we have space to raise each other up as we keep pushing for positive change.

Sairah Ashman, Global CEO at Wolff Olins

Frances was one of three inspiring speakers at a recent TEDxGreekStWomen event I hosted, looking at how we can create change at times like these.

Alongside her were other accomplished changemakers: Fiona Rogers, Parasol Foundation curator of Women in Photography for the V&A Museum; and Khanyisile Mbongwa, curator of the Liverpool Biennial 2023.

These women each had their own story to tell and powerful insights to share. What was interesting in an event like this was how the need for self-care emerged from the different talks - while supporting one another, positivity, hope and even tenderness.

The need for authentic leadership

Frances set the scene with the context that many leaders are currently grappling with: a landscape of recession, inflation, climate change and war. 

“As individuals, we all lead and we can all change how people relate to us,” she explains, listing four key facets of inspiring leadership: 

·       “The first is positive thinking. With the world full of sadness, positivity is so important. 

·       “Second is curiosity. It’s important to learn about different people, countries, situations and abilities. 

·       “Third, possibility: Let’s celebrate everybody’s possibilities. 

·       “And, last but not least, integrity. We have to navigate based on purpose, principles and values. This is invisible but it’s fundamental and it helps us to navigate uncharted waters.”

Making space for other people to fill

Fiona from the V&A shared her thoughts on the need to champion women, and indeed all marginalised groups, within safe and supportive environments. Making space for other people’s stories and knowing when to say ‘no’ to an opportunity that others could step into have been on her mind recently.

With a particular interest in intersectionality, she has recently taken on a new role at the V&A - a curatorial programme looking at gender imbalance in photography. 

Pointing out that the term ‘curate’, comes from a Latin word meaning ‘to care’, Fiona explains: “I’m interested in this gatekeeper mentality and very aware of the responsibility of representation and agency,” adding “sometimes it’s important to step back and say when you may not be the most appropriate spokesperson.”

Breaking generational curses: self-acceptance

Last but not least, Khanyisile Mbongwa, who is curating the Liverpool Biennial in 2023, shared her thoughts on ‘generational curses’ and how we can break them.

“In high school I wondered, ‘Am I allowed to dream? What is it to dream anyway?’. This wasn’t an entirely innocent question. My people faced a history of violence, of apartheid… I wondered, has there ever been a space for an African queer woman from the ghetto?”

Khanyisile, from South Africa, shared her thoughts on the importance of tenderness, of being yourself, and to ‘keep dreaming’ as we emerge from anxiety, and out of survival mode.

“Trauma is not the only thing my people left behind,” she added. “This is why I curate. It’s about breaking generational curses; living with hope and being deliberate about purpose.”

Above all, she said, her practice is built on care: “Care is not an easy thing to do. I know I won’t always get it right. Sometimes we must ask others, ‘How do you need me to care for you?’.

“It’s so important to work truly from a place of love and care, to talk and sit peacefully with your shadow and to accept sometimes that you fail, and that failing is progress.”

Frances agreed, pointing out that a strong support system can provide the necessary courage to take risks, while stressing the importance of self care: “In Asian culture, you have a village around you. This helped my daring spirit. It gave me confidence to try something new. My Mum also gave me the confidence to say, ‘It’s OK to fail. Somebody is behind you’. Most women are really relationship-driven. You can also get strength and courage from your colleagues.”

All three women were in agreement that failure was not to be feared. “As we train ourselves to be confident with our authentic self, safe spaces remain incredibly important – as is knowing that failure is an option,” says Fiona.

Valuing individual experiences and identities

With ‘megatrends’ all around us, the need to pay attention and to pivot is paramount. “This is about more than feel-good philanthropy,” explains Frances, pointing out that her 30-year career at IBM took her from thinking ‘technology first’ to ‘human first’: “Today, we have our computers in our pockets. Technology is about the human experience and we need to expand silo thinking,” she warns.

To this point, Khanyisile says that few of us have a ‘neatly packaged identity’, stressing the importance of accepting multiple selves. “We are always armoured – as a result of police violence, systematic violence, or the white male gaze deeming what is worthy or acceptable. Remember that you alone set the standard of who you can be.”

Concluding, Frances explains: “As dark as everything may appear, what goes down must come up. As we take our masks off, there is opportunity to reconcile, regroup, reset.”

She points out that as painful as things may seem, there is always hope – and the outstanding Gen Z talent she sees in her job along with “the tremendous spirit” of many start-ups she works with, fill her with optimism.

Guest Author

Sairah Ashman, Wolff Olins

Global CEO

About

Sairah Ashman is Global CEO of brand consultancy Wolff Olins, where she oversees the business direction across its offices in London, New York and San Francisco. She’s passionate about working with ambitious leaders to help their businesses become great brands in world, the kind of radical and category-defining brands that represent something special for the people who buy from them and the people who work for them. She works across a wide range of jobs, helping to push creativity and challenge the work internally. Sairah is an alumna of Harvard Business School and Goldsmiths University of London, where she recently completed a Masters in Digital Sociology. She’s also an active supporter of The House of St Barnabas, working to break the cycle of homelessness, and a regular TEDx host and speaker.

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