Ken Olisa can remember almost to the day when he started wearing bow ties. It was 1982, and he had just been promoted to regional marketing director for the computer company Wang Laboratories. The idea was that he didn’t want to appear like all the other Brits, jetting around Europe and beyond, dispensing orders. His other, less dandyish, gesture was to take French lessons. Fast forward more than three decades and the bow tie is still present, the French phrases less so.
“Once you’ve started, you can’t stop,” Olisa says, making his sartorial style sound like an addiction.
Then his tone changes: “There is a more serious point in the context of all the things I do now: if you are a black businessperson in the UK, there is a danger you look like all the other black business people.”
Is it best to stand out or fit in? When you become the first British-born black man to serve on the board of a major public company, there is a bit of both. And once he got going, Olisa hasn’t been able to stop. In the past 10 years, he has collected jobs and charity posts like stamps, with his latest, the Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London, the most auspicious yet.
“I didn’t really know what one was,” he admits, giving most people’s reaction. At the end of May, Olisa began acting as a point man for the Royal Family, choreographing visits in the capital and sometimes standing in for them. It gives him an office in Whitehall, a smart new uniform – bow tie not included – and 90 staff.
He wants to take the role and run with it. Working at IBM first, and now running his own merchant bank, Restoration Partners, Olisa has a background in technology, but much of his time is spent on tackling homelessness and social exclusion.
“I have cast around to find that big lever to make a difference. And now I’ve been given that big lever, I can co-ordinate lots and lots of things,” he says enthusiastically. Such as?
He talks about linking up people who are engaged in society with those who feel alienated, who do not think the honours system applies to them; educating deprived children about the UK at large; hosting events that bring communities together.
“We have got loads of pockets of communities in London that don’t feel part of London or the UK.” It sounds like he’s still thrashing out the details, but that’s OK. Lord-lieutenants – there is a network of almost 100 of them across the country – don’t need to retire until the age of 75. At 63, Olisa has time on his side. Doesn’t he need the royal seal of approval before building his part up?
“No, there is almost no supervision of what I do. It’s wonderful. No, I just get on with it.” Olisa is tucking into breakfast in what can only be described as a bunker room in the basement of The Walbrook, a members’ club secreted behind Mansion House in the Square Mile of London. It is a world away from his early life.
Olisa’s father was a Nigerian law student who met his English mother while studying in London. They married, had a child, and for a time his father commuted between London and Lagos. “One day, the music stopped. He stayed in Lagos and they got separated.” His mother returned to her home town of Nottingham, where Olisa was raised in a down-at-heel part of the city.
“I always remember we lived in this house where you went in through the front door straight into the front room. There was an outside toilet stuck on at the back and a bath which hung on the outside wall. It doesn’t matter where you start from, it is where you want to try to get to that makes the difference.”
What made the difference for Olisa was in part his mother, “an extremely driven” woman who thought everybody ought to do their best, which meant “there was a high moral tone at home”.
And then there was the kindness of strangers, be it teachers or “people who stepped out of their way to make things happen for me because they saw, I guess, a boy with potential”.
From a gap year spent at IBM, he won a scholarship to Cambridge, rejoining the computing giant after graduating. Then there was Wang and Interregnum, the first technology merchant bank which he set up in time to cater for the first wave of dotcom entrepreneurs.
That’s when the great-and-good jobs snowballed: joining the board of the financial information company Thomson Reuters, as well as the Institute of Directors – where he speaks of the benefits of a more diverse workforce – and becoming the first black master of the Worshipful Company of Information Technologists. The charity work increased, too.
Two years ago, he and his wife, Julia, donated £2m to his old Cambridge college to fund an IT centre and library. As chairman of the homeless charity Thames Reach, Olisa champions the idea of “no second night out” – getting to the newly homeless before they have the chance to get used to it.
“How many nights do you have to spend on the streets before it is as if you always spent your life on the streets? Compare it to people who have gone camping: after a couple of days of not washing, what is another day of not washing?” For those who have slept rough for longer, the process of rehabilitation is far harder.
“Getting them out of the gutter and into a hostel bed for a night is a good, humane thing to do, but it doesn’t change anything fundamental for the person because what has happened is they have had a catastrophic collapse in self-esteem. What you have to do is create an environment to help those people rebuild that.”
The Royal Family can have little fear of anything untoward being raked up in Olisa’s private life. Two board memberships – at Ipsa, the body overseeing MPs’ expenses, and ENRC, the controversial Kazakh mining company – should have generated enough enemies to guarantee that his past has been gone through with a fine-tooth comb.
Olisa famously described ENRC, controlled by three billionaire founders, as “more Soviet than City”. When the company floated in London, he joined the board, but was ejected after a bust-up. He makes light of it now, saying it was part of a learning process for the City, which led to tighter listing rules.
On the subject of learning, the Powerlist Foundation he chairs will open a sixth-form leadership college in the City in September. Goldman Sachs, IBM and several entrepreneurs including the former Dragons’ Den judge Piers Linney, are involved. It will be a “civilian Sandhurst” for young people with “leadership potential”, he says, defined as “all those kids with sparkly eyes who are just going to go on to greater and greater disappointment. We want to drag them out really and give them a chance.” Little Ken Olisas really.
Studied at High Pavement Grammar School, Nottingham, and Fitzwilliam College, Cambridge, on an IBM scholarship.
Career so far
Worked for a decade at IBM, then went to Wang Laboratories, holding marketing posts in Europe and the US, before trying to buy out its European arm. Founded merchant bank Interregnum in 1992, floated it in 2000, before leaving in 2006 to found another advisory firm, Restoration Partners. Appointed Lord-Lieutenant of Greater London in 2015.
Lives in Hampton Wick, west London, with his wife, Julia. They have two daughters and five grandchildren. Relaxes at a holiday home in Dorset, skiing and playing golf.Reuse content