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Interview with Tamika Abaka-Wood

This week, we caught up with Tamika Abaka-Wood — Senior Strategy Director at the creative management consultancy B+A, and co-founder of Plantain Papers. Tamika works with clients including Nike, Google and Beats by Dre to help them overcome cultural challenges, and anticipate what future trends are on the horizon.

Tamika joined B+A as its first employee on a ten day contract, and four years later she is a driving force within the organisation. Here’s her story:

Newnham: What were you like growing up? How would your friends and family have described you?

Abaka-Wood: My parents met in their twenties in Elephant and Castle, got married in Hackney and raised me and my younger brother Samuel in Barking, a place which is neither ‘properly Essex’ nor ‘properly East London’, as it sits squarely in-between two very different worlds which I had to navigate. Duality was a running theme of my experience growing up — I have often felt like both an insider and outsider navigating culture, class and race (worth reading this which Tamika wrote). Being an insider-outsider has given me multiple perspectives and has given me a more nuanced, empathetic view of the world and the people within it, I think.

I was a really curious kid — curious about different types of people, and what their relationships meant. I was interested in a vast array of areas. I loved languages, I had a stint where I wanted to be a dancer. I was just intrigued by the big, bad world, and I didn’t know what I wanted to do, but I was keen to find out.

I asked my family this question in our WhatsApp group and they described the younger me as “grounded, responsible — to myself, and to others — feisty, self-aware, loving, warm, nurturing, adventurous and no BS.” I’d definitely use these words to describe myself today, too. Olivia is my real name, but I’ve always been known by my middle name, Tamika, because Olivia didn’t suit me.

Newnham: What led you to Psychology?

Abaka-Wood: There is an extremely ‘on-brand’ video of three-year-old me at playgroup patiently trying to figure out how best to get two stuck pieces of Lego apart, very independently disregarding all offers of help from the adults. Admitting I’m out of my depth and working collaboratively are skills I’ve had to actively work on.

I think psychology especially is an area which every single person is naturally inclined towards, because it helps us understand ourselves very intimately, but I had no idea this was a scientific area I could learn about and ultimately make my profession. When I studied Psychology for the first time during my A-Levels, I finally felt as though I’d found my rhythm within the school curriculum — combined with learning German and French, these subjects were all about human behaviour, culture and communication.

Newnham: Can you tell us about your work with insights agency Ruby Pseudo — what was it like and what insights did you take away from your time ?

Abaka-Wood: I was 19 and ended up spending time at a Nike’s “inner circle” research project that my then-partner was involved in. I learned that the project was being run by the Ruby Pseudo team. I didn’t know who they were or what they really did but I immediately sensed that they were people who would expand my world.

The exponential growth that occurred when I officially joined the Ruby Pseudo team was off the chain — within weeks of starting I was conducting focus groups with kids in Manchester in front of senior Nike clients. You are thrown in the deep end, with several floatation devices and true belief from the rest of the team that you’ve got enough smarts to think on your feet. Ruby Pseudo does not suffer fools, but with kindness.

The magic of Ruby Pseudo is the network. The Ruby Pseudo team takes care of its people, and its people take care of Ruby Pseudo. We always went above and beyond to look after the young people we worked with — they were not merely ‘consumers’, there were no transactional relationships. We knew the people we so often worked with really deeply. On the night of the London riots, we all spent time well into the early hours making calls to kids and parents to check in. They taught me to put humanity at the centre of research and insights work — to be interesting and interested, to know your role and play it well. There, I learned that the approach is equally as important, but often less celebrated, than the methodology.

Newnham: Can you tell us about your current role? What does a Senior Strategy role entail?

I work at B+A, and I consider myself to be a problem solver first and foremost. I get to take challenges and questions from for-profit businesses, charities and cultural institutions, pitch up wherever answers are sought and collaboratively help to answer them. It’s such a privilege to take insights and turn them into actionable, timely and realistic strategies which help move the needle amongst teams, communities and, sometimes, society at large.

For example, over the last year we’ve helped understand and build a robust, nuanced view on the “multi-ethnic” mature millennial’s attitudes and behaviours towards make-up. We spoke to seventy two women of colour in two weeks across LA, New York and London — the insights from this have organically grown networks, provided a safe space for these women to connect and have meaningful conversations. And, clearly, for the brand we have garnered knowledge that helps serve her needs better. For Nike, recently we’ve been exploring current perceptions of innovation, technology, data and connectivity and testing future concepts/prototypes.

I get to learn deeply and widely for a living, connect intimately with people around the globe and help shape the direction of the company I’m a part of. It’s very dreamy work.

Newnham: You carry out some very interesting research at B+A — what are some of the findings which most would find surprising do you think?

Abaka-Wood: The romanticisation of youth is a tale as old as time but it becomes apparent when speaking with ‘the slash generation’, and then reading about ’the slash generation’ through a glamourised lens, that something is getting lost in translation. The way these incredibly dynamic, hard-working and multidimensional young people define themselves has evolved.

Lately, merely noticing the change in Instagram bios — often a snapshot into the way people identify and want the world to perceive them — you can clearly see that there is less emphasis on work and career. There are far fewer young people actively flaunting their various ‘slashes’ to the world as ardently as they used to. The thing they want more than anything over the next few years is to find a direction and to excel in that particular area. Essentially they want to stay true to their core selves but feel (and appear) a little more focussed and secure.

Newnham: What have been some highs and lows of your career?

Abaka-Wood: I left a job I wholeheartedly adored at the age of 25 because I was burnt out and not taking care of myself. I also left because I was questioning what it was I wanted to do with the rest of my life. I had just spent an exhausting but exciting year speaking with over 700 teenage girls in Ethiopia, Nigeria and Rwanda for the Nike Foundation and the British Government. I wore several hats that I couldn’t even name at the time — project management, production, research, strategy. But day-to-day, my job involved interviewing in girls’ homes, villages, hair salons, brothels, and stores — it was the usual anthropological approach but with an extremely meaningful and groundbreaking output. It was the job I tried to tell my careers advisor I wanted at the age of 17, but didn’t yet have the words for.

When I decided to hand in my notice some people thought I had lost my mind, and some were pleased for my new journey. I decided to explore the possibility of working as a clinical psychologist. The bubble quickly burst as I realised you had to have tons of tenacity, a couple of thousand spare in the ‘Bank of Mum and Dad’ and be willing to work for free for years on end with no guaranteed employment at the end. I didn’t have the means to do that, which was a low. Each of the low points taught me something about myself, about what I value and what I won’t negotiate on in a very potent way. The lowest points have always propelled me forward with renewed clarity and direction — they create paradigm shifts in my thinking.

For a lot of black and brown people, especially, navigating the creative industries for the first time in the UK, we feel that as soon as we’ve “failed” we are at a place of irrevocable damage we can’t return from. Many of us are second generation British and first generation “creative industries”. I am so proud of us, and excited for the next generation of young people of colour who will have guided mentorship coming from a place of empathy and expertise.

Newnham: What advice would you offer others looking to enter your industry?

Abaka-Wood: I happened to fall into this line of work, without realising it was a line of work, so I don’t want to give disingenuous advice! But over the last decade I have tinkered, explored and made connections with people and areas I genuinely found to be magnetic. I have never been employed as a result of a formal interview — every time I’ve had a new job it’s always been a very organic process.

Take some time to unpick the industry. Do your research. Find out whose work really captures your imagination. Get off the Internet — keep your eyes and ears open for agencies, collectives and individuals, events, musings and reports. Make the first move — reach out to people you want in your corner.

Traditional strategists often look, talk, think and draw overly complex diagrams the same — you don’t have to follow suit. The industry is changing and needs smart and fresh perspectives.

Newnham: Finally, if you could go back in time — what advice would you offer a young Tamika?

Abaka-Wood: Stand tall. It’s okay to try and to make mistakes. It doesn’t feel like it, but you have a very clear vision of the life you want to lead. You just don’t have the language for it yet. Spark more conversations with more of your family members, especially the older ones. You find lots of different things and people interesting. This is a character trait, not a flaw.

Keep asking questions. Keep daydreaming. Keep exploring.

Photography: Almass Badat

Tamika on Instagram / B+A

Writer. Founder. Interviewed 300+ founders and innovators and I’m sharing their stories here. 📚 Author x 2.

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